“Marketing is what you do when your product is no good, ” said Edwin H. Land. David Foster Wallace said of an ad: “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”
This month’s theme is the about the ephemeral products of automotive advertising. As long as cars have been available, there have been people making money trying to help manufacturers get yours. At first, the main theme of car advertising was to explain the advantages of a car over the other ways of getting around.
The 1898 Winton ad devotes its energy to the money-saving attributes of their car compared to owning a horse. It might not have been strictly true but the message could be clearly understood as a rational proposition. A Winton cost only half a cent a mile to run though they didn’t say how much a horse cost. Furthermore, a car meant less anxiety than owning a living thing. There wasn’t enough experience of car ownership in 1898 to allow people to riposte that a car needed the services of crooks known as mechanics.
Later, once people understood the point of a horseless carriage, the technical merits that distinguished the product from the other ones available were stressed. For a long time this remained the case. Adverts were heavy on copy and had lavish explanations of the engineering attributes of each vehicle. The 1940 Hudson ad contains as much text as modern car review. The copy is scattered around the page, reflecting the busy-style that was accepted then. First a small box top right with about 100 words. And in the bottom right corner an essay on the engine, brakes and comfort features. You could spend a good twenty minutes with this little exegesis. The possibility of downloading a 55 page PDF had yet to arrive.
The ads assumed a general knowledge of the subject and that the customer understood the nuances of 12V electrical systems and engines with three main bearings. The 1949 Buick advert explains how much a difference high compression makes. Today about one in a hundred might know that their car has any compression at all. In the top right corner men with hats admire a free-standing engine, gazing in wonder at all the high compression on view. Because that’s what people did after the war, remove engine blocks, put on hats and gaze at cast iron until their wives came home and made the guys do something more useful.
Adverts, as our opening quotes remind us, are really about skilful manipulation. The ways to do this changed over time but the intention remains to this day. The first style of ad worked on fear: imagine your horse is lame. And the second set of ads worked on the idea that a proper male understood the mechanisms propelling his vehicle. Technical competence meant masculinity. And if your car was a leader in this respect, you could buy a totem of your place in the world. It really didn’t have anything directly to do with the real benefits of the systems actual slide-ruling engineers had devised.
Manipulation is still the main weapon used to defeat customers’ reasoning capacity but the verbal part has diminished enormously. A typical ad features now a heavily modified photograph and a few lines of text. “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” This was true in the 60s and is true today though I reckon people barely even read the brand logo appended somewhere in the ad. The 1960 Lancia advert is light on copy and heavy on imagery: an attractive model photographed in a pleasant setting. The 1960 Rambler ad shows what we call “lifestyle”. The car is means to attain this hallowed state and is not simply a device to transfer groceries to the bungalow in a sprawling suburb.
Car advertising now serves only to attract attention and to convince by means of the size of the spread how dominant the company is in the market. This is the same principle used to sell perfume and, where legal, cigarettes. Ralph Lauren: Confusion. That’s all that’s needed by way of verbal information to make you aware of the new perfume. Add a photo of a model and the work is done. BMW: Designed for Driving Pleasure. Add photo. Finished. All the details, if they are there, are in 6 point and easily ignored.
Since nearly nobody cares about the reason for having a car (transport, ostensibly) or the means by which it operates, the only remaining fulcrum for leverage is pure emotion and highly abstract imagery conveying simple ideas such as sex appeal, lifestyle aspirations, power and speed. Customers can take in this message entirely without recourse to the verbal parts of their conscious. “I like the image this car would project for me.” The next step is a showroom visit and then signing on the purchase contract. The people who download the 55 page PDFs are not the target market.
The graphic conventions of car have changed as a result of this shift from verbal to visual means of communication. Drawings used to be the standard method of showing the car. The Lancia ad is an example of photography but all the art is in the framing and composition. There is no retouching. Such a simple photograph would not pass muster today though I would suggest today’s hyper-smooth Photoshopped images are verging on the unreal state that the 1960s Fitz and Van drawings attained at their zenith.
Where did I park my car?
The trend to photography and minimal copy can be seen in the 1971 Chrysler ad. In its own way, it’s a small masterpiece of elegant, straightforward advertising. You don’t need to understand anything other than this car is imposing and by extension the owner will be too. The few background details reinforce this aspect.
Today, car ads either use an abstract background or simplify an urban setting: consider those sterile, concrete settings preferred by Audi and BMW in some of their ads, for instance. Ironically, these ads are almost always depopulated. Nothing gets in the way of cars more than other cars and other people. As driving becomes more and more of a bore, it’s a good idea not to remind people of this fact by putting evidence of billions of obstacles in the photo.
In this discussion I’ve only mentioned print advertising. The age of the car has coincided with the age of television. Radio and film have also played their part. The internet has opened up avenues such as social marketing too. In this month’s theme we will look at various aspects of car advertising and dissect the minutiae of particular firms’ output. Behind all of this is the single idea, that if cars are an irrational purchase, don’t use reason to convince the customer. And if all else fails, sex sells.
Simon A Kearne is away