We have been seeing ads for cars for over 100 years now. Shiny Cadillacs, sleek Jaguars, and pink Mustangs. In the beginning, it was all black and white. So how has it changed? Auto advertising throughout the years has evolved tremendously thanks to imaginative, and sometimes not so effective, creative techniques. How did marketers sell cars in the past century? What were the things that made us buy our cars? Let’s delve into the history of car advertising.

The very first auto ad

history of car advertising
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Just like the first advertisement for any invention that has ever happened, the first automobile ads were very product-focused. They simply sold the benefits of owning a car instead of a horse.

The very first auto ad appeared in 1898 in an Ohio newspaper. Not any newspaper but the Scientific American itself. The very same Scientific American would eventually detail the work of Einstein.

The title of the pilot auto ad was quite on spot in terms of marketing, too. It included the call to action “Dispense with a horse” and the copy of the ad talked about the benefits of the Winton Motor Carriage. Not as costly to maintain, no odor, and the speed of up to 20 mph. No horse would ever be so powerful. Simple.

The first automobile ad is also known for its effectiveness. The advertisement definitely worked because Robert Allison of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, bought a Winton after seeing the ad in Scientific American.

Later in the year, Winton Motor Carriage sold another 21 vehicles. One of those vehicles was sold to James Ward Packard. The one who later founded his own car company. The first Packard automobiles were produced in 1899, and the last true Packard in 1956, when the company built the Packard Predictor, its last concept car. We wish all ads today had such staggering effects on any industry.

The beginning of auto advertising

Similarly to the first microwaves, the first dishwasher, or the first pair of tights – the first car was a sensation of its own! Automakers didn’t need a unique creative approach for their ads because they had a unique product. Something that doesn’t happen so often today. This is why the first ads were quite straightforward. Black & white paper ads. Of course, with a hint of humor.

This simplicity, however, did not last long. With the beginning of the 20th century and the increasing penetration of automobiles, manufacturers needed to stand out. This is why they turned to advertisement agencies. Car ads became brighter and more colorful. Even in the ’30s, when America was struggling with The Depression, car ads remained the bright spot in the dark papers. At that time cars were still a luxury, so it was logical that they would target those who were not greatly affected by hard financial times.

A trophy for the wealthy

The early 20th century saw the glamour of auto advertising. At that time cars were still fighting for road space with other means of transport, as well as very few people could afford them. The automobiles were heavy machines that usually required at least one mechanic to operate and maintain the car. This is why most ads were targeted at the wealthiest of society.

One of the groups that ads appealed to were the partygoers. Those who would want a car to make a noticeable entrance to the next glamorous event. Or even to their chauffeurs – the ones who would have to deal with tires and lubrication, which is why they needed a reliable vehicle. Auto advertising was very strategically oriented even from its start.

Think Small

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You can see that the car has always been a status symbol for Americans by simply looking at the evolution of its advertising. Big cars, golden colors, beautiful women and animal print – all attributes to the car owner of the early 20th century.

The first ad that disrupted this all-American image was the Think Small ad by Volkswagen. The company advertised its Beetle model – a car that was the exact opposite of the big, heavy American vehicles.

The goal of the ad was to increase the sales of the small car which struggled to penetrate the American market.

The creative approach was the opposite of all car ads from that period. While other ads provided detailed information about the car and its characteristics, the Beetle ad was rather minimalistic. It brought viewers’ attention to the exact thing that was considered problematic – the Beetle’s form – and turned it into an advantage. Simple, yet so smart.

The Think Small campaign was created by the DDB Agency and became one of the most famous ads ever. It earned the title of the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century by Ad Age, in a survey of North American advertisements.

Brightness & Spotlights

Even though this was still the era of muscle cars, European vehicles had started to get more attention as well. Mostly thanks to the creative approach to advertising. The Think Small campaign created a new trend. It brought photography in, and artwork was left behind in the first half of the century. Clever lighting and trick exposures replaced the artist’s pen.

Towards the second half of the 20th century, car advertising was already a professional area for photographers. The first studio photoshoots took place in the 1980s and showed a completely new side of cars. One full of elegance and style. These were the years in which automobile ads reached their peak in numbers. There were cases when one magazine would feature between twenty and twenty-five car ads in one issue.

The 90s car tech

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In the 1990s, most car ads were promoting the technology that you could find in vehicles, describing certain innovations.

One of the most famous ads of this decade was done by Honda. It was then when the brand introduced its VTEC system. This is why they put together a 24 Hours of Le Mans-themed ad in which people could listen to that engine’s wail all day. Quite creative for those times.

It seems like the 90s were the time when marketers realized that each needed to occupy a unique territory with their brand. They started building it from the product – showing the unique in what had already become a commodity.

The 90s saw the introduction of stricter regulations in vehicle safety for the first time. This led many brands to include safety as a big part of their narrative, too.

The Range Rover 4WD, for example, issued an ad with a horrifying image of a stop sign. The ad focused on the vehicle’s anti-lock brake system that “enables you to maintain steering and control in anything from a downpour to a blizzard.” It proclaimed that there was only one car that could save drivers from danger and it was the Range Rover.

Car advertising today

Today, it’s quite hard for an automobile ad to grab people’s attention. It feels like we have seen it all. Or we simply don’t care. Even though we buy cars much more often than in the past, the purchase of an automobile is still a rather big decision. This is why advertising has to be both clever and truthful to have an effect on the buyer. Sometimes a crazier approach might be successful, too. Such is the case with Audi and BMW – one of the most remembered ad wars in the history of auto advertising.

It all started back in 2012 when BMW placed a billboard promoting its 35th MOA Rally (Chess Tournament) in California. The billboard said “A BMW Rally with two nearby service centers. What’s next, paramedics at a chess tournament?” Audi advertisers then decided they could not keep quiet and replied with a billboard nearby with the following caption: “Chess? No Thanks, I’d rather be driving.”

And it was right then when the war broke out. A series of exchanges between the two auto leaders followed. In no time this ad war grabbed the public attention all over the world. Brands like Subaru and Bentley also tried to join the conversation. Nowhere near as successfully. The war ended when BMW brought in a branded blimp featuring its Formula 1 car. We cannot say how many car sales this resulted in, but it surely increased brand visibility and brand image of both brands.

Issues in auto ads over the years

You won’t be surprised to see that the automobile ad world did not lack problems and discrepancies. This is a sensitive category because of safety and the idea of status. Yet, it seems like the most disturbing issues are related to the image of females. Women are at the center of the scandal once again. Of course, sarcastically speaking.

What do women get?

Automobile advertising has traditionally focused on male drivers. There were only a few occasions where car ads targeted women. The first of them was the time during World War II. Most manufacturers had to redirect their production to satisfy the needs of the army. With so many men gone to war, there weren’t many left to show ads to. During the post-World War era, there was an economic increase and more women entered the workforce. This is why they could now afford a car of their own.

Along with the cars came the feelings of freedom, mobility, and endless power. Some of the topics that would soon be used by advertisers to increase female buying. Such ads became the first occasion-based advertisements in the industry. Minivans, for example, became the vehicles for female housewives. The ads showed that they were spacious, safe, and ideal for shopping.

Sex Sells

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This, however, soon became a problem. While some women were glad someone offered cars especially for them, others saw the dark side of car advertising. The advertising that uses the stereotypical image of females.

The automobile industry is one of the main product categories that rely on sex appeal in their ads. This trend began in the 20th century when the competition started growing. This is why you could see ads that showed quite a disturbing image of women.

A number of advertisements repeating trends where:

  • women are objects that male car buyers want to accumulate;
  • women are accessories that make cars appear more attractive to male car shoppers;
  • they are seen as helpless and entirely unaware of how the entire car-buying experience works;
  • and women serve the primary role of minivan-driving mothers.


This approach to advertising is an easy route to follow because it’s close to human nature. Yet, it doesn’t always work. Especially today, when we talk more openly about discrimination, it becomes really hard for such ads to remain unnoticed and uncriticized.

Top auto advertisers in the USA

The USA is a global leader in the advertising industry. Over the years, automobile manufacturers have scored highly on the list of highest-spending advertisers in the U.S. Even though they are not the only players in the automobile industry, their ad spending is quite spectacular.

In the past years, automobile advertising has shifted from TV formats to digital formats. Digital platforms today are the most rapidly growing channel for auto ads. According to Statista, the automobile industry has the third-largest digital advertising revenue in the country within major industries. The digital ad revenue in the U.S. automotive sector is expected to grow to about 5.3 billion U.S. dollars by 2021.

Which are the brands willing to spend all that money? It turns out the largest ad spender on the U.S. market among automakers is Volkswagen. In 2015, Volkswagen Group invested over 6.6 million U.S. dollars in advertising in 2015. Surprised? Maybe you shouldn’t be. After all the Volkswagen Group controls a broad portfolio of automobile brands. It includes VW itself, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Lamborghini, Bentley, and Porsche. These are some of the most popular car brands in the world. And each one requires its own resources to maintain its brand image.

The ad spenders which occupy the next positions in the ranking are General Motors and Daimler. Each of the groups spent about 5 million dollars on advertising in 2015. Right behind them, we can see Ford – with 4.3 million – and Toyota Motor Corporation – with 4.1 million U.S. dollars in advertising activities in 2015.

If we sum these numbers up, we will see that the top five automakers spent about 25 million U.S. dollars on ads. In a single calendar year. Looking back to 1898 and the Winton Motor Carriage ad, it feels like the industry has gone quite a long way. A little over a century, hundreds of different auto brands and billions of dollars to make people buy them. If only we knew what one black-and-white paper ad would lead to…


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