It’s late February. Rain is pouring from the sky, wind is whipping at my face and I’m on the back of a camel that refuses to do anything but scowl resolutely at my left sneaker. The camel and I are on a dune in the northern African nation of Morocco. And, from the looks of it, we won’t be moving from this place any time soon, as I can’t get the camel to do anything but chew absentmindedly and continue to stare at my shoe.
For thousands of years, this was transport. Empires rose and fell on the backs of horses and camels. Entire economies were dependent upon bag-laden animals trudging for months along dusty paths, carrying goods to foreign lands. If one looks back through the history of humanity, it becomes obvious just how recently automotive transport arrived and the profound effect it’s had on the development of modern society.
The first historical instance of what we now consider a car occurred in 1886, with the unveiling of the Benz-Patent Motorwagen, developed by German inventor Karl Benz. The advent of the Ford Model T in 1908 then saw its widespread adoption by the masses. In the succeeding 100 years, the role of the car changed dramatically from that of an offbeat device of extreme luxury to a modern practical necessity.
As such, the auto industry holds massive sway in the world of marketing. If you want proof, go back and rewatch this year’s Super Bowl and count the number of ads that are related to the auto industry. Then realize that each 30-second spot costs roughly $4 million. The automotive sector dominates the marketing industry, with competing agencies and brands doing their best to outwit competitors and sell consumers the latest and greatest in automotive technology.
However, it wasn’t always this way. Early ads were tentative things that desperately tried to convince drivers to abandon their trusty horses and climb aboard a noisy mechanical contraption that appeared to be powered by witchcraft. As such, the earliest automotive ads tended to focus on highly utilitarian aspects of the vehicles, boasting of its ability to drive long distances without needing to be corralled or tamed like a horse. These early ads also featured women prominently in an arguably misguided attempt to prove that drivers didn’t need a firm hand or commanding presence to operate the car.
As the automobile found increased acceptance and popularity, advertising shifted to account for this. Agencies and automakers no longer had to convince a fearful public to adopt a terrifying and unusual product, but now had to focus on getting ahead of the competition. Soon, ads began to emphasize specific automotive lifestyles, rather than the exotic luxuries of starter motors and functioning brakes. In the midst of the Great Depression, Duesenberg ran a perhaps ill-timed ad campaign that ignored cars entirely and showed images of the country’s rapidly shrinking upper class with the simple caption: “He drives a Duesenberg.” Ford and Chevy also began running ads focusing on family picnics and trips to the park.
In the postwar years, the “American Dream” dominated pop culture and, by extent, the automotive sphere. Modern homes and restaurants populated by impossibly perfect suburban families came to define automotive culture. The ridiculously stretched and visually awe-inspiring Cadillacs and Buicks of the era were portrayed as the definitive result of years of toiling in pursuit of the American ideal.
In response to this wash of heavily idealized advertising, Volkswagen offered up its famous “Lemon” campaign, which purposely cut through the impossibly grand and idealized images of the previous decade’s advertising to deliver a punchy and simple message that would ultimately catalyze the foreign car boom that almost doomed Detroit.
The growing acceptance of foreign cars and the generally substandard quality of its American counterparts led to drastically decreased sales of American automobiles during the 1980s and 1990s. In an attempt to shore up its domestic image, many American automakers pumped out ad after ad that highlighted patriotism and national pride. Despite the popularity of such ads, it ultimately proved ineffective. In the early 21st century, Detroit was finally forced to adapt to this new reality and began pumping out the ads that we see today. These ads target multiracial families, single-parent households and the LGBTQ community in the same way the postwar ads targeted white, suburban, protestant families with two happily married parents, a golden retriever, white picket fence and 2.7 smiling, blonde children.
It may be a bit of a stretch to say that the automotive sector portrays an ideological reality in its advertisements. These companies are selling something after all. However, as the social role of the automobile has increased, so has the necessity of effective advertising.
Transport has come a long way since the days of the horse and camel. In a century, the car has vaulted itself to the forefront of not only the transportation sphere, but the national consciousness as well. The automobile has transitioned from a luxury item enjoyed by a select few to a mass-produced modern necessity, with the marketing sphere adjusting to match. It’s particularly remarkable that this staple of modern culture has only existed for a century and has made such an impact on human society. As reports of pollution and inefficiency throw the future of the modern car into doubt, it will be interesting to see how the marketing industry and the automotive industry adjust to this changing reality over the next 100 years.
“Throwback Thursday” (#TBT) is Tier10lab’s look back at some of our favorite automotive advertising campaigns or automotive trends. #TBT runs the last Thursday of each month.