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The Third Person (cue zither)

Posted by Dirck on 15 October, 2013

I mention some great while ago that I had taken out membership in Pen Collectors of America (there being no similar body for Canada, and the Writing Equipment Society’s resources being rather remote for me).  One of the perks of membership is The Pennant, the PCA’s magazine, the articles in which are frequently very informative (some are more entertaining, and only to loonies like me), and which often contains reprints of old ads which have been repurposed to suggest the buying of PCA memberships as gifts.  The most recent dates from 1965, and I found myself staring at it trying to figure out what exactly was so odd about it.  Let me show it to you, minus the PCA’s footer and the big picture of a pen at the top:

1965 75

It isn’t any more wordy than many modern ads, particularly those for expensive cameras, but something about it made me scratch my head.  There’s something amiss, relative to the modern inducement, and with my usual heavy-handedness, I’ve already told you what it is, so I’ll not pretend suspense.  Like most ads, this is speaking to a buyer of the product, but it’s not speaking to the end-user.  It’s cast in the third person.  That’s something that doesn’t happen much with current inducements, in which the buyer and user appear to be mainly considered a single entity.

Just looking at the October 2013 Discover, which I happen to have handy to me, of the big full- or half-page ads, there’s one speaking in first person (“We make neat junk!”), four without any real person involved (“OOOH!  Neat junk!”), and eleven in the second person, speaking directly to the buyer (this time an actual quote, with emphasis added: “Every TV show you watch has a world of sound within, but you may not be hearing it.”) with the assumption that they’re the one who will be indulging in the greatness of the product.

Because I love to extrapolate gloom from minor observations, I take this to be an indication of the centrality of greed in the modern world.  I’ll only nod in the direction of the struggles of organized labour over the past couple of decades, and the sort of I’m-all-right-Jacking that seems to characterize most of modern North American politics.  Greed appears to be transcendent, and while altruism has its boosters it’s not got anything like the advertising budget.  Car ads mainly show the car being flogged as a roller-coaster one can take anywhere, bar a few where the safety of your family gets some lip service.  You’re a fool to buy a house with fewer bath-rooms than bed-rooms, and a bigger one if there’s but one sink per vanity (particularly baffling when a single is the one doing the buying).  Food ads, especially breakfast foods for some reason, suggest there’s a famine underway, with hoarding and outright theft the only possible course to achieve a momentarily satisfied belly– the leprechaun isn’t the only one that has to pick up his cereal box and flee.

About the only exception I can think of is jewelry ads, which my example might be considered one of.  There is definitely an element of “Guys, buy this for her!” to diamond ads, which I guess shows that when the expense/utility ratio drops below a certain point even ad-men can’t think of a way to make it a direct appeal to greed and need to bring in unstated expectations of a loved one.  The big difference between a lump of cubic-crystallized carbon and a fountain pen is that the latter costs a good deal less (unless covered in the former) and actually has some use (unless covered in the former).

Because time escapes me, I’m just going to offer a couple of other examples.  The first is from the next year, and even then you can see a slight modification in the tone:

1966 75

The entry of the second person!  He (alas, the sexist expectation) will get all these advantages, but you have the power of deciding which he it is that enjoys them.  We thus remind the buyer of the vicarious enjoyment which giving a gift entails.

Now, to undercut my own argument– this one is from rather earlier in the century, and interestingly the second person also shows up in what one might expect to be a setting of extreme selflessness:


The emphasis is on buying for someone else, but the point is to make sure they sent plenty of letters home to the giver.  The vicarious joy of giving and the rather self-interested satisfaction of hearing from Johnny Cannonfodder or Jimmy Swabson-Corvette on a regular basis.  No suggestion whatever that writing to them might be a good idea, too, which suggests that maybe this greedy covetousness thing isn’t a new invention.

For those interested in this sort of thing (and I suggest an interest, if only as a defensive measure), you might look into the radio series which Terry O’Reilly has contributed to.  That’s series in the plural.

Today’s pen: Sheaffer Legacy
Today’s ink: Pelikan Brilliant Brown

p.s.– I nearly forgot to say that I hope everyone in Canada who looks in here had an properly self-indulgent Thanksgiving over the weekend, and I’ll point out to the US audience that we must have our harvest festivals rather earlier than you for them to have any meaning (although the farmers of Montana and the Dakotas must be on much the same schedule as ours, Thanksgiving placement notwithstanding).


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