The story of “not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Or how some really bad advertising changed the culture forever!

October 14, 2008

Time for a story boys and girls. It’s a tale that requires we go back 20 years, before copywriters had Macs, before email, before I lost my hair. This story harkens back to a day when Oldsmobiles roamed the earth. And their commercials filled the airwaves. I should know; I made some of them. Including the campaign that served as Olds’ final and famous (infamous?) death gasp: “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.”

 Dad’s was better.

The line has become a pop culture catch phrase, in the same ilk –albeit attached to worse advertising-as “Got Milk?”  Both slogans have been co-opted literally hundreds of times, far outlasting their original intent. Try reading your morning paper and not finding a variation on either line. For example, about a candidate: “This is not your father’s Democrat.”  About a technological innovation: “This is not your mother’s sewing machine.” And so on. Sadly enough, more Americans are familiar with the Olds’ slogan than of Shakespeare’s finest sonnets. Way more.

A soft-spoken creative director by the name of Joel Machak wrote that famous line. I actually came up with the campaign’s tag: “The New Generation of Olds.” Both pieces were intended as lyrics. That’s right, a jingle! As a matter of fact, I was brought in to help Joel come up with the refrain. The piece went together as follows (sing along):

       This is not your father’s Oldsmobile…This is the new generation of Olds.

Pretty spiffy, eh? The word “generation” was key. If you recall, each commercial featured a celebrity and one of his or her offspring. This is why the campaign is so damn silly. Outside of a morbid fascination with ogling Ringo Starr’s purple-haired daughter or Dave Brubeck’s motley looking brothers, placing the kin of “B” and “C” celebrities on camera was pure folly. Though I will concede we anticipated Reality TV by 10 years! If you do nothing else today, go to the above link. Trust me.

Where’s my Cutlass Supreme?

The very first spot was for the “totally redesigned Cutlass Supreme.” The protagonist for this commercial was none other than William Shatner, appearing as; you guessed it, Captain Kirk! Riding shotgun was his lovely college-aged daughter, Melanie Shatner. A middling actress, she was pretty darn cute. She also was well endowed. And this became problematic given her wardrobe and where we were shooting. It gets damn cold in the Palm Desert at night. The diaphanous gown provided Melanie was meant to be futuristic a la Star Trek, but it did nothing to warm her up. Subsequently, her nipples went completely rigid, sticking up like Spock’s ears.

beam me up, Scotty!

While this may sound lurid and comical now, at the time (3 AM) it was a “situation.” Imagine the middle-aged suit from GM, replete in a satin Oldsmobile Racing Team jacket, making his way over to the director. “Excuse me, but we can see her nipples!”  Given we’d already shot scenes of Melanie in the gown, a wardrobe change was not possible. The solution? Duct tape. And thus her cleavage had a silver lining.

The other moment I’ll never forget was a captured piece of dialogue (unscripted) between William and his daughter. Between takes, they were side by side in the white Cutlass. Unbeknown to either, the mic was still on. Listening to Captain Kirk school his daughter about the virtues of pep and sleeping pills as a key to nighttime shooting was priceless. What a Dad. What a cad. In a way, it preceded his Emmy-winning turn as Danny Crane by some 20 years.

I know this is trifling gossip, and long past its vintage. But like everyone else, I’m beaten down from our grim economy and an evermore-depressing election. Not to mention the woes of Chicago’s sports franchises… When I was new I used to love listening to the old-timers tell bawdy stories from their shoots. Now that I have a few under my belt, I figured we could all use a respite.


60 Responses to “The story of “not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Or how some really bad advertising changed the culture forever!”

  1. Pale Writer said

    I still can’t believe Lovie didn’t kick the field goal.

    And that final kick off? Aaaargggggggggggg!!!!!!

  2. peanut gallery said

    Loved the story. Thanks for telling it.

    I remember that jingle from 20 years ago. I had it stuck in my head for an entire month!

  3. Jason Fox said

    I’d forgotten about Shatner. I must now crank up my Envy-O-Meter another notch. Of course, you’re right about the 442.

  4. Van Gould said

    I was only a toddler when this spot was released, but I had a blast seeing it for the first time. It is fun to see how today’s culture was being molded then. This post really brightened my week, thanks!

  5. Bernasri said

    Damn, I remember these commercials. My family loved them. Too bad, as you imply, the new cars were “not your father’s Oldsmobile(s)”

  6. Voice of Reason said

    I love the “space age” technology!
    “My father drove a starship…”
    That has to be the silliest line of copy ever written.

  7. SRP said

    Guilty as charged.
    But come on, doesn’t the spot make you feel all warm inside? “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” was comfort food, like fish sticks and meatloaf. In the words of Bart Simpson: “Craptacular!”

  8. Jim Ferguson said

    I always thought that you wrote the line…originally as a print ad.

    Those were fun times. Remember Don Gaultney and Bob Billings? Great characters. Great guys.

    I did the infamous “Belafontes…David and Gina” singing “Trofeo” to the tune of Day-o” Trofeo, Trofeo, Payday come and me wanna new Olds!” What a turd.

    There are so many great stories that came out of that campaign. Bob Shallcross and I have had many a good laugh.



  9. SRP said

    Unfair for me to lay claim to money line. I wrote the actual tag for the campaign: “The New Generation of Olds” You’re right though, “Not Your Father’s” was a print ad first. Created by Joel and his odd duck partner at the time (forget his name).
    Your spot was bad but Ted, John and Ute’s “Ringo” spot was the nadir.
    Congrats on the new entity out West!

  10. Bob and I did win a bronze Lion with the “Pop and Joe” spot, about the 103 year-old-man and his 82 year-old-son. Meeting Joe Ebdon and hearing his stories of meeting Teddy Roosevelt and digging the Panama Canal was a great experience. On the other other hand, working with Gen. Chuck Yeager and comparing the instrument panel of a Olds to that of a fighter jet, was a bit embarassing.

    Were you talkin about Dave Caldwell?

  11. SRP said

    Caldwell not the guy I’m thinking of, although he may have crafted the print ad in question.
    Fellow I remember was a car guy they hired.
    Real quiet. Sort of strange.
    Not without talent.
    He later would go out west to work on Lexus (I think)
    PS: Didja read my slim novel, yet? Do it!
    It’s going to be a great movie in 2010.

  12. Bruce Kunz said


    I stumbled across your site this morning while searching “This is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”. As a weekly writer of the Old Car Column (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and son of a former career Oldsmobile salesman, I would give my right arm for a copy of the audio (radio) commercial or better yet, the TV commercial for this campaign. Can’t find it anywhere. Do you have any idea where I could get a copy? I frequently make public appearances, often to car clubs such as the Archway Oldsmobile Club and would love to have a copy to play for them.

  13. Priscilla said

    I can’t find anywhere what year the campaign began. Can you enlighten me?

  14. Ashton Lee said

    If I remember correctly Joel was working with Aaron Buckman around that time…

    I found this web site while trying to research whether “This is not your father’s _____” actually started with the Oldsmobile advertising.

  15. Ed Johnson said

    What is a right arm worth? I have a copy of the entire campaign.

  16. […] brand into something that would appeal to a younger audience: the late-’80s “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign. Though the slogan has become immortalized, industry experts believe the rebranding […]

  17. don gwaltney said

    Joel Machak did not write the line. Nor did Dave Calwell. I, Don Gwaltney, wrote it and I also wrote the song for it, with help from Gary Klaff and Jack Smith. And it was a darned good campaign. The problem with it was not the advertising; it was the car. The arrangement that sold the song was done by Paul Weinberg and the vocalist was Sandy Farina. A lot of Burnett creatives wrote the commercials for the campaign, including Jim Ferguson (who bragged on his work in this column back in 2008). Rick Fizdale had little to do with the creation of the campaign.

    • SRP said

      Hey Don-
      Can it be you?
      Sorry if credit misplaced. I’m 99.8% certain the infamous line came from a print ad headline that Joel & David created. Remember it? Regardless -I do know who wrote “The New Generation of Olds.” Me.

      • Gene P. said

        Great thread! Spanning a couple years, no less. The quote “success has many fathers” comes instantly to mind. Props to SRP for full disclosure in all regards.

        Another campaign that had many fathers: “The Softer Side of Sears.” Y&R NY laid claim to it, but it was a freelance writer at Y&R Chicago — initials T.S. — who gave birth to the campaign. Me? I was lucky enough to write a bunch of the “softer side” print ads, and also spun off “the Many Sides of Sears” into “the Merry Side of Sears,” full lyric and all. Stole a bunch-o business from O&M on that one.

        And so concludes this stroll down Memory Lane.

  18. Oh I remember that commercial. I remember I was 10 and watching Alf or something I liked back then when the ads came on and my brother hit the mute button and said something about how Kahn should have won so we wouldn’t have to see Kirks daughter in an Olds.

    Note: He still takes tv and movies too seriously.

  19. […] Before I go on, let me state that all the posted arguments are more than less valid. Don Gwaltney. Ted Bell. David Caldwell. Joel Machak. Me. We were all in the proverbial room when said campaign got said. Have a look at the string and catch up on your ad history: My post, 2008 […]

    • don gwaltney said

      Hi to you, Steffan. Hey, don’t be so down on the Olds campaign. It was what Olds needed. When we did it we were told that the new cars would be dramatic improvements and would be better than ever. If that had been true, the campaign would have been a rousing success. Unfortunately, the cars weren’t good enough for the campaign promise. And as for your 99% certainty that Joel and David wrote the headline, you are 99% wrong. Not that it matters. Who really gives a shit? I would if there were residuals for re-use of the line. According to Google, it’s been plagiarized something like 555,000 times. Ted Bell predicted that. We were on our way back from Michigan around 1991, after the client killed the campaign and Ted said that at least I had created something that would be part of the country’s idiom. Pretty prophetic. Have you read his books? At least look at his website. Very impressive.

      • SRP said

        Just for historical accuracy: So my notion that the line came from a print ad Joel & Dave created is wrong? At least my contribution (“New Generation of Olds”) is a lock, albeit unimportant!

  20. Dave Olson said

    Here is the original NYF’s print ad for the Cutlass Supreme that you’re talking about, Steffan:
    (If you haven’t seen VintageAdBrowser yet, it’s unbelievable… 100,000+ old print ads.)

    I remember very clearly when that ad was presented in a CRC meeting, as just one of a number of print ad headlines for the Cutlass Supreme. (I remember I loved all that white space in that series of ads.) I think it was Joel and Dave doing the presenting, with Don Gwaltney of course on the other side of the table with Ted Jordan and myself and others, but I believe Don when he says he is the one who wrote that headline. It’s also conceivable that Joel wrote the line initially, but undeniably it was Don who recognized its potential and took it as the basis for the NYF TV campaign the next year. I’ll never forget the 18 hour CRC, either.

    Here’s the original “Anthem” 2 minute commercial, which brought the house down in Vegas with the dealers. It took them another year or two to bring out the pitchforks.

  21. […] was the car before the tree customized it much more radically than I could ever imagine. It was My Father’s Oldsmobile, but I got to dress it up for Saturday night dates. (Nancy wasn’t […]

  22. Peter said

    I used this phrase to describe someone’s 65 oldsmobile with a modern LS1 motor out of a corvette in it today on a message board and he didn’t get the reference so i googled the phrase to find the video and found this site, lol.

  23. Kingtenby said

    Imagine people lining up to take credit for that bunk. Like anyone believed Oldsmobile was going to suddenly change its culture completely and begin making good cars again. Crap. The line has lasted this long precisely because it was such a monster screw up. Criminy did you see that car? New Coke will be in the language of the culture for years also. Congratulations though, you helped euthanize a dying brand that was begging for it.

  24. Social BPM said

    […] of you readers may remember the 1989 death gasp of Oldsmobile which featured the idea that “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile?”  Seems to me that battle cry of Social BPM feels a little the same […]

  25. […] your fathers’ [x]” is actually quite sexist. It seems that the origin of the phrase, an Oldsmobile ad, was quite sexist, in the way that many ads are, particularly of that era. But I hadn’t ever […]

  26. […] that was your father’s ABIM. We are now paddling in a very fast current, and the actions that ABIM (and the other certifying […]

  27. tgambogi said

    And to think John Rock almost saved them from the grave if it was for Zarella

  28. Lucy Eustice said

    Doesn’t the fact that folks are still talking about that ad after over 20 years mean something? Seems to me to have been a great ad, one that most products today would love to have, name recognition and longevity.

  29. […] Oldsmobile. GM wanted to say, “This is not a typical old person’s car.” The advertising backfired, and now this line of GM cars is […]

  30. […] “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Lots of history here, some controversial, which I’ve written about before. Regardless, less than a decade later Oldsmobile was out of […]

  31. […] comforting, but these days it might put people off by sounding too old. As soon as advertisements started telling consumers that their product was good because it wasn’t like something your fa…, the days of Father Cool were numbered. Instead of trying to come up with some awkward, ill-fitting […]

  32. […] It’s easy to understand why folks at The New York Times and, say, at Democratic and Republican headquarters, and the National Council of Churches are worried about all this. After all, it’s their “traditional institutions” that are being left behind like Mayan ruins. But who can blame Millennials for, say, vacating worn-out, pre-Civil War political brands such as the Democrats and Republicans, two groups that are about as relevant and dependable as your father’s Oldsmobile? […]

  33. […] It’s easy to understand why folks at The New York Times and, say, at Democratic and Republican headquarters, and the National Council of Churches are worried about all this. After all, it’s their “traditional institutions” that are being left behind like Mayan ruins. But who can blame Millennials for, say, vacating worn-out, pre-Civil War political brands such as the Democrats and Republicans, two groups that are about as relevant and dependable as your father’s Oldsmobile? […]

  34. Hey S.P., buy the way, Joel didn’t come up with the “not your father’s” part, I did. Ask Dennis Gardner.

  35. It is a fact that DavidFerris isthe author of the” NYF” line’ I was there when he did it during a quantitative research briefing on current Oldsmobile buyers versus the desired”New Generation” targets.The line seemed such a perfect encapsulation of the reams of research data that made the mistake of including it in subsequent versions of the briefing {the first of which was deliveredto a small group of Gwaltney’s team later that same evening. It was in this meeting thatDon began to hum the strains of the melody which would become the sstirring “New Generation” anthem I must also state that I included the “NYF” line without David’s express consent, thinking that verbal attribution would be sufficient. Obviously not. in view of all the claims and counterclaims of authorship. Sorry, my bad. Another client service screwup. So, what’s new?

  36. Thanks Dennis. It looks like Stefan deleted my posting. Why am I not surprised?

    • Sorry Stefan, it has just appeared again, but says it is awaiting moderation.

      • Steffan1 said

        David et al- “Why am I not surprised?” is a better question left for those “in the room” when something remotely interesting happened and then, over the years, as life got smaller, they become desperate for validation of any kind -even if it means taking credit for aspects of an ancient, so-bad-it’s-good ad campaign. #truth

  37. Steffan,
    Standing ovation for your response.

  38. […] And of course, there is also the famous line from creative director Joel Machak in the 1980s Oldsmobile ad campaign (referenced in the title of this post) that filled the television airwaves and became one of the […]

  39. […] BONUS LINK: in the 80s, a GM brand which was getting a stodgy reputation tried to reinvent itself with a catchy “this is not your father’s” line of commercials, getting children of celebrities in the car.  Problem is, they forgot to reinvent the product itself, and the brand was obsolete by the late 2000s. Backstory on the campaign you won’t ever forget is here. […]

  40. Johng565 said

    Enjoyed studying this, very good stuff, regards . A man may learn wisdom even from a foe. by Aristophanes. ebdebgkcekka

  41. […] Over the course of seven years the most continuously visited story (actually in two parts) was a piece I wrote on the origin of the “Not Your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign, which I helped create at Leo […]

  42. […] In the late 80’s I was on the team that introduced America to a truly new Oldsmobile. Barely into my first job at Leo Burnett, I wrote and produced the opening commercial in the now infamous “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” campaign, featuring William Shatner and his daughter. For that, I wrote the line, “New Generation of Olds” but America really only remembers the step-up line, which became part of the pop culture lexicon. Even so, within a few years Oldsmobile would go out of business, retiring the brand forever. For more on all that, including some great insider controversy, start here. […]

  43. […] to the club’s first postseason berth since 1997. Playing off a theme originally established, it seems, by the now defunct auto manufacturer that this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile, I was […]

  44. Don gwaltney said

    Lots of bullshit up above. Typical. You could fill an auditorium with all the men who claimed, mainly in their obituaries, that they invented the Marlboro Man.y

  45. […] Perhaps no brand has reflected the best and worst of the American automotive manufacturers and rebranding than General Motors (GM). A huge manufacturer, GM dominated the market for years. Which was great until what they wanted to offer wasn’t what car buyers wanted to buy. Then things got tough. In the 1980’s, they tried to rebrand one of their most famous marks, Oldsmobile, as “not your father’s oldsmobile.” […]

  46. […] when they start dissing the very core of their customer base. Olds did that in the ‘80s with a poorly conceived and even less successfully executed campaign based around the tagline “Not Your Father’s […]

  47. […] Incidentally, “not your father’s…” is an expression derived from “Not your father’s Oldsmobile“, a marketing slogan that’s made a cultural impression. Ironically, Oldsmobile, the […]

  48. […] when computers and algorithmic trading had yet to be a glimmer in a quant’s eye. To paraphrase an Oldsmobile commercial, it’s not your father’s stock market […]

  49. […] computers and algorithmic trading had yet to be a glimmer in a quant’s eye. To paraphrase an Oldsmobile commercial, it’s not your father’s stock market […]

  50. […] computers and algorithmic trading had yet to be a glimmer in a quant’s eye. To paraphrase an Oldsmobile commercial, it’s not your father’s stock market […]

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