The Art of the Adsmith by William Dean Howells
The other day, a friend of mine, who professes all the intimacy of a bad
conscience with many of my thoughts and convictions, came in with a bulky
book under his arm, and said, "I see by a guilty look in your eye that
you are meaning to write about spring."
"I am not," I retorted, "and if I were, it would be because none of the
new things have been said yet about spring, and because spring is never
an old story, any more than youth or love."
"I have heard something like that before," said my friend, "and I
understand. The simple truth of the matter is that this is the fag-end
of the season, and you have run low in your subjects. Now take my advice
and don't write about spring; it will make everybody hate you, and will
do no good. Write about advertising." He tapped the book under his arm
significantly. "Here is a theme for you."
He had no sooner pronounced these words than I began to feel a weird and
potent fascination in his suggestion. I took the book from him and
looked it eagerly through. It was called Good Advertising, and it was
written by one of the experts in the business who have advanced it almost
to the grade of an art, or a humanity.
"But I see nothing here," I said, musingly, "which would enable a
self-respecting author to come to the help of his publisher in giving due
hold upon the public interest those charming characteristics of his book
which no one else can feel so penetratingly or celebrate so
"I expected some such objection from you," said my friend. "You will
admit that there is everything else here?"
"Everything but that most essential thing. You know how we all feel
about it: the bitter disappointment, the heart-sickening sense of
insufficiency that the advertised praises of our books give us poor
authors. The effect is far worse than that of the reviews, for the
reviewer is not your ally and copartner, while your publisher—"
"I see what you mean," said my friend. "But you must have patience.
If the author of this book can write so luminously of advertising in
other respects, I am sure he will yet be able to cast a satisfactory
light upon your problem. The question is, I believe, how to translate
into irresistible terms all that fond and exultant regard which a writer
feels for his book, all his pervasive appreciation of its singular
beauty, unique value, and utter charm, and transfer it to print, without
infringing upon the delicate and shrinking modesty which is the
distinguishing ornament of the literary spirit?"
"Something like that. But you understand."
"Perhaps a Roentgen ray might be got to do it," said my friend,
thoughtfully, "or perhaps this author may bring his mind to bear upon
it yet. He seems to have considered every kind of advertising except
"The most important of all!" I cried, impatiently.
"You think so because you are in that line. If you were in the line of
varnish, or bicycles, or soap, or typewriters, or extract of beef, or of
"Still I should be interested in book—advertising, because it is the
most vital of human interests."
"Tell me," said my friend, "do you read the advertisements of the books
of rival authors?"
"Brother authors," I corrected him.
"Well, brother authors."
I said, No, candidly, I did not; and I forbore to add that I thought them
little better than a waste of the publishers' money.
My friend did not pursue his inquiry to my personal disadvantage, but
seemed to prefer a more general philosophy of the matter.
"I have often wondered," he said, "at the enormous expansion of
advertising, and doubted whether it was not mostly wasted. But my
author, here, has suggested a brilliant fact which I was unwittingly
groping for. When you take up a Sunday paper"—I shuddered, and my
friend smiled intelligence—"you are simply appalled at the miles of
announcements of all sorts. Who can possibly read them? Who cares even
to look at them? But if you want something in particular—to furnish a
house, or buy a suburban place, or take a steamer for Europe, or go, to
the theatre—then you find out at once who reads the advertisements, and
cares to look at them. They respond to the multifarious wants of the
whole community. You have before you the living operation of that law of
demand and supply which it has always been such a bore to hear about.
As often happens, the supply seems to come before the demand; but that's
only an appearance. You wanted something, and you found an offer to meet
"Then you don't believe that the offer to meet your want suggested it?"
"I see that my author believes something of the kind. We may be full of
all sorts of unconscious wants which merely need the vivifying influence
of an advertisement to make them spring into active being; but I have a
feeling that the money paid for advertising which appeals to potential
wants is largely thrown away. You must want a thing, or think you want
it; otherwise you resent the proffer of it as a kind of impertinence."
"There are some kinds of advertisements, all the same, that I read
without the slightest interest in the subject matter. Simply the beauty
of the style attracts me."
"I know. But does it ever move you to get what you don't want?"
"Never; and I should be glad to know what your author thinks of that sort
of advertising: the literary, or dramatic, or humorous, or quaint."
"He doesn't contemn it, quite. But I think he feels that it may have had
its day. Do you still read such advertisements with your early zest?"
"No; the zest for nearly everything goes. I don't care so much for
Tourguenief as I used. Still, if I come upon the jaunty and laconic
suggestions of a certain well-known clothing-house, concerning the
season's wear, I read them with a measure of satisfaction. The
"This author calls him the adsmith."
"Delightful! Ad is a loathly little word, but we must come to it. It's
as legitimate as lunch. But as I was saying, the adsmith seems to have
caught the American business tone, as perfectly as any of our novelists
have caught the American social tone."
"Yes," said my friend, "and he seems to have prospered as richly by it.
You know some of those chaps make fifteen or twenty thousand dollars by
adsmithing. They have put their art quite on a level with fiction
"Perhaps it is a branch of fiction."
"No; they claim that it is pure fact. My author discourages the
slightest admixture of fable. The truth, clearly and simply expressed,
is the best in an ad.
"It is best in a wof, too. I am always saying that."
"Well, work of fiction. It's another new word, like lunch or ad."
"But in a wof," said my friend, instantly adopting it, "my author
insinuates that the fashion of payment tempts you to verbosity, while in
an ad the conditions oblige you to the greatest possible succinctness.
In one case you are paid by the word; in the other you pay by the word.
That is where the adsmith stands upon higher moral ground than the
"I should think your author might have written a recent article in
'The————-, reproaching fiction with its unhallowed gains."
"If you mean that for a sneer, it is misplaced. He would have been
incapable of it. My author is no more the friend of honesty in
adsmithing than he is of propriety, He deprecates jocosity in
apothecaries and undertakers, not only as bad taste, but as bad business;
and he is as severe as any one could be upon ads that seize the attention
by disgusting or shocking the reader.
"He is to be praised for that, and for the other thing; and I shouldn't
have minded his criticising the ready wofsmith. I hope he attacks the
use of display type, which makes our newspapers look like the poster-
plastered fences around vacant lots. In New York there is only one paper
whose advertisements are not typographically a shock to the nerves."
"Well," said my friend, "he attacks foolish and ineffective display."
"It is all foolish and ineffective. It is like a crowd of people trying
to make themselves heard by shouting each at the top of his voice.
A paper full of display advertisements is an image of our whole congested
and delirious state of competition; but even in competitive conditions it
is unnecessary, and it is futile. Compare any New York paper but one
with the London papers, and you will see what I mean. Of course I refer
to the ad pages; the rest of our exception is as offensive with pictures
and scare heads as all the rest. I wish your author could revise his
opinions and condemn all display in ads."
"I dare say he will when he knows what you think," said my friend, with
"I wish," I went on, "that he would give us some philosophy of the
prodigious increase of advertising within the last twenty-five years, and
some conjecture as to the end of it all. Evidently, it can't keep on
increasing at the present rate. If it does, there will presently be no
room in the world for things; it will be filled up with the
advertisements of things."
"Before that time, perhaps," my friend suggested, "adsmithing will have
become so fine and potent an art that advertising will be reduced in
bulk, while keeping all its energy and even increasing its
"Perhaps," I said, "some silent electrical process will be contrived, so
that the attractions of a new line of dress-goods or the fascination of a
spring or fall opening may be imparted to a lady's consciousness without
even the agency of words. All other facts of commercial and industrial
interest could be dealt with in the same way. A fine thrill could be
made to go from the last new book through the whole community, so that
people would not willingly rest till they had it. Yes, one can see an
indefinite future for advertising in that way. The adsmith may be the
supreme artist of the twentieth century. He may assemble in his grasp,
and employ at will, all the arts and sciences."
"Yes," said my friend, with a sort of fall in his voice, "that is very
well. But what is to become of the race when it is penetrated at every
pore with a sense of the world's demand and supply?"
"Oh, that is another affair. I was merely imagining the possible
resources of invention in providing for the increase of advertising while
guarding the integrity of the planet. I think, very likely, if the thing
keeps on, we shall all go mad; but then we shall none of us be able to
criticise the others. Or possibly the thing may work its own cure. You
know the ingenuity of the political economists in justifying the egotism
to which conditions appeal. They do not deny that these foster greed and
rapacity in merciless degree, but they contend that when the wealth-
winner drops off gorged there is a kind of miracle wrought, and good
comes of it all. I never could see how; but if it is true, why shouldn't
a sort of ultimate immunity come back to us from the very excess and
invasion of the appeals now made to us, and destined to be made to us
still more by the adsmith? Come, isn't there hope in that?"
"I see a great opportunity for the wofsmith in some such dream," said my
friend. "Why don't you turn it to account?"
"You know that isn't my line; I must leave that sort of wofsmithing to
the romantic novelist. Besides, I have my well-known panacea for all the
ills our state is heir to, in a civilization which shall legislate
foolish and vicious and ugly and adulterate things out of the possibility
of existence. Most of the adsmithing is now employed in persuading
people that such things are useful, beautiful, and pure. But in any
civilization they shall not even be suffered to be made, much less
foisted upon the community by adsmiths."
"I see what you mean," said my friend; and he sighed gently. "I had much
better let you write about spring."