AN old-fashioned man, who lives, for his health’s sake, somewhat apart from the strong currents of contemporary life, complains in a letter of the methods used by an aspirant for a vacant office in his state to disclose his candidacy to the voters. Instead of sitting receptively at home, or going about his ordinary business, and letting the sense of his preeminent merits penetrate by its own energy the minds of his fellow-citizens, the aspirant had been filling the state with placards and pamphlets, setting forth his picture, his pedigree, the quality of his talents, the scope of his virtues, the distinction of his political career, and his particular eagerness to oblige every person in every part of the state who wanted anything that the tenant of the office he aspired to might get for him. The letter-writer is a good deal disgusted at this businesslike method of reaching for public place. It seems to him immodest and undignified. It rubs him the wrong way to have the office-seeker advertise himself, and do it directly, in printer’s ink, and not indirectly as custom once required, through the good offices of his friends, and of the newspapers, or by public discourse on the concerns of politics. For old-fashioned people still make a distinction between advertisement of goods or chattels, and of personal or moral qualities. They think a man may advertise his skill or competence in the trades, but hardly in the professions. They are willing to become acquainted with his kind of breakfast food if he invites them to, but distrust him if he advertises to cure their gout or cut their legs off while they wait. They are willing to receive his own assurance that he can make shoes or watches, but would rather have somebody else’s word for it that he is a spiritually-minded preacher or fit to make laws.
But these are old-fashioned distinctions, maintained by the few, and the advertiser does not much concern himself about them. It is not the few that he is after, but the many; the many who will not know that he is alive and in the world unless he tells them; who will not know what bargains he offers unless he forces them upon their attention, or how useful he, or his advice or services, can be to them unless they see his affidavit of his qualities. Verily it is the advertising age, and with abundant reason advertisement has come to be looked upon as the golden key that unlocks the door that leads, not only to fortune, but considerably to fame.
It is a natural development of democracy and of primary education. Everybody (almost) can read; everybody (almost) can vote, and everybody can buy. The voter must be reached somehow by anybody who wants his vote, just as the buyer must be reached by any one who wants his trade. The advertisement is an appeal to the people by the most feasible and effective means, and when we examine the electioneering methods of the office-seeker in the light of daily experience, it is doubtful if any more serious fault can reasonably be found with them than that they are what the advertisers call “ up-to-date.” “To him that asks shall be given” is a truth with a great following in these days. To be is not enough. If one would forge ahead it is necessary not only to be, but to be known, and the way to be known is, in some fashion or other, to advertise.
It is more the means than the end that jars the sensibilities of those on whom it does jar. The uses of fame have always been understood. The miracles of a great religious teacher are in a way an advertisement of the validity of his vocation and his doctrines. Preaching is advertisement; publication of writings is advertisement. The aim in all is the same — to reach the people. The enormous diffusion of newspapers and periodicals, a consequence of the spread of education, cheap postage, increased population, and the cheapening of printing and paper, has done no more than provide a new means to accomplish an end the value of which has always been recognized.
Advertisement is like greatness, in that some men are born to it, some achieve it, and it is forced upon others. Of persons born to it, King Edward VII and the Siamese Twins seem good and familiar examples. The Twins, with or without the pictures on the outside of the tent, must always have excited remark. They had only to be seen to be appreciated, and the King had no need even of that. He has been advertised from the cradle, irrespective of his personal traits, interesting and admirable as they happen to have been.
Of those who have achieved advertisement the names, and many of the faces, rise, a great multitude, in the reminiscent mind. A Barnum is slowly fading out of living memory as a new generation begins to arise that never enjoyed his personal hospitalities in the circus tent, and has seen his face not at all, or only in reduced proportions in the circus poster. But his achievement was momentous in his day. Another master, a New England manufacturer, having made his visage as familiar as ever Barnum’s was, interested himself in giving it new associations. Standing at first purely for merchandise, it came by an edifying process of development to stand for government and certain definite political ideas. Out of New England too — conservative, civilized New England — has risen up the most astonishing advertiser of the time, the formidable projector of sensations, who bought a flower and advertised with that; who built a boat, and advertised with that; who brought a moribund magazine to life and vigor by making it his mouthpiece ; who made such a use of hired space in newspapers as never was made before. Whatever else he achieved, and we leave it to some coming historian to say whether or not he achieved anything else, he did achieve advertisement. There are few but know his name, few but know his face, few but have some notion of the ideas he sought to diffuse. Wherever goes the queer mixture of information and misinformation which we call general knowdedge, that advertiser’s ideas penetrated; as to whether they were true or false, did good or harm, brought him money or lost him money, and why he put them out, men still dispute when they have leisure; but his achievement as an advertiser, his achievement of publicity, is undisputed. He showed what could be done if one had the means and the inclination to do it; with how vast a voice the existing sound-conductors can enable a solvent and disburseful man to roar!
Most interesting of all is the case of those persons upon whom advertising is forced, — the great notabilities and notorieties and their families, and the excessively rich. It is a thing that has grown enormously within even so short a time as twenty years; grown with the vast multiplication and diffusion of printed pages, the invention of the kodak, and the cheapening of the processes of pictorial reproduction. Any one in whom, with reason or without it, the great public is interested or can be induced to be interested, has his likeness published, his movements recorded, the story of his daily life chronicled almost from day to day. If he travels abroad, the cable tells us where he is and how employed, what hotel he stops at, whom he meets at dinner, and what kind of an automobile he uses to get away in. If it is an especially notable person who is the object of these attentions, the attentions are extended to all the members of his family, — his wife, sons, daughters, and contiguous relatives. When our President’s children travel, for example, even when they play in the back yard of the National Dwelling, such incidents of their daily careers as are at all out of the common are gathered up by attentive observers, and appear, the same day or the next, in the telegraphic news of the papers. Sons and daughters of very rich or otherwise conspicuous men, in school or college, are subjected to the same sort of intermittent observation and reporting. Most of us can remember the beginning of this advertisement of the young, and the shock it brought to the sense of propriety of discriminating people who were not used to it. It still shocks them, and for good reasons, but not so much. Use makes almost everything tolerable, and to this phenomenon we are coming to be very well accustomed.
The most novel detail of all these novel processes has been the elevation by advertisement of the richest American families into a sort of public life. It has come with the prodigious industrial development, which in certain cases has extended what was merely riches into fortunes of such a magnitude as to promise to lift their possessors, and the descendants of their possessors for as many generations as any one cares to foresee, out of the mass of folk who are concerned about providing themselves with the means of subsistence. People in general being very much interested in money, and especially in large collections of it, are interested in persons who have the use of such collections, and like, apparently, to be kept informed of the manner of life of such persons, and where they go and what they do. Recognizing and stimulating this interest, the American newspapers have fed it abundantly, yes, superabundantly, and so it has come about that whereas a reasonable measure of occasional obscurity is one of the things that persons who can afford to satisfy their inclinations might naturally prize and try to obtain, it is one of the things that very, very rich people find it particularly hard, if not impossible, to command in this land. Affably but pertinaciously the reporter says to them, “Your place, ladies and gentlemen, and children also, is not in those nice seats where you can see the passing show at ease, but up there please, on the stage and near the footlights, where our large and appreciative American audiences can find their pleasure in observing you. For you will remember, please, that the audience has paid to come in, and that you, fair sirs and dames, draw exceedingly liberal maintenance out of the funds gathered in at the box-office.”
Modest merit has its charm, We all like it, and to certain kinds of merit modesty is essential But merit, however modest it may be, need not be shy. It may flourish in the sight of men, and lose nothing that is valuable of its quality. Indeed, if it is to be greatly effectual, it must in most cases flourish in the sight of men and be recognized for what it is. To be able to live, and live handsomely, in the public sight is a test of qualities. So to feel toward one’s fellows — so to love mankind — as not only to take a penetrating interest in their affairs, but to endure that they should take a penetrating interest in ours, is no slight endowment.
Advertisement is expensive. The first thing an advertiser needs to make sure of is that the wares he offers are worth the cost of offering them. Sometimes they are not, and still the advertisement may be profitable because of the vast supply of folks in the world who are ready to be persuaded and do not know when they are fooled. It is a reasonable presumption, however, that commodities that are advertised impressively and long are worth advertising, because shrewd adventurers in trade are loath to spend good money in recommending bad goods. This presumption, unfortunately, does not extend to the persons upon whom advertising is forced. They may be superlatively worthy of attention or quite unworthy of it. Their examples may be directly profitable as examples to follow, indirectly as examples to avoid, or unprofitable because they possess a garish attraction which misleads the foolish. It is all one to their advertisers, whose only aim is to find a profit in satisfying public curiosity, and who are as ready to do it by exposing the folly of the foolish as by expounding the wisdom of the wise. The best that can be said of advertisement of this sort is that publicity, like sunshine, is a great germicide, and that some of the most pernicious social germs are blighted by it.
One American, who had inherited along with immensely valuable estates a sensitive nature, quit his country altogether and became a foreign subject, chiefly because the pressure of publicity upon him and his family was so great in this land as to make him feel that he could not order his life here to suit his preferences. Another enormously rich American, who owed his fortune to his own endeavors, avoided the inquisitive public eye for many years as much as he could without too great inconvenience. But finding the newspapers and magazines, and the public too, more copiously inquisitive and communicative about him than ever — did he run away ? No, he took the other, and much wiser, course, and began to develop his social side, and to go more among men and talk to the newspapers. Advertisement did him good, and in many cases it does do good, however unwelcome and disenchanting it may seem. It is strong medicine, and bitter in some mouths, but it is a form of publicity, and publicity is the great panacea of the age, and not without due grounds of favorable expectation, since it is cousin to Truth, and Truth shall prevail.