Psychology of Consumer Behaviour |

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On the Road to Obsolescence –a little sex, a lot of style and a lot less substance

In 1918 half of all cars in America were Model T’s. Henry Ford joked you could have one in any colour as long as it was black. By 1927 over 15 million Model T’s had been produced. But by the mid 20s sales began to decline as other car companies began offering new features and credit plans. “Ford saw his car as a great social leveler, a democratic one-size-fits-all symbol of American classlessness,” writes Giles Slade in Made to Break: Technology & Obsolescence.

In the early 20s advertising for automobiles was pretty boring- maybe a basic car silhouette and a few lines of copy describing its features.

The business was in need of a good ad man!

Enter Ned Jordan and his Jordan Playboy Roadster. When Jordan started his company in 1916, he believed he could make a profit buying parts from manufacturers, assembling his cars and selling a small volume. It wasn’t long before he realized his Playboy Roadster was not really that different from what was on the market.

It was 1922 and as the story goes Jordan was in need of a vacation to think. On a train passing through Wyoming, he happened to glance outside the window and saw a beautiful young woman riding her horse along side the train as if in a race with the locomotive. Apparently, this so impressed him that he turned and asked where they were.
The reply “Somewhere west of Laramie,” became the opening line to what has been called “arguably the most celebrated copy in the history of American advertising.”

The famous "Somewhere West of Laramie" ad for the Jordan Playboy Roadster ran in the Saturday Evening Post in 1923. The artwork showed a young woman on a horse racing against the Jordan Playboy roadster with the copy

"Somewhere west of Laramie there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I am 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."

"Automobile advertising was forever changed as specifications and capacities gave way to emotions and possibilities; an automobile wasn't just a mechanical device. The Jordan driver had an exciting lifestyle, and the Jordan automobile was the perfect fit of that lifestyle riding the open highway or taking a jaunt to the country club."

The ad said nothing about cost, nothing about features. It was selling the sizzle, the sex, and the lifestyle-your key to riding off to the “land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides lean and rangy, into the Wyoming twilight.”

The Jordan Playboy sold well and the advertisement’s style and success were noticed by other automakers. A car could no longer be the one-size-fits-all practical black box that merely took you from place to place.

General Motors under the direction of Alfred Sloan created a three point strategy, nine models, a car for every lifestyle. But more than this, Sloan is credited with creating the concept of “planned obsolescence.” He recognized that cars would not only eventually become obsolete as technology improved but that with models being introduced more often they would soon look out dated. The result was the annual model change. Henry Ford famously resisted planned obsolescence.

Sloan created the first style department. Harley Earl the visionary who ran this new style department is credited with introducing the panoramic windshield, the concept car, clay modeling and the modern car show. Earl recognized that minor style changes could create what he called a dynamic obsolescence. Changing major features of an automobile from year to year would be expensive. Styling changes would be inexpensive and noticeable leading to psychological obsolescence.

Hear about Earl and his tail fins

As GM thrived and Ford floundered, it wasn’t long before Ford jumped on board the road to obsolescence with annual model changes.

In 1934 the average ownership of a car was 5 years; by the 50's it was 2 years. After the war, Earl was influenced by the P-38 warplane. Its 30-foot twin tail became the inspiration for the Cadillac tail fins. As American car companies obsessed over tail fins and style, manufacturers around the world worked on technology.

When Ford introduced a bulky gas guzzling marvel- the Edsel, smaller more efficient cars were being produced abroad. While the Japanese concentrated on product design and quality, American manufacturers focused on big cars loaded with options, whatever the market or energy message.

What does it say and what does it mean when you focus on style over substance?

Maybe that's the road to obsolescence.

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