Suspension of disbelief

Starting in the late 1950s, Airstream made one of the best marketing moves since Wally Byam started running caravans, when the company hired photographer Ardean R Miller III.  Ardean’s photographs of Airstreams in exotic locations were so visually stunning, so artfully composed, and so inspired that they have been a staple of Airstream’s marketing for six decades.

ardean-miller-4.jpg Take a look at the thumbnails here (click any of them for larger versions).  These are just a few samples of the great commercial work that was being done for Airstream in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Even today, it’s hard not look at these photos wistfully and wish you were somewhere in that scene. Tossing a ball on the beach in Florida, meeting a “real Indian” on family vacation out west, fly-fishing near the red rocks of Arizona, or toasting your sweetie on a hill in San Francisco — those were all moments that Airstream promised you could have with one of their trailers.  No wonder the company was regarded as such an icon of ardean-miller-12.jpgAmericana — Airstream’s marketing took every American’s fantasies about escaping the rat race and hitting the open road, and put them on steroids in these beautiful images.

Now pause for just a moment after looking at some of the photographs.  Were you thinking, “That’s a beautiful scene,” or were you thinking, “Hey, you’d never be able to park your Airstream there!” ?

ardean-miller-3.jpgThat’s the magic part.   The scenes in these photos tell a wonderful story at a glance, and you bought it automatically.  Even though the images are always fantasies, they are fantasies you want to believe in.  It’s the principle of “suspension of disbelief” — if a movie, story, or photo is good, you’ll suspend your cynicism long enough to enjoy what’s in front of you.  This is good stuff, and ageless because it touches universal human themes: freedom, adventure, and family.

ardean-miller-8.jpgThe other noticeable commonality is that in an Ardean Miller photo, the Airstream is always present but is never obtrusive.  He recognized that the product is only a means to a greater end.  People don’t buy Airstreams for practical reasons– they buy the aspirations that an Airstream enables.

ardean-miller-6.jpgThat’s a refreshing thing for me.  I spent a few years in corporate marketing, and a couple of years working in an ad agency, and I can tell you that most marketing managers have no clue of the subtle principles that induce people to buy.  Instead you hear comments like this from people with “vice president” in their title:  “Can we make the product bigger?”  “I don’t think the logo shows well enough.”  “Why don’t we add in a dog — because people like dogs.”

ardean-miller-9.jpgThere are many ways to kill great art before it has a chance to develop. Results like these take nurturing, and protection from bean-counting managers.  Any goofball with a camera can claim to be a commercial photographer, but only a real artist can repeatedly produce really great images that make you long for more.  Ardean had that sort of talent. Sadly, not many other photographers do.  Time has proved that Ardean was a tough act to follow.

Sometimes I wonder if modern businesses have simply given up trying.  Here’s a horrifying example from my favorite company:


What’s wrong with this picture?  Well, to start off, the composition is all wrong.  Clearly the Airstream is the overwhelming emphasis, and the people in the front are awkward specks of foreground, mere props.  There’s no story here.  So right away, you start to doubt the contrived scene.  And that leads to uncomfortable questions.  What are they doing there?   Where did the Adirondack chairs come from?  Is that what people do when they travel — just stop on the road and pull out their guitar for a quick serenade?  Where’s the “adventure” in this scene?

as-postcard1cu.jpgAnd then you start to actually look at the extremely fake people … Now really, does anyone dress like that?  This postcard is from the 21st century, but “Suzy” here seems to be stuck in another decade. And “Jim” just looks like a dork. Didn’t someone tell him that wearing a sweater knotted in front is really not cool?   It makes me wish for a review by Charles Phoenix.

“Jim” here is obviously very impressive to his “wife” as he strums that guitar out in the middle of a lawn somewhere while his Airstream blocks traffic.  Her adoring gaze tells you everything you need to know (e.g., someone paid her to look that way.  When was the last time your wife looked at you like that?)

Note the staged iced tea, too — isn’t it just too perfect with that slice of lemon perched on the rim of the glass?  …  And now here we are, focusing on the minutiae and completely unimpressed with the product, because the scene surrounding it is so damn bad.

Honestly, do you aspire to be either of these two?  I didn’t think so. Personally, I’d run screaming from a product that might make me into one of these plasticine people.  If I ever start wearing a sweater knotted over a sport shirt like that on a summer day, please take me into custody.

as-postcard2.jpgYou could do a better job of inspirational photography with an Airstream parked at Wal-Mart.

I won’t even begin to pick apart the second image at right (I leave that as an exercise for you.  Click, and enjoy.)

Now, to be fair, these images may represent the nadir of Airstream product photography.  I’m not sure of the date of these two images but it was at least several years ago.  The work has gotten much better lately.  Airstream has even hired Ardean’s son (Ardean “Randy” Miller IV) to do some work for them recently.  Once again, the company has started to tap the romance, excitement, freedom, and togetherness that Airstream has been so closely bonded to over the years. It’s a matter of selling the sizzle, not just the steak.  If they can get even halfway close to the high standard of the 1960s, I think the company can expect a commensurate rise in public image and sales.


  1. says

    hey, I don’t know about you but I was tossing a ball with Ava on a beach in Florida today next to our Airstream that looks pretty much like that first photo!

  2. says

    It’s tough to get a car up the road in the Marin Headlands above the Golden Gate Bridge. But, perhaps not as difficult as getting close to a trout fishing stream where there are unlikely to be any trout. Much too warm for trout in the Southwest.

    Fun fantasies.

  3. Jay & cheri says

    We were sitting in a dentist’s office in Los Algodonis MX last week and looked up on the wall to see a large autographed print of the ’09 winter AS Life cover. We asked about it and a similar/different print on the adjacent wall. Seems the Mexican dentist and the artist are old pals. Now that art really portrays what Airstreams are all about.

  4. says

    Hi Jay and cheri!

    I’m the artist that created the Winter 09 Airstream Life cover as well as the “Safari Caravan” poster you discovered while in a Mexican Dentist office. The dentist just acquired the two prints from me in exchange for some dental work while I was having work done on my choppers 2 weeks ago. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 2 Airstream Life gringos would discover them so soon and that it would get back to me so soon!!!!!!!

    and yes, they as well as others in the series are available for purchase.

    Michael Depraida


  5. says

    I will toot my father’s horn a bit here. He was an avid photographer but in the slide (pre-digital days). We still have oodles of Carousel’s filled with slides. I gleaned all the Airstream photos that I could find. In revisiting them after this article I notice that my father did love his Airstreams but didn’t always have to have them in the forefront either. Here is an example that I always thought could have been an Airstream advertisement: This picture was from Yellowstone (I am the one about to fall in the river).

  6. insightout says

    Enjoyed the first photo (b and w), not so much for the sand and beach fantasy, but the tow vehicle; a 1957 Rocket Oldsmobile Fiesta 88 two-door hardtop.

    Not exactly a ‘family’ car…the rear seat space was too small even to double-date.

    The principle of “suspension of disbelief” is that Airstream has had any real marketing for the last 30 years; coasting on a 75 y/o design element.

  7. Fred Coldwell says

    Hi Rich:

    Ardean’s scenes may be fantastic but they are also credible, which makes them achievable. His couple sitting on the get-away-from-it-all sand dune are dressed appropriately for the setting: his sun glasses, black turtleneck and pink beachcombers compliment her scarf, long sleeve blouse and yellow beachcombers, all right for a breezy location. The photo focuses on them; they are communicating. He describes, she listens with interest. Instead of one static lemonade, they have brought enough romantic wine, cheese and bread for two, which they share. What man or woman would not want to be here?

    The Airstream that made it all possible quietly rests in the background, its door open and inviting, not closed and private as in the two modern photos. As you note, Ardean’s photos are not about the trailer. Instead, they show to the edge of possibility what an Airstream enables its owners to do to realize their – and our — dreams. I’m glad to hear Randy will be doing some work for Airstream. :)

  8. says

    Right on, Fred. And I didn’t even get into the photographic technicalities of Ardean’s work. Note that the two modern era photos have extremely even lighting; they were shot on cloudy days, which makes it easy for the photographer and boring for the eye. Ardean’s shots are all in challenging lighting: bright sun, scattered clouds, twilight. He still managed to get amazing photos, in the pre-digital era of Kodachrome. Every one uses the light to the advantage of the composition.

  9. Zach Woods says

    I want to drink the ice tea and BE the guitar . . . but I realize that I couldn’t both BE a guitar and drink ice tea at the same time. That’s where my disbelief is dropped right on the ground!

    But seriously, the Miller shots are wonderful, iconic, and seductive!