Artistic Possibilities of Advertising

BECAUSE advertisements are the stimulants of trade, the dwellers in cities and towns cannot expect to be without them. There may be restriction of the advertisement, but there will not be suppression of it. Nor should the most rabid opponent of the excesses and evils of advertising desire its elimination. With a thought he must recognize the usefulness of the purpose it serves, as much to the purchaser as to the seller.

Here, then, is agreat force, stamping its imprint for good or for evil on the visible aspect of cities, and more and more entering into their mental life. It is, too, a steadily growing power, rising with the increase in the city’s population of sellers and buyers; waxing stronger with the gain in the financial resources of trade; becoming more efficient with better organization; and at last expanding under the artificial but enormous stimulus of keen competition. To attempt restriction of this rising flood, to set its proper bounds, and to say “Thou shalt not overflow the walls of propriety and self-restraint,” without offering a new outlet or changing the channel of the growing stream, is like an effort to stem a torrent with a set of resolutions and a frown. The restrictions may be well planned, may be ever so reasonable and logical; but they can have permanent efficiency only as the competition is given a new direction. This direction must be in line with the general purpose of the attempted restraint. The one must supplement the other; they must cooperate for a like result. In short, since we would not and may not suppress the advertisement, our destructive criticism should be balanced by creative criticism.

What is the purpose of advertisement control ? It is to prevent the advertisement’s destruction of such stateliness, beauty, or dignity as there maybe in town or country,— in street, or park, or quiet dell, in building, or amid the sublimity of nature. This is the “Thou shalt not,” — the wall of propriety that we would not have overflowed. And the new, concurrent outlet, — the positive of this restriction ? Must it not be,most appropriately, to heighten the beauty and picturesqueness of the way; to transfer the competition from mere size to beauty; to change the goal from effectiveness through repetition to effectiveness through delight; to substitute quality for quantity ? The task is not hopeless.

In open country the advertising can probably be reduced to an unimportant total. With the scenic reservations under public control, or under a private control based on appreciation of their scenic attractiveness, it is easy to suppress advertising entirely within their bounds. And this is being done. In the rest of the country, as distinguished from town limits, the advertiser has so little to lose or gain, save on main highways close to cities, that the position is hardly worth his fighting for. And as to the highways, the railroads are owned by corporations that, themselves great advertisers, look with decreasing friendliness upon the despoilment of the scenery by irrelevant announcements that have not even the merit of adding something to the company’s receipts, although it is the road’s presence alone which gives to the site its advertising value. In fact, in their own advertising the more important roads are now making use of the beautiful, not only by giving publicity, in photographs and descriptions, to the natural beauty through which they pass, — an act that makes submission to scenic injury by advertisements an economic lapse, — but by the improvement of their station grounds, and the beautifying of their right of way, through the planting of turf, trees, vines, and hedges. The railroads, then, may be counted upon to oppose, with increasing vigor, the marring of landscape by advertisements. There remain in the country only the public thoroughfares. The advertisements on these are to be considered, with those on the streets of the town, as in need of reformation, or change of character, since their suppression is not to be expected.

So the problem narrows. We are not to paint the lily at all, and, hence, have not the impossible task of painting it with a skill that will improve it. We are to bring art only into the advertisements on the highways in or near the town, into the signs that are on hoardings, fences, and walls; to change the disfigurement of buildings to their embellishment, the concealment of architectural effects to their heightening. But this is enough. The opportunity, indeed, is splendid,for we have to deal with a business of immense financial backing, of tireless enthusiasm and efficient organization, that might be diverted from the positive injury of our cities to their beautifying, to the increase of their picturesqueness, interest, and general charm. And the gain, whatever it might be, would be double, for it would mean not only the creation of something good, but the removal of something bad. Surely it is worth trying for.

And if the desirability of the change requires no argument, from the standpoint of aesthetics and of civics, the time must be fast coming when its desirability to the advertisers will need as little arguing. For the strenuousness of their competition must at last reach a limit. There must be a point in costliness and sheer bigness and multiplicity of announcements, beyond which in any community financial returns will cease. To continue merely for the sake of outdoing a rival would then be suicidal. In how many cases this limit has been already reached; how often the bills that are injuring the city’s beauty are not worth to the advertisers the paper upon which they are printed, the advertisers know best. It may be very often. But the opposing forces, drawn into a contest from which they cannot retreat, continue it, — as courageous warriors should, — choosing slow destructive fighting to immediate surrender, and knowing no other sort of combat. It is a hopeless contest, of which the cities are the desolated battlefields. If for the “irrepressible conflict” there be devised now a new kind of warfare, that will spread no desolation, and that will not have ruthless waste as the product of extravagant expenditures, the advertisers would have reason to welcome the strategy as gladly as would the cities.

But the best of the idea is that it has already had sufficient trial in various places to test its practicability, and to prove the advertisers’ interest in it and approval. In one important department, unmolested by public criticism, the advertisers have even now established tastefulness as the underlying essential principle of their competition. This is in window dressing, — a vital part of advertising. The beautiful, not the bizarre; the attractive rather than the startling; the alluring and interesting are now sought in the window effects of every shop, — from the great department store to the little candy kitchen; from the basement lights of a modest florist to the long plate-glass front of a shoe emporium. Salaries of several thousand dollars a year are paid in cities to the “artists” most skilled in window dressing; and their requisitions for plants or ribbons — totally irrelevant as these may be to the stock on sale, and designed merely to add to the beauty of the window picture—are honored ungrudgingly. In effect, the merchant says, “ Give me a beautiful window that people will stop and look at, and that, yet shall indicate generally the sort of goods I handle, and I do not care what it costs.”

To bring him to this point of view regarding the printed sign that he posts in front of his store and about the town is the task before those who would bring art into advertisements. It is made more difficult than in the case of the window, because there is no longer the restrict ion of space that requires a maximum of effect from a single exhibit; it is, on the other hand, made easier by the facts that the changed attitude may mean a saving rather than an increase in expenses, that the window has shown that the maximum of desirable effectiveness does lie in attractiveness, — not in the repellent, — and that size is of comparative insignificance. We should, therefore, take up the task with hope. Its limitations, too, are perfectly distinct and comprehensible. We have to deal only with advertisements on streets and highways, or visible therefrom, while the advertisers have shown themselves aware that in some departments, at least, a beautiful announcement pays better than any other. Finally, success, if it can be gained, would mean much to art, to the cities, to the advertisers, and to the public.

An interesting experiment on a large scale has been tried in Belgium, where a national society— L’CEuvre Nationale Beige — composed of those wdio have at heart the beauty of the Flemish cities, with their rich inheritance from the Renaissance, began its work by organizing an exhibition of designs of artistic advertisements, and by offering prizes for the new signs, constructed for actual use, that were judged most artistic. This beginning was made nine years ago, the exhibition having been held in Brussels in 1895. More recently Paris, v-here Flameng has painted a signboard for a prominent newspaper, and Willette has done one for a cookshop, — to name two from many, —has had its exhibition of artistic signs, ancient and modern. In the Belgian competition, which had a persuasive rather than a historic purpose, stress was laid upon the requirement that the sign be considered not merely by itself, but in connection with the exact place it was to occupy, it being argued that for satisfactory results it should harmonize with the architectural facade, and be treated as a decorative feature of it, — an excellent suggestion.

It is significant that L’CEuvre chose this for its first undertaking, as showing the importance it attached to the development of the artistic possibilities of advertising in the evolution of civic aesthetics. It is significant, too, that the first results were not nearly as good as the later, and that to-day the average character of shop advertising in Belgian cities is far higher than a decade ago. There are many very interesting signs and a number of lovely ones. Merchants, who perhaps care nothing for art, commission sculptors, painters, and skilled workers in wrought iron because of the incidental advertisement they get. The competition has been transferred, in part at least, from number and size to beauty, and the transference is continuing in a steadily increasing degree that is having its effect on the aspect of the cities, and that is very full of encouragement.

Among the designs and the executed advertisements which secured prizes in those early competitions, a connection between the subject and its treatment was a noticeable feature. The sign that advertised a store where Egyptian cigarettes were sold was Egyptian in its character. The sign of the alehouse “A la Rose” was surmounted by little window gardens where roses grew. A kid was one of the devices in the wrought-iron sign of a store in which gloves were on sale, and the advertisement over the door of a china shop was a relief in pottery. The circumstance was sufficiently natural, and yet was a reminder of a time when signs were fewer than now, and were pictorial. It revived the customs of the period when a fish was carved in stone over the door of the Fishmongers’ Hall at Malines, when the guild halls on the Grande Place at Brussels were erected,— the Hall of the Skippers, with a gable resembling the stern of a ship; the Hall of the Butchers, with a carven swan; the House of the Wolf, or Hall of the Archers, with its Romulus and Remus scene. In England at a similar period the inns were hanging out models of their quaint names. It was an illiterate age, when no servants and few masters could read, and when there was a real urgency that a shop should be recognized by its picture sign,—so that one could direct to, for instance, “The Sign of the Golden Bull.”

The reaction came when printed words sufficed, though to some extent we cling still to the rebus sign. We look for the barber’s pole, and not for the letters that spell “shave the glover’s hand tells us where gloves are sold; and a glance from the tail of the eye at three golden balls saves us from doing some reading that would take time and be mortifying. The optician is still recognized by the gilded spectacles, the tobacconist by the Indian, the pharmacy by the colored bottles or the mortar, and the dealer in ostrich feathers by the two-necked gilded ostrich, or the emblem of the Prince of Wales. The carcasses that hang at the butcher’s shop are a rebus sign, which an age increasingly particular in hygienic matters would be glad to see abandoned for an inedible study in oils; the vegetables before the grocer’s, and the plants outside the florist’s, are advertisements so inviting that their summer attractiveness would be gladly extended through the year, if possible, by these merchants. Obviously, the advertiser does not need to be taught that even to-day other announcements pay than those which shock and offend; that even in a period when he who runs can read, the most convincing language is still the primitive one of pictures and of objects; or that a tired world tries to steel itself against assaults that are ungrateful, and to forget them, but is receptive to that which is pleasing, fondly recalling it.

We can read any sign now, but if we will not read it, there is revived the need of the old illiterate times, when art served the tradesman as profitably as it served church or state. Not that all lettering should be abandoned; but that the bulk of the message can be profitably presented otherwise. A restaurant in Boston has on the street front a well-known panel in oils, depicting a jovial-looking cook — or it may be the traditional landlord and cook in one — bearing to his guest a huge joint of roast beef. The artist has signed the picture, and it is of such delicacy of tone and vigor of composition that its attraction and suggestive invitation should tempt many a passer to step within, whom the word “ roastbeef ” would not have moved.

Little by little, the new idea, which has won at so many points, is making conquests also in the poster world of lettered signs. With the increased resources and better organization of the advertising business, hoardings are better constructed than formerly, and are kept in repair; posters have improved immensely in color scheme and design, in addition to the improvement that has followed the advance in lithography, and they are now quite commonly — to secure greater effectiveness — put each in its own frame or moulding, which is painted a neutral tint. And this, with the standardizing of sizes, goes far toward lessening the old discordance of the billboard. But even this is not the end. If there is to be an entertainment, a fair, or exhibition under club or institutional auspices, it has become extremely common to advertise it by means of posters secured through an artistic competition, for which a prize is offered. This means that the purchasing public has made up its mind about the kind of advertising that it likes and that it considers effective, — and the purchasing public should be so good a judge on this point that its hint will not long be overlooked. And to what does this now familiar competition bring us, but to the very step that the Belgian artists and city lovers took nine years ago as a remarkable innovation, as a stride toward the thought of putting art into modern advertising ?

It may be well to turn aside at this point to inquire how recent a production the pictorial poster is. Probably few of the public would guess that it was as lately as 1871 that Walker’s “mural engraving,” to advertise Wilkie Collins’s romance, the Woman in White, was greeted as the first illustrated poster to be put on the walls of London, There was no color even in this, though it was implied. All the mechanical progress that makes possible the artistic poster of to-day, with its wealth of color and possible delicacy of shades, has followed the time of this engraving. When one thinks of the beauty of some famous recent posters, at home and abroad, there may well be marvel that artistic progress in this new field has so kept pace with the mechanical; and there may well be confidence as to its victories of the future.

With a realization that in advertisements something else is better worth while than the shocking of the eye, there has, however, been an inevitable development of the comic, the witty, and the peculiar as well as, and even in greater degree than, of the beautiful. It is easier to be funny than artistic. As a measure of the extent of the sudden emancipation from the old thralldom of size, multiplicity, and shock, this is significant; but art has nothing to fear from it in the long run. A joke — however good — soon pales; beauty alone is a joy forever. A sign that a thousand-dollar expenditure had made beautiful will be doing its work long after the wit which a like sum might have purchased would have ceased to titillate the brain. That will be a lesson soon learned. The thing which counts is that the more progressive advertisers have turned already from the old order; and that if multiplicity and size persist as factors in advertising, they are now incidental. The wit, the fun, or the beauty is the main consideration; and the desire to arrest attention by an unpleasant shock has been in large measure abandoned.

The modern poster has been referred to as bringing color into city streets. In the cities of Renaissance Italy the gray wall of many an old palace was brightened by its owner’s escutcheon. Heraldry still plays a part on city streets, where the arms of royalty blaze in heavy gilt over the shops that cater to the reigning house. This may give another suggestion for an advertising departure. In a democracy there may be scant regard for the crest of an individual, but why should not the trademark be made artistic, be colored and emblazoned over doorways as proudly in an age of commerce and industry, as -were prowess and birth in chivalric days ?

Given, then, the wish to bring art into the advertisement, there appears in the rebus sign, in the pictorial representation of the goods for sale, or in the use of a heraldic-like trademark, an inviting and widely available opportunity to supplement the primary steps of improved construction of hoardings and of the neutral framing and better designing of posters. The very wish to bring the advertisement into the architectural structure as a decorative feature opens a whole field of effort. Wherever, then, the rebus sign remains, as we have seen that it does in some important avocations, wherever window dressing is made an art, trademarks or devices of heraldry are displayed, or there is advertising by the exposure of the goods on sale, the artist finds subjects at hand. And the desire not to shock, but to please, will guard his efforts, and defend him from the temptation to exaggerate and magnify, keeping him true to ideals of beauty.

Wrought iron, terra cotta, faience, will be added to the materials with which the advertisement artist will work. He will have plenty of subjects, generous pay, and the inspiration of an immense public, — aside from the consciousness that his is truly a civic art, that he wmrks not merely for his own glory, for his employer’s sake, or for the pleasure and profit of the public; but for the beauty of his town. Finally, he will catch the spirit of rivalry which is so inseparable from advertising, and will feel its spur. Surely there is no need to fear lest the results, once artistic impulse is turned in this direction, will fail to be interesting, or to show an increasingly satisfactory aesthetic development.

There opens the vista of a great opportunity, of our streets freed from shrieking letters, and made picturesque and attractive by innumerable announcements, beautiful in design, workmanship, or color. The old rivalry is transferred to a worthier field. Commercial architecture, no longer disfigured with signs, assumes the importance that it ought to have. The convenience of the way is no whit lessened while its interest is so much increased. From a jumble of printed signs, each doing its best to cover the other, we come to a collection of which each advertisement is unique, giving its message concisely and pointedly, and with a charm that is all its own. At certain designated places, on well-designed fixtures, protected from rain and kept in neat repair, are attached the posters, — each of these an artistic study that is strengthened, not ruined, by its distinctly separated neighbor. All the information that the most inveterate shopper could require is given, but without offense to the eye. The dull streets are brightened with colors, and with colors that harmonize. As on the battlefield that had been desolated flowers come naturally, when the armies have passed and the roar of the guns has ceased, so on the streets of the desolated cities, once offensive signs are torn away, the flowers of art will bloom again, and shop fronts will endeavor to attract, not to threaten and command.

So much for the daytime advertising. The increasing extension of day into night, the postponement of twilight in cities until the sun has been set for hours, and the stars have long been paled by the number of the lamps that throw their nearer radiance on the street, has created a necessity for evening advertising. The necessity has furnished also the means to provide it. The business streets of a city are gay with myriad lights, of which not ahalf nor, in places, a third,ora tenth, are those with which the municipality formally and officially illumines the street. Of the others, nearly all are for advertising purposes. Some give to show windows the clearness of day; others spell out names or write trade devices in lines of fire, or imitate, in disregard of their own natural beauty, the worst of the shrieking signs that offend the eye by day. These are the flash signs that change their colors, or that gleam for a moment, and then are swallowed in darkness, like rapid-fire, delirious lighthouses.

Yet with all this misuse of possible beauty, nothing of earth is lovelier than the constellation of a city with its thousand lights. We would make our expositions beautiful, and lo! by means of electricity we print in miniature on the darkness the glow of a city’s lights. Ever as our mastery of the mysterious force becomes completer the picture is made lovelier by skillfully arranging and multiplying the lamps. The roofs, bases, and corners of buildings are outlined with them. Every cornice, balcony, pinnacle, glows. The darkness of night is changed to the brightness of day, and there is added a fairyland mystery. The wonder of the display and the ease with which it is gained make an impression. The cities, which gave the hint, now themselves show an occasional building outlined in hundreds of lights. Here and there a dome hangs in the sky, as if pinned to it with golden pins. A cross of fire among the stars, meaning that a city’s church spire there points heavenward, advertises a way to salvation. Nightly, as never a few years since for a festival, the city’s business streets blaze with lights, — ill directed many of them, barbarously used some of them, wasted not a few of them; but unmistakably rich in their possibilities of beauty and art.

Must civic art have no dreams of the turning to account, for lighting the business parts of cities, of this lavish use of electricity by advertisers? It cannot be supposed that a harmonious general lighting scheme, akin to those that have made recent expositions beautiful, would cost more than is now expended privately on the more brilliant streets of the shopping and entertainment districts. It might be limited, with little loss of effectiveness, to the height of the first story. Certainly this would cost no more than the total of the public and private lighting together; and into what scenes of beauty and enchantment these districts would be then transformed at night! Not as a voice in the wilderness would the theatres call vainly to a spectacle-loving people far away in the dark streets of the residence quarter. The people would be brought to their doors by a spectacle to which stageland would seem the fitting supplement . And to the bright, gay scene a full purse would be so natural an accompaniment, that the strollers would assume they had it, and shop windows would not tempt in vain the passers whom their surroundings had thus put unconsciously into holiday mood. The one thing that is wanted is cooperation, — a working together for united effect.

For gala occasions nearly all the larger American cities have already wrought briefly such a transformation, and it is probably not too much to say, most significantly, that in no one of them have the merchants failed to be impressed by the attractive power of the display, or, being impressed, to make efforts to secure its continuance beyond the brief period of the special occasion. If, then, at no added total of expense, and merely by cooperation, a district can be made beautiful, so that crowds of people will choose it for their promenade, would it not be good “business” to combine forces, and to change to harmony and beauty the display that now is crude and glaring ? Suppose there were some loss of individuality ? At worst, the radiance would merely extend, or renew, the day, in which light is impartial. The window exhibits would be still effective, the daytime signs would continue to hold out their inducements and make their proclamations, with probably an added force because of the beauty of the lights.

The incongruity of vast expense for effects that are tawdry and cheap; of the merely spectacular, gaudy, and dazzling where beautiful wares are for sale; of the blinding where people are invited to see; of the capricious choice of the hideous and offensive where, by a little mutual consideration, the same factors would make beautiful and attract, — all this would be done away with. And until there were the general cooperation, occasional evidences of aesthetic regard, occasional restraint and artistic design, would have still the merit of individuality. Before night advertising — yet in its earliest development— there lies, beyond the chance that one should doubt it, not merely a possibility but an assurance of art.

There is no reason, then, to despair about our advertising. It is simply a great untrained force, needing curbing here, direction there; suppression very rarely, but restraint often; and the provision of a new impulse, a new ideal, as an outlet for the enormous energy which, after an abused license, we would at last keep in reasonable bounds. If this new impulse be worthy, and this great force can be turned toward art and beauty, it will contribute mightily to the production of fairer cities and towns, to an easier, happier life within them, and to the greater self-respect and interest of the advertisers. The conditions seem all favorable; there is a trend unmistakably in the desired direction! We may hope and must believe that the effort will be crowned with victory.