Sufficient Flop and Throb

Quite a lot of new readers (hello!), which puts me in a bind.

I have no idea why you’re here or where you came from. Let me know, if you like. Or revel in your mysterious origins.

Between vintage mysteries, Julia Quinn and The Survivalist, I do occasionally read more topical materials. Why, just recently, I was perusing a copy of Prose of Persuasion: A Collection of Advertising Copy (1931).

Prose does exactly what it says on the tin: it is a collection of contemporary ads. Given the era, this means a few hundred words extolling the particular product. They’re surprisingly good. A few are heavy-handed, but most are delightfully atmospheric. In the absence of CGI, retargeting, interactivity, personalisation, or even, you know, pictures, each little package of words has a lot of work to do in attracting the reader, engaging them, building a little self-contained world, and selling a compelling call to action.

The best contribution, however, comes fromauthor Naomi Mitchinson, who provides the book’s forward. It follows below.

Reviewers and people like that - I am sometimes one myself, so I know - have a horrid habit of talking about the decline in fiction.

This is so silly of them.

They keep their eyes firmly turned backwards onto Walter Scott and Dickens and Hardy, and they neglect the new and admirable branch of fiction which has sprung up and blossomed like a daisy field round the feet of the great oaks: they do not read advertisements. For what after all is the main difference between Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe and one of the charming set pieces which adorn the pages of this book? Surely the difference is merely one of length. Both works of fiction have a purpose and it seems just possible (though not much more) that several young women have been kept in the path of virtue by Pamela or Clarissa, and that several young men have been induced to buy this or that brand of drink or tobacco through the appropriate advertisement.

Of course this is to put myself into fundamental opposition to Mr. Steel [the book’s editor], which, as a fellow-Scot, he should appreciate. Because, to my astonishment, he says that these lovely, miniature works of art are actually meant to sell things and succeed in doing so. This seems to me to be very odd, but perhaps he can produce Statistics to prove his case, and then one just has to run away. Or else one has to stay and argue the case on moral grounds, because I am almost sure that if advertising really does do any of the things which it says it does it would be quite immoral; but then, why should we believe? No, no, fiction is fiction.

And, as fiction, advertisements are clearly a lesson to us all. This collection is certainly very much better reading than most novels. The novel is as likely as not only a large heart-flop, something that has to be got rid of before the writer can sleep well o’ nights; and so long as there is sufficient flop and throb about it, the quality of the writing matters wonderfully little - to the sales. But the successful advertisement has to be well written in its own convention and completely to the point; it is also short, and one doesn’t have to pay for it, even to the extent of a library subscription, so there is no economic motive to induce one to go on reading it if one doesn’t like it. Best of all it is written not for the soothing of a heart-throb, but - like Shakespeare’s plays - for money.

And now I had better let the advertisements speak for themselves, which they will certainly do. And if at the end you have decided to buy everything which occurs in the book, including the very fetching aeroplane on page 150, don’t blame me.

There’s a lot in here.

  • ‘If advertising really does do any of the things which it says it does it would be quite immoral’. Magic, even.

  • ‘Flop and throb.’ Obviously the words themselves are a joy, an expression of ‘emotional engagement through lowest-common-denominator pathos’. I think floppiness is a quality that’s valued, and valuable, in more than just commercial fiction. Ads have 30 seconds to play your heartstrings like a harp from hell. And by ‘your’, I mean ‘the largest possible audience’. Of course they’re going for the emotion cheap shot. (Six puppies lick Chris Evans’ face. He dies beautifully. Giving birth to twins. They have his eyes. Buy yoghurt!)

  • Mitchinson noting that, in 1931, that the ‘fiction is dead’ complaints are already boring. Sadly, there’s still no end in sight…

Perhaps most important is Mitchinson’s deliberate inclusion of advertising as a form of entertainment, or, more broadly speaking, ‘culture’.

We, the enlightened author/reviewer/copywriter/strategist know that we create with a purpose. But to the consumer, as Mitchinson notes, our product is all part of the general cacophony of life. Some forms of communication are easier to hear; some easier to ignore. See also her description of advertising as fiction that’s ‘free to quit reading’. But all, ultimately, all comms - paid, earned, owned, or rogue - are part of the cultural noise. It is essential to study it critically.

Admittedly, this is a concept I nicked it from another timely and relevant book, Thompson and Leavis’ Culture and Environment (1933). C&E is half-manifesto, half-textbook. It posits that we, as modern humans, need to spend more time studying things like film, radio, and advertisements. They inform our worldview, and, more importantly, we’re stuck with them. Refusing to engage critically with advertising won’t make it disappear: it’ll just make you a bigger sucker.

(C&E is also notable for how grudging it is about all this. The authors don’t even try to hide their editorial stance: modernity sucks, and this stuff is crap. But still they soldier on with writing lesson plans, and occasionally consoling themselves with the odd chapter on traditional wheelwright skills.)

A few agencies go so far as to make ‘creating culture’ a part of their shtick. I can’t argue with the aspiration - and it certainly makes you seem cooler at dinner parties. But I can’t help think that it also reeks of insecurity - an attempt to ditch the pharma bros and Cambridge Analytica to go sit at the lunch table with real artists and the BBC.

As Mitchinson points out, there’s also a very important distinction here. Advertising is culture with a purpose. It is ‘meant to sell things’. Advertising always has a particular behavioural or attitudinal change in mind. Often this is sales - but it equally applies to quitting smoking, renewing your road tax, or voting Leave. Advertising is definitely part of the culture. And, hell, it may even be an art. But it will never be ‘art for art’s sake’. Hiding from your own objectives makes bad ads, not good art.

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If you’re stuck on the train, some more reading elsewhere:

Fun fact: 300,000 people have read classic novels on Instagram. Amazing. (h/t Viv)