Ads on The Million Dollar Homepage(Click for larger version)
"Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquences sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic."
– Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1759.
Johnson was a British author and extremely influential man of letters. He wrote the Dictionary of the English Language, and was the famous subject of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.
If you’d like, you can read the source of the above quotation below, with more of Johnson’s dry British wit concerning advertisements. It’s about 1,000 words long. The language has been Americanized. I assume that the words in italics are quotations.
No. 40. SATURDAY, JANUARY 20, 1759
The practice of appending to the narratives of public transactions more minute and domestic intelligence, and filling the newspapers with advertisements, has grown up by slow degrees to its present state.
Genius is shown only by invention. The man who first took advantage of the general curiosity that was excited by a siege or battle, to betray the readers of news into the knowledge of the shop where the best puffs and powder were to be sold, was undoubtedly a man of great sagacity, and profound skill in the nature of man. But when he had once shown the way, it was easy to follow him; and every man now knows a ready method of informing the public of all that he desires to buy or sell; whether his wares be material or intellectual; whether he makes clothes, or teaches the mathematics; whether he be a tutor that wants a pupil, or a pupil that wants a tutor.
Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is, therefore, become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic.
Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement. I remember a wash-ball that had a quality truly wonderfulit gave an exquisite edge to the razor. And there are now to be sold, for ready money only, some duvets for bed-coverings, of down, beyond comparison superior to what is called otter-down, and indeed such, that its many excellencies cannot be here set forth. With one excellence we are made acquaintedit is warmer than four or five blankets, and lighter than one.
There are some, however, that know the prejudice of mankind in favor of modest sincerity. The vendor of the beautifying fluid sells a lotion that repels pimples, washes away freckles, smooths the skin, and plumps the flesh; and yet, with a generous abhorrence of ostentation, confesses, that it will not restore the bloom of fifteen to a lady of fifty.
The true pathos of advertisements must have sunk deep into the heart of every man that remembers the zeal shown by the seller of the anodyne necklace, for the ease and safety of poor teething infants, and the affection with which he warned every mother, that she would never forgive herself, if her infant should perish without a necklace.
I cannot but remark to the celebrated author who gave, in his notifications of the camel and dromedary, so many specimens of the genuine sublime, that there is now arrived another subject yet more worthy of his pen. A famous Mohawk Indian warrior, who took Dieskaw the French general prisoner, dressed in the same manner with the native Indians when they go to war, with his face and body painted, with his scalping-knife, torn-axe, and all other implements of war ! a sight worthy the curiosity of every true Briton! This is a very powerful description; but a critic of great refinement would say, that it conveys rather horror than terror. An Indian, dressed as he goes to war, may bring company together; but if he carries the scalping-knife and tomaxe, there are many true Britons that will never be persuaded to see him but through a grate.
It has been remarked by the severer judges, that the salutary sorrow of tragic scenes is too soon effaced by the merriment of the epilogue; the same inconvenience arises from the improper disposition of advertisements. The noblest objects may be so associated as to be made ridiculous. The camel and dromedary themselves might have lost much of their dignity between the true flower of mustard and the original Daffy’s elixir; and I could not but feel some indignation when I found this illustrious Indian warrior immediately succeeded by a fresh parcel of Dublin butter.
The trade of advertising is now so near to perfection, that it is not easy to propose any improvement. But as every art ought to be exercised in due subordination to the public good, I cannot but propose it as a moral question to these masters of the public ear, Whether they do not sometimes play too wantonly with our passions, as when the registrar of lottery-tickets invites us to his shop by an account of the prize which he sold last year; and whether the advertising controvertists do not indulge asperity of language without any adequate provocation; as in the dispute about straps for razors, now happily subsided, and in the altercation which at present subsists concerning eau de luce?
In an advertisement it is allowed to every man to speak well of himself, but I know not why he should assume the privilege of censuring his neighbor. He may proclaim his own virtue or skill, but ought not to exclude others from the same pretensions.
Every man that advertises his own excellence should write with some consciousness of a character which dares to call the attention of the public. He should remember that his name is to stand in the same paper with those of the king of Prussia and the emperor of Germany, and endeavor to make himself worthy of such association.
Some regard is likewise to be paid to posterity. There are men of diligence and curiosity who treasure up the papers of the day merely because others neglect them, and in time they will be scarce. When these collections shall be read in another century, how will numberless contradictions be reconciled? and how shall fame be possibly distributed among the tailors and bodice-makers of the present age?
Surely these things deserve consideration. It is enough for me to have hinted my desire that these abuses may be rectified; but such is the state of nature, that what all have the right of doing, many will attempt without sufficient care or due qualifications.