Up until the 1960s, Detroit only produced huge cars, the bigger the better.

But in the 1960s the counter-culture and Volkswagen began to reverse the trend.

Massive cars were no longer a symbol of success, just greed.

Smaller European cars like Volvo began to be seen as the more intelligent choice.

In the 1970s, Japanese cars were also being imported in large numbers.

Seeing the trend, Detroit had no choice but to change from making huge lumps of metalcovered in chrome to smaller, efficient cars.

But they didn’t have the time or the experience to begin designing, retooling, and building factories to make these small cars themselves.

So they brought them from abroad and rebadged them as American cars.

General Motors did this with the Isuzu Gemini.

The Isuzu Gemini was a copy of the Opel Kadett, GM thought a German sounding car would sell better than a Japanese sounding one, so they renamed it the Buick Opel.

Detroit was still trying to understand the new mood of the counter-culture, it wasn’t big and loud and boastful as it had traditionally been, it was modest, self-deprecating.

From the massive success of VW and their advertising, they could see the tone was much more intelligent, less about bragging, more about honesty, more about treating customers as if they were intelligent.

This was a new concept for Detroit and they struggled to understand it.

They knew they needed to get their car on the same shopping list as other small cars.

So the obvious thing was to run a comparison against the imported cars that people were buying, to make everyone see the Buick Opel as part of that group.

That was their thinking when they ran: THE 5 CAR SHOWDOWN.

They compared the Buick Opel to the Toyota Corolla, the Subaru DL, the Datsun B210, and the VW Rabbit.

They had an independent writer from Car & Driver magazine conduct the tests, including: acceleration, mileage, cornering, quietness, and roominess, then they published the results. In parking and engine-power the Buick Opel came first, in steering they came joint first, in comfort they came third, and in maintenance they came last.

When all the tests were finished, they proudly ran their advertising campaign announcing the result of THE 5 CAR SHOWDOWN.

The Buick Opel had come second overall.

They published this because they wrongly thought two things: 1) their counter-culture honesty would place their image alongside VW’s advertising, 2) the fact of them coming second would make them preferred to all the cars that came below them.

What they had forgotten was that they were in the very real world of advertising.

Consumers didn’t read the modest copy, all they wanted to know was: “Who came first?”

And who came first was the VW Rabbit.

The people at Buick had assumed they would be respected for their honesty, they assumed this resect would be passed on to the brand, people would want to buy an honest car.

But of course that isn’t how advertising works.

The Buick Opel advertising was actually doing the VW Rabbit’s advertising for it.

And Volkswagen recognised this by re-running Buick’s 5 CAR CHALLENGE advertising.

And thanking Buick for telling everyone the VW Rabbit was a better car than the Buick Opel.

The Buick advertising helped VW sell 1.4 million Rabbits over the next ten years.

Because real people don’t pore over every detail of ads the way ad-people do, they just want to know the top line.

See, this isn’t sociology where we understand the zeitgeist and consumers love us for it.

This is advertising where real people spend their hard-earned money.