Fueling America's auto appetite

MILWAUKEE — MILWAUKEE - The shaping of consumer demand for cars, and especially the idea of introducing newly designed models every year, is not only a classic American story but also one of advertising's historical triumphs.

That story is told in an exhibition at the new William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design here. By displaying and interpreting dozens of car advertisements, it shows how Americans were led to associate new cars with power, success and status.


"This didn't just happen by itself," said Charles Sable, the museum's curator. "It was the result of some brilliant ideas by people whose job was to sell cars. And the most brilliant idea of all was this concept of the model year. It created the expectation that something radically new was going to come out in the fall, something you had to have if you wanted to keep up with the Joneses."

"We're talking about the creation of a whole culture, the car culture," Sable said. "The people who designed these cars and car advertisements managed to link their product to the idea of a better future, which is essentially the idea of America."


The exhibition is among the first organized by the Eisner Museum, which opened in October. Other museums are devoted to design, most prominently the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan, and there is at least one, the American Advertising Museum in Portland, Ore., that focuses on the history of advertising. But the Eisner is the first dedicated to both design and advertising and to the connection between them.

"We are a museum about material culture," Sable said. "We're not like an art museum because we don't just display objects. We're a didactic museum. We tell stories."

Among those stories is the successful advertising effort that led Americans to fall in love not just with cars, but with new cars.

Henry Ford, whose company made the first mass-produced car in the United States, did not alter the way his product looked from one year to the next. His Model T, introduced in 1908, remained essentially unchanged for nearly 20 years. But Ford lost its market dominance to competitors that used new marketing and design concepts like chrome, color selection and, most important, annual model changes. These had little or no effect on the way the cars ran, but buyers were led to believe that they did.

The concept of the model year reached its peak in the 1950s. General Motors alone had more than 1,200 designers working to create completely new exteriors for their cars each year.

Among the ads in the exhibition that most powerfully convey the association of status with new cars is one for the 1959 Cadillac, which had the biggest tail fins of any car ever made. The ad shows the car in front of a luxurious hotel with the caption "Universal Symbol of Achievement."

"This ad says it all," Sable said. "When you buy this car, you've arrived, literally and figuratively."

American car companies failed when they tried to sell cars that were cheap and efficient but that did not change from year to year. The exhibition includes ads for the Crosley, a mass-production compact car from the late 1940s promising features like an efficient engine that would allow a driver to travel 4,000 miles on $27 worth of gasoline.


But "nobody wanted an ugly box that was safe and fuel-efficient," Sable said. "They wanted chrome and fins and luxury. The Crosley was 10 or 15 years ahead of its time."

The exhibition ends with the triumphant campaign that made the Volkswagen a fixture on American roads. These advertisements spoke to a new generation that sought to reject consumerism, and made the revolutionary claim that the Volkswagen was a good buy precisely because it did not change from year to year.

The current rage for sport-utility vehicles and minivans is another case of advertising tapping into people's fantasies, Sable said, and thus a throwback to the pre-1960 era.