Selling the horseless carriage

Advertisers started trying to sell cars in the 1880s, about 30 years before Henry Ford sold his first Model T. Newspaper ads urged readers to replace their horses with motorcars. We’ve come a long way since. After World War II, big ads blossomed in newspapers  and slick magazines, showing happy families cruising along a scenic road empty of other traffic.

Americans of a certain age recall with a smile the clever Volkswagen Beetle ad campaign created in 1959 by Helmut Krone. Julian Koenig at the Doyle Dane Bernbach  agency wrote the clever “Think Small” copy that appeared with a single photo of a VW Beetle in the center of a full newspaper or magazine page, surrounded by lots of white space.

Japanese imports pushed into the American market in the 60s with their practical, affordable and yet good-quality cars, and the tension between them and America’s brands heated up. Car ads have flooded television from the 1980s on. The evolution of the content of these commercials is worth a look.

From the happy families out for a joy ride, we have evolved to beautiful, sexy, affluent people, dressed for an evening out, en route to and arriving at a classy restaurant or bar. Another favorite is the chiseled male driving in luxury to a mysterious rendezvous. No other traffic, of course. Not another vehicle in sight. What planet is this? More recently, car commercials tend to fall into either of two categories: those demonstrating safety features and those promoting driving recklessly at frantic speeds, always on empty roads.

More important: What are these fools selling? You can rocket along at a zillion miles over the speed limit in our car! See it fly! Buy one of these babies, and you can race wildly through town. What a thrill. How wonderful.

How irresponsible.

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