The world of automotive advertising has never met a piece of hyperbole it didn’t like, or encountered a boundary it wasn’t willing to leap over, arms waving in the wind while screaming at the top of its lungs. While modern tastes might dictate a bit more restraint (or at the very least, higher production values) than advertisements of old, there was a period of time when car companies seemingly gave free reign to ad execs to get their brand in front of as many eyes as possible, no matter how absurd the final results might be.
The 1980s and 1990s, in particular, were the golden age of over-the-top commercials for cars and trucks, and thanks to the magic of YouTube, we’re able to bring your our picks for the most ridiculous auto ads of all time.
Nissan Datsun 280ZX Black Gold Introduces Us to Moustache Rides
In 1980 Datsun – on the verge of its transition to Nissan in North America – released the 10th anniversary edition of its flagship sports car, the 280ZX. Dubbed “Black Gold”, the commercial for the car also inadvertently stunted the sexual development of an entire generation of young men who, when confronted by the majesty of its star’s moustache, were forced to reconsider everything they thought they knew about masculinity. You would, too, in the presence of a feather-duster so powerful it could generate its own supernova-laser as it approached a woman’s lips. Black Goooooooold!
Grace Jones Enters Grace Jones for Citroën Inception
Grace Jones was one of the most polarizing and original artistic figures of the 80s, so it only makes sense that she would associate her brand with a car like the Citroën CX – itself a paragon of walking its own path. What’s harder to understand is how anyone in the French automaker’s boardroom signed off on an advertisement that had Jones driving the CX at full-speed out of, and then back into a giant robotic representation of her own mouth, which burps and lowers itself back under the desert sands from which it came. Oh, and she’s singing for most of the commercial, too, because of course she is. One of the best middle fingers ever given to the advertising world in the history of television.
Everything’s Upside-Down for Toyota Trucks
There’s always that one person in the room who takes a joke too far in a bid to squeeze as many laughs as possible out of a crowd – and it turns out that Toyota hired them to do not just one, but two commercials in the 80s for its pickups. Do you get it? The trucks are upside-down! Because Toyota is turning the world– okay, you get it.
But are you sure because here it is again!
Peugeot Sells Hot Hatches with James Bond Fantasy
The Peugeot 205 GTI was one of the best performance hatchbacks ever sold in Europe, and if you don’t believe us, just check out this commercial where it survives falling out of the sky after being fired on by a jet fighter, gets chased by a giant cargo plane over a frozen lake, evades a hailstorm of parachute missiles, and then drives down an Olympic ski-jump to escape an attack helicopter. Things get even sillier with the tuxedoed spy/driver speaking French in the first half of the ad, then switching to ultra-seductive English to utter the words “You know what the peak hour traffic’s like” to the random mountain lodge woman who is no doubt about to be underwhelmed by his Peugeot. We’re willing to bet her earrings alone cost more than the 205.
(Note: Peugeot was so enamored with the concept of convincing you the 205 GTI was the secret agent’s car of choice that it made an even longer version of the ad, only this time, it takes place in a desert.)
Toyota Tercel Races Moon Mask Rider
What better way to sell a relatively boring car than to convince people that it’s fast enough to beat a superhero on a motorcycle? And why not make that same advertisement culturally opaque to anyone outside of Japan than by using a character as obscure as Moon Mask Rider, aka Gekkou Kamen? Did the Tercel even know it was in a race? Will Moon Mask Rider be forced to retire to a lifetime of anime re-runs on Italian television, the only other source for Gekkou Kamen we could find online? We have so many questions.
Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z Hints at Cocaine Cloning Crisis
Try to imagine the pitch meeting for this commercial:
“Oay, so there’s this blonde dude flying his helicopter, you know, just real casual, and he sees this Camaro with tinted windows and he’s curious, right, so he follows it to this abandoned town in the middle of the mountain desert mountain-desert where all car commercials are shot, and just after he gets out of the chopper and takes off his sunglasses, the Camaro rolls down its window AND IT’S HIM! IT’S HIM IN THE CAMARO AND IT WAS HIM THE ENTIRE TIME! And then he nods and his clone just drives off and bam, everyone buys a Camaro.”
Oldsmobile Digs Up the Children, Grandchildren, and Great-Great-Great-Grandchildren of Sort-of-Famous People to Sell You Cars
These are perhaps our favourite ads in the bunch, because they’re so completely bizarre as to defy all explanation. In the early 90s, Oldsmobile was well on its way to the dust heap of history, with only a few remaining flairs of originality left in its largely badge-engineered future. These commercials? Sure, they’re “original”, but would you buy a minivan full of baby Vulcans from Leonard Nimoy’s kid?
Or how about an SUV from Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter?
What about a full-size quasi-luxury car from the great-great-great-grandson of Noah Webster – you know, the dictionary guy?
Or maybe a Cutlass Supreme from Johnny Rutherford III and Johnny Rutherford IV?
If you answered “no” to all of the above, then you stand with the millions of people in the 90s who also didn’t buy Oldsmobiles.
Pontiac Doesn’t Know Its Role, Just Wants to Party
Pontiac’s brand trajectory was on a slower burn that Oldsmobile’s throughout the 80s and 90s, but it didn’t help that it was being force-fed captive import subcompacts that in no way tied into what the automaker had traditionally been all about. That didn’t stop its advertising team from desperately trying to make econo-box cars like the Pontiac LeMans somehow seem exciting and sporty, largely through fast cuts, short shorts, and the generous application of sax and electric guitar.
How many times can you “feel the thunder” in the LeMans? When you signed the final paperwork at the dealership – an act that was no doubt shrouded in the kind of sadness typically reserved for the funeral of a loved one – did the sales manager stand up on his desk and scream at you to GET ON YOUR PONTIAC AND RIDE!?!?!
It’s perhaps no surprise that there’s an extended mix of the GET ON YOUR PONTIAC AND RIDE song that highlights the entire tragedy of the automaker’s line-up. Sunbird. Fiero. Grand Am GT. A neutered third-gen Firebird. There’s not enough fog and darkness in the world to conceal the disappointment.
Chevrolet Just Makes Stuff Up About the C4 Corvette
We totally understand how hyped Chevy was about the redesigned C4 Corvette when it debuted in 1984, but having a man in long, silver gloves drive it through smokey Asgard avoiding neon stalagmites while a chorus of singers repeatedly reminds us we’ve “never seen anything like this before” was a little over the top. We’re told it’s the “most advanced production car on the planet”, so much so that its Crossfire fuel-injection system was completely replaced the following year by a design that didn’t catch fire quite as often. Oh, and it has a “computer activated manual transmission”. No, it doesn’t. Also, there’s Ricardo Montalbán playing violin and an alien furry on the drums. Corvette Taking Charge!
Ladas Are Tough So Flip Them Over or Something?
The Samara is the Lada no one bought, the hatchback that simply never caught on with a buying public that expected their vehicle to start on a regular basis. Still, Lada was convinced that if people knew just how tough their cars were, they’d regain some of that public trust – so they hired this dude to roll the car over and prove a point that entirely escapes us. We can only assume there are other ads out there where he pours kerosene in the fuel tank or maybe uses the body panels to build some type of shed.
Watch Out, the Dodge Shadow is Totally Evil
In a scene reminiscent of Stephen King’s Christine, a junkyard dog witnesses an old jalopy use black magic to morph itself into that paragon of Chrysler mediocrity, the Dodge Shadow. Although this nod to the benefits of automotive recycling was probably ahead of its time, the commercial’s warning that the car was about to “cast a giant shadow over America” is probably as accurate an assessment of the Dodge’s net effect on owner happiness as has ever been uttered.
Seven Minutes of Australian Corolla Weirdness
There’s something about the Australian market in the 80s that seemed to lend itself to long-form commercials like this one for the Toyota Corolla. Join its unnamed protagonist on a journey that includes a drag racing with “100 kilowatts of power”, avoiding hay bales, driving on two wheels, and a bizarre, sexually charged encounter with another Toyota driver amidst a herd of bellowing sheep. All of this is set to a vaguely contemporary soundtrack of rock hits. We have to think that the only people forced to sit through this late-80s schlock were dealer trainees, but maybe Aussies just have more patience than the rest of us.