Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
Subscribe to Nostrum Home
(New to Nostrum? We recommend starting at the beginning.
Totally lost? Find out who's who in the Reader's Guide or track the "Ref #" links to the previous scene with those characters.)
Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
Advertising, in the common parlance, is the pointing out that a commodity is for sale on the open market. Advertising today is usually conducted as a business separate from the business of creating that commodity.
It was not always thus.
In the beginning, Everyman (let's call him Oog, because this is the real beginning beginning) killed a gazelle. We won't go into how Oog accomplished this feat, aside from pointing out that Oog always was something of a star on the Billboard Hot 100 Hunters list. The point is, Oog now had one substantial gazelle carcass to contend with, but in Oog's tribe, the Oogalaboogas, gazelle was considered quite the delicacy. Oogalaboogans would come from miles around for a nice gazelle dinner when the opportunity arose, and every family had a few treasured recipes handed down from generation to generation for everything from roast gazelle to gazelle croquettes to gazelle hash to that final disposition of the beast, gazelle surprise au gratin. For Oogalaboogans, no animal, aside from the odd woolly mammoth, a species becoming exceeding extinct thanks to Oog and his ilk, was as highly prized as the gazelle.
Oog, of course, did not kill gazelles or mammoths or any other beast out of some genetically wired need to see his Oogalaboogan kinsmen sitting around with full bellies. His goal in felling large mammals was twofold. First, the filling of his own belly, and second, the reprocessing of the surplus into commodities he himself was unable or unwilling to procure directly. For while Oog was aces hunting on land, he couldn't catch a fish to save his life, and he had no idea which of the plants growing around the family hut were edible and which were the poisons used by the shamans to fend off the Boola Boolas, blood enemies of the Oogalaboogan tribe. He did not know how to fashion a knife from a piece of flint, and he was a complete failure at carving primal goddess statuary. Still, he needed fish, and edible plants, and knives, and goddess statues. And those who had them needed gazelle. And all were happy to trade to get what they wanted.
The only issue of importance was for Oog to demonstrate to his trading companions that he had a fresh gazelle to throw into the marketplace. But this was not a big issue. For all practical purposes, all Oog had to do was walk into the Oogalaboogan village with a bloody gazelle draped over his shoulders, and pretty soon the whole town was talking gazelle croquettes and ready to do a little wheeling and a little dealing.
Such was business at the beginning, or, more precisely, the beginning beginning. News traveled fast because it didn't have to travel far, and the news itself was simple.
Do you prefer red wine or white wine with your gazelle surprise au gratin?
In time, the system of money replaced the system of barter. By common agreement, certain objects were invested with value, and those virtual-value objects stood in the place of real-value objects. In the beginning, those objects were precious metals (their preciousness being a condition primarily of everyone's agreeing that the metals were, indeed, precious). Eventually money became more symbolic, and all we had to do was have a value printed on a piece of paper. Compare, if you will, a five dollar bill and a twenty dollar bill. The inherent (and negligible) value of the paper is equal. The only reason the twenty is more valuable than the five is that some rich and powerful government is able to stand behind it (if the logic of this math eludes you, please send us some twenty dollar bills and we'll send you and equal number of fives by return mail as a practical example; if the logic of the government standing behind it eludes you, we will happily send you any number of Confederate twenties in return for Union currency of the same denomination).
The system of money is not a cause of advertising, but arises from the same need. As the world became more complex, interpersonal transactions began to extend beyond the immediate circle of one's kith and kin. It no longer sufficed for Oog to march into town with Bambi's mother over his shoulders. The town that once had twenty people now had hundreds, maybe thousands. Assuming that on his appearance the Oogster wouldn't be stoned by vegans (this is still the dawn of history, and luckily for Oog veganism wasn't invented until the settling of California), he nonetheless wouldn't make much of an impression on this growing community. After all, how many people could he reasonably expect to feed? A pretty small percentage of this growing population, all things considered.
But the Oogs of life are not dumb. They are realists. They go with the flow. They review the situation and adapt.
In other words, they open a butcher shop.
So now we have Oog standing behind his counter, looking manly and competent in his bloodstained apron. He has every manner of dead animal chopped up into family-sized portions, ready to be traded for that new invention the venture capitalists of ancient Sheba are referring to as money. There's only one problem. How does anyone know that Oog is open for business?
The answer to this is simple. Oog sells meat to people who pass by his store. He plops a few goat heads in the shop window and, voila, the passers-by who see those goat heads get the message, and everyone is happy, except for the goats. And the proto-Californians.
For Oog, business is booming.
Time passes. Mrs. Oog, who entered into this relationship with eyes open, is starting to nudge her husband into building up the business. They haven't bought new furniture since they were married, the kids are walking around barefoot (and Mrs. Oog refuses to listen to Oog's protests that all kids go around barefoot because shoes haven't been invented yet), and the ladies in her if-we-only-had-cards-we-could-invent-Canasta club are all driving this year's chariots while the Oogs are still schlepping to weekly virgin sacrifice in a sledge that predates the invention of the wheel. How can they hold their heads up at the club if this is the life they are going to lead?
Oog wants nothing more than to be a good provider for his family. The question is, how can he increase his income? The simple answer is, do more business. How can he do more business? Get more customers. How can he get more customers? He has to spread out beyond the narrow confines of his neighborhood. He has to let everyone in Sheba know that Oog has meat, and Oog is willing to deal.
In short, Oog has to advertise. The problem is, there is no way to do it. Yet.
Oh, Oog can try various attempts at spreading the word about Oog's Meateria. He can devise a sign with a picture of a fresh boar haunch and hang it over his door, he can tell all his customers to pass the word that Oog's thumb is never on the scale when he's weighing a slab of water bison, he can even form organizations with other tradesmen as a reciprocal arrangement to support business throughout the community. But ultimately Oog is limited by the fact that he can pretty much only spread the word about O.M. one mouth at a time. And one mouth at a time isn't much, especially as villages grow into towns and then into cities and then into vast metropolises. Business remains small as long as it is limited to one man, one shop.
About the time when money was invented, allowing Oog to venture forth into the marketplace, writing was also invented. Just as money provides an accepted symbolic medium for the trade of goods, writing allows an accepted symbolic medium for the trade of thoughts. With the invention of writing, humans were able to spread their thoughts beyond their immediate presence. You could write something and it could travel geographically, and also chronologically, and the words you could write could go further and last longer than you could as a corporeal body. In a manner of speaking, the invention of writing was also the invention of immortality, if not for us as individuals, then at least for our thoughts, provided our thoughts were written down and that someone wanted to read them.
The invention of writing, however, did not mean that suddenly humanity became literate. Reading and writing for centuries were the province of scholars. There are a lot of reasons for this. First, not that many people in agrarian economies, which were pretty much most economies for most of the last few thousand years, needed reading and writing. Things a civilization doesn't need don't grow exponentially. Secondly, the business of reading and writing was incredibly unsound economically. All written things had to be written by hand, one written thing at a time. If you wanted a copy of a book, someone had to scratch out that copy of that book, excruciating word by excruciating word. As books evolved from papyrus scrolls to bound volumes (it is content that makes a book, not form), they were still so labor intensive to produce that most of them were owned only by governments, religions, scholars or the very rich (and the very rich, as a rule, were themselves either parts of governments, or occasionally religions, but hardly ever scholars). Even the invention of the printing press with moveable type didn't immediately make the difference between the literate and illiterate world, harkening back to the primary reason for the lack of literacy, namely, the lack of the need for literacy.
And meanwhile, Mrs. Oog is still waiting for Oog's Meateria to start supporting her in the way to which she wishes to become accustomed. She has now put in a couple of millennia standing next to Oog, impatiently tapping her foot, waiting for the poor schmo to get his act together and start making it big time.
It is the rise of industrialism, coupled with a more complex society with growing economic capabilities, that leads to the ever growing number of available books, which in turn leads to a larger number of literate people, leading to more books, more literacy, and more books, and still more literacy. And with the growth of literacy, a new sort of information is disseminated successfully: the news. In, specifically, the newspaper. As presses become more ubiquitous, and printers to manipulate them turn up in more and more places, the printers start the business of printing up sheets of paper on which they tell people what is happening around them. And then they sell those sheets of paper. To support their selling of those papers, they look around for people to pay them a little support money. In return for that support money, they will mention the people who paid it.
In other words, you could now buy advertising.
Oog was the first in line.
The original advertisements were written by Oog himself. "Oog's Meateria has a new shipment of smoked hams," followed by the address.
Next, "Oog's Meateria has the best quality new smoked hams." This went beyond information into a smattering of hyperbole. No longer was the information enough; it had to be inflated information.
"Oog's Meateria, specializing in the best in hams and other carnal sundries." Because of Oog's lack of a good dictionary, his attempt at generalizing his wares resulted in a strange influx of unusual clientele who understood what Oog was saying better than he did.
"Shop at Oog's." Eventually, that was all it took.
By printing in the newspaper, Oog was able to extend his reach beyond his immediate person. Word of mouth was now propelled beyond a small circle, both in numbers and in geography. Anyone getting a copy of the newspaper saw Oog's ad. And if they had a yen for meat, Oog's was the place to go.
Oog carried on like this for some time, writing his own advertisements and building his trade. But at heart, Oog was a meatsmith, not a wordsmith, and his ads weren't exactly compelling. And as the media grew (soon magazines were added to newspapers, for instance), the were more places in which advertising was needed, and soon a business revolving around and dedicated to advertising qua advertising arose. And, no surprise, they called is advertising. Oog was free to return behind the meat counter and leave the drumming up of business to paid professionals.
Advertising. The business of drumming up business. Modern advertising has been with us for about a century now. To some, an art. To others, a science. There are a handful of simple rules that haven't changed much as this art/science developed from Oog's own pitiful ads in the Sheba Gazette. And the most basic rule is, of course, sell the product. What makes advertisers good or bad is their ability to sell the product, and that ability is measured by their ability to relate the product to the needs, real or perceived, of the consumer.
The invention of advertising coincides with the invention of the consumer. Or vice versa. Sometimes it's hard to tell.
How to be an advertiser:
"Women love an Oog's man."
"Women go crazy for Oog's."
You get the picture. For countless millennia Oog was a poor schmuck hunter with a few spare haunches of gazelle to share around, and for a while he got barter in return. Later he got coinage, but he never rose above being a poor schmuck hunter because his scope was limited. The invention of popular media -- newspapers, magazines, radio, television -- and the aid of advertising allowed Oog to send his message further than he had ever dreamed possible. After all those dry years, in a few short centuries he went from poor schmuck hunter to international corporate meat magnate. As the media grew, so too did companies grow. So too, in turn, did advertising companies grow. Until today, when they are among the most successful corporations in the world. Employing hundreds of thousands of talented men and women dedicated to selling any product, any time, anywhere.
People, for example, like Braun Saxon….
Will Mrs. Oog ever achieve the social status she deserves?
Will Oog sell out to Swift and retire in Florida?
Should Oog sell the steak or the sizzle?
Will Vance Packard please call his office?
Is there any reason for this balogna to be in Nostrum?
You'll get instant gratification by going to our next episode: "Oscar Meyer: Loser or Wiener?"
Go to the next episode AVAILABLE NOW.