Human Nature and Advertising

"This great body of purchasers, driven hither and thither by the lash of the shrewd advertiser, patiently obeying his imperious summons, buying first this and then that at his dictation, is a spectacle worthy a moment's watching"

By Macgregor Jenkins

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.

If the advertising pages of our magazines and papers were given over alone to the carefully phrased statements of conservative manufacturers they would be dull indeed.

Insurance statistics, descriptions of automobiles, or the chemical analysis of soaps are all important and interesting to a limited group of persons, but they do not entertain and amuse the average reader. He looks for and enjoys the more bizarre and unusual announcements. He speculates as to just what sort of a bicycle an eight-dollar-and-seventy-cent bicycle may be; he wonders what humors a course of correspondence instruction in "Polite Conversation" would develop, and he is glad that there is one man who by taking thought has discovered a method of addit a cubit, more or less, to his stature,—and now (thrifty soul) is selling the benefits of his discovery to others.

If it were not for these and similar advertisements there would be fewer readers of advertising pages and the legitimate advertiser may owe much to the lighthearted boastfulness of some announcement less dignified than his own.

Mr. Robinson in his "Abuses of Public Advertising" laments the apathy with which the average man views the incursions of unsightly advertisements, and implies that a lack of proper civic spirit is the cause. To some extent this is true. The seeming indifference is due to a curious American indolence and toleration of a fraud or injustice. Nowhere is this seen more plainly than in the average man's attitude toward the ingenious humbug and adroit swindler. To be good-naturedly imposed upon is a positive pleasure provided the cost of it is not too great. This explains the vast number of trifling frauds carried on year after year in the advertising columns of magazines and newspapers.

The adroit rascal who announced in the columns of countless agricultural papers that for the modest sum of ten cents he would supply an unfailing Potato-Bug Eradicator, knew if he promised to do away with this pest he would reach the ears of a large and responsive audience. Upon receipt of an order he sent the purchaser two neatly whittled pieces of pine wood with courteously printed directions to "place the potato-bug between the two sticks of wood and press them together." This man knew that the sheer audacity of the proceeding tickled the funny-bone of even a pie-eating New England farmer. Not only did the man duped enjoy a secret chuckle after his first amazement had waned, but he promptly became an agent for the advertiser, and induced many of his friends to purchase the same marvelous Eradicator. Had it not been that unfeeling and abnormally serious post-office officials interfered with the genial imposter he would doubtless be reaping a harvest of dimes to this day.

We all remember the loud-voiced barker at the County Fair who invited you, as a lad, to pay your modest nickel and view one of the most extraordinary wonders of nature—the human-headed calf. Having produced the necessary nickel from your boyish trousers, you were ushered into a tent with one or two chosen comrades, to see reposing on a cloth-covered box the stuffed and decapitated body of a tiny calf. Ingeniously arranged above was a circular looking-glass, in which, to your vast surprise, you saw your own shamefaced countenance. There was a spasm of virtuous indignation against the showman, and then a hurried exit to find, if possible, one of the boon companions of your early days to send him in to see the same wonder.

The farmer and the boy fairly represent the average citizen in his attitude toward the sleek swindler. But there is a point beyond which he must not go, and the successful advertiser of this class has learned his lesson.

For years the American citizen has been apparentlv oblivious to the increasing encroachments of billboards upon our parks and city squares. Of late the whole country has begun to consider this danger, and legislation promises ultimately to bring it under control. It is to be hoped that, the day is not far distant when places of natural beauty and grandeur will not be disfigured by glaring advertisements, but the American citizen, who has been accustomed for years to submit to this particular barbarism, is in the same class with the farmer and the boy,—inert to the point of indifference, but energetic and determined if once aroused. The same man who travels up the Hudson by boat at night, and smiles to see the steamer's searchlight turned by the deft hand of the operator upon advertisements on the shore, will some day demand in no uncertain voice the abolishment of these hideous eyesores. At present it all seems to him a rather amusing evidenee of enterprise, but he is a bit uneasy about it all and will soon be thoroughly aroused to the requirements of the situation.

While we enjoy the antics of these advertisers we must not overlook the fact that relatively they are unimportant. The great mass of the business is done along legitimate lines, and is of positive benefit to the public. Manufacturers vie with one another to put upon the market articles of merit and usefulness at a Iow cost in order to secure a share of the enormous sum spent each year by the American people for the necessities or life. For instance, no local market could have afforded sufficient demand for shoes to have warranted their manufacture in large quantities. But by advertising, an enormous market has been secured, correspondingly large sales ensue, and it becomes possible to provide at a low price a shoe of exceptional quality. Here is a case where the public has directly profited by the value of advertising. What one man can do another can; so competition arises and serves to keep the price down, even if the manufacturers fail to see how essential it is to their interests to do so.

Hence the large and successful advertiser is, for the most part, offering something of real merit, but which is consumed in the using,—such as shoes, clothing, soaps, baking powders, or similar household articles. Many of these have been advertised for years, and the proprietors of them are ready to expend large sums of money, and to invoke the aid of an intricate system of patent law to control the so-called "good will" of the trademark. So evident has the value of a trademark become that an advertising agent of importance has recently sent out an appeal to manufacturers to adopt one, as distinctive of their product. Of what does this good will consist? Again we seem compelled to refer to the book of human nature. It is not because these trademarks are in themselves attractive or beautiful, or that they represent with unusual fidelity the article advertised; it is rather because the buying public has long been accustomed to this particular figure or design, and through years of association with it at home and abroad has grown to have a real affection for it. None but the most unsentimental and unfeeling of us can deny a homely interest in the gentleman with side whiskers, who, through many years, has been caught in the act of brushing his teeth with Sozodont. The trim little woman who stands in her cap and apron holding the cup of Walter Baker's Cocoa is as intimate a friend and associate as many living persons, and an encounter with her in some foreign land brings a touch of home at once.

The problem of such an advertiser is to continue this process of education, and to bring up generation after generation of buyers with the same tenacious associations. To do this he is willing to expend large sums of money, and he accomplishes his end quite independently, it would seem, of scientific and psychological considerations.

An instance where this has been accomplished in a surprisingly short time has been the making of Sunny Jim almost a member of countless families, certainly of families where there are children to revel in his quaint grotesqueness. This is the kind of advertising that will go on in one form or another as long as man eats, clothes himself, and has shelter over his head. It will only vary in method with conditions. But does this process of education—this constant repetition of s trademark and the reiteration of the virtues of an article—cause a demand for it? Undoubtedly it does. There is on record one remarkable instance where the manufacturers of a household article had advertised for years. They had used the same trademark, and had rung the changes on the merit of their product until they felt that the whole world must be weary of their name. The demand for their article was constantly up to the limit of manufacture. They looked with grudging eyes upon the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent each year in advertising, and determined to stop it. Almost at once their sales fell off, and too late they realized their error. Meanwhile a rival concern increased its advertising, and to-day the persistent advertiser remains alone in the field, having absorbed the business of its short-sighted competitor.

There is an old saying that a fool is born every minute. It is equally applicable to purchasers. For through the length and breadth of this great country thousands of men and women are daily, almost hourly, making their initial purchases of various wares.

The comic papers have long made sport of the bride and her early experiments in marketing. But the establishment of each new home is a matter of importance to many advertisers; for once let their brand of soap or soup or silver polish be established in a household, the chances are it will remain the family standard for years to come. So the far-sighted advertiser begins to say "Pearline" to her in early infancy. Pearline follows her to school, thrusts itself upon her as she travels, and all unconsciously engraves itself upon her memory. The eventful day arrives—list in hand she sallies forth for her first day's shopping. Amid the confusion of new experiences she gloats over her ability to choose and purchase half-a-dozen common articles with the composure and accustomedness of a veteran. She orders Pears' Soap, White Label Soup, Pearline, Walter Baker's Cocoa, and Knox's Gelatine, because she knows and remembers the names, and does not realize that she has chosen in every instance an article made familiar to her, perhaps, by advertising only.

Multiply this instance a thousand times and add countless others of similar character, and you have already an army of purchasers. The bachelor supplying his meagre sideboard, the fond sister making purchases for a brother, are both members of this school, which the advertiser has been conducting with great expense and patience for many ears.

The power of reiterated statement cannot be overestimated. Two gentlemen of means were traveling together when one was heard to say to the other, "See that sign. I bought some of that soap the other day and it is very good. It took that advertiser over a year to sell me one package." The chances are his friend soon followed his example, for such is human nature. For this reason the reiterated statement—the constantly displayed trademark—is used by this type of advertiser. It best sells the article in constant, demand, the use of which is unaffected by fashion.

Another large class of articles sucessfully advertised are those which have only temporary vogue, and are vigorously advertised to reap the harvest of an hour. In this group fall many of the so-called dishonest advertisements and amusing frauds practiced on a good-natured public. The articles of this class most successfully promoted for a time are patent medicines, a few of them possessing positive curative qualities, many of them pos- sessing none, most of them being quite harmless. In the exploitation of these articles surprising ingenuity is displayed in playing upon the weakness and vanity of human kind. A charming story was once written of a lonely woman who read patent medicine advertisements, and admired the portraits accompanying them, until she had one overmastering desire, and that was to have her portrait appear broadcast over the country in the same alluring fashion. This was finally brought about, and the day of her triumph arrived. She found her portrait in the local weeklies, and her cup of happiness overflowed. In the story, the publication of this portrait assisted a long-lost and affluent nephew to find and rescue her from loneliness and penury. But this pleasing denouement does not rob the picture of the little old woman of its fidelity to life.

In a thriving inland city there were two business enterprises,—one, devoted to the manufacture, on a small scale, of a patent medicine; the other, to the manufacture of onyx mantel clocks. In the fortunes of business the patent medicine proprietor prospered in a small way, and the manufacturer of the onyx clocks made an assignment. His one asset was an accumulation of clocks, neither beautiful as works of art nor accurate as timepieces. A vision must have come in the night to the patent medicine man, for on one memorable morning he confronted the clock manufacturer with an offer for his entire stock. The bargain was closed. Gifted with an unerring knowledge of human nature, the patent medicine man then took a small consignment of clocks, painted the name of his remedy in a circle on the face, and visited all the neighboring drug-stores. To each druggist he made this proposition: that he might offer to any customer, having the symptoms of any of a score of troubles, one of the clocks provided only he purchased a box of remedy, pronounced himself cured, and supplied the proprietor with a testimonial to that effect together with a portrait.

The dark deed was done, the trap was set. The next time Farmer Jones and his good wife came to town, in the natural course of events, they visited the drug-store, saw and admired the clock, longed for a duplicate on their parlor mantel, and went away with a box of the remedy suffering with the necessary symptoms. After a day or two they returned, announcing that a cure had been effected, wrote the necessary testimonial, supplied the portrait, and dispatched it to their benefactor. True to his word, the onyx mantel clock was sent, and it straightway appeared on Farmer Jones's parlor mantel.

Having accomplished this in a few isolated instances, it was only a question of time before the entire stock of clocks was disposed of, untold quantities of the remedy sold, and the crafty proprietor had accumulated a goodly sum. In this transaction he had simply satisfied two very common human cravings,—to beautify the home, and to see one's portrait in public print. Incidentally, so far as known, his remedy did no harm.

In all these transactions there is a large element of human nature; the cynical would call it human vanity and weakness, but, after all, the terms are in a measure synonymous. It is surprising that this element is frequently overlooked by advertisers, and almost invariably ignored by theorists on such matters.

One industry, the advertising of which until recently has been quite free from commercial trickery, has been that of publishing, but this does not mean that for many years the successful publisher has not been directing his appeal to the human side of his buying public. This was done long before the professional advertisement writer or "ad" expert, as he calls himself, came into existence. The publisher has recognized that the love of home and children and the religious emotion have been large factors in promoting the sale of many books. Some years ago a publisher who became famous for large sales and daring enterprises long before the hundred-thousand- copy edition was thought of, published shoals of books which he sold by subscription through the rural communities, and every one of them dealt with the life of the family, or treated of some religious subject. Upon the first intimation of the tidal wave of scientific thought which was about to sweep over the country he was ready. He had a theory that he could successfully substitute natural science for religion. To this end he prepared and put upon the market an amazing book called The Wonders of Nature it contained, dimly printed on its wood-pulp pages, accounts of various and startling natural phenomena, with crude illustrations. The cover, a brilliant red, dis- played a variety of beasts and other natural wonders. Emblazoned in a rainbow effect appeared the title, The Wonders of Nature. The book was put into the hands of his agents, but for some reason, the time was not ripe, and the sale was disappointing. Perplexed by his failure, but determined to make the best of it, he pondered over the situation, and realized that he was ahead of his time. He determuined to return to his earlier manner, and stamped out the title from the cover, substituting for The Wonders of Nature, The Architecture of God. The introductory matter, written by a professor of natural science in the local academy, was replaced by a religious preface front the pen of a local clergyman, and the book once more put upon the market. The result was instantaneous. The slow-selling Wonders of Nature, under the new title met with a ready demand, and the entire edition, together with subsequent printings, was soon exhausted.

In many of our mental processes. the man is but little removed from the child, and the unfettered mind of the savage shows many characteristics of childlike simplicity. A striking instance of this came to the observation of the publishers of the Atlantic not long ago, when they received a remarkable communication from an Indian agent in the remote Southwest. The letter inclosed one of the familiar coin-cards with its inviting opening for a coin and a neat and brilliant red seal. Beneath the seal was a half dollar, and with the coin-card came the request to send three copies of the magazine to an Indian brave residing on the reservation. The agent took pains to explain that the Indian could neither read nor write, that his entire income was an annual stipend of six dollars received from a paternal government; but the allurement of the coin-card, the delight of dispatching something into space by means of the mail-carrier, and the pleasure of receiving subsequently something, no matter how valueless to him, from some far-removed source, was too much to be withstood, and despite the entreaties of the agent, one twelfth of his annual income was expended to satisfy this whim. It is to be hoped that this Indian brave in his lonely tepee on the prairie got sufficient satisfaction out of the arrival of the three copies of the magazine to pay for the stern self-denial which the luxury must have cost him. While we are ready to smile at the childlike simplicity of this Indian, we might first consider how many of our own purchases are brought about by similar enticing methods, and are relatively as profitless as this one.

This simplicity of human nature is at once one of its great charms and one of its most striking characteristics. Some shrewd advertiser has said, "No man or woman ever outgrows a picture." And this is literally true. Given two windows of adjoining shops, one filled with books and the other with pictures, the latter will always have before it a group of interested observers, while the former will catch only the occasional glances of an habitual book-buyer. For this reason the advertiser has quickly recognized the value of illustration, and it is interesting to note, once more, that long experience has taught him that the picture of a child or a pretty girl will outweigh in attractiveness all other subjects. None but the most hard-hearted bachelor has been able to resist the charm of the attractive Eastman Kodak girl, and even women have indulged in lively discussions as to her clothes and general appearance. So important is this element that the painters who prepare billboards are no means daubers, as the public think they are. It is stated on good authority that several of the men engaged in painting billboard advertisements in our large cities have studied many years abroad, and one at least has been an instructor in a large art school. One man, after five years of study in Paris, returned to this country to do work on billboard advertising.

Hand in hand with the human love for pictures goes a childlike love of nonsense. The billposter who exhibited a recent advertisement of a breakfast food picturing a tramp looking longingly at a signboard containing a description of the article, dared to venture to play upon this emotion. Instead of arranging the four parts of this poster as they were designed, he transposed them so that the head and body of the tramp were in one corner, the legs in the lower corner opposite, and the signboard was divided into two parts in opposite corners. The relation of the four parts of this advertisement is evident, but the utter confustion of their arrangement was a stroke of genius, because it appealed to just that love of nonsense which is inherent in us all.

No series of nursery rhymes have had a greater popularity than the Spotless Town verses of Mr. Redfield M. Roach. Mr. Roach was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, where he won prizes for work in original Greek versification. He drifted to this country and through necessity took up the writing of nonsense rhymes. The series of rhymes of Spotless Town the expert might call bad advertising. The poet may call them bad poetry, the artist may call the illustrations bad drawing, but the sheer, downright, good-natured humor in them all, the genial simplicity of the rhymes, have put them into the mouths of countless admirers, and vastly increased the sales of an excellent article.

Frequently this love of nonsense has been coupled with some startling innovation followed by good results. The shoemaker who recognized that every IittIe girl likes to probe into the interior of her doll, and every boy likes to investigate the interior of his watch, logically supposed that many people who wore shoes would like to get a glimpse of their construction. He consequently placed a circular saw in his window, and before the eyes of astonished passers-by sawed in two countless shoes, thus exhibiting his superior material and workmanship. Haying amused and interested the elders in this way, he conceived the notion of picturing in his advertisement a jaunty little chap, with a circular saw for a head, chasing frightened shoes over the pages of the magazines and about the columns of the newspaper. The little saw is almost as familiar to-day as the time-honored gentleman with his toothbrush. The only instance of this sort of advertising that has ever come under the writer's observation which, for some reason or other, did not seem to succeed, was the remarkable family which presented the many excellencies of some flour. "Cookie," the cook, and "Waffles," the cat, whould have remained with the immortals, but for some reason unknown to the writer they are being gradually withdrawn from public notice.

Nexl to the love for a picture the child and the man love a catchy phrase, and the man who invents one which creeps into the vernacular of the daily life has a guarantee that he will not be forgotten. It is the same principle apparently which governs the value of what are called "gag" lines in comedy. The phrase need not be startling nor strikingly original, but it must have, either on account of its aptness, or, on the other hand, its utter lack of relation to the context, a certain startling quality. An instance of this has been recently cited upon the revival of the very charming play, Little Lord Fauntleroy. In the first act the angelic child is made to say, "I'll be jiggered," an expression which, falling from his cherubic lips, has the value of grotesque contrast. But the first time that it was said it caused no special comment. In the second act, when repeated, it excited a ripple of laughter, and from then on through the play, as often as repeated, brought on a crescendo of laughter and applause.

The writer of topical songs recognizes this, and gets his effects by sheer force of repetition. Upon a much larger scale we find that advertisers do this, and the result has been the addition to daily speech of many serviceable phrases, each one when spoken bearing testimony to the imitative trait in us all, and being in effect a verbal advertiscnient. Years ago we were taught to say, "You press the button and we will do the rest," and many of us now rejoice in expressions which entice us by their sheer irrelevance, such as "say Zu Zu to the groceryman," "U need a," and others.

No serious attempt has been made to cover the almost limitless field of adversing activities, and quite intentionally no mention has been made of that great volume of business promoting the sale of expensive articles, such as pianos, automobiles, etc. These enterprises, importaut in themselves, constitute so small a part of the great volume of advertising that we have no special interest with them at this time. Many great undertakings are carried on through the medium of advertising, and are of the highest character and the first importance, but as the honest man is always less interesting than the charlatan, so they are less picturesque than the occasional daring advertiser who lives but an hour.

After all has been said, and the final theory has been advanced in regard to why advertising pays, why and how it is carried on, and who helps support it, the most interesting part of the problem remains, not the advertiser, but the buying public. This great body of purchasers, driven hither and thither by the lash of the shrewd advertiser, patiently obeying his imperious summons, buying first this and then that at his dictation, is a spectacle worthy a moment's watching. How patiently we allow ourselves to be led into the mazes of the breakfast food question when one staple article may have served our ancestors for generations! How innocently we appeal to the advertiser to be taught by correspondence everything from mechanical engineering to polite conversation! How gleefully we submit our bodies to the treatment of some unseen physical director who prescribes exercises as ridiculous as they are wearying! How gayly we follow the throng to the book counter, and buy the volume that some advertiser tells us to buy, and how unconscious we are that in this exhibition we ourselves are the most interesting part!

While advertising has built up great businesses, has renewed the activities of decaying communities, and worked many social and commercial benefits, it still, first and foremost, demonstrates anew that we are the same dear, old, American public well known and beloved by the late lamented P.T. Barnum.

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