Perspective: Just a Little Something

With gas prices high, compact runabouts should be easy to advertise, right?

Consider the scenario: Foreign automaker with lukewarm reputation in U.S. sees opportunity to grab market share with a tiny car that’s easy on gas and fun to drive in that Euro-geeky way. If you happen to be past your 44th birthday, this probably sounds familiar. It should. It’s happened several times (VW’s Rabbit, Honda’s Civic and, more recently, the Mini Cooper). But the fact that it’s happening again with the Fiat 500 invites a look back to one of the instances that was truly a benchmark: the tiny, disposable, inimitable Le Car. As these ads demonstrate, both rides are marketed in a strikingly similar way, if not an altogether successful one.

In 1977, the Renault 5 was Europe’s best-selling car. Renault’s partner, American Motors Corporation, decided to release a version of it here. AMC chose the name Le Car, possibly because French-sounding stuff (“Le Freak,” “Ooh la la Sasson,” etc.) was cool. Le Car could cover an astonishing 41 miles on one gallon of gas, which might have been nice to mention in the ad. After all, Americans had already suffered through the 1973-74 oil embargo. Instead, using an Old English sheepdog to showcase a peel-back canvas roof, the 1978 ad at right touts a car that “looks like fun,” “drives like fun” and is (take their word for it) “Le Fun” overall.

In fairness, Renault was in a tough spot, according to auto marketing consultant Chris Cedergren, managing director of Los Angeles branding firm Iceology. “The first shock of the 1974 high fuel prices lasted only six months, so everyone went back to buying big cars,” he says. “AMC probably figured, ‘Nobody cares about gas prices, but the car has an open top, so we’ll sell it as fun.’”

It was a nice try. Though Le Car would turn into a brisk seller, that happened only after the next oil embargo in 1979, which spiked gas prices again and drove Americans back into automotive asceticism. Meanwhile, all the “fun” marketing in the world couldn’t hide Le Car’s anemic, 58-horsepower engine and rust-prone body. Soon, cynical Americans had another name for Le Car: “Le Lawn Mower.”

Advance the reel some three decades, and it feels a bit like marketing history on replay. Like Le Car, the Fiat 500 is tiny, imported and, presumably, fun. (Hell, it even has a peel-back canvas roof.) Plus, U.S. buyers are again worried about gas prices. Still, much like Renault’s ad, Fiat’s misses the mark. “The 500 is beautifully designed, cool and sexy,” Cedergren says. “It’s a high to drive—but that doesn’t come across in the ad.” (The Fiat has also sold fewer than half the cars in its 2011 projection.)

In fact, there’s a curious dichotomy at work here. Le Car’s ad probably should have paid more attention to quality (like the Fiat), while the Fiat’s ad would have done better to stress fun (like Le Car). Meanwhile, neither advertisement mentions the selling point that benefitted both cars: fuel economy. The Fiat 500 gets 38 miles per gallon highway—almost as good as Le Car’s 41 mpg.

Still, Cedergren says, “It’s amazing how similar these ads are. It kind of supports my contention that things don’t change much in society.”