Cool Car Ads of the 1990s
…and a few that left us scratching our
Compared to the 1980s, the '90s was not a great decade for car ads—lots of uninspiring photos and navel-gazing copy. But there were some very good car ads gracing the pages of our beloved car magazines, and we've collected a bunch of them here, along with a couple of duds, because this was the '90s, after all.
1990 Chrysler Performance Lineup: I'm Joe Isuzu
This four-page spread was rad on a number of levels. For one thing, it broke the unspoken (and oft-broken) advertising rule that one should never acknowledge the competition, and it did so by citing Joe Isuzu, one of the best-known and best-liked ad campaigns in autodom (see Cool Car Ads of the 1980s). It addressed one of the key (and not entirely untrue) criticisms of Chrysler, which is that its lineup consisted of nothing but gussied-up K-Cars, although calling the Diablo a Chrysler product might have been a wee bit of a stretch. And it was one of the last ads to feature Lee Iacocca, the company's loud-and-proud savior who some said was past his own best-if-used-by date. Perhaps it's fitting that they photographed Mr. Iacocca in the setting sun.
1991 Honda Civic: Vanity Plates
Throughout the 1980s, Honda ads were always slick and often entertaining, but this one took on a bit of a cynical edge—a deliberate skewering of pop culture. Vanity plates were nothing new, but they did seem to be rising in popularity in the 1990s, and this ad hits that trend head-on. This ad probably didn't sit well with car magazine readers who had custom plates… but then again, those folks probably weren't going to buy Civics anyway.
1992 GMC Jimmy SLT: Nothing Against Station Wagons
Ouch, babe. At the time this ad was written, minivans and station wagons were still the family cars of choice, and the SUV craze was just beginning its long acceleration run. As with the "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile" ads of the 1980s, this one drew a bullseye on the American psyche by putting into words what everyone was thinking, and while it'd be silly to credit one advertisement with the decimation of the wagon market, we must acknowledge this ad as a nail in the coffin. Actually, it's kind of amazing that General Motors brass allowed this ad to run, as several other divisions were still trying to sell station wagons in 1992.
1992 Subaru SVX: Both Sides of the Brain
When Subaru brought out its SVX sports car, no one knew quite what to make of it—nor did they know what to make of this ad. More so than today, "retired in Miami" brought up images of blue-haired shuffleboard players wearing track suits and driving jumbo-sized Buicks with carriage roofs, whitewall tires and gold-dipped trim. Why Subaru would want to bring about even the merest whiff of a hint of a glimmer of association with such people for potential buyers of their strange new sporty coupe is as hard to understand as the SVX's half-opening windows. No wonder they couldn't sell the damn thing.
1993 Cadillac Northstar: No Coolant
Say what you will about Cadillac, but this ad promoting the fact that the Northstar V-8 could run without coolant got jaws a-flappin'. Many car enthusiasts of the early '90s, especially fans of domestics, still harbored a lack of trust regarding new-fangled doohickeys like fuel injectors and distributor-less ignitions. This ad helped cement the Northstar V-8 as a technical powerhouse, and it stole a march on Japanese brands, which merely made luxury cars that didn't break. The messaging worked: The Seville Touring Sedan and Eldorado Touring Coupe were the first Cadillacs in ages to be taken seriously by enthusiasts younger than 80, and they ushered in a vein of driver-centric Caddys that culminated in the awesome CTS-V.
1994 Chevrolet Impala SS: Lord Vader, Your Car is Ready
Arguably the best car ad of the 1990s, the Lord Vader ad took the Caprice, then the laughing stock of the automotive world, and turned it into a superhero—or, perhaps even better, a supervillain. We doubt many people bothered to read the rest of the ad copy, because the picture and the headline told you all you needed to know. Bear in mind that much of the target audience still remembered (and probably drove) the Impala SS from the 1960s, and to twist that legendary car into something new and different was a very risky move. General Motors made a lot of mistakes in the '80s and '90s, but this wasn't one of them—with the 1994 Impala SS and its ad campaign, Chevy nailed it and stuck the landing.
1995 Mercury Mystique: Eat No One's Dust
When your job as an ad writer is to highlight a cabin filter on the old man's version of a European family sedan, you know that somewhere along the line you must have really pissed off your boss. Ads about components are rarely very exciting, but this may be the exception: A well-executed ad with a witty headline that actually got some attention for a car no one cared about and a part no one thought about. Time bears the proof: The Mercury Mystique has faded into oblivion, but cabin filters are more popular than ever.
1995 Nissan Quest: Overprotective Parents
Parenting was changing in the 1990s: The economy was strong, stay-at-home parenting was on the rise again, and the world seemed to be a more dangerous place for children than it was in the 1960s and '70s. Pundits poked fun at overprotective parents, but Nissan embraced the nature of the mother-and-cub relationship with this brilliant ad for the Quest minivan. Selling safety is never an easy thing to do (read Lee Iaccoca's biography and he'll tell you how he learned that lesson at Ford in the 1950s), but the Quest did it brilliantly.
1996 Chevrolet Cavalier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery
This ad for the Cavalier was a direct rip-off of Honda's famous two-page spreads: Same lighting, same photo of the car in profile, same font, same informal tone in the copy. Even the Chevy bow-tie is blue, just like the contemporary Honda logo. If there was some reference to the Civic in the copy, we might think they were being ironic, but no—this appears to be nothing but an attempt to rip off and capitalize on Honda's success. What a shame that GM of the 1990s was copying Honda's ads and not its cars. No matter how slick the ads were, the Cavalier sedan was a low-budget loser and everyone knew it—everyone except General Motors, that is.
1996 Dodge Stratus & Intrepid: AutoStick!
Nowadays we take it for granted that automatic transmissions can be shifted manually, but back in the 1990s this was a new and revolutionary concept, and one that had to be explained, which this ad did rather brilliantly. AutoStick became The Thing To Have, and other automakers rushed to get their own "manumatics" into production.
1996 Franklin Mint Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud: Before the Bottom Dropped Out
There was a time when the only halfway-decent diecast metal model cars came from outfits like the Franklin Mint, which charged outrageous sums—$135 (in five easy payments!)—for cars like this Rolls, and that didn't include the $4.95 shipping and handling charge, which is probably what the model really cost to make. Sadly for Franklin Mint, this business model was about to take a nosedive: Toy makers were just getting into the diecast fray with a vengeance, and soon models of this caliber would be available in Costco for twenty bucks or less.
1997 BMW: Engine as Luxury
It was an old and rarely broken tradition that car ads showed pictures of cars, and German car ads usually augmented such photos with busy paragraphs describing the virtues that everyone already knew about. This ad was a break from tradition, and oh, what a beautiful break it was. For the record, BMW wasn't the first to do this; Oldsmobile ran ads showing the valve cover of their Quad 4, an engine notable for a) having a four-valve, two-cam head and b) not being a steaming dog turd, but the BMW engine was way, way sexier.
1998 Dodge Durango: Bin Fun
The 1990s was the Decade of the Witty Ad Headline, and this Durango delivers. It's a cute ad that gets the message across quickly and cleanly, and actually represents quite an accomplishment: Remember that Dodge had to sell this butch-looking SUV with its Ram-derived front end to suburban families, and this ad appealed to Mom without emasculating Dad. Well done.
1998 Nissan Altima: Altima on VHS
Back in the days of Netscape Navigator 4.0, when the whole idea of real-time video over the Internet seemed like a distant dream, one way Nissan would sell you an Altima was to send you this thing called a "video tape", which would be sent to you using a system called a "postal service" after you ordered it with a "telephone". While Nissan was still mucking about with tape, it famously missed the chance to register Nissan.com, leading to an eight-year battle that it ultimately lost. We have one of these Altima tapes, and we'll watch it again as soon as we can figure out how to insert it into our Blu-ray player.
1998 Mitsubishi Montero: Getting Coffee
Waaaaait a minute—did Mitsubishi just insult its adventurous would-be buyers by implying they would never use their mighty terrain-conquering Montero for anything more adventurous than buying overpriced hipster coffee? I think they just did.
1999 Daewoo Leganza CDX: WTF?
Ah, Daewoo. The only thing that made less sense than this ad was the car it was advertising.
1999 Honda Accord: Confidence
The motivational poster, in its one-giant-word form, was invented in 1985 by a company called Successories, and by the late 1990s they were spreading like wildfire, polluting office walls from coast to coast. Honda, always sensitive to the zeitgeist and willing to skewer it, came up with this zinger to promote the 1999 Accord. Most people today credit the Internet for killing off these awful wall hangings, but Honda took an early stab, and for that we are forever grateful.
1999 Land Rover Discovery Series II: Feel It