What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He finds it necessary to reduce the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.”
Upholsterer John Mason placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette when he significantly reduced the prices he charged for various services. His method for delivering this information, however, could have used a little refinement. Rather than focus on the deals that benefited prospective customers, Mason offered two other explanations for lowering his fees: “the Stagnation of Business and Scarcity of Cash.” While both of these factors prompted Mason to adjust his prices, neither of them placed customers at the center of Mason’s business model. Overcoming the “Stagnation of Business” was self-serving, hardly a fault for a tradesman trying to make a living but perhaps not the most artful way to frame his motivation fueling the business relationships he hoped to cultivate. He seemed to be saying that current conditions forced him to lower his fees rather than more graciously formulating this as a benefit intended specifically to advantage customers. Acknowledging the “Scarcity of Cash” made a nod toward the concerns of prospective clients. Many may have found themselves in a situation of not being able to afford to hire Mason at the former rates because they did not have access to sufficient cash. The reduced fees made the upholsterer’s services more obtainable.
Still, Mason underplayed the most important appeal in his advertisement. He noted that he had “reduce[d] the several Prices of his Work one third Part lower than formerly.” In other words, he knocked a tremendous 33% off his prices! Mason set about demonstrating this with a list of the fees he now charged for various services. He even encouraged prospective clients to compare “the above Prices with the Upholsterers Bills” (perhaps handbills distributed or posted by competitors), but this called for readers to expend additional effort to confirm a claim that he made only once rather than asserting it repeatedly and with greater force. Mason made his case, presenting a list of fees as evidence to support it, but the overarching message seems to have been overshadowed by the details. Mason may not have presented too much information, but that does not mean that he optimized the marketing potential associated with significant price reductions.
This critique may not be completely fair to an advertiser who operated within the conventions of eighteenth-century marketing practices. After all, his notice displayed a fair amount of innovation that distinguished it from others. However, it lacked other elements designed to attract attention and generate excitement. Mason opted for practical numbers instead of insistent proclamations about price reductions. He opted for substance over style, which may have better served potential customers in the end. Yet that decision demonstrates the chasm between advertising innovations in the eighteenth century and innovations that became standard practices in later centuries.