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"SOME fine and glorious day," says George French, concerning the manufacturers whose methods we are studying, "it will dawn upon even these men that it pays better to cater to the welfare of the people than to shrewdly rob them under the pretense of benefits."
Mr. French describes the process of overcharging the public for the "quality" of nationally advertised goods in a phrase of such felicity that I am envious of the aptness of the words: "to shrewdly rob them under the pretense of benefits."
I do not, however, agree with him that these men will ever discover "that it pays better to cater to the welfare of the people." Perhaps I am too much the pessimist. It will always pay insensitive and unscrupulous men better to rob the public as long as they can, so to speak, pick their pockets within the law and with the blessings of the "fourth estate, "--the newspapers and magazines, which are today their willing procurers in delivering the public to the advertisers. But I believe it possible to successfully appeal to those who place some value upon self-respect and ask them to consider whether there is not more permanent satisfaction and happiness to be gotten from catering to the welfare of their customers rather than to take advantage of their credulity, suggestibility, and ignorance.
Manufacturers indulge in their huge advertising expenditures for the purpose of increasing the profits of their business. In theory, the increased profits are supposed to come from larger sales. In practice, the increased profits come mainly from the advertiser's ability to overcharge the consumer for the factitious, and sometimes for the purely fictitious, superiority of his goods.
It is well known to all advertising men that it is possible to create a more profitable sale of any article, even though it be identical in quality with competitive articles, if it is effectively advertised. One of the largest advertising agencies in the country, George Batten Company, Inc., of New York, Chicago, and Boston, in a four-page colored advertisement inserted by them in Printers' Ink, said upon this subject:
Brown in Boston--
White in New York.
Public buying habits take queer streaks.
In Boston the housewife insists on big brown eggs and will pay an advanced price for them. Mrs. New Yorker must have white eggs, and the wily dealer sorts his eggs and extracts several cents a dozen more from his patrons for his pale-face eggs.
Thus an old notion handed down from generation to generation forms public opinion as to eggs. It regulates egg commerce.
Any woman on cross-examination will probably admit that an egg is an egg the world over, be it brown or white. The next day she will go out and insist on having either white or brown eggs.
Certain manufacturers who advertise enjoy the same advantages over their competitors as does the little brown hen that lays the big brown egg for Mrs. Boston. They have sensed the fact that the public buys with unreasoning insistence the product with familiar markings, even though it does not know why. Many advertised articles occupy a pedestal because of superior outstanding qualities. But there are unquestionably advertised goods, largely purchased, which have no striking advantage over other goods of equally high quality, except that they are better known and more accessible.
Brown eggs or white eggs are better in public opinion according to what the public has been led to believe. So it is with merchandise. Favorable public opinion for a commodity usually exists in proportion to the insistence and persistence with which the product is advertised.
Here is admission of the fact, by an authority whom advertising men will accept, that an article does not have to be superior to others in order to be profitably advertised. If an article can be profitably advertised in spite of the fact that it is not superior, then the mere fact that an article has been widely advertised for many years is no assurance whatever of superiority to competitive articles which have not been advertised.
This is an important admission. A very important one if it be considered in connection with the principal advantages claimed for nationally advertised goods. In one form or another it is always claimed that advertised articles are superior in value to those that are not--that they represent better "buys" either because of superior quality or lower price.
In respect to the attractiveness with which they are packaged, advertised articles are conspicuously superior to unadvertised articles. Before an article is nationally advertised the appearance and form of the package in which it is to be sold are very carefully considered. The manufacturer and the advertising agency usually hold conference after conference before, followed by more conferences after the "visualizers," "idea-men," artists, and "copy-writers" have submitted their ideas of the form of package to the manufacturer. Similar conferences dispose of the question of a name for the article, and others of the form of the carton, can, tube, jar, or glass in which the product is to be marketed. The psychological reaction of the prospective customer to the package is carefully investigated, and the convenience of the form of the container is tested sometimes for months and months. The Palmolive Company, according to Printer's Ink, in paving the way for the introduction of its shaving cream, spent eighteen months in various investigations before they placed their new product upon the market. Investigators for the company interviewed one thousand men in all walks of life. They were commissioned to find out what the average man wanted in a shaving cream. When the opinions were collected, the Palmolive Company had its soap-experts evolve a shaving-cream formula that would meet the composite demand of these thousand men, and had its advertising experts evolve a package and an advertising appeal that would most quickly secure the patronage of millions of men like the samplers.
Sometimes the name given to the product has some relation to the product, and sometimes it has not. Palmolive is an example of a name that is descriptive, according to their advertising, of some of the ingredients used in their soaps. But if there were neither palm nor olive oil in their products, it would not be the first time that the name of an advertised article described something very different from the article itself. Grape Nuts, for instance, contains neither grapes nor nuts. It is composed very largely of parched bran. But the name "sounds good." It creates the suggestion of an appetizing product.
Aside from the more attractive packaging of the nationally advertised article, there is only one other form of superiority which may be truthfully claimed for most advertised articles. When a manufacturer once launches his product, conspicuously identifies it by affixing a distinctive name and attaching to it his trade-mark, he is almost compelled to maintain unimpaired the standard of the article. There are cases in which brands have been changed in their composition without acquainting the users of the brand with the fact that something else is being sold them under the old name. Cases in which formulas, ingredients, processes, and so on, have been changed in this way are sufficiently numerous to prove that it can be done successfully. If the change involved an improvement, the fact would, of course, be widely advertised. If, as has often been the case, the change was made necessary by law or by great advances in the price of some ingredient or process, and the potency or quality lowered by the change, the substitution of the changed article was made and "camouflaged" as skillfully as the peculiarities of the article permitted.
Generally, however, advertised articles are the same in quality, from year to year. They conform to the standard they establish for themselves fairly well. But this standardization is purchased by the consumer at an excessive cost. In order to minimize the fact that he is being charged too much for it, he is urged by one prominent national advertiser to reflect that "the recollection of quality remains long after the price is forgotten." The matter of price, in relation to quality, is the Achilles heel of the national advertiser. He knows that the consumer can buy a. competing article which is not substantially different from his own at a lower price. His cost of selling and advertising prevent him from meeting the price. He is compelled by conditions which he has imposed upon himself to create a demand for his trade-mark so great that the public will buy his brand automatically. He has to create a state of mind in the prospective buyer which will make him believe when shown an advertised article alongside of an identical article that is not advertised, that the advertised article is superior because it is higher in price.
If it be argued that advertised articles cannot be persistently over-priced because customers would not repeat their purchases, it is only necessary to point out that the overcharge must be very large before the public, which is naturally unfamiliar with the technical merits of the article, becomes aware of the overcharge and refuses to buy it.
While instances can be cited in which gross misrepresentation by an advertiser has resulted in the public promptly discontinuing the purchase of the merchandise, few advertisers today make statements so extravagant or so untruthful as to injure the ultimate sale of their goods. The advertiser's agency would be almost certain to advise him as to the extent to which it is safe to exaggerate. The publications in which the advertisements are inserted, in self-defense, censor grossly misleading advertisements as tending to lessen the confidence of their readers in their advertising columns, thus lessening the value of their space to all advertisers. Finally, the "Better Business Bureaus" step in to use moral suasion or sanction the "big stick" of prosecution to restrain flagrant frauds which might lessen the confidence of the public in all kinds of advertising.
National advertising is therefore no certificate of high quality. It is possible to indefinitely sell over-priced, inferior, and even worthless merchandise if the advertising campaign be large enough and shrewd enough, and the article itself not sufficiently important for customers to carefully weigh the question of its merits each time it is bought.
Upon this subject what more can I do than to quote the words of so authoritative a judge of merchandise values as Mr. Edward A. Filene, one of the great merchants of the country:
I want to put it down as a conviction which has grown out of all the experience of my years in business, that poor values can be sold by large, persistent advertising. Witness the immense sale of patent medicines. It is simply a question of psychology--the hammering into people's minds of a certain idea until finally they accept it. If the sacrifice to accept it is not so big as to make a constant re-investigation of that idea necessary--and that is the important part; if it is a thing in common use, that is not extraordinary in price, that does not force them each time to think out whether they should buy it or whether they should stop and consider if they are really getting full value and really paying only what it is worth, they will submit to the suggestion hammered into their consciousness until it has become almost a part of themselves--that, a certain thing, at a certain price, is the best value in the market.
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