( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Not all the people read magazines and newspapers. Notwithstanding our claims to popular intelligence through wide dissemination of information covering every department of human activity and notwithstanding our system of free education, there are many thou-sands who seldom read a piece of periodical literature of any kind. Go up and down one of the streets of one of our most progressive and enlightened cities and make inquiries at every door and you will be surprised to learn how large a percentage of the population does not subscribe to any periodical of any description. The children go to public schools and from them the parents absorb a smattering of intelligence regarding events of past or current interest; but many public and private schools unfortunately are still devoting all the pedagogical gray matter to teaching dead languages and imparting other useless knowledge. Even the high schools are still making their annual contributions to the army of educated loafers.
In thousands of homes, therefore, the parents re-main in dense ignorance of current thought of the best thinkers on the daily happenings in the various lines of human activity. Their minds are, therefore, keenly receptive to impressions created by outdoor advertising. The circus poster catches the eye of the small boy, not because of the daring feats of the trapeze performers alone, but because his eyes are unused to the pictorial art in colors, hence not surfeited with pictures or printed literature. A boy who has access to a large library in his home may acquire literary taste, but he gets feu definite impressions about anything. But the boy who has to borrow a book from a friend and has to steal away to a secluded spot behind the woodshed to read it is apt to have a keenly open and receptive mind.
So it is with a very large percentage of the human family; and here is where the bill-board comes in. It takes advantage of these conditions to reach effectively and convincingly the class that doesn't see advertising in newspapers or magazines. But the bill-board must do more than reach the class which doesn't have access to ordinary advertising literature. It must reach those who are too busy with their own affairs, who are too deeply engrossed in business, to read ordinary advertising. Before these the outdoor advertiser flashes a sentence in unexpected places on the railways and country highways or the city streets, in fact, wherever the bill-posting or leasing company can lease space for the erection of boards.
Whether the advertisements are painted on the boards or pasted on in the shape of posters does not affect the argument as to the value of bill-board advertising.
The difference between painted boards and posters involves considerations of economy rather than degrees of advertising value. Painted signs are generally more effective, remain on the boards longer and withstand the elements better than printed posters. If the latter are used they must be renewed after drenching rains. In fact, all kinds of outdoor advertising must be renewed or freshened after exposure to the elements for certain lengths of time.
What, then, is the place of the bill-board in the general scheme of publicity? It is hardly permissible to assume that any modern, progressive advertiser would depend upon bill-boards alone for publicity for any commodity, al-though they quite often meet all the requirements of a particular product at a particular time in a particular locality. In a general way it may be said that they are a supplemental form of publicity to be used in connection with other advertising. If you ask the bill-board company what is the function or the place of out-door advertising it is apt to say that it constitutes a "reminder" of your product—that it presents an opportunity to prevent the public from losing sight of the thing which you sell or manufacture.
I have never regarded this as a good definition of bill-board advertising, and hence not a good argument for this form of publicity. Any advertising that is simply a "reminder" is not good advertising. I do not believe in bill-board "reminders" or any other kind of "reminders" which consist merely in flashing the name of a commodity on a sign. I do not believe it affects old customers or makes new ones. The bill-board advertisement, like every other form of publicity, should give a reason or a suggestion. If a man has been eating a certain breakfast food every morning for several years and has finally dropped it he cannot be induced to eat it again by simply flashing the name of the food before his eyes as he dashes along on a trolley car or express train. Certainly it will not make new consumers because it gives no information regarding the product—no reason why anyone should eat it—in fact, it may not be possible to tell from the bill-board "reminder" whether it is a breakfast food, a cigar or an automobile.
One strong line which contains the meat of the selling argument, however, may save the bill-board. This one line may present a new reason that never occurred to the consumer who discontinued the use of a breakfast food and may induce him to eat it again. Here is a large bill-board erected by the house of 57 varieties that catches my eye from the window of the New York Central train every morning. Across the top of this sign in big, strong letters are the words "Heinz Tomato Soup." If this old and well known house with wide experience in advertising were satisfied to erect billboards as simply "reminders" this line would be enough. But the Heinz house is not spending money for "reminders." The question that may arise or suggest itself to the man who is looking out of the car window is, "What is in the soup? How is it made? How does it differ from other soups?" Of course, you cannot tell the whole story of the Heinz process of making tomato soup on the bill-boards, and if you did, the train flies by too rapidly for the eye of any passenger to read it all.
It must be possible to frame some sentence or some line that will embody in terse and lucid style the selling argument for this soup which will appeal quickly and directly to every person who likes soups, and, sure enough, the Heinz house has supplied the line. It reads : "RED RIPE TOMATOES WITH RICH CREAM." Here is where the "smack" comes in—also the argument—for a thing that has "smack" to it and whets the appetite is argument enough. If you are hungry and the dinner hour is approaching, this line is creamy enough and rich enough to make you taste tomato soup, for what could be more appetizing or more palatable than red, ripe tomatoes cooked with cream?
From all this it may be easily deduced that two or three strong lines composed of terse, short words which contain the meat or pith of the entire selling argument are all that should appear on bill-boards or other forms of outdoor advertising. The great danger in outdoor advertising is the same which confronts the advertiser in street car advertising, the danger of trying to crowd too much into space which can command the attention of the possible consumer for but a few moments. There are signs that reflect the highest attainment of the artist but which possess little selling power. One picture, indeed, may be such a conglomeration of colors as to destroy the entire advertising value of a large bill-board. The color printer may give you such an artistically finished picture, so perfect in technic, that it will elicit the praise and commendation of the local art society, but when it comes to the final test as to its selling power or real publicity value it may lamentably fail of its purpose. It is not the business of the outdoor advertiser to try to improve upon nature in the embellishment or decoration of the landscape. A symphony in eight colors may be highly aesthetic and may elevate the artistic standards of the community but have no selling force whatever. Successful poster copy must do something more than respond to the art sense or cultivated taste of those who have a highly developed art instinct. It must show the uses of a product in pictorial illustration or must contain in its regular lines the vital element of the selling argument.
Attention has been called to the recent change in the poster copy for Omega Oil. Nearly every student of advertising remembers the unique and artistic designs formerly used by this com- pany in its street car advertising. One of these designs which served to amuse, entertain and edify the small boy in the street car showed a boy, a flock of geese and a bag of corn. A flock of geese and a boy are always interesting when brought into close juxtaposition, but when you add a third object like a bag of corn you are introducing an element that means trouble for the small boy, especially if it is his duty to guard the bag of corn. The picture was one well cal- culated to attract attention and comment, but what had all this to do with Omega Oil? It is true that the words "Omega Oil" were printed in the upper corner of the card, but mortal intelligence was not equal to the job of figuring out any connection between Omega Oil and the flock of geese, the small boy or the bag of corn. To all appearances the boy and the geese were perfectly sound and appeared to be in no immediate need of this particular remedy for bruises, cuts or sprains. After spending a good many thousand dollars in decorating the street cars of the country with gems of art, we are told that the company suddenly decided to adopt a method of publicity which actually showed the uses of Omega Oil, and instead of the flock of geese threatening to devour the small boy and the corn, we have a series of interesting photo studies showing the wide uses of Omega Oil in alleviating the pain of those who suffer from sprains, rheumatism and other ailments of this character.
But right here we come into conflict with the art societies and other organizations banded together in the interest of the "city beautiful" and for the protection of the scenic beauties of country highways and landscapes. The municipal authorities and state legislatures are being petitioned to protect country highways from disfigurement by the ruthless hand of the greedy corporation which derives profit from outdoor advertising. The war on bill-boards is prosecuted from year to year with unabated vigor and against their crusade are arrayed all the forces and influences that can be commanded or controlled by the outdoor advertising agencies. The art society would have the bill-board and the poster further art "for art's sake" and the society that is working for the city beautiful would have every bill-board a symphony in colors reflecting the highest standards of the art schools without any reference to selling power or publicity value.
The civic improvement club and the art society are slow to recognize the fact that the bill-board has a legitimate place on the face of the earth. The first crusades inaugurated by these societies did not stop short of an attempt to abolish outdoor advertising as a public nuisance. Failing in the attempt to wipe all forms of outdoor advertising from the face of the earth, the lovers of the "city beautiful" are now directing their energies to securing greater conformity with accepted artistic standards. This saner view of the question of outdoor advertising is admirably reflected by the secretary of the Chicago Municipal Art League, who is quoted as delivering the following sensible utterances on this question:
"Are bill-boards all wrong, then? No. They have as much right to exist as the advertising matter in our magazines, their pictorial covers, and the signs on our places of business. But the magazines employ good artists, the covers are usually excellent in design and sometimes charming. The signs are made as fine as wealth can buy and some of them are excellent—a very few. Our better establishments show studied reserve in the matter of signs ; which proves that we are not all eaten up with vulgarity. If the bill-board people would employ only the same good artists that work for the magazines, the boards would be more endurable. We might even grow to like them—in moderation. There are boards which display cartoons that cannot be condemned. Occasionally some one of them is admirable. Those printed on paper in the better class of lithographic establishments are designed by artistic fellows and usually are pretty good; perhaps excel-lent. Those painted in oils are not good as a rule, although there are fairly decent examples."
The conclusion of the whole matter is that the future of outdoor advertising rests in the willingness of the art societies and improvement organizations to concede that the bill-board companies have large vested interests which cannot be ruthlessly impaired or destroyed and in the willingness of the outdoor advertisers and the bill-board companies to concede that the people have a right to protect their thoroughfares, parks and public places from hideous disfigurements by bill-boards that offend the public sense of decency. The future of outdoor advertising rests, in short, in a reconciliation of these conflicting interests.