My Favorite Advertisements?
[Caution: this is one of those posts that started small and, well, just got out of hand as I began mulling over things. Enjoy. Or not.]
This is a peculiar post, because I am weary of ads. Ads are all you now see on TV, online, by the road, and in printed material. We’re inundated by the stuff, so now ad men are advertising in a “viral” way so that it appears to not be what it is. So, it takes some effort for me to think back and ask myself, “What ads have I actually enjoyed?” There aren’t many.
The first is a whole series put out by the Doyle Dane Bernbach firm for Volkswagen in the 1960s, when the task was to market a car designed in the 1930s, a “people’s car” to highlight progress from the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party in the Fatherland. It was an antediluvian copy of an existing Tatra model, but it was still well thought out for what it was in that era, and it was inordinately tough. The Beetle was small and homely, and once it was timidly pushed into the market in an era when “longer, lower, wider” prestige were what sold, it was bought only by a few minimalist nonconformists seeking relief from the fins, chrome, and tonnage. What did the mainstream market look like? Like this:
Volkswagen never produced more than a few Beetles before the war, it’s production line being consumed with producing military vehicles based on the same chassis and driveline. Allied bombing finally took the plant out of action, and it was the Brits who later undertook the effort to rebuild the factory and order some 20,000 Type 1s, as Beetles were officially labeled, for military use. Now postwar, it was a crass vehicle, but so was its competition, and its 34-horsepower engine was unique in that it could power the rounded body shape to just over 70 MPH…and hold it. This was a big deal. Even today, you can’t just nail the throttle and leave it there until the next gas station, because something in or on the engine will blow from the stress and heat. As the saying goes, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
This difference stems from the Bug’s original design intent (as Hitler’s highly visible pet project) from day one: to carry a typical German family up and down his new high-speed Autobahn. If you knew what was healthy for you as the designer, this implied just one thing: high-speed endurance at full throttle. Mechanical inadequacies would reflect badly upon the Fuhrer and his regime’s path to Empire. So later, when VW led its European rivals into the US market, most of those rivals, like Renault, found the US’s new Interstate system to be a fatal situation that their cars were never designed for. Engine go boom. The Beetle had become a success in Europe, enough so that they managed to trickle cars into the very tough and uniquely different US market. As far as the American market was concerned, the Type 1 was unique in that, despite its very low cost and lack of exotic luxuries like a fuel gauge, it included the typical German obsession with quality on the production line. And it could run for hours at full throttle on the Interstate, however much grief inclines may cause it.
This was just at a time (the late 1950s) when American car manufacturers were pressured by our government to help out the struggling Japanese steel industry by buying steel that would later prove to rust quickly. This was matched by indifference and sabotage from disgruntled union labor on their production lines. It didn’t help that complete annual styling changes became a marketing necessity, and that frame designs lasted only a few years before being replaced with an “all new” design. This rate of change was commercially appealing, but took its toll on reliability. Predictably, American buyers were increasingly disgruntled too, and frustrated. A book called The Insolent Chariot came out, ridiculing the Big Three’s obsession with steering customers toward pretentiousness and overreach. The later addition of whiz-bang glam features like Ford’s convertible hardtop, with its complex myriad of timed solenoids and cylinders, was failure-prone and a real stumper for repair shops to diagnose. Meanwhile, the Beetle hadn’t had any obvious changes since 1949, though the Germans had kept honing the innards and raising the production standards.
True, foibles like the open electrical fusebox located beside the front-mounted gas tank, and the simple swing-arm rear suspension with its potential to add to oversteer under set conditions, had been retained. After all, a very similar rear suspension design had been used for many years on the Mercedes and other European cars. Today, the Beetle would be considered a death trap that activists would passionately campaign against, but back then, safety was a lesser concern for both car companies and their customers. You want a ride, you take your chances. The inherent risk of physics. “I don’t worry because I’m a good driver.”
An aside on the topic of car safety: When Ford introduced its Lifeguard System in its 1956 model year production, it featured standard door latches that resisted opening on impact, a deep-dish steering wheel that allowed the rim structure to absorb energy if it was forced toward the steering column, and stronger front and rear seat mounts. Optional at extra cost were seat belts bolted to reinforcing plates, a padded instrument panel and sun visors, and rear view mirrors with a backing that reduced loss of glass when broken. At the start of the model year, only the seat belts were ordered by customers, but at a rate that exceeded Ford’s supply estimates. Ford couldn’t keep up. Then by mid-year, the brief lump of demand had already declined to such sparse levels that Ford cancelled availability of the Lifeguard optional features.
Word on the street was that “safety doesn’t sell”, but the real message for Ford, its rivals and industry observers was that although many people might appreciate an increase in safety features that were there just in case, virtually no one was willing to foot the bill for the increased cost to have them. In a cutthroat industry where being $30 less than your primary rival was a serious bragging point in marketing, it became clear that if you were foolhardy enough to build in comprehensive safety features as standard (which also implied a lack of safety that these devices must be compensating for), that your rivals would eat your lunch in the marketplace because you were no longer competitive in pricing. The 400 people that were willing to pay the higher cost to get those features in your car would appreciate them, but those features would be a blind non-consideration to the vast bulk of prospects and past customers who would simply turn away at an $80 higher price than Brand Y. It’s all or nothing. Any competitor who held out would have an instant, principle selling advantage and not be intimating that driving their car was suicidal.
Here are 4 of 5 TV ads I found on Ford’s Lifeguard System.
This whole program enraged General Motors of course, not just because they had nothing similar and had not granted Cornell research money to the tune of $200,000 for additional studies, but because they believed that if buyers thought they needed safety devices in a car, they would hesitate to buy one in the first place. GM applied pressure to have the system canceled, and at first blush their predictions came true. Henry Ford II had said during the system’s debut, “I would be less than honest, of course, if I denied that we hope this safety package will help us to sell 1956 automobiles. We certainly hope at least that it won’t hurt our 1956 sales.” Chevrolet had outsold Ford by 67,000 cars in the prior year, 1955. In 1956, Chevrolet outsold Ford by 190,000 cars. Chroniclers of the time blamed economics and industry politics, but let’s just hint at the possibility that a few viewers might have made product associations opposite the intent of the ads. GM (as well as other makers) apparently didn’t object to safety features themselves, however. They trickled in various aspects of Ford’s system over time, but without violating their convictions that doing so with fanfare was a really bad idea. A quick and discreet mention was all they gave them. …End of aside.
I think it notable that Ralph Nader, a crusader and attention seeker pining for power and public office, choose to attack Chevrolet’s Corvair in 1965 for perceived handling safety issues, instead of the Beetle. The rear-engine 1960 Corvair was basically a larger, boxier, upscale domestic translation of the Beetle’s basic mechanical approach. By the time he got his 15 minutes of fame, Nader’s various technical assertions were proven groundless by performance tests against the Corvair’s conventional 1960-1964 rivals, but that wasn’t this lawyer’s goal, and the media court he played to ignored the boring task of reporting the follow-up contradictions to Nader’s anecdotal claims. By his time in the spotlight, the humble Beetle had become unassailable in public perception and PR. Attacking the VW Beetle in 1965 instead of or in addition to the Corvair would have been an honest approach, but it would have undermined his goal, which was to pillory American car manufacturers as being indifferent to death and suffering, and thus for effectively causing those deaths and injuries. Accuse in such a way that emotions overpower reason and fact. That’s how a good lawyer wins lawsuits for his clients in court, and why gang members show up in court wearing suits and ties. It’s all about winning.
The Corvair was a fringe market car that Chevrolet gamely struggled to identify target buyers for, while the Beetle seemed to sell itself. Chevrolet faced having to convince people that the Corvair made sense for them, while VW dealers sold Beetles hand over fist, at or over list price, take it or leave it. Like a calf among cattle in the wilderness, the Corvair looked like comparatively easy prey due to its unusual design (for a domestic) and relative lack of a loyal following. Some of Nader’s assertions about American car safety were valid at the time, while many were the equivalent of today’s armchair experts on Internet forums: too much bluster and too little knowledge of the actual facts. We’re all safer today largely because of his efforts to galvanize a movement to pressure Washington bureaucrats, but his penchant for posturing, misrepresentation and “the ends justify the means” in the case of the Corvair is hardly admirable. Perhaps you might have picked up by now that I don’t care for the guy.
So as far as advertising is concerned, VW’s American image by the late 1950s was based primarily on word-of-mouth praise by the few societal dropouts who appreciated the peculiar advantages of owning a small, cheap, hardy, and nicely put together passenger car. To them, it just made sense. By the late 50s, this underground PR had its effect, and the domestic car manufacturers sensed trouble and began compact car development programs. Enter Doyle Dane Bernbach with a very limited budget in 1960, who was faced with a problem. As writer Mark Hamilton put it, “How could DDB sell a small, ugly, cheap, foreign car that Hitler had a hand in creating — to the American public?” They quickly decided that the best approach to selling a tiny 1931 design in the “Bigger is better! New! New! New!” US market was to try to challenge the prevailing winds of public perception shaped by decades of consumer-style “impress your neighbors” advertising. Their first ads hit like a tidal wave while, in that same year, American car makers felt they were ready for combat, offering more shame-based alternatives to their standard-size lines. Doyle Dane Bernbach knew this, but would have none of it. In their view, the “shrunken big car” simply carried over the same attitude and execution problems as their bigger cousins. DDB sold differentiation and quality, effectively driving home the idea that the modern cars people were buying were too much hype for too much money, and weren’t as much of an advance as Ferdinand Porsche’s 1930s dream car that still made just too much darn sense even for today.
As far as presentation goes, DDB wrote its copy in an honest, direct and conversational manner. Free of expansive or pretentious hype, they confidently stated how the Beetle’s relative strengths far outweighed its intentional lack of flash and prestige in our market. And they did so with humor. In contrast, the admen for American cars tended to reflect their clients’ own reluctance to produce a relatively unprofitable scaled-down version of their standard-size cars. They read more like, “Well here’s a car that is economical and makes a lot of sense for you, if that’s all you can afford.” In DDB’s hands, VW launched its blitzkrieg.
As for TV ads, here is one German ad (with captions) for the new 1952 models and two notable ones from the early 60s.
By the late 60s, the Datsun 510 and Toyota Corona saw the opportunity in competing with the beloved Beetle and were nipping at VW’s heels. The media-hyped counter-cultural hippie movement embraced both the Bug and the Station Wagon, but didn’t do VW much financial good because, in their zeal to conform to commonly accepted standards of social nonconformity, none bought their transport new or even remotely close to it. As far as the car itself was concerned, looking underneath the peace symbols and daisy paint, this influencial group of owners would have appeared to serve merely as mechanically indifferent end-of-life escorts to the junkyard. 1970 saw problems in meeting new air pollution regs with the air-cooled motor, and increasing scrutiny by crash safety scrutineers. It’s risky to run an air-cooled motor lean (less fuel per cubic foot of air), because running lean adds heat that is hard to dissipate in air. It decreases air pollution, but risks major engine damage if the mixture ratio veers away from perfection, or if the motor is pounded hard. The resulting warranty claims sabotaged profits and hurt the reputation of the brand. VW hit a financial crisis by 1974 and had to get German government funding to develop more modern front-drive replacements. The Beetle exited the U.S. market in 1977. Production in Brazil ended in 1986, then started again in 1993 and continued until 1996. The last Beetles produced ended in Mexico in 2003. As with Ford’s Model T, however endearing the Beetle might be, laws and expectations change on a whim, and it was long past time to move on.
I’ve owned two Beetles, a ’61 and a ’63 sunroof, thus my desire to try to put the ads into context. They were some 15 years old by the time they got to me, and both were virtually packed with paradoxes. Not so admirable was the rotting away of the functional sheet metal. The heater/defroster ducting running from the engine to the rear seat area was now only a distant memory, as were the damper controls. Much of the engine shrouding to control cooling airflow had long since vacated the premises, and the structural sheet metal that the rear bumpers were mounted to simply disintegrated, leaving nothing to remount a bumper to. Rust disintegration also caused havoc with the exhaust systems. However, seat covers, headliners, door panels, sunroof function and sealing – virtually the entire interior – remained as new, with no sagging or splitting. No rattles, creaking or clanking anywhere. All body hardware like door handles and roll-down windows still worked like new as well, with it still being best to crack a window open before slamming a door shut. One engine had a recurring carburetor jet clog that was easily cleared with a strand of wire in half a minute, but once started, both engines ran like there was no end to life. Their brittle low-RPM, torque-centered 1930s lineage was very apparent. They might whine and complain, but neither car ever quit on me. Illinois winters were a tough go as far as being able to see out the windows or get warm, but the car itself would make it, no problem. The rest of the year, you’d just bop along, singin’ a song. Full disclosure: I’ve also driven/abused a 1963 family Corvair for awhile, and owned an old 1965 Corvair much later. They have their own stories. But enough of that.
The following two advertisements are easier to cover, since they neither need nor deserve an explanation. They too are part of a series of ads, but these two are the only ones that amused me enough to stick. Mind you, I’ve seen plenty of entertaining ads, like around Superbowl time, but most of them include a fatal flaw: as they end, you laugh or smile, but then can’t recall who the ad was for. Unless you’re content with a gravestone marker for yourself that will read in total “Some Amusing Person”, such clever ads are money wasted, and a lot of it.
Well, okay, there are a few more Geico ads that were especially well done, too:
And a quick follow-up: