Advertisements for cars over the past 50 years reveal a lot about what people in the U.S. hold dear. In the 1960s, car sales were all about power and enjoyment — safety features were almost never mentioned. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find car ads (in print, online, or on TV) that don’t feature safety prominently, and even harder-pressed to find an automaker that doesn’t mention safety in its ads at all. Vehicle safety slowly crept into the marketing landscape over the past 50 years, due in part to the efforts of activists who demanded governmental oversight and better, safer products from automakers.
Ralph Nader spurred much of the modern-day auto industry regulation, particularly within the government. Though Nader has criticized the auto industry for the past 50 years, his induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan on July 21 demonstrates his contribution to automobile safety—hard won as it may have been. Nader is widely credited with encouraging the U.S. government’s involvement in regulating the auto industry, helping with the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, established in 1970. The federal agency now oversees vehicle safety testing, regulations and vehicle recalls.
So what exactly was the role of safety in vehicle sales over the past 50 years, and how did we get to today’s advertising landscape? We explored vehicle print ads across the decades to see how safety inched its way into the way cars are sold to consumers in the U.S. today.
1960s: A “Lemon” is a Car with Visual (Not Safety) Defects
In 1965, Ralph Nader wrote, “Unsafe at Any Speed–The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” which criticized both automakers and the government. Nader explained to CNN Money that in 1965, auto execs argued that safety didn’t sell, and not only did they rarely focus on safety in their advertisements, they rarely focused on safety in their manufacturing as well.
This ad from 1960 for a Volkswagen Beetle details how carefully each new car that rolls off the assembly line is inspected. Volkswagen boasts that one in 50 cars is sent to the trash heap for no greater sin than a surface scratch “barely visible to the eye.” Aside from shock absorption, the ad focuses exclusively on cosmetic concerns.
1970s: Car Ads Desperately Seeking Fun
Gas shortages and the enactment of the national 55 mph speed limit in 1974 did cause some auto manufacturers to advertise features like fuel-saving devices, but Car and Driver demonstrates how the focus in ads was mostly on pleasure — how to get the perfect combination of speed and comfort. Ford’s van advertisements from 1975 capitalized on a nation looking for chill (and desperately trying to hold onto the atmosphere of the 1960s). The ad series was incredibly successful.
Even though the national seat belt law took effect in 1968 and antilock brakes became widely used in vehicles during the 1970s, safety features are still conspicuously absent from this ad. Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was founded in 1970, but it took awhile for auto manufacturers to incorporate the agency’s clout into their ads.
1980s: High-End Performance, But Still No Sign of Safety
Car commercials of the 1980s were a special blend of (inexplicable) original jingles, (vaguely xenophobic) American pride, and (nutty) imaginings of the future of the automobile. Print ads from the decade tell the same types of stories. Bloomberg explains that high-end cars from the ‘80s do particularly well at auction because they’re so well-made, but in Bloomberg’s assessment of the best of the decade’s print ads for cars, safety features are nowhere to be found, even though the ‘80s saw some important safety advances, like widespread airbag use.
In this ad from 1983, Toyota’s Tercel 4WD wagon is Santa Clause approved (but there’s no mention of NHTSA approval, or any safety information at all beyond the car’s “toughness”):
More examples of some of the best car ads of the ‘80s can be seen here.
1990s: Safety Becomes Part of the Narrative
Even though national legislation made seat belts mandatory in cars in 1968, it wasn’t until 1995 that people were actually required to wear them. With stricter safety regulations in the ‘90s came an increased focus on safety in vehicle sales.
Before even reading the text, this Range Rover ad from 1990 primes the viewer for a safety message:
The icy stop sign looks menacing, and the text directly below sends the message that only a Range Rover 4WD can save drivers from danger. In fact, the entire ad focuses on the vehicle’s anti-lock brake system that “enables you to maintain steering and control in anything from a downpour to a blizzard.” The luxury offered by Range Rover is a side note used primarily as a way to emphasize safety features.
A whopping 30 years after Nader said the auto industry didn’t believe safety sells, we see safety beginning to sell.
2000s: Safety as an Actual Selling Point
Once safety entered the narrative, marketers used it prominently, like with this Bosch ad for their electronic stability program (ESP):
Even when safety wasn’t the primary focus, many car ads from the 2000s included safety stats elsewhere, like in this 2001 ad for a BMW M3, where the fine print boasts “telepathic handling” and “monstrous brakes,” making the car “simply perfection”:
Today: Safety Beyond the Vehicle Itself
Many print car advertisements we see today go beyond the featured vehicle to provide public service messages about driving safety, like with this clever Hyundai ad:
Of course, the overall message still comes back to the fact that Hyundai’s “no-zones” sensors will eliminate blind-spot worry.
At the end of most car commercials, safety and award stats are highlighted, and many television commercials also take safety concerns beyond the car itself, as with these examples from Ad Age.
Ralph Nader estimates that improvements in vehicle safety have saved 3.5 million lives in the past 50 years due to government regulation, liability lawsuits and the fact that safer cars are now a selling point, reports CNN Money.
When car shopping, be sure to look carefully at what all those performance and safety awards really mean (some sound prestigious but are really just paid advertisements), and see our list of the most common safety features in the highest-safety-rated cars because today, safety is one of the most important aspects of car shopping.