Perspective: You Can Take It With You

For close to 60 years, marketers have depended on the one attribute of technology that everyone understands: portability

There was a time—prior to the invention of intercontinental ballistic missiles, cloning, and genetically modified foods—that technology held little threat. In fact, during the summer of 1955, scientific advances were making the lives of American consumers demonstrably easier. That Dacron polyester shirt dried fast and never needed ironing. Your car could open up out on the new interstate. And if you got hungry, you could always pull into this new chain called McDonald’s and get your burger to go. There’s another way of putting all this: The notions of ease and mobility were coming together to create a staple of consumerism that’s still very much with us—portability.

Nowhere was that idea more important than when it came to playing your tunes. As the 1955 ad at right shows, brands like Motorola had shrunk down their radio ballasts to the point where consumers—long accustomed to sitting at home in front of receivers the size of steamer trunks—could suddenly go to the beach with Elvis Presley.

“This was still the golden age of new technology that was going to make us all very happy,” observes Stuart Leslie, president of New York-based branding and design firm 4sight inc. “Portability represented a lot of the promise of that new technology.”

And as technology improved, it was portability that enabled brands to market the evolving science in a way that everyone could follow. (When it came to selling the confusing contents of an electronic box, all a marketer really had to say is that you could take the box with you.) Did consumers care that the Motorola Citation worked on four vacuum tubes and a 90-volt, 60-cell battery? Hardly. They cared that its “Roto-Tenna” would pull in their favorite AM station while they sat in the yard with a cold Schlitz.

Move through the 56 years that separate these two ads—through tubes, transistors, 8-tracks, cassettes, and microchips—and you’ll see the same marketing scheme still at work. Can the average iPod user explain how his favorite song ends up as a string of 0s and 1s in an MP3 file, routed through the speakers of a Bose SoundDock Portable? Likely not. What matters is that the sound quality’s good—and that it’ll follow you where you go. (The beautiful outdoor setting [below] is a potent reminder of this latter fact—though a similar backdrop is curiously missing from the Motorola Citation ad.)

One Cold War and a lot of technology patents later, portability remains a powerful marketing concept because it still says “ease” and “freedom” in a single word that doesn’t sound dated. “Portability is still valid,” Leslie says, “because it speaks to making your life better.” And be it 1955 or 2011, that remains a message nobody minds hearing.