120 Years Too Late

All Too Human

William Morris in an 1896 address to the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising:

Next, we have to remember that the enormous majority of the people of the country do not care one straw about natural beauty. They have, I allow, a certain sort of pleasure in wandering about in the fields and enjoying the fresh air, but, as for looking at nature in detail with anything like observation, it is a fact that the greater part of the people of this country are entirely without eyes! Unless you can use your eyes, and unless the use of your eyes makes you suffer, nothing will be done. Then, the farmers are willing to make a little money, without regard to beauty, and it may be said they are entitled to do that. In point of fact, this is the position: We have to get a majority – an effective majority, which will make enough noise about Reform to get it carried. We have then a very difficult task before us, but in the meantime it is well to consider if we cannot to a certain extent mitigate this evil. I would call your attention to the wisdom – the commercial wisdom – of this matter of advertising. In the first place, take my word for it, it is only under very peculiar circumstances that advertising ever pays. And yet, my friends, I tell you plainly, people all over the country, in all kinds of businesses, spend enormous sums of money and half ruin themselves in advertising, the result of which is that they do not sell much more. The truth is, it is only on these two conditions advertising pays: the thing must cost little or nothing to make, and it must attract everybody’s money. The advertiser must enter into a life and death competition with all the other advertisers. A few succeed and flourish, but the greater part give in, and those that give in – well, their names appear in the Gazette. As to those goods which cost nothing to make and a lot to advertise, ought we not to avoid paying for them in hard cash. On the whole, we have a right to see that our money, if we possibly can, should not be wasted.

I cannot help saying that there is nothing for it but for us to slowly build up some kind of public opinion which shall allow us to have our own way, and that, of course, will be a very long job indeed. In these matters, I must tell you I am not, and never can be, a practical man; but I am perfectly willing to fall in with a scheme which has the slightest chance of success, and to give my most whole-hearted support to it, even if it be only an ad interim measure. This matter cannot be left from day to day: while the grass is growing the steed is starving.

My resolution says: “That it is a natural interest to protect rural scenery from disfigurement.” Now there are a great many things besides placards and so forth that are permanent disfigurements. One permanent disfigurement occurs to me, a disfigurement at Mapledurham, on the Thames, which is no doubt one of the most beautiful spots in England – in the world. There is a sort of bank there. The Great Western Railway wanted more room; it would have been a very easy thing to get that room on the land side, away from the river without spoiling the place, but instead of doing this (which would have been comparatively harmless) they put up a hideous wall of blue brick, to the utter ruin of the view

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. It was nobody’s business, and it went by default.

116 years ago (nearly to the day, 1/31/1896) William Morris (fascinating man worth knowing something about) makes several incisive points about people, about advertising, about business, about the care of the land.

First I think it’s instructive that Morris points out that when you spend real money on doing a thing, you can’t afford to advertise it; so in order to advertise you must spend less on the thing.  You can readily see the downward pressure on quality and care here.  The more something is advertised, the less it costs to make and one might also presume the less value it has in itself.  It is a product only as advertised.  In essence the value of the thing becomes a mental construct, an illusion.  Nearly 120 years on, we are a people of and by advertising.  We have no “thing in itself” in ourselves even.

Key to these eyes though, the final sentence, highlighted above, “It was nobody’s business, and it went by default.”  By paying no attention, by having no proper care for how the land is used other than how it serves our daily interest (and that is forgotten as well), we have simply let it flow into the hands of voracious monsters of accumulation.  There is nothing more for it.  We have been eaten and swallowed and now toil inside the belly of that beast.

It’s hard to believe how long ago we lost the war we still pretend to be fighting.  We are a country of hundreds of millions who let the world go by default.

Photo Credit: Eric__I_E

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  1. S.S. January 19, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    This seems especially true as the American story. People came and plowed their way, literally, across the continent.

  2. Pingback: Lemons for Lessons: Replacing Childhood with Business Ideology

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