You can find lots of her vintage TV appearances on YouTube, but Gone Autos has some great work that she did for one of our favorite orphan car companies: AMC.
But first, let’s rewind.
American Motors rarely used celebrities to pitch its products. (One notable exception is Mickey Mouse. AMC was one of the first sponsors of Walt Disney’s anthology TV series, which debuted on ABC on October 27, 1954. Disney created several animated TV spots for Nash and Hudson cars during American Motors’ sponsorship, which lasted a few years. Look ‘em up. Those, too, are on YouTube.)
After Disney, AMC dabbled with minor celebrities. From 1958 to 1961, AMC radio spots featured Al Pearce’s character Elmer Blurt, the Low-Pressure Salesman. AMC also had a minor relationship with NBC News during this time. A few spots featured Today Show anchor Frank Blair.
But who needs outside help when your company’s president is its biggest celebrity? George Romney guided AMC through some dark years and earned the company piles and piles and piles of cash when the Rambler finally hit big with the public starting in 1958. He achieved rock star status when he appeared on the April 6, 1959, cover of Time Magazine. Romney railed against “the dinosaur in the driveway” and helped to create the economy car craze that lasted from 1958 to about 1964.
Mitt’s dad left AMC in February 1962 to run for Governor of Michigan (at a time when that was a great job). The guy who took over was Roy Abernethy, the Vice-President of Sales.
Abernethy looked like your typical American executive at the time. Big. Boisterous. Growled, mumbled, and barked orders through a cigar in the corner of his mouth. He couldn’t wait to shed the frugal image that Romney had carefully created. He was now running a little car company, but he wanted to compete with the Big Three.
He started to spend advertising money like he was already one of the Big Three. Phyllis Diller was white hot when AMC bought her comedic talents in 1964, and I’ll bet AMC paid her a LOT more than they paid their jingle writers.
Here’s the first of two 1964 AMC radio spots. It’s vintage Mad Men ad copy that’s been run through the Diller filter:
And here’s another Killer Diller. It’s so fast and entertaining that you hardly realize she has successfully crammed in messages about all three lines of AMC’s cars: the Rambler, the Classic, and the Ambassador. (I love the way she says, “See-dans”!)
Were any of these spots successful? Did they move the needle on AMC sales? I doubt it. AMC made almost 394,000 cars in 1964, but that was a 19% drop from 1963. At best, these spots make the case that AMC was trying to be a part of the pop culture zeitgeist.
As for Phyllis Diller, I think she shines in these little one-minute routines. AMC was lucky to have her. (I can just hear Roy Abernethy shouting, “That dame’s a hoot!” from the boardroom down the hall.)
I am one of those geeks who acquires this kind of stuff. I’ve been collecting orphan car radio commercials for 14 years. AMC
My guess is that, like every other whip-smart celebrity, she cashed in on her fame and did as much advertising as she could. I’ll be watching eBay more closely for celebrities like her.
Final note: AMC also employed other celebrities after Phyllis Diller. Baseball great Casey Stengel did a series of wooden radio ads in 1967. Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy did some TV ads in 1970. And Keenan Wynn did a radio spot in 1971. It’s fun finding this stuff. I’ll bring you more whenever I’m able to dream up some narrative glue to hold it all together.