9 automotive ad campaigns that either sizzled or fizzled

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Brandan Gillogly

The new car business is incredibly competitive. There are a dozen or more companies all vying for customer dollars, doing their best to build a compelling product. Even if a company were to build the perfect vehicle for a buyer, marketing is how the message gets out. To make that connection, advertisers have come up with all sorts of outlandish gimmicks, pitches, and commercials.

As we’ll elucidate in this highly scientific study, sometimes great commercials can lend new life to a model or help establish the identity of a brand. Others, well, can become punchlines.

Joe Isuzu

This marketing campaign centered around a smarmy car salesman character, played by David Leisure, asserting wild claims about the Isuzu vehicles he was pitching. The spots were lighthearted but filled with actual information about the cars; you just wouldn’t get them from Joe Isuzu himself. The character was popular and long-running, two things you can’t exactly say about the Isuzu brand in the United States. Despite producing some burly SUVs and tossable sporty cars, the company left the U.S. market in 2009.

Dr. Olds

1970 oldsmobile cutlass 4-4-2 digital repro depot
Brandan Gillogly

Oldsmobile had a reputation for being a bit more luxurious than Chevy and Pontiac. It was a brand for more mature professionals, but that didn’t stop Olds from cooking up some memorable muscle cars based on the A-body Cutlass. The 4-4-2 was available beginning in 1964 with a 330 V-8, but eventually the engine options grew. It was soon available with the W-31 350 V-8 as well as a mean 455 in the 1968 Hurst models. The performance V-8s were available in other Cutlass models as well.

Dr. Oldsmobile advertisement

Who was behind turning the mild-mannered Cutlass into fire-breathing muscle cars? Dr. Olds of course. The lab-coated mad scientist introduced in 1969 had Dr. Frankenstein (or is it FRAHNK-en-steen?) vibes and was seen in print ads for years, eventually losing a lot of the mad scientist flavor.

Pontiac’s GTO Tiger

This spokesperson didn’t have a lot to say, so it just jumped into the engine bay of the Pontiac GTO and roared down the road. The ads included both print and television commercials as well as a successful “GeeTO Tiger” drag car that highlighted the performance of the Pontiac V-8, especially in Tri-Power form. The campaign was so memorable that you can still visit cars shows today and find plush tiger tails dangling from the decklids of GTOs.

Ron Burgundy

Dodge’s Durango took a brief hiatus and returned as a unibody SUV in 2011, based on a stretched version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee platform. It was more luxurious, more powerful, and more efficient, but sales were only so-so for 2011 and dipped in 2012. When Will Ferrell brought back Ron Burgundy, everyone’s favorite San Diegan news anchor, for 2013’s Anchorman sequel, Dodge nabbed him as its Durango pitchman. The campaign brought new interest to the SUV and sales rose by more than 30 percent, an impressive turnaround. I’m not even mad … that’s amazing!

The Caddy that zigs

An anthropomorphic animated bird tried its best to sell the world on the Cadillac Catera. The new, German-built, RWD sedan was intended to be a shot in the arm compared to the existing FWD cruisers and massive barges Cadillac had been peddling at the time. Unfortunately, the production Catera didn’t have an exciting powerplant to back up the handling Cadillac bragged about, and reliability was a major concern. The fact that these cars started at $30,000, which would be almost $49,000 when adjusted for inflation, didn’t help. That price put it squarely in competition with more established sport sedans from BMW and Mercedes. We’ll call this one a draw, because there was really nothing our feathered chum could do to spice up the Catera, although maybe it did set the stage for the CTS to bring some real excitement to Cadillac showrooms.

Subaru’s Crocodile Dundee

Who else would Subaru hire to tout the off-road prowess of its Outback models than Crocodile Dundee himself, Paul Hogan? We’ve heard time and again that these commercials were so ingrained with the buying public that many believed Subaru to be an Australian company. This ad takes on the Outback’s rivals in a cinematic car chase that showcases its blend of SUV capability and car-like ride.

Helpful Honda People

We’ve got no beef with those who lend a hand to others in need, but there’s something off-putting about Honda’s ad campaign that highlights its charitable efforts. Were you really waffling on buying that new Accord until the company helped a couple in a park grill some chicken?

Chevrolet’s “Real People”

Almost universally reviled by automotive enthusiasts, Chevrolet’s “Real People” advertising campaign has had serious effect. The commercials have been running for years and show no signs of slowing down. In fairness, some are better than others, but the premise of “real people” being still being shocked to learn good things about your product is itself an admission that your ads haven’t been working. The spots have spawned spoofs that are just as annoying as the originals and perhaps even more popular. The parodies and backlash about the commercials may prove the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, although we’d prefer to put this one in our rearview.

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