Home » Pontiac’s Dark Era: Cold Start

Pontiac’s Dark Era: Cold Start

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Sometimes I find it’s good to revisit things. Last year, I wrote about how some old Pontiac ads resembled the paintings of Caravaggio, with their dramatic lighting. But I’ve just come across more 1970s Pontiac ads, and I think I was  just being too generous with my assessment before. I don’t actually think Pontiac’s ad people were inspired by the works of Caravaggio; I think they just wanted everything dark? And sort of sinister.

Did someone at GM not pay the light bill? Was this ad agency doing this after hours, however they could, off the books? Did the ad people think the cars were too ugly to be shown in full light? I just don’t get it.

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The earliest example I found was a 1973 brochure for Pontiac wagons. There were dark backgrounds, perhaps to allow for the white lines of the diagrams and blueprints in the background, but the cars themselves look like there were at least attempts to light it.

The brochures that followed, though, took a turn:

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That’s just dark. The bit of scenery you can make out in that darkness is sort of strangely abstracted, broken into pieces, a gravelly slab under the car, the shadowy hint of a traffic sign below. It’s weird! And it’s hard to see the car!

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Sometimes it seems like there’s actual scenery around, but you can barely tell, because this looks like it was shot in a neighborhood with no street lights on a moonless night, when the darkness feels thick and tangible, like a substance covering everything. A weak light, perhaps an oil lantern, banishes a tiny bit of the darkness, and gives that evergreen tree a chance to throw a shadow. What’s that red bit of carpet there?

Interestingly, their television commercials weren’t afraid of the light:

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The television team was too enamored by that “wide track” business to be seduced by the darkness, I think.

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We have a bit more light here, but not much, and there’s some dim light in that…house? back there. Or is it a giant terrarium?

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and what the hell is up with this one, one the dock, with a prominent shadow of a…person? Horse saddle? Alien? I really can’t tell, Is there ever a good reason for a car to be parked alone on a dock in the middle of the night?

(A commenter wisely pointed out this is a barn floor! There’s hay and a saddle and everything! Why the hell did I think it was a dock? Jeezis. I gotta stop doing these so late at night. A dock? I even noted the damn horse saddle!)

I guess cars exist at night and in the dark as well as in the daylight, so maybe it makes sense to show night shots. But no one thought to turn on the car’s own lights? Not even for one of these? They all feel so sinister and unsettling. I can almost feel the humid cold of the night creeping into my bones. These don’t make me want to buy a Pontiac; they make me want to be wrapped in a blanket, far away from whatever cruel things these Pontiacs are involved in.

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Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
1 month ago

You want to see a Pontiac?
Turn on “Split Second”
Plenty of brightly lit Pontiacs there!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fk8ioqIlz2I

(and the car he could have won had the Urethane Bumpers!)

Beached Wail
Beached Wail
1 month ago

Pontiac Safari on a “dock” with a saddle. It’s been explained already by the great country singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett, not-so-coincidentally by the first song on his album “Pontiac.” (Not kidding, you can look it up.)

A saddle on a dock? Here are partial lyrics to “If I Had a Boat”:

And if I had a boat
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
I said, me upon my pony on my boat

Obviously, the Pontiac pulls a horse trailer taking Lyle’s horse out to Lyle’s boat, which explains the “dock” and the saddle.

Jonathan Hendry
Jonathan Hendry
1 month ago

Jason,

Can you Photoshop one of these so that the counter and people from Nighthawks by Edward Hopper is inside the car?

Wagen Volk
Wagen Volk
1 month ago

That’s a perfect taste for an AI bot. Just copy paste your text.

Jonee Eisen
Jonee Eisen
1 month ago

I love that whole aesthetic. I used to have a set of dealership posters with all of these that I had around my old apartment. I ended up selling them on Ebay because it got a little weird, but I still admire the way they’re anti everything about advertising especially in that era.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
1 month ago

Looks to me like Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman’s work, not a photo.

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
1 month ago

You could get away with this back when cars were painted actual colors.

rctothefuture
rctothefuture
1 month ago

I can see the ad pitch meeting now…

Ad man: “No, no, no. You’re not getting it!”

Pontiac Exec: “What are we not getting?! We want to show off our new cars, not hide them!”

Ad man: “No, you see, you don’t see it! That’s the whole point, we just show off a few bits and pieces to get people interested. Then they HAVE to go to the dealer lots to check them out. Once they are there? Boom! We’ve got em!”

Pontiac Exec: *turns to other Exec* “Ya know what? Fuck it, we’ll just do the TV spot in the light to make up for it. I’ve got better shit to do.”

John Delorean, looking through the glass: *bang bang bang* “NO YOU FOOLS!”

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 month ago

After years of toiling in the mail room, things were finally looking up for Jack. He was promoted to inside sales two years ago now. His bosses noticed his excellent performance. He was especially adept with his fluency in ‘American Spanish’, using it to befriend young Hispanic housewives, bringing them on board with new policies. Today, he was appointed to account manager, a huge promotion for a kid who only had a minor in horticulture from the community college. Now as he sat here with his family celebrating at the Wagon Wheel, he stared at his salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and side of apple sauce, contemplating the meaning of it all. He knew he was no longer a Chevy man. He would have to move up. Was it time for a Buick? A Mercury? He felt a sense of foreboding. Something actually ‘real’ was missing in his life, but here he was. He was cast in the play and he had to execute the roll. He was not happy. Not happy at all. As they left the Wagon Wheel, he glanced at a Pontiac parked in the night air. The foreboding returned. His peripheral vision began to close in on him. He couldn’t take it anymore. A Pontiac will have to do.       

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
1 month ago

 there’s some dim light in that…house? back there. Or is it a giant terrarium?

I think that is a pop-up camper in the Catalina Safari ad. Might need to get Mercedes official ruling.

Still has a Friday the 13th/Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe though.

John Hower
John Hower
1 month ago

That does look like a pop-up. The fam is taking a break from the rat race and camping on the shore of a lake outside of Pontiac, Michigan.

Chronometric
Chronometric
1 month ago

Pontiac was trying to capture an important and influential market segment. They have centuries of disposable income, a wicked fashion sense, and a cult following. Vampires!

James Carson
James Carson
1 month ago
Reply to  Chronometric

Pontiac had their ear to the ground and were laying the groundwork for the coming Goth subculture. It’s true ask Adrian.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago

Needs more black velvet.

And Elvis. Or a sad clown.

A couple of dogs playing poker would be nice.

Last edited 1 month ago by Cheap Bastard
Mike F.
Mike F.
1 month ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

A Pennywise-style clown might also work well.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
1 month ago

I remember I had a teacher in the 80s who used to work in advertising before apparently deciding public education was his real calling. He recounted that during the 70s there was a time when everyone was trying to do ads on the cheap, so they went with muted (dark) backgrounds on everything so that they could do crap like above – park in a nearby barn instead of drive somewhere to take a photo with a mountain backdrop. He also mentioned, while talking about costs of printing our school yearbook, that printing companies also charged less for black ink than color inks, so it was a win/win for the magazines and newspapers who charged the same amount for the advertisement space. Not sure how true any of that actually was, but it was quite persuasive in getting us to rethink our color choices in our school yearbook.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 month ago

LeMans Safari is hiding in your barn like an axe murderer, patiently waiting until the last light in the house goes out.

If anyone likes investigative reading, I highly recommend The Man From the Train. Very well written and creepy AF.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 month ago

Remember, in the ’70’s we had an energy crisis. Both Ford and Carter told us to turn down the thermostat and turn off the lights. And drive less.
Besides, in the ’70’s, most of your driving was at night. Key parties, rock concerts, disco crawling and fondue eating all happened at night. And you probably didn’t have a job to drive to during the day anyway.

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
1 month ago

That’s not the ’70’s, that’s Austin, TX on a Tuesday.

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
1 month ago

These ads were “made” to target those folks that were definitely not clowns, and definitely not trying to amuse you. They just weren’t at the Cadillac level yet. That, or they were living in a nondescript house in a nondescript city, working a nondescript job that required checking in with a guy in a polyester suit every once in a while, but still need a taste of that eccitazione.

So, maybe just fuuughhhetttabbbouittt…

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

This is the same type of lighting technique that was often applied in jewelry and high end booze ads, among other products. It’s dramatic and isolating to create an atmosphere of the unique in which the product both stands out and retains a bit of mystery. It’s a bit like Rembrandt lighting in human portraits. The danger in this type of effect is that too much of it turns the mysterious into the sinister.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
1 month ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I did tabletop photography for ads like that back in around 1980 or so, and you would not believe how complicated a shot like that is. You have to build an entire set for all the reflections because each reflection is a piece of foamcore just off camera, and get the highlights bright, but not so bright that they blow things out.
Worst job ever was a couple of crystal goblets, a cut glass ashtray, bottle of scotch and a cigar. I think it took about three days to do that. Oh and it was shot on 8 x 10 film so it took a small town worth of power to light it all on a black background.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

I worked as a photographer in advertising for a bit. Those kinds of images are always complicated. First step: kill the ambient light and start building with studio lights, reflectors, flags and scrims.Yours sounds like it must have been a specular highlights nightmare.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago

Every car comes with a knife-wielding murderer in the back seat (dealer installed).

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

If they’re stabbing you in the back, it probably is the dealer.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

Trunk monkey! Noo!!!

Adrian Clarke
Adrian Clarke
1 month ago

I always have my butler lay out a strip of red carpet on the sidewalk when I get out of the car. I thought everybody did this.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

No, my valet matches the carpet to whatever color of socks I’m wearing

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

My car has red carpet in it from the factory so I never have to step off red carpet.

ES
ES
1 month ago

not a dock: barn floor, judging by the hint of door/stall posts and the straw/hay bales combined with the saddle.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
1 month ago

Wrong kind of “excitement” there. Not the fun, carefree kind but the kind that makes spidey-senses extra tingly hoping you can get to your car, remember which key opens the door and that none of the other doors were unlocked kind.

Also, boat people are often arriving or departing at odd hours of the night. Something to do with these things called “tides”. But good luck not finding that 1970’s Pontiac a pile of rust upon return.

OCS-BN
OCS-BN
1 month ago

I think these are from the series of brochures that John Carpenter created for Pontiac. He also made some TV commercials, starring Kurt Russel. But they never aired because of the R-rating.

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