Motorcycle Advertising Part One

Wildly successful ad campaign of the Sixties

story by Fred Rau, Created Jun. 11, 2007
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If you are anything like me, you enjoy motorcycle advertising almost as much as watching a TV show or reading a magazine story about motorcycles. In fact, some magazine editors will tell you that a really good motorcycle ad campaign can generate as much reader interest and feedback as a good editorial or bike review.

That’s one of the reasons you see so many ads in motorcycling magazines. And the other is that motorcycle manufacturers long ago learned that “enthusiast press” (read: motorcycle magazines) is far and away the best way to reach and influence their target market. Unfortunately, TV ads for motorcycles are relatively scarce, especially when it comes to mainstream programming, simply because we motorcyclists make up such a small percentage of TV viewers. Thank goodness for cable TV or you would almost never see any motorcycle ads on TV.

Still, there have been some great ad campaigns mounted by the motorcycle manufacturers over the years, even if most of them never got the kind of exposure you or I might think they deserved. Undoubtedly, the most famous and most successful of all time was the “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” campaign, mounted by Grey Advertising for Honda in 1962.

"By 1964, various forms of the “Nicest People” ads had made a major impact on American society..."

The ads depicted housewives, a parent and child, young couples and other respectable members of society, riding Honda 50s for a variety of purposes. To many who would have previously rolled their eyes at the very mention of the word “motorcycle,” it legitimized the little Hondas as a means of casual and convenient transportation.

By 1964, various forms of the “Nicest People” ads had made a major impact on American society, and were credited with actually winning recognition for the motorcycle as a socially acceptable product. For the first time in history, motorcycles, especially the little 50cc Hondas, even became a hot-selling Christmas gift. The “Nicest People” ads were produced in dozens of different versions over the next 10 years, making it one of the longest-running “theme” ad campaigns in motorcycling history. (See rest of Honda photos.

Also in 1964, riding high on the success of the print ad campaigns, Honda decided to roll the dice again, spending $300,000 to become a sponsor for that year’s Academy Awards broadcast. Remember, that was $300,000 in 1964 currency, and at the time represented an investment equal to approximately $11 for every single Honda motorcycle sold in the entire world during the previous year. If you applied the same formula today, that would be an investment of more than $40,000,000 (that’s 40 million dollars!). The program was seen by 80% of all TV viewers in the U.S., and up until that time had never been sponsored by a foreign company, let alone a motorcycle manufacturer. Industry insiders saw it as the greatest advertising gamble ever attempted, and predicted it would either make or break Honda as a force in the U.S. marketplace.

"Annual sales of Honda motorcycles jumped from 40,000 units a year to a staggering 200,000 units per year..."

Of course, we all know what happened. Within weeks of the broadcast, Honda was overwhelmed with requests to start up new dealerships and inundated with offers from other large corporations wanting to tie their own ad campaigns in with Honda. Annual sales of Honda motorcycles jumped from 40,000 units a year to a staggering 200,000 units per year, a 500% sales increase. No wonder that to this day, in colleges and universities around the world, the “Nicest People” campaign is studied as a model for a successful advertising campaign.

The almost-unbelievable success of Honda’s campaign had several far-reaching effects on the U.S. motorcycle market. For one thing, almost overnight the virtual stranglehold that British bike manufacturers had enjoyed in this country was shaken loose. Predominant brands like Triumph and BSA suddenly woke up one day to find themselves playing second fiddle to the upstart from Japan, and they weren’t at all pleased about it. For another, several other Japanese bike manufacturers saw Honda’s success as a springboard for mounting their own invasions of the highly-lucrative American market. And, finally, even Harley-Davidson got into the act.

What I find most interesting is that these other manufacturers divided up, basically, into two separate camps: Those who tried to emulate Honda’s “Nicest People” approach as closely as possible, and those who tried to distance themselves from it. And then there was a third group, which tried to have it both ways.

First, let’s look at the copycats: Yamaha, Vespa and, believe it or not, Harley-Davidson.  Yes, Milwaukee was suffering through the doldrums of the AMF period in the early Sixties and saw Honda’s success in the small-bore motorcycle market as their ticket to success. Almost immediately, H-D came out with an ad campaign called “Young America” that looked suspiciously similar to Honda’s “Nicest People” campaign.

Page 2The Young America series featured several new, small Harleys, called the “Sprint,” the “Leggero,” and spinning off their famous “Sportster” marque, the “Shortster.”

These were primarily foreign-built Harleys, from 50cc to 250cc displacement, including an M50 model that could have been a clone of Honda’s popular Trail 90 series.

If Harley’s new ad campaign looked similar to Honda’s, Yamaha’s looked like a direct clone.

Dubbed the “Swinging World of Yamaha,” the campaign featured more than one magazine ad that looked so identical to the Honda campaign that they could have been mistaken for each other if you didn’t look closely.

"If Harley’s new ad campaign looked similar to Honda’s, Yamaha’s looked like a direct clone."

But Yamaha even went one step further to invoke the clean-cut, young American image, by partnering with Walt Disney Studios during the next phase of their campaign.

Ads showing America’s darling, Annette Funicello, posing with a Yamaha “Rotary Jet 50,” and movie star Dean Jones on a “Riverside 60,” were tied in with the release of two Disney movies

And, at around the same time, the Italian scooter manufacturer, Vespa, refocused its ad campaigns to give them a more mainstream appeal – again, looking very similar to the Honda ads. Then there were the bike manufacturers that took another course, attempting to distance themselves from the clean-cut, middle-America, mom-and-apple-pie image that had worked so well for Honda.These included, but were not limited to, BSA, Ducati, Norton, BMW and Kawasaki.

Probably the most blatant of these was BSA, who mounted a campaign called “The Bold World of BSA.”

These ads usually showed a very rugged-looking male model somewhere off to the side, but the dominant feature in almost all the ads, besides the bike itself, was usually a sexy female model showing an almost-illegal (for the Sixties) amount of cleavage.

Those that didn’t feature cleavage, mostly touted the “bad-boy” image of BSA’s “Bold World,” featuring slogans like, “Go All Out” and “Discover Lightning Power.”

Certainly, the bikes and people shown in these ads were the direct antithesis of Honda’s “Nicest People,” riding friendly little 50cc and 90cc bikes.

Norton took the same road as BSA, though not quite as blatantly. In the ads for their 750 Commando and Superplus Commando 850 bikes, they touted the “Go Far, Faster” line, backed up with sexy models but without the revealing cleavage.

BMW took the approach of basically ignoring the Honda campaign, though you might read a bit of sarcasm directed toward Honda and its copycats in BMW’s “Cool It” campaign, which read, in part, “Distinctive, Different, and Very, Very Fast.”

Much the same might be said of Ducati, where the response was a series of ads showing a guy standing behind a Duc and simply proclaiming, “I’d rather have a Ducati.” However, I have to admit I’ve never been quite sure what to make of that ad, as the guy behind the Ducati was very obviously Japanese, and was wearing a business suit.

Just what message were they sending, anyway? I’m not sure even Ducati knew.

Finally, in the anti-nice camp, we find Kawasaki.

Unlike their two Japanese counterparts, Honda and Yamaha, Kawasaki decided to go the Brit-bike route, touting power and size and an in-your-face attitude

 Their ad for the Avenger says it all, even down to the name of the bike itself, and featuring famous race car drive Parnelli Jones riding his Kawasaki.


The text carries hot-button phrases like “engine…roaring in your ears,” “¼-mile in 13.8 seconds,” and “power surging at your touch.”

But Kawasaki didn’t forget its smaller bikes, either, with an ad for the KE100 that took an obvious swipe at Honda and Yamaha by terming their slightly smaller bikes as “mopeds.”

Finally, there were the “fence-sitters” – manufacturers who couldn’t seem to decide which image they wanted attached to their products, and who tried to compromise. Not that compromise isn’t a good thing, and can be used to great success in ad campaigns, but it just doesn’t work when you try to convey two different images within the same advertisement.

For example: Triumph, in advertising their formerly super-popular Bonneville series, which was suddenly taking a backseat in sales to the little Hondas, used an ad that looked almost identical to the Honda “Nicest People” campaign, showing a young, middle-class American couple out for a Sunday cruise. All well and good, but yet the text of the same ad touted the bike as a “World Speed Record Holder!”

And in that same vein of indecisiveness, Bridgestone put out an ad that looks like a direct clone of the Honda campaign for their 175cc model, showing a young couple cruising along the beach, but placed a smaller photo underneath it showing the bike winning a race at Daytona.

So, you can see how the face of motorcycling changed forever, hinging primarily on a single, albeit wildly successful ad campaign of the Sixties. In the next installment, we’ll look at some more modern motorcycle ad campaigns and see how some have worked, and some have not.

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