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Besought, Incited, or Commanded: the Art and Invention of Advertising

“Advertising has a thousand principles, one purpose, and no morals.”

I stopped in my tracks when I saw that quote in the Smithsonian’s American Enterprise exhibition. I wanted to know more about this quote and more about Samuel Hopkins Adams.

To start, this quote comes at the end of the May 22, 1909, Collier’s Magazine article “The Art of Advertising.” As it turns out, the sentences that follow are just as provocative.

Advertising has a thousand principles, one purpose, and no morals. That it should have morals is inhibited by its purpose, which is salesmanship. The ad that sells something is a good ad. The ad that does not sell is a bad ad. Advertising is art, it is literature, it is invention. But it is not humanitarianism nor altruism. Failure is the one cardinal sin, and success the all-sufficient justification of the means by the end. (p. 15)

While looking at the rest of the article it wasn’t too long before I ran across this quote that feels very true today:

We live surrounded by the advertisement. There is no hour of our waking life in which we are not besought, incited, or commanded to buy something of somebody. Our morning paper is full of it; our walk to the nearest car bristles with it; the transfer which we take blazons with it. (p. 13)

Who was the man with a good turn of phrase?

Samuel Hopkins Adams was born in New York and got his start as a reporter for the New York Sun before moving on to McClure’s Magazine. He, like Ida Tarbell who he worked with, got the reputation for muckraking journalism and Collier’s hired him to write a series of articles about patent medicines. Those articles became the influential The Great American Fraud that provided a look at the patent medicine business for a wider audience. The curtain on the industry was lifted just a little and it wasn’t pretty; Congress soon passed the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (34 Stat. 768, Chapter 3915) which was signed into law in January 1907. Patent medicines must have been something he was passionate about because it was a topic he revisited in Collier’s in 1912 where he wrote three pieces “Law, the label and the liars” (April 13, p10-11) “Fraud above the law” (May 11, p13-15), and “Fraud medicines own up” ( January 20, p11-12).

His next big series of articles for Collier’s was the “The New World of Trade” which focused on the world of advertising. The first article, “The Art of Advertising” is where our quote comes into the story. The other pieces in the series include “Fair trade and foul” (June 19 1909, p19-20) “Traps and pitfalls of advertisers” (July 24 1909, p10-11), and possibly “The Publisher and the Public” August 21 that I was not able to find. His articles and those written by others raised the awareness of advertising and helped draw attention and pressure and played a part in the truth in advertising sentiment and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission which was founded in 1914.

PSA or advertisement for what is advertising is good for with five advertisements one features a helicopter, one a child, one is Smokey the bear, one shows a baby's face, one says Peace Demonstration

What good does advertising do?, Advertising Council, sponsor/advertiser.

Adams wrote more than muckraking articles. He wrote a biography of Alexander Woollcott and other books including a few novels like The Clarion. He even wrote some novels under the pseudonym Warner Fabian that were a bit more risqué. While Adams was a journalist and writer and not in the advertising world, his articles left an impact on the advertising world long after his death.

Advertising as a business topic has been featured in many Inside Adams posts. A recent post on Dry Goods Economist looked more closely at advertising but other posts used advertisements more directly; particularly those for Christmas and Thanksgiving and others for companies like Aunt Sally’s Baking Powder and Castoria.

full page advertisement with the large headline that says It Pays to Advertise because it is the best of all forms of selling and is the least expensive

Advertisement in the Daily Kennebec Journal, 19 Nov. 1917.

If you are interested in researching the history of advertising the Library has a number of resources that you may be interested in using. There is the Emergence of Advertising in America that had been an online exhibit on our website. You can use Chronicling America to search for advertisements for particular companies or products, look at how ads changed over time, and even see some of Adams’ work. We also have the guide Consumer Advertising During the Great Depression for further research. The Library’s web site has some older advertising books and dictionaries that have been digitized if you are interested in learning how things were in 1916 or 1921. You can find periodicals like Advertising Age as well as books that look at the history of advertising in its print collection.

I wonder what Adams would think today. What would he make of the evolution of advertising from newspapers, to radio, to TV, and now to internet advertising and ads in mobile apps? Would he even be amazed that we are bombarded with even more advertising than he was subjected to? Maybe the quote that inspired this post can give us a clue.

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