Nissan is currently enjoying bragging rights as the biggest seller of electric vehicles in history, but the automaker’s environmental bona fides didn’t begin with the Leaf. Back in 1972 Datsun USA launched what would be, at the time, its widest reaching advertising campaign since the company set up shop here. The spokesman for the campaign was one of the biggest coups in advertising history, the incorruptible Ansel Adams, world-famous photographer and conservationist.
Adams’ images rank among the most popular and iconic in the realm of nature photography. A snap of Yosemite National Park, a favorite subject of his, sold at auction in 2010 for $722,500. Grand monochrome depictions of the American west, from towering redwoods to massive mountains, were Adams’ specialty, and he used his art to advocate for the preservation of the natural wonders that he loved so much.
So what’s a die-hard environmentalist doing shilling for an auto manufacturer? Well, the campaign was called “Drive a Datsun, Plant a Tree,” and for anyone that came into a dealership for a test drive, Nissan would plant a seedling in a US national forest.
The campaign launched on the three major television networks in late 1972 and lasted for six weeks. During that time, Nissan also bought full-page ads in Time, Newsweek, US News and Sports Illustrated, as well as many national and local newspapers. It would be the largest coordinated advertising campaign in Nissan USA history at the time.
The ads touted the great mileage you’d get with a 1200 Sunny, 510, or 620 pickup. Nissan knew from market research that individuals who cared about Mother Nature were more likely to buy a funky, four-cylinder Japanese car when giant V8s were the norm.
In addition, an Adams-shot poster was available at dealerships, a promotion Nissan called the most sought-after giveaway they’d produced yet. If you took a test drive, you were also given an “I Planted a Tree” button and a certificate from the National Forest Service proving it had been sowed, items worthy of any Datsun memorabilia collection today.
Critics lambasted Adams for “selling out,” but his rationale was that Nissan expected 100,000 potential customers to take them up on the offer, thus adding 100,000 trees to national forests. Instead, according to Mary Street Alinder’s Ansel Adams biography, the campaign exceeded expectations by 60 percent, resulting in 160,000 trees. A year later, the 1973 Oil Embargo struck, and customers whom Adams lured into dealerships must have been laughing all the way to the bank in their 30 mpg Datsuns. Adams passed away 31 years ago today, on April 22, 1984.
Images courtesy of Nissan.