In John Dos Passos’ book Manhattan Transfer, published in 1925, there’s a scene where a man, walking down a street in New York, sees an advert for razors. I’m going to have a quick look at the way words are used in the advert. If you’re wondering why you might want to read on, I would make the bold claim that this bit of literary analysis might save you money, and help the environment.
So here we are in late nineteenth century New York City, as described by John Dos Passos:
At a yellow painted drugstore at the corner of Canal, he stopped and stared abstractly at a face on a green advertising card. It was a highbrowed, clean shaven, distinguished face with arched eyebrows and bushy neatly trimmed moustache, the face of a man who had money in the bank, poised prosperously above a crisp wing collar and an ample dark cravat. Under it in copybook writing was the signature of King C. Gillette. Above his head hovered the motto of NO STROPPING AND NO HONING. The little bearded man pushed his derby back off his sweating brow and looked for a long time into the dollarproud eyes of King C. Gillette.
This motto, or strap-line as it might be called these days, was used widely in early razor advertising. It seems to be describing the advantages of a razor which, following some kind of technical breakthrough, does not require stropping or honing. Stropping is the cleaning of a blade on a piece of leather; honing refers to blade sharpening.
But the strap-line’s words are doing multiple things at once. They appear to be a description of certain characteristics. They can also be read as a direction to be followed, as in NO TRESPASSING.
Faced with high fuel bills and increasingly expensive weekly food shops, this particular struggling writer was looking to reduce his monthly outgoings. One of the things I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of money on was razor blades. Surely there had to be some way of reducing this annoying expense. Cartridge blades for my razor lasted about a week before they became uncomfortable. Each blade costs around £2 – £3 depending where you buy them. That’s about £100 – £140 a year.
After doing some research, I was surprised to discover that strops need not be confined to scenes in old films, where a barber cleans a cut throat razor. Strops are available for cartridge razors – a piece of silicone rubber material set in a plastic frame, over which you pass the blade a few times after shaving. I bought one and started stropping. Doing this I have been using the same cartridge for six weeks now. Rather than using a new blade, it was only necessary to clean the old one. It seems a cartridge can actually be made to last for months.
It is not often that my bathroom routine provides literary insight, but that’s what happened here. Those few words of advertising copy, quoted in Manhattan Transfer, were fiendishly clever. They seemed to be telling customers about the advantages of a new product, when in fact they were training customers to use a basically unchanged product in such a way that it would last as short a time as possible, before needing replacement. This of course would generate a lot of money, and as a further consequence, a lot of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 2 billion razors are thrown away each year, and being a combination of metal and plastic, they are very difficult to recycle.
A huge fortune, and a mass of waste, resulted from a few carefully chosen words. PS Market Research suggests that the razor market could be worth $20,866.6 million by 2030. And one of the main drivers of this growth involves: ‘allowing people to buy use-and-throw razors, rather than using the same piece repeatedly after cleaning the blade.’
So there you have it – the power of a few words, which seem to be a description, but are actually a disguised direction.