To the casual observer the wintry gale which roared down the valley of the Connecticut River and unroofed the barn of a lonely spinster farmer seemed to do nothing more than to deprive her solitary cow of adequate shelter; but, as a matter of fact, the result of this catastrophe was much more far-reaching. This barn bore emblazoned on its roof and sides the name of a patent medicine. Between its tiny windows enormous characters spelled the name of a household remedy, and from the roof stared up a legend as to its price and curative qualities.
Some weeks later the proprietor of a magazine noticed that the subscription of a woman living in this sequestered valley had expired. Upon sending the usual Formal notice to her, an illuminating reply was received. She explained in detail that the subscription to his magazine, as well as others, was the remuneration she received from the proprietor of a certain patent medicine for the use of herbarn for advertising purposes. She described the catastrophe which all but demolished her barn and destroyed the integrity of the advertisement. Being unable to repair the damage, the heartless patent medicine proprietor declined to pay for further advertising service. She explained that the character of the damage done to her building was such as to remove only part of the advertisement, taking from it only occasional letters, and left an advertisement which, in her opinion, was all the more striking because of its incompleteness. The man of business failed to share her point of view, however, and the matter was dropped there.
This incident is suggestive, not because the barn was damaged, or because the magazine lost one constant reader, but because it presented to the mind of the lady in question a new and interesting theory in regard to advertising. And in this particular she was quite in line with the thought of the day. Many observers of American life who have not had the question brought to their attention by the loss of a favorite magazine are discussing this phenomenon. So important an element has advertising become that it enters more or less directly into every modern business, it enlists in its army of promoters men of large means and ample learning, it calls to science to explain the laws it uncovers, and even in some instances it invades the individual's right of privacy, and has made itself the object of legislalive action.
It is always the fate of a new idea—or an unusual phenomenon—to be considered, on the one hand, by certain minds as fraught with stupendous significance, and, on the other, by many as being of no importance at all. Few observers avoid one extreme or the other. So it has been with child-study and a dozen other modern notions. And so it has been with advertising. The so-called "expert" loves to consider this modern development in business methods with abnormal seriousness, and he discusses its scientific aspects with profound solemnity, while the average layman looks upon it all as quite unimportant.
It would seem, however, that there is a safe middle ground. To hold that all this activity is haphazard and the result subject to no law is is absurd as to try to reduce the whole question to a scienific principle. Both the expert and the layman seem to ignore a very large element, related more or less to either explanation, but wholly contained by neither—the element of human nature. The underlying principles of human character and experience are so great, so vague, that they do not lend themselves readily to scientific classification.
It is the object of this paper to occupy, if possible, this middle ground, and to hunt out the obvious explanation which is sometimes overlooked because it lies so near at hand. If we find ourselves coming to some of the same conclusions as Professor Scott in his earlier paper, we shalI only have to confess that, after all, the man of science and the man of business are working veins very close together, and if we seem to disagree with him it may be only the difference in point of view.
But let us for the time forget that Professor Scott, the scientist, has probed the question, and let us also be unmindful, if possible, of Mr. Hartt's sprightly criticism of advertising men and methods. And let us see if by following the beaten path of human experience we do not reach an explanation singularly like that of both these writers.
The elements of human nature which enter most potently into the problem seem to be the love of novelty, the love of something extraordinary and startling and the love of the huinmorous which lies deeply concealed in the human make-up of the most commonplace and prosaic of mankind. That we all enjoy new things is too evident to need demonstration; equally obvious is man's love for the unusual and startling; less conspicuous, perhaps, in many cases is the love of the humorous as related to advertising. But who can frequent his club, or dine with a goodly company, who does not listen eagerly to a humorous story, and how many of these stories relate to the eccentricities of advertisers? The rural blacksmith who announces by means of a laboriously lettered sign in front of his shop, "Lawnmowers repaired in the rear" is perhaps a better advertiser than the metropolitan expert.
A sleek Celestial, who has not an idea beyond his washtub and his ironing-board, presents to admiring passers-by on a busy city street an advertisement which catches more eyes and sets more tongues wagging than many flaring billboards, for with quaint directness he adds beneath his price-list that "buttons are sewed on to our customers free." Add to these three elements the fact that the average man follows his fellow in mattters of taste or judgment, and is easily influenced by a reiterated statement, and you get the groundwork upon which nearly every successful advertising structure has been reared.
In any discussion of advertising we find at once that we are confronted by two very distinct phases of the question. There are two distinct masses of facts governed by very different conditions. In this great business there seem to be two diverging lines of activity and two types of men engaged in them. We have the advertiser who is conducting a legitimate business in supplying a necessary article of common use to a large number of buyers by thoughtful and carefully considered methods of business, and we have the man who is using the devices of the advertiser to sell an article of little or no value to a large number of people who really do not want it, but who can be induced to make the purchase by new, startling, or humorous advertising methods.
The first type of man is, of course, the real advertiser,—the man who merits consideration because he has created the great industry we are discussing, and upon whom its permanence depends. The second is, however, not to be ignored,—he is much before the public, and because his methods are picturesque and unusual he attracts public attention out of proportion to his real importance.