Ad Breakdown: Volvo’s “Drive it like you hate it.”

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

Drive it like you hate it print ad

In 1962, Volvo’s sales were struggling. After entering the US market in the 50s, they’d not really got any traction. And competing with the likes of Ford, Chevrolet, and GM was taking its toll. 

Volvo needed something.

They needed to capture the attention of their market and show they were different. And above all, Volvo needed an identity. 

The “Drive it like you hate it” campaign did exactly that. In fact, sales almost tripled in the following 4-5 year period. No wonder it’s often regarded as one of the best car campaigns of all time.

If you’d like to see the TV version that accompanied this print ad, click here.

This breakdown, like The Man in the Hathaway Shirt, went live on LinkedIn earlier this year. I’ve taken what was there, onboarded some of the feedback and then re-created it here. 

Let’s dig in.

The Art and Headline

Aggressive and in your face right away. It sets the tone. Volvos are tough, and they can be misused. And as great as the art is, I think the key point here is actually what you can’t see… how this ad compared to other car ads at the time. 

As George Tannenbaum insightfully commented on LinkedIn, “In 1962, cars weren’t shown dirty, gritty, working. They weren’t shown being driven hard. They were usually parked in front of a mansion and had a woman draped over them. Amil and Carl were thinking different long before anyone else.”

Volvo needed to stand out. And to stand out, they needed to know what everyone else is doing… and do the opposite. ‘When the world zigs, zag’ and all that.

(And this campaign didn’t just help Volvo – it also helped Ally & Gargano make a statement with their new agency.)

The Copy and Structure

For clarity, I’ve rewritten the body copy for you to see.

I’ve split it into five sections. Here they are:

Section 1

A brilliantly written first section with a lot going on. Let’s have a look. 

The first sentence is like a foot in the door. It builds on common knowledge – intentionally. The market likely already knew Volvo were an import from Sweden, and by getting this quick acceptance, they help with believability… an obstacle Volvo was tasked with overcoming. I’ll go over this in more detail later.

Next, the power of association. Just by mentioning other big names like Ford, Chevrolet and VW, Volvo tap into the power of association. If they weren’t hanging around in these circles before, they’re now a little bit closer. This sentence also builds on common knowledge and gets another subconscious nod from the reader.

I’ll also quickly bring your attention to each car brand having an associated adjective. Chevy = hot. Ford = safe. VW = funny. Having one ‘brand adjective’ (i.e. an adjective your market associates with your brand), helps them remember what you stand for. It’s simple. It cuts through the clutter. And as a result, it helps them make decisions. All brand communication should align with this adjective and reinforce it. More on this later.

Back to the ad.

By admitting their ‘failure’ – that “tough” didn’t stick – Volvo also leverage The Pratfall Effect. This makes them seem more trustworthy and helps make future claims more believable.

Section 2

Straight away, a clever use of an authoritative figure – “car nuts“. The intended audience trust that if the “car nuts” are buying it, then it must be good. This saves them tedious, time-consuming research and makes it easier to make an informed decision.

Then we head into almost a subtle brag of what a Volvo is capable of, explaining why the “car nuts” bought it. I like the use of brackets to add context to these points. 

Next, believability 101 – be specific: “80% unpaved”, “30° below”. They’re subtle specifics, but they carry their weight in honesty. It also helps gain another acceptance that Volvos are tough and they “would hold up under anything”. Note the reframing of toughness.

As most of you know, when persuading, you need to make things seem easy for your reader. You need to minimise the obstacle and effort involved in getting the end result. And we see that here: “driven right off showroom floors onto race tracks”. Although the ad is talking about racing, the message carries over into everyday cars. Volvos are ready to perform as soon as you buy them.

Performance would be a desirable attribute for the market – or at least a serious consideration. And what I like is that the ad doesn’t spoon-feed* the performance. This ad doesn’t reel off engine size or horsepower but, instead, lets the reader put two and two together. (Or… the performance wasn’t actually that good, and they’re shying away from it… but we see this isn’t the case in the next section).

*(We see a lot of spoon-feeding in today’s advertising… ads telling the reader how they should feel rather than just letting them experience it themselves. It’s almost like we’ve lost trust in ourselves to deliver an emotionally engaging message, and we’re overcompensating. Or maybe we just don’t know how to write them?…)

Section 3

The more I think about the ‘race aspect’ of this ad, the more I see it being a brand signal.

If you think about Volvo’s position at the time, they needed to grow and show they could compete with the likes of Ford and Chevrolet. Having the means to do so is one thing, but getting the market to believe you can is another. And by mentioning their racing achievements, they not only boost their credibility for high performance but also signal their commitment and intent as a brand. And although it’s a subtle signal, it works – ‘we’re investing this into our brand, and we’re winning, so you can see we’re serious about this.’ It inspires confidence and trust.

As we said earlier, Volvo needed a personality – it comes through here with “used and misused”. Naturally, there’s a question of safety, which they handle in the following sentence.

Next, the mental disqualification. As copywriters, we need to remember that our readers are always switching from something. If the reader doesn’t choose Volvo, they’ll choose someone/something else. The ad says that “they run away from other popular-priced compacts in every speed range”, and settles that they perform better than the others in the market. It’s easier for the reader to see Volvo as the better option. It also just repeats the earlier point of them performing well again.

Although it might not be top of mind (it only comes up this deep into the ad), Volvo mention a logical benefit to help the reader justify their decision – fuel economy – and they’re specific about it.

They end this section with a clever mention of “little motorway cars” to instil a clearer image and embed the benefit deeper. 

Section 4 & 5

And moving on to the last sections. Both are pretty short. We see another reference to ‘toughness’. And good use of social proof – the claim is niched down to allow for the superlative, which is more persuasive.

The ad then almost comes full circle by repeating the headline. Again, this brings up the toughness of Volvo. How many times has toughness been brought up throughout the body copy? It doesn’t seem like a lot. But it’s been mentioned, either directly or indirectly, 5+ times – in almost every section. The art here is how it’s reframed; it avoids sounding monotonous and instead becomes more impactful.

And the ad ends with a personality twist, again implying toughness. 

Other Observations

Two main observations here: positioning and believability. I’ve touched on them both earlier, but I’ll take them into more detail here. 

I’ll start with positioning. 

We know Volvo needed an identity. And, according to Al Ries, brand positioning starts with what’s already going on in the mind of the prospect (Robert Collier said something similar about sale letters too). For Volvo, this meant not being known from anything. 

They owned their starting point – their earlier failure – and went from there. Ries also says that for a business to improve its position (in the reader’s mind and thus improving the likelihood of being chosen), it must de-rank an already better-positioned competitor. Again, we see that here. 

The ad mentions the competitors, bringing them to mind, and gradually disqualifies them. This helped Volvo slowly move up the ranks and became a more likely, or at least more serious, choice.

And then to really embed who they are and what you get when you buy a Volvo, they repeat the ‘toughness’ throughout. Remember, it’s easier to cut through the shit with one adjective. Its simplicity stands out and helps your market make decisions. Granted, that one adjective has probably changed over the past 60 years, but it was necessary at the time.

Next, believability. 

I’ve touched on this already. But with their initial, low authority market position, Volvo claiming they were ‘tough’ might not be believed by their market. And if your claim isn’t believed, it’s useless. Maybe this is part of the reason why earlier attempts failed?

Gargano knew the challenge they faced and accepted their low-authority position. 

Belief works like a wedge. Start small and build. With each acceptance, you push further and let your claims get progressively ‘less believable’. Here’s the progression in this ad:

  1. Volvos come from Sweden.
  2. Chevy was the “hot one”. Ford was the “safe one”.
  3. Volvos are winning races.
  4. They’re fast.
  5. They’re safe.
  6. They perform better than other compacts.
  7. They’re fuel efficient.
  8. They’re a best seller.
  9. They’re tough.

Foot in the door. And don’t let it slip. The reader gets into the ‘habit’ of accepting the smaller claims and keeps going until the otherwise unbelievable claims are believed.

Boom. Done.

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