Jet Smooth Jet Age Advertising from Motown “Mad Man” Jim Bernardin

by James Kraus

Jim Bernardin in his office at Campbell-Ewald, Detroit, Michigan, 1963

Jim Bernardin in his office at Campbell-Ewald, Detroit, Michigan, 1963

Chevrolet was America’s perennial top seller of automobiles in the 1960s. To maintain that dominance they wielded an appropriately massive merchandising war chest. General Motors was the worlds largest advertiser at the time with an annual budget approaching US$2 Billion in today’s dollars. A significant slice of that expenditure went into the coffers of Campbell-Ewald, Chevrolets’ ad agency since 1919. In 1962 the agency promoted Jim Bernardin to Creative Director for the highly coveted Chevrolet account. 

Graduating from the University of Michigan with a Design degree, Jim briefly worked at Kenyon & Eckhardt on the Lincoln-Mercury account and later at Benton & Bowles for Studebaker. In 1958 he joined Campbell-Ewald as Art Director for the Experimental and Development group producing ads for Corvette and Corvair as well as alternative ads for other Chevrolets.

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Corvair promotional folder, 1960. Created and executed by Jim, this is an example of the work that resulted in his heading the Chevrolet account. The multiple font styles and colors used here were popular design elements in the early sixties.

Once ensconced in the chair of Creative Director, Jim set the design course for all Chevrolet print and outdoor advertising. Building on the previous work of C-E overall Creative Director Jim Hastings, Bernardin strove for a humanistic approach to differentiate Chevrolet’s advertising imagery, endeavouring to populate his ads with people (and often canine companions) in common everyday situations.

It was a busy job with his team having to produce at least five full-page newspaper advertisements per a month along with sales brochures, mailers, magazine spreads and outdoor billboards.

Jim on a Corvair location shoot with his trusty Malaga briar and a mirror-reflex Hasselblad 1000F, 1960

Jim on a Corvair location shoot with his trusty Malaga Briar and a mirror-reflex Hasselblad 1000F, 1960

Workdays were consequently hectic. After a member of his department got involved in a heated disagreement at a local watering hole, the young man later agreed to let Jim remove the resulting sutures from his head with an X-Acto knife borrowed from the art department. He otherwise would have had to leave for the doctor’s office on the eve of a crucial meeting.

Following is a selection of noteworthy examples of the work produced by Jim and his team at Campbell-Ewald during the 1960s.

Instant Adventure, 1962

Instant Adventure, 1962

Instant Adventure earned a Newspaper Advertising Industry Award for most memorable automotive ad for the 1962 model year. Chevrolet management liked displaying their full line, producing an ongoing challenge for the illustrator to present the range of models in a creative manner without resorting to a standard lineup or grid.

Using an overpass above a divided highway was a imaginative solution and appropriate for the era. The U.S. interstate highway system was being aggressively built-out at this time and driving on them was still a novel experience in many areas of the country.

Convertibles were a very popular body style in the 1960s and their use in the illustration made the passengers more visible, helping animate the image.

Accelerator, 1962

Accelerator: Impala Super Sport, 1962

In April of 1962 this minimalist high-concept ad ran in motoring magazines, extolling the virtues of the Impala Super Sport. Six months into the model year, enthusiasts were already familiar with the exterior styling; so rather than use a conventional exterior view, the chosen image was that of the favourite man-machine interface for the potential Impala SS buyer: the throttle pedal. The text began with the dictionary definition of accelerator and expanded upon it.

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Pick A Chevy, Pack Up The Family And Go, 1962

This is another full-line ad for 1962 in the same full-line vein as Instant Adventure. In lieu of convertibles, a low point-of-view is used to reveal the occupants. The guardrail painter enjoying lunch in the middle of traffic is a typical Bernardin detail.

Pick A Chevy, Pack Up The Family And Go (draft layout)

Pick A Chevy, Pack Up The Family And Go (draft layout)

Creating advertising in the 1960s was a completely manual step-by-step process. This initial layout drawing of the original Pick-Pack-Go idea was rendered by hand in pencil and marker. Rough layouts like these were used to secure client approval from Chevrolet before finalizing a proposed concept.

When an illustration was complete, it then had to be vetted by the engineering department to ensure that it was depicted accurately. This involved everything from the placement of trim and badging down to the correct number of slats or bars in the front grille.

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Buy Now, Play Later: Impala SS Convertible, 1963

This ad for the 1963 Impala uses a straightforward approach with no background, lots of clean white space and a simple two-colour format. In lieu of populating the ad with people, a set of golf clubs resting in the rear seat suggests an unseen new Impala owner will momentarily be off to play the front nine.

You'll Make The Wisest Choice No Matter Which Chevrolet You Choose, 1963

You’ll Make The Wisest Choice No Matter Which Chevrolet You Choose, 1963

The Wisest Choice brings back the full product line; again on an overpass, but this time with a fresh perspective showcasing the new 1963 model range. The illustration includes a good view of the rear of the new Corvette Sting Ray with the stylish and unfortunately one-year-only split rear window.

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Here’s Where Corvair’s New Horses Feel Their Oats: Highway Performers series, 1964. This ad extolled the advantages of the enlarged, higher-output engine in the ’64 Corvair. Note the approaching Sting Ray convertible; Corvair and Corvette were often presented together in ads of this period.

The artwork on this newspaper ad for the 1964 Corvair is exemplary, straddling realism and abstraction. The high contrast between the deep blacks with the pure white road and pink sky makes a strong visual statement, while bold graphical elements, particularly the straight vertical cut of the roadway toward the horizon, draw in the viewer.

This was one of a series that depicted Chevrolets driving through scenic American landscapes, echoing the theme of the long-running See the USA in Your Chevrolet television commercials.

Count On Chevrolet To Build The One You Want; Highway Performers series, 1964

Count On Chevrolet To Build The One You Want; Highway Performers series, 1964

This is not one of Jim’s personal favourites, but I like the image. The illustration is a splendid use of two-colour printing with glowing red interiors providing a counterpoint to the cool white exteriors of the four cars. The key here is enhanced perspective. By placing the big Impala SS in the foreground and the much smaller Chevy II at the rear, the natural perspective is greatly magnified and really draws the eye into the picture.

The next series of ads demonstrate a pinnacle of Chevrolet advertising that roughly coincided with the peak of Chevrolet and GM styling, product strength and market share.

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See The USA The Number 1 Way, 1965

They were known internally as the Big Type series. Like many breakthroughs, some turbulence was involved in their gestation.

Success Hasn't Gone To Its Price, 1965

Success Hasn’t Gone To Its Price: Impala Sport Sedan, 1965

The original new look for the 1965 campaign initially failed to adequately impress Campbell-Ewald chairman Ted “Big Daddy” Little, who was disappointed to the point of taking leave of the presentation in an explicative-laced rant.

After gathering his wits, Jim put his head together with Corporate Creatives Jim Hastings and Pete Booth to regroup and salvage what they could of the nascent campaign. At one point Jim Hastings suggested using a really large eye-catching font for the headlines.

Summer Punch: Corvair Corsa, 1965

Summer Punch: Corvair Corsa, 1965

The original artwork was revised using the Big Type headlines and the tweaked slate of ads was enthusiastically embraced by both Campbell-Ewald management and Chevrolet, which approved and bought the entire collection.

Spirited: Corvair, 1965. Here visual interest was heightened by firecrackers in the headline and a creative text layout. Like the three advertisements above, this one contains a blurb in the lower right corner encouraging readers to visit the General Motors Futurama pavilion at the New York World’s Fair

The new Big Type series traded the charm and intricate detail of the earlier examples for more of an emphasis on simplicity and impact. It was an ideal style for the changing America of the mid-60s.

Billboard art, 1965 Impala Convertible

Billboard art: Impala Convertible, 1965

This sublime illustration for a 1965 Impala billboard is pure Pop, calling to mind the sharp-edged, flat, ethereal quality of an Ed Ruscha Standard Station.

Standard Station with 10-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, Ed Ruscha, 1964. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth collection

Standard Station with 10-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, Ed Ruscha, 1964. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth collection

Many of the 1965 billboards incorporated simple background-free artwork combined with a minimal amount of large text, mimicking the format of the Big Type newspaper advertisements. This successful style was carried over and refined for 1966.

Billboard, 1966 Impala Sport Coupe

Billboard: Impala Sport Coupe, 1966

Masterful use of vibrant colour sets this billboard art for the ’66 Impala apart, calling to mind the palette of Andy Warhol. Having the illustration overlap the text lends dimensional depth as well as a bit of energy and dynamism, as if the car is driving though the text. Billboard art does not get any better.

Billboard, 1966 Caprice Custom Coupe

Billboard: Caprice Custom Coupe, 1966

The two-door Caprice was a new model for 1966. A unique roofline served to differentiate it from the Impala depicted above. Use of a direct side-profile image highlights this distinguishing feature. The colouration is more muted in comparison to the Impala billboard, befitting this more conservative luxury-oriented Chevrolet.

Here a feeling of movement is achieved by text overlap as well as by having the car set at the very right edge of the background, giving the illusion that the car is driving through rather than part of the billboard.

These impressive boards are fantastic examples of commercial Pop art. The simple flatly-rendered, vividly coloured product as the star paired with a monumentally scaled and succinct headline; nothing more, nothing less. The entire message could be absorbed at a glance.

From mid-1964 to mid-1965, British photographer David McCabe followed Andy Warhol around as part of a documentary project. In the spring of ’65 Andy stopped to pose in front of one of Jim’s billboards. David McCabe photo, 1965

From mid-1964 to mid-1965, British photographer David McCabe followed Andy Warhol around Manhattan as part of a documentary project. In the spring of ’65 Andy stopped to pose in front of one of Jim’s billboards. David McCabe photo, 1965

Others saw art in the ’65-’66 Chevrolet campaign, including the Pope of Pop himself. Andy was no stranger to the ad business, having enjoyed a lucrative career as an advertising illustrator in Manhattan before establishing himself as artist. Gallery owner Ron Feldman once declared that Andy “was always an ad man.”

Indeed Andy’s best work came out of his fond embrace of postwar consumer culture. His depictions of everyday Pop objects like the Coke bottle, the VW and the Brillo Box reflected perfectly the Pop tendencies of ‘60s advertising.

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Chevelle SS 396: Exhilarating The Chevrolet Way, 1966

Here is an ad with a quite different approach. With the vast quantities of advertisements Jim’s team needed to produce, there was scope for ampel experimentation. As you can see, the illustration used here is a much more painterly, expressionistic style than the imagery used in the advertisements above. Of interest here is the depiction of excitement.

A high performance car is being presented; but there is no lonesome road, no racetrack imagery nor driving gloves. Instead, the focus is the exhilaration of a happy couple enjoying the effortless pleasure of a brisk journey, whatever their destination.

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Don Draper and Roger Sterling at GM Headquarters to pitch for the Chevrolet XP-887 account, 1968

Fans of sixties-based television show Mad Men will recall Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason & Chaough successfully landing the Chevrolet XP-887 account in season six. The account they secured was for the pre-release advertising for the future Chevrolet Vega. Similar to what was done earlier with the Corvair, teaser ads were placed by Chevrolet beginning a year prior to model launch.

In the real world, it was Jim’s group at Campbell-Ewald who actually won the project, keeping it in-house after successfully presenting a demonstration for Chevrolet’s Director of Marketing.

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Competition’s Newest Nightmare: Camaro Z-28, 1969. Another distinctly unique approach. The increasing scaled white-on-black repetitive Z’s lend an Op-Art like optical discordance while simultaneously calling to mind a tyre tread. This ad can trace its lineage back to both the conceptual nature of 1962’s Accelerator and the Big Type aesthetic of 1965-1966.

Given the sensibilities of mid-sixties Chevrolet advertising, it is no surprise Andy Warhol had himself photographed in front of one of Jim’s billboards. Besides, what could be more Pop culture than a 1960s Chevrolet?

Many of the images seen here are from Jim’s own website featuring Chevrolet advertising from 1955 to 1977 and a myriad of stories behind the ads.

2 thoughts on “Jet Smooth Jet Age Advertising from Motown “Mad Man” Jim Bernardin

  1. Magnificent work, nothing like it today. I love the ad with the Corvair in the mountains.

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