Test-Driving The Zeitgeist: Trips Down Automotive Memory Lane Reveal American Psyche, Decade By Decade [VIDEO]

on September 26 2013 8:27 PM
Classic Car Ads
What do classic car ads say about the American psyche and culture? Ford Motor Co.

To understand what Americans were thinking in a given era, automobile ads are uniquely telling. In the booming 1950s, Americans as a whole were comfortable and risk-averse, having just won the deadliest war in human history. Driving should be easy! Why would women need to ... think about it? Suburbs were advancing into the countryside, families were squeaky clean, and the new Ford basically drove itself.

The decade of the '60s brought longer, lower, wider cars, as America grew excited about the future and its stylish, self-indulgent role in it. The Cold War and the space race were in full effect; hence car names like the Imperial, the Galaxie and the Meteor. By the 1970s, the country was feeling a bit chastened, and it showed. The oil embargo and new environmental, safety and crash-damage regulations led to clunkier, more economical and comparatively boring cars, with the occasional disco twist. There was, meanwhile, a new emphasis on individuality. 

Then came the '80s, which were all about buying American, not Japanese. Also: There were Americans of other races than Caucasian (there always had been, of course, but only now did they start to show up in car ads in anything approaching representative numbers). By the 1990s, the emphasis was on image, and particularly the image of America as a place where people could, for example, drive their cars right off the road on purpose. Enter the sport-utility vehicle, an all-American creation, for better or worse.

By the turn of the millennium, the emphasis on appearances had grown to encompass the ads themselves. Production values, great soundtracks and only vague descriptions of the featured cars combined to make automotive ads resemble film trailers, entertaining in and of themselves.

Now, of course, as this story approaches the present, we might have taken brilliant advantage of product-placement opportunity by running a paid car ad here. We didn't, though this 2014 Toyota Corolla ad taps into the same nostalgia that brought us all here. And when you skip ad content online and on TV, remember that such ads say something about where we are, and that one day you may be watching them for fun.