The 1900 exhibition at Madison Square Garden was called the New York Auto Show, and the name was born. Previously, the machines weren’t called cars, but Autogo, farmobile and “Horseless Carriage”. In fact, cars were designed with the engines in the front because that’s where the horse would usually be.
The horse metaphors were rampant: a 1905 ad said the car was “simple as a pair of reins”. An Oldsmobile ad in 1904 called “A Tale Of Two Streets” compared a horse’s muddy road to a car’s smooth paved one. It didn’t mention that at the turn of the century there were only 150 miles of paved road for 8,000 automobiles.
The automobile was definitely a symbol of success; it cost the price of a furnished six-room house. 1905 Fords (at $500-$2000) pointedly mentioned that the chauffeur was to drive them.
Doctors were the first group outside of the wealthy to begin buying cars. It represented that looking-forward attitude that was popular at the turn of a century. Most early automobile advertising showed women driving because they wanted to show how easy it was to drive a car. Drivers endured derisive cries like “Get a horse!” as they fumbled along on unpaved streets through strange towns without a map. Tennessee declared that you had to give a week’s notice before leaving on a motor trip. Vermont wanted a “mature individual” waving a red flag in front of the car.
It didn’t slow down the auto’s success. “In My Merry Oldsmobile” was the most popular song of 1905. It symbolized forward progress, perfect for the turn-of-the-century attitude. The car was black; it backfired; it had arrived.
You had to be pretty good with tools to operate an early automobile. A 1906 gift from Hammacher Schlemmer was a “tourist autokit” that weighed 18 pounds and had 38 wrenches & screwdrivers. Other companies peddled hatchets, emergency food rations, vulcanizers to repair flats, etc. You needed goggles, caps, and more. One company offered a “neck, ear, and chest muffler” — a mummy bag.
While Henry Ford serviced the wealthy, he was preparing for a car for the masses at the same time. In 1908, he produced the Model T. It was simple, easy to fix and unstoppable. Its nickname was the Tin Lizzie, in homage to Lizzies: loyal, hardworking servants who would do anything. They became very popular: Farmers would put plows on them and till the fields; many young boys’ first car was a 20-year old Model T.
The new cycle of advertising: “impressionistic copy” or “atmosphere” advertising. It made its message by trying to create an impression of high quality, class and honesty. The new style valued dignified, elegant writing as a complement to its high visual tone. Examples were the Calkins & Holden campaigns for Arrow collars & Pierce-Arrow cars. Atmosphere did the selling.
A prime example was Theodore F. MacManus and The Penalty of Leadership. When that ad ran in 1915, he was teased for writing corny fluff. But sales boomed, thousands of copies were sent out on request, salesmen hung it up on their walls; it was included in sales manuals; cited in meetings, and used in direct mail and newspaper campaigns. 30 years later, it was voted the greatest ad of all time.
MacManus was called the Claude Hopkins of soft sell. He was opposite of Hopkins: he read widely, took vacations, wrote poetry and business books. He was closer to Elmo Calkins than Hopkins. To Hopkins, the public were simpletons. MacManus exalted them. Said that while people might be flawed as human beings, they still wanted products and companies they could look up to.
After WWI, a car couldn’t just be reliable anymore; it had to be colorful and exciting. This is when the automobile began its first and permanent link with the youth. There was a large use of college kids in ads. The holy trinity was a raccoon coat, a hip flask and an automobile. As opposed to the appeals of reliability and strength of earlier years, car ads now stressed style and comfort. You weren’t buying a car … you were buying pleasure and freedom.
The Model T began to show its age; the 1925 Chevrolet had a bright finish, bumpers, a shiny radiator and painted wheel disks. Ford’s famous comment that consumers can have any color car they want, as long as it’s black, became even more dated. The Model T stopped production in 1927; soon thereafter, Ford came out with the Model A. Car manufacturers and designers were ready to complement each others’ skills and usher in the golden days of the machine age.
Most famous car ad of the ‘20s was for the Jordan Playboy “Somewhere West Of Laramie”: Somewhere far beyond the place where men and women and motors race through the canyons of the town — somewhere on the top of the world — there is a peak which dull car has never climbed. You can go there lighthearted in a Jordan Playboy — for it’s always happy in the hills.
Ford ads of 1920s talked to women because Henry Ford figured that women make up their husbands’ minds.
The rich were getting richer by the end of the decade. Custom designs and luxury models did a brisk business: the V-16 Cadillac with the headline: “Works Of The Modern Masters.”
The Depression (1930’s)
Modern architecture: long, low and rounded. The sporty sedan with the rumble seat was replaced with the Art Deco and its jagged geometry. Designers were influenced by the Bauhaus and pursued “the ideal form.” Wanted to show effortless movement. The model was streamlined design resembling a teardrop. The streamlined train and blimp were also in vogue at this time. The airplane.
The government printed posters talking about how a car provides three months’ employment for an auto worker. However, most people were worried about finding a job and putting bread on their plates, not buying cars. It was like penance for the excesses of the 20s.
The car also became a symbol of lawlessness. Dillinger became a Robin Hood-type, replacing Horatio Alger. Bonnie & Clyde represented the common man fighting the heartless banks. The photos they sent to the police all the time always showed them next to a Ford V-8. Al Capone traveled in a caravan of three cars.
During the depression, “He Drives A Duesenberg” ad ran, showing people who sure weren’t living in Hoovervilles. This Living in Denial is typical of the 1930s car advertising. They pushed into overdrive from 1938 and on as the country began to move out of the depression.
1938: The Y-job by General Motors. Round, unbroken lines.
1939: Lincoln Continental by Ford. Limited-production, high-end car. Massive car with minimal decoration. MOMA called it a masterpiece of product design.
The apex of this futuristic design was at the 1939 World’s Fair in General Motors’ Futurama. You sat in a huge exhibition hall in an upholstered chair and were whisked on conveyor belts on a trip through time and space. The voice over talked about life in the 1960s with two-month vacations, highways with 100 MPH speed limits and cars that only cost $200.