Somewhere West of Laramie: An Advertising Legend
By Phil Roberts, UW Department of History
“Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about.” So began a 1923 magazine advertisement that became legendary.
National advertising firms use Wyoming scenes as backdrops to pitch everything from yogurt to beer, even though the products are neither manufactured in Wyoming nor sold in any great quantity in the state. Ad agencies use Wyoming because they know there is an emotional dimension to advertising that motivates consumers to buy a particular product. This dimension doesn’t rely on price, quality or even special features of the product. Image sells the product.
Consumers identify with the myths of the West and Wyoming. Ads incorporating these images sell merchandise. Known as “image advertising,” the variety was unknown until 1923 when it was invented to sell a car. Indeed, the whole idea of image advertising was inspired by “somewhere west of Laramie” in 1923.
Previously, car ads concentrated on practicalities—data on engine size, the number of forward gears, and special features such as side-curtains.
In 1916, Edward S. Jordan borrowed $200,000 and started an automobile factory in Cleveland, Ohio. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Wisconsin-born entrepreneur believed he could make a substantial profit from a small volume of sales. In his plant, he assembled his cars using parts made by other manufacturers.
Like the dozens of small companies making cars in those days, Jordan faced stiff competition from major automobile makers. It was hardly a contest. The mass-produced Ford, for instance, sold for about $500 while Jordan barely could cover costs by selling his models for five times that amount. His favorite model, the Jordan “Playboy,” was an undistinguished roadster, in features much the same as any other then on the market.
Sales flattened out in 1922 and Jordan, worried that his sales strategy might have been in error, decided to travel to the West Coast to relax and, perhaps, rethink his approach. How could his company survive in the face of stiff competition from dozens of other makers?
The 41-year-old car maker and a colleague from the company rode a Union Pacific passenger train. As the train was passing through southern Wyoming, Jordan glanced out the window. There, in the waning sunset, he saw a beautiful young woman riding her horse alongside the train for a short distance, as if to race the locomotive. The sight so impressed Jordan that he turned to his companion and asked where they were. “Somewhere west of Laramie,” was the reply.
Throughout the rest of the trip, Jordan thought about the incident and the image of the fast horse and beautiful young woman racing the train. Back home, he sketched out an advertisement for his car using the phrase, “Somewhere west of Laramie.” The copy made no mention of the car’s price, its engine size or quality.
The drawing, in abstract style, showed a young woman on a horse racing against the Jordan Playboy roadster. The copy read:
Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy poiny, 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. Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame.
There’s a savor of links about that car—of laughter and lilt and light—a hint of old loves—and saddle and quirt. It’s a brawny thing—yet a graceful thing for the sweep o’ of the Avenue. Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things dead and stale. Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.
The ad first ran in the Saturday Evening Post in June 1923. Soon, sales of the Jordan Playboy roadster increased markedly and the company ran the ad in other mass-circulation magazines.
The advertisement’s style and success did not go unnoticed. Soon, other auto makers copied the form of “image advertising.”
Because of the ad, the Jordan sold well during the middle 1920s. Unfortunately, the firm failed in 1931, one of the numerous auto company victims of the Great Depression. Jordan turned to consulting work and, later, wrote a column for a car magazine. When he died in 1958, the New York Times obituary listed the ad as Jordan’s main accomplishment: “Its approach and colorful language set the pattern for modern automobile advertising,” the obituary noted.
Jordan and his automobile faded into obscurity, but the advertisement became legendary. In 1945, readers of Printer’s Ink magazine voted it the third greatest advertisement of all time. Even today, advertising people point to “Somewhere west of Laramie” as one of the best ever produced.