The music begins as the camera pans down through the trees. Several scenes follow: a mountain vista, a surging river, horses galloping at full stretch.
Up until that moment, you have no idea what the commercial is selling, and once it’s over, you still know almost nothing about the car. But you know you want one!
Often referring to as image advertising, or “selling the sizzle instead of the steak,” this type of car campaign effectively began with an otherwise-forgotten automobile called the Jordan Playboy, and an ad that hinged on its romantic opening line, Somewhere West of Laramie.
The Jordan what-?
The Jordan Motor Car Company was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1916 by Edward S. Jordan, better known as Ned, and it lasted until 1931. It was an “assembled” car, meaning that the company bought its components from other manufacturers, rather than using parts that it built or contracted from its own design. It was a relatively common practice in the automobile’s earlier days, when small companies didn’t have the capital to do everything from scratch. Jordan was at the higher end of the medium-priced bracket, competing with such brands as Buick and Dodge.
Born in Wisconsin in 1882, Ned Jordan started as a newspaper reporter and then went to work for National Cash Register, where he learned about business and advertising. He married a woman whose father owned the Jeffery Automobile Company, where he became the advertising manager. He was eventually promoted to company secretary, but eventually left to start his own firm.
He used showy ads from the start, filled with large, colourful pictures of the cars, and always with people or scenery in them. This was already a departure from most ads of the day, which generally just had a drawing of the car on a white background.
Most other ads were also dry as a desert, and usually focused on the car’s engineering. A 1907 Cadillac ad reads, It’s the motorist of experience who most quickly recognizes that scientific design, and workmanship so precise that all vital parts are made to gauges which do not allow a variation to exceed a thousandth part of an inch, produce the highest degree of perfection and efficiency in an automobile motor. Who wouldn’t want to run right out and buy one?
How were Jordan ads different?
Jordan’s earlier ads did mention the performance and engineering of his cars, but that played only a minor role. Instead, he focused on the driving experience and the people he was targeting.
In 1919, the company introduced the Playboy, a solid but unexceptional six-cylinder roadster. Jordan wrote a few ads for it that followed his usual pattern. One had a well-dressed couple in a field, the woman’s palm being read by a fortune teller, and the news that a wedding was in their future, followed by information on the car.
Another had a top-down Jordan in front of a seaside house on a snowy night, with a young boy looking at it. The copy read, Somewhere far beyond the place where men and motors race through canyons of the town—there lies the Port of Missing Men. It may be in the valley of our dreams of youth, or on the heights of future happy days. Advertisers fearful of overstepping moral boundaries forced him to eliminate the light that shone in a single upstairs window.
But it was a 1923 ad for the Playboy that marked the watershed moment. The story, according to Jordan, was that he was riding a train across Wyoming when it stopped at a small station. A woman on horseback was there, and when the train started up, she raced alongside. Jordan asked a friend where they were and was told, “Oh, somewhere west of Laramie.” It took him just a few minutes to write the copy.
While other Jordan ads had detailed pictures of the cars, this one had only a stylized drawing of the Playboy, driven by a woman racing a horse and cowboy. The copy under it (with the spelling of bronco used at the time) read, Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about.
She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lightning 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.
Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame.
There’s a savor of links about that car—of laughter and lit and light—a hint of old loves—and saddle and quirt. It’s a brawny thing —yet a graceful thing for the sweep o’ the Avenue.
Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things gone dead and stale. Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.
And that was it. There was nothing about the car itself. Nothing about horsepower, steering, engineering, or price. It was all about where the Playboy could take you. You could think about the steak later. Right now, it was all about the sizzle.
Jordan sales hit their peak in 1926, when some 11,000 cars went out the door, but it went downhill the following year. A new, compact luxury model wasn’t well received, there was competition from better-engineered rivals, and Ned Jordan was preoccupied with a bitter divorce. The company built some of its best models in its final days, but closed its doors in 1931.
Jordan returned to advertising, but his work never rose to that level again. He died in 1958. His mark was indelible, and advertising changed almost completely as automakers – along with companies in other fields – ditched their dry statistics and concentrated on the image. Any time an ad today whisks you away to the open road, where all you care about is the wind in your hair and the wheel in your hands, then the Jordan Playboy may be gone, but it will never be forgotten.