Advertisement English. Part 2
To inform does not mean to scare, to amuse, to be irrelevant, to disgust, or to lie. If the main effect and chief impression of an advertisement is startling, or amusing, or irrelevant, or disgusting, or false, it seems to me bad from the literary point of view. This is not saying that gentle shocks of surprise or amusement nullify the effect. They may enhance it. It is rather pleasant to be asked, "How do you do - without Ammo!" But if the copy is, as we say about books, "too strong" in these minor respects, the main effect is lost.
§ 107. To inform is not to scare. Of course not. Couched in these general terms, how can the proposition be of any service to the young ad-writer? Well, it may scare him into being a little more discriminating. What scares a man on March thirty-first may not scare him on April-fool's day. Yesterday the first thing that caught my eye in the Chicago Tribune was the words Get Your Gun!, but as the day happened to be July fourth and not October first, I knew that it was no call to arms or to the Michigan woods. It was only a cheerful way of inviting you to insert a want-ad in the Tribune. To the mind of the excited young man it seemed that Tribune want-ads are rifles that slay the customers. These bloodthirsty figures of speech are constantly on the lips of the ad-writer. In the second paragraph of this mild chapter I (Definition Of Business English) used the word killer, because all my advertising friends do. To hear them talk about "making a kiling," you would think they were bad men. They have other gentle ways of attracting attention. Not to mention those pictures which point a gun or an insolent finger at you - I should think a visiting cowboy would fill them with lead - they greet you with Stop I or Fire! or some other explosive order. We are learning not to be frightened by these shrieks, but new and more terrible ones will doubtless be forthcoming. Some men may like to be held up that way. Some women may; Shakspere speaks of ladies who, "gladly quaked, hear more." But one of these Stop! ads looks a trifle foolish after the first glance. It continues to summon you to stop. And it is a fair question whether every such ad is not too "strong." Isn't the name of your goods more interesting than Stop?
§ 108. To inform is not to amuse. Farmers read the funny stories in the almanac, and usually vote that half of them are not funny. But they keep the almanac because it is an almanac, not because it is a joke book. It would be interesting to see a thousand sworn statements from farmers as to whether the funny stories were what led them to buy the medicines therein advertised. In the country newspapers it is still a custom to get attention under false pretences by printing a long joke with a joker at the end in the shape of an advertisement. Such ads may sell goods, in spite of the resentment the reader feels at being fooled. But is it not in spite of the story instead of on account of it!
As to humorous rhymes, they doubtless amuse when they are good; and they need not fail to inform. Unquestionably the Lackawanna Railway has used them to good advantage. But poor rhymes are disgusting, and clever rhymes are difficult to construct. I don't mean rhymes that are perfect by purely metrical standards, for the great public is not very particular about niceties of that sort. I mean clever rhymes, which fix the information in mind by a neat turn of wit. There were some admirable jingles of this sort years ago, advertising what the ad-man called Spotless Town. Doubtless they sold goods - they and the highly decorative pictures. But though I read them daily for years, I could not now tell you what they advertised. It was of course some cleaner - perhaps Sapolio. But the word town was just a trifle too strong. It set men to thinking about cleaning up alleys and air, and possibly the advertisers produced more civic effect than selling effect. The ladies could perhaps tell us. At all events, mere amusement does not lead to buying. Do you remember the Sunny Jim placards? They had no descriptions of the thing they advertised - I believe it was a breakfast food. But they cheered the weary public, and may be looked on as a sort of philanthropic enterprise. Imitate them if your purpose is philanthropic, but not if you want to sell goods.
§ 109. To inform is not to be irrelevant. Irrelevance of course is not merely a matter of English. It involves intelligent use of media and knowledge of conditions. In the coal business there is likely to occur a shortage of cars each autumn. When the shortage is on, an ad which reads we have the coal and we have the cabs means a good deal to a retail dealer. He is not worrying now about quality, as he was in July. He wants coal - good coal if possible but at any rate coal. In time of shortage that ad is relevant. That may not be a remark relevant to business English, but I will contend that nothing could be less artistic in time of coal-shortage than to be advertising quality only. It reminds me of an ancient story of the preacher who, reading hastily from an old manuscript to the boys in the Yale chapel, said, "And now a word to those of you who are mothers." I call that bad art, a failure to observe that the character of oratory must vary with time and place.
And it is bad art to load down an advertisement with irrelevant material. Once more the dictum is general. On the morning after Peary announces his discovery, you can drag in the north pole after a fashion, and perhaps secure attention that way. A certain connection can be for the moment established between the north pole and clothes-poles. But, also, it is fleeting, unless you can show that Peary carried one of your nonpareil clothes-poles north, because he found it indispensable. Even then the sceptical reader may live in Alabama, and have a fear of a pole which is so suspiciously available in cold climates. But Peary and a watch! that is a different story.
The information to be given should concern the goods. The maker's name should be given, and the places where the goods can be found. But the maker's age, ancestry, and color of hair are irrelevant; so is his family; so (in my weak judgment) is his picture, unless he has unhappily got started that way; and so - on the whole - are the size of his factory and the amount of his sales. The glory of the advertiser is of small interest to the buyer. Oh! but success goes a long way, you say, to show that the article is good. Everybody is buying these goods; be in the fashion; get in line. Well, here is a hard point for an outsider to be dogmatic about. Prestige and fashion are influences, doubtless. But they are not going to seduce me from those principles of sound literary art which have been steadily talked about all through this book. You did not object, when we were working on outlines, to the proposition that only unity of purpose produces a high degree of efficiency. Why should you now?