Video courtesy of Volkswagen of America via YouTube
I did not watch television just to watch it.
In my childhood, there was great television to watch. Imagine there was a six-year old with a deep imagination and a brain that could absorb random trivial crap. Imagine said six-year old in front of the family's old color television (mind you, this was 1970). That child’s world expanded by images of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," Flip Wilson's sketch variety show and Carol Burnett's long-running comedy fest – perhaps one of my favorite shows of my early childhood.
In-between the blistering bigotry of Carroll O’Connor's Archie Bunker and Sherman Hemsley's uppity George Jefferson, the real magic of American television took on another life onto my world – the commercial. Thirty or sixty seconds of my time was long enough to absorb the message conveyed by everything from fast food to automobiles.
Obviously, it was the car commercials that piqued my interest.
Every October, I would wait for the new model year's adverts to come on television. They were a sign of a change in marketing strategy and the subtle changes to grille textures or a complete overhaul of the product. These were concepts I began to comprehend before I could understand Algebra or cared about science.
To flip through 42 years of television spots, I hoped to have a wide-ranging Five Favorites amongst the many commercials touting automobiles. It was tough, but having a memory of paper towel, it took an extra effort to come up with that number of adverts to fulfill the series.
Oddly enough, newer commercials became complete productions – especially around the biggest television event of the year. When the National Football League's penultimate game comes on, the Super Bowl, all bets are placed on the table. Multi-million dollar productions are staged for a fee of another few million dollars – just to create a buzz for an upcoming new product. This has been the case of a couple of the Five Faves listed below. Others, well, are a part of television history.
Sit back and take a commercial break for these five…er, seven adverts…
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VOLKSWAGEN – "1949 AUTO SHOW" (1966): When the ad agency for Volkswagen wanted to show their staying power in the USA market, they "re-recorded" the stands of vehicle brands that have gone by the wayside. The other stands, depicting brands such as Hudson and Studebaker, were full of glitz, glamour and showmanship. One had dancing and singing women producing that their 1949 model was "car for you." At the end of the black-and-white montage, a lonely Beetle stood on the VW stand and a guy talking about what it was all about – with no one coming near the stand or the car. This was one of a long string of clever and smart VW adverts that made their products humble and friendly compared to other vehicles it sells against. Self-humility attracted customers to VW dealers and forged a legend for the first 30 years of Volkswagen of America's existence. Though humor was an underlying element in this spot, VW emphasized "staying power." Though first created in 1966, it has been re-aired into the 1970s with new voiceovers. Even the commercial has staying power.
Video courtesy of videoholiccollection via YouTube
CHRYSLER – "RICARDO MONTALBAN" (1975): To introduce the new mid-sized luxury coupe, the Cordoba, Chrysler's ad agency needed a hook. They needed a suave, Latino man who exuded luxury, romance and machismo at the same time. They hired the veteran actor Montalban to become its spokesman. The Mexican-born Montalban already had a series of credits as a bit actor, guest parts and a series of typecasted roles. In a dashing suit, Montalban proclaimed the Cordoba's best feature – it’s "fine" or "rich" Corinthian leather. Montalban continued to be associated with the Chrysler brand well into the 1980s – especially when presented with the opportunity to introduce a luxury model.
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CHRYSLER – "LEE IACOCCA" (1978): Maybe it was serendipity that Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca parted ways in Dearborn. It was indeed a watershed moment when Chrysler brought Lido to Highland Park to forge a path to recovery and solvency. It was unclear as whether Iacocca was asked to appear in the corporate commercials or not, but it appeared to have worked. Not just for being a household name with a heavy burden to save an automaker, but for one phrase: "If you find a better car, buy it!" He stuck with his salesmanship even as Chrysler's fortunes turned around. Lido’s tone changed – including a mantra I often use sometimes: "You either lead, follow, or get out of the way!" By putting his face and image out there, Iacocca ensured our country that Chrysler was worth fighting for when the chips were way down.
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ISUZU – "JOE ISUZU" (1986): No one heard of David Leisure until he started selling Isuzus. The character actor was looking for a gig and landed being the embellishing spokesman for the small volume brand from Japan. Leisure would tell you that you can get one of their pickups with only your pocket change – that is, you had $6,200 worth of quarters. He even claimed that the Impulse Turbo was faster than "you know what." The humor Jerry Della Femina's ad firm employed on raising the profile of the purveyors of good diesels and Giugiaro-designed sport coupes continued through the 1990s. Even while he worked as Joe Isuzu, Leisure went on to bigger and better things.
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LEXUS – "WINE GLASSES" (1989): To demonstrate how well engineered the LS 400 was as the first luxury flagship for Toyota's new premium brand, they decided to stack some wine glasses on top of the car's hood. The point was to ensure the viewer that Toyota went further to ensure the balance of noise, vibration and harshness had been quelled to create the perfect luxury sedan. The test was a live on – recorded on camera without any trickery. Simply, the LS was driven on a "rolling road" and set at 145MPH to achieve the result in mind. Scientific? Yes. It certainly wowed us. At the same time, it helped put Lexus on the map in the luxury car game. They did not stop at the LS…they have not stopped since.
VOLKSWAGEN – "LITTLE DARTH VADER" (2011): To juxtapose Eddie Izzard's "Darth Vader" who could “kill you with a single thought," VW went for a different tack on the helmeted one. A 6-year-old with a fantastic imagination decided to put on the Vader helmet and suit to use the force on anything and everything around his house. Then, his father comes home – in his new 2012 Passat. His son runs up to the new car, while dad joins his wife in the kitchen. While Vader tries to put the Force onto the new Passat, his dad pushes one of the buttons from the remote locking system. Of course, Little Vader was startled. It was a clever spot that brought back memories of the humor and humility Volkswagen had a few decades before. The perception that VW can still be the "people's car" was brought back through the eyes and imagination of a child – a much needed boost for a company in the midst of a comeback in the USA.
Video courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC via YouTube
CHRYSLER – "BORN OF FIRE" (2011): In my lifetime, I can only state that this is best television spot ever. It was shot in Detroit – a city that had been derided until recently. It was part bleak, part joy, part work and part play. It showed Detroit as a city looking to return to its mantle. Then, the riff from Eminem's "Lose Yourself" comes on under the gruff voiceover. The soundtrack included a church choir emanating from the stage of the Fox Theatre on Woodward. Within moments, a familiar superstar would emerge slumped in the front seat of a new Chrysler 200 – Marshall Mathers himself. The 200 pulls up to the Fox and Eminem walks up on stage. In front of the choice, he proclaims: "This is the Motor City and this is what we do." An automobile commercial is not supposed to evoke such emotions from its images, tone and overall message. This one does.