The Art of the Puff

Regency Dandy
Regency Dandy (from Wikipedia)

If you want to advertise a product on television most countries have some kind of regulations in place about what you can and can’t say.  Specific claims usually need some kind of justification. And rightly so – you shouldn’t be able to lie about what your stuff can do. But there is a lot you can say about a product that is not in any way specific and there aren’t any particular rules about this.  Nor could there be.  The professionals in advertising distinguish between what they call ‘the claims’ and other stuff intended to promote the product.

The other stuff is called puff.

Puffery is something that we all hear a lot of every day we turn on the telly or read a newspaper.  More effort goes into the puff than goes into the claims.  It is quite humbling for a scientist.  Your bit doesn’t sell the product.  That is the job of the puff.

In the States there is even a legal definition.  The US Federal Trade Commission  defined puffery as a “term frequently used to denote the exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller as to the degree of quality of his product, the truth or falsity of which cannot be precisely determined.”  Only in America, as they say.  Except that puffery as a term has come up in court cases here in the UK too.

That definition does seem to carry with it a warning that you should be on your guard when it comes to advertising.  And so you should.

I have been involved with putting an advert together recently.  Seeing puff up close being created is both an eye opener and a bit vomit inducing. I decided to look back to earlier adverts for the golden age before the puff took over from the product performance.  It didn’t take long to realise that there was no such golden age.  If anything modern adverts are less misleading than their predecessors.

But my quest took me back quite a long way. The first instance of the use of the word that I could find was in Sheridan’s play The Critic from 1779. From what I can tell this may well be the origin of the word. I looked it up, and found that far from being a fleeting reference, there is a long scene devoted to explaining it.  Enough detail is given for a Regency period PR or marketing person to use it as a training manual.

The art of the puff is introduced by a character called Mr Puff who describes himself as a professor of the puff.   He explains his marketing approach to the critic, Mr Sneer.  This play is worth checking out just for the names.  There is another playwright in it called Sir Fretful Plaigery.  He he.

There are four main categories of puff. The puff direct, the puff preliminary, the puff collateral, and the puff oblique or puff by implication.

Sneer already thinks he understands the puff direct.  But even so, he is probably surprised by the single mindedness and downright cheek of the puffing process.  Puff points out important details. For instance, when puffing a play.  He writes a piece praising every aspect of the play from its writing and acting through to its scenery.  This is written before the actual performance.  The author connives at this providing notes on the plot and character.  The puffer obviously cannot be troubled to read the whole script.  Some of the beauty bloggers I read agonise about getting free samples from the companies that make them.  I don’t think Mr Puff would have any qualms.  This is a business, pure and simple and the business is selling the product.

Puff has a list of adjectives he uses, and which he just applies to whatever he is puffing at the time.  The modern PR guru takes this a little further.  Focus groups are run to see which words and phrases resonate with the target market.  But the aim is to sell the product not describe it accurately.

Sneer is impressed but Puff is just getting going.

He really is the PR all rounder. His services are available to individuals as well as to plays.  For instance, a Sir Flimsy Gossamer wants to make the acquaintance of the charming Lady Fanny Fete.  To achieve this Puff posts a notice in the Morning Post. This warns her of the dandy’s shortcomings.  Her curiosity is piqued and gossip starts, enough to give Sir Flimsy a chance.  We would call it reverse psychology.  To Mr Puff it is the puff preliminary.

The puff collateral is illustrated by an example:

“ Yesterday, as the celebrated George Bonmot was sauntering down St James’s Street, he met the lively Lady Mary Myrtle coming out of the park:

—  Good God, Lady Mary, I ‘m surprised to meet you in a white jacket, — for I expected nearer to have seen you about in a full-trimmed uniform and a tight horseman’s cap ! ‘

— Heavens, George, where could you have learned that?

— Why, replied the wit, “I just saw a print of you, in a new publication called the Camp Magazine ; which, by the by, is a devilish clever thing, and is sold at No. 3, on the right hand of the way, two doors from the printing-office, the corner of Ivy Lane,
Paternoster Row, price only one shilling.”

Product placement has a long history. The reliance of 1950s weekly dramas on funding from personal care companies was the reason that they become known as soap operas. And product placement continues to be very popular. I am working on this blog post the weekend that the video for Lady Gaga’s Telephone is released. I think this takes the concept of a promotional video very seriously with shots of websites and phone operator’s splash screens clearly visible on screen.  The puff collateral indeed.

Even this is not the most remarkable piece of product placement.  In the 2001 film Evolution, Head and Shoulders shampoo saves the world from alien invasion.  As it happens, Head and Shoulders is one of the few personal care products whose claims really do stand up to rigorous scientific evaluation.  But fighting space monsters is more fun.

When you think about it, product placement really is the ideal way to sell something.  What is more reassuring than seeing someone else use a product.  And how often have you found yourself unconsciously copying somebody else’s behaviour.  It is what we do as social animals.

The puff collusive is described by Puff as the newest form of the puff. This is done by sending a letter condemning the play that is being puffed. Lets have a bit more regency dialogue:

‘The severity with which certain characters are handled is quite shocking : and as there are many descriptions in it too warmly  coloured for female delicacy, the shameful avidity with which this piece is bought by all people of fashion is a reproach on the taste of the times, and a disgrace to the delicacy of the age.’

Who could resist something that sounds as juicy as that! As Puff puts it:

‘Here you see the two strongest inducements are held forth ; first, that nobody ought to read it ; and secondly, that everybody buys it.’

The deliberate courting of scandal has been a trick up the sleeve of a great many promotors over the years.  Sheridan makes it sound like something new but I expect it predates even him.  It is certainly alive and well today.  It appears in new forms all the time. To give an example I came across this morning while idly surfing around my favourite blogs, from the adverts it seems that some manufacturer of tooth whitening products has got hold of a report that dentists don’t want me to read. Well, if those dentists are trying to put one over on me by keeping reports about tooth whitening to themselves of course I want to read it!

The message is that at the very least since the invention of the printing press and probably since primitive hominids developed the power of speech, people have been trying to influence other people to buy their stuff.  This is done directly, indirectly and sometimes in the most convoluted of ways.  Many people spend their entire careers in the creation and spreading of puff.  Vast sums of money are spent on it.  In the cosmetic industry far more time and effort is devoted to puffing products than researching and developing them.

Does all this effort actually work?  This is one of the questions that Sneer puts to our Mr Puff.

‘O lud, yes, sir! the number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed.’

You have been warned!

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