The greatest car ads connect us to our cars through emotive storytelling and simple truths.
Over the years, there have been many memorable car adverts. Some have made us laugh, whilst others have tugged at our hearts strings. Whether we’re going on a journey with beloved characters, or simply taking a trip down memory lane, car ads are designed to stir our emotions and make us feel connected to our cars. They have to have this kind of impact, because the simple truth of TV and online commercials, especially when it comes to the greatest car ads, is that they only ever get to work once. The moment you walk through the door of the dealership, or click onto that website, their job is done. At that point, it’s up to the retailer to build your trust and loyalty in the brand.
Heart and humour are definitely elements that work well in this field, and you’ll see plenty examples in the list below. Putting icons in iconic vehicles also packs punch, and you’ll see a few of those too. So, without further ado, here are our greatest car ads.
Chrysler – Born of Fire
After a government bailout in 2009 and being heavily associated with the collapse of Detroit, Chrysler found themselves with a toxic brand. The Chrysler 200, smaller, more economical, better engineered, yet luxurious, represented the change that needed to come. But rather than shy away from the fallout, Chrysler chose to stand up and make their advert a gritty tribute to Detroit spirit. The result was an incredibly successful ad that is a classic example of ‘overcoming the monster’ story archetype, and one now also considered a benchmark in brand storytelling.
BMW (The Hire) – Star
Okay, so not strictly a commercial, but the short film series ‘The Hire’ by BMW saw them embrace online advertising in a way no other car manufacturer had done before. Perhaps frustrating for a manufacturer that boasted ‘the ultimate driving machine’ strapline, heavy restrictions on how a car can be seen to be driven on television never allowed them to show the true handling and performance of their best cars. Directed by Guy Ritchie (others in the series included John Woo, Ang Lee, and Tony Scott), moving online with a movie helped them cross the divide. Watch for the brilliant stunt-work, where the ‘driver’ takes his hands off the wheel and allows the opposite-lock to correct itself in a drift. Brilliant.
Honda – The Cog
The full 120 second version of this ad only ever aired ten times, but it remains one of the most memorable ever made. Shot in a single take, with 85 individual parts from the Honda Accord, the complicated chain reaction relied on clever engineering rather than special effects. It spoke volumes about Honda’s technical expertise.
Renault – Papa and Nicole
This is a great example of the ‘series’ adverts that were popular in the early 90s. Here, in Renault’s answer to the Nescafe couple, we are introduced to a father and daughter, both with secrets hidden from the other. Surveys by Channel 4 and ITV revealed the series to be the most popular car adverts ever aired in Britain. Over the course of several years, we went on dates with Nicole, joined them skiing, met the mother, saw her leave home (sob), and even went to the wedding, where she brilliantly left Vic Reeves at the altar for Bob Mortimer. And 23 million viewers tuned in to watch!
Ford – Bullitt
Ford arguably cashed their greatest chip when they used the legendary Bullitt car chase as the backdrop for their Ford Puma advert, which put Steve McQueen behind the wheel of the pint-sized performance car. After racing through the streets of San Francisco, he returns to a garage where his faithful Triumph (The Great Escape) and the original Mustang 390 Fastback from Bullitt are waiting for him. He dismisses them both, patting the puma affectionately as he leaves. A great example of the influence of an icon, and iconic vehicles, in boosting an ad’s appeal.
Jaguar – Good to be Bad (vs Mercedes)
We’ve been a bit sneaky here, squeezing two great car ads into one slot. Jaguar’s ‘Good to be Bad’ campaign, playing on Hollywood’s tendency to typecast a Jaguar-driving British villain is wonderful, but so was Mercedes ‘Magic Body Control’ ad. However, Jaguar’s response was classic one-upmanship, and a brilliant example of their cat-like reflexes. This is not the first time Jaguar have unleashed a witty swipe of the paw, having suggested “next time James, try stirred not shaken”, when they put their then-new XK up against Bond’s marque of choice and the aging DB7.
Smart – For Four
Simplicity of an idea, especially when combined with a clever punchline can have a lasting effect. This ad from SMART plays on their reputation as a manufacturer of quirky, two-seater vehicles. It quickly gets to the point, shows off the feature they wanted to put a spotlight on, and makes us laugh. Excellent execution.
VW – Original, updated
VW have become known for their TV advertising, and they will feature twice on this list as a result. Here, something regarded as an absolute classic, the 1952 musical ‘Singing in the Rain’ is given a 21st century makeover, with a break-dancing Gene Kelly voiced by Mint Royale. As the spot finishes, we see the Don Lockwood character stopped in his tracks by a VW Golf GTI. “The new Golf GTI, the original, updated” states the voiceover. Enough said!
Audi – The Comeback
It has a dinosaur in it, and not just any dinosaur, but the mighty, iconic, Tyrannosaurus Rex. That makes it cool just by itself, but combined with those infamous tiny arms and then linking it to autonomous driving, we had to include it. Feeling a little prehistoric in the modern world, and being alienated by technology and progress is something many people can relate to. And a prime example of great adverts that don’t make it to this side of the pond, unfortunately.
VW – The Force
Again, the addition of something hugely iconic and popular can help elevate an advert to legendary status. VW originally planned to launch ‘The Force’ as a prized Super Bowl slot, but instead changed advertising history by releasing it early. Unsurprisingly, it went viral, as it again focused on something most of us can relate to – pretending to have force powers! This was a favourite among many as we compiled the list, but did we miss yours? Let us know, and it may well be the focus of a future post.