From Practicality to Glamour and Back Again: The Evolution of Car Advertising

13 November, 2022
From Practicality to Glamour and Back Again: The Evolution of Car Advertising

Car advertising all began with a black and white paper ad and a powerful call to action; ‘dispense with a horse’. This first auto ad appeared in 1898 in the Scientific American newspaper with the practical yet compelling claim that a motor carriage could save the ‘expense, care and anxiety’ of keeping a horse, all with the promise of ‘no odour’.


As we can see, automakers back then didn’t need a unique or creative approach to branding because they had a unique product. Now, automotive advertising isn’t so straightforward; manufacturers need to distinguish themselves by building a recognizable brand and carving out a unique place in the market. 


In this article, we’ll take a look at how automobile advertising and brand-building has evolved, from the early days of practicality to the glamour of the post-war era to the eco-conscious innovation of today. 


Post-War Era

In the years after WWII, car advertising capitalised on the American Dream of the fifties. A far cry from the simple ‘no odour’ boasts of early automobile adverts, we can see how manufacturers such as Jaguar capitalised on people’s hopes for an aspirational lifestyle. Symbols of glamour and modernity, cars became more than a merely practical way to get around; they were a trophy for the wealthy. Car makers knew that partygoers wanted a ride that would draw attention as they arrived at their next glamorous event. Selling this dream, adverts showed Plymouths and Pontiacs posed in front of glossy modern buildings, nightclubs and sprawling country homes.

Changing the Game? 

In the 1960s, Volkswagen turned automobile branding on its head when it introduced its Beetle model. Its ‘Think Small’ campaign was a bold counter-statement against the glamour and excess promoted by other manufacturers. With minimalist visuals and a simple, honest message, Volkswagen was able to appeal to a new kind of consumer. Hippies and fashionable young professionals alike rushed out to buy Beetles, and the Think Small campaign became one of the most famous ads of all time.

Getting Competitive

From the 1960s onwards, import cars began to gain a significant foothold. Leading the way were Japanese brands, which promoted high quality mechanics at accessible prices as their USP. The ads of these years captured the increasing tensions and competition between manufacturers in an increasingly crowded market. Competitors appealed to consumers’ emotions by touting how iconic and ahead of the times their cars were, sometimes disparaging other brands to get ahead.

90s Innovation

By the 1990s, ‘ahead of the times’ was the angle that many manufacturers were taking. Most car ads were promoting the technology that you could find in their vehicles, focusing on technical features and innovations. Because the 90s saw the introduction of stricter regulations in vehicle safety for the first time, many brands started to include safety as a key part of their narrative too.

Take, for example, this Range Rover ad. Instead of featuring a visual of the car itself, its replaced with an attention-grabbing stop sign. The ad focused on the vehicle’s innovative anti-lock brake system that enabled drivers to maintain control ‘in anything from a downpour to a blizzard’. The message was clear: if you wanted to stay safe on the roads, you needed a Range Rover.


Environmental Appeal 

The early 2000s marked a turning point in car advertising discourse. Manufacturers realised that they needed to reflect the growing concerns about global warming, sustainability and corporate responsibility.


When Toyota unveiled the hybrid Prius 20 years ago, it revolutionised the car industry and became a forerunner in sustainability. Since then, we’ve seen many manufacturers make sustainability a core part of their brand narrative. From Mercedes-Benz’s green technology to alternative fuel models, manufacturers have returned to principles of practicality to appeal to eco-conscious consumers whilst future-proofing their brands.

Car Advertising Today 


Today, unlike back in 1898, it’s difficult for a car advert to truly grab people’s attention. An inundation of ads in our daily lives means that consumers can feel like they’ve already seen it all.


So, in recent years, manufacturers have sought to shake things up with innovative and interactive digital formats. From dynamic billboards that change depending on the time of day to NFC and QR scanning that allows people to connect to an ad with their smartphone, we see digital out-of-home advertising helping automotive brands tell their stories in fresh ways.


Merson and The Automotive Industry

From Honda to Aston Martin, Merson proudly works with some of the most recognisable automotive brands in the world. As we design and install signage at car dealerships across the UK and beyond, we lead with innovation and sustainability whilst ensuring we preserve the unique brand identity of each manufacturer.


For example, when Aston Martin began their rebranding programme, they engaged with us to upgrade a collection of dealerships around the world. As they repositioned as a true luxury brand, we knew that new signage needed to enhance a timeless high-end feel.


We implemented new iterations of the trademark in polished stainless steel, enhanced entrance totems made from travertine stone, and lattice-like window manifestation. This ruthless attention to detail reflected everything the Aston Martin brand stands for: exceptional design, excellent service and iconic luxury.

Similarly, when Lotus approached us to rebrand their global network of car dealerships, we knew that high specification signage was essential. Reflecting the original Lotus design  principle  of “simplify, then add lightness”, we installed signage engineered for simplicity and devoid of needless ornamentation.


The  pylon  and entrance signs feature a large-scale mesh design inspired by the internal structure of birds’ bones,  which need to be strong yet light, in perfect harmony with  the Lotus engineering ethos.


Merson is the country’s leading signage supplier with a rich history in and deep understanding of the automotive industry. We’re able to design, install and maintain all internal and external branding signage, as well as implement innovative digital out-of-home advertising solutions to get your business noticed. To learn more about our services, contact us at or visit us at