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July 16, 2005

Donald on Distortion in Car Ads

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm pleased to present some more information, observations, and musings from Donald Pittenger, who has been thinking recently about visual distortions in automobile advertisements.

Here's Donald Pittenger.


(Literally) Distorted Advertising: Car Ads 1920-1970
by Donald Pittenger

The 2003 Pebble Beach Concours d'Élégance classic car show included a tent where automobile artists showed their wares. One of the artists was Arthur Fitzpatrick, who was part of the "VK AF" team that illustrated a famous Pontiac advertising series from 1959 to 1972. Fitzpatrick did the cars and (the late) Van Kaufman provided the backgrounds.

I loved those Pontiac ads. Kaufman's backgrounds were interesting to look at and skillfully done. Fitzpatrick's cars had wonderful reflections and highlights on their surfaces, the reflections being of Kaufman's artwork. They were a great team, and their success is indicated by the extremely long life of the advertising campaign; Pontiac wouldn't have kept shoveling the money if the ads didn't seem to pull in buyers.

So I chatted briefly with Fitzpatrick, happily playing the role of shy fan who had admired his work way back in the days when I was a commercial art major in college. Then I looked over the various reproductions he was selling. Okay, this was two years ago, so I've forgotten the details -- but my impression is that I didn't see many (or any) Pontiac illustrations. What there was plenty of were pictures of Buicks he did before his Pontiac gig.

I just checked his web site and see that he now has a lot of reproductions from the "VK AF" oeuvre for sale. Clearly, the Pontiac ads are his claim to fame, so it makes utter commercial sense to offer reproductions. But why did they seem to be so late in coming?

Most likely it had to do with negotiating copyright or ownership issues with General Motors or its Pontiac ad agency of the time. But two years ago I was puzzled, so I looked up some "VK AF" examples and noticed something that hadn't fully hit home back when the ads were new: Fitzpatrick often seemed to be distorting the shapes of those Pontiacs, making them lower and wider than the actual cars. But not the Buicks, which seemed normal to me.

1965 Pontiac

1955 Buick

Might he have held back selling reproductions due to a small tinge of professional embarrassment? I don't know, and it really doesn't much matter because Fitzpatrick by no means was the only one to distort, and the matter of distorting the appearance of cars is what I want to discuss here. But first let me set the automobile advertising illustration scene.

A Brief History of Automobile Advertising Illustration

I'll skip the early years and begin with the 1920s. By that decade, cars were getting pretty reliable (a theme of some ads in the early days), so "lifestyle" crept into advertising. This was in the form of either having a scene of some genteel activity such as yachting at the top of the page and the car separately pictured towards the bottom, or else a single picture with the car placed in the genteel setting, say at a golf clubhouse. Cars and settings were generally painted illustrations: photographs, often heavily retouched, were used less.

1924 Paige

A possible reason for this is that, given reproduction technology in the early Twenties, an illustration could show a car to better effect than an un-retouched screened photo which ran the risk of looking smudgy. Another reason might be that most of the big general-interest magazines of the time (Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, American, etc.) relied almost entirely on artists to illustrate stories, and ad agency art directors simply went along with that practice.

By 1970, illustration by artists was pretty well on the ropes on both the editorial and advertising sides of magazines. Today, almost all car ad illustrations begin as photos but are likely to be digitized and bit-tweaked before appearing in print.

Between the early 1920s and the late 1960s car advertising and its art bounced along to the economic and zeitgeist factors that influenced media in general. Advertisements will be shown below that exemplify some of the points I'll now make as a scene-setting exercise.

1962 Oldsmobile

As best I can tell, the best predictor of the sort of car advertising one encounters is the state of the economy. Automobiles are big-ticket goods. The (mostly true) cliché has it that a car is a family's most expensive purchase aside from a house. Even in good times most people give some thought before deciding to buy a new car. When bad times hit, a new automobile is one purchase that can easily be postponed.

Times were good in the late Twenties and car ads tended to become life-style oriented. Although four-color reproduction was expensive in those days, car makers often sprung for color ads with beautiful illustrations by skilled artists.

The Thirties of course was the decade of the Great Depression. During much of that period, car ads reverted to cheaper black-and-white printing and often used photos instead of art. And the sales pitch changed: fewer life-style scenes and more punchy, side-bar photos, each dealing with a separate, tangible sales point regarding a product feature.

1938 Buick

1930 Willys

1939 DeSoto

For the first few years after World War 2, car makers had a seller's market as the country was prosperous and people who had postponed buying due to the Depression and the wartime hiatus of automobile production were eager to get a new car. Since just about any new car was snapped up, advertising began to fall away from Thirties hard-sell to ads that sometimes were little more than reminders that car company X was still in business.

Following the 1950-'53 Korean War -- when material shortages restricted production -- competition became more fierce. One result was the collapse of "independent" car brands Studebaker, Packard, Nash, Hudson, Kaiser, Frazer and Willys. Packard and Studebaker merged, the Packard brand vanishing in 1958, while Studebaker staggered into the mid-Sixties. Nash and Hudson merged to create American Motors, but the last Nashes and Hudsons were 1957 models. American Motors, which first had some success with the Rambler brand, bought Jeep from Kaiser, was taken over by the French Renault firm, and finally was sold to Chrysler in the 1980s. Frazer died after the 1951 model year. Willys and Kaiser departed the American scene by 1955.

1955 DeSoto

The U.S. economy has been essentially prosperous since the Second World War, so car advertising since the early Fifties has tended to be lavish and life-style oriented, aside from brief recessionary periods where some advertising edged in the hard-sell direction. But competition remained fierce. Even though a number of weak American brands expired, overseas manufacturers began exporting cars to America in large number by the late Fifties and now claim a large share of the market. Over the years the Big Three Detroit manufacturers were forced to kill off several of the own brands including Edsel, DeSoto, Imperial, Plymouth and Oldsmobile.

How Cars Were Depicted

Given that car makers have tended to sell lifestyle as much or more so than product features, it's no surprise that advertising tried to show automobiles in the best possible light. Moreover, I doubt you'll enter a state of shock if I hinted that this lily-gilding sometimes reached the point where the cars in ad pictures looked a lot sleeker than the actual cars.

This wasn't evident in the 1920s, possibly because the craft of automobile advertising was still in the rapid-evolutionary phase: things were more experimental then than later on. My impression is that in those days illustrations of cars look pretty much like the real things. If artists fudged a cars' proportions, such fudging was pretty subtle. Where illustrations didn't seem realistic, this likely can be chalked up to lack of artistic skill.

(How many artist-readers know the geometric tricks for perspective free-handing car wheels and tires? Hint: you start with the axel-axis and then erect a line at 90 degrees at the point on the axis where the out-facing side of the tire falls before attempting the oval. The axel-axis will not be the true axel-line if the front wheels are steered off-center.)

But if car shapes were left alone, another trick was in play before the 1930s -- drawing passengers smaller than normal so as to make the car seem larger than it actually was.

A few years into the Thirties, "streamlining" came into vogue (I'll deal with the evolution of automobile styling in more detail in future posts). Instead of being imposingly tall and basically squared-off, car bodies became more rounded and lower. Since tall cars were now unfashionable, and since cars weren't really very much shorter than they were when tall was okay, artists (perhaps goaded by ad agency art directors) drew cars as being lower and longer than they were in reality.

Let's pause to display some ads that illustrate the points I'm trying to make.

First is a Studebaker ad from 1920. It seems to be a photo illustration, but probably retouched.

1920 Studebaker

Next is a 1931 ad for Ford. At first glance the illustration seems to be a realistic depiction, and I didn't trouble to locate an actual photo and do comparative measurements.

1931 Ford

The third example is Packard from 1934. It's a view from above at a pretty high angle which is unusual, since cars are seldom seen from this perspective. Again I didn't make measurements, but the car strikes me a being too narrow.

1934 Packard

So far, the advertising depictions are realistic or halfway close to being so.

Distortion Begins

Now for some serious distortions. An early example of distortion is in a 1926 Oakland ad. Here we are dealing with forced perspective -- actually faulty perspective, because the front of the car's vanishing point is farther to the right than the vanishing point for the back part of the body. The result is a bent-looking car.

1926 Oakland

An unusually extreme example for its vintage is the illustration in a Nash ad from 1934. It looks obviously wrong -- too low, too long and too swoopy.

Illustration of a 1934 Nash

Compare it to this photo of the actual car. (Apologies for the poor quality; it was the only one I could locate, but it gives you an idea as to the car's actual proportions. By the way, the man standing to the left is Charlie Nash himself.)

Actual 1934 Nash

Besides shrinking drivers and passengers, cars in ads were sometimes crammed to the gills with people -- see the ad for the 1938 Chrysler. This was to persuade folks with large families that the whole gang could be accommodated. Unfortunately, this is borderline deception.

1938 Chrysler

Until about 1950, cars tended to be narrow; check the size of garages and garage doors for houses built before then. Back seats could comfortably hold two people and a third could be squeezed in if all three weren't too heavy. Front seats were essentially restricted to two people because gear-shift levers were placed on the floor atop the drive-line in those days; a passenger in the middle would have the lever between his feet and the driver elbowing him whenever shifting was required.

In the late '30s gear-shift levers were moved to the steering column, thereby accommodating a (slender) third passenger. Another people-trick for photographic ads was to hire small models and position them flat against the doors. This created the illusion of a large, wide car.

High Tide of Distortion

To me, the golden age of automobile ad illustration distortion was the late 1940s and early '50s. Let's start with a 1947 Mercury ad featuring very mild distortion in that the rear of the car appears to be bent outwards slightly.

1947 Mercury

I've noticed several cases of this and guess that the idea was to give viewers a better idea regarding how the car was trimmed. Another explanation is poor draftsmanship, but that doesn't hold for this ad because it was probably painted by Fitzpatrick, who certainly knew exactly what he was doing.

Next are two ads for Hudsons. The first ad has a rather flattened 1947 model which was a heavily facelifted body dating back well into the Thirties.

1947 Hudson

Next is a 1949 ad showing the famous (at the time) "step-down" Hudson introduced for the 1948 model year.

1949 Hudson ad

These Hudsons actually were long, low and wide as is attested by this photo of a '49 Hudson.

1949 Hudson

Nevertheless, the illustrated Hudson has exaggerated proportions. This puzzles me; I can see why they messed with the tall, narrow '47 car, but the '49 ad was unnecessary lily-guiding, in my opinion.

An example of gross distortion is an ad for the 1952 Chrysler -- compare it to a photo of a Chrysler of the same year (it's a 2-door hardtop coupe, probably a few inches shorter than a 4-door sedan, but it still ought to illustrate how much distortion was in the ad).

Ad for 1952 Chrysler

Actual 1952 Chrysler

For reasons I won't go into now, the first post-war Chrysler Corporation re-design yielded a tall, rather squared-off body that compared unfavorably with sleeker offerings from General Motors, Hudson, Studebaker, Mercury and other competitors. By 1952, sales for all Chrysler brands (Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto and Chrysler) were suffering and this advertisement apparently was an attempt to convince potential buyers to not believe their lyin' eyes when they saw Chrysler products on the street.

Not all late-'40s car makers used distorted illustrations. Here is an ad for a 1947 Dodge that strikes me as being a pretty accurate representation of the real thing.

1947 Dodge

Now let's return to Art Fitzpatrick's gorgeous Pontiac renderings. Shown here are an ad for a 1966 car along with a photo of a '66 Pontiac. Actually, the real car looks surprisingly wide; you don't see many on the road these days, so maybe I'd forgotten what they really looked like when I thought Fitzpatrick had fudged the width a tad.

1966 Pontiac Ad by Arthur Fitzpatrick

Actual 1966 Pontiac

So did he or didn't he exaggerate? In desperation, I'll sometimes do the reasonable thing, namely make some measurements. Okay, both Fitzpatrick's Pontiacs and the car in the photo are in perspective, so truly accurate measurement is impossible and approximations will have to do.

Taking the height of the body as from the lowest sheet-metal below the bumper to where the hood becomes close to horizontal and the width as the distance between the outer edges of the headlight assembly, I get a width-height ratio of about 3.14 (the number Pi, for you numerologists anxious to draw conclusions). A car picture book I recently inspected at a Barnes & Noble had a head-on view of an early-'60s Pontiac (a different, but similar, body) which had a ratio close to 3.0. These ratios are approximately what Fitzpatrick's illustrations should hit if they are to be called accurate.

As best I can figure it, the Pontiac in the 1965 ad shown above is 3.0 while the '66 ad car's ratio appears to be closer to 3.5. The buff mag "Collectible Automobiles" had an article on Fitzpatrick a few issues ago that included more Pontiac illustrations (as well as Dodges, Buicks and other makes). Ratios ranged from 3.2 to 3.9, so I must conclude that Fitzpatrick indeed got a bit "creative" at times.


One final observation. When the late-'40s spate of exaggerated illustrations came out, I was not aware of the distortions. Some of this was probably because I was young and my visual sense wasn't as "educated" as it became as I grew older. And some adults likely never paid enough attention to car proportions to judge the veracity of the illustrations.

But there might be another factor explaining why advertisers were able to get away with distorted car illustrations for so many years. It has to do with the fact that the ads were often placed in magazines with large page formats (Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and Life) that were viewed from a distance of 18 inches, give or take. At that distance, a large picture of a car (occupying perhaps eight inches in a one-page ad or as much as 18 inches on a two-page spread) cannot easily be taken in at a glance, as is the case for this article's illustrations on a typical computer screen. Instead, the eye has to SCAN the picture, probably from side-to-side. And such scanning means that only a segment of the illustration is in full view at any one time, thus making distortions in the horizontal direction (the most common ones) harder to detect. Subtle distortions (maybe 10 percent or less) might not be noticeable at all in such publications.

Am I nuts? Anyone have other ideas? Please comment.


I remember those beautiful mid-'60s Pontiac ads myself. The cars in them -- and the way the ads portrayed the cars -- struck me as hot-hot-hot. Could low-and-wide, at least when done by Arthur Fitzpatrick, simply mean both "sexy" and "you want me"?

Many thanks to Donald Pittenger.



posted by Michael at July 16, 2005


At what point do you think that advertisers failed to maintain the best American cars as upper class status symbols?

We forget that cheap imports may have doomed the standard, low cost American behemoth, but a failure of marketing contributed to the failure of the Big Three to preserve any of their brands as an elite product in the same league as BMW, Mercedes Benz or Audi.

The fact that Lexus could be developed and leapfrog established brands shows how poorly marketers understood the prestige game. Cadillac is just starting to catch up in a market they should have owned outright in the eighties.

Posted by: jn on July 18, 2005 10:45 AM

Too bad the carmakers didn't make the cars like they are in the ad---the cars in the ad are better looking than the real thing. They needed this guy to actually do their styling, not just their advertising!

But...I do think the connection of a lot of brands with the Greatest Generation doomed them. With the sixties and seventies rebellion--in addition to gas prices---people didn't want the same brand as their parents. "Cadillac" seemed old-fogey, Lexus new and cool. I don't think it was just advertising, though. Their styling sucked, and they were stuck with the sixties Rat Pack image, which may not have been so easy to change. Remember--"It's not your father's Pontiac"--it didn't work!

But the world was glamorous in these ads!

Posted by: annette on July 18, 2005 11:34 AM

Ah, for the good old days of creative advertising. Too many of today's car commercials on television share an almost depressing sameness. You see the car being driving in an extra-legal speed and/or manner, its windows blacked out so the driver's not visible, and across the bottom of the screen there's the covering-one's-behind legal disclaimer, "Professional Driver. Closed Road." Producing the classical magazine advertisements as shown in this (excellent) article must have been so much more demanding.
Seeing the Carole Lombard advertisement for DeSoto got me thinking about something. As far as I can tell, celebrities aren't used much any more in car advertising, at least in comparison to other consumer products. Could it be that we don't trust celebrity pitchmen when it comes to costly purchases like cars?

Posted by: Peter on July 18, 2005 02:42 PM

Actually, I think it was "It's not your father's Oldsmobile"--and it didn't work either!

Posted by: annette on July 18, 2005 03:51 PM

Bruce McCall also did illustrations for auto ads, but since then has done many comic versions of auto ads through the decades, often utilizing just the sort of distortion you discuss. He also has a pitch-perfect ear for the accompanying marketing blather. Many of his best are in Zany Afternoons, but some of his other books have some.

Posted by: PapayaSF on July 18, 2005 06:25 PM

Great article, Donald! Definitely, super testosterone-charged, but great!

I wonder, though...

I believe this hypothesis has a parallel in artful renderings of women's high fashion wear of the same eras. McCall's, Good Housekeeping, etc., as well as the major pattern makers ( Butterick, Simplicity, McCalls, and Vogue) all depicted women with impossible anatomies.

Subterfuge, indeed!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on July 18, 2005 10:26 PM

I think I dated a woman once with an impossible anatomy. Didn't work out, but I still have fond memories...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 19, 2005 12:36 AM

This posting should have appeared on Harleys, Cars, Girls and Guitars!

Oh, well, I commented on it anyway.

Posted by: Stephen on July 19, 2005 12:50 PM

My compliments to Mr. Pittenger. This is the kind of thing I lap up with delight. (Insert image of cat confronted with dish of cream.) As for exaggeratedly wide Pontiac depictions in mid-60s ads, it may not be coincidental that part of the Pontiac image at the time was a motif called "Wide-Track." (May still be. A Google search on "Wide-Track" and variant spellings turned up a number of Pontiac hits.) The '65 front-end styling with stacked, vertical headlights may have been another attempt to exaggerate the car's apparent wideness. Exactly how that translated into actual physical dimensions, I'm not sure, since there are limits on how wide a car can actually be to fit existing garage doors, parking spaces, narrow lanes, and so on.

More generally, I'd noticed some of the advertising tricks Donald pointed out myself in looking at old car ads. The most common one in paintings seemed to be depicting the driver and passengers as smaller than they would be in real life, making the car itself look enormous in comparison. Larger, for that matter, than would be remotely practical in real life. Along with extreme foreshorterning, dramatic angles, and creative distortion, the purpose seemed to be to make the car in the ad look huge, exciting, and powerful, never mind that the real thing was just another dumpy little car. If people noticed the deliberate manipulation of the advertising image at the time, perhaps they just shrugged and accepted it as typical and something to be expected from an ad that everybody knew was trying to sell you something, and weren't too disappointed when they saw the real thing in the dealer's showroom.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 19, 2005 08:05 PM

A couple ads cited in the text didn't make to the screen, but I informed Michael and hope he can find and post them.

jn -- The artists doing ads tended to be the lowest totem pole dwellers. In recent decades, Product Planning has tended to call the shots. More exactly, top executives call the shots, but product planners working with marketers, engineers, production specialists, stylists and bean-counters negotiate what a new (not facelifted) car package will be like in terms of dimensions, passenger/cargo configurations, key features and so forth. Once okayed, the package goes over to styling, engineering and production engineering to actualize the car.

I used to do my little bit for General Motors in the form of forecasting future households by type and income level. This supposedly gave marketers clues regarding potentially growing or declining car market "segments".

Folks with better connections to the industry tend to blame everyone except engineers and stylists (the "car guys") for Detroit's problems. The hypothesis is that non-car guys can't tell a good (or bad) product when they see one in an industry where great products drive good sales (i.e., the current Chrysler 300 and Ford Mustang are HOT).

Annette -- Yes, the fantasy was better than the reality -- superficially. However, if someone actually built a car to the dimensions in the ad illustrations, the roads would be clogged with 20 foot long monstrosities with tiny wheels and no real room for passengers (or maybe too much room in cases where ads show tiny figures riding). The huge, awkward (long tail overhang, narrow-track-with-wheels-5-inches-inbound-from-body-width) cars of the late 50s and the 60s come fairly close to the distorted dimentions in ads from 10 years earlier.

Peter -- Interesting observation. Was Ricardo Montalban, who pitched Chryslers in the late 70s, the last of the celebrity endorsement breed? I'm not sure, though he is the last I recall offhand. (Lee Iacocca was a celebrity, but not from Hollywood.) Nowadays, showbiz types still sometimes push non-automotive products, but mostly seem to do freebie endorsements for political candidates.

Actually, from the 20s into the 60s, celebrity endorsement was common. In the 20s and into the 30s the celebrities were sometimes high society people. In the 30s and beyond, they were mostly movie or radio stars along with athletes. Maybe Michael can post the question of declining celebrity endorsments and let Blowhards fans come up with some explanations.

Papaya -- "Automobile Magazine" has run McCall satirical stuff for some time now, so feast on it!

Pattie and Friedrich -- It's true that fashion illustration used distortion. When I was in art school they told us that it was perfectly okay to draw women 9 heads tall even though 7 1/2 or at most 8 heads was normal. That was back in the late 50s when a lot of fashion illustration was in the form a wash drawings for department store ads in newspapers.

With the semi-demise of fashion illustration, fashion advertising now relies heavily on photographed or videotaped (for those runway videos you sometimes see in upscale stores) models who do their very best to appear 9 heads tall. The argument I've heard is that tall, slender models show clothing to best advantage, and it makes sense to me. And this fits with the scanning hypothesis I noted in the main article -- except in fashion the eye-scan is vertical rather than horizontal as was the case for cars.

Umm, can you tell us more, Friedrich? Or would the Missus object?

Stephen -- Thanks for the link!!

Dwight -- Good points. I don't remember being conscious of the distortion unless it was caricature-like in extent. Also, I was grade-school to junior high age during the golden years of distortion and essentially assumed that if a car was illustrated, well that was what it was like (some ads, after all, did show cars true to form). Are there any older-times than me who can discuss Dwight's shrug-it-off hypothesis?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 19, 2005 08:19 PM

Dwight's comment is interesting---that people would have just shrugged off the distortion when they saw the real car. I wouldn't have. I would have been disappointed in the real car compared to the ad! They made the "real thing" look worse than it needed to by comparison, which is an interesting approach for advertising to take. But maybe a typical one---I guess a lot of things are "better" in the ad than in real life, so maybe we all just make the mental adjustment.

Too bad the proportions in the ad make the car un-drivable in real life---I still think the ad looks way cooler!

Posted by: annette on July 20, 2005 10:23 AM

How can you write about car ad distortion and not mention the great master,Bruce McCall?Unpardonable and humorless.

Posted by: Wayne on July 20, 2005 03:50 PM

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