The Real Dodge Brothers

Advertising is seldom what it seems. If you’re looking for reality, commercials are not only not real, but sometimes not to be taken seriously at all. And I’m not talking about funny commercials.

Take the Dodge Brothers ads for Fiat/Chrysler (visual, top left). The ads looking to immortalize the Dodge brothers would have you believe those young bucks were hell-raisers, racing up and down semi-rural roads looking for speed, possibly drag racing their buddies for money. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Horace and John (left and right, respectively at top right) grew up in Niles, Michigan, with John being the older of the two. John was born in 1864 while Horace was born in 1868, which by anyone’s math made them both well into their 40s by the time they started developing their own first automobile in 1914.

John and Horace were not interested in speed. The family had moved to Detroit by the mid-1880s and the mechanically minded brothers were working at places like a marine boiler factory and later a machine shop across the river in Windsor, Ontario. John was an inventor, and having built and patented a dust-shielded bicycle hub bearing in 1896, they paired up to build their first bicycles the next year for the E & D Bicycle Company. Three years later, with their shares of the business netting them $10,000, they quit the bicycle business to open their own machine shop back home in Detroit.

One of their first contracts was designing and building engines for Oldsmobile. It was not at all long before they became one of the largest auto parts makers in Detroit.

Henry Ford’s company had already gone bankrupt more than twice before looking to the Dodges for help. They’d already started building engines for him; now they’d be partners. They would own 10% of Ford—and all of it—if Ford went broke again. They were smarter than anyone gave them credit: they borrowed 75Gs for new tooling and built Ford a totally new car. The Dodges designed and built the entire Model T drivetrain (engine, transmission, differential, etc.), and by the end of 1914 had churned out 650 cars for Ford, now their only customer.

But Ford’s ego was not going to let him continue to have someone else build his cars. He bought out the Dodges the next year for $25 million, and that gave the brothers enough to start making their own line. In 1915, they had sold 45,000 units, making them the 3rd largest automobile producer in the country.

The thing about the brothers was that they were innovators. They pioneered features in cars that later became standard: all-steel body construction (while others continued with wood frames), 12-volt ignition systems (6-volt systems were the norm until 1950), and sliding-gear transmissions. Their first cars had 35 horsepower (compared to Ford’s 20).

This kind of upscale quality gave them a great reputation in the industry. The lower left visual is their 1915 touring car, a definite step up for most customers, and at right, their line of trucks gave them an industry pat on the back. Their 1916 touring cars were used by Lt. George Patton to capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa because the US Army trusted the durability of Dodge.

But in 1920, with Dodge now the second-leading seller of cars, tragedy struck the family. John, now 55, died of pneumonia in January and Horace, 52, in December. The family eventually sold the company to an investment group, which by 1928 sold it to Chrysler.

That’s the real story of the Dodges. Their automotive input was short in time but long on legacy.

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Look for the next column on December 1. I’m taking next week off for the Thanksgiving holiday.

 

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It’s Time to Change it Up

   

One of the things you learn in design school is not to fall in love with your designs. Complacency is not an attribute you want in the design world, anyway. You don’t want your designs to look the same all the time. You want to keep it fresh.

Unless, of course, you’re running a series of ads within a mode of thought. The famous series of ads for the Volkswagen Beetle, running in magazines in the 1960s, was the brainchild of Bill Bernbach’s team at DDB Advertising in New York. But that ad campaign stands alone in the pantheon of series advertising. There hasn’t been another like that in almost 60 years.

It was named the number 1 ad campaign of all time in Advertising Age’s 1999 The Century of Advertising.

What made that campaign so special was—

1) it didn’t take itself seriously

2) it didn’t make a glamour puss of its product

3) it was simple

One of the things I mention in my Tenets of Good Design series is simplicity. If you make an ad simple, your message gets pared down. And the simpler you make it, your message gets closer to bare bones. Stark. Plain. And—easy to read, understand, and best of all, easy to remember.

That’s what DDB knew in the late 1950s leading up to a new decade, that tumultuous time in America, the 1960s. That time saw a complete change in everything we experienced in this country: movies and music came of age, along with staggering political, racial, and global issues that altered the way news was reported.

And amid that backdrop, DDB played it backwards. With all the complexity and turmoil in that era, DDB played it simple and steady. That’s what made those VW ads stand apart.

But those ads didn’t run forever. Not the way some TV ads run these days. Repetition breeds boredom, and that leads to annoyance to the viewers. The advertisers whose ads are shown above have become complacent leaving these ads running far beyond their value.

They need to come up with something new. Because they’re not at all memorable. Maybe what they need to do is to stop trying so hard to be memorable.

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In the Commercial World, Color is Identity

 

What is color? A tool of design. Color is as important in design as shape. Color is the element that makes an item among similar shapes noticeable.

Color is what makes anything pop. In the 1950s, the color of lipstick was red. There were several reds available, but red it was. Red gave dressed up women pop. Find reprints of ’50s magazine ads, and there it is (or go to Google.)

And as any designer knows, red is the most chromatic color. It shows up as the most noticeable color. It’s the color of stop lights and stop signs and brake lights. A red car is the most noticeable of all the cars in a parking lot.

But not everything can be red. In the world of advertising and merchandising, marketers have staked out their own share of any given category with certain colors.

So the branding departments at major manufacturers have given their prized products colors to differentiate them from their competitors. Coca-Cola is red. Sprint is yellow. T-Mobile is hot pink. These are examples of branding, a term that has many connotations. But as pertains to color, a marketer can’t choose a more identifiable tool.

Some examples are less obvious. DiscoverCard has run a series of ads that feature a sales associate in one frame talking to a customer in another. Look at the visuals above: everything in frame 1 is color coordinated with frame 2. This isn’t coincidental. It’s a subtle version of branding, using the color from the DiscoverCard logo (orange) along with a complementary toned-down blue. Coordinated and cohesive.

Within all these companies, they have a built-in rule referred to as “brand awareness”, meaning that they keep their brand colors in the forefront when it comes to advertising.

Smart.

 

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