Perspective: Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Marketing a workaday product like antifreeze requires the help of a credible endorser—but boy, has that definition changed

The hardworking folks who manufacture the 108 million gallons of antifreeze produced annually in the U.S. have had the same marketing headache for the last 74 years. Most Americans simply don't think about antifreeze. (When they do, it's probably not about any particular brand of the stuff.)

Ever since 1937, when domestic automakers first poured ethylene glycol down radiator pipes to keep liquid-cooled engines from freezing, drivers have pretty much taken the chemical compound for granted. This is why antifreeze brands have historically devoted a lot of thought to the selection of the right product endorsers–people who can speak to the reliability, efficacy, and overall importance of that iridescent green liquid.

In 1947, for the marketers at Prestone, the man for that job was East Orange, N.J., Fire Department Chief Charles A. McGinley, shown in the ad on the right. Did it matter that none of the readers of The Saturday Evening Post had any idea who he was? No, it did not. The 61-year-old had been a fire chief for 17 years. His job was to save lives–and he used Prestone to make sure his pumpers started. Enough said.

"This was serious stuff; it was heroism," observes Rick Barrack, founding partner and chief creative officer of branding firm CBX. "People in uniform were the celebrated figures of the postwar era. And while you may just be the average motorist, [this ad said] you should trust this product because our stately fire chief here does."

Not only does McGinley tell you as much ("No freeze-ups for my car," the gray-haired fire chief proclaims), the ad jabs you with proof of just how important the choice of an antifreeze brand can be. The newspaper clipping in the upper left-hand corner implies, in effect, that 17 people in New Jersey owe their very lives to the fact that McGinley poured Prestone into his trucks.

But times change. While Peak antifreeze may have needed a product endorser in 2011 every bit as much as Prestone needed one 64 years ago–and has clearly found one in Nascar driver Danica Patrick, opposite–the chivalrous and noble-minded themes of the postwar era are gone. "You can apply trust to this new ad insofar as this is a professional race car driver who trusts this product in her car," Barrack says. "But Danica is far from a hero. Does she represent trust and authority? Absolutely not. Yet in this day and age, what's it matter? Men like babes. Men like babes who drive fast." Another jug of antifreeze–sold!

A side note: While Patrick is a true national celebrity, Chief McGinley was far from being just an average Jersey guy. Five years after this ad ran, Popular Mechanics devoted an entire article to McGinley for his design of an improved fire truck fitted with lifesaving equipment.

Alas, Prestone was not mentioned.