The Best Car Ads of All Time
Over the years, there have been countless incredible advertising campaigns in the automotive category. From iconic taglines to unforgettable visuals, the best car ads of all time have a way of sticking with us long after they first aired.
We’ve collected what we consider to be the absolute cream of the crop. We’ve also taken the time to explore what exactly made them so successful and why they continue to be remembered and celebrated to this day. Essentially, when it comes to creative automotive campaigns, We’ve identified nine categories of brief that you will be asked to solve. We’ve divided these ads into how they solve each of these problems that a client is asking your agency to overcome.
Table of Contents
Automotive brief one: Full of Technology
Cars are essentially computers on wheels these days. Technology – comfort, safety and efficiency – is a big selling point. It also has a halo effect on the company as a whole. No wonder this brief is so attractive to clients.
Skoda Fabia: Cake
What a wonderful interpretation of the brief. With the perfect line to go with it too “Full of lovely stuff”. By showcasing an unexpected and seemingly impossible feat – creating a car entirely out of cake. The ad’s focus on the skilled craftsmanship of the bakers also helps to emphasize the level of care and attention that goes into every Skoda Fabia. Unsurprisingly, it won numerous awards. I wish I did it.
Citroen: Robot Dance
How to make technological advance fun and compelling? Look no further than this Citroen campaign. Just imagine how this idea could have exploded into other media in today’s marketing environment.
Automotive Brief Two: Made with Passion and Precision
One of the greatest ads of all time. Not just in automotive.
‘Cog’ showcases the precision and quality that Honda is known for, reinforcing the idea that the brand is committed to excellence in every detail. Not only that, but they did it for real. There is actually a seamless edit half-way through the ad, but they made both halves for real. They’d trigger the start, have it mess up somewhere along the way, reset every single piece precisely – until they got it perfectly right.
The Rube Goldberg took quite literally months to film. A breathtaking mix of commercial courage and creative chutzpah. The result is one of the very best automotive ads that will certainly ever be made. It will still be great in a hundred years.
Dodge Dart: How to Change Cars Forever
One of the best ‘attitude’ ads ever made. The direction is perfection. Exactly the right music, voice-over, and the best use of Tom Brady ever seen. Many automotive campaigns have set the same brief as this one. “The relentless pursuit of perfection”. None have done anything close to as good as this.
Volvo: The Writer
This is a classic print ad written by the great David Abbott. Yes, it’s a bit dated now. And yes, by today’s standards it isn’t anything special. But the purpose of putting this ad in this list is to demonstrate that it can be a powerful technique to create some danger in the advertising. The ad I’ll show after this is for Volvo trucks. It is essentially the same idea, but executed in a manner that was more feasible given the improvement in production techniques. Of course the second one is better. It goes to show that using old ideas is fine – as long as you add a new twist to it.
Volvo: The Hook
This piece of film began the journey to what would eventually result in ‘Epic Split’ with Jean Claude Van Damme. You can see the thread from the above ad to this piece of work. Totally stunning.
Automotive Brief Three: Impeccable Design
This is the best marriage of live action and amimation I’ve seen in the automotive category. It’s great. One of the best of all time.
Peugeot: Sculptor (Elephant)
This is one of those ads where you have no idea where it is going until it is done. The final drive by sequence is genius. This is next level advertising. One of the best car ads you’ll ever see.
Toyota Corolla: Shut Up and Drive
Such a simple little ad. It actually dates from the era when David Droga was the ECD at Saatchi & Saatchi London. He had an instantaneous effect on the agency when he arrived. This is just one example of the work done under his charge. It’s another ad that’s been forgotten by the ad industry over time, but it’s still great.
Automotive Brief Four: Tell the Brand Story
Chrysler: Imported From Detroit (Eminem)
This was aired during the 2011 Super Bowl. It was a full two-minutes long. Which in Superbowl advertising is an eternity. Beneath this ad, I’ve posted an interview with the creative director on the campaign, Joe Staples, that brings the creative process to life beautifully.
It’s not just one of the greatest car ads. It’s one of the greatest manifesto ads of all time. This ad gave Chrysler a reason for being. The comeback story that had gone through dark days and was about to emerge triumphant. Throughout the commercial, there are scenes of Detroit’s landmarks, including the Joe Louis Fist, the Michigan Central Station, and the Russell Industrial Center, among others.
At it’s heart, it’s actually a very well-worn advertising formula. An inspiring message with a well-known celebrity with a montage of compelling images. But it was done so well. And there was such a compelling reason to use this technique. No wonder it become one of the best automotive ads of all time.
A stunning two-minute stop-motion animation directed by PES that tells the story of the evolution of Honda’s engineering and design. There are several ads on this list telling the story of Honda’s history and showing their product range. Honda had a moment in time where that was important to them. Luckily, they had an agency of the calibre of Wieden + Kennedy to bring the premise to life.
They’re all great. Each are as great as the other. This paper ad is one of the greatest automotive ads of all time – along with many other Honda campaigns. Honda appears on this list more than any other car brand. That’s no accident. Wieden & Kennedy did wonders with their brand communications.
See above description for Honda “Paper”. Same message, but just as great.
Honda: Impossible Dream
See above description for Honda “Paper”. Same message, but just as great.
Honda: Everything We Do
This is a little different than the previous Honda films, as they use the premise to focus on a single product – the Honda Civic.
The film is obviously more focused on the car, but throughout we see the other products that Honda produce. It’s all brought together with the line ‘Everything we do, goes into everything we do”.
And it’s an amazing editing and motion design project as well.
Mercedes: Falling in Love Again
Firstly, apologies for the quality of the film. This has proven to be difficult to source a high-resolution copy. But take a look and you’ll definitely see the quality of this campaign. Having ordinary people mouth the lyrics of a song is a well-worn advertising trope.
But the way Mercedes put it all in a historical context with recreated snippets from the Mercedes story is stunning.
Automotive Brief Five: Fits Perfectly into Your Life
These are ads that show the car in-situ. As part of the audience’s life. Some of the best automotive advertising ever made fits in this category.
Ram Trucks: God Made a Farmer
The Ram Trucks ad “God Made a Farmer” is two-minutes of absolute perfection. It’s flawless. It’s said that in farming community bars all over America, a hush descends over the crowd. The voiceover is a speech given by the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey at the 1978 Future Farmers of America convention.
The ad highlights the hard work and dedication of American farmers, showcasing their daily routines and the challenges they face in providing food for the nation. The voiceover speaks about the virtues of a farmer, including his determination, resilience, and love for the land.
Volkswagen: The Force
This is an unusual car ad. But it does to show just how far charm goes when it comes to creating some of the best advertising in the world.
When you break this ad into its component parts, the message seems to say that the Volkswagen Golf has a remote key fob. Nothing remarkable about that. But what is incredibly clever is that it’s not about the fob. It’s about how the car becomes part of the family. It’s about giving your children special moments to remember.
And, unlike every other ad that has tried to capture that sentiment, it isn’t cheesy. It’s relatable, honest, compelling and charming. That’s why, despite not delivering anything break-through in the way it communicates with the audience, it’s on our list of the greatest automotive ads of all time.
Volkswagen: Father & Daughter
This piece of work was hard to exactly categorise in terms of what brief it is answering – because it does so much. The ad is about family, dependability and trustworthiness. You might not have seen this ad before, but it truly is one of the greatest automotive ads ever made. It isn’t flashy. But it reveals a deep truth that is utterly compelling and believable. It sells the car, but builds upon the brand story at the same time. Beautiful.
Automotive Brief Six: Incredible Performance
Excitement is one of the emotions that car companies most want you to feel when sitting in their cars. Ideas that emphasise the performance aspects of the car do this the best. However, this is usually for expensive, higher end cars that can deliver on that credibly. You will notice, however, that lower ticket cars such as the Ford Puma and Honda also sit on this list. They’re able to do that because of the charm of their ideas.
The BMW Films ad campaign is a groundbreaking marketing campaign that was launched by BMW in 2001. It’s some of the biggest thinking that has ever formed an automotive campaign.
The campaign consisted of a series of short films, each featuring a different BMW model and directed by a renowned Hollywood director. They all featured Clive Owen as the mysterious ‘driver’. The directors involved in the campaign included names like Guy Ritchie, Ang Lee and John Woo.
The films were released online and through DVD, yes, via DVD.
The campaign was an enormous success. Twenty years later, it’s still brilliant. If you’re a junior looking at working as an ad creative, you might not have been born when this was made. But I guarantee you’d be thrilled to have this in your portfolio today. It was well before it’s time. It’s absolutely one of the greatest car advertising campaigns of all time.
Ford Puma: Steve McQueen
This is a very early example of digitally recreating a deceased actor. And even looking at it through the lens of 20 years of technical advancement, the quality of the effects stands up.
The ad pays homage to the famous car chase scene from the 1968 movie “Bullitt,” in which Steve McQueen famously drove a Highland Green Ford Mustang GT 390 through the streets of San Francisco. Instead of skidding chaotically out of control and riding the redline to get to it’s destination, the Ford Puma manages the drive impressively. With pace and control.
It’s a great idea, with top-notch execution.
Audi R8: Dyno
What I love about this ad is it’s absolute confidence. I was once told by a mentor many years ago that if you have a remarkable product, just show it in the most effective way possible. This wonderfully artistic display of the raw power of the R8 still leaves an impression.
Sometimes you have to remove the cleverness from your thinking, and just blow the audience away with the simplest expression of the product that you can.
The ad was created by the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy and directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet. Sound design in this ad is truly next level. It required the use of complex audio mixing and editing to create a seamless and harmonious musical composition from the sounds of the car.
Using the sound to bring the car to life is a great idea. Beautifully done. As the years pass, this ad has been mostly forgotten as a great car ad. I’d like to change that.
Toyota Hilux: Bugger
This was aired in New Zealand in 1999. Created by Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand, it became a cultural phenomenon in New Zealand, with the word “Bugger” becoming a catchphrase. Much like “Wassup” did for Budweiser the following year. It also won several awards, including a Gold Lion at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
It shows the power of simple repetition for grabbing attention. But it’s done in such a charming, deadpan way that it is elevated to something truly great.
Automotive Brief Seven: Safety and Control
There are an enormous amounts of brilliant advertising addressing this brief. Safety has become one of the major differentiators car companies use to set themselves apart from their competitors. It’s also a great brief for creatives.
Volvo: Epic Split
Now THAT’S how you use a celebrity.
Interestingly, the script didn’t have Jean Claude Van Damme in it. It was originally a ballet dancer. But it was the DIRECTOR who suggested Jean Claude. A lesson in listening to absolutely everyone involved, because you never know where the transformational idea will come from.
The ad was shot in one take on a closed runway in Spain, with no special effects or camera tricks (Though Jean Claude Van Damme did have a special harness underneath his clothing for safety. They never would have been able to get insurance for the shoot without it).
Volvo Epic Split was created by the Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors, and it went on to win numerous awards at international advertising festivals, including a Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
All the way back in the 1990’s this ad blew onto the screens of the UK. The sound design, the beautifully measured effects and the perfect pay-off of the endline made 30 seconds of absolute perfection. It’s still great all these years later.
Volkswagen Polo: Unfail
This is the most recent piece of work to land on our list. It didn’t get as much love from the Award judges as I thought it deserved. It’s a great use of social media virality. It’s truly a wonderful response to the brief. It’s definitely worth a look.
Volkswagen Polo: Self Defence
To bring context to this ad, I’ve included the print campaign that went with it. The whole campaign was a perfect use of dry wit that cut through the wallpaper in the category.
Audi have their second appearance for their response to this brief. The idea that it’s the other drivers you need to worry about has never been expressed better. One of the greats.
Another great ad from the 1990’s. Epic in scale with an endline that brings it all together beautifully. It’s truly a classic piece of automotive advertising.
Automotive Brief Eight: Comfort
This ad picked up awards all over the world in the late 1990’s. A man stuck in a traffic jam loving the moment because he is in an incredibly comfortable car. The cinematography and the soft violin are the perfect accompaniment to a brilliant script. A real copywriters ad, with the rug-pull revealed at exactly the right time.
A perfectly paced car ad that deserves its place on this list.
This Audi ad solves the “Comfort” brief in a completely different way.
Automotive Brief Nine: Fun to Drive
This is one of the most popular briefs that you seen given in the automotive category, but there aren’t that many great responses to it. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of those briefs that doesn’t really ring true for many people. It sounds like a premise that car companies want you to believe. But at its heart, it’s dishonest.
Nonetheless, you may one day be given this brief. So, here’s the best answer to it that I’ve found. It SHOWS the fun, in a fun way. It’s an awesome piece of work.
Mini Cooper: City Chase
A joyous use of film technology and movement to show the nimbleness of the Mini Cooper. This ad came on the back of the film “The Italian Job” (2003) which featured the car zig-zagging through the streets and sewers of Rome. The creatives for this brief took it to the next level, and made this truly amazing car ad.
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