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 persuasively."

"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 book-advertising."

"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 malt—"

"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 your want."

"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 advertising expert—"

"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 pecuniarily."

"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 wofsmith."

"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 imaginable sarcasm.


"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 effectiveness."

"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."