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Auto Trivia: A century of delivering the pitch

Have you ever seen a car ad that never really mentions the car? There may be winding roads for sporty models, or forest animals for hybrids, and just a little bit of information about the vehicle at the end.

It’s known as image advertising, and you can trace it to a long-defunct model called the Jordan.

It was built in Cleveland, Ohio, starting in 1916, and founded by Ned Jordan. Initially a newspaper reporter, he learned about marketing through a job at National Cash Register. He then became the advertising manager for the Wisconsin-based Jeffrey car company, after he married the owner’s daughter. Finally, he built his own car.

Early auto ads generally contained a small drawing of the car within a page of dry-as-dust technical information. Jordan’s ads were colourful pictures that always included scenery or people, and downplayed the car’s specifications in favour of what it was like to drive. Unusual for the times, he also wrote ads that treated women as car enthusiasts, rather than as frail creatures who needed the latest easy-to-drive technologies.

The car that made advertising history was the Playboy, an otherwise unexceptional six-cylinder roadster introduced in 1919. Jordan first raised eyebrows with a Playboy ad he called “The Port of Missing Men,” showing the car parked beside a seaside cottage that had a single upstairs light on. Newspapers refused to carry the suggestive drawing unless he blacked out the light.

In 1923, as Jordan told the story, he was riding a train that stopped at a station in Wyoming. When it started up again, a woman on horseback galloped alongside.

Jordan asked where he was and was told, “Oh, somewhere west of Laramie.” Within minutes, he’d written the copy.

The finished ad was a drawing of a rider on horseback racing alongside a Playboy.

“Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about,” the ad read (as bronco was spelled at the time). “She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lighting and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome. The truth is — the Playboy was built for her.”

The rest of the ad continued this way, without any technical information about the vehicle, a pattern Jordan continued with several other ads. He sold 4,167 cars in 1922; in 1923, he sold 6,691. Competition was fierce by the late 1920s and Jordan was preoccupied with a bitter divorce, and so the company folded in 1931. Today, it remains famous for a campaign that changed the face of automobile advertising.

Of course, Jordan wasn’t the only company whose history was tied to advertising. It is believed the Maryville Oil Company put up the first gas price sign, when it set out a giant rendition of a gas pump outside a station in Missouri in 1937. Most stations put their prices on small sandwich boards near the pumps, but motorists could see Maryville’s cut-rate prices as they were driving down the street.

Another ad that changed the way cars are sold ran during the 1975 Super Bowl. Chrysler’s sales were sluggish, and so it hired retired baseball player Joe Garagiola to announce its industry-first plan: rebates on new vehicles. Domestic automakers were having a tough time selling their new compact cars, and Chrysler’s “Car Clearance Carnival” offered the largest rebates on the smallest models, a pattern that continued when Ford and General Motors jumped on the incentives bandwagon.

And who could forget Chrysler’s famous ad campaign, starring actor Ricardo Montalban crooning about Cordoba’s leather seats? He extolled the “soft Corinthian leather” and “rich leather,” but doesn’t appear to have ever actually said “rich Corinthian leather,” as many people think. Not that it would have mattered much anyway, of course. Montalban later said that the company found soft, pliable leather and coined the name for it as a marketing pitch, but it actually meant nothing.

wheels@thestar.ca

  • Auto Trivia: A century of delivering the pitch
  • Auto Trivia: A century of delivering the pitch

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