THE ADVERTISEMENT AS LITERARY GENRE 139 The Advertisement As Literary Genre Samuel I. Bellman English and Foreign Languages, emeritus The argument may be made that a “picture-with-text” commercial advertisement in a magazine or on a poster may sometimes be considered an art form in its own right. Leo Spitzer, an eminent philologist/linguist, in the late 1940s bolstered that argument, invoking art history primarily, but did not really continue this line of investigation. Here, after examples of verse and short fiction in pictorial advertising are given, an attempt will be made to present certain eye-catching advertisements as examples of a separate literary genre, based on these criteria: (1) a powerfully suggestive icon or symbolic picture is offered, (2) something is left out of the big picture, which the viewer makes up for with an enlarged interpretation, (3) the advertisement generates a whole range of ideas beyond what is immediately perceived. A “classic” example of such a literay-genre ad is suggested in this paper. Preview The scene in the little ovoid insert at the bottom of the full-page advertisement in certain magazines of the 1910s is quite simple. There are only two objects in it. One is a little white dog sitting on its haunches. The other is an early version of a phonograph, with a long, horn- like speaker. The dog, with its head very close to the mouth of the speaker, is listening intently. There is a statement printed below the dog and the machine on the floor, but above the conventional notice that the phonograph has been registered with the U.S. Patent Office. 140 SAMUEL I. BELLMAN Fall 1999 Background The idea that a magazine or poster advertisement—what has been called a “picture- with-text”—may have the quality of an art form, is not new. Half a century ago the eminent philologist and linguist Leo Spitzer of Johns Hopkins University developed a thesis somewhat along that line. In a lecture delivered in 1948 at Smith College, “American Advertising Explained as Popular Art,” and later printed as the Appendix in one of the volumes of his collected essays, he attempted (Spitzer, 1962, Appendix, pp. 248-77) to analyze a particular specimen of what he called a “picture-with-text” from the standpoint of classical art and formal aesthetics. The specimen was a poster touting Sunkist brand oranges, and the picture was of a snow-covered range of mountains in bright sunshine, with a mountain-high glass of orange juice, a smaller glass of the same sun-colored nutriment, and a fruit squeezer, atop of which was a Sunkist orange ripe for squeezing. A motto accompanied this scene: “‘From the sunkist groves of California/Fresh for you.’” Professor Henri Peyre, in his Foreword to the essay collection containing this essay by Spitzer (Peyre, 1962, p. xi), sums up as follows what Spitzer made of that motto in the poster. Spitzer “brilliantly analyzed all the evocative elements of poetry implicit in such a motto and read into and behind them a whole eudemonistic philosophy, with its promise of paradise to buyer and consumer.” Spitzer’s elaborate analysis , however, in my opinion makes too much of the obvious associations in the picture and its motto. His critique also brings a ponderous load of critical theory having to do with Western art over the centuries, informative as all of that may be, to bear on such an essentially simple picture poster. Finally, Spitzer, having come to the U.S. in the earlier 1930s as a seasoned and intellectually well-equipped scholar, makes certain assumptions about the Americans, their linguistic mannerisms as well as their cultural attitudes, that are sometimes a bit inaccurate or that are merely facile generalizations. Prelude What is printed below the little white dog and the primitive phonograph on the floor, in the insert at the bottom of the magazine advertisement referred to earlier, is a phrase telling what the dog seems to be listening to. That is, “‘His Master’s Voice.’” Who is the Master? Some opera singer or popular performer recently recorded? What is the voice actually saying, or singing? Who put the record on, in the first place? No answers are given. Those useful facts are left entirely to the viewer’s imagination or power of deduction. Literary Forms Within Advertisements While certain forms of pictorial advertisements may be considered as belonging, sui generis, to a distinct genre, traditional literary genres have continued to retain their own territory within the larger body of commercial advertisements. Poems, stories, even brief dramatic dialogues may be found amidst the all-too-familiar trappings of the formal circular that offers goods or services for sale. These literary insertions folded tightly within the strictly- business promotional material demonstrate how easy it is to “morph” a crass selling project into an artistic expression whose sales pitch may be ignored at will by the receiver. But these same insertions also point the way to something that, if successful to any degree, is not a hybrid born of two dissimilar begetters, thus showing a dual nature; rather, it is a new entity sufficient unto itself, combining the admirable features of a literary creation, pictorially illustrated, with a bold attempt at motivational rhetoric and the strategy of persuasion. THE ADVERTISEMENT AS LITERARY GENRE 141 But before moving on to the new genre that this paper is concerned with, it is necessary to look at how the traditional literary genres have actually been employed in the composition of magazine advertisements. The poem. In 1892 Ivory Soap sponsored a poetry contest in the pages of The Ladies’ Home Journal. An explanation was provided in a headnote over each winning entry printed in the monthly 1893 issues of the magazine, as follows. “Desiring to give the admirers of Ivory Soap an opportunity to contribute to its literature, the manufacturers offered prizes for the best twelve verses suitable for use as advertisements. 27,388 contributions were received.” Each printed entry was illustrated by a defining black and white line drawing. Given the religious, but non-denominational temper of the times, it is not surprising that elements of piety, fervent praise, adoration, loyalty, self-dedication, resolution, and of course purity—sometimes suggesting a prayer or a biblical echo—appeared in the prizewinning entries. The ninth prize (June, 1893 issue) describes a mower in the field, resting from his labors. He goes to the deep cool well and brings up a bucket of water from mounain springs. As the wheel, turning round and ound, winds chain and rope, He blesses water, blesses home, And blesses good, clean Ivory soap. Possibly the most charming story in all the prizewinning entries is the one that took sixth prize (September, 1893). The Widow La Rue keeps a neat cottage at the edge of the village. One day, as she takes from her clothesline her snowy garments, she makes such a sight to behold that the deacon, a sad widower, who happens to be passing by, is strongly affected: . . . his lone loving heart, At the sight of that picture was pierced through and through By that roguish sprite, Cupid’s sharp dart. Now his home and his children are cleanly and neat Beyond the lone man’s wildest hope; And the widow with smiles lays the cause of her bliss, To the use of the pure Ivory Soap. Note that in this entry there is a story within the poem that is embodied in the Ivory Soap advertisement, creating a nesting effect, as in a pile of baskets with one tucked inside another. A further example of the story within the poem, as a basis for advertising the product, is to be found in the series of roadside signs that touted BURMA SHAVE, a brushless shaving cream, in various parts of our country from the mid-1920s to well into the 1960s, courtesy of Leonard C. Odell and his brother Allan, and an annual national contest for suitable new entries. EVERY WANTS A STRONG OF SMOOTH OF BURMA SHAVE SHEBA SHEIK MUSCLE CHEEK Not all dealt with love or lust in bloom. JIMMIE A NAUGHTY IMMIE’S MOTHER SOAPSUDS? NO! BURMA SAID WORD OVERHEARD SHE PREFERRED SHAVE The product’s catchy five-liners and six-liners were, according to BURMA SHAVE historian Frank Rowsome, Jr. (Rowsome, 1965. p. 60), “in total a remarkable potpourri of folk 142 SAMUEL I. BELLMAN Fall 1999 humor, wit, and skillfully offbeat merchandising.” Now and then abstract praise for the product would be featured, or safe-driving advice, a safety tip à la mode: FROM TO TO GATES BURMA SHAVE BAR CAR AJAR Arguably the most charming, in fact the best, if Rowsome is read closely, were the courtship and broken-romance mini-dramas. BEN MET MADE A WONDER BEN-ANNA BURMA SHAVE ANNA HIT WHY SPLIT However, there was a little more to these minuscule romance sagas than cute concise phrasing and beating the competition in men’s shaving products. In the later 1920s and the Depression 1930s, advertising copywriters played up the idea of “The Problem! The Solution! Action!” in quite a number of areas where the individual was apt to be affected. If this seems a commonplace truism, in light of today’s print media, TV, and Internet advertising, it is well to go back to the popular-culture ambiance of the later 1920s, when the BURMA-SHAVE campaign really got underway. Rowsome, speaking of the Depression period (end of 1929 through the 1930s) puts it succinctly. “At that time many advertisers preferred long blocks of copy, composed around the ‘reason why’ principle.” This was especially true with regard to drugstore items. The idea that everyone was “needlessly malodorous” was being disseminated by Lifebuoy soap and Listerine mouthwash. Absorbine Jr. was conveying the notion “that many apparently beautiful women had cracked and scabby toes,” while many other advertisers “from Fleischmann’s Yeast to Feenamint,” spread the word “that infrequent and faulty bowel movements were both a national disgrace and a grievous personal failure.” This was the “advertising scene,” according to Rowsome, that the Odell brothers entered, with “their distinctive, often ironic humor” (18) about the effect on a woman of a man’s scratchy whiskers and his repellent face. And thereby hung an endless number of tales, in quickrhyme, thanks to the brushless shaving cream that Leonard and Allan Odell immortalized along the American roadside. The story. Rowsome might have added more instances of his reason why principle. Two such examples explained disorders in familiar external objects of personal use: “pink toothbrush,” i.e., bleeding gums, supposedly preventable if the proper brand of toothpaste were used, and “tattletale gray”—discolored bedlinen, likewise preventable, provided that Fels Naphtha soap were used at laundry time. At all events the story genre became available for much more extensive use than ever before, in the area of “picture-with-text” advertising, and available for a far higher level of expression than it could ever reach with the quickrhymes on behalf of BURMA SHAVE or the doggerel verses touting Ivory Soap. And so, with helpful accompanying sketches, the advertising copywriters treated the reading public to a pop culture version of The Arabian Thousand and One Nights’ Entertainment: an American Alf Layla wa Layla. Cautionary tales, confessionals, revelations of secret shame or triumph over impossible odds, boastful accounts proving that faint heart never won fair lady, intriguing narratives about the open road to self-discovery and fulfillment: all this is but a sampling of the apocalyptic disclosures and ad hominem prophecies bearing on American private lives and desperate hopes for a better existence. 1924. “Why men crack . . .” A dire warning of what happens to healthy-appearing men keeping up with the times, living feverishly, whipping their nerves to the limit, exhausting their THE ADVERTISEMENT AS LITERARY GENRE 143 energy supply. They crack. The illustration shows a business executive sitting at his desk in a palatial office, cracking. A law of physics is cited: “‘For every action there is an equal and contrary reaction.’” “It applies to bodies.” How to prevent cracking and crashing? Avoid caffeine—drink Postum, “made of whole wheat and bran roasted,” plus a bit of sweetening. A sporting proposition is given to men who’ve not yet cracked: accept the offer of Carrie Blanchard (the Postum lady)—send for a week’s free supply and buy (and drink) your own Postum for the next thirty days afterward, and then see what happens. 1923. “Often a bridesmaid but never a bride.” Picture of a sad but beautiful woman, yearning, yearning. “Edna’s case was really a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls in her set were married—or about to be. Yet not one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she.” With her birthdays creeping by degrees toward the tragic thirtieth, “marriage seemed farther from her life than ever.” Her secret problem? Bad breath, something that could have been dealt with by the use of Listerine mouth wash. So now she will remain often the bridesmaid, but never the bride. No Listerine for her means simply no suitor and no wedding! 1923. “One year married and all talked out.” The young marrieds are shown at home in their attractive drawing room. He is sitting “in moody silence under the lamp,” she is sitting on the sofa. “The click of her needles is the only sound that breaks the veil of depression in the room.” Now, starting their second year as husband and wife, there is simply nothing to say! How to find more topics of conversation, turn “their silent, lonely hours into real human companionship?” Answer! Send for a booklet titled “Fifteen Minutes a Day” (P. F. Collier & Son Co.), about Harvard University president Dr. Charles W. Eliot’s famous “Five Foot Shelf of Books” and his recommended reading plan (giving “notes and reading courses”) for the “great books he chose for the most useful library in the world.” With those books and his plan, and by spending only fifteen minutes each day, every individual can obtain “the things that make an interesting and responsive companion.” 1923. “Turned down again.” The sad young man moves away, downcast, as the beautiful charmer goes off on the dancefloor with a self-confident, happy young make-out artist. “Not a single dance with her.” He envies the other fellows so, as they gaily whirl her around the floor! Somehow he is always “‘just too late.’” He figures she rejects his invitations on purpose. But he never once guesses the reason: comedones—blackheads. You may even not be aware of them, but your friends are. You may ponder why you receive fewer invitations, and why friends, girls especially, apparently keep away from you. “Pompeian Massage Cream helps you overcome comedones” and “gives you a clean, clear, ruddy complexion.” 1924. Now, a less gruesome tale, or rather a sketch with an implied story behind it. “‘Contentment’” is the caption over the Neysa McMein painting of a self-assured woman at the wheel of her V-63 Cadillac Roadster, turning to look grandly (in her sporty collared blouse, gloves, and flowery cloche hat) at the artist or viewer. She is especially satisfied by the safety the Cadillac’s four-wheel brakes offer, and by the performance of its “new harmonized and balanced” V-8 engine. With each ride her belief in this car’s leadership is confirmed. It “is the car she desires, and the car she possesses,” and this is the secret of her enviable contentment as a motorist. There are a number of other human interest stories showing how defeat can be transmuted into victory, possibly with a happy ending that promotes reader identification. 1929. “‘They Laughed When I Got Up to Speak’—But from the First Word, I Held Them Spellbound.” Like a similar ad from 1929, “‘Don’t make a monkey of yourself!’ cried Bob as I sat down at the piano,” and another from the same general time period, “‘They Laughed When 144 SAMUEL I. BELLMAN Fall 1999 I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!—” the ad about getting up to speak features an unaccomplished “loser” type who is almost miraculously transmuted into a super achiever. The poor soul, struggling with the burden of timidness and low self-esteem, sends away for a free booklet that tells him how he can master the particular area he is weakest in and most concerned with: sign up and pay for a series of lessons designed to train people like him to acquire the desired skill or ability, and at the same time gain real self-confidence. He takes the required course of study, likely by correspondence, and in fairly short order “hits the jackpot.” He becomes a brilliant speaker and self-motivating man of affairs, thanks to the booklet, “How to Work Wonders with Words,” and the course of study from the Chicago-based North American Institute. In one of the other cases, he becomes a much admired pianist because he acted on the advice of a booklet titled “Music Lessons in your own home,” and took the music course offered by the U.S. School of Music. In the 1940s another American Success Story was widely circulated in magazine advertisements. It was about an unmuscular weakling at the beach, getting hassled by a trouble-making bully. He decided to send for Charles Atlas’s free book, “Everlasting Health and Strength,” and then he signed up for Charles Atlas’s muscle-building course, based on the Atlas principle of “Dynamic Tension.” (One muscle group is to be pitted against another muscle group, under proper conditions, in order for the Atlas system to take effect.) The system worked wonders for this pathetic case, and the former wimp returned to punch out the beach bully and become a hero among women. But according to the ad, he represented what almost any underweight, passive male could make of himself, if he only let Charles Atlas, the muscular model for the age, be his guide. Interlude There is an innocent simplicity about the ovoid insert in the phonograph advertise- ment sponsored by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Most readers have tended to give it at most only passing notice, as just another way to “plug” the products of the Victor Company: the victrola and the records. Has anyone noticed that in this modest little listening-dog icon many important concepts and areas of thought are brought together to form a remarkable and perhaps even strangely unsettling mix? The Advertisement As Literary Genre? Do not be deceived. Not every “picture-with-text” advertisement in a print medium is, ipso facto, a literary genre unto itself. Nor would every astute critic (giving everyone anywhere the benefit of the doubt) agree on a particular “picture- with-text” example: does it or doesn’t it pass the genre test? Each viewer makes a personal judgment call, based on a private standard of separation of powers or a theory of limits. Thus: a short story is a prose narrative bound by time and length. Etc. Here, the idea is that a pictorial advertisment uses narration at least to some extent (at minimum, a catchy slogan or brief wording, but very suggestively and imaginatively offered). A powerful icon may be included, to embody the message, which is not at all the same as the mere sales pitch, with its strident imperative of BUY! INVEST! SPEND! SUBSCRIBE! However, there are three more significant features. The entire piece resonates in the viewer’s consciousness, because of the implications of the powerful icon— the arresting picture, or whatever. Secondly, something is left out of the overall “big picture,” which the viewer compensates for by giving the advertisement a very special reading, an enlarged interpretation. Thirdly, the overall ad generates a whole range of ideas beyond the immediate “picture-with-text.” Arguably one of the more effective advertisements, a genre unto itself, was the notice of Pomona First Federal Savings (recently renamed PFF Bank and Trust), of Southern THE ADVERTISEMENT AS LITERARY GENRE 145 California, in the late 1980s or thereabouts, regarding the one-time interest-rate increase available on a particular CD option. “STEP UP TO HIGHER EARNINGS,” reads the caption. A large picture occupying much of the left side and middle of the page shows a man making his way up a huge zigzag staircase (with no rails), disappearing into the clouds. The solitary sojourner has made it almost to the top of the first rise, or zig. His right arm is upraised, as if he is signaling something. Can this represent a clever paradigm of the human condition: a lonely upward striving into the yet-unseen, unknowable distance, notwithstanding the recur- ring ups and downs of the risky pursuit? It is strange that a number of other advertisements in recent years have featured a somewhat comparable upward perspective beginning at the base of a grandiose towering form, directing the viewer’s eye to the impressive possibilities that the visible top may hold. In these ads no solitary climber is present, just the dazzling angled vista. Examples follow. (6) The Trump International Hotel & Tower, Trump’s “‘Home in the Sky,’” at One Central Park West (The New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1997, p. 27); the elegant staircase winding upward out of sight, courtesy of First Republic Bank, Beverly Hills (Performing Arts, November, 1998, p. 4); the stark upsweep of the Washington Monument, triply labeled “It’s our Big Ben,” “Our Eiffel Tower,” and “Our Parthenon,” from TARGET Stores for the Monument restoration project (The New York Times Magazine, April 26, 1998, p. 61); and the wide-angle- lens shot of a snow-flecked pine tree crowned with evergreen foliage, in the U. S. Council for Energy Awareness ad (NEWSWEEK, June 1, 1992, p. 11). That all this emphasis on looking up and out may foreshadow a new display style—the Centennial Style, or better still, the Millennial Style—is suggested by two recent newspaper sketches of a man climbing or poised to climb steps, wherein the viewer’s eye is directed upward and outward. In one instance the man seems lost or stalled in a solid-wall maze with open block-steps (The New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1998, p. 7), and in the other instance the man is climbing a series of stepping-stones that form a cantilever bridge leading to a closed door (The Los Angeles Times Opinion section, January 4, 1998, p. M1). Another resonating, highly suggestive advertisement is that of the non-soap cleansing compound Pearline, which appeared on the back cover of the October, 1892 Ladies’ Home Journal. Below the caption “House-Cleaning,” the ad shows a woman (judging by her attire and her hair-do, obviously the lady of the house) holding on the fingers of her left hand a miniature oblong house: two stories with an attic, a pitched roof, and a chimney. With her right hand, which holds a brush dipped in Pearline, `she is carefully scrubbing the outside of the house. “Millions now use Pearline,” reads the caption under the picture. Below that is the “plug” for this wondrous time- and work-saver, this “household word,” Pearline. Aside from the obvious interpretation—that Pearline makes it as easy for a woman to clean a toy house as a real house—is the perspective of contrasting sizes. As in a toddler’s word- + picture toy-book about contrasting sizes, we have here a case of “big spouse, little house.” “big soil, small toil,” “small rush, large brush,” etc. The over-riding importance of the woman’s gigantic size in relation to her tiny house is clear. Her place is not in the house (home): she could never fit into it! The woman takes her place with the outsize fantasy-figures described by Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Voltaire (Micromegas), and E. L. Doctorow (Big As Life). In light of this imaginative presentation, gender clichés that may come to mind, such as “A woman’s work is never done,” “the little woman,” and even “my better half” should be replaced at once with the far more appropriate advisory, “Never underestimate the power of a woman!” 146 SAMUEL I. BELLMAN Fall 1999 A third “literary genre” example is the advertisement sponsored by The Montgomery Funds, appearing on the inside front cover of The New York Times Magazine, June 28, 1998. The large illustration in the upper center of the page is in the form of a diptych, each of whose panels shows a painting of a low rolling hill with trees, above which is a large area of clouded sky. The paintings are replicas; the one on the viewer’s left was placed, unframed, on a chair in a storage room filled with items of furniture and other objects, while the same-size painting on the viewer’s right was framed and mounted on the wall of a museum. Barrier stands with a rope connecting each pair of stands indicate the museum’s desire to keep visitors at a safe distance from this prominently displayed painting. A price is listed beneath each panel: the picture in the very cluttered room is listed at $25, and the museum picture is listed at $250,000. Above the diptych is a caption: “It’s not what you see. It’s how you see it.” In the lower right a note provides the reason for the ad. “As Sherlock Holmes once remarked to Watson, ‘you see, but you do not observe.’ Which, in a rather cogent nutshell, is the problem most of us face in the world of investments. Lacking both time and expertise, we’re all too likely to blithely pass by all those luscious opportunities lurking in the bushes.” A basic principle of Gestalt psychology is involved here, the figure-ground relationship, whereby the viewer sees the object(s) of attention against the spatial background (which may include objects of varying or no importance); this spatial background is thus the context against which the importance of the object(s) in question may be gauged. In the left panel of the diptych the clutter of the room diminishes the value of the picture, just as the museum wall and roped barrier posts in the right panel enhance that value. At any time each of us may be measuring somebody’s or something’s value, and a particular commercial product offered for sale at a given time may remind us how easily its utility value can vary with the when and where of circumsace. THE ADVERTISEMENT AS LITERARY GENRE 147 One more example, another potential slice of life in miniature, symbol, and imaginative expression. The August, 1989 issue of American Way (the American Airlines magazine) contained an advertisement (p. 2) for National Satellite Paging’s SkyPager system, enabling people on the wing to remain in touch with their whirling world of affairs, thus eliminating distance. The overhead picture in the ad shows an urban landscape, with a green lawn and high shrubs in the lower portion. It is indeed an exciting modern community, although quite crowded and cluttered, deserving of the designation “LAND OF THE FREE” just below the picture. Among the many structures that constitute the megalopolis on the green are the following: San Francisco’s Transamerica pyramid, Seattle’s space needle, San Antonio’s Alamo, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, Chicago’s John Hancock Building, the Washington Monument, the National Capitol, the twin towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center, Los Angeles World Airport’s open-frame Encounter restaurant, and the Statue of Liberty. Here, before the very eyes of the viewer is the city called America: no mere global village, look you, but a community of infinite possibility, of countless tens of millions, a measureless treasure trove of real tales of experience evoking delight, horror, and wonder—the quintessential City of the Millennium! If O. Henry in the early 1900s managed to garner several handfuls of stories of New York (collected in The Four Million and other volumes), how many more literary gems might this vastly greater America yield up to millennial writers? Postlude So far, something like ninety years after it first appeared, there has been no meaningful reaction—outside of mere product sales—to the highly potent Victor icon of the little white dog listening so intently to “‘His Master’s Voice’” on the victrola record. But where else, in our advertising media, has there ever been packed in one small space the following: commercial- ism, spirituality (possibly even theology), mystery, aesthetics, friendship, loyalty, action at a distance, a non-finite frame of reference, and the embodiment of the twentieth-century American cultural experience? Will we ever learn the full meaning of this oddly inspired, perhaps even secet-message, advertisement? 148 SAMUEL I. BELLMAN Fall 1999 References Ladies’ Home Journal. The Ivory Soap Contest winners, cited above, are as follows. Eleventh Prize: Florence Dunreath Brewer , LHJ 10 (April 1893), 37; Ninth Prize: Amy E. Blan- chard, LHJ 10 (June 1893), 40; Tenth Prize: Henry C. Wood, LHJ 10 (May, 1893), 31; Sixth Prize, Belle Devlin, LHJ 10 (September, 1893), 31. Rowsome, Jr., Frank. Verse by the Side of the Road. New York: Dutton, 1966. After providing a history of the Burma-Shave Sign project, Rowsome in his Appendix (71-121) gives the texts of all Burma-Shave Signs, 1927-63. Spitzer, Leo. (1962). “American Advertising Explained as Popular Art.” In Leo Spitzer, Essays on English and American Literature, ed. Anna Hatcher. Henri Peyre, Foreword. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1962.
Pages to are hidden for
"The Advertisement As Literary Ge"Please download to view full document