Just over three years ago - in 1997, to be specific - Oldsmobile celebrated its centennial with events in Lansing, Mich. To commemorate the milestone, Olds published a massive book, Setting The Pace - Oldsmobile's First 100 Years.
The 496-page tome, written by longtime Olds employees Helen Jones Earley from public relations and James R. Walkinshaw from engineering, chronicled in exacting detail the history, heritage, culture and trivia of the marque since its humble beginnings.
But the book turned out to be a eulogy. Little could the authors know the brand would survive only three more years. GM officially pronounced the death sentence in December, although it didn't say precisely when the showroom doors would close.
Slamming the horse
The earliest Olds ads headlined the demise of horse-drawn vehicles. Headlines from that era included, 'The Passing of The Horse'; 'Nature Made A Mistake in Giving the Horse A Brain - Science Did Better'; and 'Boarding a Horse costs $180, Gasoline only $35.'
Over the first 50 years of the brand, many styling and engineering developments and concepts were pioneered by the division, but the advertising remained consistent: ordinary and generally boring.
In the early 1930s, D.P. Brother became the Olds agency, and this relationship lasted until the mid-1960s, when the shop was purchased by the Leo Burnett agency. The '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s were halcyon days for Oldsmobile. While never No. 1 in total sales, the numbers were always high. Some auto enthusiasts insist to this day that Olds built some of the best American-made cars ever.
The creative from Burnett was never in the tone or image of Burnett's more famous ad-wise clients such as Marlboro or Kellogg's. While the agency's Oldsmobile advertising won the usual trophy case of industry peer accolades and awards, there was little in the marketing communications that rivaled the quality and innovations of the vehicles. And that is certainly a switch from the often-heard bragging by agencies that their ads are better than the cars.
Perhaps the best-known campaign is the one most criticized. Who can forget the tremors generated by 'It's Not Your Father's Oldsmobile!' Frankly, I thought - and still think - it was a good positioning concept because it was an attempt by Olds to capture a more youthful audience. But I may be the last person on earth to think so.
Despite the advertising message, it is a given that advertising is only as good as the client lets it be. Obviously, Olds management, through its history, never thought much of, or about, the messages it was sending to potential buyers.
Here is a collection of Oldsmobile advertising from the 1950s to more recent times. But don't think of them as ads. They are really memorial cards to a brand that was given a corporate Kevorkian injection.