History of Car Advertising
“Ford advertising never attempts to be clever.” This matter-of-fact statement may have been true when Henry Ford pronounced it a hundred years ago, but we’ve come a long way since Model T’s were sputtering off assembly lines. Since cars became widely available at the turn of the century the way they’ve been advertised has said a lot; not just about car culture itself, but how Americans like to think of themselves and their country. No single commodity has been so central to U.S. consumption or so indicative of hallowed American values like freedom and independence.
In this sense, car ads, whether on TV or in print are potent historical artifacts that are charged with so much symbolism and suggestion that the product becomes subordinate to the image. This article will trace over time some major themes and strategies deployed by ad agencies in the service of selling cars.
The Motor Carriage: “It’s Not a Horse”
In the beginning the car’s major selling point was that it wasn’t a horse. In fact, the first ad copy ever to be published read, “Dispense with a horse.” Other than that, cars were sold based on their bare specs: durability, tire grip-ability, and fuel efficiency. This mirrored advertising efforts in general: products were touted for their inherent value rather than convenience or ability to bolster status. But this era of advertising was short lived.
The Interwar Years
During the 1920’s car makers began experimenting with grand campaigns at the time when Madison Avenue agencies were beginning to gain influence. With these came the first celebrity ambassadors, such as Fatty Arbuckle for GM and more high-concept spreads featuring vibrant Art Deco Illustrations. Even during Prohibition and the Great Depression of the 30’s the creative machine barreled forward; for many, the slick machines ads depicted brought reprieve from the economic malaise of the decade.
World War II and the Boom Years
During the Second World War auto manufacturers shifted attention and energy to supplying the Allied effort. But this didn’t stop ad agencies from using the car’s mythology for propaganda purposes. Following the war, car companies capitalized on the rampant consumerism taking place in the late 1940’s and 50’s. This is when the car ad really came into its own, for the automobile was indispensable in enabling the post-war middle class lifestyle.
Whether you were going to the drive-in movie theater, restaurant, taking your sweetheart out for a joy ride or out for a weekend trip to the beach, a car was necessary. All of these activities and more were shown in auto ads of the time. If all this makes you nostalgic, be sure to catch the new car culture history show ‘Americarna’ on the Velocity channel, available through special deals from DTV and other cable providers.
A Brief Lull in Bravado
Only with the popularizing of the Volkswagen Beetle and its “Think Small” campaign was the post-war exuberance temporarily mellowed: here was a little German car set against a plain white background, a radical departure from previous car ad imagery. This episode was an exception; car ads have only gotten more extravagant and gratuitous over the years. Now car companies are tripping over themselves to produce the most visually striking, action movie-like spots for television and print. Of all other products on TV, car ads still capture the most air time and funding by far. And car ads continue to occupy a central role in shaping American identity.