A Brief (and entertaining) History of Harley-Davidson’s Ad Slogans

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Photo courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Archives
1912.jpg by Maria DeWeerdt, Harley-Davidson Archivist

Everyone is familiar with ad slogans such as “Turn on Your Own Thunder,” and “Ride to Live–Live to Ride.” But over the years, Harley-Davidson has used many other slogans in its advertising, many of which seem strange to our 21st century ears.

One 1932 ad published by the Fred J. Merlow dealership in San Jose, Calif., illustrates this point perfectly: “Present This Ad and Receive $5.00 Credit On the Purchase Of a New Or Used Motorcycle.” While $5 may have been an incentive in 1932, it seems comical today, as do many ads that used words and phrases common to the times.

Review some of the ad copy that has hit the headlines for Harley-Davidson throughout the years.

“Here’s the Sport Coat That’s the ‘Berries'” (1921 clothing ad)
“All Roads Lead to Joyland” (1923)
“The Sport of a Thousand Joys” (1927)
“Here’s the Mount for a He-Man”(1927)
“Smart – Chummy – Easy Riding–The 1928 Harley-Davidson Sidecar!” (1928)
“Go High, Wide and Handsome on the World’s Best Motorcycle” (1952)
“A He-Man Sport You’ll Go For” (1952)
“A Dillar–a Dollar–Be an ‘On-Time’ Scholar!” (1955 ad aimed at college students)
“He’s a Big Wheel on Campus on His Harley-Davidson” (1955)
“Summertime and the Wheeling Is Easy–Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide” (1958 ad based on a popular jazz tune)
“Make Summertime HUMMERtime” (1958)
“Keen for Keeping Clean” (1958 Gunk ad)
“Funsville U.S.A” (1967 model M-65 ad)

This copy may create laughter, but each word and idea listed has contributed to the brand creation and sales success of Harley-Davidson.

Even though some old advertising slogans may sound odd to our 21st Century ears, what we may not realize is how advertising reflects everyday life and world events. Take a look at how Harley-Davidson’s advertising is a reflection of the events surrounding them, it was the beginning of a society and the beginning of a company.

Police ads tend to have the most melodramatic slogans, since their main goal was to emphasize how motorcycle police increased road safety. Ads from 1940 tout motorcycle police as, “Sentinels of Safety,” “Guardians of Life” and “Safety Champions.” Other ads emphasize the danger of not having motorcycle police: “In the Wake of the Killer,” (ad features a grinning skeleton in an automobile, other auto wreckage piled on the road behind him, c. 1931), “Two Auto Injuries Every Minute – The Answer Is More Motorcycle Policemen” (ad unintentionally makes it sound as if motorcycle police officers are the problem, not the solution, c. 1931), “The Slaughter of the Innocents” (1931), “The Bloodiest Page In American History” (1931) and “Don’t Let Death Raise Its Quota,” (ad depicts the Grim Reaper tallying traffic deaths on a blackboard, c. 1942).

Then there are the World War II ads, which fall into two types–those that emphasize Harley-Davidson’s contribution to the war effort, and those that attempt to create a sense of homeland nostalgia. Some are practical, such as the 1942 ad, “Harley-Davidsons Save Gas, Oil and Rubber.” Some, go a little further: “Home Wouldn’t Be Home Without Harley-Davidson” (1943), “The ‘Pals’ They Left Behind are Harley-Davidsons” (1943), “One of the Freedoms I Will Feel I Have Earned Will be to Have a Harley-Davidson Under Me Again” (1944), “‘I Miss My Harley-Davidson Like My Right Arm Was Gone'” (1944), ” …Nothing Can Stop Those Harley-Davidsons-Not Even Bullets. I Know for I Have Been Shot Off of Them!” (a phrase from a 1945 ad).

Unusual ads and phrasing may appear in many other places, such as an early Enthusiast article, about a dealer, which read, “He Really Knows His Onions!” But today, these ads do more than just amuse us; they give us a glimpse of our own history, as well as Harley-Davidson’s.

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