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Cadillac ATS Small Sedan Launches With Unique Ads

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The Cadillac ATS drives on a road with about 100 hairpin turns in Morocco.
The Cadillac ATS drives on a road with about 100 hairpin turns in Morocco.

Cadillac is breaking the mold of car commercials to introduce its new ATS model, an entry-level luxury car and an important new product for parent company General Motors, by focusing as much on the drivers behind the wheel as on the car.

Launching the ATS with a bang is critical for GM. The ATS, the smallest luxury car GM will offer, will go head-to-head with the BMW 3-series, which has dominated small luxury auto sales for decades. Currently, GM does not have a small luxury car, meaning potential customers in the segment bypass GM and buy other brands.

Traditional car commercials are developed like this: The director finds a piece of music -- dramatic classical pieces for luxury models, up-and-coming alternative-rock songs for hipper models -- and drives the car down a scenic route, showing the car curving and turning in time with the music. Sometimes words flash across the screen to tell viewers how cool the car is. Sometimes a voiceover does that job.

People who closely follow the auto industry can often tell a car commercial, without looking, just from the first few beats of music.

The new Cadillac ATS commercials, which begin on YouTube Wednesday with a two-minute introduction, then break into 30-second and 60-second mini-commercials for the Olympics on July 27, feel more like a Warren Miller ski film. Yes, there's music. And yes, there's eye-popping scenery from four gorgeous places -- Patagonia, Monaco, Morocco and the Guoliang Tunnels in China. But the cameras are as focused on the driver behind the wheel -- race car driver Derek Hill and actor Ross Thomas -- and their reactions to the hairpin turns, intense braking, and plowing through one of the windiest spots on Earth.

"Our customers want cars that are fun to drive -- and that is enormously hard to demonstrate in an ad," said Molly Peck, director of advertising for Cadillac. By putting cameras in the cars, the ads help show a "very natural reaction to the car," she said.

The commercial film shoots, which took 2 1/2-months in the spring, will be used in 40 commercials that will emphasize different aspects of the car. Peck said advertising during the Olympics is challenging, because if the company were to play the same commercials over and over, viewers would get bored.

Without a small luxury car, GM has "been playing with one hand behind our back," said Jim Vurpillat, Cadillac's global marketing director.

The company began selling the XTS, a car slightly bigger than the ATS, last month. The ATS goes on sale in late-August.

Entry-level luxury cars make up a fast-growing segment in the auto industry, driven by high-end buyers scaling back into cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars, and Baby Boomers reaching an age where they can afford a higher-end car. The average small-luxury car buyer is around 53 years old, Vurpillat said.

Several other automakers have jumped into the segment recently, trying to take on BMW's 3-series, which has dominated small luxury car sales since the mid-1970s. New this year are the Acura ILX, the Mercedes Benz A- and B-class models, a redesigned Audi A3, and a redesigned Lincoln MKZ.

Cadillac hasn't been a player in the small car segment since 2001, when it dropped the Cadillac Catera after just four years on the market. Its first attempt at the segment was the Cimmaron, introduced in 1982 as a slightly tweaked Chevy Cavalier. It was a complete flop. The car was retired in 1988.

Cadillac hit a bit of a renaissance back in 2004 after it redesigned the Cadillac Escalade SUV. It became a huge hit with rappers and basketball players, who loved its roomy interior and luxury touches. Since then, Cadillac has slowly built itself back up, losing its image as a brand for stodgy old people and becoming known for its sporty handling and luxury interiors.

That's why the new ATS may be a hit. "I wouldn't be surprised it it became the No. 1 selling car for Cadillac," BMW's retired North American CEO, Jim O'Donnell, told USA Today recently. "If I were a dealer, I'd be very excited."

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