A car advert is, like anything else, a product of its time. Looking back at those of the past tells us so much – not only about the cars they were trying to sell, but how they were trying to sell them. It’s fascinating to see how much things have changed over the past five decades, both in the style of the ads and in what aspects of the cars they focus on.
Remember the Vauxhall Chevette? Although it is virtually extinct now, 415,000 were sold in the UK between 1975 and 1984. Its launch was accompanied by this iconic ad, emphasising the car’s practicality and versatility with a catchy jingle: 'The Vauxhall Chevette is whatever you want it to beeeeeee!'
Apparently, Vauxhall was keen to appeal to both nuns and geese farmers at the same time. But the 70s could do classy, too – at least on the other side of the Atlantic.
Ricardo Montalban’s 1975 ad for the Chrysler Cordoba is as suave as anything Matthew McConaughey might make for Lincoln these days.
If one movie defined the 80s, it was probably Top Gun (1986). Aviator sunglasses, pop-rock soundtrack, a very particular type of macho cool. But before Top Gun, director Tony Scott made what is essentially a two-minute version of the film: this ad for the Saab 900 turbo.
Not long after it came an ad from Peugeot featuring the song ‘Take My Breath Away’ from the film, as a 405 drives through explosions alongside a field of fire.
Other ads show a different side to the 80s. Not to be outdone by the Vauxhall Chevette, the Renault 5 had a jingle of its own (‘You feel much more alive in a 5’). The tune, colours, jumpsuits and general weirdness leave you in no doubt about which decade the ad was made in.
There’s been a lot of nostalgia for the 90s recently. But judging by some of its most popular car ads, the 90s had a fair bit of nostalgia of their own. Renault harked back to Audrey Hepburn’s 1966 film How to Steal a Million with its ‘Nicole! Papa!’ adverts for the Renault Clio. Over eight years, Nicole and Papa captured the nation’s hearts, and the ads became some of the most popular of all time.
The 1998 finale spoofed The Graduate (1967), complete with hints of Simon & Garfunkel in the soundtrack.
And then there was this Ford ad, which took footage of Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968) and placed him in a 1997 Puma. The way to sell cars in the 90s, it turns out, was to remind people of a classic movie.
In the noughties, it seems, car manufacturers wanted to be thought of as creative. And, in advertising, it’s always better to show than to tell. That’s exactly what the best car ads of the decade did – especially Honda’s wonderful 2003 ad ‘Cog’ and Skoda’s 2007 ad ‘Cake’.
Each won several advertising awards, and both remain among the most creative and well-made ads ever.
And let’s not forget one of the decade’s most beautiful ads: a 2007 one for the VW Golf, in which a man drives through Los Angeles at night, accompanied by the score from Solaris (2002) and Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood. What was that ad selling? The pleasure of a night-time drive.
That brings us up to the most recent ads. Nowadays, manufacturers are particularly keen to show off two things: their green credentials and their advanced technology. Toyota’s 2013 ad – set in a futuristic world of holograms and Star Trek sound effects – cleverly juxtaposed sci-fi tech with old, dirty cars. 'No world will be truly advanced until automotive technology changes,' it says, before revealing the new Auris hybrid and declaring that 'There is a better way'.
This 2015 ad for the electric Nissan LEAF calls on environmentalists to live their principles, by contrasting ‘talkers’ (who, well, talk) with ‘doers’ (who, presumably, drive electric cars).
Meanwhile, this ad billed the 2011 Ford Focus as ‘more than a car’ and highlighted its ‘host of technologically advanced features’, such as autonomous parking and emergency braking systems.
A 2016 Vauxhall Corsa ad also chose autonomous parking as the selling point, and demonstrated it by putting a dog at the wheel (‘#ParallelBarking’).
Much has changed since the geese flew out of that Chevette back in 1975. Ads have got slicker, budgets have increased and priorities have changed. I wonder what the car ads of the 2020s will look like…