By on April 10, 2020

With no reason to risk going outside and industrial news at an all-time low, I’ve retreated into curiously dry hobbies as a way to maintain my sanity.

A substantial portion of my time has been devoted to parsing through old automotive catalogs and marketing materials. As someone who is notoriously difficult to shop for, dusty paperbacks that can easily be found for a nickel at any estate sale turned out to be ideal gifts… and I amassed a sizable collection. Over the weekend, I found myself going through vintage television spots — noticing they’re quite a bit different from the ads we encounter today.

While automotive marketing has evolved through the ages, there was a long stretch of time where companies basically just filmed a car driving around as a disembodied voice explained its strengths. This was back when advertisements featured voice-overs telling you that “Quality is Job 1” at Ford, or a choir of voices joyfully acknowledging that they absolutely loved what Toyota was doing for them.

Today, I’m celebrating the 30th anniversary of a totally mundane promotion from 1990 called “National Cadillac Week.” While the free AVIS rental and cash back on your purchase weren’t unusual (then or now), I happened to encounter it exactly three decades after it originally aired — as if destined by fate. It was a glaring reminder of how much car ads have changed in that time period.

 

Assuming you haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole of accompanying vintage commercials, you’ll note that National Cadillac Week isn’t all that compelling. But it was direct and reminiscent of all ads from the era. That’s pretty much true across the board. Even Mercedes-Benz spots followed the standard formula everyone else was using. A car crests an out-of-focus hill, then the announcer chimes in to explain why you should buy it instead of something else.

 

Today’s ads have abstracted this basic blueprint, though it’s especially noticeable among luxury brands. The voice-over is still there, sometimes, but typically pipes up near the end of the spot to deliver an inspirational message about what it means to be truly alive. There’s also an impressive lack of information. Whereas the old ads frequently tended to focus on the latest incentive program (some things never change), they also seem more prone to offering actual details about the product in question. It’s almost as if their creators were trying to anticipate consumer needs.

Let’s take a look at the latest from Cadillac and Mercedes for a bit of contrast, starting with the domestic nameplate.

 

While light years better than the previous “Dare Greatly” and “Rise Above” campaigns, the new “Make Your Way” spots still fall into the same trap of placing a relaxed emphasis on product. Much of the smug, weapons-grade cringe has been removed. But the cars we’re supposed to be pining for are zipping around quicker than eyes can follow. There appears to be a race of some kind and Cadillac is running unopposed. Meanwhile, the camera darts around while cuts are made in quick succession. We never linger on any single model for long and learn precious little about them.

Now let’s examine the latest from Mercedes-Benz.

 

While MB has been similarly guilty of pushing vague concepts totally incongruent with owning a vehicle (here’s an primo example), this recent GLC spot isn’t half bad. Some of the vehicular glamour shots last longer than a millisecond, and we even get a taste of the features available. Mercedes has slowly distanced itself from commercials that rely on you decrypting the creative ambitions of the director. Someone within the company realized they could signal that the brand was highbrow without turning every ad into a perfume commercial about nothing. Granted, luxury brands do have to sell an image in addition to their physical products. However, those items don’t have to be at odds with each other.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Subaru’s dog commercials are basically nicely packaged fluff — they’re just wildly effective. The viewer remembers that they’re the dog-friendly brand, even though the car you own has zero influence on the relationship you have with your pet. Meanwhile, Dodge goes on these high-octane jaunts — making it seem like everything in their lineup is the most exciting thing on the planet. However, those paying careful attention will notice its ads also slip in text showcasing specifications and options you might want to buy.

What information can be gleaned about Cadillac from its spots? Other than proof it still sells cars, not much.

With the whole of the automotive industry now releasing videos explaining how we’re all in this together while everything is on pause, it seems like the perfect time for a few marketing teams to change their trajectory. Some have already — and it has been a nice change of pace. Still, the holdouts, especially General Motors, could stand to inject some of that vintage flavor into its advertising.

Having a hook is important and the old commercials covered that with direct slogans and catchy jingles. While musical mind viruses have been left to radio ads at this point in history, clever tag lines are still something the industry pursues for its campaigns. And yet everyone seems to have stopped keeping track after Mazda killed off Zoom-Zoom. In fact, the most recent slogan I can think of happens to be That’s Not a Buick — mainly because of how terrible it was.

Perhaps cabin fever has made me overly nostalgic for the nonexistent good old days, but bringing back the spirit of National Cadillac Week and that era’s advertising could still be a boon to automakers. Despite the internet whittling down our collective attention span, I’d like to think present-day shoppers prefer knowing a thing or two about their prospective purchase and can tolerate the occasional still shot intercut between dynamic action. It doesn’t need to be a complete return to form, because those old ads were imperfect, too. Just mention the powertrain once in a while and give us something (anything) catchy enough to recall an hour after we’ve seen the advertisement.

Then again, what do we care? It’s not like we’re the people who have to sell these things. Might as well just bask in the sentimentality while there’s nothing else going on.

 

[Image: General Motors]

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24 Comments on “Bring Back National Cadillac Week...”


  • avatar
    ajla

    I’m here for the early 90s automotive content.

    • 0 avatar
      ravenuer

      I’ll wait for the mid 50s stuff. After all, that’s when Cadillacs were, well, Cadillacs.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        I believe peak Cadillac was the 1980s. That’s when Cadillacs were the most distinct from other luxury cars. You could see them coming a mile away, and there was no apology for chrome, formal three-box designs, vertical taillights, couch-upholstered interiors, and torquey but asthmatic pushrod V8s.

        Toward the end of that period they also produced some surprisingly decent cars. The last of the C-body FWD cars and the B-body Broughams were really good at what they did. In a world where I had an endless collection a late C-body Sixty Special would be part of it.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          There is a cherry MY89 Coupe de Ville (4.5) base model somewhere near me as I have spotted it twice in my limited trips outside my property the past two weeks. It was burgandy with no carriage roof (lacking it is probably a plus at this point) but it has the newer 91+ wheels, and the most recent spotting I was behind it and noticed it was velour, not leather with some sort of elderly person driving. I thought yes that really needs to come home with me for $750 (bc nobody wants that sh!t anymore) but then I thought, no 28, that’s pretty much your Pontiac with 15mpg city instead of 19 and you’ve had these already. Amazingly, I finally had a moment of automotive clarity. I’m gonna give a high five to Wellbutrin for this one.

          Maybe I can track the owner down and say hey for like $75 can I drive this around for two hours and bring it back? I suspect “no” as that’s probably the elderly owner’s only form of transportation and they are on a fixed income otherwise they’d be in the senior citizen lease/buy du jour… what is it now, the Encore?

          I did see this, but was able to resist temptation.

          https://pittsburgh.craigslist.org/cto/d/coraopolis-2000-acura-rl-leather/7101417204.html

          See if I could just have a dealer plate I’d be all over it but they bend us over so much here on costs even for a grand it doesn’t make sense esp with all the forced work from home. Plus I seem to recall the RL having an iffy auto transmission and its unique to the model as you’re aware but I always kinda wanted one. If it were an LS400 I think I would already be in the garage, but alas… I really need to downsize anyway as I barely drive anything anymore and when I commute its in the Toyota. Heck I even used the hatch to transport 250 pieces of Trex the other day (two trips). Protip: its heavier than real wood.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            The first-gen RL is a cockroach (in the good sense). You can’t destroy it. It fixed the issue that caused Legend head gaskets to go bust. I think you’re thinking of a different car with the transmission; the first-gen RL has the same rough but basically indestructible 4-speed that was behind all of the C-series V6s.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          @dal: Jack Baruth and I would disagree with you regarding the decade of peak Cadillac but otherwise do agree.

          Peak Cadillac would be the postwar to the downsizing era when celebrities, executives, politicians and ‘goodfellas’ would select a Cadillac before any foreign ‘luxury’ vehicle.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            “Peak Cadillac” is easy, any Cadillac with fins from the little bumpy ones to the flying swords of destruction, if it had a fin it was a good Cadillac

        • 0 avatar
          Featherston

          @ dal – I *think* I get what you’re saying: “peak” Cadillac meaning Cadillac behaving independently of contemporary market trends. I don’t think you’re implying “peak” is “best” in any absolute sense.

          I believe those final Broughams actually were the last of the RWD C-bodies (not B-bodies), albeit renamed “D” so as to distinguish the platform from the FWD C’s. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GM_D_platform.

          Speaking of the FWD C’s, I chime in with this whenever they come up and will do so again: I agree that the 4.5- and 4.9-powered ones were good at what they did. If one can set aside the full-fare MSRP and the then-20-years-and-counting slide in prestige that Cadillac was on, the FWD C’s were comfortable, quiet cars that were pleasant to drive. There’s nothing wrong with a luxury or near-luxury car based on a FWD corporate sibling, provided the pricing and execution are right.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            I’m not parsing too carefully. “Peak” here is an emotional response about Cadillac leaning into its identity. If I think “Cadillac,” the image that appears in my mind looks an awful lot like a late box Brougham.

          • 0 avatar
            Featherston

            Ah, OK. If that’s what you’re saying, I’d broaden the time frame from the “We’ve suffocated Packard” years up through the ’80s. But I’m not really disagreeing with you.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    National Cadillac Week has been reduced to a couple of hours next Tuesday. Adjust your calendars accordingly

    – Mary

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    This is an example of a good automotive commercial:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n6hf3adNqk

    (If TTAC deletes the youtube link, search for “Volkswagen-Darth Vader 2011 Super Bowl Commercial.”)

    I’m not saying it’s amazing or the best commercial, I’m saying it’s an example of a good one. Here is why:
    • Take a feature which your vehicle has, which most others don’t or to a degree that they don’t [in this case, remote start was available but not yet widely available]
    • Highlight that feature in an entertaining or memorable way

    The test of whether your commercial is a good one:
    • Substitute another company’s vehicle for your vehicle [in that commercial] – does the commercial still ‘work’? (If so, you failed.)

    Bonus points if you don’t prostitute yourself at the end with a discount offer (the point here is to *build* brand image, right?).

    That was for the ad agencies. For the automaker – if your ad agency can’t find any unique or superlative features or benefits to highlight, you’re building the wrong product.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      I still think the all time best auto ads are the no-nonsense VW/Volvo ads of the 60s/70s

      “Buy Volvos, They’re Boxy But They’re Good”

      https://i.pinimg.com/originals/0e/8a/1f/0e8a1f8594c362e8f01ca5911fe99602.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Great car commercials can be measured by 2 yardsticks:

      1. GI Joe picking up Barbie in a remote controlled Z32 300zx to a Van Halen soundtrack while Ken looks on disappointedly and:

      2. Lee Iacocca pointing at the camera daring America that of they can find a better car, buy it.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I always liked the VW commercials one which was instead of keeping up with the Joneses, it’s now keeping up the the Kemplers. The other VW commercial was when VW first offered an automatic on the Bug with Shakespeare saying the “Option is to shift or not to shift”. Volvo had some very effective commercials showing how long can a Volvo last.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Cadillac is dead.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Yes Cadillac is dead it’s just that GM doesn’t know it. Might take another Government bailout to force GM to end Cadillac.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Great car commercials can be measured by 2 yardsticks:

    1. GI Joe picking up Barbie in a remote controlled Z32 300zx to a Van Halen soundtrack while Ken looks on disappointedly and:

    2. Lee Iacocca pointing at the camera daring America that of they can find a better car, buy it.

  • avatar
    randyinrocklin

    I guess I’ll add to my fellow bloggers on the left coast at this hour, but I just love looking at the stuff that the “Count” does to his favorite car the Caddie. He does some fabulous restorations on a lot of Caddies. I also love how he did his GTO.

  • avatar
    cprescott

    It is a wonder how Cadillac tried so hard to commit suicide. The downsized 1970’s and early 1980’s cars were fine vehicles until they put in engines that were horrific. I never understood why good engines were not installed in Cadillacs. The start of the decline of Cadillac was the half-baked v-8-6-4 engine and then the infamous Northstar engine that would either grenade itself by 100k miles or turn your driveway into an oil slick from all the leaks. And then when that was resolved in a later era, then came the non-luxury of hard plastics from the Arts and Scientology era that turned Cadillac into Cadihack where each vehicle came predented from the factory and you could nearly hose out the interior because of all the cheap vinyl and hard plastics that looked even cheaper than a similar era Kia.

    I’m not sure what Cadihack is now, but it cannot hold a candle to my late employer’s lipstick red and white vinyl roof and white leather Sedan Deville from 1978 that still showed Cadillac knew what luxury was. I was a teenager and got to drive it a couple times to go get lunch for the retired Commander in the Navy who had 16 rental houses I helped to maintain.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      The factors you cite were part of it, but Cadillac’s decline began in the mid-’60s when they started chasing volume. Sales went up; quality, resale values, and prestige went down.

      That’s not to say the decline was some sort of quick, absolute phenomenon. E.g., even in the late ’80s, Cadillacs had a nicer column-mounted shift lever than did Chevrolets. I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment either. Execute details like that often enough and for the right price, and you’ve got yourself a good luxury brand.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Cadillac was the sine qua non of domestic vehicular luxury for the first 25 years after WWII. Although Lincoln and Imperial made some very good cars they did not enter the public conscious in the same way as Cadillac. Then a number of factors let to its lose of status.

    1) GM started putting sales volume ahead of prestige. As we have seen with M-B, chasing volume results in a lessening of quality and status.
    2) With the advent of the Brougham Era, Lincoln unveiled the Mark III and the ‘broughamed’ Town Car. They quickly became the symbol of luxury cars for that era. The French Connection, Cannon, Starsky and Hutch, MacMillan and Wife, even DeNiro’s character in the Irishman. The rich or the ‘bad guy’ drove a Lincoln.
    3) As J. Baruth has written, GM allowed their other divisions to compete with Cadillac. My Old Man was able to get our mother one of the newly downsized Chev Caprices that had the same luxury features as his Eldorado.
    4) Then came downsizing. What defined luxury changed. We now saw trend setters such as the Ewing women in Dallas driving German vehicles, in Texas.
    5) The last ‘great’ domestic luxury vehicle of the 20th century was probably the LSC. Cadillac tried with the STS but the shortcomings of the N* engine curtailed that. Even the very good CTS-V vehicles put out by Cadillac failed to capture the public’s imagination in the same way as their vehicles of the 50’s and 60’s.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      +1, Arthur – #3 was a big one for a lot of customers. The downsized Caprices really gave away very little in comfort and convenience to the contemporary de Villes when equipped with a/c, power windows & locks, and cruise control.

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