It can’t be… It is!

“Take a fresh look at Buick,” the voiceover tells us in the carmaker’s new anthem. The commercial features vignettes of people in disbelief that the lovely new car they are gazing upon and/or riding in is in fact a Buick. An old woman insists the regal beauty in her son’s driveway is not a Buick. She grew up with Buicks and knows her Buicks. A valet keeps running past a new Buick in the parking lot searching for what we surmise must be an old-fashioned car. Later we see him behind the wheel. “Nice,” he says. A desperately envious housewife ogles her neighbor’s new SUV, unaware it is a Buick, as her cuckold husband mopes beside her.

In the print ad a hip millennial with blue streaks in her hair smiles behind the wheel mocking the notion of Buick being only for blue-haired ladies.

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We get the idea. Buick has been transformed into a luxury car made for today. In other words, this is not your father’s Buick. Obviously, we’ve been down this road before…

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.

The point is Buick is trying to do the exact same thing. My guess is that it won’t end well for them either. I say this not because the strategy is necessarily wrong but as Oldsmobile learned the hard way it might very well be a dooming one. No matter how clever the executions –and these are decent- Buick is still telling folks that it is not an old-fashioned car (anymore), which, alas, has the unfortunate side effect of reminding people that Buick is totally known for being old-fashioned. It is a paradox. A bit like saying your cool ultimately means you’re not cool. We see these commercials and we cannot help but think Buick doth protest too much.

I mean no ill will for Buick or their ad agency. But I have spent decades wondering what went wrong with Oldsmobile, especially given how much America loved our silly campaign. There are but two reasons: The new generation of Olds was not as good as our father’s. And that the marketing released a deadly worm into the world dooming Oldsmobile to the scrap heap of history.

Anything can happen. After all, these new Buicks may well be damn fine cars. But perception is reality and this campaign inevitably ignites a very dangerous perception.

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Dreaming in long copy…

When addicts stop using drugs and alcohol they are commonly beset by drinking and drugging dreams. Usually occurring within the first year of abstinence these dreams can be strikingly vivid. The addict often wakes up highly agitated, believing completely he or she has fallen off the wagon. Even upon realizing it’s only a dream, the phenomenon can be highly disturbing. Addicts and alcoholics feel as though they have betrayed their sobriety, almost like a relapse.

Not to connect the dots but…

Having left Adland 5 months ago, I had my first (recollected) advertising dream the other night. I was younger (a man can dream!) and working on a luxury car account. The crux of the dream had me pitching concepts to one of my first bosses and mentors, Ted Bell. (Ted is now retired from advertising and a best-selling author of thrillers like Warlord and Assassin.)

If he was my boss that means the place was likely Leo Burnett and the account Oldsmobile… even if the car in my dream was a snazzy convertible, unlike anything Olds used to make.

Regardless, I remember trying to make wordplay about drivers having an “open mind” for the open top vehicle. I can’t recall the exact copy but either way Ted wasn’t buying it. “People don’t need an open mind to want one of these cars,” he kept repeating. Why I kept fighting him on the point I don’t know; but I was. Needless to say, the boss is always right. Even in your dreams. Upon waking, I realized my idea was silly and sophomoric. Very “spec book.”

Yet, what disturbed me most about the dream wasn’t the mediocre concept but rather my dogged determination to prevail. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I kept trying to make a case for my silly open minds concept.

Sound familiar? Who among us doesn’t remember pushing way too hard our first concepts? The relentless young creative is so commonplace it’s basically a cliché. In a recent AdAge interview, famed adman and now teacher, Luke Sullivan stated his biggest regret was “having an insane amount of certainty” as a young copywriter.

And there I was trying to force my boss to have an open mind!


Sorry son, only the tagline lives on…

This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. The line has become a pop culture catch phrase, in the same ilk (albeit attached to worse advertising) as “Got Milk?” Try reading your morning paper and not finding a variation on it. 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 they are of Shakespeare’s finest sonnets. Way more.

As I remember it, a soft-spoken creative director at Leo Burnett by the name of Joel Machak wrote that famous line. Yours truly 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 (just a kid at the time) 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.

Given it’s continued popularity I decided to write a piece about it, in 2008. Since then the story continues to provoke readers to comment on the campaign. The debate mainly revolves around who actually penned the line, including a recent missive from then creative director, Don Gwaltney. (Hi Don!)

Before I go on, let me state that all the posted arguments are more than less valid. Don Gwaltney. Ted Bell. Jim Ferguson. 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

What’s ironic is that when this campaign was in its heyday most of us were not particularly proud of it. We knew it was catchy but we also realized it was damn silly. As the commercials caught on I remember feeling pretty foolish about what I’d created. It wasn’t until years later I actually put a couple of the spots on my reel and even then I did so with trepidation. To my recollection the campaign never won a single creative award. A few years later Oldsmobile went out of business. The adline proved true to a fault. This was not your father’s Oldsmobile. Dad’s Oldsmobile was good. These cars were mediocre and overpriced.

Be that as it may, the campaign became a part of advertising history –even American history. And people want their props.

With equal parts embarrassment and pride, I give you one of the first commercials, which I wrote, for “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.”

Bill Shatner & Daughter \"Space Age!\"