10 of the Best Bad Car Commercials From the ’80s and ’90s

1980 Ford Pinto station wagon | Ford
1980 Ford Pinto station wagon | Ford

As a capitalistic consumer culture, we sure have come a long way since the days when grainy graphics, sub-par sound effects, and obnoxious announcers-flooded equally bad Zenith television screens across America. The 1980s were a golden era for fodder the likes of which abominations are born, with our cable-equipped living rooms serving as glowing targets for marketing firms and auto manufacturers alike. Fortunately, advancements in both CG graphics and sound editing alone have made a major difference in the quality of material being forced upon us everyday, with many nationally broadcasted  automotive advertisements sticking to a certain status quo.

Sure there are still a few bad ads out there that either inspire us to change the channel or throw a shoe at the tube, but overall there has been a noticeable improvement in the quality of car ads in the past fifteen years or so. This is in stark contrast to everything prior to the year 2000, when the average car commercial was hit or miss at best, and was still prone to being nothing more than purchasing propaganda campaign set to the wailing of a dozen synthesizers and an ensemble of backup singers.

Since this topic became quite the heated discussion one afternoon around the water cooler, we decided to peruse YouTube in the hopes of turning up some of the worst car commercials imaginable. The result was the unearthing of an endless parade of bile-filled TV spots the likes of which you would not believe.

Everything from ridiculously bad scripting, to over the top camera angles that did neither the car nor the viewer any favors were witnessed, so we hastily reformed our search. We didn’t just demand pure rubbish; we wanted something that was both gag-inducing and entertaining at the same time. Where were all those bad ads from our childhood that made you feel both amused and nostalgic at the same time?

It was a painful process, but after several hours of wading through excruciatingly bad advertisements we were finally able to glean a top ten list from the internet’s steaming heap of old-school excrement. Most of the classics we found primarily consisted of ads from the 1990s and 1980s, and featured everything from absurd musical numbers, to vile voice-overs and over the top acting at every turn. It may not be pretty, but holy crap is it entertaining to watch. So let’s take a quick cruise down memory lane in order to review the best of the worst shall we?

1. Chrysler Laser

Hot on the heels of Star War’s triumphant box office success, Chrysler had the bright notion to contract baritone-voiced actor James Earl Jones for the narration of this classic 1980s performance piece. While this dollop of classic marketing may seem to be all action up front, we found ourselves enamored by the Laser’s “high-tech” instrument panel and bizarre steering wheel layout. We also chuckled as we watched the car painfully pitch and roll in the slalom, and at the fact that the driver actually might be Darth Vader incognito, with his ebony get-up and all-black vehicle interior. But perhaps our favorite part of watching this ad is the spectacular sensation we get every time we hear Jones say, “Make it luxurious.”

2. Ford Ranger “Splash Edition”

There are times when you cannot help but wonder what the hell the focus group was thinking when they gave the okay on a particular marketing campaign. This would be one of those times. With its flared step-side prepped for action, this waterfall-ready edition of the iconic Ford mini truck zips in and out of its own personal grotto in the 1994 advertisement, as swimsuit clad models and spray-tanned 90210 rejects prance around its bright red exterior. Throw in a “super cab” that really wasn’t all that super, some over the top electric guitar riffs, and a few period-correct “Splash” decals, and you’ve got one killer commercial to giggle over.

3. Chevrolet Astro Van

This next advertisement is so bad and bizarre that we could not help but throw it on today’s cheat sheet. Apparently, during the 1980s, GM found it wise to promote commercials that were a bit “out there,” a fact that surely still haunts the bowtie brand to this day. With teams of chorus girls singing “Chevy, Chevy, Astro, Astro” in the background, a narrator who wants us to believe that this heap had a “brilliant new world of cockpit instrumentation,” and some very strange looking space explorers smiling at us, you cannot help but laugh at this lemon. Perhaps the hardest thing to believe though was that most Americans actually opted for an Astro van instead of a classic station wagon at the time.

4. Ford Escort GT

The 1990s were a mismatched time for sure, and this commercial for the utterly uninspired Ford Escort GT really helps hammer that fact home. With its seizure inducing frame-rate, bizarre references to damn near everything, and overly exuberant narration, we had to throw this little gem into the mix. According to Ford, this crappy commuter car had “great looks” and would turn the heads of any sunglasses, suit-wearing weirdo out there. But what really cracked us up about this one was that Ford claimed that the Escort GT came equipped with “sport suspension” in order to allow drivers to better hug the road, when all this ad really did was cause people to hug the toilet bowl tighter.

5.  Nissan 300ZX

We shall now briefly move from bad to badass, all courtesy of a clever little early ’90s piece from Nissan. Sure it may not be a life changing experience, but where the commercial lacks in substance it more than makes up for in style. Throw in extras like pre Toy Story action figure sequences, the use of Van Halen’s cover of the Kinks classic “You Really Got Me,” and a mysterious wizard named Mr. K and you’ve got a real winner in our book. According to an old report from the New York Times later that year, this Mr. K character was “supposed to embody the zesty founder and former president of the Nissan Motor Corporation U.S.A., Yutaka Katayama.”

6. Pontiac Excitement

Sometime during the cocaine crazed cluster referred to as the 1980s, a brief, but oh-so-inspiring musical number convinced an entire nation to turn off Arsenio Hall and go out and buy a Pontiac. This really was a bad piece of advertising ingenuity, as it attempted to push almost every single vehicle in the company’s lineup instead of focusing on one particular model. This ad was also well known for models sporting the latest in big hair fashion, and certain air of edginess that can only be imbued by sporadic editing and the usage of overly aggressive camera angles.

Another interesting fact worth noting is that unlike many other idealistic advertisements from the time, this particular masterpiece had a number of real life circumstances integrated into its sales pitch. We especially liked the fact that the producers thought it would be a nice touch to include a cop writing one of the actresses a ticket at 33 seconds in.

7. The Big Volkswagen Meet

Nothing says “Buy a Volkswagen” quite like a bunch of people hanging out in the middle of a field somewhere. This was clearly the marketing department’s mindset when they allowed this piece to go on air decades ago, and its exuberance can still be felt today. Is it over the top? Why yes it is. Does it have a ton of real life Volkswagen fanatics in it? It most certainly does. Does it suck as a commercial? Not really.

We are 87% positive that this was a fun commercial to make, and that it does indeed convey the deep rooted dedication this brand sees on a daily basis in abandoned rural fields the world over. But with a helicopter hovering overhead that is clearly being piloted by someone on a bender, and nary a Porto-Potty in sight, it’s safe to say that this was probably quite the disastrous weekend for that poor plot of farmland.

8. Nissan Skyline

While this ad may never have been seen on Western television screens back in the day, it certainly has created quite the buzz after its introduction to YouTube a few years back. With its rustic, Grizzly Adams-inspired outdoorsy charm, pointless emphasis on woodworking techniques, and an attractive Caucasian couple, the sporty Skyline saw mad amounts of love in this crap-tastic commercial classic. It’s interesting to see that an endless homage to all things outdoors was apparently not enough to please the Japanese, so the idea of showing two white people boogieing down to disco was hastily brought in as a backup plan.

9. Subaru XT Coupe

Farming jokes aside, this kid really knows how to milk a Subie for all it’s worth. His dad recommends he go out and buy a Subaru and guess what he does? He goes out and gets an ’80s XT, complete with some bodaciously tubular tunes and one seriously sharp set of shades. This ad has it all. Farming equipment, the elderly, historic Subaru wagons, a soundtrack to tap all ten toes to, a kid who is both a rebel and an obedient son, a gauge cluster right out of the film The Last Starfighter, and enough off-road action to satisfy even the most die-hard rally car fan. But perhaps our favorite feature in this ad was Subaru’s ill thought-out slogan at the end of this classic caper that reads: “Inexpensive. And built to stay that way.”

10. Toyota SR-5

Wrapping up our “tour de farts” is an early 1980s piece that is so awe inspiring that it will make anyone say, “Oh hell no they didn’t?!” Yes, I am referring to those energetic early 1980s escapades where a tiny Toyota pickup out-powers everything else on the market, and gives the viewer an uncontrollable urge to purge. What’s more is that this ad offers the viewer a candid look at that “oh-so-roomy” extended cab with all of the available space for holding… a briefcase and some blueprints. Space constraints aside, this classic clip also has some really nice feel good vibes to it, especially since seeing all of our neighbor’s cars upside down one morning really makes us want to shout, “Oh, what a feeling!”