Big ideas and big productions marked that post-war era, at least until the first oil crisis in 1973 forced automakers to begin downsizing their cars and deflating their advertising. "Think small," headline of a 1960s Volkswagen print ad, would eventually apply to the entire industry.
But in the booming economy of the late 1940s and '50s, Detroit's thinking turned as big as the tail fins on its chrome-laden, V-8 powered cars. Big meant change. The auto, after all, fostered the suburbanization of America and the creation of the interstate highway system, not to mention drive-in movies and motels.
"Millions of Americans who had never been out of their hometowns were suddenly driving everywhere," says Richard O'Connor, chairman-CEO of Lintas Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., who joined the long-time Chevrolet agency in 1956.
SEEING THE USA The General Motors Corp. division captured the spirit of the mobile nation with "See the USA in Your Chevrolet," a song made memorable by Dinah Shore, who sang it on the "Dinah Shore Chevy Show," an enormously popular TV program that aired on NBC from 1951 until the mid-1960s. The show helped make Chevrolet the sales leader and established the brand as an American icon.
"It was originally a jingle done for some New York dealers," says Mr. O'Connor, who as a young account executive worked with Ms. Shore. "Her show was the biggest thing Chevrolet did in those years. Chevrolet owned Sunday night, with six minutes from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m."
Ford Motor Co.'s Ford division, Chevy's historical archrival, fought back in the 1950s with celebrity endorsements from Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Bing Crosby. And while Chevy owners were seeing the USA, 1958-model Ford spots featured an around-the-world durability test, with a car lumbering through exotica-Iran, Afghanistan, Cambodia.
"We were always looking for the big idea," says Vic Kenyon, retired senior VP-executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York and Detroit, who worked 25 years on its Ford business. "The sky was the limit."
Automakers went to unusual lengths to demonstrate their products. In a series of 1967 model-year spots, a Ford leaped the barricades on a steeplechase course, traversed the steps of the Los Angeles Coliseum, shot rapids on the Colorado River and flew off the ski jump at Lake Placid.
Chevrolet, not to be outdone, navigated one of its own models down the canals of Venice in 1962 and hoisted a convertible with a woman occupant atop a towering red-rock pinnacle in the Utah desert to illustrate that "Chevrolet stands alone in '64."
For that commercial, the car was broken into three parts, lifted by helicopter and reassembled, Mr. O'Connor says. A production crew member accompanied the woman model and stayed out of sight under the car during aerial filming. After the shooting, the crew member and model were stranded eight hours when high winds prevented a helicopter from bringing them off the summit.
A smooth ride, suggesting car quality, infected commercials for Ford's Mercury brand in the 1970s. One showed a detonator hooked up to explode nitroglycerin if it got jarred. In others, jostling from a smooth ride would tip a vial of acid onto an expensive fur coat or ruin a diamond being split in the back seat. The last demo was satirized in a "Saturday Night Live" skit in which a rabbi performed a circumcision in a car.
"I was in bed watching the show, and at first I thought, `How did this one get by me?"' chuckles Alan Levenstein, then creative director on Lincoln-Mercury for Kenyon & Eckhardt.
"I laughed so hard I fell out of bed," says Mr. Levenstein, now vice-chairman of successor agency Bozell Worldwide, New York.
Changes in society began to influence car design and marketing in the '60s. Baby boomers snapped up the low-priced GTO, essentially created by GM's Pontiac division when it dropped a 389-cubic-inch engine into a lightweight LeMans, kicking off the era of muscle cars. Urban avenues suddenly became cruising zones and unofficial drag strips.
Pontiac agency MacManus, John & Adams (now D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles) picked a tiger as the GTO image. In a commercial shoot in 1965, the tiger that was to be filmed inside the car "ripped the interior to shreds," says Ron Monchak, then creative director on the account. The creative team improvised by taking out the car's engine and filming the tiger bounding under the hood.
A controversial GTO spot in the 1969 model year showed a rebellious-looking young male driving the car through a drive-in restaurant, eliciting stares of begrudging respect from boys and admiration from girls in nearby cars.
"Even though the car drove slowly [through the drive-in restaurant], so many people accused Pontiac of fostering recklessness that GM forced the spot off the air after one showing," says Mr. Monchak.
DON'T BUG ME During the same period, the politically inspired counterculture embraced the Volkswagen Beetle as an anti-establishment statement. Such canonization, coupled with inspired advertising by Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York, made the aging Beetle a huge success in the '60s and early '70s.
"Our idea was to zig when everyone else zagged," notes John Noble, a DDB creative from 1965 to 1987.
Mr. Noble was the writer and Roy Grace, now chairman of Grace & Rothschild, New York, the art director for the early '70s Beetle "Funeral" commercial. In it, a wealthy man bequeathes pittances to his partner, spoiled widow and sons, and a fortune to his sensible nephew, who brings up the rear of the funeral procession in his Beetle.
Two oil crises, in 1973 and 1978, enabled Japanese importers like Toyota Motor Sales USA to build momentum with small, fuel-efficient cars.
In the late '70s, Toyota agency Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample (now Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Pacific, Torrance, Calif.) created the "Oh, What a Feeling" campaign that showed closing shots of owners jumping for joy. Most car advertising in this period was dominated by recitations about fuel economy and the carrying capacity for passengers and luggage.
Lee Iacocca emerged as one of the nation's most successful ad presenters during this period. Mr. Iacocca, the deposed president of Ford, was hired as chairman of near-bankrupt Chrysler Corp. He brought K&E with him from Ford, and the agency in 1979 persuaded Mr. Iacocca to go on-air as commercial spokesman. He proved a natural, doing 61 spots over 14 years and ad-libbing some of his best lines, including: "If you can find a better car, buy it."
In a 1992 interview with Advertis, he said it was his commercial appearances that brought him fame-"I was stunned. I don't know if I would do it over again, if I knew how invasive it really is."
In the 1980s and early 1990s, as import brands exuded more and more confidence, advertising from domestic automakers became increasingly defensive. Ford initiated "Quality is job one"; GM came out with "GM puts quality on the road"-both attempts to counter the growing perception that import brands were more reliable.
Confidence exuded from American Honda Motor Co. ads bearing the musically understated coda: "We Make it Simple." By contrast, Chevrolet focused on lifestyle advertising. Its fast-cut, music-laden "Heartbeat of America" campaign, breaking in the 1987 model year, fought to create an image by linking the brand to active, fun-loving people.
European luxury cars surged in the mid-to-late 1980s, an era of conspicuous consumption. The unofficial yuppie car was the BMW, a brand positioned as "The Ultimate Driving Machine" in advertising by Ammirati & Puris, New York.
Volvo got in hot water when a production crew reinforced the roof of a car that survived a monster-truck rollover in a 1990 commercial. The Swedish importer was fined by the Federal Trade Commission, but the incident didn't seem to hurt Volvo's long-term image for safe cars.
Pursuit of perfection has been a admired ad theme in the '90s, first noted in Team One Advertising's TV campaign for Toyota's new Lexus luxury brand. Spots from the El Segundo, Calif., unit of Saatchi & Saatchi show a series of tests, such as stacking champagne glasses on the bonnet of a Lexus running at full engine speed on a dynamometer, and rolling a ball bearing along car seams to show perfect weld.
Domestic automakers have shown renewed vitality in both product design and advertising in the '90s and have capitalized on surging consumer interest in light-duty trucks such as minivans and sport-utility vehicles. This comeback is epitomized by a Jeep commercial from Bozell, Southfield, Mich., which won the Grand Prix Award at International Advertising Festival in Cannes in 1994.
The spot combined actual shots of a wintry Yukon wilderness with a computer-simulated view of a Jeep burrowing, mole-like, through the snow, then turning left after halting for a nearly buried "Stop" sign.