Automotive Marketing Through the Decades

Advertisements, automotive ads specifically, often reflect the culture of the time and paint a picture of society’s wants, needs, and concerns. As society changes, automotive advertisers and manufacturers aspire to reflect those changes in their ads. Through looking at the past 60 years, we are able to see how automotive advertising keeps up with the never-ending change of consumer wants and influences.

The 1950s: “The American Dream” and Open Roads

During the 1950s, postwar peace and prosperity in America pushed the idea of “The American Dream.” Highways were built, allowing people to travel further distances outside of major cities and encouraging the rise of the suburban lifestyle. Many people fled busy cities in favor of more land, larger houses, and a slower pace of life.  This shift in lifestyle led automotive companies to rethink the functionality of their cars.  Not only did car need to look stylish, but they also had to be functional.  This shift not only affect the car itself, but also how the automotive companies chose to market the car.

 In 1954, Pontiac released a catalog that showed this shift towards functionality.  The catalogue advertised different models of the same car, showing that one could still be stylish at all budgets.  Pontiac’s highest selling car of the time was the Star Chief Convertible. Advertisements expressed that the model was perfect for living an active, sun-filled, fun-filled life. Perfect for all weather and the open road, Pontiac grasped onto the concept of freedom and “The American Dream” with the Star Chief Convertible’s automatic roof that opened and closed at the touch of a button.

The 1960s: Driving Towards Change


The 1960s represented a time of change with events such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the space race, the rise of the “counterculture,” and so much more.  Society was stepping away from the structure of the 1950s, leading advertisers to do the same. 

Automobile manufacturers moved away from the large, expensive family cars and started producing smaller, more cost efficient vehicles.  This opened up a new market for advertisers, as a wider range of people were not able to afford cars, namely African Americans.  Advertisers started putting advertisements in black publications like Ebony and Jet, appealing to an audience once ignored.

The 1970s: Fun and Fuel Efficiency

The 1970s brought another shift in the automotive industry as the line between the counterculture and the non-counterculture began to blur.  Advertisers dropped the strictly black and white advertisements of the 1960s and moved towards a more playful style.  As the 1970s are often known associated with psychedelic colors and sepia tones, advertisement began to show full color graphics with clever innuendos.

Along with the shift in the style of advertising, automotive manufacturers also shifted their vehicles; automotive manufacturers started focusing on the importance of fuel efficiency.  Despite the changes, the message stayed the same.  Automobiles had become a staple in the lives of everyone.

The 1980s: Looking to the Future

The 1980s was a time affluence for Americans. Automotive manufacturers turned their focus to the future as the release of the first IBM personal computer and the success of the movie Back to the Future showed societies’ growing interest in the things ahead. 

New features in vehicles including fuel injection, airbags, turbocharge, and digital dashboards took the industry by storm and advertisements went full force in showing them to the world. An example of this was an ad for Bentley’s Mulsanne Turbo where they emphasized its ability to go from 0-60mph in seven seconds.

One of the most iconic cars advertised in the 1980s was the DMC DeLorean, which was able to transcend being just a car.  Aside from its appearance in Back to the Future, the DMC DeLorean’s futuristic look also gave it to the representation of the future. The 1980s was ahead of the time and ads of the time were responsible for that.

The 1990s: The Continuation of Consumerism

The 1990s brought a new challenge to the world of automotive advertising.  As cars became a common commodity, advertisers had to find new ways to keep consumers interested in buying their products.  This led to brands creating unique images that would soon become synonymous with each manufacturer.

Another theme of 1990s automotive ads was safety.  Many new safety regulations were introduced during this decades, meaning advertisers included safety as a selling point for many automobiles.

Present Day: The Advertising Challenge

With the 20th century behind us, car companies today often use the popular styles of yesterday to guide their designs.   Advertising tries to appeal to all demographics and all income levels, often resulting in diverse advertising that is targeted at attracting everyone.

An example of this was Toyota creating multiple advertisements using different groups of people who represented different groups (age, ethnicities, gender, etc.) to promote the Camry. As society continues to grow the advertisements placed will continue to change as well to connect to people’s individual wants.

Co-written by Kyrie Blackman and Tayler Young

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