Car Ads Across Time Tout Reliability, Affordability It hasn't been lost on automakers that Americans are looking for cars that are reliable and affordable. In fact, car companies have been marketing their vehicles that way for decades, starting as far back as when Henry Ford's Model T hit the scene.
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Car Ads Across Time Tout Reliability, Affordability

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Car Ads Across Time Tout Reliability, Affordability

Car Ads Across Time Tout Reliability, Affordability

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This week on MORNING EDITION we've been talking about the people's car, which can sound a little communist. But what we mean is the kind of car that opens up the road to millions. This is free enterprise. It's the 100th anniversary of Henry Ford's Model T.

As we've heard this week, India is now promoting the world's cheapest car, a car for the average person today. There have been many cars in between and you can learn almost as much from the ads that sold those cars as you can from the cars themselves. NPR's Jessica Smith concludes our series.

JESSICA SMITH: Henry Ford knew he could build the best car in the world but if nobody knew about it he wouldn't sell many vehicles. The corporate historian at Ford Motors, Bob Kreipke, says that's why Ford and his advisors sought out advertising experts.

Mr. ROBERT KREIPKE (Historian): And they hired a gentleman that had been with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and he was a real expert, naturally, on drawing crowds and gimmicks and that. And he advised how we could stage stunts - cars going up huge staircases and getting the press there to cover these kind of novel events.

SMITH: Radio promotion would come later, but in the early days Ford relied on posters, and a blitz of them, to sell what he called his universal car. The message on the posters was straightforward. Remember, Ford's audience was people who were still moving around by horse and buggy.

Mr. KREIPKE: They'd say here's the new model, show up, let a dealer take you on a test drive. You too can drive a car.

SMITH: But by the 1920s, Ford had sold so many cars he faced a saturated market. Everyone who could afford a car had one.

Randall Rothenberg has written a book about auto marketing and he says at that point the mantel for auto marketing genius passed from Ford to General Motors, under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan. He developed the idea of selling cars based on status.

Mr. RANDALL ROTHENBERG (Writer): On the notion, as Sloan put it, a car for every person and purpose, they focused General Motors on annual model changes, on planned obsolescence, on the notion of getting people to step up to better and better cars.

SMITH: Car ads from then on were about bigger, better status and style. Cars were sold as part of the American suburban dream. But plenty of people still needed a cheap way to get around. Carmakers had to figure out how to sell to these people without using the word cheap.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Remember running boards? Those were the days when a car was a car - simple, so there was less to go wrong.

SMITH: In 1959, strange commercial for a funny looking German car hit the airwaves.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: They just don't make them like they used to.

(Soundbite of whistling)

Unidentified Man: Except the Volkswagen.

SMITH: Rothenberg says the idea of a Volkswagen, or literally people's car, came from Hitler. But a group of Jewish-American copywriters at the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach helped popularize the Beetle in America.

Mr. ROTHENBERG: The genius of Bill Bernbach and the team that was working for him was to recognize that the way to sell cheap basic automobility was through appeals to status but not the high social status of wealth but intellectual status.

SMITH: Basically college-educated people who weren't interested in the idea of cars as status symbols. As VW gained market share, another overseas carmaker was targeting the U.S. Its first TV ad wasn't as creative as VW but it still tried to speak to the average American.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: This is fullback Wolf Garrison - 6-feet-1, 205 pounds...

SMITH: Toyota's first ad for the Corolla in 1971 features the Dallas Cowboys backfield.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Even though it's a low-priced economy car, it's still big enough to put a backfield in motion.

SMITH: Steve Miller is a reporter with Brandweek, an advertising trade publication.

Mr. STEVE MILLER (Brandweek): It's a bit defensive almost, having to prove itself against what was sure to be and what was of course criticism from American automakers and true blue American people who had that buy-American mentality.

Mr. CLIFF FREEMAN: It was extremely smart marketing.

SMITH: That's long-time ad man Cliff Freeman.

Mr. FREEMAN: Couple of print ads - this is for the Toyota, I guess, Corolla - what we call standard equipment some places call about $250. And the line at the bottom is test price a Toyota; see how much car your money can buy.

SMITH: The Corolla would become one of the best selling cars in the U.S., not because of its ads, of course, but on a reputation for reliability. Today, chasing the Japanese in the market for low-priced cars is an up and coming Korean carmaker.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #3: Introducing Kia. We're obsessed with building a well-made car...

SMITH: In this ad, a Kia Sephia chases a Honda Civic, and as the Civic enters a posh, gated community, the Kia is stuck outside.

Unidentified Man #3: Kia, because it's about time everyone had a well-made car.

SMITH: It's a blatant appeal to ordinary middle-class Americans. Kia's latest ads are even more blatant.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #4: And it's priced about $6,000 less than a Toyota Rav-4 Limited. Or to put it another way: a whole year's worth of groceries less.

SMITH: Randall Rothenberg says this approach might not work in times of plenty, but in the middle of a gas crisis and with the economy on the edge of recession, it's perfectly okay to market a cheap car as cheap.

Jessica Smith, NPR News.

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