100 YEARS OF AUTO ADS;ADMEN LAMENT: IF ONLY WE COULD TAKE IT BACK;GOOD INTENTIONS GO INTO BOOKS AS HOW NOT TO DO CAR CAMPAIGNS

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There's a popular exercise among agencies working on auto accounts: Assembling a generic reel of competitive car ads.

In compiling the commercial reel, it quickly becomes evident that they're pretty similar, mostly pictures of cars zooming over wet, winding roads.

There are, however, some campaigns that stand out, achieving legendary status, albeit only a few. And some of those that take on a life of their own are remembered because they flopped.

The most famous, of course, is the Edsel, Ford Motor Co.'s meticulously planned and executed, but flawed, attempt to create a new car division. Even those too young to recall the Edsel recognize it as an almost universal symbol of failure.

More recent, less disastrous examples: the unorthodox launch effort for Infiniti, Nissan Motor Corp. USA's debut and General Motors Corp.'s short-lived "New Generation of Olds" campaign.

Of course, advertising alone didn't kill the Edsel. And Infiniti has become an established brand in the U.S. market while Olds is still slugging it out for market share. But each burned a lasting impression into the consciousness of U.S. auto marketers and their agencies.

THIS IS THE EDSEL

Ford introduced the Edsel, including 18 different models in five lines, on Sept. 4, 1957. Twenty-six months later, it discontinued production and closed the books on a chapter that cost $250 million.

There was no lack of preparedness. As the company moved toward "E-Day," every step was carefully mapped out, including the selection of Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, to handle what was estimated to be a $15 million ad launch.

The review was hailed at the time as one of the most thorough ever. Ford's research department drew up a document several hundred pages long titled "Procedural Steps in the Selection of an Advertising Agency for Special Products Division."

Twelve agencies were invited to pitch in September 1955. Three immediately dropped out, citing the magnitude of the account, and Ford subsequently considered an additional 12 agencies. By early 1956, the field narrowed to FCB and Leo Burnett Co., with the former taking the honor in February.

Perhaps taking its cue from its newest client, and with 15 months between selection and E-Day, FCB approached the introduction with similar thoroughness. The agency drafted procedural memos dictating how to open and staff a Detroit office, prepare creative, produce collateral material and even design letterheads for the division. It operated under almost military-like security.

Perhaps Edsel's biggest marketing mistake was that the advance publicity and initial advertising weren't integrated: The ad style didn't live up to the hype.

Despite the natural excitement surrounding the first all-new car from the Big 3 automakers in years, the agency produced what could be called a low-key campaign. The introductory print and TV advertising announced, simply: "This is the Edsel." Print ads carried an additional line, "A remarkable new automobile joins the Ford family of fine cars."

"The print ads were most elegantly done," recalls Rick Lenz, a California-based automotive historian and photographer. "The ads looked straightforward, appealing without any glossy yellow car jumping out at you. The company looked self-assured."

But while the ads may have been understated, the PR blitz was anything but. "The news releases were nothing like the ads," he says. "There was incredible hyperbole. This was supposed to be the car of the future."

Then, the car itself didn't deliver. The only noticeable difference from Ford's Ford and Mercury stablemates was Edsel's vertical grille and push-button transmission located in the center of the steering wheel.

"It must of been an incredible letdown to the first people who went to dealers to see it," Mr. Lenz says.

Sales figures would bear out that observation. While Edsel sold 50,393 vehicles in the fourth quarter of 1957, sales dropped to just 28,953 for all of 1958.

The non-integrated nature of the advertising and hype doesn't shoulder all the blame. One of the biggest problems Edsel faced was a dramatic shift in the market from the time the division was conceived to when the car was introduced. By the time Edsel arrived, the demand for mid-priced cars was falling. A recession had begun and the public was developing a taste for small cars such as the Rambler from American Motors Corp. and the cleverly advertised Volkswagen Beetle.

In December 1958, Ford repositioned the Edsel as a low-price car. In late '59, production abruptly was canceled.

ROCKS AND TREES

It was the advertising more than the car that was over-hyped in the case of Nissan's Infiniti. The luxury car's initial campaign created probably as much water-cooler conversation as Edsel.

In many ways, the company got what it asked for when it hired Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos to undertake the assignment. After all, the Boston agency was known for its groundbreaking campaigns; it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the agency advised the unthinkable: introduce the car by not showing it.

Instead, Hill Holliday proposed the first Infiniti advertising focus on the meaning of luxury rather than sheet metal. Thus, when the soon-to-be-called "Rocks and Trees" campaign-depicting serenity and comfort rather than cars-hit the air in fall 1989, the advertising became a target for guest-host Jay Leno's monologues on NBC's "The Tonight Show."

To this day, Nissan and Infiniti executives defend the effort, which lasted only about six months before ads became more traditional. They note that brand recognition quickly eclipsed that of Toyota Motor Corp. USA's upscale Lexus, introduced several months ahead of Infiniti.

If anything, they will admit the car-less ads may have run a little too long.

The creators of the campaign, Don Easdon and Bill Heater, blame the heavy media schedule.

"It was an untraditional car launch but with traditional media dollars," says Mr. Heater, who left Hill Holliday and several years ago opened a small Boston agency with Mr. Easdon. "It was a $50 million to $75 million introduction when we probably could have done a nice job and not bothered anyone by it with $20 million. But it was the '80s."

There's no denying the ads hit a nerve. Mr. Easdon remembers receiving midnight phone calls from dealers. But he claims Infiniti exceeded its sales goal of 35,000 cars by 20,000 in the first year.

Still, dealer pressure forced the campaign to evolve, leaving its Zen-like origins. By April 1990, the ads began to resemble more traditional car advertising; the account moved to Chiat/-Day, which handled regular Nissan.

The aftereffects devastated the creative team. Mr. Heater left advertising for a year to write; Mr. Easdon later resigned as well.

"I got angry at the whole advertising world," Mr. Easdon says.

But the campaign certainly does live on.

"We have a young kid here [at the new agency], 22 years old," Mr. Heater says. "He took an advertising course in college and the Infiniti stuff was in his textbook. A whole chapter."

Campaigns do outlive their media schedules, that's certain.

NOT YOUR FATHER'S OLDS

Take Oldsmobile's effort to attract younger buyers, an effort officially called "The New Generation of Oldsmobile."

The campaign, created by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, is better known by its signature line: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." It featured celebrity families, such as Ringo Starr and his daughter Lee.

Oldsmobile saw the strategy as vital to reverse a precipitous drop in sales. Even though Oldsmobile had tremendous loyalty among existing customers, that base was literally dying off. Based on anticipated new models in 1990, 1991 and 1992, the decision was to target a younger audience.

Apart from violating a basic marketing rule, "Say what you are, not what you're not," the campaign died in '91 because, at the time, there was little new product other than the Cutlass Supreme coupe to back up the claim.

"All it really did was point out to people that, indeed, it really was your father's Oldsmobile," says Christopher Cedergren, senior VP at consultants AutoPacific Group. "Four years later, you still hear jokes about it."

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