In most of the branded world (fashion and food especially) being an Italian import is a good thing. Not always so for cars. Case in point: Fiat, a nameplate that never really found a smooth road in America. Still, Fiat has its share of fans—drivers lured by the little car’s Italian style. And that’s what makes this pair of ads interesting. While both use the same composition (put cute white car in center of page), only the older ad is proud to be Italian.
When this monochromatic ad for the 600D appeared in 1965, Fiat had been in the U.S. market for nine years. Its cars were not lauded for their engineering genius: The tiny 600’s rear-mounted engine meant that the gas tank sat in front of the driver. And with a gallon of regular selling for 31 cents, Americans didn’t really need Fiat’s fuel efficiency, either. But, much like the VW Beetle, Fiat appealed to that segment of American buyers who longed for something that a Plymouth Valiant couldn’t give them—that dash of European flair.
Nessun problema! Style, the Fiat had. And just in case consumers didn’t get that message, some clever art director dropped the Mona Lisa into the driver’s seat in this 48-year-old ad. “Fiat hoped that there was a counterculture within the automotive world at the time, and to appeal to that market they had to make the car look exotic and prestigious,” explained Paul Eisenstein, publisher of automotive news site The Detroit Bureau. By putting Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous muse behind the wheel, “Fiat was trying to stress that this vehicle was a classic, something special, not just a little tin box.”
The trouble was, Fiat was just a little tin box. Overheating motors and rusty bodies forced the company to abandon the U.S. in 1983, amid jokes that Fiat was really an acronym that stood for “Fix It Again, Tony.”
Fiat returned to America two years ago, this time as the rescue vehicle for Chrysler—which Fiat just assumed complete ownership of last week. This time around, Fiat’s marketers took care to stress that the 500 was a quality car, and one with that inimitable Italian styling. U.S. showrooms were called “Fiat studios.” Fiat’s former marketing chief Charlie Hughes told AOL Autos in 2011 that the brand “will do well if they play up the la dolce vita personality of Fiat and the Italian roots.”
Well, Fiat did play up the Italian roots—but it hasn’t done so well. This summer, Doner debuted spots for the 500L showing Paul Revere riding through Old Salem yelling “The Italians are coming!” while maidens disrobed and innkeepers broke out the espresso. Very funny. But sales were down 24 percent by September—which might, perhaps, explain the most recent 2013 ad here. Perhaps Fiat has discovered that Italian heritage doesn’t mean as much as it hoped? That the 500L should be marketed just like an all-American hatchback? It’s anyone’s guess. But now might be a good time to remember what Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said about Fiat’s return: “Just because people like gelato and pasta, people will buy it. This is nonsense.”