The Trolley’s Smile

It is said that the smile you send out returns to you a thousand fold. What about the picture of a smile? It was perhaps with something like that in mind that Fred R. Barnard, an employee of the Street Railways Advertising Company, published what today might be called an infomercial in the December 8, 1921 edition of the advertising trade magazine Printer’s Ink. The piece was headlined “One Look is Worth a Thousand Words” over a body of text that begins

So said a famous Japanese philosopher, and he was right — nearly everyone likes to “read” pictures.

“Buttersweet is Good to Eat” is a very short phrase but it will sell more goods if presented with an appetizing picture of the product, to many people morning, noon and night, every day in the year, than a thousand word advertisement placed before the same number of people only a limited number of times during the year.

The argument, such as it is, is that an advertisement with a punchy text and an accompanying illustration will be more effective if the public is constantly exposed to it than if the same audience is exposed to the thousand-word ad a limited number of times. (Would a thousand-word unillustrated ad with vast circulation sell more product than a punchier illustrated ad with lower exposure? Barnard’s unillustrated 205-word piece leaves that question unasked and unanswered.) What emerges as the point Barnard really wants to make is that a good way to achieve wide exposure for an ad—any ad, though the more visually arresting the better—is to have it appear as a “car card,” i.e., a poster displayed on the side of the ubiquitous street car, card being used here in the sense that the OED describes as “a large rectangular piece of pasteboard containing an advertisement, or the like, for placing in a window, hanging on a wall, etc.” His closing words reveal the trout in the milk:

We deliver many millions of advertising impressions every day. The cars on our list carry more than 10,000,000,000 passengers a year.

In the March 10, 1927 issue of the same publication, Barnard returned to these themes with a piece touting the value of the car card as an advertising medium and the “value-added” that an illustration can offer. Here, a two-part graphic spans the top of a two-page spread. The leftmost part consists of some Chinese characters labeled “Chinese proverb: One picture is worth ten thousand words” (though a more accurate translation would be “A picture’s meaning is able to convey 10,000—i.e., many many—words,” not quite the same thing, but close enough):

The second image, which is unfortunately broken by the gutter that divides the two pages of the article, shows a little boy delighted by an oversized four-layer cake next to a gigantic can of Royal Baking Powder, the essential ingredient in the cake that Mom, having been rendered insensible by the omnipresent ad’s relentless assault, will compulsively bake for Bobby, the lad in the picture, or for someone like him, as we are informed by the following text:

“Make a Cake for Bobby”

—that’s what this car card said every day to many millions of women. It reminded all mothers every day of a sure way to give a treat to their own children. And hundreds and thousands got an extra thrill with their next cake making because of the happy expression of the boy on the car card.

The moral of this story is that the same influence could not be created even with the same picture in any other advertising medium.

In the magazines, the reminder would not be enough to change the average housewife’s baking habit. In the newspapers, with no color, there would be no appetite appeal. On a twenty-four sheet poster, seen for only a few seconds at a time, the great appeal of the expression on the boy’s face would be lost.

As with his earlier Printer’s Ink article, Barnard steers away from the idea that the imaginative use of graphics in advertising can be an effective way to flog a product and goes off instead to plug his company’s stock in trade—the car card. However, it was not long before the conflation of his two aphorisms into “A picture is worth 1,000 words” was on its way to ever wider acceptance in an increasingly mobile, image-oriented world from which the Street Railways Advertising Company has all but vanished in the rearview mirror.