Whenever I manage to get into the corporate head office in Winnipeg and have a spare few minutes, one of the things I like to do is head downstairs and look through the archived copies of all the publications the company owns. Leafing through the pages of farm magazines that are decades old is like going back in time—without the use of a customized DeLorean.
A few days ago I found myself looking through Country Guide issues from the early 1960s.
It’s really remarkable to see all the changes that have taken place in farming since then. For one thing, most Saskatchewan farms weren’t even connected to the electrical grid. My grandfather had an old 8mm home movie of a Sask Power crew making the final connections at the end of the driveway the day electricity first came to his farm, which was just down the road from where I live now. It was a red letter day for the family. I think it was around 1964.
Reading through the articles in those magazines reveals a lot about what farmers’ aspirations were and what they expected in the future. Their broader concerns about prices and policies that affected profitability sounded familiar. And the basic content of the articles focused on what we still write about today: how to farm better, more efficiently and more profitably. It’s just that doing that back then was a pretty different process.
Over the decades achieving those things has meant steadily increasing mechanization. The advertisements on the pages of those old magazines trace that evolution. How manufacturers convinced farmers to buy their machines through advertising over the years is also pretty interesting.
Images of machines in advertisements often relied on artist’s renderings more than actual photographs. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was cheaper to reproduce on a magazine page than a photograph, even though most pictures of that time were black and white.
Ads emphasized the practical value of the equipment in terms of cost savings, not really creature comforts. It’s pretty clear farmers of that era weren’t about to spend money for things like leather-wrapped steering wheels. Just adding air conditioned cabs to tractors and machines was still years down the road.
A few of the ads from the automakers included a pretty girl standing beside a car or sitting in a convertible. Clearly, though, those were generic ads carried over from more mainstream consumer publications, even though I’m sure pretty girls still appealed to farmers as much back then as they did to anybody else. But that kind of frivolity was rare in machinery ads.
If you look at the general advertising approach taken by many companies at the time, you’d notice one broadly-used theme. The John Deere ad pictured here shows what that is: emphasize the opinions of other producers. It’s clear advertisers believed that if they could convince farmers their neighbours were impressed with a machine, that would carry a lot in any buying decision.
Why companies latched onto that concept, and must have had success with it, would make an interesting sociological study. It’s not an approach that’s not widely used anymore in print ads. There are still some, but most of today’s farm machinery ads seem to use a more direct appeal to the reader, explaining the fantastic features available in a machine.
The user endorsement concept, however, is still being used, only now it’s social media carrying the opinions-of-others message through Facebook postings, tweets and blogs. Many manufacturers have employees whose time is solely devoted to repeating and magnifying the opinions of its brand-loyal customers.
It seems what our neighbours think does still matter, at least a little.