Suspension of disbelief
Starting in the late 1950s, Airstream made one of the best marketing moves since Wally Byam started running caravans, when the company hired photographer Ardean R Miller III. Ardean’s photographs of Airstreams in exotic locations were so visually stunning, so artfully composed, and so inspired that they have been a staple of Airstream’s marketing for six decades.
Take a look at the thumbnails here (click any of them for larger versions). These are just a few samples of the great commercial work that was being done for Airstream in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Even today, it’s hard not look at these photos wistfully and wish you were somewhere in that scene. Tossing a ball on the beach in Florida, meeting a “real Indian” on family vacation out west, fly-fishing near the red rocks of Arizona, or toasting your sweetie on a hill in San Francisco — those were all moments that Airstream promised you could have with one of their trailers. No wonder the company was regarded as such an icon of Americana — Airstream’s marketing took every American’s fantasies about escaping the rat race and hitting the open road, and put them on steroids in these beautiful images.
Now pause for just a moment after looking at some of the photographs. Were you thinking, “That’s a beautiful scene,” or were you thinking, “Hey, you’d never be able to park your Airstream there!” ?
That’s the magic part. The scenes in these photos tell a wonderful story at a glance, and you bought it automatically. Even though the images are always fantasies, they are fantasies you want to believe in. It’s the principle of “suspension of disbelief” — if a movie, story, or photo is good, you’ll suspend your cynicism long enough to enjoy what’s in front of you. This is good stuff, and ageless because it touches universal human themes: freedom, adventure, and family.
The other noticeable commonality is that in an Ardean Miller photo, the Airstream is always present but is never obtrusive. He recognized that the product is only a means to a greater end. People don’t buy Airstreams for practical reasons– they buy the aspirations that an Airstream enables.
That’s a refreshing thing for me. I spent a few years in corporate marketing, and a couple of years working in an ad agency, and I can tell you that most marketing managers have no clue of the subtle principles that induce people to buy. Instead you hear comments like this from people with “vice president” in their title: “Can we make the product bigger?” “I don’t think the logo shows well enough.” “Why don’t we add in a dog — because people like dogs.”
There are many ways to kill great art before it has a chance to develop. Results like these take nurturing, and protection from bean-counting managers. Any goofball with a camera can claim to be a commercial photographer, but only a real artist can repeatedly produce really great images that make you long for more. Ardean had that sort of talent. Sadly, not many other photographers do. Time has proved that Ardean was a tough act to follow.
Sometimes I wonder if modern businesses have simply given up trying. Here’s a horrifying example from my favorite company:
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, to start off, the composition is all wrong. Clearly the Airstream is the overwhelming emphasis, and the people in the front are awkward specks of foreground, mere props. There’s no story here. So right away, you start to doubt the contrived scene. And that leads to uncomfortable questions. What are they doing there? Where did the Adirondack chairs come from? Is that what people do when they travel — just stop on the road and pull out their guitar for a quick serenade? Where’s the “adventure” in this scene?
And then you start to actually look at the extremely fake people … Now really, does anyone dress like that? This postcard is from the 21st century, but “Suzy” here seems to be stuck in another decade. And “Jim” just looks like a dork. Didn’t someone tell him that wearing a sweater knotted in front is really not cool? It makes me wish for a review by Charles Phoenix.
“Jim” here is obviously very impressive to his “wife” as he strums that guitar out in the middle of a lawn somewhere while his Airstream blocks traffic. Her adoring gaze tells you everything you need to know (e.g., someone paid her to look that way. When was the last time your wife looked at you like that?)
Note the staged iced tea, too — isn’t it just too perfect with that slice of lemon perched on the rim of the glass? … And now here we are, focusing on the minutiae and completely unimpressed with the product, because the scene surrounding it is so damn bad.
Honestly, do you aspire to be either of these two? I didn’t think so. Personally, I’d run screaming from a product that might make me into one of these plasticine people. If I ever start wearing a sweater knotted over a sport shirt like that on a summer day, please take me into custody.
I won’t even begin to pick apart the second image at right (I leave that as an exercise for you. Click, and enjoy.)
Now, to be fair, these images may represent the nadir of Airstream product photography. I’m not sure of the date of these two images but it was at least several years ago. The work has gotten much better lately. Airstream has even hired Ardean’s son (Ardean “Randy” Miller IV) to do some work for them recently. Once again, the company has started to tap the romance, excitement, freedom, and togetherness that Airstream has been so closely bonded to over the years. It’s a matter of selling the sizzle, not just the steak. If they can get even halfway close to the high standard of the 1960s, I think the company can expect a commensurate rise in public image and sales.