This is probably the oldest article ever written about advertising as we know it today. It has been quoted often, but rarely read as a whole. Samuel Johnson published it in issue 40 of his magazine The Idler, on January 20, 1759. It’s an interesting and amusing satire – and, in many ways, relevant today.
Advertisements are now so numerous…
The practice of appending to the narratives of public transactions, more minute and domestic intelligence, and filling the News-papers with advertisements, has grown up by slow degrees to its present state.
Genius is shewn 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 shewn the way, it was easy to follow him; and every man now knows a ready method of informing the Publick of all that he desires to buy or sell, whether his wares be material or intellectual; whether he makes Cloaths, 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 wonderful, it 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 acquainted, it is warmer than four or five blankets, and lighter than one.
There are some, however, that know the prejudice of mankind in favour of modest sincerity. The Vender 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 shewn by the Seller of the Anodyne Necklace, for the ease and safety of poor toothing 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, Tom-ax, 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 tom ax, 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 tragick 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 the 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 publick good, I cannot but propose it as a moral question to these masters of the publick ear, whether they do not sometimes play too wantonly with our passions, as when the Register 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 neighbour. 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 Publick. 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 endeavour 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 Boddice-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.
The Idler was a weekly news magazine – 104 issues were published from April 15, 1758 to April 15, 1760. The last of its eight pages contained the latest Saturday news, stock exchange reports – and advertising. The first advertisements appeared in issue 30 (November, 1758). On the front page of issues 30 and 31 Samuel Johnson placed this statement:
“As this Paper is now so well established as to exceed the Proprietors’ most sanguine Expectations, they intend henceforth to insert advertisements, but such “only will be admitted as are perfectly decent, and intended to promote Trade, or that are otherwise serviceable to the Publick”.
In the famous Dictionary of the English Language, that Samuel Johnson wrote between 1746 and 1755, to advertise was defined in all of its meanings except commercial communication. Advertisement was quoted as “a word now not in use.” The current meaning of these words appears to have started at some time after 1746 and before 1758.
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