#TBT: A Look Back at Nissan's 1996 $200 Million Ad Campaign | Tier10lab
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#TBT: A Look Back at Nissan's 1996 $200 Million Ad Campaign | Tier10lab

Xavier Villarmarzo

“Throwback Thursday” (#TBT) is Tier10lab’s look back at some of our favorite automotive advertising campaigns. #TBT runs the last Thursday of each month.

Just like the commercial above, this piece would be much better served if it kicked off with a little Van Halen, right?

Speaking of that commercial, that Nissan ad for the 300ZX from a 1996 campaign titled “Enjoy the Ride” was very popular at the time, as well as controversial. Controversial, that is, to a certain toy company that happens to be the largest in the world.

When you look at that ad, what would you guess were the dolls’ names? If you said anything other than G.I. Joe, Barbie and Ken, welcome to the outside world because you’ve obviously been living in a cave the past five decades. Also, Nissan’s legal team would have loved to have you as a witness back in 1997. That is because most would automatically assign the names G.I. Joe, Barbie and Ken to those dolls, even though it is not mentioned anywhere in the ad, nor do the dolls speak.

For this reason, Mattel Inc. sued the automaker because the ad campaign – which also featured a second ad for the Nissan Pathfinder (below) – “caused irreparable damage” to its toys’ reputation. In the lawsuit, Mattel contended that the commercial violated a number of its trademarks and copyrights. The suit claimed that that the action figure “bears a striking resemblance’” to G.I. Joe and that the doll looks like Barbie. The suit also contended that other toys shown in the 60-second spot resembled Mattel toys, according to a Sept. 20, 1997 New York Times article.

In its initial response, Nissan Motor Company said it was “surprised” by the lawsuit, according to a Sept. 24, 1997 MTV News article, because the dolls were actually named Roxanne, Nick and Tad and they “were modeled after real actors.”

The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, but the “damage” was already done. The ad gained Nissan Motor Company a lot of notoriety, and the lawsuit brought the campaign and car company additional publicity that definitely wasn’t negative.

But the genius of the ads, which were created by ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, came in the timing of their deploy. Remember, these ads debuted in 1996, so the toys-coming-to-life angle was clearly inspired by the original Toy Story movie, which was released just a few months earlier in November of 1995. Now couple the popularity of Pixar’s first movie with toys very similar to three of the America’s most iconic dolls and you have a recipe for a memorable ad.

It also helped that the ad ran in primetime spots of some of the most popular television programs at the time, including Seinfeld, Friends and Monday Night Football. The ad also garnered much acclaim, including recognition by AdWeek and Time Magazine. It even got Rob Siltanen, the creative director and copywriter at TBWA/Chiat/Day responsible for the ad, a trip to Oprah’s famous couch, as reported in an Oct. 24, 1996 New York Times article.

However, while the ad was popular and memorable with consumers, it was hugely ineffective, especially if you take into account the $200 million price tag of the campaign. And if you consider that from that amount, Nissan spent $1 million alone producing the commercial for the 300ZX, a vehicle that was discontinued after the 1996 model year, it’s even more of a face palm.

In today’s dollars, that ad campaign would be close to $300 million. The million-dollar price of the single commercial (nearly $1.5 million in 2012 dollars) wouldn’t fly with car companies today since it is for a vehicle model that won’t exist a year after the initial air date.

If a car company were to spend $300 million today, not only would it have the chance to get Pixar to make a computer-generated ad for them, the company would also possibly be able to purchase the usage rights to the Mattel products. It would then go on to launch the largest automotive ad campaign ever and attack every level – from TV, to radio, to print, to every form of digital advertising. Consumers would likely be unable to escape the ad’s reach. In other words, that money would go a lot further today.

It would definitely be interesting to see an ad campaign with that scope today. Better still if it featured a soundtrack from the immortal Van Halen.