Sunday, November 9, 2014

152. Advertising: Ridiculous, Annoying, Despicable, and Fun

     Obviously, given the history of nineteenth-century patent medicines (see the previous post), twentieth-century advertisers were far from pioneering the adventurous, the vexing, and the blatant in advertising.  By comparison with their predecessors, they were discreet, restrained, and subtle.  But they did turn advertising into a major industry with finely crafted messages designed to reach mass audiences, and by the 1920s were so concentrated on Madison Avenue in Manhattan that the name of the avenue (often facetiously shortened to “Mad Avenue”) became synonymous with the industry.  Today, many agencies have relocated elsewhere in Manhattan, but the name “Madison Avenue” designating the industry persists.

     One thing these agencies have labored to perfect is the magical phrase, words that sing, the lightning phrase that will burn its way into the brains of consumers.  And they often succeed, as witnessed by these that I remember, many from long go, all too readily:

·      Prevents halitosis.  (Don’t remember the product.)
·      99 and 44/100% pure; it floats.  (Ivory soap)
·      Ipana for the smile of beauty and Sal Hepatica for the smile of health.
·      (sung)  Don’t despair, use your head, save your hair, use Fitch Shampoo.
·      I’d walk a mile for a Camel.
·      Modess … because.
·      Good to the last drop.  (Maxwell House Coffee)

File:You need only one soap, Ivory soap - Strobridge & Co. Lith. - Restoration by Adam Cuerden.jpg
It was floating even in 1898, during
the Alaska gold rush.

Adam Cuerden
File:Camels advertisement 1915.jpg
A Camel ad from 1915.  I remember the same
picture of a camel from the 1930s.

     And they even appeared abroad.  In 1952, at the one movie theater in Besançon, France, where short ads appeared on the screen before the featured film, I recall a series of rather entertaining shorts that ended with

Dents blanches, haleine fraïche
Superdentifrice Colgate
[White teeth, fresh breath
Supertoothpaste Colgate]

     I classify ads in four groups:

1.    Ridiculous
2.    Annoying
3.    Despicable
4.    Fun

1. Ridiculous:

·      Why not get your novel produced as a motion picture? 
·      The Writer’s Hypnotherapist/End writer’s block.  Develop your voice.
·      48 Hour Books

All the above from Poets & Writers, July/August 2014.  What easy marks aspiring writers must be!  But also, probably from the New York Times, though I’m not sure, and dating from the 1960s:

[Some 600 common last names are listed.]
[All European countries plus Iceland are listed.]

2.  Annoying:

·      Your best friends won’t tell you.  (B.O., Lifebuoy soap)

·      Your golden liver bile.
          (I used to hear it on the radio just as I was starting lunch.  Don’t                        remember the product.)

·                                   Tu es un homme!                   [You are a man!
           Va en Indochine                    Go to Indochina
           te battre pour la liberté.          to fight for freedom.
          Tu deviendras un chef!           You’ll become a leader!]

          Posted outside a shabby little Foreign Legion recruiting station in Lyons,  France, in 1963, when the French were losing their war in Indochina, and we had yet to intervene.  Inside, a Legionnaire sat at a table reading something.  No takers; he looked bored.  Annoying, but also ridiculous.

File:Magazine insert advertising Lifebuoy soap Wellcome L0049721.jpg
An old Lifebuoy ad, date uncertain.  No B.O.mentioned, but it too floats.
Wellcome Images

3.  Despicable:

  •  All cigarette ads, given what we now know about the cigarette companies.

  • In the Times of February 19, 1967, a warning in bold print about The Counterfeit Executive, a glib, intelligent, and persuasive employee who will produce little and destroy more.  The solution?  The stress interview, a grueling technique to discover the counterfeit, the misfit, the "special problem" executive.  Conducted by Einstein Associates, executive search consultants.

  • And now the most despicable of all:  Five college girls sitting together in a dorm.  They’re talking about their fathers.
        Girl #1:  "My father is head of a bank."
        Girl #2:  "My father runs his own business."
        Girl #3:  "My father is a judge."
        Girl #4:  "My father is a professor."
                      To girl #5:  "What does your father do?"
        Girl #5:   "He's just sweetest old Dad that ever was!"

           Followed by the pitch for a self-improvement program, so your children won't be ashamed of you years hence.  (Imperfectly but distinctly remembered from a 1920s National Geographic that a friend once showed me.)

     Finally, an ad from I don’t know what publication that haunted me, naïf that I was, in the 1940s.  Hard to classify.  Ridiculous?  Annoying?  Truly offensive?  Interesting, in any event, given its subtle – or not so subtle – dose of male eroticism.

“ ‘We’d rather paddle freshmen who squirm!’ ”

[Illustration of a college locker room or dormitory where a freshman in his underwear is being paddled by a crowd of laughing and jeering young men, one of them also in his underwear.]

Both brothers and hazers stoutly affirm
“We’d rather paddle freshmen who squirm!”

Take a Complete Jockey
Underwardrobe to School

Smaller print explains that practically everybody wears Jockey, so if you don’t want to look conspicuous and attract unwanted attention, you’d better wear Jockey, too.  And of course you won’t squirm.

5.    Fun:

·      Times Square at night with all those illuminated ads: fun, interesting, and just plain overwhelming.

·      Travel ads, even if they pretty things up a bit.

·      You don’t have to be Jewish
      to love Levy’s.
      Levy’s Jewish Rye

With a picture of a native American munching the bread with a look of obvious delight.  It might not fly today, but back in the 1960s it seemed genuinely funny.  Other versions included an Irish cop, a black kid, a Chinaman.

·      20 Mule Team Borax

With a picture of a laden wagon pulled by 20 teams of mules.  Appearing on boxes of the product, the picture fascinated me, history buff that I was.  And on the radio program Death Valley Days, telling stories of the Old West, the voice of the Old Ranger, who sounded authentic as hell, told how the mineral boron, used in the Pacific Coast Borax Company’s cleaning agent  20 Mule Team Borax, was once extracted from deposits in Death Valley, California, and transported by mule team to the nearest railroad.

File:INTERPRETIVE SIGN AT HARMONY BORAX WORKS. - Twenty Mule Team Borax Wagons, Death Valley Junction, Inyo County, CA HAER CAL,14-DVNM,4-1.tif
The 20 mule teams really did exist in Death Valley, as this picture shows.

Maxwell House Coffee

It wasn’t drunk in our house, but I heard commercials on the radio telling how the coffee had first been served in the old Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee (which was true enough).  Definitely a soft sell, it  created the image of gracious living with elegant diners in an elegant old hostelry sipping a delicious coffee.  Again, my fascination with history may have sparked my interest.

File:Maxwell house coffee newspaper ad 1921.jpg
A 1921 ad.  No Maxwell House Hotel in sight, but still
good to the last drop.

     Depending on their product and their target audience, advertisers used either a hard sell or a soft sell.  As for instance:

Hard sell:     BUY!     BUY!     BUY!

Soft sell:  Please …

And for an example of hard sell, how about this full-page ad from the financial section of the Times of October 30, which I can only partially and crudely suggest:

Take Advantage of Gold’s Best Price in Years!
than record high gold prices.  Do not miss this opportunity!
per gold coin.  Maximum of 10 coins.
Call Now!

     One can well ask: are advertisers hucksters or communicators?  Much of the preceding would suggest hucksters, but one of my uncles, who headed his own ad agency and ended up the grand old man of advertising in Indianapolis, explained advertising in a very reasonable way: “Industry makes things, but it doesn’t know how to sell them.  That’s where advertising comes in.”  I visited his agency once and talked to a copywriter who disabused me of any stereotypical image of his profession by explaining that his only lubricant was an occasional sip of orange juice from a container stashed on his windowsill; not for him the three-martini lunch.  My other recollection: the front-desk receptionist, a very attractive young woman dressed to the nines, making the very important first impression that a caller would receive of the agency.  I might add that my uncle’s clients made products that struck me as uncontroversial and eminently useful, reinforcing  his argument for advertising as communication.

     His daughter Virginia, my cousin, had a somewhat different take on advertising.  A veteran of the industry in both New York and Chicago, she said once of her top boss in Chicago, “He’ll go far.  He has larceny in his heart.”  That for her was the key to success in advertising, at least in New York and Chicago.

     Virginia had worked for years in advertising in New York, a city that she loved, but finally she moved to Chicago.  Her complaints about New York in the 1940s and 1950s:

·      Reasonably priced housing only in slummy neighborhoods.
·      A long commute from her apartment to work.
·      Always having to stand on the subway trains going to and from work.
·      In every agency where she worked, another woman obviously making a lifelong career in advertising.  Since in those days most agencies had room for only one such woman, that meant competition.

In Chicago, on the other hand, there were many advantages:

·      A nice apartment in a nice neighborhood with a reasonable rent.
·      A mere twenty-minute commute to the Loop.
·      Always getting a seat on the L going to work.
·      Being the only career-oriented woman in the agency.

She liked Chicago, but she loved New York.  Just walking down the street in New York was exhilarating; it thrilled her just to be a part of the city.  Good as Chicago was, she never quite got that feeling there.

     What are your most memorable, or most objectionable, ads?  Let me know, if you have any.

     Coming soon: New York shops: cupcakes, jacaws, a sensual aphrodisiac, cards with skulls, young goat gouda, and much else. 

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


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    1. Thank you. I do a new post weekly on any and every subject relating to New York. Advertising was first developed on a big scale by nineteenth-century patent medicine men, as told in post #151 (Nov. 1, 2014).

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