Most of the time, ads starring athletes are playing off the perceived coolness of the athlete. And in expensive national ad campaigns, that usually works out OK.
But it’s at the local level, without the same degree of professionalism, where athletes look their most uncomfortable.
Today, we celebrate those ads.
Ed Orgeron for Rogers Dabbs Hummer
The Bling Era was in full swing, and Hummer was on top of the world when Ed Orgeron was the football coach at Ole Miss. Without even watching this, you know it’s gonna be awesome, but then you watch it and it exceeds your expectations.
The Hummer H3 was a silly contraption that fit perfectly into a silly time, right before the country was about to find out you can’t just hand out $500,000 home loans like they’re coupons to a Vegas strip club. Times of grandiosity and silliness are always reflected hilariously in American cars.
A Hummer is a Humvee used (and not necessarily loved) by the military. Humvees are some of the best all-terrain vehicles ever made, and that’s why a few rich folks and celebrities started buying them for civilian use in the early 90s. What Humvees are not: Comfortable, practical, reliable, easy to drive.
The Hummer you remember from all the music videos is not the Humvee. It is, rather, the Hummer H2, which is the front of 2500-series Chevy pickup welded to the back of a 1500-series Chevy pickup, and draped in a shell reminiscent of a Humvee. In other words, the Hummer H2 is to the Humvee as the movie is to the book.
Jordy Nelson for KansasStateCars.com
Look how wholesome! If you want an idea of how rural Kansans see themselves and see life in Kansas, this is it, baby. This is is the stuff Prairie Dreams are made of.
I know most of you were caught up in the love story, but there is a lot going on with the car story in this ad, too. Jordy is driving a Chevy Tahoe, which is a tall station wagon. The car he buys his wife on their one-year anniversary, however, is a goldang Pontiac. And not just any Pontiac, it’s a Pontiac G8, which is really an Australian muscle car called a Holden Commodore. We don’t know how Jordy optioned this one out, although based on the tenderness of his love letter, it’s hard to imagine he settled for anything less than the best, making his wife’s’ anniversary gift a 415-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive tire-shredder with a six-speed manual transmission that could go 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. We learned more about Jordy’s wife in this ad than we learned about Jordy, is what I’m saying.
Walter Payton for Chicagoland Buick
Here’s Walter Payton driving laps around the Bears practice field like an insane man. Terrell Owens is mad he never thought of this.
If you see a 1980 Buick Regal on the street today, it will either be painted with the logo of a cereal company and sitting on rims the size of Ferris wheels, or it will be sitting in someone’s driveway in primer, with one flat tire, no interior door panels, and the engine halfway pulled out. There is no in between.
But at the time — at the time — Buick was still seen as a step just below Cadillac, and the Regal was Buick’s version of a particularly American type of car, the “personal luxury coupe.”
Now, “personal luxury coupe” was romantic terminology for what that phrase actually represented. What really happened was, in the early 70s, emissions regulations choked all the power out of American cars, killing the “muscle car” in practicality, if not in spirit. Instead of adapting to the times, and to the ever-increasing competition from Japan, the American manufacturers just started making cars longer, and wider, and softer, with bigger and bigger engines that guzzled gas and made no power. The personal luxury coupe was the American auto industry’s Fat Elvis phase, and it’s no coincidence it happened at the same time Fat Elvis did.
The Regal Sweetness is driving in this ad came on the back side of all that, after another oil crisis forced the Big Three American manufacturers to get serious about making smaller, more efficient cars. This ad would be 10 times cooler and more logical if he was driving a Grand National, but those didn’t come out until ’82.
Larry Bird for Rodman Car Dealer
We have to take note of the special options on this 1985 Ford Escort:
- 5-Speed Trans
- AM-FM Stereo
- Power Disc Brakes
- Rear Window Defrost
- Digital Clock
The clock is digital, you hear? This is the 80s. This is the future.
The best part of this ad is that everybody I’ve ever personally seen driving a Ford Escort of this vintage looked more or less exactly like Larry Bird, so nothing about this seems remotely unnatural.
Also, the fact that the payments on a friggin Ford Escort were $188 a month in 1985 tells you something about the interest rates of the day. This is a $5,500 car we’re talking about. In today’s money, you’d be paying $448 per month for a car worth $13,100.
This was a cheaply made, unsafe economy car that made 80 horsepower and went from zero to 60 eventually. This was Ford going, “Fine, make us something that’s shaped like a Honda, and get it done quick.”
You couldn’t really drive a car like this in a modern city with modern freeways. You’d just get swallowed up. But back then, nobody had any power. Even Mustangs and Camaros were (shamefully) getting dumpy four-cylinder engines, and Larry Bird may well have driven one for all I know.
Joe Montana for Northern California Nissan
In all seriousness, this is a wonderful commercial. Joe Montana is not dressed in his uniform or acting in some silly scenario. He’s just standing there next to a Nissan Pulsar, extolling its many virtues.
Then he walks away.
Montana goes directly at the Honda Prelude and Toyota MR2 in this ad, on the grounds they don’t offer the versatility of the Pulsar’s t-tops/convertible/wagon setup.
Sure, that’s something, but the real truth of what Nissan was up to here comes in the next line, when Montana admits, “this Nissan Pulsar costs less than either one.”
You see? You see the game that’s being played here? This is the Budget MR2, but look, we’ll let you move the glass around. But the Pulsar was not like the MR2 at all, really. The beloved Toyota MR2 got all of its character from its mid-engine, rear-drive layout, while the Pulsar was front-engine, front-drive, the least sporty and least cool layout.
Look, it’s little, it’s wedge-shaped, it has pop-up headlights, and Joe Montana likes it. It’s 1988, what else do you want?
Mario Lemieux for Colussy Chevrolet
Lemieux is seen here modeling the Chevy (S-10) Blazer, a smaller and less good (but more popular) version of the Chevy Blazer. Like all 80s GM vehicles, these things were rattle traps, outfitted with some of the cheapest interior materials ever created by man.
But that simple, boxy 80s design has aged well, I think, and you still see a lot of these on the road.
Tyler Hansbrough for Performance Subaru
It’s Tyler Hansbrough, getting as excited as anyone has ever gotten over a Subaru Legacy.
Drew Bledsoe for New England Ford Dealers
The conceit of this ad is that you need to go buy a new Ford right now because you have a family and this is “family days” at your local Ford dealership.
That meant you could get a 1996 Ford Windstar at roughly the same price you could get it any other time.
90s kids will remember the Windstar from being hauled around in them while playing Mad Libs and wondering why all minivans had the same weird smell inside.
Mike Ditka for The Protector
While this is not technically a commercial for a local car ad, it does involve skinny Mike Ditka standing in front of a K car, and that’s more than close enough for my purposes here.
If you were alive in the 80s, it’s virtually impossible that you don’t have some experience with the Chrysler K platform, a series of compact, front-drive cars that rescued the Chrysler Corporation from near certain doom. The Plymouth Reliant, Dodge Aries and Chrysler LeBaron (shown in the Ditka ad) are probably the best-remembered K cars, but Chrysler used the platform to build all sorts of stuff, including the first minivan, the Dodge Caravan.
When I say the K car rescued Chrysler, I don’t mean that it was such an amazing car Americans just had to have it. Such a car did not really exist in the 1980s. But it proved Lee Iacocca was right when he said he could rescue the company by making small, affordable cars that Americans want to buy. That sounds obvious, but this was a time when American automakers were still pretending the 1950s were going to come back any second now.
There’s no way Mike Ditka drove a K car. Ditka is/was of the same mentality as the Big Three auto executives. Whatever Ditka was driving in 1983, I’d bet the farm it had a long hood and a V8.
Troy Aikman for West Texas Truck Team
Hey, look, we caught Troy Aikman in the middle of pulling some sticks out of a ditch, as Aikman was known to do back in 1995. Fortunately, he has a 191-horsepower GMC Sonoma to handle all that heavy lifting.
The Sonoma was an S-10, of course, occupying a class of trucks that basically doesn’t exist anymore. Where have all the small trucks gone? Sure, you can get a Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon, but those are enormous compared to the S-10s and Ford Rangers of yesteryear.
In the 90s, pickups were starting to become more popular as daily drivers, but for the most part they were still seen as utilitarian vehicles. They didn’t have to be all macho and eight feet tall back then, and it didn’t really matter if they were fast. Much like Aikman himself.
J.J. Watt for Houston Area Ford Dealers
The brilliance of this ad is that it’s just J.J. Watt talking about Fords. If Watt is talking about a Ford pickup, why do you even need to see the truck? After finding out that Watt got a Ford for his 16th birthday, what else could you possibly want to know about the Ford F-150?
Power specs? Features? Towing capacity?
To hell with all that.
"“It’s a quality truck, it’s reliable, and it’s America.”"
What else do you need to know?