You’ve met them. They reckon that Honda should run the “nicest people” ad again, and kickstart motorcycle sales the way they did in the early ‘60s. Have they got a point?

Take a look at it before we go on. Did you remember that it was all about a 50cc stepthrough? It was not an ad for motorcycles, not really. It was an ad for convenient, cheap, comfortable (and enjoyable) transport for the middle class. That’s right, there are no blue shirts to be seen.

It worked spectacularly well at the time, or at least so we’re told. I’ve never seen any actual figures for sales of Honda Cubs before and after the campaign, but I’ll believe that it worked as reported.

Let’s accept that the advertisement was a huge success, that it put Honda on the map (although from internal evidence in the ad itself it is clear that Honda was already on the map – after all, it says quite clearly ‘Honda – world’s biggest seller!’) and that it moved a lot of product. Why, then, do I sound less than enthusiastic about it? Why can’t I persuade myself that this is the way to keep our current COVID-related motorcycle boom going?

Because it wouldn’t work, that’s why.

The ad concept was used in other applications as well. See the dirt bikes?  Honda had that idea too.

Once it has you snared with niceness, this ad concentrates more on the variety of people using the bike, on all the different people to whom it would be handy, on its versatility, than it does on niceness. Bikes aren’t expected to suit many different riders today. You buy a sports bike because you want to go fast, or at least look fast outside the pub. You buy a cruiser because you want to look cool on the boulevard. You buy an adventure bike… but you get the idea.

Specialisation, that’s the word today. Not versatility. Versatile bikes, necessarily, aren’t as good at any one thing as a specialised machine so they often don’t sell as well.

And of course motorcycles do not sell these days because they are nice, or aimed specifically at nice people. What’s the best-selling big bike brand in Australia? Harley-Davidson, right.

Even Santa got into the act, predictably enough.

“You meet the nicest people on a Hog?” I don’t think so. Motorcycles have simply gone beyond the image this ad was promoting, beyond cheap, easy and convenient transport to – well, to the status of a lifestyle choice, or at least a slightly disreputable toy. Scooters for Uber home deliveries satisfy the cheap, easy and convenient niche. The middle class as we knew it is on the way out, alas, and while bikes are clearly appealing to what’s left of it in the form of the baby boomers now heading for retirement, those people don’t need any ads with potplants on bikes to encourage them to go riding. I suspect the opposite might be true.

It’s the hipsters you need to reach, and they are not particularly known for an interest in niceness per se.

Now take another look at the ad. Notice something odd about the people?

Yep. None of them is wearing a helmet. Now do a little thought experiment for me. Imagine all of them wearing ATGATT including helmets.

Can’t do it, can you? I certainly can’t, especially with the lady taking her tree for a ride. And just look at that kid riding backwards… you’d spend the rest of your natural life in jail (or counselling) if you ran this ad today.

Note the blonde bangs at the top of the pic. Honda hade its female buyers in mind, too.

The ad was great at the time, and maybe it was even as important as everyone thinks it was. Certainly, in those days advertising seemed to be able to do more than it can now. Remember the wonderful campaign intended to boost VW sales in the US, beginning in New York? The agency, the great Doyle Dane Bernbach, was faced with what one agency ‘wit’ summarised as “selling a Nazi car in a Jewish city” (remember this was in the early ‘60s), not an easy brief. But they did it, taking VW sales to 500,000 a year in a country that would previously not have micturated on a four-cylinder car on fire in their driveway.

Today, advertising is more a matter of maintaining market share than stirring people up. Ads tend to be pretty tame. That’s a shame, of course, but almost everyone seems to be afraid of the potential backlash from one or more of the many groups that ensure we are not challenged in any way. Can’t blame them, in a way. There have been a few ads that have raised complaints from people apparently lacking a sense of humour – and of proportion. But that restricts potential motorcycle campaigns rather seriously, because let’s face it – it’s hard to seriously promote the kinds of bikes we have now, without getting a bit… hard-edged.

I mean, even the recently revived Super Cub is aimed at… hunters. “You meet the best shots on a Honda”? Maybe not.

Honda’s advertising did not stay innocent. For pure sexism, this ad would be hard to beat. At least he brought her back alive.

But all those arguments are about motorcycles. Remember my comment about scooters, above? Motorcycles aren’t the only two-wheelers, so don’t scrap the ad just yet. I have a positive suggestion to make here. That ad, changed only slightly, could do an excellent job with the punchline changed just a little – to, let’s say, “You meet the coolest people on a scooter.”

It would be aimed at just as dominant a demographic today as the Honda ad was in 1963, hipsters and would-be hipsters. You know, one of the riders would be a barber with a mohawk, one would be a craft brewer while another rode while vaping and there would be one delivering vegan pizzas and a wholefood merchant. You could keep the dog lover and the squash player.

One problem remains. How would you do this if they were (as they would have to be) wearing helmets?


(The Bear created Honda MPE’s print advertising in Australia for a while. It didn’t look like this.)

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