Sales Ad Saturday- Ford Lifeguard Design ad campaign
"Lifeguard Design” at Ford for this week’s “Sales Ad Saturday”. For 1956, Ford was looking for an angle, something to differentiate their offerings from Chevrolet. Ford had beaten Chevrolet in the race to develop an efficient over-head valve V8 with the introduction of the Y-block in 1954, but Harley Earl and Ed Cole came up with something Ford couldn’t touch in 1955; the new Chevrolet Bel Air. Available with Chevrolet’s new optional OHV 265 V8, the public fell in love with the clean new design, and ’55 Chevrolet’s quickly earned the moniker “The Hot One”. In 1954, Ford and Chevrolet were in a neck-and-neck battle for the overall sales title, with each car maker selling in excess of 1.4 million cars. Chevrolet edged Ford out of the top spot that year, selling just over 17,000 more cars than Ford. For 1955, Chevrolet's new Hot One would help the carmaker claim a decisive victory in overall sales, selling some 250,000 more vehicles than Ford.
It should be noted that actual sales records from Ford and Chevrolet in this era are sketchy at best. The companies were not in a habit of disclosing total units sold, so sales records were typically based on new car registrations each year, with each automaker accusing the other of attempts to register unsold dealer inventory to bolster sales numbers. Arguments also abound about the differences between "model year" sales versus "calendar year" sales of these cars. Different sources cite different numbers, so it can be tricky to pin down a completely accurate number of vehicles sold in a given year. Luckily, we do know how many cars each automaker actually produced for each model year, which makes the discussion a little less murky.
Robert MacNamara is recognized as the driving force behind the 1956 Lifeguard Design ad campaign. The campaign was more than just a marketing angle for MacNamara, he was a true advocate of vehicle safety. That said, the campaign would certainly have made sense to most people at Ford. While Joie Chitwood (himself a former thrill driver for Ford) was running ’56 Chevrolet’s off 8 foot ramps and driving around on two wheels, Zora Duntov was blasting up Pikes Peak, smashing previous records in a camouflaged ’56 Chevy sedan. It is clear that Chevrolet was looking to play up their “Hot One” image for 1956. Ford had their own stunt driving team, the "Tournament of Thrills", but ultimately a campaign focused on safety represented a reasonable attempt from Ford to steal a little limelight from Chevrolet by talking about something other than performance. If Chevrolet was trying to market to the go-fast crowd, Ford would instead market to mothers looking to keep their families safe. Today, the elements of the Lifeguard Design campaign seem quaint. The new Ford’s would come standard with a deep-center steering wheel designed to protect the driver from the column, recessed instruments, and double-grip door latches, with lap belts and a padded dashboard available as options. Neither option were wild sellers.
Some automotive historians decry the campaign as a complete failure, that the message somehow kept potential customers out of showrooms, but that assessment is not necessarily entirely accurate. It is likely closer to the truth that the Lifeguard Design campaign was simply not quite as effective as Ford had hoped, coupled with the fact that Chevrolet had just had a great year and the updated ’56 Chevrolet’s were very popular as well. While it is true that Ford did sell fewer cars than Chevrolet in 1956, Ford closed the gap substantially in a year where both automakers produced fewer cars than 1955. Chevrolet’s production volume for ’56 was down eight percent over ’55, while Ford’s production was only down three percent. Meanwhile, production for the other three automakers that made up the top five was significantly lower as well. Buick production was down twenty-two percent, Plymouth was down eighteen percent, and Oldsmobile was down sixteen percent. Viewed in that context, there is a valid argument to be made that without MacNamara’s safety campaign, perhaps decreases at Ford that year may have been worse. Unquestionably, Lee Iacocca’s late play in the Pittsburgh market, $56 for ’56, did give a little boost to both company sales and Iacocca’s career. However, if potential buyers were so turned off by Ford’s safety marketing, Lee’s pricing strategy likely would not have worked as well as it did. For 1957, Ford reassessed their marketing strategy and laid off the safety messaging, touting Thunderbird go in a new kind of Ford. However, Lifeguard Design branded safety options would remain available through 1960. Ford would finally claim the top sales spot in 1957, although it was close. Some fans of the Bowtie dispute this claim, again debating over model year versus calendar year sales. At the end of the day, Ford built and sold more cars than Chevrolet that year, but Chevrolet would be back on top again in '58, and the automakers would continue to duel it out each year for decades to come.