Mounting an advertising campaign has always been an imperfect science. Companies spend millions of dollars and employ high-profile ad agencies in hopes of bolstering sales of their products. But even with the support of market research and focus groups, many campaigns simply fail to ignite with consumers.
As Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green recently pointed out in "Dumb and Dumber," (July/August Atlantic), political television advertisements in particular tend to be consistently dreadful. Politicians rarely innovate or take risks with their television commercials, Green notes, because their careers are on the line. Instead they resort to tired clichés to convey messages "at a level of minimum consciousness." The candidate is shown at a construction site, for example, to demonstrate his strength in job creation; fraternizing with kindergarteners to establish his commitment to education; or against a backdrop of green Midwestern pastures to suggest his Middle American roots.
But studies have shown that television viewers have become inured to this uninspired type of commercial, and political spots have become less and less effective. Green suggests that if political ad makers would only heed the rules of thumb that were long ago developed by the commercial advertising industry, they might lighten up and produce catchy, enjoyable advertisements that actually influence viewers.
One hundred years ago, at the dawn of the modern advertising age, The Atlantic ran a series of articles exploring how advertising works its magic on American consumers. Even at that early stage, an important lesson had already been learned; in order to be effective, advertising must strive to be evocative and fun.
In "The Psychology of Advertising," (January 1904), Walter D. Scott pointed out that in recent years advertising in print publications had begun to explode. Harper's October 1886 issue, for example, had contained only twenty pages devoted to advertising. But by the time the October 1903 issue was published seventeen years later, that number had mushroomed to 141. With companies putting more and more money on the line to promote their products, learning what makes for a successful ad campaign had become of utmost importance.
Seventy-five per cent of all advertisements do not pay; yet the other twenty-five per cent pay so well that there is scarcely a business man who is willing to stand idly by and allow his competitors to do the advertising. The expense connected with advertising has increased; the competition between rival firms has become keener; and consequently the demand for good advertising has become imperative.
The key to rousing consumer interest in a product, Scott contended, was an evocative appeal to the senses. Good advertising should be written in such a way as to enable the reader to mentally experience the product:
That advertisement of musical instruments which contains nothing to awaken images of sound is a defective advertisement. That advertisement of foods which contains nothing to awaken images of taste is a defective advertisement. As our nervous system is constructed to give us all the possible sensations from objects, so the advertisement which is comparable to the nervous system must awaken in the reader as many different kinds of images as the object itself can excite.
Scott contrasted a dull advertisement for a Knabe brand piano (in which the text singing its praises might just as well have been describing a sewing machine) with a mouthwatering ad for Nabisco sugar wafers. He quoted an excerpt from the Nabisco ad:
That very old proverb about reaching the heart of a man is best exemplified with Nabisco sugar wafers. A fairy sandwich with an upper and lower crust of indescribable delicacy, separated with a creamy flavor of lemon, orange, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry, or mint. Ask for your favorite flavor.
Now there, Scott argued, was some tantalizing advertising copy!
In "Human Nature and Advertising," published several months later that same year, Macgregor Jenkins likewise emphasized the importance of delight and entertainment in advertising:
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 humorous which lies deeply concealed in the human make-up of the most commonplace and prosaic of mankind.
He also emphasized the value of repetition. When consumers find themselves among an array of competing products, he pointed out, picking the most heavily advertised product eases the decision-making process and feels like second nature. Jenkins described what he imagined to be the typical consumer experience of a first-time household shopper:
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.
Consumers can sometimes be extremely gullible when it comes to advertising, Jenkins observed. But if the process of being duped provides some levity, he suggested, the consumer may actually enjoy having a laugh at his own expense.
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 the 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." The 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.
In "The Humors of Advertising," (May 1904) Rollin Lynde Hartt similarly argued that the best advertising inspires a laugh—and that the buying public likes to be complicit in the joke. Ads featuring shamelessly over-the-top personalities, he noted, were big hits. He described the persona of the ideal company spokesperson:
Assuming the cast mantle of a famous craftsman, the name of a jovial monk, the unshorn locks of a poet, and the tripod of an oracle, he preaches a new and strange gospel, and with unquestionable good taste permits the portrait of his son, "food, principally grape-nuts," to be printed as an advertisement ... Men laugh, but they buy. There's money in personality, be it never so whimsical, and to that blazing star the commercial go-cart may very prudently be hitched.
The more ludicrous the advertisement, Hartt argued, the better. He went on to quote from a memorable matrimonial ad in the personals:
I am a beautiful woman. My abundant, undulating hair envelopes me as a cloud. Supple as a willow is my waist. Soft and brilliant is my visage as the satin of the flowers. I am endowed with wealth sufficient to saunter through life hand in hand with my beloved. Were I to meet a gracious lord, kindly, intelligent, well educated, and of good taste, I would unite myself with him for life, and later share with him the pleasure of being laid to rest eternal in a tomb of pink marble.
Most people are so eager for humor, Hartt suggested, that they find themselves tickled by even the most bizarre product slogans. As an example, Hartt cited a jingle that modified a classic nursery rhyme to sell soap:
Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow,
For every morning with Truth Soap
She washed him, don't you know?
Now Mary never boiled the lamb.
She merely let him soak
In soap and water over night,
And rinsed him when he woke.
Indeed, more and more advertisers were catching on to this spirit of over-the-top silliness, and Hartt, for one, enthusiastically welcomed the trend.
With my hand on my heart I declare there never were more fatuous jingles, never more vapid absurdities, never more limping attempts at wit. This is just as it should be. For a single disgruntled beholder—like yourself, gentle reader—there are thousands on thousands who proudly imagine themselves amused. It is a sad sort of Christian who, stalking abroad through the sunny realm of public advertising, could fail to be warmed by its humors.
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