30 Seconds Of Hell: The Worst Car TV Ads Ever (So Far)

We’re kicking the week off with a visit to another world. We’re going to travel to Advertising Planet, where the beer is always cold, (and served up by morally casual, wholesomely lubricious females), operators really are “standing by” just waiting to help you…And there are no bad cars. So please join us for a visit to a parallel universe where camera tricks, verbal sleight of hand and well known celebrities can unlock our hidden desires in everyday transportation.

From its very beginning as a commercial enterprise in the mid /late 1940’s, television and auto advertising have been natural partners. Far more than radio or print, television can give a multidimensional presentation of style,color and performance. It can tug at our heartstrings or make us roar with laughter. It is quite simply the most effective selling medium ever designed.

Of course, as times change, themes and narratives evolve to move the metal. One particularly insidious parlor trick that has evolved is to compare the one superior feature of any old penalty box to several class leaders . “More legroom than a Subaru, zero to sixty faster than a Corolla and  a longer warranty than Volkswagen” . Selective comparisons like that can obscure the fact that their car is a sales dog because it only does that one thing well. Also, the form of the ads themselves have changed. The earliest TV commercials were live , shot with a single camera and could run several minutes in length. Today, network ad time is so expensive that a 60 second spot is a rarity. A  two minute message (like the Fiat Strada ad below) is unknown.

One thing that you’ll notice is that there are no car ads from the 1950’s. That’s because there were no bad car ads in the fifties. In the earliest days of TV advertising, the ads were dignified and restrained. Men wore suits. Women wore evening dresses and didn’t have tattoos. They were more straightforward and didn’t try to get inside our head and convince us that our lives were a shallow mockery unless we drove home whatever they were selling. It was pretty low key and amazingly effective. Today, we’re going to look at the ads that , for the most part, didn’t save the car that they were commissioned to sell. That’s not to say that every one of these was a failure (Lexus stubbornly trots out its “December To Remember” ads like clockwork in the fall). But for the most part,bad ads attached themselves to bad cars. Let’s roll the clips:

1) Renault Le Car- 1980

“From the country that brought you the world’s fastest train…

Came the world’s slowest car. In 1981, the little Renault R-5 was being flogged as one of the finer examples of French engineering that you could drive home (sluggishly) for under five grand. Left unsaid was the zero to sixty time of around fifteen seconds, which put this car squarely in the penalty box category. (The concurrent Ford Fiesta could do it in under 11 seconds). The LeCar’s 1.4L engine would be drafted for duty in the Alliance after the 5 was sent packing in 1983. This ad shows a slightly clueless (French?) couple looking at the camera no doubt dreading 48 monthly payments for a car that could be clocked in geologic time.

2)  Pontiac Aztek – 2000

Note the visual tricks in this stunningly bad waste of half a minute of precious reality show screen time. I’m sure that GM didn’t show any long, well lensed full body shots of the Aztek because the lawyers warned them that they might cause blindness. The Aztek is on just about everybody’s short list of worst looking cars ever and this ad didn’t do the brand any favors. As if the epileptic quick cut editing wasn’t bad enough, the cross talk voiceovers are confusing and stupid.

3) Ford Granada – 1977

I was 14 years young when I first saw this ad and even then, I was aghast that FoMoCo would compare this lemon to a Mercedes Benz.

Apparently well to do people in the 70’s hung out in their luxury cars at drive ins. I sure don’t remember it that way. Anyway, Ford did have the basic comparisons about right- four wheels, four doors, yep, in the dark, it could be a Mercedes. Note also that the blue oval couldn’t resist a jab at the Cadillac Seville that was itself a tarted up Nova underneath. The Granada had a few good years and then was discontinued in 1981.

4) Chevy Citation-1980

“The Worst Chevy Of The 80’s” would have been a more accurate jingle for this spot that introduced America to a car that didn’t even need rear wheels when towing a trailer. An interesting and novel approach was illustrating how 30(!) bags of groceries could fit in the cargo area. This was a better idea than it looks in the ad. You could munch on all of those comestibles while waiting for the tow truck when the engine spun a bearing or the locked up rear brakes rendered your Citation immobile.

5) Cadillac Catera -1997

“The Caddy That Zigs” reassured its erstwhile owners that they were all right and the world was screwed up. Even though their friends all warned them that they were buying a $40,000 Opel, a cartoon duck promised status, youth and a certain bourgeois lifestyle that they couldn’t get in a cheaper (and more reliable) car. The Catera actually utilized every weapon in the adman’s toolkit to move the metal before GM gave up on the Catera in 2001. Uber model Cindy Crawford donned a black mini dress in her Super Bowl spot and the big spenders at GM even had a character in a CBS drama (Lisa Catera) named to remind viewers to “lease a Catera” . They would have been better served to name a minor character “Checkie Beltnow” because when the timing tensioner snapped, the whole car was rendered a (wildly expensive) paperweight.

6)  Fiat Strada-1979

The theme music for this ad is the classic comic opera standard “Figaro”. A comic opera pretty well sums up the whole Strada debacle that unspooled from 1979-1982. The only humans in the spot are the ones driving the cars onto a transport truck. The entire theme of this ad campaign for the Strada was “Handbuilt By Robots” (to which wags answered “and driven by idiots”). Another feature of this ad is that it is long by today’s standards (two whole minutes) Roger Smith at GM must have taken a liking to these ads because he did his darnedest to convert GM factories to robot assembly during his (disastrous) decade at the top of the company. Anyway, the whole robot leitmotif never really got any traction and the Strada (It was known as the Ritmo in Europe) expired here in 1982. Fiat itself surrendered a couple of seasons later and stayed far away from America until this year.

7)  Cadillac Cimarron- 1984

To be fair, this is an ad made by a local Cadillac dealer network for viewing in a particular area, but it still uses the visual sleight of hand of not giving us a clear view of the car. Perhaps this is because the dealers were ashamed to show this wildly overpriced Chevy Cavalier clone in full view. I couldn’t find a national Cimarron ad anywhere, so if you have a link, I’d love to see it. The car itself is widely considered one of the worst marketing and sales disasters of all time.

8)  Chrysler Imperial – 1981

Frank Sinatra was way past his prime by the time ChryCo tried to pass off this stinkbomb as a functioning luxury car. Sinatra and his pal Lee Iacocca even connived to offer an “fs” (lowercase) edition that was sold with cassettes of ‘Ol Blue Eyes most popular tunes stuffed in the glovebox. Too bad that Sinatra couldn’t fix the numerous fuel injection issues that killed his namesake car in 1983. ( Can you rhyme “driveability problems” in a song ?) A little over 12,000 Imperials were sold before MoPar put the car out of our collective misery.

9)  Any Lexus “December To Remember” ad from 2003 – Present

Its an article of faith that good advertising can’t save a bad car. These pretentious, annoying ads have managed to turn that saying on its head. Lexus builds a good car. But these spots manage to turn off even the most devoted fans of the brand until after the holidays with their sappy, arrogant tone. Cars are not a proper gift, they are an expense. Putting a giant red bow on an expense strikes us as deadly dumb. One development of the last few years has Lexus showing us how diverse they are by featuring multiracial, sexually ambiguous relationships between carefully selected models.

10)  Fiat 500 – 2011

Pop music flavor of the month Jennifer Lopez managed to infuriate New Yorkers when she made a casual drive in her old neighborhood...From the relative safety of LA. Slick camera work ensured that J Lo didn’t have to encounter winos, hobos and pervos as she reflected on what it means to be young and famous. When word leaked out that the ad used a body double for the Bronx shots, criticism poured in from all and sundry. It’s just one more black eye for the 500,which is selling poorly despite a major buildup from Fiat. Maybe 27 years wasn’t long enough for people to forget that Fiat means “Fix It Again,Tony”.

Okay, your memory is probably a lot better than mine. Is there any spectacularly bad ad that that you would like recognized ? Put it in the comments below.