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“A gentle husher, Vanity by name."-SPENSER.
A LADY was complaining to a friend of mine of the credulity of people in attending to quack advertisements, and wondering who could be taken in by them—" for that she had never bought but one half-guinea bottle of Dr. —'s Elixir of Life, and it had done her no sort of good!” This anecdote seemed to explain pretty well what made it worth the doctor's while to advertise his wares in every newspaper in the kingdom. He would no doubt be satisfied if every delicate, sceptical invalid, in his majesty's dominions, gave his Elixir one trial, merely to show the absurdity of the thing. We affect to laugh at the folly of those who put faith in nostrums, but are willing to see ourselves whether there is any truth in them.
There is a strong tendency in the human
mind to flatter itself with secret hopes, with some lucky reservation in our own favour, though reason may point out the grossness of the trick in general; and, besides, there is a wonderful power in words, formed into regular propositions, and printed in capital letters, to draw the assent after them, till we have proof of their fallacy. The ignorant and idle believe
hat they read, as Scotch philosophers demonstrate the existence of a material world, and other learned propositions, from the evidence of their senses. The ocular proof is all that is wanting in either case. As hypocrisy is said to be the highest compliment to virtue, the art of lying is the strongest acknowledgment of the force of truth. We can hardly believe a thing to be a lie, though we know it to be so. The “puff direct,” even as it stands in the columns of the Times newspaper, branded with the title of Advertisement before it, claims some sort of attention and respect for the merits that it discloses, though we think the candidate for public favour and support has hit upon (perhaps) an injudicious way of laying them before the world. Still there may be something in them; and even the outrageous improbability and extravagance of the statement on the very face of it, stagger us, and leave a hankering to inquire
farther into it, because we think the advertiser would hardly have the impudence to hazard such barefaced absurdities without some foundation. Such is the strength of the association between words and things in the mind--so much oftener must our credulity have been justified by the event than imposed upon. If every second story we heard was an invention, we should lose our mechanical disposition to trust to the meaning of sounds, just as when we have met with a number of counterfeit pieces of coin, we suspect good ones; but our implicit assent to what we hear is a proof how much more sincerity and good faith there is in the sum total of our dealings with one another, than artifice and imposture.
“ To elevate and surprise" is the great art of quackery and puffing; to raise a lively and exaggerated image in the mind, and take it by surprise before it can recover breath, as it were; so that by having been caught in the trap, it is unwilling to retract entirely-has a secret desire to find itself in the right, and a determination to see whether it is or not. Describe a picture as lofty, imposing, and grand, these words excite certain ideas in the mind like the sound of a trumpet, which are not to be quelled, except by seeing the picture itself, nor even then if it is viewed by the help of a catalogue, written expressly for the occasion by the artist himself. It is not to be supposed that he would say such things of his picture, unless they were allowed by all the world; and he repeats them, on this gentle understanding, till all the world allows them*. So reputation runs in a vicious circle, and merit limps behind it, mortified and abashed at its own insignificance. It has been said that the test of fame or popularity is to consider the number of times your name is repeated by others, or is brought to their recollection in the course of a year. At this rate, a man has his reputation in his own hands, and by the help of puffing and the press, may forestall the voice of posterity, and stun the “groundling” ear of his contemporaries. A name let off in your hearing continually, with some bouncing epithet affixed to it, startles you like the report of a pistol close at your ear: you cannot help the effect
upon the imagination, though you know it is perfectly harmless—vox et præterea nihil. So, if you see the same name staring you in the face in great letters, at the corner of every street, you involuntarily think the owner of it must be a great man to occupy so large a space in the eye of the town. The appeal is made, in the first instance, to the senses, but it sinks below the surface into the mind. There are some, indeed, who publish their own disgrace, and make their names a common by-word and nuisance, notoriety being all that they want. A quack gets himself surreptitiously dubbed Doctor or Knight; and though you may laugh in his face, it pays expenses. Parolles and his drum typify many a modern adventurer, and court-candidate, for unearned laurels and unblushing honours. Of all puffs, lottery-puffs are the most ingenious and most innocent. A collection of them would make an amusing Vade mecum. They are still various and the same, with that infinite ruse with which they lull the reader at the outset out of all suspicion, the insinuating turn in the middle, the home-thrust at the ruling passion at last, by which your spare cash is conjured clean out of the pocket in spite of resolution, by the same stale, well-known, thousandth-time repeated, artifice of All prizes and No blanks—a self-evident imposition! Nothing, however, can be a stronger proof of the power of fascinating the public judgment through the eye alone. I know a gentleman
* It is calculated that West cleared some hundred pounds by the catalogues that sold of his great picture of Death riding on the pale Horse.