Want to Sell a Dorky Product? Just Add Electric Guitars

From polyester slacks to milk

Headshot of Robert Klara

Fifty years ago, a clothing company called Glen Oaks Industries, renting office space in a faded building on 34th Street, was battling it out with countless other brands in New York’s Garment District. Glen Oaks’ namesake brand of polyester slacks—Broomsticks—billed itself “the hippest young men’s slacks in the world.” The only problem? Attracting the young men. Glen Oaks tried it all, buying ads in Playboy and promising no shortage of “groovy girlfriends” to the men who wore them.

But in 1966, the advertising guy (his name is lost to history) struck on a novel idea: If you really want to make your brand cool in the eyes of the youth market, just have the models hold electric guitars. The result was the wannabe Yardbirds shown here, perched atop a rock in Central Park. Cool, man, cool.

Glen Oaks probably wasn’t the first company to cook up the just-add-guitar idea, and it surely wasn’t the last. Muriel Cigars, Bongo jeans, Keds, Guess and Calvin Klein are just a few of the other brands that have played the guitar in their marketing. Last year, Adidas dropped presumably serious coin on Justin Bieber to get him to lounge around in its Neo collection and strum a vintage Les Paul. The latest entrant, shown here, is milk, which finally shelved its dated “Got Milk?” mustaches in February and stomped out with new ads, including this one showing a rocker chick and her garage band.

Why do advertisers use guitars as props, over and over, in hopes of drawing the eyeballs of the cool kids? Probably because it works.

“A guitar is always a symbol of independence and rebellion; it’s literally the defining instrument of youth,” said Peter Madden, founder of Philadelphia marketing shop AgileCat. “So this is a knee-jerk, pull-the-lever trick of marketers. Put the guitar into someone’s hand to immediately change the tone of the ad.”

And how easily it does. Take the guitars away from these mod dudes “and they’re just four guys on a rock,” Madden said. “Adding instruments creates an instant cool factor.” So too with the garage band in the 2014 milk ad. “There’s no more wholesome product than milk,” Madden said. “So how do they make milk cool? Show an independent woman fronting a band.”

Somehow, even though the integral component of sound is missing in the medium of print advertising, the vibe still carries. How exactly that works is tough to say. But a few years ago, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke observed that “sometimes the nicest thing to do with a guitar is just look at it.”

He’d find plenty of brands that agree with him.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.