The automobile industry has historically been among the most prestigious and powerful industries for advertising firms to serve. To this day, “landing a car company” is a pretty big deal for most firms, as it brings a large amount of business and revenue. Today, most car companies divide their advertising among multiple firms, allowing for specialization across the various mediums, including print, TV, mobile, and social media. But that isn’t all that has changed over the years. As photography and digital techniques became more advanced, the once popular technique of painted automobile ads all but went away.
As a recent scholar of marketing and advertising, I’ve spent countless hours learning about what goes into a successful marketing strategy. Although print media is still an important component of many campaigns, it is increasingly becoming less integral, as its effectiveness pales in comparison to the interactiveness and sheer number of impressions that social and mobile media generate.
With respect to that, looking at these vintage ads not only takes us back to a simpler time by way of their content, but by their mere existence as painted print ads. Unlike modern-day advertisements of any medium for any product, there’s a distinctive human quality about them. These earlier ones from the late-1940s and 1950s have a Norman Rockwell-esque look to them, literally painting a picture of nostalgic and simplistic post-WWII America, where peace, prosperity, and optimism are the best-remembered traits.
Rightfully so, Cadillac ads typically conveyed an aura of power, prestige, and affluence. This 1951 Cadillac has always been one of my favorites.
It’s best to view these ads in the context of their time. Some may exhibit a level of political incorrectness by today’s standards, but just like the what was acceptable in terms of design and safety features then, what was socially acceptable in past eras is significantly different from the present day.
Advertising is all about influencing the consumer, and there’s no denying that stretching of the truth sometimes occurs. In this case, it literally meant stretching the car to exaggerated proportions, which is exactly what the artists did to create the distinctive looks in many of these images. The team of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman were responsible for many of these gouache painted General Motors ads of the 1960s, owing to their familiar looks.
Fitzpatrick was responsible for the cars, tracing individual sections at a time to create his signature “wide” look. Kaufman would handle the background and people, often using foreign locations and extravagant scenery to enhance to overall attention-grabbing quality of the ads.
In an interview with Motor Trend, Fitzpatrick stated, “I’ve always maintained that a picture of a car moving doesn’t mean a thing. They all move. You have to convey something about the car psychologically. It’s all about image. That’s the reason people buy cars.”
This 1964 Chrysler ad would appear to have been done by a different artist, due to its angle and slightly more abstract look.
Here’s another Fitzpatrick/Kaufman work, with their signature wide, exaggerated car look and exotic scenery. It seems like Pontiac used these gouache paintings more than any other brand, appearing the majority of their ads and brochures in the 1960s and early 1970s.
This 1973 Dodge ad stands out in that it depicts the subject car traveling at high speeds. It could be due to the quality of scan, but this advertisement appears to have a canvas-like quality to it, which also sets it apart from the other ads here.
As color photography improved, painted automobile ads began to quickly disappear in the 1970s. By the 1980s, they were virtually nonexistent. There were a few exceptions, like this series of 1988 Buick ads.
They certainly have a different, more modern look to them than the paintings of preceding decades, but these ads are still interesting, with their scenic backdrops and bright color schemes.
It is pointless to say that there haven’t been very many painted car advertisements in recent years, and I doubt we will every see them become popular again. Interactive ads, aimed at social media and mobile smart phones is in vogue, and print ads are taking a back seat, looking duller than ever in most respects. As someone currently looking for a job in advertising, it would be a dream of mine to work on a car account someday. I don’t think painted ads are the most effective way to go in this modern era, but at the very least, we can always look back at this golden age of automobile advertising.
The majority of these painted advertisements I found on the Vintage-Ad-Orama shop on Etsy, where they can be purchased. There’s quite a few more to check out.