Steinway & Sons and the Immortal Campaign:
“The Instrument of the Immortals” Advertising Campaign

Jim Safley

On November 22, 1922 the beloved pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski appeared on the stage of Carnegie Hall. He bowed to the overwhelming applause and sat at his Steinway grand piano. The crowd fell quiet. His hands gently touched the ivory of the keys and struck the first chord. The sound was beautiful, resonating throughout the theater to the delight of the sold out crowd. It was a masterful performance. With this, Paderewski came out of his well-deserved retirement, his legacy already secured from decades as one of the world’s top pianists. Musical experts universally hailed him as a “tone poet” of unequaled stature. He was indeed an immortal in his field. It is no wonder that the piano he selected to accompany him was a Steinway, the self proclaimed “instrument of the immortals (Fig. 1).”[1]

Steinway & Sons began its “The Instrument of the Immortals” advertisement campaign in 1919, more than half a century after its emergence on the musical scene. For those earliest years in manufacturing pianos the company made a name for itself in both superior quality and extravagant price. Commenting on the Steinway proclivity to sacrifice low cost for “the ultimate in sound, touch durability and beauty,” a critic once observed that “there seems to be only one thing that Steinway cannot do… they can’t build an inexpensive piano.”[2]

Be this as it may, Steinway & Sons capitalized on the increasing popularity of their piano in concert halls and theaters. Celebrated composers and pianists, including Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, used their product and fortunately were pleased with the sound. The praises continued to come in. Only nine years after it manufactured its first piano, Steinway won the first prize medal in a London exhibition. Out of two hundred and sixty-nine pianos from around the world, the Steinway beat out the competition for its “powerful, clear, brilliant, and sympathetic tone” along with its “excellence in workmanship (Fig. 2).”[3] It received additional national acclaim when it won the grand gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair in 1867.

Early Steinway advertisements were quick to reveal these commendations, accentuating their “‘world wide’ reputation” and association with superior musicianship.[4] (Although they did not go as far as did the “Instrument of the Immortals” campaign in their association with individual musicians.) At first Steinway had no formal advertising plan. Written by the company’s executives, early advertisements sang the praises given to their products but had a self-restricted market, as they were directed more to professional musicians and music lovers rather than ordinary consumers. Clearly they assumed the ordinary consumer could not be persuaded to spend so much for a piano. In 1900 the famous advertising company N. W. Ayer & Son convinced the heads of Steinway that such a limited advertising strategy was unwarranted. By utilizing new contemporary trends in the advertising industry, including the use of professional writers and artists, Steinway & Sons switched pace and began to direct its appeal to ordinary consumers, albeit those who could afford their products on credit.[5]

With such a “world-class” product – a product on which superior quality was its cardinal virtue –Steinway & Sons could not afford to cut its production budget to accommodate a wide audience; other piano manufactures had already saturated that section of the market. Instead N. W. Ayer wrote advertisements that generated an inclusive demand for Steinway pianos, and utilized their superior quality and association to high musicianship as selling points. One 1916 advertisement titled “The Highest Choice” shrugged off price sensitivities: “Do not let it be merely a question of initial cost when you make your choice of pianos. The Matchless music of the Steinway had lifted it above the ‘price’ atmosphere for all time (Fig. 4).”[6] Such optimistic copy was indeed attractive to the American middle-class, which was enjoying unprecedented increases in wages and leisure time. Here, the perceived quality and desirability of a Steinway piano superceded its cost, challenging the traditional economic doctrine of supply and demand.[7]

This advertisement strategy obviously worked: sales rose after only a year, verifying claims that a demand for the costly pianos could be created.[8] In 1919 N. W. Ayer assigned Raymond Rubicam, a young but already established copywriter, to the Steinway account. Searching for ways to best represent his client, Rubicam came across a proof book of old Steinway advertisements. He later recalled what happened next:

I learned that the [Steinway] had been used by practically all the greatest pianists and almost all of the great composers since Wagner. But when I found the [advertisements] in the proof book I discovered that they consisted of lovely ladies sitting at pianos in lovely drawing rooms and that the text told little of the great Steinway story (Fig. 5).[9] Without effort, the phrase formed in my mind, “The Instrument of the Immortals.”[10]

This was the genesis of one of the most famous advertising campaigns in American history. (Advertising Age, an advertising trade magazine, recently put “The Instrument of the Immortals” as number 71 in their “Top 100 Advertising Campaigns” list.)[11]

The first “Instrument of Immortals” advertisement set the standard for future Steinway publicity. Under the bold headline of the company name is a painting of a noble looking yet nameless musician sitting at a Steinway, playing in deep contemplation. The sunlight from the window casts a soft glow on the gentleman, who stares introspectively into space. Underneath, the copy reads:

There has been but one supreme piano in the history of music. In the days of Liszt and Wagner… the preeminence of the Steinway was as unquestioned as it is today. It stood then, as it stands now, the chosen instrument of the masters (Fig. 6).[12]

Here we see what made Rubicam’s strategy more effective than earlier ones: he was for the first time making an unambiguous association between Steinway pianos and the “immortals” who used them. A customer could now be linked to a master musician simply by owning a Steinway. This psychology of association was certainly an effective selling point.[13]

The use of psychology was well known in the advertising industry. One contemporary advertising counselor stressed that “psychology is so vital a part of advertising copy that no treatment of the subject can be thorough without bringing a study of the psychology of interest, of appeal, of decision, and action.”[14] Aware of the significance of psychology, Rubicam applied association as the dominant psychological element in his advertisements. There was good motive in using “The Instrument of the Immortals” – it suggested refinement, quality, and excellence.

The use of art was another growing trend in the advertising industry. Before the first printing of his advertisement, Rubicam discovered a booklet used by Steinway titled “The Portraits of Musical Celebrities.” The booklet contained oil paintings of noted musical celebrities who had played Steinway pianos, and copies were given to interested customers as “point-of-sale” literature.[15] Steinway & Sons clearly appreciated the value of association, yet had misgivings of such a strategy on a national, and impersonal level. Associating pianos and “immortals” in ad copy was one thing, but displaying elegant portraits of the “immortals” seemed imprudent to Steinway executives. (Note that the first “Immortal” advertisement depicted a nameless musician (Fig. 6.).) According to historian Richard K. Lieberman, their “reluctance… stemmed from a fear that excessive advertising would… put Steinway pianos on a par with patent medicines.”[16] It was an honest concern: if Steinway & Sons wanted to implement an advertising campaign representative of their superior quality, they must be careful not to employ obnoxious hard-sell techniques.

However, as the success of “The Instrument of the Immortals” grew, the reluctance to use the portraits subsided considerably. A few days after the first ad appeared, the supervisor of advertising for Steinway notified Rubicam “that for the first time in 20 years of advertising [Steinway] had actually received a considerable number of voluntary and wholly favorable comments on the ad.” With such an auspicious change of fortune, Steinway executives quickly “changed their minds: Ayer could use the oil paintings of great pianists along with the phrase, ‘The Instrument of the Immortals,’ as the central idea in a series of advertisements.”[17] The formula was set into motion. Rubicam could now incorporate full color paintings of “immortal” musicians into his ads, further strengthening the efficacy of association.

A few years later Steinway began to use modern artwork in their advertisements, and even won an award for an interpretive piece based on composer Edward MacDowell’s famous Indian Suite (Fig. 7).[18] Steinway was not alone in its use of modern art, or “high art,” in advertising. In the 1920s modernistic styles pervaded the advertising industry, which was keen on emphasizing the newness of their trade and novelty of their products.[19] To some, Steinway’s decision to use modern art to represent its pianos might be puzzling, especially considering its focus on classical music and aristocratic desire. A 1928 ad, for example, uses a modern piece in the Cubism style of Picasso – a far cry from the “lovely ladies sitting at pianos in lovely drawing rooms” that Rubicam referred to a decade before (Fig. 8).[20] Nevertheless, Steinway was simply advancing its aristocratic image in proportion to the times. This was indeed “high art,” not only reflecting modernity but also representative of high culture and refinement, of which the pianos came to symbolize.

The composite of striking paintings and expressive copy in Steinway advertisements continued well into the 1920s. Although modern art was used, traditional portraits of noted musicians remained the standard. By mid-decade, wood engravings of noted musicians supplemented the more costly paintings as the featured art (Fig. 9, Fig. 10, Fig. 11);[21] and as the artwork developed, so did the marketing strategy. Occasionally the psychology of association was furthered by the use of testimonial – that is, the recommendation of professionals. Careful not to sully its refined reputation, Steinway did not solicit testimonials, rather it seized on candid remarks. Once, while selecting a piano from a collection of Steinways, famous pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff asked, “How can I know which one of your pianos I like best when you make them all so perfect (Fig. 12)?”[22] Jumping at the opportunity such a testimonial could provide, Steinway included it in an advertisement titled, “When the Master Made His Choice.” Rachmaninoff’s unsolicited testimonial resonated in the minds of potential customers, influencing their desire for the “perfect” piano and associating that desire with that of a master pianist.

The success of Steinway & Sons “The Instrument of the Immortals” campaign can be illustrated by the subsequent shift in advertisement strategies throughout the piano manufacturing industry. One of Steinway’s biggest competitors, W. W. Kimball Co., went through a series of slogans before settling on the conspicuously similar “The Instrument of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Fig. 13).”[23] After a few years of using the slogan, Kimball dropped all pretense and initiated the same association campaign that Rubicam created a decade before, complete with portraits of noted musicians (Fig. 14).[24] Clearly, Kimball was set to capitalize on the marketing success that Steinway had established.

When the “immortal” pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski sat at his Steinway piano and began to play, he was inadvertently affecting the purchasing habits of countless middle-class people (Fig. 1). With the use of art and suggestive copy the campaign found a niche that brought the “ordinary consumer” into the piano market. “The Instrument of the Immortals” advertising campaign was successful because it not only created a desire for the piano itself, it also created a desire for the implicit benefits the piano offered its owner: association with master musicians, excellence, and “high culture.”[25] Raymond Rubicam’s famous slogan lives on today: Stenway & Sons keeps a roster of “immortals” that have used its pianos; and by virtue of the quality of the product as well as the legacy of the “immortal” campaign, the list continues to grow.[26]

Notes

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[1] This scene is from a Steinway advertisement featuring Ignace Jan Paderewski, Literary Digest, 16 December 1922, back cover.

[2] James Musselwhite, Dear Mr. Musselwhite… (Heart Dance Publishing, 1998), quoted in Piano Action website, http://www.pianoaction.com/page6.html.

[3] Richard K. Lieberman, Steinway & Sons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 33.

[4] This advertisement is not dated, but it is obviously an early one – ca. 1870s – due to its “antique” quality, Vintage Prints, http://www.vintageprints.com/prints/woodeng/al_steinway.jpg.

[5] Lieberman, 143. The use of credit greatly increased from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. By paying in installments, customers reduced the immediate financial burden of a purchase, making them more inclined to feel comfortable buying an expensive item, like a piano.

[6] Steinway advertisement, Literary Digest, 4 March 1916, 591.

[7] Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 27-28. Strasser points out that the rise of the mass market issued an end to Adam Smith’s venerable “invisible hand of the market.” The very fact that manufacturers could arbitrarily generate demands for products negated supply and demand as a valid economic doctrine.

[8] Lieberman, 143.

[9] For a good example of the typical “lovely ladies sitting at pianos in lovely drawing rooms,” see the Steinway website, http://www.steinway.com/html/tour/hist.html (the advertisement is not dated, but it is characteristic of ads from the early twentieth century).

[10] “Raymond Rubicam: My Years at N.W. Ayer & Son,” Advertising Age, 7 July 1975, 21, quoted in Lieberman, 143.

[11] The list of the ‘Top 100 Advertising Campaigns” is on the Ad Age website, http://www.adage.com/century/campaigns.html.

[12] Steinway advertisement, 1919, from Juliann Sivulka, Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998), 116.

[13] Regarding association of ideas in advertising, S. Roland Hall wrote: “Certain thoughts have become fixed in our minds in connection with certain other thoughts, and when we bring up one end of the connection the other is likely to follow… This is important to the advertiser, for much depends on his being able to anticipate the turn the reader’s thought will take or on his ability to guide the reader’s thought,” S. Ronald Hall, The Advertising Handbook: A Reference work Covering the Principles and Practice of Advertising (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Comoany, 1921), 79-80, online from Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/eaa.

[14] Ibid, 77.

[15] Liberman, 143. “Point-of-sale” is an advertising method giving a potential customer reason to purchase the product.

[16] Ibid, 143. Patent medicine advertising had been criticized for its sensational, over-the-top techniques and unsubstantiated medical claims, particularly since the “pure food” movement, culminating in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. For a run down of the “pure food” movement and the legislative upshots, see Strasser, 252-285 (“The Politics of Packaged Products”).

[17] From a personal interview with Henry Z. Steinway by Richard K. Liberman, 25 April 1990, quoted in Liberman, 144.

[18] The Second Annual of Illustrations for Advertisements in the United States (New York: The Art Directors Club, 1923), 11, online from Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/eaa. Earnest Elmo Calkins of the Art Directors Club touched on the newness of artwork in advertising: “Here is practically a new art, a new metier, that scarcely existed twenty years ago, that has reached such a state of efficiency of organization that it is able to hold an exhibition of its work that merits and gets the serious attention of art critics… and has an interest for the mere spectator outside of the advertising world at least as great as that of most other exhibitions,” Ibid, 15. The Steinway advertisement featuring “An Interpretation of MacDowell’s Indian Suite” ran in Literary Digest, 4 March 1922, 39.

[19] For insight into “modern art and advertising dynamics,” see Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 140-148.

[20] Steinway advertisement, Good Housekeeping, December 1928, 255, in Marchand, 142.

[21] Steinway advertisements, Literary Digest, 16 October 1926, 109; 20 November 1926, 75; 4 December 1926, 81.

[22] Sergei Rachmaninoff quoted in Steinway advertisement, Literary Digest, 20 January 1923, 37.

[23] Kimball advertisement, Literary Digest, 9 June 1923, 77. Before using “The Instrument of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” as its principal slogan, Kimball experimented with other catch phrases, including: “Masterful in quality and charm of tone,” “Esteemed by a nation of satisfied owners,” and “Quality made the name – the name insures the quality,” respectively in Literary Digest, 22 April 1922, 75; 6 May 1922, 59; 20 May 1922, 78.

[24] Ibid, 27 November 1926, 54. This advertisement is obviously an imitation of Steinway’s “Instrument of the Immortals” layout: a painting of famous pianist George Liebling graces the ad, with the headline, “Liebling and the Kimball.” The psychology of association is also distinctly apparent in the text.

[25] According to Marchand, one sign that advertising had become “modern” was when advertisers appreciated “the advantages of selling the benefit instead of the product – illumination instead of light fixtures, prestige instead of automobiles, sex appeal instead of mere soap.” To extend this point, Steinway sold association and excellence instead of pianos. Marchand, 10.

[26] The roster is on Steinway’s website, http://www.steinway.com/html/concert/roster_immortals.html.