Perspective: Rough Road Ahead

Marketing a product as utilitarian as a tire has never been easy

Historically, the marketers of performance-driven products have racked their brains to find ways of explaining their latest breakthroughs to the buying public. This tactic works great—until the specs get too tedious. Then it’s probably time to try a different tack. It’s hard to find better proof of that than the two ads here.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Tire Company grew famous for its “Vacuum Cup Tire,” a solid-rubber ring that looked like the underside of an octopus tentacle. “These cups exert a suction grip on the road and thus tend to keep the car from skidding,” proclaimed an ad from 1915.

In the ensuing years, Pennsylvania Tire developed a stylish “VC” monogram and built quite a brand for itself—until World War II slammed the brakes on production and the rubber company spent the next four years making gas masks. When the ad at right appeared in 1947, Pennsylvania’s factory had retooled for tire production, and its management was eager—no, palpably thrilled—to announce not just the Vacuum Cup’s return, but the all-new, silent, “America’s most modern” version of it. The brand’s marketers barraged the viewer with nine bullet points on the tire’s specifications, and even suggested that it took a “skilled craftsman” to make the thing. If ever there was an intellectual sell, this was it.

“The Pennsylvania ad aims at the brain with pure geekery,” observes Michael Ward, an authority on magazine art and the founder of Hidden Knowledge, an online publisher of history books. “It’s after the war, there was a push for new technology—technology for your benefit. Look at the technologically skilled craftsman. He’s making tires just for you!”

It’s a nice idea—but one that would skid off the road not long after. You see, for all those bells and whistles, the Vacuum Cup was a simple “bias ply” tire. An inner tube kept the shape while the tread held the road. In 1948, the steel-belted radial debuted, ushering in a new class of high-tech tires boasting myriad advances like nylon code fabric, polyamide fibers, stud pins, and sophisticated tread kerfs. What’s all that stuff? Beats us. And just try making a catchy tagline out of it.

“The less-is-more concept of ad design came in during the late 1960s,” Ward observes, and he cites the 2011 Hankook tire ad (opposite) as an example of that legacy. “These two ads are Apollonian versus Dionysian.”

Sure, the Korean tire brand could have barraged consumers with stultifying descriptions of the technological features. Or it could go for the fantasy sell—which is just what the ad does.

“It appeals explicitly to our emotions,” Ward says. “It sells access to the highway—‘Be one with your tires, and the road will be one with you.’ It’s almost like a Zen-Buddhist approach.”

But it also conveys the attributes of performance, speed, and strength without a single usage of tire-tech lingo—a more impressive bit of performance than anything you’re likely to see on the highway.