Ad Classic: Allstate’s Studebaker Clunker

Imagine an advertising agency employee in the early 1970s, working on Allstate Insurance Company’s latest campaign.  One particular ad aims to call people’s attention to the scourge brought upon American roads by unsafe, uninspected vehicles… and that ad requires an eye-catching example of such a clunker.  To be believable, it must resonate with people – a car that would elicit disapproving stares in well-kempt neighborhoods… the type of car from which safe drivers would steer clear.  For the resulting 1971 Allstate ad, the clunker of choice wound up being a nine-year-old Studebaker Lark.

Studebaker made for an easy target.  The company shut down its automotive operations five years earlier, so Allstate didn’t have to contend with a company upset about its products being unfavorably portrayed.  Additionally, Studebakers and their drivers didn’t exactly have a fashionable reputation in the 1970s.  But for us, an equally interesting aspect of this ad is that a car less than a decade old made for a believable clunker at all.  So, let’s examine this ad, and what prompted it.

Car insurance companies don’t often make people’s lists of favorite businesses.  This was particularly true in the early 1970s, when rapidly increasing premiums caused considerable hardship among drivers.  Insurance rates became a leading factor in the demise of muscle cars, but even drivers of non-performance cars got hammered as US insurance rates rose an average of 90% between 1958 and 1970 – nearly three times the overall inflation rate.  On top of the rates themselves, drivers despised insurance companies’ arbitrary policy terminations and seemingly illogical rate structures.  Little wonder, then, that the promise of lower insurance rates became a common selling point for cars during this period.

Insurance companies occasionally responded to negative public sentiment by portraying themselves as crusaders for good – and by claiming that exorbitant rates resulted not from insurers seeking high profits, but rather from negligent behavior of individuals or other industries.  This wasn’t a new tactic in 1971, as evidenced by the above 1956 ad highlighting ten highway safety recommendations.  Note that #9 calls for “Nationwide Car Inspection,” the same topic on which Allstate’s clunker ad focused 15 years later.

This type of public relations gambit propelled a 1971-72 Allstate campaign called “Let’s Make Driving a Good Thing Again,” which included booklets, television commercials and numerous magazine ads.  Allstate focused on the era’s big auto safety issues, such as bumpers and air bags, though the company also highlighted regulatory topics as shown in the ad to the left, which professed to support accident victims’ access to justice (though it was a thinly veiled attack on no-fault insurance laws).

Whether these PR moves helped the insurance industry’s image or not is debatable, but it was a favorite approach for many companies to posture themselves as the good guys in the battle for lower insurance costs.

Our featured ad (also part of the “Let’s Make Driving a Good Thing Again” campaign) followed that same approach — in this instance focusing on the lack of annual vehicle safety inspections in many states.  According to the text, this oversight permitted nefarious clunkers like the pictured Studebaker to menace our streets.  The ad states that:

Allstate, for one, is working to get the clunker off the road.  To do it, many states need to pass tough laws, as recommended by the National Highway Safety Bureau.  Laws that require every car to be inspected regularly.  That demand every car have lights that light, brakes that brake, horns that blow.  And more.

Readers are led to believe that the pictured 1962 Lark would be taken off the road by such an inspection.  Judging by the picture, that is entirely believable.  With numerous dents, a hood strapped down by a cord, and a non-functioning headlight, this seemingly fit the role of a public menace.  It was also only nine years old.

Here’s what a 1962 Studebaker Lark looked like when new.  The compact Lark was the bread-and-butter offering from a manufacturer straining for relevance at the time.  Larks were solid, well-built cars that offered good value and a decent set of equipment, though the brand was doomed to failure regardless of this car’s attributes.  Studebakers developed a rather frumpy reputation by the 1960s, a status that was often passed on to their owners as well.

That status certainly didn’t improve after Studebaker quit producing cars altogether, so when the Allstate ad was printed, the world’s remaining Studebaker owners found themselves on the fringes of automotive respectability.  If anything, the clunker that Allstate chose for its ad reinforced what had become somewhat of a stereotype of Studebaker drivers.

Today, a nine-year-old (i.e., 2010 model) clunker is hard to imagine, since the average age of a car on US roads is close to 12 years.  For that matter, a beat-up car of any sort is rare – after all, when was the last time you saw a car matching the condition of Allstate’s Studebaker actually on the road?

Though I wasn’t around in 1971, I do remember clunkers plying the streets in the 1980s… but rarely in the last two decades or so.  Such cars do still exist, of course, as this recently-featured picture from CC’s tbm3fan demonstrates.  However, the above Pontiac Bonneville is 40 years old.  Our featured Studebaker was less than a quarter of the Pontiac’s age.

Times were different in 1971.  The average age of a US car was only five years, and by the age of nine, many were effectively worn out.  By way of example, 102,000 cars rolled off Studebaker’s assembly lines for 1962, but by 1971, when they would have been nine years old, only 37,000 were registered on US roads.

Today, the typical nine-year-old car looks something like this – doesn’t quite stoke fear into the heart, does it?  But 48 years ago, a scary, almost-decade-old Studebaker was probably judged as an effective and believable way to deliver a message that states should inspect vehicles for roadability.

Incidentally, vehicle safety inspection programs are no longer held in widespread esteem.  Only 15 US states require regular (annual or biennial) safety inspections.  At one point, that number was higher, but several states have discontinued or scaled back their inspection programs, as lawmakers and the public came to regard them as more of a nuisance than a safety benefit.  Tellingly, some states now exempt cars from safety inspections for several years after their date of manufacture.  In Missouri, that exemption stands at five years – which was about the average age of a vehicle back when our Allstate ad was published.  Now, a five-year-old car is considered too new to worry about safety defects.

Despite how the safety inspection thrust ended up, insurance companies continue to promote public relations campaigns regarding safety initiatives (distracted driving, for instance).  But few ad campaigns come with a juicy, fear-mongering picture of a frightening-looking car like our featured Studebaker.  This 2007 Allstate ad about teen drivers features a cartoonish, angry-looking fiend of a vehicle to substitute for the real thing.

These days, though, even that wouldn’t evoke fear, since ordinary family sedans now look as mean as Allstate’s caricature.

That ad agency employee in 1971 did his job well.  He typecast the ideal car into the role of the Clunker – probably so believable at the time that few magazine readers likely noticed the car as much as the message.  Of course, much has changed in the 48 years since this ad was published – some for the better, and some for the worse – but at least these days, we don’t have the specter of scary Studebakers haunting our roads any longer.