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Many imagine that the psychology of advertising is a modern discovery
What follows is an excerpt from Albert Jay Nock’s 1918 essay, Advertising and Liberal Literature. Nock describes how the London Mercury, founded in 1682 as an anti-royalist newspaper, survived and thrived on advertising revenue. Then, as now, pharmaceutical marketing was especially lucrative for the media business.
In the eighteenth issue appears our true friend, our faithful stand-by, the sheet-anchor of newspaper advertising—the patent-medicine man. He makes his initial bow modestly, with a gentle panegyric on the virtues of Spruce Beer, a medicinal drink. A few issues later, however, namely, on September 19, 1682, he comes forth in all his war-paint and feathers in praise of the True Spirit of Scurvygrass.
Many imagine that the psychology of advertising is a modern discovery and that all the tricks of the trade have been worked out of whole cloth in the last quarter of a century or some such matter. To such I earnestly recommend a careful analysis of the Mercury's advertisement of the True Spirit of Scurvygrass. It will encourage them by showing that even if we are now no better than we ought to be, we are at all events no worse than them of old time.
First, the True Spirit of the Scurvygrass is offered to a suffering public because “all are troubled with the Scurvy more or less.” This is an interesting statement, and calculated to start the guileless prowling for symptoms. It has a good force of suggestion; we have all perused more modern advertisements similarly equipped—yea, and in our own flesh have felt each horrid exponent and token rise responsive to the roll-call! Next follows a trade-mark warning, and a plain hint of the prevalence of rebating, or giving dealers a rake-off for pushing one's goods:
Many for Lucre's sake make something which they call Spirit of Scurvygrass, etc., and to promote it both in Town and Country give threepence or a Groat in a Glass to such as will boast and cry it up and dispraise far better than what they sell.
Beware of imitations! Refuse substitutes! None other is genuine! There is nothing particularly new about this, either; we have heard of it before, even to the rebating.
Then follows a courteous and ingenious effort to break the news gently, for which everyone is properly grateful, of course, but yet in spite of it—in spite of the tender solicitude for the Meaner sort, in spite of the transparent purity of the designs upon the Rich in behalf of their Poor Neighbours— one can not help noticing that this remedy was sold at what appears, for those days, a rousing price:
In order that the Meaner sort may easily reach it and the Rich be induced to help their Poor Neighbours, it is ordered to be sold for Sixpence a Glass.
About 1706 the patent-medicine ads begin to crowd all others out of the newspapers—a sure indication that they could and did pay a higher rate. No wonder! No wonder, either, that they were the only ads to survive the imposition of the devastating tax on advertisements some six years later. The True Spirit of Scurvygrass at sixpence a throw in a country where all are troubled with the Scurvy more or less, must have been a moneymaker. Its extremely wide range of therapeutic virtue also no doubt helped its sale. It would cure anything—anything. When the advertiser gets really warmed up to his work he rises to the strain of Dr. Dulcamara in the Elisir d'Amore:
Upon trial you will perceive this Spirit to root out the Scurvy and all its Dependents; as also to help Pains in the Head, Stomach, Shortness of Breath, Dropsies, lost Appetite, Faintness, Vapours, Wind in any Part, Worms, Itching, Yellowness, Spots, etc. Loose Teeth and Decayed Gums are helped by rubbing them with a few drops, as also any Pain in the Limbs….
And so forth and so on. A dose of the True Spirit was a potshot at the whole category of ills that flesh is heir to. If it didn't get what it went after, it would bag something else. It never fired any blank cartridges.
The True Spirit of Scurvygrass was first advertised in the Mercury on September 19, 1682. In the next issue, September 22, under an ad for a lost gold watch, appears an ad of imposing length—a whole half column of it—proclaiming—
the Old and True Way of Practicing Physick, revived by Dr. Tho. Kirleus, His Majesty's Sworn Physician in Ordinary, presented by the Rt. Hon., the Earl of Shaftesbury, and approved by the most competent judges of the Art, the College of Physicians, under their Hands and Seal.
Thus it appears that, like his latter-day brethren who advertise, Dr. Tho. Kirleus was “a graduate physician in regular standing.” But whatever his professional status may have been, Dr. Tho. was a master of the art of advertising. Within the space of forty-two words—only forty-two words—this remarkable man manages to crowd nearly every trick of the modern medicine-monger:
he gives his Opinion for nothing to any that writes or comes to him, and safe Medicines for little, but to the Poor for Thanks; and in all Diseases where the Cure may be discerned, he expects nothing until it be cured.
Analyze this prospectus. Consultation gratis; consultation by mail; “harmless vegetable remedy”; free treatment for those unable to pay; no cure, no pay. Only one thing is missing; and it is supplied in the very next sentence by the swift and masterly hand of Dr. Tho.:
Of the Gout he cured himself ten years since, when crippled with Knots in his Hands and Feet, but now able to go with any Man of his age ten or twenty Miles.
There we have it! That last touch rounds out the advertisement, makes it perfect, and establishes an open channel and communication with the enterprise of our modern age! “One who has suffered from rheumatism for seventeen years, etc., etc., will send by mail, etc., etc.” How pleasant and restful and thoroughly at home it makes one feel to be rewarded with finds like this among the dust and ashes of the lamented past, before the era of commercialism had set in!