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Perspective: Running on Fumes

Gas stations and their full-service pump jockeys used to be your best buds on the highway. What put them on the defensive?
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Gasoline advertisements have long taken the logical route of showing a spiffy car. And why not? Gas itself isn’t much to look at, but an ad with a cool set of wheels will always turn a few heads. That’s as true for the 1963 Gulf ad at right with the two-headed Pontiac Bonneville (a nod to the art director; this was 27 years before Photoshop) as it is for the vehicle shown in the Shell ad, opposite, from late 2011. (The car’s an ethanol-powered prototype built by French high-school kids.)

But all similarities end there. In fact, when it comes to messaging, these two ads couldn’t be more different. That points to a larger dynamic of petroleum advertising. It used to be all about quality gas and friendly service; now it’s about saving planet earth. Even on the curvy road of brand positioning, that’s a screeching turn.

Having a car was fun in 1963. A new Bonneville (the normal kind, with a front and back) was yours for just a smidge over $3,000, the federal government had just added 2,220 new miles to the interstate system and gas was 30 cents a gallon. It was a great time to hit the open road, and just off the side of that road stood your friendly Gulf station. Not only would Gulf’s pump jockeys fill your tank, clean your windshield and check your oil and engine belts, but they’d also hand you a Tourguide Kit complete with free maps and a logbook.

According to Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com, Gulf didn’t bother to market the actual gas because “they didn’t have to. Nobody thought about fuel economy or mileage. People just wanted good, clean gas that wouldn’t make your engine knock.” What Gulf was really selling, Laskoski said, was peace of mind. “All the stations were selling a commodity product, so the branding was the relationship with the customer. Service produced customer loyalty, and people would go out of their way to go to ‘their’ gas station.”

If none of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because you’re under 50. The happy couple sitting in the ‘63 Bonneville would never have foreseen as much, but huge changes were afoot that would permanently alter the way drivers viewed their local gas stations. First came the oil embargoes of 1973 and 1979 that triggered high prices and long lines at the pump. With the EPA’s phase-out of leaded gas during the same period, consumers began associating driving with pollution. Toss in global warming, environmentally disastrous oil spills (including that little Deepwater Horizon leak in 2010) and last year’s news that the top five oil brands posted profits of $137 billion at a time when over 9 percent of Americans couldn’t find jobs, and the transformation is complete. Big oil is now the bad guy, and its marketers are on the defensive.

The outgrowth of this legacy includes the ad on the opposite page, which shows Shell as the sponsor of a contest for the world’s most fuel-efficient car. Yesterday, a brand like Shell was your friend on the roadside; today, it’s the eco-conscious steward of a fragile environment. Or trying to be. “It’s a trendy and politically correct message,” Laskoski said, “but it just looks like marketing to me.”

At least the car they found has a front and a back.