Few consumers knew about Datsun in the 1960s. John Parker fixed that with Roy Rogers, a great little pickup and trips to Japan seeking TV money.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1963
Role: Ran Nissan's advertising account from 1963 to 1977
Key influence: Built advertising campaigns on a shoestring that helped Nissan weather early years in the United States
He hired singing cowboy Roy Rogers to hawk SUVs. He used his family members as models in ads. He flew to Japan to beg executives for TV money.
But by the time the oil crises hit in the 1970s, Nissan Motor Co. was poised to sell lots of fuel-sipping vehicles in the United States.
Parker picked up the account in 1963 for his fledgling firm, Parker Advertising. “They put great trust in a 30-year-old UCLA grad.” It was a time of experimentation, testing what product would sell, and what ads would fly.
“We had a little pickup truck that sold for $1,596 — four cylinders, great economy and great dependability. There was nothing like it on the market, and that helped us get dealers because they would say, "Your sedans don't look that great.'
“That's when I got to be friends with Roy Rogers and we used him as a spokesman. I told him, "I can't pay you, Roy, but I'll give you as many pickup trucks as you want.' Roy helped us get dealers.”
After a year on the job, Parker went to Tokyo to persuade headquarters to do more in advertising. Getting a budget for advertising took time.
“We talked to them, but they did not advertise a lot in Japan. They sold almost door to door. Salesmen would ring the doorbell, hand out a brochure and talk about the car. I explained to them that this was a huge country, and we needed to get on television. The budget was slow in coming, but eventually it did. They just didn't understand it until they saw that it worked.”
A big turnaround came with the arrival of the Z car in 1969. “Our theme was that every Datsun had that sporty Z car feel. That was our tag line in every ad, even for the pickup truck. The Z was a hot car.”
When the oil crisis hit in 1973, and mileage was the consummate selling point, the Parker group drove a car from California to Maine, marking mileage along the way. For those who may have missed the point, the group gave away five-gallon gasoline cans.
“We did a lot of creative stuff during the gas crisis. They pretty well gave me carte blanche. Sometimes I'd give a presentation and I'd look at my creative director and say, "Phil, let's ask for the order and get out of here before they have buyer's remorse. They were very, very good to work for.”
One of the best reasons for working with Nissan was the chance to work under Yutaka Katayama, who headed Nissan's California operation. “He's an advertising person, so he was great to work with. He would come to our presentations and he would get involved, and when he liked something, he would jump up and say, "That is great.' And that was great for our staff to have the CEO so enthusiastic. It was a shot of adrenalin.”
Parker's tenure with Nissan ended shortly after Katayama returned to Japan. They are still friends.
“He loves to tease me,” Parker says, noting a snapshot from a birthday gathering with Katayama forming rabbit ears over Parker's head. “This year, we will be celebrating Katayama's 100th birthday in Hawaii,” Parker says, “So he better make it.”
You can reach Mary Ann Maskery at (Unknown address).