Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

Advertising was already a well-established phenomenon by the turn of the twentieth century. American newspapers had begun carrying ads as far back as1 the early 1700s and magazines had soon followed. By 1850, the country had its first advertising agency, the American Newspaper Advertising Agency, though its function was to buy advertising space rather than come up with creative campaigns. ‘To advertise’ originally carried the sense of to broadcast or disseminate news. Thus a nineteenth-century newspaper that called itself The Advertiser meant that it had lots of news, not lots of ads. By the early 1800s the term had been stretched to accommodate the idea of spreading the news of the availability of certain goods or services. A newspaper notice that read, Jos. Parker, Hatter,’2 was essentially announcing that if anyone was in the market for a hat, Jos. Parker had them. In the sense of persuading members of the public to acquire items they might not otherwise think of buying—items they didn’t know they needed—advertising is a phenomenon of the modern age.

By the 1890s advertising was appearing everywhere. Very early on, advertisers discovered the importance of a good slogan. Sometimes slogans took a little working on. Coca-Cola described itself as ‘the drink that makes a pause refreshing’ before realising, in 1929, that ‘the pause that refreshes’ was rather more succinct and memorable. A slogan could make all the difference to a product’s success. After advertising its soap as an efficacious way of dealing with ‘conspicuous nose pores’, Woodbury’s facial soap came up with a slogan ‘The skin you love to touch’ and won the hearts of millions. The great thing about a slogan was that it didn’t have to be accurate to be effective. Heinz never actually had ‘57 varieties’ of anything. The catchphrase arose simply because H.J. Heinz, the company’s founder, decided he liked the sound of the number. Undeterred by considerations of verity6, he had the slogan slapped on every one of the products he produced, which in 1896 was already far more than fifty-seven. For a time the company tried to arrange its products in arbitrary clusters7, but in 1969 it gave up the ruse altogether and abandoned the slogan in the USA.

Early in the 1900s, advertisers discovered another perennial feature of marketing—the giveaway. Consumers soon became acquainted with the irresistibly tempting notion that if they bought a particular product they could expect a reward—the chance to win prizes, to receive a free book (almost always ostensibly dedicated to the improvement of one’s well-being but invariably a thinly-disguised plug for the manufacturer’s range of products), or to get a free sample. Typical of the genre was a turn-of-the-century tome called The Vital Question Cook Book, which was promoted as an aid to livelier meals, but which proved upon receipt to contain 112 pages of recipes, all involving the use of Shredded Wheat. Many of these had a certain air of desperation about them, notably the ‘Shredded Wheat Biscuit Jellied Apple Sandwich’ and the ‘Creamed Spinach on Shredded Wheat Biscuit Toast’. Almost all in fact involved nothing more than putting some everyday food on to a piece of shredded wheat and giving it an inflated10 name. None the less, the company distributed no fewer than four million copies of The Vital Question Cook Book to eager consumers.

But the great breakthrough in the twentieth-century advertising came with the identification and exploitation of the American consumer’s Achilles heel11: anxiety. One of the first to master the form was King Gillette, inventor of the first safety razor and one of the most relentless advertisers of the early 1990s. Most of the early ads featured Gillette himself. After starting with a few jaunty words about the ease and convenience of the safety razor—‘Compact? Rather!’—he plunged the reader into the heart of the matter: ‘When you use my razor you are exempt from the dangers that men often encounter who allow their faces to come in contact with brush, soap and barber shop accessories used on other people.’

Here was an entirely new approach to selling goods. Gillette’s ads were in effect telling you that not only did there exist a product that you never previously suspected you needed, but if you didn’t use it you would very possibly attract a crop of facial diseases you never knew existed. The combination proved irresistible. Though the Gillette razor retailed for a hefty13 $5, it sold in its millions and King Gillette became a very wealthy man. Though only for a time, alas. Like many others of his era, he grew obsessed with the idea of the perfectability of mankind and expended so much of his energy writing books of convoluted philosophy with titles like The Human Drift that eventually he lost control of his company and most of his fortune.

(adapted from Bill Bryson’s ‘Made In America: An Informal History of American English‘)


1 Why does the writer use the phrase ‘as far back as’ in this context?

2 Why does the writer mention ‘Jos. Parker, Hatter’ in this context?

3 What does the writer imply about modern advertising in the first paragraph.

4 Explain why Coca-Cola chose its slogan in 1929.

5 In what way did the two slogans for Woodbury’s facial soap differ?

6 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘Undeterred by the considerations of verity’?

7 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘arbitrary clusters’?

8 Explain what the writer says about the books given away with certain products.

9 What does the writer imply when he says that some of the recipes in The Vital Question Cook Book had a certain air of desperation?

10 What does the writer mean when he says that the names of some of the recipes were ‘inflated’?

11 What does the writer mean when he says that anxiety was the customer’s ‘Achilles heel’?

12 How did the beginnings of King Gillette’s adverts differ from what followed in them?

13 What does the writer mean by ‘hefty’ in this context?

14 Explain what the theme of The Human Drift was.

15 What does the writer say about the arguments in King Gillette’s books?

16 In a paragraph of 70–90 words, summarise the developments in advertising in the US.

Sample Answers

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