Swift-Elegant-Modern: Automotive advertising approaches and appealing to Americans during the early twentieth century, 1910–1920

An urban history analysis

Figure 1910-12

Figure 1910-12

Prepared 17 April 2009 for Prof. Steve Penfold (HIS484H1S, University of Toronto).

————— —— —————

In this paper:
Introduction
Comparative analysis
The face of 1910: an allure of modernity
1915: lifestyle comes home to roost
1920: The postwar smorgasbord
Conclusion: the West is not yet tamed
Appendices
    Appendix A: 1910 ads
    Appendix B: 1915 ads
    Appendix C: 1910 ads
    Appendix D: tire ads, 1910
    Appendix E: tire ads, 1915
    Appendix F: tire ads, 1920
Endnotes


Introduction

The second decade for North American automobiles, the 1910s, transformed the car beyond a niche toy for the well-heeled into a more specialized product with broader appeal and affordability. In this effort to reach out to new markets, new models evolving from a fairly uniform antecedent diversified to appeal to particular buyer needs. Further, as consumers increasingly recognized the automobiles as useful, even indispensable tool for their livelihood, the features they sought ushered a growing number of automakers to try to capitalize on this growth market. To reach out, many automakers used newspaper advertising. As technology and assembly methods improved, automaker ads tried new variations in their sales pitches to win over prospective buyers.

Consequently, a review of these advertisements in select editions of the The New York Times presents a dialectic between these improved refinements and those considerations which consumers regarded as important. Whether it was price, features, performance, or reliability, it decreasingly mattered whether a car won racing records, vaunted luxury, or came from modern factories. What mattered was whether it could do what the buyer wanted and do it at a price they could afford. For the elite, automobiles still promised a posh, modern way to move about. For labour classes, the very notion of owning personal cars was alluring for the many things they could do efficiently, particularly in its unintended guises as a labour-saving device.[1] By 1920, automobiles were also no longer the province of wealthy buyers, nor were they just a luxury chariot for the leisurely set.[2] In short order, the car had found greater ubiquity across cities, suburbs, and even rural North America as more people were able to afford one and incorporate it into daily routines.

This essay’s reflection on automotive advertising between 1910 and 1920 helps to visualize how companies tried to fine-tune their product based on the market’s gradual maturation. One way was to advertise by aiming for a wider consumer catchments and do so by appealing to generalized tastes, features, and price points. Some companies, typically offering only high-end models, championed an “if you have to ask . . . ” approach, while for other manufacturers striving to usher first-time car buyers, advertising prices became as central as promises of power, efficiency, or feature lists. Given how even the cheapest cars were comparable to a year of wages well into the 1910s, automakers who could offer a decently built vehicle at a price within reach of those wages (and keep up with demand) was certain to succeed.[3] This market segmentation facilitated tiered product offerings that tried to accommodate divergent socio-economic forces. And this segmentation ushered a system for marketing and distinguishing models still seen in contemporary advertising.


Comparative analysis

This analysis examined automotive advertisements published in The New York Times during the springs of 1910, 1915, and 1920. What can be hewn from these adverts? For one, an emphasis on mass production, modernization, and competition eventually enabled working class consumers to afford an automobile as costs fell and assembly line efficiencies improved. Also, while by no means as nuanced as contemporary car ads, manufacturers learned to consciously alter their sales pitches to appeal to specific markets in hopes to attract more buyers who sought to buy a new car. Increasingly, the idea that cars were only fit for sporting activities was left behind as ads moved away from the newspaper’s sports section and coalesced around a standalone automotive section. Contrary to Laird, a number of ads in the Times by 1920 had indeed begun removing arcane language in favour of placing main emphasis on product image, if not touting general reliability.[4] As companies boasted faster, more powerful, and lower-maintenance cars with creature comforts, it also hinted that roadway terrain was beginning to improve and catch up to the point where cars could be used for regular commutes and journeys of greater duration — without impedance by hinterland muddy roads or limitations on built form.[5] As speed and reliance improved, so did a need to promote resilient tires. On an ad-by-ad basis, tire makers by 1920 took out more ad space in The New York Times tires than automakers did for cars, reflecting demands for reliability in perhaps the most understated safety component being promoted then (and even so, safety was not the tire maker’s selling point). Finally, the dominance of the internal combustion engine seemed certain as other options faded from view.


The face of 1910: an allure of modernity

Before the 1910s, automobile manufacturing still disproportionately relied upon the handiwork of skilled and semi-skilled labourers.[6] While quality of fit and finish benefited from this artisan-like attention, it also confined how cheaply units could be produced and sold. Not surprisingly, the first wave of automobiles, as with other founding technologies, featured two characteristics prevalent with newly introduced technological paradigms: a lack of standardization and a one-size-fits-all approach to product design and sales. The introduction of Ford’s Model “T” car, priced affordably enough to eventually enable Ford employees to buy their own handiwork, changed the market for automotive sales, but in 1910, advertising largely echoed this incipient way of promoting a new technology: emphasis of its capability at the expense of “softer” features, more practical features that later help to define a maturing paradigm. Ads in 1910 overwhelmingly boasted drivetrain power and the breaking of speed records as main selling points, with key (and sometimes the only) sales pitches solely concerned with engine capability. Secondary to this — if not in absence entirely — came an emphasis on the modernity of product manufacturing as demonstrative evidence of quality and merit.

This obsession around the motor is hardly surprising: it was the mating of the motor with wheels in the late 1800s that literally changed the face of personal transportation away from an exclusively human- or animal-powered domain. The desire to see what motors were capable of doing was re- flected in selling points for these early cars: “Palmer & Singer Cars are speed cars . . . because it is built right and cannot help but be fast” [Figure 1910–4]; “A Marmon Stock Car establishes new world’s record[Figure 1910–5]; and “The Houpt-Rockwell Car which will compete in the 24-hour race at Brighton Beach . . . is an exact duplicate of the stock cars on our salesroom floor, except that a racing body is substituted for the usual body equipment” [Figure 1910–9]. Each of these ads were featured in the sports section of the The New York Times. On instances when pushing the speed limit was not centre-stage, other engine features were nevertheless emphasized: “Matheson Silent Six . . . Have You Tried to Hear It Run?” [Figure 1910–1] and “Paterson ‘30’ . . . Light, Strong, Swift and Silent” [Figure 1910–11]. Unlike the previous group, these were featured in the Times Sunday automotive section. When ad copy sidestepped focus on engine performance, the means by which their cars were built commanded attention: “A Little Talk of Touring Cars . . . This year superior manufacturing facilities at the new Mitchell factory have made it possible to produce an even better car” [Figure 1910–2]; “We urge prospective buyers of motor cars to visit our works at Ardmore because we know they will be impressed with our manufacturing methods” [Figure 1910–7]; and “Keep abreast of the times, inspect . . . the latest and best automobile engineering practice in the world, as observed in the model factory” [Figure 1910–10].

Interestingly, a few physical details about the ads themselves allude to the market. Each of these examples were considerably small ads in terms of column inches (n.b., with exception to full-page spreads, all ads shown in this essay’s Appendix section are to scale with one another, all at 38.5 percent of original size). Separately, these ads either featured the car in standalone capacity, if at all, and seldom — Figure 1910–6 could be one exception — featured the product as a dominant feature relative to total ad size. In other instances — Figures 1910–2, 1910–3, and 1910–10 — no product was shown at all. The latter did not necessarily suggest poor product, per se, but it was reflective of advertising’s conservative emphasis on the sales pitch and the amount of money budgeted for advertising and promotion. By and large, few of these companies were aiming for much greater stakes.

This, of course, excludes Ford. In two separate weeks of advertising, Ford bought substantial ad space to promote its Model “T”, emphasizing two features completely absent in competitor advertising. The first was conspicuous product placement — not only that, but the image used was a photograph, not a thumbnail engraving or illustration. The prominence of its sticker price was another: not only was it placed near the corner where the reader’s eye typically starts, but it was also the largest point size used for the ad — especially so with Figure 1910–12. Were it not for hindsight on how Henry Ford succeeded in advancing assembly line technology — and the ability to hire at a guaranteed wage the unskilled and semi-skilled labour to keep down his costs — the statement “This Settles the Question of Leadership” [Figure 1910–8] could almost be read as industrialist hubris. But in making such a huge splash in newsprint, it was clear that Ford was aiming to move as many models as possible. Ford’s ads in 1910 were certainly spendy relative to competitors, but unlike them, Ford also highlighted the many other practical amenities included in that low price tag: “Magneto, Top, Wind Shield, Speedometer, Gas Lamps, Generator, Horn, Oil Lamps, Tools and Tire Repair Outfit” [Figure 1910–12]. Indeed, with exception to the very fine print on the Studebaker ad, none of Ford’s competitors in the Times boasted anything on the inclusion of a standard windshield. Owing to road conditions of the day, this was undoubtedly a powerful “softer” selling feature. Curiously, the ad headline for Figure 1910–8 — “In the Ford Car Quality Displaces Quantity—Result: Low Cost of Upkeep” downplays perhaps the most defining feature of the Model “T”: its assembly line mode of production. Yet, in Figure 1910–12, the fine print contradicts this completely: “It is quantity production and reasonable profit that makes the Ford low price.” Regardless this cognitive dissonance, the latter ad further stressed how it was operating by a different set of rules. And it was. The ads mentioned nothing of engine size or power, but they did stress how vanadium steel alloy was lighter and stronger and why the car was cheap to maintain: “The Ford Model ‘T’ is the simplest automobile built; it has less parts, less complication gives less trouble and lasts longest at the least expense of upkeep” [Figure 1910–12]. In the coming years, manufacturer stakes were clearly raised as more potential car buyers ushered a kind of gold rush by speculative automakers. Creature comforts like that on the Model “T” assumed greater importance across the market and, unlike its competitors, Ford stressed lifestyle — “The touring season is here” — as a key value its product could fulfill, appealing not only to early labour class adopters who could afford to buy it, but also to mid- income buyers who wanted Mercedes-like quality as a low price (a theme Ford would later try in the 1970s by comparing the Ford Granada with a Mercedes in magazine and TV advertisements).[7] Lifestyle as a key selling feature became the dominant focus for new cars, as Alfred P. Sloan at GM would later exploit to beat Ford at the game of market dominance.[8]


1915: lifestyle comes home to roost

By 1915, reverberations of Ford’s Model “T” ads — as well as unit sales — had begun to echo across the marketplace, including in the way automakers were using the Times to advertise their cars. While the incidence of adverts relative to 1910 had not substantially increased, ad sizes, prominence of product placement, and emphases on creature comforts had. Even so, Ford’s presence in the Times in 1915 was absent. Brand recognition of the “Tin Lizzie” and word of mouth likely proved a better promotional tool, especially owing how modifications made by creative Model “T” owners — many of whom before 1910 probably had not anticipated being able to afford a car in the foreseeable future — had, in what Kline and Pinch coined as the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), re-shaped its utility to foster a growing aftermarket for customization well beyond just transportation.[9]

Studebaker, one automaker which in 1910 had advertised in the Times, featured in 1915 their key model, the “Six”, as a visual centrepiece for its adverts [Figures 1915–4 and 1915–11]. Their ads had also grown in size, more than twice that of their 1910 ad buy [Figure 1910–3]. Whereas their 1910 approach plainly assured that their product, new or used, was a good buy without really ex- plaining why, the 1915 ads portrayed a lifestyle scene: a lively group of friends (or relatives) enjoying a day of motoring in their Studebaker. The ad not only used this subtle cue as a way to convey the pleasure of its product — an appealing feature of a leisurely class and those aspiring to do the same — but the headline copy of Figure 1915–4 (“Costs less to Buy, Costs less to Run”) meant to appeal to the thriftier buyer who had hoped to enjoy the benefit of a car ownership without the expensive setback of a poorly built product. Unlike Ford, Studebaker stressed that this car was a “six” — a six-cylinder engine — again emphasizing the heart of why automobiles were still unlike any transportation mode preceding it. Its $1,385 listed price — more than double that of the 1912 Model “T” — tried to appeal as an affordable alternative to much more expensive “sixes”.[10]

Advertising strategies for 1915 continued championing a triumph of the engine in its emerging forms; emphasis on cylinder count and improved stability crept into new ads. Marketing of the “six” emerged as an attraction that would blossom into an advertising mainstay to follow in the coming years. In this sample group, three makers — Studebaker’s “Six”, Moon’s “Six-40” [Figure 1915–2], and America’s Greatest “Light Six” — promoted their drivetrains. Implicitly understood as more robust than four-cylinder motors, these models were hailed by their companies for performance and smoothness. In addition, arcane marketing language seeped into phrases like “undergo the scleroscope test” [Figure 1915–10]. Without explaining its correlation to product quality, such claims likely meant little to most buyers — save for, perhaps, a handful of metallurgist car buyers. This authority of science and rationalized production further attested the relevance of the car’s modernity.

Even as they paved a way to make car ownership accessible to the masses, it was no longer just Ford who was marketing affordability. A relatively small ad by a new company called Saxon [Figure 1915–3] promoted a complete car for $395 — below what Ford charged for the Model “T”. Its selling points were, list price aside, fuel efficiency (“28 to 29 miles to the gallon”) and “satisfaction” (a word boasted by no fewer than four of the five customer testimonials). This approach also introduced the voice of ostensibly satisfied owners — a feature absent in the sampled 1910 ads. As testimonials were the next best thing to word of mouth endorsements, Saxon advanced this tack of customer acclaim to sell their car. Compared to other ads, the drawback of this approach offered little in the way of specifics about the features inclusive of an entry-level product. And if the advertised price failed to convey its intended market, then the illustration of decidedly rural passengers and driver, coupled with a goose walking by their Saxon, delivered an appeal to proletariat desires.

At the other end of the pricing spectrum, another company, Marmon, touted the Model “41” [Figure 1915–9] by including testimonial from an unidentified owner. One can conclude that Marmon’s focus was on the high-end market by referencing their 1910 and 1920 [Figure 1920–5] ads: the former lists the price of a racing model for $2,700 (or thrice the price of a Model “T” from the same year); the latter ad, a full-page spread, mentions nothing of pricing, but stresses that unspecified buyers of Marmon cars are “foremost automotive engineers, automobile company executives, parts and equipment officials.” Likewise, the latter ad, contrary to Ford’s one-colour-fits-all approach to assembly efficiency, promises that Marmon “give you any color combination you desire, personalizing each car, at your option, without extra charge.” Returning to the 1915 ad, the customer “testimonial” reads much like other ad copy of this period. Another peculiarity of this ad is the lack of a product being displayed, despite the fact that the brand was highly regarded. Even in Marmon’s 1920 full-page spread, the limit of a displayed product is a nondescript profile of a wood-cut design occupying a fraction of the copy-heavy ad. The ad copy’s timbre in all of Marmon’s ads are clearly aimed at more affluent buyers, perhaps under the rationale that sophisticated, high-culture consumers responded better to a literary-heavy approach than a visual-oriented one. Oldsmobile also took out a small, text-only ad in the 1915 sampling [Figure 1915–8], but marque emphasis dominated over a brief statement on the company’s triumph of manufacturing processes — again embracing the virtue of modernity used by some of the 1910 ads. The price point and features for the Model 42 place it squarely in competition against Studebaker’s target market.

While a comprehensive sampling from every Times edition may have yielded a considerable spread of car ads promoting non-combustion propulsion, in this April-May sample set only one ad came from an automaker selling electric-powered models: the Rausch & Lang Electric [Figure 1915–5]. This ad deserves particular mention beyond its alternative to gasoline models because of its clearly gendered marketing at women (implicitly from respectable economic means). While the ad headline — “The Automobile of Today” — was fairly neutral, the ad copy subtly at first, then unambiguously as it continued, signalled to readers the audience to whom they were targeting. No technical specifications were mentioned. Neither were performance figures. An emphasis on operational simplicity — implying an affiliation between femininity and a fear of complicated machinery — pervaded the sales pitch. Its ideal usage — “suburban use, trips to the seashore, daily shopping, pleasure drives and evening parties” — echoed values that appealed little to power, control, or engineering quality, such as with the bulk ads for of gas-powered cars. And absolutely no mention of distance per charge is mentioned as convenience for potential buyers. Whether this approach resonated with women is another matter entirely. Scharff suggested that, at best, it might have succeeded in isolated locales. But in places like Houston, where in 1915 “only 30 out of 425 women auto owners had electrics”[11], the ubiquity of oil and less genteel environs meant the “dainty” appeal of an electric car probably fell on deaf ears. By 1915, the travel range and convenience of gasoline engine fill-ups made it an overwhelming favourite, especially in oil-rich southeast Texas.


1920: The postwar smorgasbord

Before proceeding with an analysis on individual ads from the 1920 sample set, it is important to preface by noting a few marked changes from prior years. First, the prevalence of automobile ads for 1910 and 1915 were relatively few. Several for 1910 were found across different sections within the Sunday Times — namely the sports section, as discussed earlier. In 1915, most ads were being featured in the automotive section, and their sizes had increased overall. But to analyse these ads, it also necessitated browsing through weekday issues to amass a nominal sample set (12 and 11 instances, respectively). The 1920 sample set of 33 ads, meanwhile, were collected from two Sunday editions exclusively. In other words, the amount invested on car adverts had trebled in five years.

Two significant changes were driving the ballooning of this advertising: worries of a global war were no longer looming (referred to mockingly by Studebaker [Figure 1915–11] and again in 1920 by Paige [Figure 1920–32] for boasting “scientific development” of a “modern car . . . actually and literally a motor car developed by the war”), and the momentum of the automobile’s popularity throughout North America snowballed. The Times advertising pages featured a flood of new marques to the mix: Oneida, Velie, Pan American, National, Bell, Dort, Nash, Columbia, Hudson, Winton, Wills-Overland, Allen, Peerless, Standard, Selden, Grant, PicPic, Cleveland, Stephens, Roamer, Chandler, and Paige (see Appendix for 1920). New competition further segmented along specialized markets, ranging from the entry-, mid- and high-level personal vehicles competing already in 1915, to the emergence of purpose-specific vehicles like work trucks. Increasingly, semiotic cues — emphasis on product images, brand marks, lifestyle situations, and so on — advanced a mnemonic shorthand to better inform readers and potential buyers a marque’s intended niche and audience.

Likewise, usage of trade names to promote engines continued apace from 1915, but it had since spilled into overdrive (not unlike the proliferation of “e-” as a prefix for online services following the rise of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s). More than half the ads in this sample set (18 out of 33) mention their “Six” or “Eight” to distinguish their product’s power from competition. Indeed, taking it a step further, some automakers used hyperbole to avoid, paradoxically, trappings of ubiquity: “New Verlie Six” [Figure 1920–1]; “National Sextet” [Figure 1920–6]; “Hudson Light Six” [Figure 1920–10]; “Peerless Two Power Range Eight” [Figure 1920–15]; “Stephens Salient Six” [Figure 1920–22]; and the “Studebaker Series 20–Special-Six” [Figure 1920–31]. The genesis of neologisms in car advertising can probably trace its roots back to this period, as automakers began outdoing one other with crafty copy. Under an auspice of science, technology and modernity, such florid language resulted in some fairly sycophantic, yet paternalistic ad copy by the 1950s to the point where features names were largely divorced from any value in describing the engineering.[12]

Conspicuous by their absence, not only Ford, but also marques held by General Motors were entirely absent from the automotive sections of The New York Times. Then again, the next major watershed in automotive manufacturing, or “Sloanism” — from planned obsolescence of annual, but superficial design changes, to targeting specific marques to different tiers of buyers to secure brand loyalty — had not yet emerged.[13] In a way, this makes 1920 an interesting year to examine, as it marked the turning between the end of Fordism’s initial impact on automaking techniques and Sloan’s emphasis on model design — a kind of calm before the next storm. Moreover, within a decade, most of these automakers scrambling for reader attention in the 1920 Sunday Times either had ceased to exist or consolidated with other makers in order to attempt survival through the Great Depression. Marques like Nash, Studebaker, Hudson and Willys-Overland endured beyond the second World War, but even their names disappeared following subsequent mergers and foldings.


Conclusion: the West is not yet tamed

Three footnotes must be mentioned before concluding.

The first, as mentioned in brief, is the explosion of tire advertising accompanying new car ads. From 1910, when the two ads found — Figures 1910–T1 and 1910–T2 — were barely larger than a column inch, by 1920, nine ads (most of them at least a quarter page or greater) dominated. Even full-page ads by Goodrich in 1915 [Figure 1915–T1] and Brunswick Tires and Tubes in 1920 [Figure 1920–T1] were exceptional in that they were spending a substantial amount to promote a tire based on how long it could last without needing repair, vulcanizing, or replacement. This uptick in tire advertising indicated the new problem faced by newly-minted car owners: road hazards. Given the still-primitive conditions on many roads, it comes as little surprise to see strident attempts by rubber manufacturers to assure customers that their products could take what the road could throw at it. Given the cost of replacement, it made sense that motorists paid utmost attention to tire makers whose pitch most convincingly assured that punctures and leaks would be at a minimum, even backed by manufacturer warranties.

The second, while it might go without saying otherwise, is the absence of safety (or features) as marketing points in any of these ads. This comes also as relatively unsurprising, as public awareness between increased speed hazards and fatalities had not yet reverberated as it would in coming years.

Last is the question of fuel efficiency: by 1920, several ads had begun stressing the miserly qualities of their motors and models. This might have had to do with fuel costs, but also, given the period, also may have been a response to worries that America’s oil supply was possibly running out.[14]

What was learned from these ads? Automakers were still trying to suss out the market while the terraforming of roadways slowly caught up to the demands of automobiles over horses. This period was very much a Wild West for both mass production and personal transportation, and patterns adopted by the automotive industry were still being explored in earnest. But even in its distinctive qualities, this pattern of how consumers catch up to a new technological paradigm is far more familiar: widespread adoption requires widespread understanding first before saturation follows.


Appendix A: 1910 ads


Appendix B: 1915 ads


Appendix C: 1915 ads


Appendix D: tire ads, 1910


Appendix E: tire ads, 1915


Appendix F: tire ads, 1920


Endnotes

[1] Kline, Ronald and Trevor Pinch. 1996. Users as agents of technological change: the social construction of the automobile in the rural United States. Technology and Culture, October 37(4), p. 776.

[2] Wells, Christopher W. 2007. The road to the Model T: culture, road conditions, and innovation at the dawn of the American motor age. Technology and Culture, July 48(3), p. 505.

[3] Wells, p. 519.

[4] Laird, Pamela Walker. 1996. “The car without a single weakness”: early automobile advertising. Technology and Culture, October 37(4), p. 797.

[5] Kline and Pinch, p. 770.

[6] Flink, James. 1988. The Automobile Age. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 117.

[7] Wells, p. 519. Also see “Can you tell the 1978 Granada from a $20,000 Mercedes 280SE?”.

[8] Gartman, David. Tough guys and pretty boys. Retrieved 27 January 2009

[9] Kline and Pinch, p. 765.

[10] Wells, p. 519.

[11] Scharff, Virginia. Femininity and the electric car.

[12] This was discussed generally in seminar and demonstrated by vintage television ads from GM in the 1950s. Aside from obvious signifiers like tail fins and panoramic windshields (causing distortion), the following ad perhaps nailed how overblown these neologisms had become (not that they up and vanished in the years since):

[13] Nickles, Shelley. 2002. More is better: mass consumption, gender, and class identity in Postwar America. American Quarterly, 54(4), p. 589.

[14] Olein, Diana and Roger Olein. 1993. Running out of oil: discourse and public policy, 1909–1929. Business and Economic History, Winter 22(2), p. 45.

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