How Automotive Advertising Has Changed Over the Years – part 2

When we last left it, the World Wide Web was happening, but automotive advertising really didn’t jump on the bandwidth wagon until the first years of the twenty first century. It was all brand new. There were fits and starts everywhere, the big experiment had begun in earnest. Few knew what they were doing, and many of the misapplications, bad habits and false expectations spawned in the early years, remain yet, even today, all of which will be discussed in part three.

Manufacturers, media, ad agencies and retailers became their own worst enemy; and it is here where the narrative gets tricky; because it can easily turn into the which came first, the chicken or the egg kind of argument.

How newspapers declined in the role of automotive advertising.

Here goes, no wait, ok the big question: Did the internet strangle newsprint, or did newspaper publishers hang themselves? Is it a case of assisted suicide? The reason for asking is that today, nearly no one under the age of 39 picks up a newspaper especially to shop for a car.

Before continuing, as a life-long reader and subscriber to The Wall Street Journal, it never made the errors that so many other publications made as described herein. In short; they never gave it away for free on-line the day print publications went free on-line, that was the day the music died and the ink started to fade. Today, the Journal is the largest daily newspaper in the country with a print circulation in excess of two million copies this does not include on-line subscribers.

Publishers jumped on the bandwagon, it was kind of easy, they already had the content (reporters, artists and advertising base Hey look! No printing bills!”just plug it into the format”and away we go! Web visitors were thought of, and sold as, increased distribution and circulation, a big bonus for advertisers they said, the sales pitch was a variation of a dozen different schemes and plans buy four half-pages a month in print, get two dozen banner ads on our website for free! Remember banner ads? As it turned out, banner ads didn’t really work all that well because many auto dealers had awkward and inferior websites, leaving buyers confused and unmotivated when they got there.

And yet publishers persisted in providing their wares for free. From the New York Times (which has since ceased free, unrestricted, on-line access) to the local Star City Post, and the competing Gazette Banner Clarion, they tried to get by on click-throughs, unique visitors, and the like. As advancements with what web browsers could do [Flash Video, et al], all of a sudden, newspapers started to behave like TV stations by using video. The fascination publishers had with this bright shiny object became a distraction, and before you could say late edition, print circulation began a long, downward spiral. After all, when you used to pay a dollar a day for the print edition, now you could sit at your desk pretending to work while you perused and the competing online for free. This habituated an entire generation into thinking that news content was gratis and instant. This effectively drove mostly young readers away from local and big city papers.

So then what for automotive advertisers and agencies?

According to the research firm Scarborough, since 2001, Newspaper readership has fallen 20% nationwide. Today, 37% of all adults claim to read a daily newspaper, while Pittsburgh has the highest number of adult daily readers at 51%, Atlanta has the lowest at 23%. While the Great Lakes and Northeast regions score with the highest number of readers, the South and Southwest score the lowest.

As print declined, radio and cable grabbed an increasingly larger share of the media pie.

Meanwhile, newsprint slept, as did a great number of auto dealers who wouldn’t think of not being in the paper.

As was mentioned earlier, publishers would low-ball web banners and such, but as subscription and newsstand revenue declined, so did advertising revenue.

Web generated revenue failed to keep up, they’d been selling it cheap from the get-go. You reap what you sow.


Jumping on the Web Wagon wasn’t just limited to newspapers, radio, broadcast TV and cable on local and national levels got involved. The locals had similar sales schemes and plans, buy spots and slots and get free/low-cost, value-added banners on our website! But the big difference was the web didn’t seem to drive away viewers and listeners as it had driven away paying print readers, after all, radio and TV never charged for their content, so they didn’t suffer the loss of paid circulation revenue. Nor did it drive away their core commodity; listeners and viewers.

Cable first put their whole schedule on-screen, and then TV and radio schedules went on-line, these two forces also helped push the daily paper off the coffee table. There was a time when you had to have either TV Guide or the Gazette Banner Clarion handy to know what was on TV. The show synopses were great, you could decide what to watch at a glance.

8:00 pm

  • CH-4 ABC Magnum helps a frail but feisty widow regain control of her dead husband’s company.
  • CH-7 CBS Trapper and Hawk-eye hoodwink Col. Potter into helping an orphanage; Radar accidentally sees Hot Lips naked and has a nervous breakdown.

It was a much simpler time wasn’t it? But the point is, if you were an auto advertiser, that’s where you wanted to be, on the TV page or in the weekly TV booklet that came with the Sunday paper. Advertisers paid a premium for the placement it was good reliable stuff, ever present in the household, but no more.

Web History Cheat-Sheet

In 1991 there was one web browser and it was called World Wide Web [big surprise] then later re-named Nexus. Mosaic followed in 1993, later to become known as Netscape. In 1991 there were approximately four million internet users worldwide, today it is between two and three billion users.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer after 149 years appearing in print; went online-only in March 2009.

To be continued