How Jaguar Land Rover and AOL got 5 million people to watch their car commercials

Adam Ferrara and the Land Rover family.
Adam Ferrara and the Land Rover family.

'Top Gear USA' host Adam Ferrara helps bridge the gap between advertising and editorial in a series of oddly popular online videos

There’s something mesmerizing about a car on the road. A primal part of our lower brain can’t ignore something gliding low to the ground, so smooth and shiny, and we’ve been socialized en masse to favor impractically expensive activities.

Watching car ads, though, is usually a painful, joyless experience bereft of beauty, nuance or humor. American trucks and their invisible drivers haul heavy loads and fling mud to country music. Family sedans and minivans showcase new ways to distract hordes of spoiled, vacant children. And luxury cars silently slide along in the privileged grip of smug white guys who can’t stop breaking the fourth wall to mansplain the engine specs and the definitely-not-included-in-the-base-model features.

So while it’s no surprise that Jaguar Land Rover’s new campaign falls firmly into the last category, what’s shocking is the size of the audience that has flocked to the 10 online videos — 5 million views since their mid-September debut, according to AOL, the distributor of the series.

No, they are not "House of Cards" bingeable. But the videos, which clock in at about two minutes each, capture the feel of good motoring shows: a mix of tech specs, snarky commentary and soaring soundtracks wrapped in high-end production values and fancy camera angles.

Much of that is due to Adam Ferrara, one of the co-hosts of "Top Gear USA," who plays a similar role in these minisodes, letting the viewer vicariously experience luxury cars from the vantage point of the decidedly average Joe. Ferrara, a longtime standup comedian, cackles and grins behind the wheel with infectious enthdusiasm. (If you’ve never heard a grown man catcall a Jaguar XJ or a Range Rover Sport, here’s your chance.)

It’s those unsanitized moments that set these videos apart from your average car ad, and it’s obvious that Ferrara was able to cut loose a bit. According to Jaguar Land Rover, the comedian had plenty of input and creative control. "In terms of what Adam said about [the cars], it was really up to him how he wanted to phrase and what he wanted to say about the vehicles," said Kim Kyaw, digital marketing and social media manager for Jaguar Land Rover North America.

The choice of Ferrara as host was part of JLR’s plan to widen the appeal of the campaign. "He’s got a way of connecting with customers that’s more casual. You don’t have to necessarily be a gearhead to really appreciate his take on things," Kyaw added. "He has the credibility from an auto enthusiast standpoint but also that ability to connect with people who maybe aren’t as into vehicles."

JLR’s decision to opt for a digital campaign, rather than traditional television ads, was based partly on a 2014 J.D. Power study that found more than two-thirds of car buyers watch online videos on third-party automotive websites while shopping for a car. JLR chose the massive AOL On Network as its distribution platform, which serves streaming videos to AOL-owned sites like Autoblog and The Huffington Post as well as third-party websites.

JLR also worked with AOL’s in-house agency for branded content, Partner Studio, to create the videos. "We started thinking about a hosted show because, at the end of the day, we’re trying to connect back with editorial," said Tariq Walker, vice president of creative development at AOL On. "We can’t just do car porn; that’s not going to be good for anybody but the dealership. So how can we tap into an affinity that our audience has, to bridge the gap from ‘These are videos about cars’ to ‘This is something I want to watch, it’s entertaining and I’m learning about the Jag and the Land Rover’? "

To that end, Partner Studio brought in Gotham Point Films, an outside production company with experience shooting cars. GPF also owns the drone that appears in several of the spots and was used for many of the aerial shots.

Of course, the series lacks some of the balancing features of a real TV show. While much of the rhetoric used in car reviews is hyperbolic, they usually arc, either starting positive and swinging negative, or vice versa. These spots feel truncated, beginning with glowing praise, burning brightly for a few moments, then fading to black. Where’s the artfully crafted beatdown? The verbal shanking? Oh right, this is an ad. But unlike a TV show, there’s no point in changing the channel; its work is already done.

The last of the 10 videos debuted in late October, so it’s too early to know whether the campaign will have a noticeable impact on sales. But it runs through March of next year, so given the strong viewership thus far, it seems certain to provide plenty of exposure, and maybe even a reason to greenlight a Season 2.

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