“Advertisa: the Tenth Muse”—Henry W. Lanier
A dvertising is manifestly one of the secondary and derivative professions. It could not exist if manufacture and trade had not first existed. Originating as a mere adjunct of these, and growing with their growth, it has reached in a few decades a position of such ostensible importance as to rank, at least in America, among the first dozen or so industries in respect to the amount of money annually expended. At the same time it has formulated its rationale as an independent profession, with a code of ethics, with pretensions to a scientific basis, with some consciousness of its historical background and evolution, and with a technical terminology almost as formidably specialized as that of psychiatry. It has come to be a calling which, with every statistical justification, respects itself; and it sets up a specious claim—protesting, now and then, it may be, a trifle too much—to the respect of all mankind.
Has it ever been remarked, I wonder, how rapidly and easily the secondary and derivative professions fall into the very sort of academicism which their practitioners are the first to ridicule when it appears in other quarters? An exactly parallel calling in the academic sphere is pedagogy, the science (as contrasted with the art) of teaching. Teaching itself has long been a necessity; or, at any rate, because it has seemed to be a necessity it has long been a practice, a profession, and a fact. On it has been reared the curious quasi-scientific superstructure called pedagogy—which is the study of teaching as a rationale by itself, apart from the teaching of anything. Indeed, refinement of the superfine has been carried in this domain to lengths so fantastic as to be incredible to anyone who has not experienced them, and there is now an accredited and flourishing profession the objective of which is to teach teachers to teach teaching. Teaching is your initial reality. Pedagogy is its echo, the reality once removed. You come to the tertiary profession, the echo of the echo and the ultimate remove from reality, from necessity, when you reach the stage represented by the pedagogics of pedagogy. First a normal school to educate teachers in what they are going to teach pupils; then a university department of education to teach them what teaching is ; then a teachers’ college to teach them to teach other teachers what teaching is—to educate educators.
This tendency of the derivative vocations to effloresce in super-refinements of themselves is as characteristic of advertising as of any profession of purely academic or intellectualistic origin and content. The votaries of brass tacks and tin tacks can be, and are, as rapt in accounting for themselves as the professor of economics, the theorist of pure aesthetics, or the digger among etymologies. Whether because advertising feels itself to represent an inflation and an overgrowth and is therefore unconsciously on the defensive, or for some other reason, it has gone of late into a stage of its history exactly corresponding to that entered in the first decade of this century by the science of education. Advertising began by advertising commodities, as an adjunct and extension of the machinery for distributing them. Later it set up its own plant, for the production not of commodities but of advertising. And it has ended by advertising itself and its plant. The great industry of the future is the advertisement of advertising. The high-power salesman of today, the man of prophetic vision, is selling salesmanship. All the truly redoubtable promoters have taken to promoting promotion.
The plain fact about advertising, however unpalatable it may be to the proponents and sponsors of the profession, is that its direct and legitimate accomplishments are nearly in inverse ratio to its pretensions and to the scale on which it is attempted. Local advertising of specific commodities and sales and bargains, and advertising which serves essentially the purpose of a directory or guide—as catalogues and the theater advertising section of a metropolitan paper —these justify their space and their cost in the only, terms which are at all pertinent to the problem: that is, the direct results achieved and the volume of immediate business done. What is termed national advertising, on the other hand— advertising of national commodities without any direct occasional background or value—very rapidly reached the point beyond which it could not sustain its pretensions for even one more campaign. The palpable and inevasible cost was too wildly out of proportion to the imponderable results hoped for and to the time it was taking to realize the hopes. Something had to be done, invented, if the flow of dollars were to continue. Results had to be got. It was in this pass that the advertising profession evolved its formula for cashing in on advertising; it was at this point that it learned the value of exploiting its own exploitation.
The national advertiser has lately arrived at the point of admitting to himself—not as yet to the outsider—that, if he had to depend on the leverage of his advertising upon those to whom it is ostensibly addressed, he would be making full speed astern. He might far better keep his advertising appropriations as an extra profit on his ledger, and would in fact be compelled for mere self-preservation to do just that. It is only nominally and ostensibly that national advertising is now addressed to the ultimate consumer—to you and me, the ordinary lay reader of magazines, newspapers, mail-order circulars, billboards. Advertising has spent billions of industrial profits trying to accomplish something with us, and has frankly, given it up as a bad job. (The frankness is purely professional and intramural, but the giving-up is a clearer expression than words could be.) National advertising, in short, is not really addressed to the public or done for the public. It is put in the way of us all, not because it is expected to influence us, but because the fact that it has been put in our way has been discovered to possess a magical utility in other quarters.
Manufacturers and wholesalers deal with retailers and jobbers. Jobbers deal with smaller retailers; and retailers deal with the public, in whom the existing demand resides, along with the capacity for stimulated and increased demand. It is pretty obvious that if advertising exerted any direct and appreciable effect upon the public demand, it would be done by the retailer who has that demand directly to deal with. When done by him with full conviction and knowledge, it is in fact commonly successful. But when done nationally, as an apparent attempt by the manufacturer or wholesaler to influence a demand with which he has no direct dealings, it is not even expected or believed by him to affect the public. He is doing it for its effect upon the jobber and the retailer. He is doing it in order that his salesmen may trade upon the fact that he is doing it. They, sell his advertising along with his goods, at a price which covers both. The advertising is simply an additional means of distributing the goods to the retailer in a volume which makes the advertising possible. The advertising per se is negligible, and no one knows it better than the manufacturer who pays for it, the advertising agency which produces it, the advertising managers and solicitors who sell the space in which it appears, and the salesmen who glorify its putative achievements to their customers. What counts is not the advertising, but the emphasis put upon the fact that it is being done—the exploiting of the exploitation.
In fine, what keeps national advertising alive, and with it the vast machinery and colossal pretensions of the advertising profession, is simply the fact that beyond a certain point commodities will distribute themselves if they can be got to that point in sufficient volume. And advertising is an argument which helps get them in increased volume to that certain point, the point of public accessibility. A salesman who could sell fifty units of a given article to a given customer,on the article’s merit and the customer’s previous experience of it can sell a hundred units with the specifications of a great advertising campaign to help him. Not only can he redouble his sale of the article, but he can also sell along with it, on the principle of mutual “support,” an increased obligation to display the article to the public. And it is this display which does the business. The article (people being what they are) sells itself.
Thus reality is achieved at the end of a cycle of carefully, fostered and maintained illusions. The manufacturer multiplies his output; the space-buyer trebles his purchases; the salesmen get increased orders from jobber and retailer by arguing that the advertisements will multiply the public’s familiarity with the article and demand for it; the jobber in his turn uses the same argument to force greater and greater purchases upon his retail customers. The actual advertising leaves the public exactly where it was; but meanwhile the “sales resistance” of the retailer has so far succumbed that he finds himself in a position where his only salvation is to put impressive quantities of goods where the public eye cannot miss them. He acts in pursuance of the one principle he is sure of: that a visible supply of almost anything creates a demand. He sells the goods because he has them; and he has them because their manufacturers have done a good job of promoting their own promotion.
The contemporary status of advertising on the grand scale is, then, this: It is an elaborate and costly device for convincing the skeptical retail dealer in advance that he can sell what he could sell anyhow. The manufacturer has got his volume; the advertising personnel have saved their skins and glorified their calling; the dealer has got his sales. Everybody, thus far, is happy.
Meanwhile, what of the effects of advertising on the public? For of course it has its effects, even though these have no appreciable connection with the purposes for which the advertising is supposed to be addressed to its wide audience. Anyone can know, as well as an advertising agent knows, that the advertising for which huge appropriations are made has no, or has little, power to sell the goods so celebrated; but anyone can also know that advertising has really incalculable consequences. The money which it represents may be wasted or worse than wasted, but the liquid stream of dollars is not poured into sand.
Precisely because advertising is pretty much exonerated from its original task of selling merchandise to the ultimate purchaser, it is left free to disport itself in an irresponsible and decorative way that was never open to it in the days when it was conceived as having a more direct utility. The kinds of advertising which can really sell goods are few, and the technical devices possible to those kinds are to the last degree simple and unpretentious. Practical advertising, the paid printed word used as an effective silent salesman, has not progressed an inch beyond where it stood in the 1830’s, and for that matter in the 1780’s—the days when a merchant inserted his reading notice in two inches of one column of the local paper, to say that a ship had arrived from So-and-So with a cargo consisting of such-and-such, and that the goods were on view in a specified place, to be sold at so much a yard or piece. All the many and enormous differences from that canon which latter-day advertising has evolved represent simply and solely its release from responsibility—the dull and unimaginative responsibility of selling goods. In a word, the evolution of advertising is an expression of the instinct to play with a thing which, since it has ceased to do the work for which it was devised, is too tiresome to be endured except as decoration, experiment, and entertainment. It is the most conspicuous of our ingenious modern ways of turning hard work that is no longer necessary into even harder play that is defended on any and every ground except its recreational value.
The proponents of advertising are fond of stressing its recently developed claims to a respectable standing on purely aesthetic grounds. Their emphasis is by no means entirely misplaced, though it is surprising that they can make it at all without perceiving its tacit admission of what is here maintained—namely, that the present freedom of advertising to disport itself as it likes is exactly what most proves its lapse from correspondence with any actual use or need. When they say (as they constantly do) that there is now no such thing as a commercial artist —meaning that commerce buys its art-work from persons of more than commercial aspirations — they tell the approximate truth. When they say that the verbal content of most advertising is superior in literary merit, in ingenuity, and in imaginative qualities to a great deal of the fiction which appears in adjacent columns of the same magazines, again they tell the truth, though the most that they assert is hardly more than we should expect in an age when the amount of advertising determines the number of stories that can be printed and the length to which they must run. It is perfectly true that advertising has become more sightly, more amusing, and more provocative, in about the proportion of its becoming more pretentious, more highly paid, and more useless. It is now exactly the sort of outlet for ideas, pictures, words, and typography which anyone would know in advance must make an irresistible appeal to the sort of young talent, not quite a writer’s, which enjoys playing in public with the component materials of writing, and doing it at others’ cost. The well-paid young talent has its additional reward in the fact that a great part of the great public now picks up the national magazines of huge circulation in order to run through the advertisements before it reads the stories, and to recur to them lingeringly afterward. Another not negligible part of the audience studies the advertising without ever looking at the stories at all. Advertising matter has become, in fact, the contemporary art of the populace. It is essentially as art, as literature, as reading matter, and in no wise as salesmanship, that it exerts its immeasurable pressure upon the public mind and achieves its effects upon society.
And why should it not consider itself free to be art? It has no longer the need to advertise anything except itself.
Advertising has, then, every right to its self-esteem on the score of the inherent interest and skill of its productions, Its claims in this area are well within the facts. But it is also very much in the mood of claiming some exceedingly high ethical standards. It has become fond of contrasting the dignity and righteousness of its present usages with a comparatively lax and lurid past. And here its self-esteem is on a good deal less solid ground. Advertising has learned, indeed, to be much more circumspect as to the letter of its statements. When it uses figures, statistics, and testimonials, we are safe in assuming that these have some basis in actuality and are not made, as once they might have been, out of whole cloth. When it describes processes and conditions of manufacture or the quality of materials used, it is ordinarily within the circumstantial truth. This improvement in veracity is not so much of a credit to advertising as advertisers would like to believe. It is partly the outcome of suspicion in a public that has learned wisdom from gold bricks; the old extravagant technique would no longer be effective. And partly it is the natural consequence of the very irresponsibility just described: since advertising hasn’t to justify, itself by convincing anyone of anything except that a lot of money is being spent, why lie to convince? But, for whatever reason, the advance in veracity has really taken place. Advertising today is chiefly truthful in details, and even a great many of its patent falsehoods represent lack of space, or an imperfect aim at the target, or the inherent difficulty of expression at once accurate and interesting—anything and everything rather than the deliberate wish to falsify.
It is rather in its whole purport than in its actual statements that advertising today belongs in spirit to the darkest ages of its own practice. Maintaining the highest standard of rectitude in its statements of concrete fact, it nevertheless bases its appeal on foundations that will not stand a moment’s scrutiny, and are, in fact, ethically beneath contempt.
The most conspicuous and readable advertisements of motor cars written according to the present mode fall into two classes. One, in the vein of the prose poem, asserts of the vehicle advertised that it can do what nothing on wheels ever did or will do. The other, relatively factual, argues a unique possession of merits which any well-made car in good condition shares equally with it. There is nothing the matter with such advertising except the whole implication of it—and, inasmuch as everyone understands that it is created in the realm of lyric poetry rather than in that of exact history, no conceivable harm is done. It is merely the product of a trained, highly paid, somewhat bored pen playing the dancing master to some lush and lovely words.
But what are we to say of the great volume of equally conspicuous, readable, and respectable advertising which could never be produced at all if it were not for the essential lie upon which all of it is built? Pause to consider only-two classes of this: (1) that which celebrates the virtues of exterior applications to the human skin or scalp—the salves and ointments and cosmetics and soaps and powders and creams and hair tonics and cures for baldness; and (2) that which extols the even more important merits of general therapeutic aids and devices—exercising machines, systems of physical culture, laxatives and other medicines to be taken internally, electrical appliances, health foods, tooth pastes, remedies for the common cold, cough tablets, and what not. These two classes between them cover an enormous .daily acreage of paper and account for a huge fraction of the most elaborately planned and costly advertising done in America; and practically all of both is dedicated whole-heartedly to the propagation of fallacies which continue to be believed by vast majorities in the face of scientific knowledge and ordinary horse-sense.
Suppose, for example, that the censorship which debars certain specified kinds of false or otherwise objectionable advertising were to rule out every advertisement ascribing to a brand of soap any merit except the two merits actually possible to soap (namely, effectiveness as a cleanser and freedom from positively injurious ingredients): what a mortality there would be among the soap advertisements! Suppose there were further debarred every piece of copy which assumes that the skin of the human body is an absorptive organ, and that internal benefits can accrue from external applications: how the revenues of our best magazines would fall off!
And, finally, suppose that all printed exploitation of the alleged aids to health and longevity had to be consonant with the known and unanswerable facts about the human body—such facts as that the span of life is largely predetermined (barring accidents) from birth; that most disease represents the normal running-down of a machine built to use, but not built to run forever; that practically nothing is known about how tuberculosis is transmitted; and that the best regimen for the healthy body is that prescribed by its own appetites. On such a supposition, how much could continue to exist of the tremendous quantity of advertising which assumes that some trivial nostrum or patented appliance can make a difference to human life that no causative force under the shining sun has ever been able to make to anybody?
One more characteristic fallacy, possibly the most deplorable of all, the most cold-blooded, and by long odds the most widespread—certainly it represents the most lavish expenditures now being made for advertising—points even more directly to the chief social consequence of advertising as recently practised. I refer to the fallacy underlying the sort of advertising which trades on the credulity, of great numbers of relatively poor, humble, and simple-minded folk by assuring them that a few relatively well-to-do, superior, and sophisticated folk—”the best people” —dress, talk, think, behave, and live in ways which the best people themselves would regard as preposterous and silly.
There is hardly any sort of commodity, necessary or luxurious, which is not nowadays presented to the populace with the argument that to use it is to stamp oneself as of the superior few, advertise one’s status among the elect, the well-bred, the discriminating, and prove one’s habitual insistence upon the Finer Things of Life. Clothes (masculine as well as feminine), cigarettes, cosmetics, motor cars, books, magazines (weekly and monthly), steamship lines, stationery, courses in correct English, plumbing fixtures, coffins and funerals, furniture—all these and many more are hymned by, the copy-writer in a way to assert or suggest that the use of a particular brand is the hallmark of the refined person, the accomplished worldling, the privileged one who knows his way about.
The pipe tobacco which is instinctively preferred and easily afforded by night watchmen and taxicab drivers is recommended with lithographs of the banker in his office, the high-salaried executive at his conference table. The cigarette sold at a price to ensure its use by millions, and actually used by millions, is hawked with flattering implications that to prefer it is to belong to a sphere so ethereal that hardly anyone attains it short of being a movie star or an industrial magnate.
In putting it that such advertising copy trades on the credulity of masses, I am far from intimating that injury is done to the gullible in terms of the goods actually sold them. The whole point, it must still be borne in mind, is that the very advertising which is negligible as salesmanship is all-powerful as art—as the favorite reading matter of several millions of Americans whose whole instinct is to believe every syllable of it except its selling talk. The goods advertised, and eventually sold, sell themselves; on the whole, no doubt, to purchasers whose requirements they approximately fit. From this point of view, the sort of selling argument which happens to be used is neither here nor there, as long as the space is somehow filled, the money, visibly spent. But there remains, and the more powerfully, the effect of advertising as art.
To a thousand times as many Americans as receive any direct effect from imaginative literature, to twice or three times as many as derive their ideas of life from the movies, national advertising strikes home as a supply of both information and romance. In it these readers seek—and find—the evidence of a standard of life unlike their own and, they assume, superior—superior not because it is more free, more leisured, more humanely rich in content, but because it is more conspicuously irresponsible, debonair, and spendthrift. And to the same source they look for the realistic details of this romantically superior life—its trappings and background, its dress, its drinks, its acceptable standards of speech and writing, its notions of etiquette, its code of conduct and set of intellectual and social interests. Advertising has come to be, to three-fourths of America, the principal guidance toward what is worth while, what is worth mental house-room.
A blind guidance! Its mile-posts are ideas false in themselves; its goal is a fake culture of which the sole merit is that it fortunately does not as yet exist. It will exist, in time, if so many of us keep on believing in its existence and holding it to be desirable. For it is well known that reality always imitates the prevalent mode in literature, making it the daily, fact of a slightly later time. And advertising is the really effective literature of this age.
Advertising, then, is so corrosive in its effect on the national life and mind because it succeeds so overwhelmingly in the wholesale manufacture and large-scale promotion of unrealities. From beginning to end of its cycle it turns all that it touches into something which is quite other than it pretends to be.
First it converted the daily newspaper and the periodical magazine of life and letters into bigger and better media for advertisements. The national supply of imaginative writing, formerly the answer to a public demand to be diverted, it turned into something quite different: the demand of space-buyers for some not too discordant literary obbligato to the advertising, and the consequent demand of managing editors for reading matter which would soothe as many and affront as few as possible of that vaster public whom the space-buyers proposed to address. The authors whom the resultant situation did not turn forthwith into copy-writers it turned into purveyors of the necessary background for copy—the narrow lane of eight-point fiction cutting through the broad pastures of display-type advertising.
So much is matter of common enough knowledge. What is not thus far so widely, perceived is the curious, insidious, finally triumphant way in which advertising wrought upon the inherently reasonable human needs to turn them into inordinate demands corresponding to no needs at all. Advertising was, in its inception, a device for letting people know where they could get what they wanted. The cost of using it to let them know increased the cost of producing merchandise until the volume of it distributed had to be multiplied if workable prices were to be maintained. At that point “turn-over” and “breaking down sales resistance”—this last the advertiser’s shorthand for making the public think it wants what it doesn’t want—became the watchwords. In their interest the retail trade of the country, the natural and established liaison between the manufacturer and public demand, became converted into an outlet for the increased production which advertising had necessitated.
It was here that trade made its one great discovery of the age. This was the principle of display, which can be roughly stated by saying that, all question of need aside, the supply creates the demand. A merchant, by having five times as much of an unnecessary article to sell, can sell ten, fifty, or five hundred times as much of it. But even this principle, useful to the science of merchandising if not to civilization, and powerful enough in its operation to make victims of us all, was seized upon by advertising in a way, that wholly obscured its power. The largely illusory effect of national advertising was used by salesmanship as a lever to force on the retailer such quantities of this, that, and the other that it became a physical necessity for him to keep a large part of his stock on permanent display; there was nothing else to do with it. Many a retail emporium flaunts the availability of a certain commodity day after day by some such sign as “Special Today!” I know one such sign that has hung in the same place since 1918. Mostly, the retailer still believes that advertising is responsible for the demand which was really, produced just by over-selling him, so that he must find for himself new selling devices or perish.
And if he knows better, there is still nothing that he can do about it. The advertising is going to go on anyhow, and volume has become just as important to him as it is to the manufacturer. The theory is that he “supports” the advertising by stocking more goods, and that the advertising “supports” his efforts by drawing customers to him in quest of the goods. And this theory of mutual support, of cooperation, works out almost precisely as if everyone in the world actually believed it. It ends by turning a sheer illusion into the most potent of realities.
What advertising does to its supposed beneficiaries, however, is as nothing to its effect upon those whose contact with it is more direct—its producers and vendors and solicitors. Each of these is engaged in one or another sort of specialism in the unreal—in making words and pictures that have only a nominal, a specious connection with truth, or in the collection and marshalling of formidable statistics that demonstrate nothing except the solemn assiduity with which they have been assembled, or in the invention of selling arguments that prove only the inventiveness of the arguer. Advertising departments of periodicals regard their literary editors as slightly lunatic visionaries inscrutably empowered to provide contents that stand in the way, of more and bigger advertising contracts. Circulation departments, nominally employed to secure the widest possible audience for the editorial content, are really devoted to the single objective of giving their advertising departments a pretext for increasing the rate per page. What they want, and are often willing to get by the most barefaced swindling methods, is to secure not new readers, but simply new subscribers.
Almost any one of these persons, after a year’s practice of his priestly calling, is like a character in some fantastic fable—say, one of those highly moral fables of which some types of modern advertisements consist. He does all his reading to find out who is advertising where, all his thinking to prove the necessity and the economy of a particular form of waste, all his talking to divert great sums of money to the uses of something essentially useless. The point is that a certain sum of money is lying around loose to be wasted, and the thickness with which he can butter his own bread depends on the fraction of it of which he can get control.
He belongs to the only profession which can keep a straight face while using its manifest failure to accomplish anything as an unanswerable reason for demanding enlarged opportunities. To the advertising man, there is only one logical sequel to a hundred-thousand-dollar campaign that falls flat, and that is a million-dollar campaign. He is the man whom we have to thank for the theory that chewing gum and certain indigestible confections are of such therapeutic value that without a daily resort to them the national digestion would be hopelessly ruined, the national teeth decayed. He is also to thank for the glibness which makes manufacturers produce in the very measure of his claims. It is to his credit that the makers of motor cars build into their output, more frankly with every season that passes, the implicit ideal of a car a year to each owner; while he builds his advertising very explicitly, on the stamina, the integrity, the durability of their products. He is a fantastic modern knight-errant, unhorsed in every tilt with reality, but sneaking back into the fray on foot to slay all the realities with his tin sword of unconquerable illusions. He thrives on his own and others’ ineluctable capacity for kidding themselves along.
And the effect of all this on the public? Its direct commercial effect is almost nothing at all; the results are produced indirectly, by selling the manufacturer a quantity of advertising which he must pay for by over-production, which over-production he unloads by strong-arm methods on the retailer, who invokes new strategies for unloading it on you and me. But socially, artistically, aesthetically—
Well, consider, as a final and definitive measure of the power of advertising to create in its own image and after its chosen pattern, the tremendous fraction of its total that is devoted to the special interests of women. In the advertising section of any one of those media which frankly specialize in women’s ostensible requirements, study the advertising world’s tacit definition of what it would like contemporary womankind to be. Begin at the ground; proceed—the modern order—from the feet up. Shoes. Hosiery. Garters. Girdles. Silhouettes. Lingerie. Gowns. Furs. Jewels. Handbags. Complexions. Coiffures. Hats. As a gesture of acknowledgment that something is or may be under some of the hats, include private schools, lecture courses, the currently successful novels.
Then, on a not too unpleasant afternoon, walk from Fifty-ninth Street to Forty-second on Broadway and ride from Forty-second back to Fifty-ninth on Fifth Avenue. Or make it Madison and Park Avenues. Or cover the equivalent beat in any other community of enough population to have two blocks of retail stores on its Main Street. Notice what is in the windows of the stores; notice, above all, the women. Try to escape the conviction that pretty much all feminine America has very successfully standardized its body and the decorement thereof into the similitude of a dummy supplied by Advertisa, the Tenth Muse, and is fast coaxing its mentality into the corresponding mold.
If you can manage this last, you are a pretty resourceful escaper of convictions, and should qualify brilliantly for a career in the national politics, in that Industry of the Fifth Magnitude which has its capital at Hollywood, or in Advertising itself.