VIEWPOINT: THE ANNALS OF ADVERTISING

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In the 1920s, a famous literary critic at Oxford University played a nifty trick on his graduate students in literature. He gave them a sheaf of miscellaneous poems -- some written by "great masters," some written by also-rans, some even written by himself -- and asked them to evaluate them as "works of art." If great art is self-evident, he thought, then surely these future teachers will be able to distinguish creative genius from popular dross.

They couldn't do it. They were just as likely to mistake the treacle of a Hallmark card for the masterful confection of a Shakespearean sonnet. Why?

Because creativity is not as simple as it seems. It does more than knock your socks off -- it changes how you put your socks on. Lasting creativity makes subtle connections that don't just stand the test of time, but actually change the way we experience events. What Shakespeare did first, Hallmark is still doing. If you don't know the dates and titles, however, it's hard to know which came first.

Have a look at American patent medicine ads from around the turn of this century. Since the ingredients were often similar (including cocaine and up to 20 percent of pure alcohol), and since the package was almost always a glass bottle, what you put on the label and in the newspaper ad was what really moved the stuff off the shelves.

Bells and whistles barely describe the outrageously creative copy and art of patent medicine advertising. Gongs and fog horns would be more like it. Old wheezers breathe easy; blocked digestive tracts become superhighways; and potency -- always potency -- is restored to levels that would make Bill Clinton seem like a rest-home dweller.

So which was the ad that finally proved the most successful, the most creative in the sense that it spoke to the deep yearnings of the audience? Which was Shakespeare? Or, to be crass: which sold product?

This ad for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound wins the prize, hands down. Although the product was a concoction of unicorn root, black cohosh, and fenugreek seed (along with the requisite alcohol to "keep the product from freezing"), this ad was pure gold. It shone from the 1880s well into the 1940s.

When the ad was pulled in the financial panic of the 1890s, sales tumbled by nearly 80 percent. When it was resumed over the next decade, annual sales increased by almost 2,500 percent.

You could say that the second greatest creative act connected with this ad was that the content was left pretty much untouched. The genius behind it was Lydia's son, Dan. He did other campaigns as well. Once he paid young women to write on small cards: "Try Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound and I know it will cure you, it's the best thing for Uterine complaints there is. From your cousin, Mary -- P.S. You can get it at . . ." He then scattered the cards around cemeteries on the days before Decoration Day.

In the print ad, Lydia presents herself only in outline, and that outline captures all the archetypal power of the grandmother-as-sage. Atop her prim Quaker frock, she looks out at us without blinking. This is serious, she says.

The copy talks to women almost exclusively, but halfway through, men are let in for a little surcease. Not only does this stuff work for "generative organs of either sex," but "Kidney Complaints of Either Sex Find Great Relief in Its Use."

Has there ever been a better segue from a "have to have" to a "nice to have" audience? Little wonder that "Physicians use it and prescribe it fully," even though you may be assured they don't understand how it works. What do they know of Female Weaknesses? Have their wombs ever fallen?

No image today, not the swoosh, the golden arches, or even the Coke can, rivals the visage of Lydia several generations ago. The product is not the hero, she is. She is as confident as she is caring. She writes "Yours in health," and she boldly signs her name. In fact, you could write to her and your letter would never, ever be seen by a man. She "freely answers all letters," and, in true direct-marketing style, only asks that you mention "this paper." (Even today the privacy of what must be one of the largest collections of genuine female concern is not available for scholars.) A woman would respond to your letter and it would be signed by Lydia -- long after she was no more.

Even better than the promise of confidentiality was the lack of copyright. Lydia's image was not registered. It was allowed to travel freely. And did it ever. In a world that had few shared engraved "cuts" -- aside from the Sunday-school bible renditions of Christ -- Lydia joined Queen Victoria as being the most recognized woman of her day. After all, her image was in the compositing bins of almost every newspaper in the land. So when a printer wanted to illustrate a story, he simply removed Lydia's verbal garland and placed her outline atop the story.

If one had to isolate the creative insight behind Lydia Pinkham's presentation, it is that we hear the corporate voice and recognize it as trustworthy. Cutting through the chatter of innumerable "feel better fast" spiels comes her concern for a woman's health. Long before we learned to talk about corporations as personalities, the persona of Lydia was doing the heavy lifting. Next to her,

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