Saturday, November 1, 2014

151. Advertising: Hucksters of Yore and Today

     Last Monday it began when I checked my e-mail and found two bits of spam, one urging Viagra on me and the other, Rolex watches.  I clicked them off.

     Next, in a doctor’s office, as I was leafing through one of the stupid magazines always found in doctors’ offices, I came upon a plea for a topical solution to treat onychomycosis.  Onychomycosis?  Had I not been a seasoned skeptic, I might have been gripped with fear.  Small print explained: toenail fungus. 

     Then, as I glanced at the New York Times (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”) over lunch, I was assaulted on every other page:

‘Boy Chanel’ bag with stitched chain detail, $6,100

Depuis 1775
Reine de Naples Collection


Push your enterprise
and move the world.
Make it matter.

COPD Kills One Person Every Ten Seconds Worldwide.
Learn the Complete Cure Now!

Know-hows of Dr. Seo-Hyo-seok, Author of <Free from Chemical Medicine>, and His Forty One Years of Eradicating COPD!

And all these in that fortress of sobriety, the Times!

     Throughout the day the phone rang with recorded messages:

·      “Hello, this is Bridget.  I want to …”  I hung up.
·      “Did you know that sixty-five percent of seniors …”  I hung up.
·      “Congratulations!  You have been chosen …”  I hung up.

     Yes, we are bombarded every day by hucksters.  They try to frighten us, entice us, inflate our dreams, prod us into action.  God knows, there’s enough to frighten us:

·      baldness
·      erectile dysfunction
·      depression
·      the end of democracy as we know it
·      constipation
·      bad breath
·      global warming
·      5 o’clock shadow
·      B.O.

     But they also promise us

·      wealth
·      health
·      glamor
·      sex appeal
·      security
·      success

And let’s face it, we wouldn’t mind having all of them, and more.

File:Bubbles by John Everett Millais.jpg
Millais, Bubbles, 1886.
     As I know from a trip long ago to Europe, foreigners blame us for these assaults.  True enough, in many ways, but modern advertising is not the invention of American advertisers.  The man hailed as “the father of modern advertising” was in fact an Englishman, Thomas J. Barratt (1841-1914), who as chairman of the soap manufacturer A&F Pears pioneered what is now known as brand marketing.  “Good morning.  Have you used Pears’ soap?” was his slogan, a catch phrase that was famous well into the twentieth century.  He got a testimonial praising Pears soap from actress Lillie Langtry, a reigning beauty known for her matchless complexion, which was the first celebrity testimonial in advertising history.  Ruthlessly inventive, he turned John Everett Millais’ painting Bubbles, showing an adorable little boy with golden curls blowing a bubble, into an advertisement by adding a bar of Pears’ soap in the foreground.  Millais is said to have protested this, but Barratt had bought the painting and therefore owned the copyright.  This was not the last use by far of the image of an adorable child to market products successfully; nineteenth-century advertising was big on childhood innocence, the more sweet-faced the better.

File:Philip Morris Ads.JPG
On the radio you heard bellhop Johnny's
resonant call, "Call for Phillip Morris!"

     Modern American advertising is often associated with promotions by the big American tobacco companies in the 1920s, but it was in fact well under way in New York, among other cities, by the mid-1860s, well before Mr. Barratt and his soap.  The word  SOZODONT was blazoned all over the city, baffling many at first, until its purpose was at last revealed:

Cleansing, Beautifying and Preserving
From youth to old age.

     But this was nothing, compared to posters and certain pages in the newspapers throughout the century featuring such products as

Swaim’s Panacea
Wm Radam’s Microbe Killer
Holloway’s Pills and Ointment
Viner’s Vermifuge
Dr. Girard’s Ginger Brandy
Dalley’s Magical Pain Extractor
Dr. Lin’s Celestial Balm of China
Pastor Koenig’s Nerve Tonic
Pink Pills for Pale People

The secret of the success of some of these nostrums is revealed in the formula of Hofstetter’s Bitters, advertised as a cure for many ills: 4% herbal oils and extracts, 64% water, 32% alcohol.  That 32% was much in demand in communities that had embraced temperance by law.

     In an age when mainstream medicine had but few sound remedies – quinine for malaria, a vaccine for smallpox, and little else – the nostrums of the patent medicine men had wide appeal, all the more so in the absence of government regulations.  Whatever ills the public suffered from, “certain delicate diseases” (V.D.) and “self-abuse” included, the advertisers promised marvelous results.  The nostrums were sold in every conceivable kind of bottle: square, round, drum-shaped, pig-shaped, fish-shaped, in the likeness of an Indian maiden or even the bust of Washington.  Manufacturers hoped they would end up as adornments (and perennial ads) on parlor mantels and whatnots, but many were smashed to pieces by imbibers fearful lest their secret tippling be discovered.

File:Adams Corner - General Store 3.jpg
Patent medicines on a shelf in a general store today.
Wolfgang Sauber

     (Why the name “patent medicines,” by the way, when they were definitely not patented?  Because, in seventeenth-century England, elixirs that found royal favor received letters patent letting them use the royal endorsement in marketing.  Nostrum makers generally avoided patenting their products, because to do so would have meant revealing their  ingredients; they no more wanted to do that than Coca-Cola and Pepsi do today.)

Here the near forbidden words
"venereal diseases" are
actually stated.

     Patent medicine almanacs were dispensed free on the counters of drugstores and general stores between Christmas and New Year’s, or were distributed to the public by young boys paid a quarter a day.  And the names of the products appeared in posters on walls and fences and the decks and cabins of steamboats; on the sides of horsecars; on signs on wagons roaming the busy streets; on brick piles; on asbestos curtains in theaters; and on mirrors in public waiting rooms.  No flat surface was safe, and the sidewalks of busy Broadway were enlivened by sandwich men flaunting the names of remedies fore and aft:

Pocahontas Bitters
Radical Cure Trusses
Philipot’s Infallible Extract

Yes, back then snake oil
really did exist.

     Nor was rural America spared: the names of nostrums appeared on rocks, trees, fences, barns, and sheds; adorned the soaring basalt cliffs of the Palisades, visible to passengers on Hudson River steamboats; and with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, graced telegraph poles and even the soaring Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada range in distant California.  And as a traveler approached San Francisco by train, he was informed that “VINEGAR  BITTERS  IS  ALL  THE  GO  FOR  LOVE!”  “Ob-scenery!” protested the New York Tribune, but to no avail.  The ultimate in advertising was achieved when a nostrum maker bought a steamboat, adorned it with ads for his liniment, cast it adrift on Lake Erie and let it float to destruction over Niagara Falls.

     Most of the patent medicine men were indeed men, but one notable exception was Lydia Pinkham, a Massachusetts housewife who, like many women of the day, brewed a home remedy for “female complaints” and gave it away free to her neighbors.  In 1875, with the family’s fortunes at low ebb, one of her grown sons suggested making a business of the family remedy.  Composed of five herbs and some alcohol, it was immediately successful, and production was transferred from Lydia’s stove at home to a factory.  Her skill in marketing to women made Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, with her features on the label, one of the most popular nostrums of the time, a modified version of which is still available today.  Eager for relief from menstrual and menopausal symptoms, vast numbers of women wrote to her, and she dutifully answered them, even after her death, since her staff filled in for her, until a photo of her tombstone in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1905 exposed the ruse.  The Pinkham company then explained – somewhat lamely – that they never meant to suggest that Lydia herself was answering the letters, which were being answered by her daughter.  Today Lydia is hailed by feminists as an early crusader for women’s health at a time when women’s health issues were ill served by the male-dominated medical establishment.  Her descendants operate a clinic bearing her name in Salem, Massachusetts, to offer health services to young mothers and their children.

File:Lydia Pinkham.png
Circa 1875, but still on the market today.  And
back then she didn't have to look glamorous.

     Muckraker journalists’ exposés of the patent medicine industry led to the first Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required that ingredients be labeled, and a revised statute of 1936 that banned alcohol, narcotics, and stimulants altogether, following which the patent medicine makers shifted their attention to marketing deodorants, toothpastes, and shampoos.  Today herbal concoctions promoted as nutritional supplements raise similar issues as the earlier nostrums once did regarding exaggerated claims, even though today’s claims are carefully phrased to avoid attracting the attention of regulators. 

     Clearly, the full-page ad in the Times promoting a complete cure for COPD, cited earlier, is right in the tradition of nineteenth-century patent medicines.  The techniques of the nostrum makers are with us to this day.  And what, by the way, is this mysterious COPD that poses such a threat to our health?  Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which, according to Dr. Seo Hyo-seok’s ad, is the fourth leading cause of death in the world, predicted to become the third in 2030.  A quick bit of online research confirms the existence of COPD, which includes both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  Further research confirms that Dr. Seo Hyo-seok is a Korean doctor who, using only Korean medicine, claims to have cured thousands of patients.  Whatever their style of advertising, I don’t dismiss unorthodox medical approaches out of hand, and the conditions he is treating are for real, and life-threatening as well.  So if you have lungs, watch out!

     Coming soon:  Advertising: Ads Ridiculous, Annoying, Despicable, and Fun.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

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