J. Stirling Getchell is credited with changing the face of advertising in his time. His bold style, use of realistic photos and tabloid-type format were crucial ingredients in creating his attention-grabbing (some critics merely said "ugly") ads.
Mr. Getchell was raised in the suburbs of New York, the son of a silk salesman and a teacher. A case of rheumatic fever when he was about 11 left him with a weakened heart but a strong will. He ran away at the age of 17 to join Gen. John J. Pershing's troops in fighting Pancho Villa in Mexico. The following year, he enlisted and served overseas when the U.S. entered World War I.
Mr. Getchell held a dozen different jobs in advertising over as many years. Although he was hired as a writer, his primary focus was on layout and design. Mr. Getchell worked for a variety of agencies in Philadelphia, Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, as well as New York. He landed his first job at a major agency, Lord & Thomas, in 1924, where he was hired to write copy for Studebaker.
One of his better-known campaigns was written while he worked for the Batten Agency, which had acquired the Colgate Rapid Shave account on a trial basis. The staff was hard at work, hoping to win the entire Colgate account. Finally, Mr. Getchell brought in his idea: a set of "microphotographs" along with a sleek layout for a half-page ad. The headline read, "How small-bubble lather soaks your beard soft," followed by the subhead: "And gives you the closest, smoothest shave you've ever had." Before-and-after diagrams were included as illustrations, identified as being simulated from actual microphotographs taken in the laboratory.
The fact that the microphotographs were done using soft, fine-tooth combs rather than hair did not diminish the ad's effectiveness. The combs were dunked in the lather for a few minutes—about the time it would take to lather up for a shave—and then pulled out, put between sheets of glass and photographed. When Colgate's chief chemist was told how the photos were made, he said, "By golly, I'd never have thought of that. It's the perfect way to show how soap lowers the surface tension of water so it can penetrate into small spaces and get them thoroughly wet." Not surprisingly, the Batten Agency won the Colgate account.
Eventually, Lennen & Mitchell hired Mr. Getchell, along with his secretary, Helen Boyd, and favorite art director, Jack Tarleton, who were at J. Walter Thompson Co. at the time. Within a year, the three decided to begin their own company and in 1931 opened J. Stirling Getchell Inc. in New York. The agency worked for fees that first year for clients such as Chesterfield, Vick's, General Tire and Lydia Pinkham.
Orrin Kilbourn was hired as a third partner. His contacts at Chrysler Corp. brought in the De Soto division of Chrysler as the agency's first major account. Among other jobs, the agency was asked to introduce the 1932 Plymouth, another Chrysler nameplate. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet did not take the Plymouth as serious competition until Mr. Getchell's landmark "Look at all three!" ad, which depicted Walter Chrysler leaning over the hood of a Plymouth and explaining why the Plymouth was superior.
Plymouth's share of the low-price car market rose from 16% in 1932 to 24% in 1933, its sales leapt 218% and the agency won the entire Plymouth account. It was one of the first major accounts to invite direct comparison with its competition. "The low-price three" became a euphemism for Ford-Chevrolet-Plymouth.
The success of the Plymouth campaigns opened doors for the agency. New accounts included Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., Mobil Gas & Oil, Airtemp, Devoe & Reynolds, Kelly-Springfield Tire, Mayflower Stations, Sobol Brothers Service Stations, Illinois Meat Co. and Schenley Distillers. J. Stirling Getchell Inc. was, at one point, one of the 10 largest agencies in the nation, with 200 employees and branches in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Kansas City, Mo.
Mr. Getchell's ads were highly recognizable. He is credited with being the first to use photographs extensively in advertising. Loud headlines, attention-getting layouts and photographs were the hallmarks of Mr. Getchell's style.
The agency developed what was probably the most extensive collection of photographs at the time, compiling thousands of images, all sorted and cross-referenced. While most agencies considered photos to be an inexpensive alternative to artists' drawings, Getchell used them for their clarity, realism and boldness.
The agency functioned under what might be called a creative group system, in which artists and writers worked together to produce an ad or campaign. That was unheard of at the time, when copywriters usually wrote an ad then handed it off to the art department for illustration.
Mr. Getchell continued his breakneck pace, forcing his staff into the same sort of tempo. He did not understand why people wanted to go home when they could work around the clock; not surprisingly, turnover at the agency was high. He slowed his pace slightly after his second marriage in 1936, leaving the office at 7 p.m. But four years later, in December 1940, he died of a streptococcal infection, possibly related to his decaying teeth.
Two years after Mr. Getchell's death at the age of 41, his agency closed its doors.