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Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea are credited with starting the U.S. auto industry in 1896. They are also believed to have run the first illustrated auto ad—in the inaugural issue of the trade journal Horseless Age. The ad showed a woman dressed in a gown and hat driving the Duryea Motor Wagon accompanied by a similarly attired female passenger. Copy was sparse, naming the marketer as a "manufacturer of motor wagons, motors and automobile vehicles of all kinds."

Many auto marketers of the day instead took an unimaginative approach, with ads that generally used retouched photographs or a drawing. They tended to be small, and page ads were rare. Mechanical information was emphasized, and prices were usually included. One 1897 Oldsmobile ad headline read: "Practically noiseless and impossible to explode." It depicted four adults in the open-topped carriage; no one looked very relaxed.

In 1901, Ransom Eli Olds' Olds Motor Vehicle Co. targeted professionals and business owners after the first nonblue bloods started buying automobiles. "You see them wherever you go" was the brand's early tagline. Mr. Olds went on to found the Reo Motor Car Co., and in 1912 made advertising and auto history, when, three years before he produced the car, he publicized the 1915 "Reo the Fifth" model. Advance advertising was unheard of at the time, although carmakers of the 1990s often promoted upcoming models as much as a year in advance.

Henry Ford, who wrote many of his own early ads, also took the practical approach. "Get behind the wheel and know the joy of driving this great new car," said an early Model A ad, which contained 500 words. In 1904, Ford Motor Co. showed the Model C, the Model F and Model B and their prices with the headline, "Don't experiment. Buy a Ford." Three years later, E. Leroy Pelletier, Ford's first adman, wrote the slogan, "Watch the Fords go by." Mr. Ford's ads hammered away at three selling points: the quality of the materials, his mass production techniques to lower prices and mechanical benefits. Ford introduced the "buy now—pay later" installment plan after World War I, but by then the virtually unchanged Model T looked dowdy.

J.W. Packard personally wrote the first hit car slogan in the industry for his own Packard Motor Car Co. "Ask the man who owns one" was being used in all Packard ads and promotional materials by 1902. The brand, the luxury leader into the late 1940s, used the timeless slogan until 1956.


In the U.S., the idea of applying artistic standards to car ads is generally credited to Earnest Elmo Calkins in 1903. Roughly five years later, his New York ad agency Calkins & Holden was handling the account of the Pierce-Arrow Motor Co., Buffalo, N.Y., which had a steady waiting list of buyers. Calkins & Holden broke all the rules. Its ads did not show the entire car, carried virtually no copy and used splendid art.

The Cadillac Motor Car Co. broke rules, too. Theodore F. MacManus, whose name was on the door of the ad agency that would later become D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, wrote a well-remembered 1915 Cadillac ad, headlined "The penalty of leadership," in long copy that discussed the difficulties faced by all who excel. No car was shown in the ad, only the Cadillac logo. The ad sold Cadillacs, and was still being used by the company 50 years later.

In the Roaring Twenties, the focus of auto ads shifted from mechanical reliability to freedom, comfort and style. A 1924 Chevrolet ad from Campbell-Ewald, Detroit, carried the headline "Speed up success" and showed a suited man watching others go by him. It pointed out that if one had a Chevy "to move your person twice as fast as some other chap, your chances for success [were] twice as good." A 1925 showed off the brightly colored finishes of Chevy's cars in contrast to earlier, industry-standard all-black mass-market models.

The real maverick of car advertising in the early 20th century was Edward "Ned" Jordan, who worked in advertising for the early Rambler and Jeffrey cars before starting the Jordan Motor Car Co. Mr. Jordan introduced a dreamy style of copywriting into car ads and disdained "mechanical chatter in auto ad copy. His legendary 1923 "Somewhere West of Laramie" ad for the Jordan Playboy was hailed as one of the greatest car ads ever and was ranked No. 30 among the top 100 ads of the 20th century by Advertising Age. The company closed in 1931.

The 1930s: Depression themes

Even as the Great Depression cast a pall over the nation, Duesenberg targeted the wealthy with understated ads that showed off its sleek, classy cars. "He drives a Duesenberg" or "She drives a Duesenberg" were the simple ad messages under drawings of the prestige automobiles driven by well-heeled men and women who showed no concern for the bleak economy.

Less-exclusive brands targeted the little guy, who now had to watch his pennies. Chevrolet's ad theme became "Greater value in 1933." That same year, Walter P. Chrysler appeared in an ad from J. Stirling Getchell titled "Look at All Three" for the new Plymouth, an early example of comparison auto advertising as well as using the chief as spokesman." Mr. Getchell, who created the ad on spec, pioneered the use of large, candid photographs in auto ads. Dodge picked up on the style and added the tagline, "Dodge dependability." In only two years, increases in the brand's annual sales boosted it from No. 9 to No. 4.

Celebrity advertising reached its heyday in the 1930s, as radio networks came into their own and talking pictures matured. Comedian Jack Benny stumped for Chevrolet on his radio show in the early 1930s. A 1935 Buick ad contained a b&w photo that showed Dick Powell and the Berkley Girls from Warner Bros.' upcoming film Gold Diggers with the headline, "Hollywood—creator of style—chooses Buick for its own."

As the Depression ended, car ads changed to reflect the nation's optimism. A 1935 ad for Studebaker's Champion model showed a canary-yellow sedan and declared, "The biggest thrill in the world is to own a Champion."

Women were targeted in earnest during this period. A 1935 Cadillac headline read: "For the first time it may truly be said-The perfect car for a woman." A 1937 ad for the 1938 Chrysler Royal touring sedan was written from a woman's point of view. She poked fun at her husband's attempts to tell her about the brand's value, roominess, size and quality—"As if I've never heard it."

The industry tried again to woo women in the 1950s. One 1959 Cadillac ad showed a fashionably dressed young mother, her young daughter and the car—all in pink. Dodge developed the La Femme model for women; it came with matching umbrella, purse, raincap and rain boots.

The "People's car"

During the 1930s another important development in the history of the automobile and advertising was taking root overseas. In 1930 Adolf Hitler called for a car to be built for the masses, or, as the media started calling it, "Volkswagen," meaning the "people's car." The "Beetle" name first appeared in connection with the car in The New York Times on July 3, 1938. Advance buyer deposits, however, never went toward the cars but were instead diverted to the making of military equipment for World War II.

The first batch of Beetles didn't reach American shores until 1949, after the war's end. VW's U.S. agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, which won the account in the late 1950s, dramatically affected the ad industry with its work for the Beetle. Led by the legendary William Bernbach, DDB's team included Helmut Krone, Julian Koenig, David Reider, Ed Russell and Bob Levenson. Selling points in ads included the Beetle's promise that it would not change for change's sake; its rear, air-cooled engine; and the thoroughness of its assembly-line inspectors, which sparked the celebrated "Lemon" ad. VW sold 15 million of the original Beetles in the U.S. through 1979, and Advertising Age ranked the agency's "Think Small" campaign the best work of the 20th century.

Arnold Worldwide, Boston, DDB's successor on the VW account, recaptured the essence of the earlier Beetle ads when, in 1998, it launched an updated version of the car in the U.S. Even before the New Beetle's introduction, Arnold got the industry's attention with brand and product ads tagged "Drivers wanted." The agency shot tilted views of drivers in ads for the Jetta and Golf models and portrayed quirky, slice-of-life stories with catchy, nonpopular music in the place of narration.

Wartime themes and advent of TV

During World War II, U.S. carmakers used their plants for the military effort and touted the work in patriotic ads. J. Walter Thompson Co., which won the Ford account in 1943, created an ad that featured the image of a crystal ball with the tagline, "There's a Ford in your future," indicating to soldiers that the carmaker would have vehicles waiting for them upon their return from service. Buick ads of the era carried the nameplate's wartime theme, "When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them," created by the Kudner Agency, Detroit.

With production ramping up after the war and the new medium of TV catching on, carmakers sponsored and co-produced new shows. Chevrolet sponsored Dinah Shore, who, from 1956 to 1963, opened and closed her series singing, "See the USA in Your Chevrolet." Campbell-Ewald, the author of the Chevy anthem, created other memorable Chevrolet taglines over the years, including: "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" in 1975; "The heartbeat of America" in 1986; and "Like a rock," in 1992 for its truck line.

Selling safety

In the 1950s, safety emerged as a new ad theme. Ford was the first in the industry to focus on safety as a major theme in fall 1955. Ads from JWT focused on new, optional seat belts and padded dashboards. "At last! A car dedicated to safety first—the 1956 Ford," was the headline. For the first time, Ford devoted more than twice as much advertising to new safety features as to any other feature. But within two months, under pressure from General Motors Corp., Ford ordered JWT to redo the campaign to focus instead on styling and performance.

In 1959, GM's Pontiac division struck on a new idea: the wide-track car. The trademarked "wide track" was used in Pontiac ads from 1959 to 1972. The phrase stemmed from Pontiac's new wider, lower-slung bodies, which suggested a crouching animal. Ads for the cars, from D'Arcy, used athletic analogies: one showed a baseball player moving his feet farther apart to achieve a better stance at the plate. By 1965, Pontiac sold more than 800,000 cars annually, peaking at 934,000 in 1969. However, Pontiac and other makers of high-performance, gas-eating "muscle cars" were hit hard by the gas crisis of the early 1970s.

Japanese brands

Not all carmakers suffered during the gas crisis, however. Less-powerful, gas-saving Japanese brands saw growth. Toyota Motor Sales USA started selling its small Toyopet Crown car in the U.S. in 1957. Industry experts at the time lauded the import's quality and value. But it was Toyota's "Oh What a Feeling" campaign, begun in 1978 during a second gasoline crisis, that really put Toyota on the map.

A standout TV commercial in the campaign showed a robed judge jumping and clicking his heels after a ride in his nephew's yellow Toyota pickup. It was the first of many spots to show ecstatic owners jumping with joy. Toyota's annual sales, just shy of 185,000 vehicles in 1970, jumped to 577,200 in 1985, according to Automotive News.

Japan's "Big Three"—Toyota, American Honda Motor Co. and Nissan North America—entered the luxury segment in the 1980s. Toyota's Lexus Division was introduced in ads in 1989 for the LS 400 and ES 250 sports sedan. Team One, Torrance, Calif., a Saatchi & Saatchi unit formed to handle the brand, developed the tagline, "The relentless pursuit of perfection." The campaign hammered home the cars' quiet ride, luxury and performance.

Nissan flubbed its Infiniti luxury car launch in 1989. Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, created a series of nine Zen-like TV commercials that showed rocks and trees. Dealers demanded that the ads be redone to show new Infiniti's Q45 sedan, and Hill, Holliday went back to the drawing board, breaking revamped TV spots in February 1990.

TBWA Chiat/Day, Marina del Rey, Calif., which won the account from Hill, Holliday in 1992, was widely praised in the advertising community for its 1996 brand campaign for Nissan. One award-winning spot called "Toys" showed Barbie and G.I. Joe look-alike dolls tooling around in a red Nissan convertible. The agency switched to product-focused ads by early 1998 but continued to use the "Enjoy the ride" tagline.

1990s tactics

Another campaign that made a big impact was the "New Dodge," which arrived in 1992. For the campaign, the suburban Detroit office of BBDO used red vehicles, shot all the spots on a stage and used title cards prominently. In 1999, Dodge changed its tagline to "Dodge. Different," but retained most other aspects of the original effort.

Perhaps the most memorable late-20th-century car campaign came from American Isuzu Motors in the late 1980s. Della Femina, Travisiano & Partners, Los Angeles, (later Della Femina McNamee), created the fictional pitchman Joe Isuzu. In the spots Joe, played by actor David Leisure, told whopping lies about the car while a type disclaimer appeared at the foot of TV screens.

Jeep ads in the 1990s were some of the most envied by competitors and the most honored internationally. In 1994, Bozell, Southfield, Mich., became the first U.S. agency since 1986 to take the Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, winning for its "Snow-covered" commercial. The spot depicted something burrowing beneath deep snow cover in a deserted, arctic region. When it approached a stop sign, viewers saw the rear brake lights and turn signal through the snow. Five years later, the agency won second place at Cannes for another Jeep commercial that showed a zebra herd hiding from a lion by running, in a straight line, behind the cover of a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Around the turn of the new century, two venerable nameplates became history, when Chrysler dropped Plymouth in 1998 and, in 2000, GM announced that it would phase out Oldsmobile. The last Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line in spring 2004.

In 2003, automotive was the largest domestic advertising category in the U.S., with total ad spending of $18.4 billion, up 8.2% from 2002, according to Advertising Age.

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