World War II Jeep Advertising
Written by Matthew Hocker
[ezcol_1half][/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]Sacrifice was a fact of life for Americans during World War II. For the automobile industry, this meant halting production of civilian vehicles to supply the Allied forces with a steady stream of military transport and weapons. Without any new cars to offer showrooms until the war’s end, auto makers relied on advertising to keep their names alive in the hearts and minds of consumers. One of the most iconic advertising campaigns during this period was for the Willys-Overland Jeep.
The Jeep was specifically designed to be a versatile and reliable field vehicle for the Allied Forces, but its development was mired in controversy. In several ads, Willys claimed “…it was Willys-Overland civilian engineers who created and perfected the Jeep.” In fact, American Bantam and Ford were also involved in its development, and American Bantam was the first company with a working prototype.[/ezcol_1half_end]
Willys’ Quad, as it was initially known, was similar in appearance to that of Bantam’s but won out because the Quarter Master Corps felt the Quad’s “Go-Devil” engine provided greater power and performance. The Quarter Master Corps also felt “…the price quoted by Willys was the lowest.” Moreover, there were doubts a smaller company like American Bantam was capable of the level of mass production required to meet the military’s needs.
As the victor in the battle for the Jeep, Willys wasted no time with advertising, especially in the realm of publicity stunts. In 1941, New York Senator James Mead was photographed driving a Jeep up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Another Jeep was on-hand at a Civil War veteran reunion at Fort Oglethorpe, GA; images of the 19th Century’s “Greatest Generation” behind the wheel proved too good to pass up.
Throughout the war, Willys churned out dozens of ads heralding the Jeep as the vehicle which would help the Allies win. These appeared in everything from the Saturday Evening Post to trade publications such as Motor. Some of the most famous advertisements featured beautiful watercolor depictions of Jeeps in the heat of battle. The artist behind many of these illustrations was James Milton Sessions, whose work is still highly sought after today.
Several ads depicted scenes from real battles, accompanied by stories of Jeeps proving their worth on the field, from Bastogne to New Guinea. By 1943, stories such as these lead Willys to adopt the iconic slogan, “the sun never sets on the mighty Jeep.” (Some of the earlier ads used “fighting” in the place of “mighty.”)[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end][/ezcol_1half_end]
Before civilian production was suspended, Willys had manufactured 3,829 of the 1942 model-year Americars. Despite these low numbers, the company made sure to feature its passenger car in Jeep advertisements through 1943. Nearly a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they ran an ad in the Saturday Evening Post hailing the Americar as “The Jeep in Civvies.” Several Jeep ads from 1942 and 1943 featured a small illustration of the Americar, and earlier examples were also accompanied by brief information on how to purchase one.
Highlighting the low production Americar served as a means for reminding consumers Willys would remain a viable option once production of civilian cars resumed. During the war, the company realized the Jeep might find success in the postwar market, especially amongst farmers. Willys created a 90 acre victory garden for its employees in which Jeeps were used to help plant crops. However, it was also believed versatile enough to meet the needs of businesses and families and, by 1943, development of vehicles for the civilian market was well underway. During this time, Brooks Stevens designed what would later become the 1948 Jeepster.
Images of the Americar were phased out as Willys focused its energies on selling the idea of the Jeep to the American public. In the September 1943 issue of Motor, the company ran an ad featuring a letter from little Sarah L. Moore of Mystic, CT. She wrote Willys in hopes of receiving pictures of the Jeeps she so loved. Willys used the letter as an opportunity to demonstrate the Jeep’s broad appeal; “We believe that millions of Sarahs, civilians and soldiers returned home will be vitally interested in the postwar child of the war’s No. 1 hero – the future ‘Jeep in civvies.’”
By 1944, the Allies had made significant headway against the Axis, and the turn of events signaled victory was within sight. During this time, references to the postwar period became more pronounced in Willys’ advertisements. Illustrations of the Jeep in the thick of battle were still plentiful, but they were supplemented by images of the vehicle serving farmers at home. In 1945, Willys published a 20 page catalog titled “’Jeep’ Planning,” filled with dozens of photographs of farmers using Jeeps for a wide range of tasks. The catalog also claimed it had “4-in-1 performance” with “…a hundred-and-one uses as a passenger unit.”
Peace finally arrived on September 2, 1945 with the formal surrender of Japan. Willys’ warhorse was now ready to serve the folks back home and would be marketed as the “Universal Jeep” for years to come. To learn more about the history of the Jeep, be sure to contact the AACA Library & Research Center. With a collection of more than 800 pieces of Jeep literature, manuals, advertisements and articles from period trade publications there is always something new to discover here at the library!