Ad Nauseam: Auto Zone, or Twilight Zone?

This Auto Zone ad is one for the ages. The dark ages.

A young guy, who looks all of 17, is riding his bike down a rural dirt road when he comes upon an abandoned mid-1970s Ford Torino. A sign on the window reads, "if you can fix her you can have her." The kid smiles, the can-do soft guitar rock kicks in, and off he rides to Auto Zone. Again and again.

"It basically took me the whole summer," the voice over says, "and I don’t know how many times I needed to go to Auto Zone. But, at least now when I go, it’s not on my bike." 

The final scene shows the same road, but this time the clunker is barreling down it, kicking up a cloud of dust and, in all probability, smoke from the exhaust. (Since we’re to assume the kid did all the repairs by the roadside, he could not have removed the engine block to replace the seals and gaskets, and there’s no way that car isn’t burning oil. Hence: tailpipe smoke.)

What we don’t see is what happens next. The kid starts making a lot more trips to Auto Zone, because since he got a "free" car he had to take on a job just to pay for repairs and gas (the Torino, in its day, averaged about 10 miles to the gallon). And that smoke? Well, the damn thing didn’t pass the state emissions test, so instead of sinking $1,500 into an engine rebuild and a new exhaust system — thereby exceeding the car’s value by approximately $1,500 — the kid left the Torino where he found it. He still sees it every day, as he rides his bike to and from work. Every now and then he spits on it.

Video: jakeogden7/YouTube

  • Perhaps there’s an instructive comparison to be made with another industry that makes a toxic product — the tobacco industry.

    When I was growing up, cigarette ads festooned nearly every TV program. They furnished the networks with a lot of revenue. But after the surgeon general’s report about the toxicity of tobacco had sunk in for a few years, tobacco ads were banned from television.

    Then the cigarette makers were sued by 46 states. The states got billions of dollars and restrictions on tobacco advertising. Particular kinds of tobacco ads — like Joe Camel, who targeted youths — were forbidden.

    And anti-tobacco ads began airing. The gruesome ones being aired by NYC are particularly effective — the smoking percentage of the city population is shrinking.

    Granted, it’ll be a long time before anti-driving activists convince 46 state governments to sue the auto industry. But there must be a way to give our viewpoint a wedge onto the airwaves. TV stations are licensed to operate in the public interest in return for their use of the public airwaves.

    I wonder if the congestion-pricing story would have turned out differently if the public debate had been accompanied by an aggressive ad campaign?

  • HFF

    This might be my favorite ad nauseam write-up of all time.

  • Barf-worthy

  • da

    “if you can fix her you can have her.”

    So, according to them, cars are female?

  • StreetsPariah

    No dispute on the financial analysis, but I still do feel that the vast majority of people (present company excluded, of course) would agree with the statement “…at least now when I go, it’s not on my bike.”

  • People may fall for the emotional arc of the story, but how many Kids Today ride bikes outside the subdivision? And since we’re talking about Auto Zone, we’re talking about a suburban franchise that plops itself in strip malls on four lane highways. I’m not sure that any viewer sentiment about biking on dirt roads to Auto Zone says much about the real world. (Would Americans prefer magic carpets over bicycles? YES.)

    The commercial invokes nostalgia—a trope we are going to have to get used to from the auto industry in its decline—to pitch a gleaming, modern chain store that helped put out of business the old parts stores people shopped at back when engines were simple enough to rebuild at home. Does this improbable dirt road travel through time to the halcyon days of baby boomers? The disconnect only emphasizes that we are in transition to a period that is, in some ways, like the world our parents drove away from. The ad is as likely to spook viewers as it is to get them revved up about buying expensive electronic replacement parts for their broken down 1990s cars.

  • Mikko

    They set the whole thing in such nice scenery and beautiful light. My spontaneous, non-cycling-advocate first thought was “He spent the entire summer under that rustbucket and not riding around his on bike? There’s one born every minute, I guess.”

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Not that I disagree with anything that was said above but this one didn’t give me the raw sense of outrage of the other ad nauseams. I don’t know what it was exactly with this one but I had no real emotional reaction either way.

    As for Doc’s comment about kids not riding bikes, in my New Jersey mid 1960’s suburban neighborhood (not really sprawl) I’ve been seeing a lot more kids riding bikes this year. They are doing so without helmets too BTW but I never did when I was their age so who would I be to pass judgment. I just think it’s great that they are just riding at all.

  • I agree that people of all ages are, very recently, starting to take up practical cycling. (Including myself, yay.) But we’re in different markets and locations from Auto Zone, which seeks out cheap land and busy highways like every other national chain. I’m not outraged either, but I think the fantasy scenario they’ve concocted is pretty weird and stupid.

  • So… MADD has pushed, with some success, the idea that it is irresponsible to drink and drive because of the possible carnage and harm to innocents and guilties.
    I want to see the ad campaign that suggests we extend that idea: that ANYTIME

  • Around here, that old beauty is worth $295 a ton at the auto shredder. I’ve been paying $200 apiece for all the old junk I can drag out of garages or behind barns. “If you can fix her you can have her”… Sure, I’ll fix her right up- into scrap metal.
    With the money from scrapping that old Ford, that kid could’ve bought a really nice bicycle!

  • glenedharrison

    Versus ran this during the Tour de France; shameful.

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