Motorcycle Advertising Part Two

The Best and Worst Bike Ads

In Part One of this look at motorcycle advertising we discussed Honda’s incredibly successful “You Meet The Nicest People…” campaign of the Sixties and how it changed the face of American motorcycling forever. Though there has not been another motorcycle ad campaign since that was quite so successful, there have been a few that I thought were quite innovative and worthy of note.

I don’t recall the exact year, but Harley-Davidson pulled off a rather major coup several years ago with a campaign of magazine and billboard ads that depicted about a dozen very rough-looking characters standing behind a Harley motorcycle. The ads were obviously targeted at countering the perception, mostly from their AMF days, that Harley’s quality control was, shall we say, a bit lax? Though they came up just a bit short of looking like a stereotypical gang, the guys standing around the bike weren’t exactly the sort you’d want your daughter bringing home for dinner. Most had long hair, beards, tattoos and wore things like sleeveless muscle shirts and fringed leather chaps. Almost all were sporting wrap-around sunglasses and doo-rags on their heads, with stern, almost scowling expressions on their faces. The caption below them said, if I remember correctly, “Would you dare sell a defective motorcycle to these guys?”

Though this ad is far older than the one Fred refers to above, you can still see that H-D was already working on the "tough guy" image.

 It was a great idea, promulgating the theory that if Harleys really were riddled with defects, their core customer group would ride up to Milwaukee and personally beat the crap out of the company executives. But, as it turned out, there was much more to it than that. The ad execs which put together that campaign had been thinking ahead and predicted that there would be a rash of negative feedback from “Harley-bashers,” noting something like, “See, even Harley knows its customers are nothing but scumbags like those in their ad!”

Seeing that coming, Harley had designed the campaign as a two-parter, and had the second part ready and waiting to go when the “s**t hit the fan,” so to speak. Sure enough, within a month of the original ad, the motorcycle magazines were full of indignant letters from motorcyclists, dumping on Harley for perpetuating the bad-guy stereotype and pandering to the “one-percenters.”

As this uproar reached its peak, Harley released the second part of the campaign – the very same picture, but with a name and short bio attached to each of the characters, identifying them as doctors, lawyers, CPAs, school teachers and executives with major banking firms and such. It was a brilliant parry-and-thrust that left their critics speechless, with copious amounts of egg on their faces.

And as long as we’re talking about Harley, I give them kudos for two very simple, one-line ad campaigns that were both so successful that, to this day, you will often hear them quoted by the H-D faithful.

Wow! This ad shows just how much H-D projected image has changed over the years.

Both came out between 1985 and 1990. The first was: “It’s not a rational decision.” And the second: “If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand.” Both ads were obviously designed to give the Harley buyer a retort to use against other motorcyclists who would regale them with questions like, “Why on earth would you pay more for a bike with old technology, less power, weaker brakes and inferior handling to any of the Japanese models?” Again, a brilliant marketing move.

You certainly would have to say that Harley has been the marketing king of the motorcycling world this past decade, with some absolutely brilliant campaigns. But even the mighty bar-and-shield has stubbed their toe a time or two, such as with the Harley-Davidson Cigarette campaign of 1992-93. That one not only flopped miserably, it left a whole slew of lawsuits in its wake. And yet, you can forgive the Motor Company for a simple error like that. But, personally, I can’t forgive them for some ads that were in really bad taste, not to mention being downright falsifications.

Perhaps the best example was the one with the very rough-looking bearded character on his Hog, who looked to be about 50 years old, proclaiming, “I’d never let my wife ride it. At least not until she’s 18.” What are we selling here, biker-as-pedophile? And at the bottom of that ad, it states, “Notorious Since 1903.” Oh yeah? I’ve made quite a study of old motorcycle ads, and the ones from the early 1900s all tout the Harley-Davidson as the most socially-acceptable, quietest, and most civilized of all motorcycles. In fact, the Motor Company themselves marketed it as, “The Quiet Gray Gentleman,” with pictures of very refined-looking ladies with parasols, and men in conservative suits as the target market. Even the ads I’ve shown you from the early 1960s here in this article show you that Harley was promoting anything but a “notorious” image over 50 years later.

Original text from the very
first Honda “Nicest People” ad
- circa 1963:

Maybe it's the incredibly low price, $245 (plus a modest set-up charge). Or the fact it doesn't gulp gas. Just sips it - 200 miles to the gallon. Or the way the masterful 4-stroke 50cc OHV engine carries you along at 45 mph without a murmur. Or it could be the ease of 3-speed transmission, automatic clutch and the extra safety of Honda's cam-type brakes on both wheels. The optional push-button starter makes you feel right at home, too.

But most likely it's the fun. Evidently nothing catches on like the fun of owning a Honda. You see so many around these days. And the nicest people riding them. Merry Christmas. For address of your nearest dealer or other information, write: Dept. AA, American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 100 West Alondra, Gardena, Calif.

Now I’d like to shift gears and talk about some of my favorite motorcycle ads of the past couple of decades.

Among those, the first that comes to mind is one that I viewed at Honda headquarters during the press launch of a new bike, but yet never saw anywhere in the public media. Perhaps it was actually aired somewhere, but if so, I missed it. I tend to think that perhaps someone in Honda’s marketing department thought it was a bit too confrontational for their corporate image, but then again, that’s just my theory.

Anyway, the TV ad I saw was for the then-new Honda CBR1000 Hurricane. The ad opened with a dimly-lit image of a figure standing alone on a flat, open plain. He was dressed in the familiar all-black garb of a Japanese ninja, complete with samurai sword and face mask. As he stood there, you could here the howling of a great wind in the distance, rapidly getting closer. The dust at his feet began to stir, and leaves and small tree branches blew by in the air. The ninja looked off into the distance, then took a few tentative steps one way, then the other. Suddenly, he seemed to make a decision. As the wind howled ever louder, he ran a few steps to the side, and lifted a rattan cover that was obviously covering some kind of large hole. He quickly jumped into the hole, pulling the cover back over himself. Suddenly, from the left side of the screen, the new Honda flashed by, on the screen and in your vision only for a second before it disappeared to the right, followed by the receding note of its howling exhaust. There was silence for just a moment, and then the screen lit up with two lines of text: “When a Hurricane comes by, even Ninjas run and hide.”

Of course, the reference was to the newly-popular Kawasaki Ninja motorcycles, which were challenging Honda’s CBR line for sportbike supremacy, but Honda had managed to slap Kawasaki right in the face without ever mentioning Kawasaki or showing their bike. A master stroke of marketing, or so I thought. But, as I said, I never saw the ad actually run on commercial television, so I wonder if anyone outside of Honda HQ ever got to see it?

 Sheesh. Who woulda thought Honda would go from this to the menacing image of the mighty Hurricane?

There was another TV ad that I really liked that seemed to get very little, if any, air time – this one by BMW. I heard a rumor that it caused quite a flap internally at BMW, as it offended some of the executives in BMW’s automotive division. Anyway, the ad also had a print version that showed a guy on a BMW sportbike, looking over his shoulder at a BMW automobile, as he zipped by it. The caption simply said, “I never knew BMW made cars – until I passed one.”

The few BMW motorcycle owners that saw that print ad with me literally cheered when they read it. Like nearly all BMW bike owners, at some time in their riding careers, at a stoplight or in a parking lot somewhere, they had each been approached by a stranger who had said something like, “BMW huh? When did they start making motorcycles?” It really rankles when you know that, as with Honda, the automotive division, though much larger than the motorcycle division, was nevertheless an outgrowth of the cycle division.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I don’t believe there has ever been an advertising campaign for motorcycles to beat Honda’s famous “Nicest People” campaign. However, there has been another that I feel was just as good, even if it never had the backing or made the kind of impression that Honda’s campaign did. That campaign was put together for BMW about five years ago, and was actually built from photos and interviews with actual BMW motorcycle owners from around the country. It was an extensive campaign that included dozens of little one-shot vignettes, like:

 Yeah, I have a hair stylist. His name is ‘helmet.’
 Those two should make a sequel. They could call it, 'Easy Driver.'
 Guys are always checking out my rear. Of course, that’s all they ever see.
 I just added my first aftermarket accessory. I think his name is Mike.
 I sure hope they mean that guy from the TV show.
 After 20 years of marriage, she’s holding me tighter than ever.
 There are more direct routes to work. But I hate my job anyway.

And my personal favorite of the group:

 If you ever see me with horns sticking out of my helmet call an ambulance. I’ve hit a deer.

To my way of thinking, this may have been the greatest motorcycle ad campaign of all time. I just wish it had gotten a lot more exposure than it did.

That’s it for now with my little jaunt down the memory lane of motorcycle ads. Hope you enjoyed it.

Related Reading:
Motorcycle Advertising Part One

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