A Mad Man Who Coined “The Big Three”

Two smart choices artfully arranged by J. Stirling Getchell, the PT-160K Aeromold 110, and the 1940 Plymouth. Photo Source: USC Digital Library
Two smart choices artfully arranged by J. Stirling Getchell, the PT-160K Aeromold 110, and the 1940 Plymouth. Photo Source: USC Digital Library

“Hello. Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. Please hold.”

If  Mad Men‘s Rodger Sterling isn’t an homage to ad man J. Stirling Getchell, he ought to be. Getchell ran away from home at age 17 to fight Pancho Villa. Then Getchell threw himself into World War I. Later, Getchell made a name for himself at the George Batten Company when he won the Colgate account with the phrase “small bubble lather.” Getchell founded his own firm in 1931, and promptly landed the DeSoto account. At 31 years old, Stirling Getchell had snagged the hottest corporate start-up since the East India Company.

Byron Foy, the president of DeSoto, invited Getchell to see the 1932 Plymouth ad campaign. Getchell looked at the ads from a Detroit agency, and told Foy to toss ’em. Getchell had a better idea. He would reinvent Walter Chrysler as an industrial evangelist whose Plymouth will save the masses from mechanical mediocrity.

Late one night in the locked International Auto Salon of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, Getchell’s photographers posed Walter Chrysler with his foot on a Plymouth bumper and his eyes boring into the camera lens. This wasn’t Henry Ford with a straw in his mouth, or General Motors’ Alfred Sloan behind a desk. This was a mechanic who knew this Plymouth was better than that Chevy and that Ford. Getchell put the words “Look at All Three!” into Chrysler’s mouth, and we’ve referred to the “Big Three” ever since.

Plymouth sales rocketed 218%, and Getchell won the Plymouth account for the rest of his life.

Getchell’s Plymouth ads featured newspaper-style layouts, realistic photography, and smart people doing smart things. For example, Getchell commissioned this 1940 photograph from the Dick Whittington Studio in Los Angeles. The smart people have just driven their 1940 Plymouth to scout the test flight of the plastic PT-160K Aeromold 110 built by Timm Aviation. The Aeromold revolutionized plane production just in time for World War II.

J. Stirling Getchell died of a tooth infection seven months after Dick Whittington shot this photo. At the time of his death, Getchell was on his second marriage, and his firm was one of the largest ad agencies in the nation. It closed two years later. His phrase “The Big Three” still lives.