CC Ad Week: Don’t Adjust Your Set … The Best Commercials In The World Are On !

We kicked off the week by taking a look at the lesser lights of car advertising. Our wholly subjective survey revealed that what annoys us probably annoys you. But there is some damn fine work to admire in advertising. With only 30 (or 60) seconds to sell a consumer purchase costing many thousands of dollars, admen are careful to unleash their best talent on the ads of an important client. And mindful that bad advertising can render a billion dollar investment worthless, car companies are picky about who they will allow to shill for their machinery. Today, we’re going to hand out kudos to the ones that did it best.

To a large degree, the best single commercials are part of a larger ad campaign. When a car makers ad agency finds a theme that works, they’ll ride that horse until it dies. Sometimes the theme is built around a simple message that lends itself to repetition (VW Beetle ads of the 60’s are the best example of this) while some campaigns come and go in a season. The only hard and fast rule is that if it moves the metal, you’ll see it again and again.

Flickering Kinescope images of the earliest days of TV advertising teach us that production quality has taken quantum leaps since the medium reached critical mass in the early 1950’s. To look at the crude camera, lighting and editing techniques in use in that era gives us an appreciation of just how far we’ve come since TV itself was a cultural novelty. Computer enhancement and electronic editing now make a thirty second spot a flawless production that even the best admen of the fifties and sixties couldn’t dream about.

Please note that there is a lot of “survivors bias” in the following list. The good ads stand tall in people’s memories while the awful spots are quickly forgotten. (Except here at CC). And while the worst ads were mostly American affairs, some of the best spots going will never air in the states. I hope that the ones sprinkled in here give you an entertaining look at some great talent in what to us is “foreign” television.

VW “Snowplow Driver” -1963

Considered a masterpiece almost from the moment that it first aired, this sixty second black and white ad sold a lot of VW Beetles.The beauty of this message is its simplicity- No subtle mind games here, just a straightforward recitation of the advantages of a rear engine that provides excellent traction. The ad actually ran for a couple of years due to the unchanging nature of the Bug. This particular ad is still studied in marketing classes for its effectiveness.

Nissan “Toys” -1997

A clever spot that actually won several awards. The Nissan 300zx got a lot of favorable free publicity when this ad was released. Then and now, the main criticism was the Nissan guy that looked damn creepy and turned up as the tag in every corporate spot. No matter. Ad Age and Time magazines gave this spot their “ad of the year award”. It was a couple of years later that Nissan and Renault joined themselves at the hip and went in a different direction, ad wise.

Chevy Venture/Corvair Greenbrier-2002

The Venture itself was no great shakes as a van, but this spot created a lot of buzz when it hit the airwaves. Chevy paid homage to its paleolithic era of family vans while reassuring current buyers that  traveling with a the kids could be fun and comfortable. This spot was probably the only lasting legacy of the late Venture, which expired in 2005. The “morphing” technique was all the rage in these years (as computer special effects were becoming much more sophisticated) and is put to good use in this message.

Ford Ka –2004

The Ka’s Evil Twin spot is the kind of guilty pleasure that you could never get away with in America circa 2011. These spots ran (briefly) in the UK a few years back and caused no small amount of controversy. Whether you think that its unspeakably cruel or just good clean murderous fun, that isn’t the point. The ads raised the profile of the Ka at a time when Ford needed to fend off a whole slew of new competitors from Korea and Japan.

Isuzu I-Mark “Joe Isuzu” ad -1987

Even brilliant advertising couldn’t raise Isuzu from the third tier of Japanese imports in the 80’s and 90’s. But the whole “Joe Isuzu” suite of ads makes for some good clean retro fun. This campaign had legs and ran for over four years in its first incarnation (and was revived briefly a decade later). The whole point of the series was to poke fun at the absurd claims that are often seen in other company’s ads. Journeyman character actor David Leisure gave the commercials their bite with his smarmy, unctuous (and hilarious) delivery. The campaign’s success actually hastened its demise, as the Joe Isuzu label began to be stolen and misused in political campaigns starting in 1988. When politicians steal your ideas, the shark has been jumped.

VW “Auto Show 1949” -1972-73

Nostalgia with a dose of low key product pitch. Of all of the commercials of my younger days, this one made the biggest impression on me. It won a slew of awards for originality and still looks surprisingly fresh today. Note that the spot features two familiar, well known personalities: McLean Stevenson (M*A*S*H) and Wink Martindale (every game show, ever) .

Lexus -1992  (“Steel plate Drum”)

A devastatingly effective visual/aural demonstration of something that is hard to explain. This spot helped bolster the already rising reputation of what was a Mercedes- beating top of the line car. Veteran character actor James Sloyan does the voice over (as he did from the founding until 2009) and the spot makes its point without being boring.  Lexus actually got a lot of mileage out of this spot. It ran off and on for two years.

Chevrolet- 1948 (“Work Or Play, It’s Chevrolet”)

True coast to coast network TV was non existent in 1948. The technology of microwave retransmission only allowed the big two networks to promise blanket coverage on the coasts. In the midwest and the south, one station would frequently cherry pick the best programs from two networks and try to piece together a schedule. (ABC and DuMont were both minor networks before 1953) . TV spots were delivered to local stations on film. (Ampex had yet to invent videotape). This commercial was a pioneer because it featured the users of the product and a long form jingle instead of a business suited pitchman performing the hard sell, live, in a hot studio.

Plymouth – 1969 (Just Look What Plymouth’s Up To Now!”)

A breakthrough use of animation and live action. To be sure, cartoon characters had been used to pitch cars before. (Disney characters had shilled for Hudson and Peanuts characters for Falcons years before), but the use of color and the whimsical underdog imagery associated with the Roadrunner character made this campaign a smash. Plymouth managed to capture the baby boom twentysomethings that had not too many years before watched every Roadrunner/Coyote episode and could easily imagine themselves pulling away from Chevys and Fords in their Hi-Po Roadrunner. The ad lost its meaning and purpose when the cars themselves became bloated, cartoonish parodies of their former selves just a couple of years later and the campaign died a natural death.

No list would be complete without shouts from the gallery. What did we miss?  I welcome your comments below.