Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The philosophy of advertising

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If I were the proprietor of a prosperous newspaper, I could never look upon my own publication without a sense that I was an impostor and a humbug. I could read the leaders and the foreign intelligence without blushing. Supposing there were errors—and in any well-regulated paper there always will be errors—I don’t know that I should feel much troubled. If my grave political contributor did state that Timbuctoo was an island in the South Pacific, and my smart slashing littérateur happened to ascribe “To be, or not to be?” to Macbeth instead of to the Prince of Denmark, I should bear the discovery with philosophical equanimity. Very few persons would ever observe the mistake; and of the few who did, fewer still would trouble themselves about it. Of course, some ill-natured critic, who had plenty of time and bile to spare, would write to express his astonishment at the astounding ignorance of a paper which professed to represent public opinion; but experience would have made me callous to this class of censure, and I should throw the communication into the waste-paper basket without attention. And even, if subsequent reflection led me to believe that I had, through my paper, supported the wrong men, or the wrong measures, I could still find comfort in the thought that perhaps, after all, things would have gone on very much the same, even if the series of crushing articles which so electrified the public mind had never appeared in print. All this I could recall with equanimity, but I am certain I could not look unblushingly at the advertisements. In the small hours of the night, when people wake up and begin at once to speculate unpleasantly on their sins, I should think of those columns upon columns, and feel weighed, as it were, to the ground with a nightmare of letter-press.

For, if I must make the confession, I should know that I had been taking money under false pretences. If ever you talk, concerning his pursuits, to a sporting prophet, he will tell you forthwith about the fortunes he has made for others; you will hear how—thanks to his information—Lord Handicap has redeemed the mortgages off the Winnington estates; how Captain Steeplefield has purchased his commission; and how Shortodds, the butcher, now drives his mail phaeton like a gentleman; but you never hear a word of the thousands who have lost their money, and, in the expressive Yankee phrase, “gone under.” So in the same way, supposing I represented a great advertising medium, I should talk glibly of the men who had made fortunes by advertisements. I should point proudly to the mansion of the famous chiropodist, whose world-known motto of “Crop your corns early” you must all remember. I should dilate fondly on the entertainments of the illustrious vendor of the anti-sudiferous shirtfront. I should glory in the triumphs of the spirited proprietor of the Patagonian pills, and I should say with self-conscious satisfaction, I am the maker of these men’s fortunes. But to myself I should have to own with shame, that, for one I had made, I had ruined ten. The real, plain, unvarnished truth is, that advertising is a lottery, and that for one who draws a prize, there are scores and hundreds who draw blanks. Just let anybody who doubts the truth of my assertion, cast his eyes over the advertising pages of the “Times,” or the “Daily Telegraph,” or any great provincial paper, and ask himself how many of the advertisers can possibly get anything in return for their money?

The intelligent observer will soon perceive that advertisements come under two heads. The first class informs, the second suggests. To the former belongs the genuine old-fashioned advertisement. If you have a horse to sell, or a house to let, there is no way of calling the attention of purchasers or hirers to your article more legitimate than that of advertising. In fact, there is no other way by which the vendor and the buyer can be so well or so cheaply brought together. This was the class of announcements which filled the scanty columns of the press in the days of our fathers. But now, a very small portion of modern advertisements can be classed under this section. The advertisement pure and simple has been driven out of the field by the puff genus. This class has before it a far higher ideal than that of supplying wants: it aims to create wants, to call consumers into being. The French have baptised it with the name of the “réclame,” and Balzac describes its birth, growth, and development in the history of “Gaudissart,” the illustrious. To any one whose mind is too ingenuous to grasp at once the character of this conception, it will be explained by the following remark which I once heard made to a young author by a very successful publisher: “My dear sir, nobody ever wants to buy books. We have to seduce them, by advertising, into fancying they want to do so.”

And in this profound remark the whole philosophy of the modern art is contained. You fish for purchasers as you do for trout. You bait your hook so as to suit their fancy, and the most successful advertiser is he who baits his hook most cunningly. The fish can find plenty of food in the waters, but the artificial fly tickles their fancy, and they are seduced into biting. So it is with the human prey who is angled for, fished for, and advertised at. Happily, by the law of compensation, advertisers lose their money, just as anglers lose their time. The process of puffing does not create new consumers, or supply them with any additional cash to spend. It simply offers them a bait more tempting than those already at their disposal. One vendor succeeds by driving another out of public favour. Advertising always reminds me of a roulette-table. I stake my money on the odd numbers, and my neighbour on the even. If I win he loses, if I lose he wins; but, in either case, the bank—which, in the present instance, is represented by the press—gains its commission. And, indeed, there are other resemblances between the game of advertising and that of the green baize tables. If you must gamble, the first rule is—Go in heavily, and play high. In that event, you may win a great “coup”; but if you go on with peddling stakes and a cautious system, you are absolutely certain to lose. So, if you must resort to puff advertising—advertise, everywhere and anywhere, to the utmost of your means, or your credit, and you will end in the House of Lords or—in the Gazette. But if you trifle with advertising, you will lose your money without a doubt. As the majority of mankind have not the courage to play a bold game in any pursuit, it is certain that, as a rule, advertisers make small ventures, and waste their substance foolishly.

However, it is no use preaching against the system. As long as sudden fortunes are made by successful advertisers, thousands will try their luck, just as they would put into lotteries if they were allowed to do so. The true philosopher will find food for curious speculation in observing the arts by which advertisers seek to secure custom, just as he would in any other exhibition of men’s weakness. Nobody, I am aware, can fathom the mysteries of the human heart, but that heart is even more unintelligible to me than I believed, if it is influenced by some of the devices laid out to attract it. For instance, some weeks ago I happened to be passing along the Strand, at a very early hour. At that season it was broad daylight by three o’clock, and the street was almost deserted. On my way I came across a man engaged in painting on every sixth stone an advertisement, addressed to persons in want of an iron safe. This process, as far as I could observe, he was repeating from Charing Cross to the foot of Ludgate Hill. Now, what conceivable motive could have induced the vendor of these safes to resort to such an unprofitable outlay? The class of persons, male and female, who frequent the Strand in the small hours of the night, are not likely to feel a keen anxiety on the subject of safes. Fast young men, newspaper compositors, and obscure “incognitas” have not much money to lose, and certainly none to keep. Before morning came, and wealthy men began to drive citywards, the scraping of the hundreds of thousand feet that pass along the great central thoroughfare of London, was certain to have rubbed off the announcement of the fire-and-robber-proof safe. Supposing, by any remote chance, that any belated banker, or a merchant driving to catch an early train, did catch sight of the short-lived announcement, is it conceivable that his mind was influenced by it? To own a safe you must be a man of wealth, gravity, and respectability; and if I were such, I should as soon think of buying a depositary of my treasures because I had seen the maker’s name dabbled on the stone pavement, as I should think of opening an account at a particular bank or taking a pew in church from similar motives. If—which is most improbable—I gave two thoughts to the matter, I should make a mental note not to buy my safe of a manufacturer who so little appreciated the gravity of his important functions.

Then there used, last year, to be another advertisement which filled my unlearned mind with wonder. We must all remember the remarkable assertion that for months appeared on every blank wall in London:—“I have seen the Peep o’ Day, and want to see it again.” Now, what could have been the mental process by which this advertisement drew crowds to the Lyceum Theatre? Is it possible that there are persons to whom any formula is welcome, and who are glad to act in accordance with any advice that anybody is kind enough to give them? The bucolic intellect is not of a rapid order; but still even the most ponderous of agricultural visitors to the metropolis would hardly have been induced to go and see the “Peep o’ Day” on account of this solicitation.

Then there is another form of advertisement which is also a wonder to me, and that is the Insurance class. It is—at least so I should think—rather a serious matter, insuring your life. The act of doing so implies a certain amount of prudence, self-denial, and forethought. And yet people are supposed to be stimulated to such a proceeding by finding inserted between the leaves of a shilling novel a glowing pictorial prospectus of the Utopia and Arcadia Fire and Life Insurance Company, where half the premiums are returned with interest, in the shape of profits.

I am sorry, too, to see that this puffing system is gradually coming into vogue with regard to literary advertisements. I am prejudiced enough not to like sensation advertising, as applied to books. For instance, every now and then I take up my daily paper, and see that the proprietors of a semi-religious publication have filled a whole page with a string of selections from their own periodical. I feel inclined to reverse the old dictum about keeping silence from bad words, and wish that “Good Words” would keep silence themselves. I—speaking, I believe, purely as one of the reading public—am not a bit more inclined to buy a copy of this publication, because I see its proprietors have gone to the expense of purchasing a whole page of the “Times” for their advertisements. On the contrary, my feeling is that a periodical which courts such pushing is not likely to have great merits of its own. Knowing absolutely nothing of the publication in question, I may very possibly be wrong in my judgment, but I only state that this is the impression left on my mind, and, I should have thought, on the minds of ninety-nine persons out of every hundred who caught sight of this monster advertisement.

It is curious to observe how the advertisers of different nations avail themselves of the press. In France, where the “réclame” had its birth, the sensation system is still kept within bounds. The backs of the meagre four-page Parisian papers are constantly taken up with an advertisement in gigantic black letters of the Baths of Teufels-Bad, or the Pillules dorées of M. le docteur Rothomago. But still, even in these advertisements, there is a sort of propriety. The rows of letters are arranged in parallel lines, and there is nothing absolutely monstrous about their arrangement. In America, on the other hand, the sensation advertisement runs to absolute riot. Every contortion and combination that type is capable of is resorted to in order to attract attention. The advertisements are placed at every angle to the letter-press, and disfigure the look of even the first papers in the country to a most marvellous degree. One discovery that Transatlantic puffers appeared to have made is, that iteration of the most objectionable order has a peculiar charm for the native mind. The same paragraph is repeated line after line and column after column without the slightest change or variation, till the classical formula, “Buy the Plantation Bitters,” literally dances before the weary eyes of the reader. I have a presentiment that this fashion will come into grace in England. We shall live to see the day when the “constant reader” will take up his “Times” and see with horror an advertisement, after this form and fashion, sprawling across the page:


and so on, ad infinitum. I can conceive and sympathise with his horror, but I know we must come to that. The rapacity of advertisers respects nothing, and the virtue of newspaper proprietors will not be proof against the assaults waged upon it. Already spasmodic typography is appearing in country papers. The most respectable provincial journals will allow engravings of tea-caddies, and ploughs, and Worcester sauce bottles, to be inserted in prominent positions in the very midst of the regular old-fashioned advertisements. It is very sad, and I would recommend any old compositor, who has saved a little money, to retire from his profession. A good workman who is proud of his work would, I am certain, feel it a bitter humiliation to have to head his page with sensation type headings.

Indeed, I consider that the whole system of advertising is still in its infancy. It is a science which has yet to be studied. At present our knowledge of its rules are purely empirical. Men who have had great practical experience of the subject have assured me that if you have a good article to sell, and if you advertise largely enough, you must make a fortune. It may be so, but my informants have always been the owners or agents of advertising mediums. The traders who have been most fortunate as advertisers, cannot tell themselves to what their success is due. All they know is, that if they leave off thrusting their goods under the eyes, and up to the mouths, and into the pockets of the public, their sales fall off at once. But whether one form of advertisement attracts more than another, they cannot discover. In fact, this branch of the piscatory art is still little advanced. We don’t know what baits to use, or what fish to angle for. All we can do is to spread our nets, and fill them with all manner of flies and worms, and when we draw them up we are sure to find some fish at the bottom; but how many is as yet the result rather of luck than skill. Meanwhile it is also an open question whether the profit on puff advertising is commensurate with the trouble and outlay, even in the cases of the most successful followers of the art. I have heard from the vendor of an article on which the sale was almost all profit, and which he advertised formally through the length and breadth of England, that he had to spend 25,000l. a year in advertisements, to get a net profit of 5000l., and for the first few years he actually lost money. Then, if you begin the system you must go on with it. If the public are once accustomed to see your name thrust before them on every occasion, they think you have died, or retired, or become bankrupt, as soon as you cease obtruding yourself on their notice. I doubt whether a permanent business is often made by advertising; or, at least, I cannot recall any great house of business which owes its position to a name acquired by puffing, and which is now able to dispense with the ladder by which it rose to fortune. This much, at any rate, I am convinced of, that if it were possible to strike a balance between the sums expended annually on puffing, and the profits made by the puffers, it would be found very much the wrong way. However, it is an ill wind which blows nobody any good. The advertisers, not the subscribers, support the press; and if every trader were a prudent man, the public would not have newspapers of the present quality at the present price. So everything, perhaps, is for the best in the best possible of worlds.