In the fictional world of Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency from the AMC television show “Mad Men,” the nation is completely at the mercy of the creative and manipulating minds at work on New York’s Madison Avenue. They told us what to eat, drink, wear and drive. To them, it was all about pushing products that would improve our public image and make us more desirable.
Being the sheep that we are, we bought into every word, jingle and claim. Correct or false, it didn’t matter; we just wanted to feel good about the consumerist lifestyle we had chosen for ourselves.
The line between reality and fantasy explored on the hit show was remarkably blurred. One fact that was absolutely true was that no agency was considered a real player unless they had a particular set of clients and/or products. These were the big four: airline, tobacco, breakfast cereal and (especially) automaker. For Sterling Cooper, their automaker was Jaguar. That was soon replaced with a piece of Chevrolet branding, a new, unnamed personal car. In one episode the clever creative team called the project Camaro.
In the real world, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler have always employed major adverting agencies to brand its product lines. Long before the world wide web, this was done on an equal basis between broadcast, billboards and print. On television and radio, anyone could own 30, 60 or even 120 seconds of exclusive airtime. In print, the battle for the attention of the reader was an entirely different story. Plus, the next page could be (and likely was) a major competitor’s message. It was the print world where the biggest image wars were waged.
Every automaker used print ads as a staple part of its image and marketing plan. They all played to the masses featuring sedan, wagons, trucks and low-priced coupes. All touted innovations, safety and value. It wasn’t until the mid-’50s when the enthusiast market was approached. This performance space was where Ford and Chevy traded blows. When Ford created an ad for its new Thunderbird and gave it a heavy insertions schedule, Chevy was forced to market the Corvette in the same fashion.
The ’50s was child’s play in comparison to the youth market wars of the ’60s. This led to the battle for the muscle car market, where Dodge and Plymouth were the dominant brands. It is a major factor as to why models like Challenger, ’Cuda, Road Runner, Charger, Super Bee, GTX and Coronet are entrenched in the hearts and minds of muscle car enthusiasts today.
Here’s a look back at the influential print messages of the ’50s, ’60s and very early ’70s.