A Volvo Ad Copywriter Once Allegedly Wanted To Hang A Car Over A Baby But Had To Settle For Himself Instead

Volvoad Top

Volvo was one of the first carmakers to really embrace safety as a selling point, something that was counter to how most carmakers saw things back in the day. Lee Iacocca, the father of the Ford Mustang, Pinto, and the man who saved Chrysler, was famously quoted as saying “safety doesn’t sell.” Maybe it didn’t sell K-Cars, but it sure as hell sold Volvos, and the Swedish carmaker really leaned into advertising that reflected this. The brand had a flair for drama, too, as you can see in this one ad I happened to come across — a striking and genuinely weird ad with an even stranger backstory. The original plan was to stick a baby under that car, at least according to the lore around the ad.

Let’s look at some Volvo ads over the past few decades, just to get a sense of what they were up to.

Volvoads

As you can see, Volvo enjoyed showing how strong its cars were, how much they could withstand, and how much abuse they could take — presumably in lieu of your soft, pliant, fuzzy body.

If you know a bit about this history of car advertising, you can likely sense a lot of influence from Dole Dane Bernbach’s (DDB) famous 1950s to 1960s Volkswagen ad campaign, one of the most influential ad campaigns for anything, ever. There are the simple layouts, white backgrounds with un-glamorous photos of the car, honest copy that was quietly witty and treated the reader like an intelligent friend, not some mark to be separated from their money.

One of the people who worked on this legendary DDB Volkswagen campaign is actually the guy you see laying under that dangling car up there — a highly respected British ad man named David Abbott. This is the ad I want to talk about, so let’s show the whole thing:

Bigad

The premise is pretty simple, and very visual and visceral: Volvo has been claiming how strong its spot welds are, that each is strong enough to support the entire car’s weight, so here Volvo is proving it in this ad by hanging a Volvo 740 over a person who happens to be the person who wrote the ad copy.

Here’s what the first bit of the copy says:

IF THE WELDING ISN’T STRONG ENOUGH, THE CAR WILL FALL ON THE WRITER

That’s me, lying rather nervously under the new Volvo 740.

For years I’ve been writing in advertisements that each spot weld in a Volvo is strong enough to support the weight of the entire car.

Someone decided I should put my body where my mouth is. So we suspended the car and I crawled underneath.

It’s a strange ad for a lot of reasons. It’s extremely rare to see the ad’s copywriter in the ad itself, first, and I suspect even rarer to see them potentially in mortal danger. Even weirder is the story that the original idea was to have the welder’s baby under the car, which sort of would have made Volvo seem like some cruel medieval despot holding his court alchemist’s child in a dungeon unless he could turn a pile of sawdust into gold.

Then, it seems a Volvo engineer was pitched (and/or possibly the welder themself?) and also rejected, until the guy coming up with all the ideas to stick people under a suspended car finally had to just step up and volunteer himself. As far as I can tell, everything we see in the ad appears to be true; I’ve found no suggestions that the image was faked or anything like that.

As Paul Belford, of an award-winning U.K. ad agency that bears his name, tells us in a post on his website about this famous ad:

Apparently the original idea was to have the welder’s baby beneath the car. Client said no. Then a Volvo engineer. Still no. So David did it himself.

What a memorable way to show a big, client friendly, studio shot of the car.

[…]

Interestingly, there’s no logo on this ad… oh, actually there it is, on the car. Not exactly huge is it? Maybe it doesn’t need to be. Because the idea is so good and the product has such a distinctive shape. Yes, perhaps the product itself serves as a logo here. And what about the endline? Where is it? Pretty much every dot of ink on this ad is dramatising the proposition of ‘safety’. Do we really need to repeat that in an endline? No. It would add nothing but clutter. Instead we simply have the product name and price.

The baby-under-the-car claims aren’t the kind of thing that seem to be on any official record (seems like the kind of suggestion you may not want to write down), but the story shows up in multiple places, and from people with real knowledge of the ad industry.

It looks like the car is being supported by the B-pillar, which must be welded to the roof structure. That’s generally a pretty stout weld on most cars. I’d hope that, if that weld were to have broken, Mr.Abbott would have heard some telltale metal creaking and tearing and been able to roll out of the way of the dropping 3,000 pounds of Swedish Iron, but, luckily, it never came to that.

It’s a ballsy ad, that’s for sure, and it grabs your attention and demands that you acknowledge that a Volvo 740 must, at the very least, not be a flimsy hunk of crap.

I wonder if a modern carmaker would consider doing a similar ad? I suspect most modern cars would be able to pass this test just fine, but, if I was a copywriter, would I do it? I think so? Seems a pretty safe bet, especially when you remind yourself that Tesla does no advertising, so you don’t have to worry about, you know, all that.

 

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32 Responses

    1. We lift stuff with cables and straps all the time. There’s plenty of equipment out there that can hoist something like a car without breaking a sweat. Heck, on Monday I helped crane some pallets up to a fourth story roof in Charlestown, the heaviest of which was probably about 2,000 lbs. Busy residential neighborhood (we did block off the road, naturally) with multi-million-dollar townhouses and expensive luxury cars lining both sides of a tight one-way street, and the guys from the crane company made it look boring. That was a *small* crane, the kind that fits on a normal flatbed truck chassis. They only get beefier from there.

      Rigging is a solved problem, is what I’m saying. For any given object, there are people who can work out what it would take to safely lift it. Assuming it was done professionally, there was nothing to worry about.

      1. I learned in a pair of automatic ’89s (the first was too rusty, the latter became my first car) and taught a friend to drive manual in a subsequent ’93.

        You don’t need a project in your life, by chance? I’ve broken my 240 streak and I’m selling my needy ’92 245, also a manual.

    1. Wow that was crazy! It just kept running!

      That makes me feel better about using my ’04 V70 for road trips. If it were to take it out of state though, I’d probably bring along a few spare coils/plugs as those have been the only thing to fail on it (twice, ugh) in 163k miles.

      I love that little torque porker though.

  1. Some brainiac wanted a Baby in the picture…really? That must have gone over like a lead balloon.
    Why?
    1) the obvious child endangerment/exploitation for profit ethical issue,
    2) have they ever been around a baby? Think photo op with Santa Claus…Unless she/he is a newborn, they do like to crawl. Can’t really just say “Sit…Stay” and expect a good photo,
    3) of course, there’s the whole soiling your pants issue with the baby.

    1. You forgot the quotes around “rust-free.”

      By the way, I wonder if Dave is either a) color-blind, so can’t see rust, or b) somehow confused about what rust even is? He seems to not see it well…but he might just be looking for something else?

  2. There must surely have been some trickery/fakery involved for the car to hang at that angle, I don’t think that’s how it would naturally hang from that point, the CoG has to be directly below the point of hanging if it’s free hanging, which I dont think it would be. So either there is additional bracing and it’s not hanging off the welded B pillar or they’ve shifted/removed (or added I guess) some weight to make it hang as desired.

  3. Reminds of the ad Ford trucks used to run showing “how strong” the bolts were holding the bed to the frame by hanging the truck from them.

    Your everyday grade 5 bolts from home Depot would have been able to easily hold that weight statically as they did.

    Pure marketing that probably had the engineers rolling their eyes.

    1. Did truck beds breaking their bolts and falling off their frames used to be a problem, or something? Absent some kind of serious damage (i.e. rust) I don’t think this is something I’ve ever even considered as a potential issue. Seeing a marketing firm crow about how their truck’s bed totally won’t fly away from you while you’re driving would actually raise more questions than it answered, for me.

    2. Marketing: Can you design it so one of you can stand underneath it for an ad shot?
      Engineer: I mean, we alre-
      Engineering Manager: Oh man that’ll take some effort but I think we can make it happen with some overtime if you guys are footing the bill.

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