THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ADVERTISING
By DOROTHY L. SAYERS
ASK any twenty men at random what they think about advertising, and seventeen of them will inform you in tones strident with wrath and contempt that they never read advertisements, disapprove of advertisements, disbelieve every word of advertisements, hold advertising responsible for low quality and high prices of the goods advertised, and never, so help them Heaven, are influenced in any way by any advertisement whatsoever. The eighteenth, being himself an advertiser, will proclaim advertising to be a public service. The nineteenth man, who is probably a woman, will admit to taking The Daily Display and The Woman's Hebdomadal for the sake of the advertisements, and the twentieth will admit sadly that we are all miserable sinners ; these two shall save their souls in the last day.
It is true that in order to sell anything you must advertise : the floor of the Bankruptcy Courts is paved with the tomb- stones of firms too proud to advertise. It is not equally true that anything can be sold by advertisement : indeed, it is an axiom of sound advertising policy that advertising never sold a bad product twice. What it will do is to create a demand for new products, and give a selling advantage to one product over a similar product equally good.
The task of the advertisement writer is excessively difficult ; he has to persuade people to spend money on things they do not know they want. He has to do this in a very small space, jealously doled out, since every shining word he writes costs pounds to his employer. His newspaper platform is surrounded. (like a platform in Hyde Park) with many competing attractions ; his audience (unlike a theatre audience or a novelist's readers) is not there to listen to him, and is for the most part determined to ignore him. In a few hundred words, or perhaps in as few as fifty, he must arrest attention, hold interest, persuade, confute and stimulate to action. He learns to write in the hardest of all schools, where every word must pull its weight and the smallest error is an expensive disaster. And in addition to being a vivid and economical master of language, he must be a shrewd psychologist.
I suppose that if happiness could be mailed direct to the public at half a crown a packet, there would still be manY people too lazy, too indifferent or too cautious to purchase a postal-order and sign on the dotted line. As it is, though a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possessed', the life of commerce does ; and manu- facturers are under the necessity of disposing of such com- paratively unattractive commodities as boot-polish, butter beans, steel filing-cabinets, purgatives, laundry-soaps, vacuum- cleaners, tinned fish, sock-suspenders, clarified fats, sponge- rubber, saucepans, scouring-powders and gadgets for slicing raw carrots into patterns, in order to keep going the monstrous perpetual-motion machine that maintains the fabric of modern civilisation. It is the advertisement writer's job to persuade the world that these things are, in fact, happiness, temporarily disguised under protean and slightly unexpected forms.
Inertia (technically known as sales-resistance) is strongly entrenched in the citadel of the soul, and it would be idle to expect the advertiser—faced by this colossal task—to be idealistic or over-scrupulous in his methods of attack. Like any other strategist, he assaults the weak places. Fear-gate, Sloth-gate, Greed-gate and Snob-gate are the four cardinal points at which the city of Mansoul can most effectively be besieged ; and by these approaches he leads in his storm- troopers, marching handsomely under the banners of Health, Wealth, Leisure and Beauty.
By Fear-gate go in his formidable Death's-Head Hussars : Are you Suffering from Halitosis, Body-Odour, Athlete's Foot, Pains in the Back, Incomplete Elimination ? Are you Insured against Sickness, Old Age, Unemployment, Battle, Murder and Sudden Death ? Is your Lavatory Clean ? Does Dry-Rot Lurk in your Roof ? Do you Feel Too Old at Forty ? Swat that Fly, it Carries Disease ! Do not Neglect that Cold—it may turn into Goodness Knows What ! Take Vitamins under Pain of Losing your job ! Wave your Hair, under Pain of Losing your Husband's Love ! Use Blank's Pure Dusting-Powder, under Pain of Poisoning your Baby ! Beware of Substitutes ! Beware of Germs ! Beware Of Everything !
By Sloth-gate go in the armies of Leisure ; the Ready- Cooked Foods, the Chromium that Needs no Cleaning, the Clothes that Wash Themselves, all the Gadgets and Machines that Take the Irk out of Work. And behind them come the devices for taking all effort out of the employment even of Leisure—the Cinema-posters, the Radio sets with easy tuning, the Gramophones that change their own records, the Gearless Cars, the Book-Societies that spare you the trouble of choosing your own reading. And since (by the ineluctable irony of things) the human machine revs fiercer and faster the more it is raced in neutral, these battalions are accompanied by an Ambulance Corps dispensing Soothing Syrups to nerves, worn out by too much Leisure.
Greed-gate is the entrance for all the schemes that promise Something for Nothing. The magistrates of the city work very hard to close Greed-gate ; Lotteries can now scarcely find entrance in this country ; Free-Gift Coupons have received a shrewd knock and Guessing-Competitions and Pools have sustained severe reverses. But surprise parties still bring off successful raids from time to time and carry off a good deal of loot before the authorities intervene. Common-sense, the sentinel, is frequently asleep at his post and forgets to utter the warning cry, " Ex nihilo nail fit."
The troops that attack Snob-gate are the best turned-out regiments in the army. They are made up of Discriminating Men and Smart Women, of Typists who Marry the Boss, of Men who can Judge Whisky blindfold and Hostesses who knowtow to give their Patties that Air of Distinction. They offer LuxurY Goods under- the brand of the Life Beautiful ; and perhaps the worst that can be said of them is that their notion of Beauty is trivial. The finest Snob-assault I ever saw with my eyes was the advertisement of a firm of American morticians in the pre-Slump era : " Why lay your loved ones in the cold ground ? Let us electro-plate them in gold or silver." But this example strikes a rare note of bravuia. There is something pathetic in this ruthless exploitation of human foibles. The advertising writer has to harden his heart, preserve his sense of humour and remind himself that, however loudly he shouts and however exaggerated his statements, he will be lucky if one-tenth of what he says is heard or the hundredth part of it attended to. He is obliged to be a hypocrite to some extent. He must seize on whatever virtue happens to be fashionable and turn it to commercial advantage. When physical fitness is the idol of the moment, he must select his "slogans " accordingly. He will not say that wine maketh glad the heart of man : he must say that it is slimming or assists elimination, or that malt beverages contain vitamins, build up the con- stitution and increase resistance to infection. If patriotism is in vogue, he must say that his product is British, therefore best. If there is a wave of interest in psychotherapy he must assure us that Krazy Kinema Kartoons sublimate unconscious anxieties ; and if, per impossibile, there were to be a sudden boom in asceticism, he would be obliged to assert that Asterisk's Sheets were so rough as to be prac- tically a hair-shirt in themselves. His business is to sell the goods : and under whatever mask we disguise our appetites to ourselves, that is the mask he must assume to make his appeal effective. Anybody who wants to know what our national weaknesses are, has only to study the advertisement columns of the daily Press. There he will find them all, reduced to their simplest elements, decked out in whatever motley is in the mode : the truth about ourselves and the name by which we are agreed to call it. Advertising is here a safer guide than books or the theatre or the editorials or the news ; for a book may enjoy a succes d'estime disproportionate to its influence, a play may be artificially nursed or flop, an editor may have a private axe to grind, and the news may be inspired from some prejudiced source ; but the advertiser looks for immediate cash returns and he dare not make a mistake.
And just because he dare not make a mistake, the adver- tiser's influence is less evil than it might appear. By much shouting, he draws attention to himself ; his goods are branded ; his reputation is in the long run his livelihood. An anonymous purveyor may sand his sugar or put paper in the soles of the shoes he sells ; but if the advertiser of branded goods does so, then every time his distinctive name-block appears in print the disillusioned public will grit its teeth and get cold feet. His victims will talk ; his bad name will be bandied about, and he may as well hang himself at once.
For the same reason, he must not tell lies—at any rate, not outrageous lies. He must not tell lies that draw upon him the attention of the Home Office Analyst or make state- ments that the purchaser can promptly disprove for himself. If he says : " This tin contains no preservatives," then he must make good the boast or render himself liable to prose- cution. If he says : " This box contains 2 lbs. weight of chocolates exclusive of paper and packing," he is at the mercy of any householder who possesses a pair of scales. Plain lies are dangerous : the only weapons left him are the suggestio falsi and the suppressio yeti, and his use even of these would be very much more circumscribed if one person in ten had ever been taught how to read.
The first lesson the advertising writer has to learn is the exact use of words, and because this is the last thing the common reader cares to learn, the advantage is with the advertiser every time. This accounts for the frequent success of the suggestio falsi. I was once concerned with advertising (among other things) a certain adjunct to diet which we will cautiously designate by the expression Ti. A university man of my acquaintance was put on a special regimen by his physician, who gave him a list of edible substances arranged in ascending order of their nutritive content. His wife (also UniversityLeducated) remarked to me triumphantly : " And what do you think stood at the top of the list ? Why, Ti —marked ' No nutritive content whatever ' ! " " Well," said I, " and who ever said it had ? "—" All your advertise- ments." I replied, " Oh, no! Never. Not once. It is true that the word ' nutrition ' occurs from time to time in the advertisements of Ti, but we have never claimed that in contained nourishment. If we did, we might find ourselves in gaol. 7; i is everything that we claim for it : it is derived from the source we name ; it produces such effects as we assert ; it is in fact a stimulant (though it has nothing to do with alcohol) and as such it has its value ; but if we have ever said that w i is nourishing, you may put me in the pillory and pelt me with rotten eggs." Now, in case you think that Mrs. X was an exceptionally careless reader, let me ask you whether you yourself are not perhaps under the impression that I have, in this very paragraph, referred to 7ri as an article of diet. If so, do me the favour of looking back and seeing what I did actually call it. If you avoided that particular trap, you are in a position to estimate precisely the difference betwcen the following pairs of expressions : (a) Made in Britain. (b) Made by exclusively British labour at our factory in Manchester.
(a) Made with finest-quality ingredients including dairy butter and milk. (b) Made from English new-laid eggs and butter and guaranteed Grade A milk only.
(a) Every applicant who passes our examination will be afforded the opportunity of earning up to £6 a week. (b) We have six appointments at L4 a week in our own offices, and these will be awarded to the candidates obtaining the highest number of marks.
(a) Scientific experts all agree as to the valuable life-giving properties of Boomo. (b) Boomo has been submitted for analysis to the Board of Health and is certified to contain (formula follows).
The classical example of the suggestio falsi is that of the man who, being faced with, the difficulty of marketing an exceptionally pallid 'brand of canned salmon, announced on his labels, " Does not turn red in the tin." The perfect truth of this statement did not, I believe, save him from the vengeance of competitors with ruddier salmon to sell ; and it is nowadays accepted that " knocking " copy is inad- visable as tending to cast suspicion on the whole trade alike.
It will be seen that the best defence against both suggestio falsi and suppressio veri is to read advertisements carefully, observing both what is said and what is omitted. Those who prefer their English sloppy have only themselves to thank if the advertisement writer uses his mastery of vocabulary and syntax to mislead their weak minds. Caveat emptor.
Oddly enough, the one reproach levelled at advertising by the hard-headed is largely unjustified. " Straight " advertising, contrary to general belief, is not paid for by the consumer in higher prices, nor does the manufacturer have to lower the quality of the goods to pay for the adver- tising. Advertising, by increasing consumption, makes . it possible to manufacture more goods of the same quality for the same overhead cost and therefore lowers the price of each individual article to the consumer. This holds good unless or until either the advertising fails to create enough demand to pay for itself or the demand becomes so swollen as to neces- sitate new and excessive capital expenditure. Prudently used, advertising is a vital factor in -the lowering of prices and the maintenance of quality. Imprudent advertising may indeed ruin the manufacturer by cutting his margin of profit below the safety-limit ; when this happens, as in the Gift- Coupon ramp of a few years ago, the manufacturers are forced in self-defence to come to an agreement and save themselves and the public from the results of their common folly.
The moral of all this (said the Duchess) is that we have the kind of advertising we deserve ; since advertisements only pander to our own proclaimed appetites, and with whatsoever measure we mete our desires they are (most lavishly and attractively) measured to us again.