Chapter XXII. Advertisement English
§ 106. Is there such a thing? Is there some special brand of English which we may call advertisement English or advertising-English? [The hyphen is not really needed there, but one doesn't like the suggestion that English may be advertised.] Is there some special vocabulary of English that sells goods when all others fail? Or is there, perhaps, some vocabulary that ad-writers have a preference for whether it sells goods or not?
No, English is English, and there is not a decent word in the language that may not conceivably help to sell goods. No, there is no special vocabulary affected by ad-writers, although Mr. Charles Austin Bates did say, a few years ago, that "ordinary 'advertising English' is generally stilted and awkward." On that subject we shall presently have something to say, but meantime the point to emphasize is that there are nearly half a million words in the English language. The word ichthyosaurus will not sell goods to the average man, but it might be a killer with museum-men.
The title of this chapter, then, does not refer to some new discovery in philology. It refers to a branch of the art of English composition. But at this point a chill runs over the author. Was it not expressly stated on page 4 that we cannot draw a sharp line between business and business English? If that principle is sound, we cannot draw an absolute line between the art of advertising and advertisement English.
And what do I know about the art of advertising? Precious little! I am an outsider, and must give my impressions as merely a student of composition and literature.
Literature! But on looking into Mr. Bates's book on Good Advertising I learn that advertising is not literature Over and over again, Mr. Bates declares that advertising is not literature but business. Other writers declare the same thing. And when I talk with friends who are professional advertisers, they don't say a word about literature. What they chiefly do is to describe the other fellow's ads as bunk. Bunk is a slang word. You can find it in Chapter XI (The History Of Business Words).
Well, if by literature we mean only such writing as is going to endure for ages and fit all sorts of occasions as if by magic, then of course advertisements are not literature. Literature may be turned to advertisement purposes, to be sure, and I never see those fine words of the sentinel in Hamlet, "For this relief much thanks," without thinking how cleverly the human epidermis quotes it apropos of Hand Sapolio. But even the quoting of literature in advertisements is a doubtful business. R. L. Stevenson could have made it pay. But the average ad-writer usually sets the buyer to thinking about the author or the quoter's presumption, not about the goods. "There is no new thing under the sun. - Shakspere," wrote one literary ad-smith, whereupon he began to get letters saying that "Shakspere" ought to read "Solomon." And then the biblical critics had to be appealed to, to find out whether Solomon wrote all the Proverbs.
Writing may be ephemeral - what writing is not? - and still be literature. If it meets the immediate situation perfectly, even a single sentence may be genuinely literary. One hears children say things casually that are so original and apropos that they seem like triumphs of art. And now and then an advertising phrase will linger in the mind as pleasantly as an epigram by some famous phrase-maker who wears the laurel.
And what is the situation which a good advertisement meets? Roughly speaking, it is that indicated by the word itself. The word advertise means to inform or to give notice.
Information may be general or special. Special advertising tells exactly what an article is and where it may be found. General advertising educates public opinion by informing it concerning new articles, their uses, and the reasons why they should be used. A first-class advertisement, one would say, combines the general with the special. It educates the public, and at the same time shows where and how some special article may be found.
There can be no question that advertisements have furnished vast amounts of general information and instruction. It has been creative instruction, arousing new desires and making the standard of taste by which the article is enjoyed. Food knowledge, clothing knowledge, soap knowledge, even knowledge of raw materials like coal, has been inculcated in the American people by systematic and long-continued advertisement. And all this is legitimate within the terms of the word.
The plain literary man to-day likes an advertisement if it succeeds in bringing to his notice some article of real merit that he needs, and tells him how he may get it easily at a fair price. He does not object to an advertisement that does a little more than that. If it leads him to imagine some way by which he may obtain a luxury, this too interests him. Plain literary men differ, it is true, as to needs. Some are content with poor clothes. Some never dream of an outing. Some think that their odd dollars should go to the United Charities. But most of them have weak points. Most of them can be caught by some advertisement, if it is only that of a washing machine which promises to give the literary man a little more of his wife's company. And some, a few, an ambitious remnant - wish to allow them selves everything that the rich have except money. These are the reasons why the teacher or the writer thinks that an advertisement should be a piece of information.
He wants it definite, because of all men he is the laziest. He begrudges every minute that he must give to business. He hates to go to several shops for an article. He does not mind writing short letters, or signing checks, or attaching his name to a coupon. But he does not want to leave his books or his laboratory if he can help it.
Now these may not be literary reasons for wanting an advertisement to be as above described. But they are the literary man's reasons. And I cannot help thinking that they are in general reasons which the average run of human beings would share. I recognize that there are exceptions. The literary man does not care much for Shaksperian quotations or humorous stories or Josh Billings anecdotes in advertisements. He is fastidious about these things. They do not sell goods to him. It may be that other persons do care for them. But before we can discuss the kinds of advertisement English which appeal to different groups, we must try to hit on a few things which appeal to all alike. And so, at the risk of being charged with reasoning from personal tastes, I am going on with the naive assumption that an advertisement should be a piece of definite giving-notice. It should inform.