In America there are two classes of travel – first-class, and with children. Traveling with children corresponds roughly to traveling third-class in Bulgaria. They tell me there is nothing lower in the world than third-class Bulgarian travel.
In a world where advertising text is often predictable and bland, this passage jumped out as I leafed through a 1966 copy of Better Homes and Gardens. Modern sensitivities dictate that no company would disparage an entire nationality in advertising copy, so the passage seems rather unusual for a car ad. Yet printed in large italicized script, it was clearly intended to be the ad’s focus. There must be a story behind this, I thought.
After reading the italicized paragraph about Bulgarian travel for a second time, I noticed that the passage is attributed to Robert Benchley, a renowned humorist of the early 20th century. Given that no further description is provided along with Benchley’s name, he was presumably recognized by most people in 1966, even though he had passed away 21 years earlier. But despite his notoriety, he seems an unlikely spokesman for a mid-1960s station wagon. So, let’s take a look at who Robert Benchley was, and how one of his many quips might have made its way into a Ford advertisement.
Robert Charles Benchley was a “humorist” whose sardonic wit poked fun at both the mundane and the absurd. Born in 1889 into a middle-class Worcester, Massachusetts family (his father worked as a clerk at City Hall), Benchley benefited from a bump up the social ladder when a family acquaintance paid for him to attend a prep school, and then Harvard University. From there he transitioned into New York City’s literary world, becoming an author, drama critic and actor.
Of his many vocations, though, it was as a writer that he found enduring fame. Benchley wrote short essays, often for The New Yorker or Life, usually accompanied by parodic illustrations. Cynical outtakes on daily life became Benchley’s specialty, and his most natural role was as a critic of modern lifestyles. In his writings, he complained about everything, using straightforward and energetic language (he was once called “the father of the Rant against all things inanimate”). In modern terms, he was akin to Andy Rooney, and in reading Benchley’s essays, one can almost hear Rooney’s voice saying them.
One of Benchley’s countless essays was an article on travelling with children that first appeared in the early 1920s under the title Kiddie-Kar Travel. In it, Benchley details the hassles of traveling via train with small children – from surviving the glares of fellow passengers to dealing with urgent trips to the restroom.
Kiddie-Kar Travel begins with our featured sentences about Bulgaria, though Bulgaria is never mentioned again in the article, or – as far as I can tell – in any of Benchley’s other works.
Benchley passed away in 1945 at age 56. Had he lived longer, he would have found many more topics to grumble about; the increasing role of cars in daily life would have undoubtedly been one of them. Benchley often mocked his own lack of mechanical ability, and admitted to being frustrated by anything more complicated than a pencil sharpener. Automobiles were far outside of his area of interest.
Twenty years after Benchley’s death, traveling with kids increasingly occurred via car, and more specifically, station wagon – large baby boom families and increasing suburbanization made wagons the vehicle of choice. And Ford was on top of the wagon game in the 1960s.
Ford’s 1966 wagon offerings included vehicles for many needs and price ranges – including the compact Falcon and the larger Fairlane. At the pinnacle, though, stood the luxurious Country Squire, almost in a class by itself.
In marketing their station wagons, carmakers in the 1960s faced the same problem experienced by manufacturers of other consumer goods – namely that so many products were being pushed on the swelling ranks of middle class families that it was hard to stand out in the crowd.
All kinds of products were sold with the promise that they would make families’ lives simpler or more enjoyable. Throughout the 1960s, families bought consumer goods like never before, enjoying everything from frost-free refrigerators to new products for the home (wonderful electric heat!).
Station wagon ads, as one would expect, often appeared similar regardless of the manufacturer. Such ads characteristically featured playful children, calm-looking parents, and focused on the featured wagon’s utility and attributes. Though retro-cool now, these wagon ads came across as uninteresting and repetitive at the time. In an effort to stand out a bit from a crowded field, Ford employed in 1966 an age-old tactic with which to get people’s attention: Humor.
A handful of witty wagon ads came out of Ford’s advertising agency, such as one depicting the Country Squire’s 8-ft. long cargo area as a bowling alley, and another featuring a husband vs. wife packing list for all 100 cu. ft. of storage capacity. While considered modest humor by today’s standards, these ads likely stood out from a crowded advertising field fifty years ago.
Rounding out a trio of humorous ads was the Benchley/Bulgaria ad. Like most Ford advertisements of the day, this one ran in national magazines for about two months, in the summer of 1966. The ad’s picture prominently featured the requisite playful children, shown here using the Country Squire’s dual facing rear seats.
Following the Benchley quote, shown on the right-hand side, smaller text promoted some of the Country Squire’s features, said to “elevate travel with children to at least second-class!”
Robert Benchley still had legions of fans in the 1960s, spanning multiple generations. Books compiling his short essays were printed decades after his passing, and for many people, sprinkling Benchley quotes in speech or writing brought the same satisfaction as sprinkling Winston Churchill quotes. Quite possibly, an employee at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency (which produced the ad) was a Benchley fan, and thought of connecting the Kiddie-Kar Travel quotation with a full-size station wagon, the kiddie travel embodiment of its day.
Incidentally, Benchley’s name appeared in at least one other posthumous advertisement – this 1952 Ballantine Ale ad in which Ernest Hemingway credits the late humorist for introducing him to Ballantine, which at the time was one of America’s best-selling beers. The advertising agency that created the Ballantine ad was also J. Walter Thompson.
Regardless of the strategies employed to sell it, Country Squire owners did travel well, and could at least use part of the wagon’s cavernous interior to provide some separation between them and their other passengers. The Country Squire was one of suburbia’s favorite wagons in the 1960s, and regardless of the extent to which our featured ad helped the Country Squire, sales continued to be strong throughout the decade.
As for Bulgaria, there is no indication that the nation, or its small American diaspora objected to the ad in 1966. But the nation’s small size and its location beyond the Iron Curtain made it unlikely that any such objection would be noticed.
However, if Bulgaria held any ill-will toward Ford, it has long been forgotten, and in 1992 the country issued a Curbside Classic stamp set, featuring, among other cars, a Форд Ескорт (Ford Escort). All is forgiven, apparently.
As for the ad itself, hopefully it (and its backstory) brought our readership some enjoyment today. If not, Robert Benchley would probably grumble about people like us who overanalyze simple things. For as Benchley once said, “Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people.” And for anyone who thinks that traveling with children is tiresome, traveling with humorless people is much, much worse.