At the dawn of the 1970s, the Huffy Corporation (which made gas station equipment before turning to bicycles in 1934) was losing air from its tires. Cheap bikes manufactured in factories overseas had grabbed nearly 40 percent of the market, and a recession was looming. So Huffy made a strategic marketing decision: It would shift most of its attention to the kids demographic.
This 1971 ad proves just how good Huffy was at it, too. Skillfully deploying a dual sell, the brand excited kids with the idea of a new bike while also luring parents with the guarantee of a low price. Bikes have always been unique for their ability to deliver on an irresistible assurance: For a comparatively reasonable sum, most anyone can buy into fun, adventure and (as Tiger here, formerly Wilbur, would tell you) a near-instant social status upgrade. What’s more, as this 2014 ad for Huffy demonstrates, the tactic still works, though this time around Huffy is appealing to mom with the same enchantment it promised to the neighborhood boy 43 years ago.
Huffy has distilled that promise in a single word: hooky, a term that doesn’t mean skipping school as much as it means the chance to ditch your responsibilities, go for a ride and be cool. “Hooky is a nice bridge line from what is historically a child’s product,” said Katherine Wintsch, founder of marketing firm The Mom Complex. Huffy, Wintsch believes, is saying that “you too can play hooky and harken back to your younger years.”
But as charming as these ads are, a closer look suggests that Huffy might have actually lost some of the magic it so capably practiced in the old days.
Huffy’s 1971 ad, Wintsch observes, casts a spell that is both human and genuine. The social transformation that Tiger’s new bike has affected is believable because Tiger still looks like a normal boy from the neighborhood. “The kid’s not perfect,” Wintsch said. “He’s got a chubby little face and his hat doesn’t fit right. I wish they’d taken the same approach toward motherhood in the 2014 ad.”
While Huffy’s avowal that a new bike represents carefree fun is the same, its application to the millennial mom is, Wintsch said, stereotypical. “If the 1971 ad was about going after boys, then the 2014 ad is about idealizing their mothers—and this one’s just a little too perfect. She has beautiful nails, a big rock of a wedding ring—and she’s a myth.”
If, as this ad suggests, mom really is never too old to play hooky, Wintsch believes she should be sailing down the street with the wind in her hair and to hell with the rest of it. “I wish there were more here than a pretty mom standing by a pretty bike,” she said.
In other words, maybe a little more Wilbur would help.