Monday, December 19, 2011

Advertising makes it happen. Now, who's got the 'nads to write the check?

I had occasion to revisit the nexus of my two previous lives -- motorcycles and advertising -- the other day, when I found myself writing about the nadir of motorcyclists' image in U.S. pop culture, in the early 'sixties.

Motorcycles were bad news after the breathless coverage of the Hollister ‘motorcycle riot’ in 1947. Those greatly exaggerated tales inspired The Wild One in 1954. Then, Hunter S. Thompson published ‘Hells Angels: The strange and terrible saga of outlaw motorcycle gangs’. It’s likely that Thompson’s account of life with the Hells Angels was almost as apocryphal as press accounts of Hollister had been, but by the mid-‘60s, the image of motorcycling in the U.S. could hardly have sunk any lower.

The American Motorcyclist Association wrung its hands and plaintively painted the outlaw crowd as ‘one percenters’, claiming that 99% of riders were regular folks, but the media sure weren’t buying it -- probably because that story didn’t sell newspapers.

It wasn’t the AMA that set motorcycles back on the road to respectability, it was Honda. Hollywood and the media had knocked motorcycles down, and Honda’s ad agency, Grey Advertising, knew that Hollywood had a role to play in redeeming them, too. Grey conceived the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ad campaign and pitched an audacious media plan to Kihicharo Kawashima, the head of American Honda.

Grey proposed running a pair of television commercials during the 1964 Academy Awards telecast. That would put two 90-second ‘nicest people’ ads in front of more than two-thirds of the U.S. television audience. Buying the two spots cost $300,000, which was enough to give Kawashima pause; it was the equivalent of the gross revenues -- not the profit mind you, the gross revenues -- on the sale of about 1,200 Honda 50s.

This is not the original, 90-second, 'You meet the nicest people on a Honda' ad. The original is not available on YouTube and in the spirit of full disclosure I should admit that while I've seen the campaign's print executions, I've never watched the original commercial. (Please, please, American Honda, scour your archives, digitize a copy, and post it!) 

The truth is, most people in the ad business felt that Grey Advertising was well-named. The agency had a reputation for safe, middle-of-the-road creative. That said, the strategic thinking behind the 'nicest people' campaign was worthy of Don Draper (and in one Mad Men episode, the fictional Sterling Cooper agency actually pitches the non-fictional Honda company business!) Overall, the real campaign played to Grey Advertising's strengths and Grey's tendency towards insipid creative was OK; the campaign was, after all, aimed at the middle of the bell curve. 

About a decade later, Grey was still at it. This ad, featuring a young John Travolta, acknowledges the first -- 1973 -- Arab oil embargo/price shock and the ensuing recession; the short-arsed motorcycle cop is probably a tip of the (half) helmet to Robert Blake in 'Electra Glide in Blue.'

Kawashima needn’t have worried. That ad campaign didn’t just plant Honda in the minds of millions of hitherto non-riding consumers, it helped convince the country’s media that it was not in their commercial interest to alienate the entire motorcycle industry. Life Magazine ran a famous photo of a drunken biker at Hollister in 1947 (the ethically questionable shot was set up days after the actual ‘riot’.) When Honda started buying full page ads in the ‘60s, Life’s editors stopped running negative motorcycle stories.

That $300,000 advertising investment really gave me pause, too. That was the equivalent of about $2,000,000 in 2011 dollars. I don't know, offhand, what American Honda's best-selling (current) motorcycle is, but if the company spent 1,200 x that model's revenues on a single night's advertising, it would amount to a lot more than two million bucks.

American Honda won't spend that much this year. Hell will freeze over before we'll see a breakout motorcycle ad in this year's Academy Awards or Superbowl. I get occasional press releases from manufacturers claiming year-over-year sales growth, and it's possible we've seen the worst of the post-2008 meltdown/housing bubble. But don't kid yourself; the motorcycle business is in the fucking toilet. Why is it that there's no chance American Honda will show that kind of leadership today?

Mister, we could use a man like Kawashima today.

I stole this pic from Honda's 'history' site. It's captioned as follows: Holding up the You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda. poster are Kihachiro Kawashima (then general manager of American Honda), left, and Takeo Fujisawa (then senior managing director of Honda Motor), second from right. I'm guessing the tall guy is from Grey Advertising.

For a slightly different take on Honda's rise in the U.S. (and a look at one of the 'nicest people' print executions) you can read this blog post by FrogDesign's Adam Richardson.

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