Henry Ford didn’t invent the car; he just perfected the idea of mass production. By doing this he was able to broadcast his idea to almost every person in America. Wherever Americans saw a Model T driving down the streets, they saw Ford’s idea in action. And on top of this, he created a massive publicity machine that ensured every newspaper carried stories about how successful his idea was. The problem for Ford was that the success of his idea not only publicised his own cars, but the very concept of owning an automobile.
So when his competitors wanted a piece of the action, their only option was to out-broadcast Ford. They didn’t have a better idea so all they could do was spend more on ads and publicity and the noise about cars got louder and louder and louder. And now, 104 years since the first Model T rolled off the production lines, we’re stuck with the same problem: dozens of car manufacturers broadcasting their messages in a crowded market in the hope that their brand will be the one chosen by consumers.
Henry Ford’s legacy was a mass produced product for the mass market. One hundred years ago the car was amazing and it changed almost everything, but today the majority of cars on our roads are unremarkable. And the car manufacturers know this; they know that they are smack bang in the middle where all the broadcasting is happening and where all the noise is. So they try to stand out with their so called “glam” divisions: BMW has its M series, Mercedes has its AMG range, Mini has John Cooper Works, Fiat has the Arbarth and even Range Rover went as far as getting Posh Spice to help design their special edition Evoque. All of these brands are hoping these cars will inject a sense of difference into their models and that the “idea” of their special edition will spread into the mainstream market. The thing with ideas is that there are millions of them, and nobody cares about them until they like them.
Otto Rohwedder invented sliced bread. Without Otto no one would say “that’s the best thing since sliced bread”. He started work on the concept in 1912 but no one cared about it. Bakeries weren’t interested; there were problems with how the bread stayed together and, more importantly, how it stayed fresh. By 1929, when the great depression hit, Otto’s idea of sliced bread hadn’t taken off in the same way that Henry Fords had, and he had to sell his patent. It was only in 1930, when Wonder Bread began marketing and promoting sliced bread that sales started to skyrocket. Wonder Bread managed to broadcast the idea of sliced bread effectively.
But today broadcasting doesn’t have as much effect. We all know about the success of Apple, Google and Facebook. They all started from nothing until their idea spread. But they’re really a glitch in the system. They filled a void that was never there, and just like Henry Ford, as they became successful their idea helped their competitors get off the ground too. Facebook publicised social networking and Web 2.0 and Apple publicised the home computer and every one of their competitors rode on their tails. And then the broadcasting began, and the noise started.