A Brief History of Automotive Marketing

by Jon Mowat

The methods for marketing cars have changed dramatically over the past 120 years. It all began with very simple black and white adverts, produced soon after motor vehicles were invented. These days, we’re bombarded from all angles with slick videos, flashy print ads and more online content than we could ever possibly consume.

The simple adverts in the early days were a sign of the times, emphasizing that cars were the ultimate luxury. The first ever car advert in 1898 featured the headline “Dispense with a horse” and simply sold the benefits of the Winton Motor Carriage.

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In 1912, Henry Ford said: “Ford advertising never attempts to be clever.” However, as the ’20s arrived and the adverts became brighter with beautiful Art Deco illustrations, even Ford couldn’t keep it simple. Ad agencies were brought in to drive the creativity of the adverts forward. Even in the ’30s when America was struggling with The Depression, streamlined car ads cut through the darkness of the era.

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It was after WWII that car adverts looked to the future with illustrations that became more ridiculous and futuristic. Cars were still a luxury, but there was more competition, and car makers’ efforts in the war were used to promote new consumer offerings.


Step back into the history of typographic advertising with these vintage font ads.


Car ads were getting bigger and more over the top through the ’50s — much like American cars of the time — but it was Volkswagen that changed all that with its iconic 1959 advert for the Beetle with the tagline “Think Small.” This is where the motoring world and the marketing that went along with it split.

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American advertising had an ostentatious, rock-and-roll feel to it, while Europeans were taking a more compact route. America was all about the big V8 engines and imagery that included animal print and bikini-clad women. However, when the oil crisis hit in the seventies and Japan entered the market with efficient little automobiles, those rumbly V8s fell out of favor.

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When super cars hit the market in the ’80s, cars became more than just a luxury. Ad agencies concentrated on style but had to sell the unique points of each car. Television advertising became quite important for manufacturers as a way to show off exactly what a car could do. Long gone were the days of over-the-top illustrations.

Land Rover took the idea a little further and began a new era of over-the-top video marketing with its Defender climbing the side of a dam. All the adverts from the eighties were garish, loud and bright, something that has ebbed away over the years, but it was the nineties where car adverts really came into their own with bigger budgets and more technology leading to cinematic epics such as the Ford Cougar ad that featured Dennis Hopper racing another version of himself.

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Fast forward to more modern adverts — both generally and in the automotive world — and car manufacturers are taking a completely different route. While you can still find the dramatic and ostentatious marketing material out there, there is an emerging trend for advertising to appeal to our emotions. Just look at Volvo’s new ad for its Polestar V60, playing up to the emotions of all dads who want their kids to look up to them — as racing drivers, no less.

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This campaign goes one step further by integrating social media, encouraging people to upload their children’s drawings of cars using the hashtag #MyPolestar. The prize is to win a day’s ‘racing driver experience’, and this highlights another evolution in automotive marketing — allowing your audience to become brand ambassadors.

Automotive video marketing has drastically changed with the way we feel about cars, and print advertising has also followed this trend. In a rather neat conclusion to this nostalgic trip, Volvo has gone full circle by encouraging followers to produce their own prints, backed up with emotive video content and a dedicated social media plan. Manufacturers are certainly working very hard to win our attention these days.

About the author: Jon Mowat runs award-winning video marketing agency, Hurricane Media. Having previously produced documentary films for the BBC, Jon now works with international clients to help tell the story behind their brand. You can follow @HurricaneMedia on Twitter and Connect with them on LinkedIn.


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