October 16, 2016

“Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat!”

The real life “Mad Men” who formed the Norman, Craig & Kummel (NCK) advertising agency in 1955 share the credit for a number of classic advertising slogans and campaigns that most people still remember.

One is the Maidenform bra series of ads that used variable headlines based on the formula “I dreamed I (did or was something) in my Maidenform bra.” Another is “Ajax: Stronger than dirt.”

In 1959, NCK was selected to be the new advertising agency for the fast-growing rental car company Hertz.

The NCK ad gurus soon developed a new ad concept and slogan: “Hertz puts you in the driver’s seat.”

According to the trademark application filed by Hertz, that slogan was first used in commerce on September 2, 1959.

It wasn’t bad. But it did seem a bit more like a demand than an offer.

So the NCK copywriters did some thinking and tweaking and created a more friendly-sounding, request-oriented variation — the world-famous advertising catchphrase almost everyone came to know:

       “Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.”

The paperwork Hertz filed when it trademarked that version said it was first used in commerce on October 16, 1959.

In the early 1960s, print ads, signs and television commercials featuring the line were everywhere.

The TV commercials, which pioneered some early special effects, were especially memorable.

Gravity-defying people floated down from the sky into the seats of their rental cars, as viewers heard a cheery vocal group sing “Let Hertz put YOU in the driver’s seat” in a swinging jingle.

AdAge magazine has listed that series of ads as one of the “Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the Century.”

It helped make Hertz the largest rental car company in the world.

Then in 1963 Hertz’s smaller rival, Avis, started it’s own memorable ad campaign.

Those ads noted that Avis was “only No. 2” in the car rental business. Not as big as Hertz.

What that meant, the ads suggested, was that Avis was more motivated to please customers than Hertz.

This cleverly-snarky concept was encapsulated by copywriters at the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency in the famous ad slogan: “We try harder.” (Also listed in the AdAge Top 100.)

It was a jiu-jitsu move that turned Hertz’s position as the largest car rental company against it and succeeded in gaining more attention and customers for Avis.

By 1966, an
article in Time magazine noted that Hertz “is being at least nibbled by ‘We’re only No. 2’ Avis...Avis has upped its revenues by 34% in 1966, compared with Cadillac-sized Hertz's gain of 18%.”

The article also noted the Hertz had unceremoniously dumped Norman, Craig & Kummel and hired a new ad agency.

Their new agency never came up with anything as well remembered as “Let Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.” And, ironically, Hertz has continued to use the slogan off and on in more recent decades.

The Hertz vs. Avis ad slogan war and the firing of NCK the agency business are a reminder that the advertising business in the 1960s was both extremely creative and extremely rough, as dramatized by the hit TV show
Mad Men.

It still is, of course.

But I doubt if the ad biz of today will ever be viewed as being anywhere near as cool as it was in the era depicted by Mad Men.

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