Slogans: good, bad, and otherwise.

A good one . . .

A good one . . .

Henry Ford once said, “If you have a really good thing, it will advertise itself.”

Lest you think this is mere hyperbole, note that between 1917 and 1923, when demand for the company’s seminal Model T was at its height, Ford ran no ads. Zero. Not as much competition back then, you might still argue? Actually a U.S. car buyer in 1920 could choose from over 120 brands.

It’s been a while since a manufacturer could dominate a market without any advertising, although sometimes I think Rolex could save a whole bunch of money. But in today’s fast-paced and overwhelmingly input-heavy world, I suppose product makers need to keep frantically stroking toward the surface of an ocean of products to make sure they’re noticed.

The easiest, grabbiest way to do so is with a really good slogan—a line of no more than a few words that encapsulates to maker’s philosophy or passion in a way that excites the consumer’s passion as well. You’d think this would be an easy thing to come up with, and there have been many legendary slogans that have become embedded in our collective consciousness: “Just do it” from Nike, certainly (even though it’s really a rather banal phrase). But it’s astonishing how many duds there are.

I got to thinking about the slogans of various brands with which I’m familiar, or have actually purchased, when I passed a Land Rover LR4 with a conspicuous “One Life, Live It” banner across the back window. I have to admit this slogan has always given me a vague icky feeling. It’s just way too precious, like the people who would be susceptible to it would be into indoor rock climbing and Soulcycle and Bikram yoga but never actually do anything out of doors. I’m positive that’s grossly unfair, but it’s just my gut reaction. And it got me to thinking of other slogans I like, and yet others that make me wonder that someone actually got paid to come up with them.

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Compare Porsche’s incomparable and oh-so-Germanic “There is no substitute” with Snap-on’s lame “There is a difference.” The former sneeringly dismisses the competition; the latter is defensive and whiny about that competition. Porsche is telling you, “You can buy a Corvette for half the money. It might even be faster around a race course. But it’s still just a Chevrolet.” Snap-on is saying, “You can buy Craftsman tools for a fifth the price, but ours are better. Really. We promise.” Lame.

(Honorable close second to Porsche goes to Ferrari and its “We are the competition.” I wonder if they hired a German PR agent for that one?)

The automotive world has seen its share of winner and loser slogans. Perhaps the most bold was Volkswagen’s simple “Think small” campaign, launched in the teeth of America’s craze for ever-larger land yachts in the late 1950s. But it worked, attracting hundreds of thousands of owners who either were unimpressed by or simply couldn’t afford the tail-finned barges of the era. (And of course there was National Lampoon’s own later Volkswagen “ad,” showing a Beetle floating in water—an actual Volkswagen boast at the time—with the line, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be president now.” Ouch.)

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Chevrolet, perhaps surprisingly, has had several slogans perfectly tuned to its market. “See the USA in a Chevrolet” and “The heartbeat of America” conjured both road-trip adventure and patriotism. Contrast with Toyota’s bland “Oh what a feeling!” “Get the feeling,” the inexplicably inexplicable “Moving forward,” or the just plain stupid “Everyday.” Really, Toyota? Mercury’s “Live life in your own lane” sounds like the kind of admonishment so many lane hogs could use these days, whereas Mitsubishi’s “Wake up and drive” seems to be aimed at Tesla owners who play video games on the freeway.

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At the other end of the spectrum are such brilliant slogans as Jaguar’s original “Grace . . Space . . Pace,” Bentley’s “The silent sports car,” and, much later, from Lexus, “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” BMW’s excellent “The ultimate driving machine” was followed by the so-so “Sheer driving pleasure.” Audi’s “Vorsprung durch technik” sounded awesomely über-something-or-other in German, even though its literal translation is simply “Advancement through technology.” Meh.

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Perhaps my favorite automotive slogans of all time were completely fictional. A few years back some clever soul imagined the reintroduction of the infamous Trabant 601, and came up with a campaign of fanciful yet oh-so-perceptive slogans, such as “Just like stainless steel. But made from plastic,” or “Just like a gym. But with a steering wheel.” Truth in advertising, even if it was fake.