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A lot has changed in the world of advertising in the last 20 years alone, but in an age of disruption, the automotive sector faces arguably the most disruptive future of any in marketing. So how much has car advertising changed over the years and what’s been the driving force?


Starting at the very beginning, early car advertising’s main purpose was to reassure a fearful and resistant public of the merits of their blasphemously horseless products. Therefore, focus had to be around safety (with a touch of speed). Early car advertisements tended to focus on the vehicle’s capability to be non-deadly to its driver, with features like its ability to drive long distances without incident.



Where will it take me?

But as cars became more common, ads thus became more impressionistic, focusing less on functional features, and more on illustrating idealised scenes. Suddenly, cars were the means to a more diverse and cosmopolitan lifestyle, with a shift in advertising to focus on the comfort and luxury of in-car experience.


Throughout the 50’s car advertising was getting bigger and more over the top, but it was Volkswagen that changed all that with its iconic 1959 advert for the Beetle with the tagline “Think Small.”

Before this, automotive ads were built on the premise of a luxury lifestyle. The VW ads in sharp contrast were very real and honest. It’s hard to think of a more seismic shift in tone and approach for a new kind of consumer. This new era in marketing schemes attempted to associate the product being advertised with an idea or way of living.

This was quite a change from previous campaigns where marketers attempted to “motivate” consumers into purchasing their product boasting that said product was a type of status symbol. Companies were no longer just trying to sell consumers a car, now they were trying to sell a lifestyle.





By the beginning of the 1970s, TV viewing had established itself as a core experience for families, with TV having overtaken print and radio as the preferred medium for advertising agencies.

During this time, marketers leaned towards a trend of looking for accountability and efficiency in their campaigns, with scientific data, techniques and celebrity endorsements used to convince audiences to trust in the companies’ brand.

One of the more notable celebrity-endorsed advertising campaigns came from Vauxhall, which enlisted Formula One champion James Hunt.


Celebrity endorsements don’t pack the same punch they used to. Nowadays, their ads are being replaced by influencer marketing from bloggers or Youtube personalities who have gained authority in a specific industry. The demand for authenticity has paved the way for people without any prior level of fame to become hugely valuable influencers for all kinds of products.



Emotional connection

Car adverts in the noughties almost left the car behind. They became 60- and 90-second mini masterpieces, bursting with wit and creativity and all about that emotional connection.

No longer just a pure sales pitch designed to push a product directly, car adverts on TV during the 2000s became events within themselves, with manufacturers all clamouring to outdo each other with the coolest and most watchable ad.

Honda’s ‘Cog’ ad is what great advertising should be: a simple and firmly branded thought and one that happens to be broadly honest too.

Connected tech

The not-so-distant future of advertising will become less about individual models and more about the in-car technology, AI systems and an autonomous driving functions.  At the beginning of 2016, Volvo unveiled the self-driving Concept 26, designed to allow drivers to choose how they spend their time in their car – either driving, or creating, or relaxing. In fact, Volvo was so focused on the interior of Concept 26 that it didn’t bother creating an exterior at all. Ads of the not so distant future are likely to focus on creating a seamless life through a connected car.

It’s likely that communications will focus on the networked interior experience of the car, giving it many of the characteristics of the home: a safe, personal space in which to spend time, rather than simply a chariot in which to cover distance.