Today, we trace a new technology through
advertisements. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Historian Pamela Walker
Laird traces early automobile ads and finds
something surprising: it's the lack of enthusiasm
and hyperbole. The first car ads came out just
after Barnum -- just after bicycles had swept the
country, fueled by ads that said things like,
"Columbia riders know naught but pleasure." Never
mind the specific virtues of the Columbia bike, its
advertisers knew people would be drawn in by the
pleasure bicycles offered them.
Early automobile drivers wrote about how "The best
part of automobiling ... is the way [you sweep]
uphill [and] make gravitation slink away
crestfallen, conquered." But that kind of talk
didn't make it into advertising copy.
Ads for the 1922 Dorris explained its engine and
its choke. They showed a diagram of its fuel
system. All that did help teach the public how this
new part of American culture worked. But to promote
their car, the Dorris people said something you
don't find in ads today. "The Car Without a Single
Weakness," a banner cries.
Weakness? Is that what buyers should be thinking
about? Certainly not! But it was what designers
thought about all the time. How to keep the rings
from wearing out, the suspension stable, the
radiator cool. Laird points out that early auto
ads, tightly controlled by people who made autos,
Early ads also played for prestige. They told you
their buyers were upscale. No Barnum tactics for
them. Car ads showed a full view of a static car.
People, if any were in the picture at all, were
wealthy admirers. "Autocrats' of the Road" cried an
early Olds ad. "Ask the man who owns one," said
Packard, with the sly hint that that man might be
someone beyond your social stratum.
Henry Ford doggedly kept
selling to everyman. But he still self-referenced.
He showed his factory smokestacks and said, A Giant
Who Works for You. But buyers don't care how the
product came into being, Laird says. They're
interested in the result.
During the 1920s, car ads fell into the hands of
advertising professionals, separate from
manufacturers. Now the Lexington announces that it
was "Built to Stay Young." In a pivotal new ad, we
see a girl racing a cowboy in her Jordan
automobile. The cars now move, and it is no longer
just well-to-do men who drive them.
Not everyone got the message. In 1931 we see a
parked black Ford with the
message, "The New Ford is an economical car to own
and drive." By then, Ford was being left behind by
General Motors. We see GE's new Plymouth model,
speeding down a country road.
So car advertising evolved with the car itself and
with an America being remolded by its new machines.
And we might well ask what car ads tell us today.
Now they speak less of speed or prestige than they
do of comfort and safety. But then, this is a game
which I doubt is over yet.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds