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When the Ad Review staff purchased its first house-a handsome, two-story row home in a subdivision we sometimes referred to as Warehouse Vista-the mortgage, in 1981 dollars, was $29,900.

You smile, no? How quaint and improbable that seems, because so much has happened in 13 brief years. Who back then would have guessed that the stock market would grow 300%, that more Americans would own computers than bowling balls, that a woman would be running the U.S. government?

Yet we at Ad Review, in formulating our consumer outlook, stubbornly cleave to that $29,900 figure as if nothing else had changed. For instance, when we look at automobile ads, and see a car offered at that price, we scoff reflexively and say, "Twenty-nine nine? Why, my first mortgage was for $29,900!" And even if Ed McMahon rang our doorbell tomorrow with a seven-figure check from American Family Publishers, we still wouldn't spring for such a car because it would violate our first-mortgage-based personal threshold of ostentatious extravagance.

Indeed, we suspect there are many consumers out there with sufficient income to make payments on a $29,900 car, but little inclination for so doing because of similar clashes with their concepts of value. They're surely out there, because, in the past few years, Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW all have gone to some lengths-at times quite ludicrously-to emphasize not luxury and prestige but value.

None of them, however, has succeeded like a current commercial for the BMW 318i from Mullen, Wenham, Mass.

The 30-second spot opens in what looks like an automobile museum. With background effects alternating between racetrack sounds and the echoes of a vintage-car auction, the camera moves from display to display-each an antique BMW roadster.

The first is a 1938 BMW 328. The car's current value, according to the on-screen super, is $180,000. A 1939 BMW 327/8 commands $90,000 on today's market. A 1957 BMW 507: $225,000.

"You'd be surprised," says a voice-over announcer, "what a BMW convertible is going for today."

But now, to the sound of an auction gavel striking a podium, we see a brand-new, bright-red 1994 BMW. "The 318i," says the announcer. The price?


And surprised we are. Pleasantly surprised, for this is an extremely handsome car, in addition to being the ultimate driving machine. Sure, our first mortgage was for $29,900, but, jeez, a 1994 Chrysler LeBaron convertible fetches $17,529. An Acura Vigor sets you back $29,485. And, if you work at it, you can pay $25,500 for a Volkswagen. So suddenly an under-$30,000 BMW isn't looking so extravagant (even if, unlike our erstwhile homestead at The Mews at Conrail Crossing, it doesn't come with a furnace, running water and a tastefully chainlink-fenced-in front yard).

Alas, we at Ad Review still are out of the market for a BMW. Though we may finally be willing to dismiss the value of our first mortgage as irrelevant history, we still cleave stubbornly to the notion that BMWs are for dentists and drug dealers and other nouveau riche showoffs-a stigma BMW and Mullen might perhaps next address. If they have time.

They're going to be very busy, for the balance of the summer, selling convertibles.

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