Media History: The Homeliest Man in Watertown

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02NY Mi-o-na tabsWhen modern media is used to brand a product, it routinely addresses the subject matter directly, trying to draw attention immediately to the product. The advertisements found in old newspapers sometimes achieved the same goal in quite different fashion, using unusual or outrageous lines in large print to trick the reader. The blaring lead demands attention, and is followed quickly with odd or unexpected segues to information on a product.

Archived North Country newspapers contain plenty of examples of the old bait-and-switch, often executed with subtle humor. A number of stores advertised wallpaper by simply stating what was available, but a Watertown firm used the catch-line “Odd Things for Walls”.

That unusual phrase might intrigue readers, but it hardly matches a clever wallpaper promo in the Ticonderoga Sentinel that began with large, bold text. What sounds like a statement against capital punishment (public issues were often addressed in advertisements), proclaims, “Hanging is a Bad End for a Man.” Beneath the headline, smaller print divulges the nature of the message (see image). The reaction to such deception skirts the fine line between annoyance and appreciation. In this case, when the true nature of the story is revealed, I enjoy the slick bit of humor employed.

01NY HangingWallpaperIn 1908, the Sentinel ran what appeared to be a newspaper story, topped by a headline one could hardly resist: “Ticonderoga Poison Factories”. The smaller sub-headline ominously warned, “You Will be Surprised to Learn How Many There Are.” For readers, the common reaction is, “I have to know about this!”

The excitement quickly abates. By the second paragraph of the “story,” it is revealed that the poison factories are our own bellies, and that Mi-o-na Stomach Tablets can cure all manner of ailments. While there was no punch line, it’s amusing to see the convoluted efforts employed by copywriters to entice prospective customers.

For my taste, humor is best: no matter what the deception, even if I’m not interested in a product, an advertisement is worth reading if the payoff falls between a brief smile and a belly-laugh.

One of my favorites in that category is what looked like a short news item. It appeared in several North Country newspapers, using an eye-catching headline that was modified to suit any locality (this sample appeared in the Watertown Times in 1884).

After all, who can resist a story with a hook like this: The Homeliest Man in Watertown.

03NYKemp'sBalsamFirst you’re hoodwinked by the suggestion that what follows is one of those popular “odd news” stories. But the very first line reveals the cunning work of a wordsmith. Check out the image. It’s hard not to appreciate the devious humor of an inventive ad writer.

Photos― Ticonderoga Sentinel, 1923; Ticonderoga Sentinel, 1908; Watertown Times, 1884.

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