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Best Car Ads: 9 Campaigns From 1960s to Today

Last Updated Feb. 24, 2017

Car ads are everywhere today. You see them when you walk by the bus stop. They’re plastered on billboards you see from your car – perhaps even that exact same car in the ad. Your TV time is littered with (cue commercial voice) “this year’s new model of _____”. Through the history of automobiles, ad campaigns have tried to grab attention and get us to buy, buy, buy!

Let’s take a look at car campaigns, both past and current, that have succeeded in getting that attention. These are only a mere glimpse of the great ads of each decade. They are chosen for entertainment value, not sales success or being the recognized “best”.  Let’s begin this time warp by entering in the decade of Mad Men, where advertising really became a huge part of society and creating the “American Dream”.


1960s: Volkswagen Thinks Small – What’s the Big Idea? 


When Americans were thinking big, the German automakers of Volkswagen were thinking small. The American car of the day was powerful and oversized. Design Shack writes highly about VW’s Think Small campaign, which is easily among the best car ads. They pose the question: “How did a funny looking car that was named after a bug, known for being slow and manufactured in factories built by Nazis ever become iconic to a generation of post-war Americans?” To answer this question, you must watch Mad Men on AMC … Not really, but the advertisers behind the Beetle showed Americans of the 1960s the muscle cars were a thing of the past and compact vehicles were a thing of the present and maybe even of the future. Volkswagen teamed up with Julian Koenig at the DDB ad agency in the late 1950s in hopes of recreating the American Dream and giving people another idea on what they imagined in their driveway or garage. The copy in the ad uses humor and mockery of the VW Beetle itself to catch the consumers’ attention – and clever use of empty space on the page really makes this little Volkswagen stand out. Many thanks to VW for introducing an entirely different way of driving to 60s North America – one that was joked to not necessarily be the fastest, but definitely was not gas-guzzling like a muscle car.


1970s: The Chrysler Cordoba – Everything You Need, Just a Bit Smaller


Moving along in the Mad Men timeline, it is now the 1970s. Chrysler is already known for its expensive luxury cars and maintains its luxurious image through its full sized cars. After years of only selling luxury vehicles with expensive price tags, Chrysler decides to expand its horizon to accommodate the popularity of the affordable mid-size car. Their lower pricing on the Chrysler Cordoba were partially a result of the early 1970s mini-recession. All of sudden, it became a reasonable dream for many to own a Chrysler because of this model’s smaller price tag.

But there was competition. Big competition. From the likes of the Chevy Monte Carlo and Ford Elite. So with this new “smaller” vehicle (not that much smaller, to be honest), Chrysler still needed to get everyone’s attention and remind them that owning a Chrysler means luxury. What better way than with a celebrity known for embodying the life of luxury himself: Ricardo Montalban! For those that need a bit of an intro on Ricardo, check out how he made a name for himself in Hollywood on his IMDB page. And now … Let’s enjoy the sultry voice of Ricardo Montalban romanticizing his Chrysler Cordoba and its Soft Corinthian Leather. Agency: Bozell. Video Credit: Chrysler. Video 


1980s: Datsun’s Golden Idea


The 80s – glitter, glam rock, colorful boastful clothing – and, of course, pop music icons like Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper. As AdAge.com writes, within advertising, the same goes, bigger was better. Expansion
through the 1980s was the key to success. So big companies were in, along with big music, and big hair – not to mention big mustaches. Just like the fashionable Tom Selleck Chevron mustache. Much like these iconic pop singers, there was an explosion of iconic cars that sought to make a name for themselves .

While Popular Mechanics lists many cars from this era that were forgotten, some have left quite a memorable ad behind. Take the Datsun 280ZX commercial from 1980. The flashy, retro commercial screams early 1980s with its flashiness, catchy “Black Gooold” jingle, and the Chevron mustache. The deep voiceover says it’s the “ultimate” car, giving specs on the car itself. All the while, viewers are more likely are probably paying attention the the women’s red lips or the man’s bushy mustache. Come on, the mustache alone sells the car. But maybe that’s the whole point …


1990s: The Sex Appeal of a Daihatsu?


In the 90s, attention wandered away from print ads towards TV and even the burgeoning Internet ads. Japanese maker Daihatsu took it upon itself to make the most of the print medium with a very catchy campaign, which mocks its little six passenger van and compares it to the likes of Lamborgini. Is that completely off track? Read the “fine print” of the ad and the parody seems quite suitable. The Daihatsu Hijet MPV is the ultimate “babe-magnet” with its 6 comfortable seats, and two sunroofs “for when things really gets hot” A smart and witty campaign to drive car buyers away from sporty two-seater Porsches and Lamborginis and towards practicality. Who knew that a six-seater van could pick up chicks? And become one of the best car ads ever.


2000s: The People of Saturn


Agency: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Video Credit: Saturn.

With the new century, there was a change of the focus. Ads were more to do with the brands themselves. Saturn’s 2002 ad had less to do with the car, and more with the company’s values. The “Sheet Metal” or “We See People” barely even talks about the vehicle. The ad shows people as cars and has them “driving” around town. The whole thing seems obscure at first, but as the commercial goes on you understand what is happening. While it may not be intended to have a tone of humor, watching people stand in the parking lot like cars does bring a smirk to your face.  


2012: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Revamped



Agency: RPA.

As we approach the present day, technology is everything. Your smartphone is the ultimate online shopper and, with a few taps, you can buy basically anything you want. Commercials no longer rely on being broadcast on TV, but also strive to get YouTube views. But the ads now need to grab our attention almost instantly, before we click “next” or “skip”. What better way to relate to all audiences of any age than with a memorable movie from the 80s revamped and modernized. While Matthew Broderick might be a bit older… he’s still got that Ferris Bueller coolness. Honda captures this and transforms their new CRV into the new Bueller car.  


Another 2012: Toyota Reveals your Inner Most Desires



Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi. Video Credit: Toyota.

It seems like the best car ads in the 21st century are geared towards the new, revamped, and reinvented. Who says this a a bad thing? Toyota sure doesn’t. Reinventing a police officer to be a masseuse, a baby into a non-pooper (if only!) or a plant made into a kung-fu crime fighter. Toyota takes their turn at revamping by reinventing things to fulfill your most subconscious desires … ones that you never even thought you had. Watch closely!


2014: A Day in the Life of a Kia Hamster




Agency: David & Goliath. Video Credit: Kia.

What better way to get attention than with animals and a famous pop song? Kia Soul has the right idea when it comes to entertaining and fun ads with their new “Totally Transformed” ad. They have literally made hamsters the actors of the commercial. Which might seem unusual, but they have made them cool. Better yet, they have made their hamsters famous, walking down the red carpet dressed to impress. Without even a mention of their car until the end, Kia focused more on selling the cool Kia brand, than simply just their Kia Soul car.  


2017: The Lincoln Continental Starring Matthew Mccaughney


Agrency: Hudson Rouge

We’ve seen Matthew Mccaughney in several Lincoln comemercials since he was hired in 2014 as their brand ambassador. This car ad taps into the same interesting and unique style of their previous commercials starring the famous actor. It was filmed in Reykjavik, Iceland and was directed by Wally Pfister, who you may know from his acclaimed work in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The Continental car campaign is meant to highlight the vehicle in a fresh and contemporary way and the selected location, unique in its own right, does just that. The car commercial showcases Iceland’s amazing glacial terrain and its gorgeous shallow water.


From the 1960s until now, ads for cars have progressed and transformed. Peoples’ dreams and desires change, and the ads that surround us in our daily lives change as well.

One Comment
  • Fraljis Hamtherstau
    29 April 2015 at 10:46 am
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