1923 Jordan Playboy Ad: The First Car Ad To Sell The Sizzle, Not The Steak

Foreword:  The 1964 Dodge Commercial post the other day got a bit off track politically and became contentious, but it was interesting to note that in the text of the post “but it’s clearly from when marketing psychology scarcely even existed yet” and in a number of comments there was a repeated theme of disliking the current “lifestyle/psychological” type of advertising and a longing for the simple, honest, direct-sell of advertising of the past. In other words, “the good old days of advertising”.

Frankly, that’s as self-delusional as seeing the good old days as all-good or all bad (or any period in time including the present and future as anything other than a mix of good and bad), as the truth is anything but that, regarding advertising in the past. Advertising by its very nature absolutely needs to be psychologically manipulative to be successful, and its early masters had keen insight into human nature. The majority of persons clearly do not make most purchasing (and political and otherwise) decisions based on a dry and objective analysis of facts and figures, but rather how a product is going to enhance the perceived self-image and public perception/prestige/social standing of the purchaser. Well, that’s what’s really important, right?

So I was all set to do a post on this famous 1923 Jordan Playboy ad when I remembered that the late Kevin Martin did one already in 2013. So let’s give this another well-deserved airing. PN

The 1923 Jordan Playboy “Somewhere West of Laramie” print ad is generally credited with being the first automotive ad to sell the sizzle rather than the steak.

It had evocative art by Fred Cole and the copy writing was done by none other that Ned Jordan, founder of the company. Jordan’s background was in advertising and he found cars somewhat boring. Jordan knew what his customers were looking for: good looks and image. Jordan cars were known for their sexy styling but totally conventional, “assembled” mechanicals. So I guess that the advertising is in keeping with the nature of the car.

Ever been west of Laramie? Windblown, dusty, and very few, if any, cowboys. Not very romantic. Besides, in 1923, the Lincoln Highway was only ten years old and most of it was unimproved, so that “bronco busting, steer roping girl” probably would have felt like she was on a bucking bronc.

That’s not to say that the Jordan was not a reasonably good car—it was made from average quality components—but these were the same components found in many other “assembled cars” at the time. Nothing unique or better, and hardly the stuff of dreams. Those dreams needed to be manufactured, via the advertising.

1920 Buick Prestige-02

Though not florid as the Jordan’s ads, this illustration from the 1920 Buick brochure largely dispenses with text and lets the illustration do the talking. It’s pretty subtle. The Buick is obviously in the better part of town with well-dressed people, streetlights, and upscale shop canopies. But the most powerful part of the image is that a woman is driving the car. Plus it’s such a painterly piece. One of my favorites.

02 Buick 1932

Twelve years down the road we find Buick still using evocative, painterly imagery that focuses on the people and the experience of owning a Buick, not the car itself. But good luck. With the depression in full swing, and Buick’s sales going into the tank, most families were wondering how they were going to afford one car let alone two.

Car Ads004

Who wouldn’t think that this is the life? Yachts, airplanes, thin women, and of course a new Chrysler Imperial! Oh, and it’s got Floating Power, just in case you weren’t won over after all that. But what caught my eye in this painterly ad is the shadow falling across the body of the car. What does this tell us? Late afternoon? Dinner and drinks to follow at the Yacht Club? Nice life indeed!

03 Cadillac 1932

My favorite car ads for the early ‘30s are reserved for a series of six or seven that Cadillac ran in Fortune magazine. All followed the same format with flanking columns of silver ink, deco illustrations, aspirational text in the center, and a side elevation illustration of a different body style. I should have bought all seven issues with the Cadillac ads but I bought only this one. I doubt that many Cadillacs were finished in my high school colors of orange and blue, but it makes for a striking presentation.


1956 Buick-19

Sometimes creatively written text isn’t necessary, just a great illustration. I salivate looking at this ’56 Special. Nothing on the showroom floor today calls my name like this car does. I lust after this thing.

Postscript: Note Kevin’s final words. This is the result of effective advertising. PN