Advertising and the automotive industry are two items that go hand in hand with one another. As long as there have been vehicles manufactured for consumers, brands have been trying their hand at unique ways and methods to accentuate their virtues and highlight the reasons why people should own them. Each facet of the industry has its own unique way of reaching its intended demographic, some of which are more memorable than others. As someone who grew up in Southern California, I can remember the never-ending bombardment of used car dealer ads that were bookended by my Saturday morning cartoons. The most memorable of these was from Cal Worthington, whose catchy jingle of “go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal ” found a way to get embedded into my head. There’s something endearing about certain automotive commercials that make them memorable and provide a nostalgic whimsy that we can appreciate. Of all the ad campaigns that were broadcast on the television screen, there’s one that remains more memorable than any other. This is the saga of Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies who became the face of automotive safety in the late 1980s, and even had a popular toy line in the early 1990s based on them. Yes, these were among my favorite toys.
An Important Lesson Delivered Through Violent Means
The appearance of advertisements for automotive safety was certainly not a new occurrence when the two dummies, Vince and Larry, first began appearing on television screens in 1985. In fact, the simple, yet important subject of traffic safety has always been presented in one of two ways. The first has been the use of the “shock tactic.” These have taken the form of the Red Asphalt film series, in which police officers discuss the after-effects of fatal highway accidents. Not holding back the dangers of reckless driving, bodies bruised, mangled, and trapped within the wreckage of a vehicle certainly makes for a lasting impression on teens getting ready to get behind the wheel for the first time. This film series has been parodied by The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-Head as would-be snuff films that are the mainstay of any driving school. Multiple advertisements from Europe have continued to rely on this method, with one particular commercial in Ireland showing a speeding car mowing down a group of unsuspecting schoolchildren while a rendition of “Sweet Child o’ Mine”’ by Guns ’n’ Roses plays in the background. At the other end of the spectrum, advertisers sometimes try a more whimsical and light-hearted approach when it comes to stressing the importance of safety, which is where Vince and Larry fit in. Some of the other examples of these types of ads include the late David Prowse, best known for his role as Darth Vader in Star Wars, as the Green Cross Man, telling school children to look very carefully and listen when crossing the street.
1985: Vince and Larry Arrive
The premise behind the ads featuring Vince and Larry was simple in concept but brilliant in its execution, the utilization of crash test dummies to measure the damage that a human being can suffer in the event of an accident. To make these necessary items of the testing process more relatable, they were given identities and made into characters. A stroke of marketing genius was the acquisition of Lorenzo Music to voice Larry. Music, who provided the voice of Garfield in several animated forms, helped elevate the dummies into having a more comedic and cartoonish appeal, meaning children, as well as adults, could relate to the dummy in his blue jumpsuit, next to Vince with his gray suit.
The premise of the commercials was based on the two dummies being placed in various crash tests, with the ending line of “You could learn a lot from a dummy, buckle your safety belt” concluding each public service announcement. While it seems simple enough, the ads found a way to get the importance of belt safety across while also giving the dummies a considerable amount of personality and plenty of puns and clever set-ups to make each ad more memorable than the last. Vince and Larry treated their roles as dummies as being ultra important, and one of the running gags through the ad campaign was Vince losing his motivation to be a dummy because people weren’t paying attention to the message. Larry would always be chipper and encourage Vince to keep up the work because the job they were doing was instrumental in saving lives.
Comedic Timing and a Pun-ishing Campaign
Getting an important message about safety across to a multitude of people is much more difficult than it sounds. Some people are apathetic, while others have an instinctive need to disobey the rules, no matter what they are or how important they might be. By adding a favorable dose of comedic timing in the form of cartoon-inspired violence and some clever lines regarding the situations, the ad campaign was memorable, not to mention effective at getting the message across. One of the most memorable exchanges from the pair occurred after the dummies were in a head-on collision test.
“Hey Vince, what’s the first thing that goes through your head after an accident?”
“The steering wheel.”
Because Vince and Larry were both real-life cartoon characters, they could embellish the amount of violence with a head-on collision and not come across as gory or excessive. In fact, the violence could even be described as on par with Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry, where something that would be fatal in humans occurs while our main characters get up as if nothing bad had occurred. Aside from the entertaining aspects of Vince and Larry going through windshields and taking immense pride in their work, the campaign was a success in encouraging the public to buckle up. When the campaign first began in 1985, it was reported that only 14% of drivers were using their safety belts on a regular basis. By the time the campaign came to an end in 1997, this number had drastically increased to 79%. The ad campaign’s success can be attributed to characters that were likable and situations that discussed a serious topic with a light-hearted tone.
Final Thoughts on Vince and Larry
As a member of a generation who can thank television for a good amount of their upbringing, I’ll always have fond memories of Vince and Larry and their ability to make automotive safety as entertaining as they did. In an industry that’s always put its best effort forward to inform and educate the masses on the importance of safety, these two dummies taught us that buckling up is one of the most fundamental parts of saving lives and keeping ourselves safe, whether we’re a driver or a passenger. Just as the concluding slogan of each ad proclaimed, we did learn a lot from a dummy–as a matter of fact, two of them. On behalf of everyone involved in the automotive world, from the insiders, the manufacturers, and in my case, the writers, thank you, Vince and Larry. You two were the smartest dummies of your time.