Great Moments in Self-Promotion

If you think being ad savvy is a modern phenomenon, think again.


Self-promotion can be a painful and humiliating process, but one that seems pretty much unavoidable these days. At least that’s how I feel about it, which is why I’m always on the alert for a fresh rationale to make me feel better about something I’m probably going to have to do whether I like it or not.


Thus, while watching a documentary about Mark Twain on PBS the other night, I was interested to learn how early in his writing life he shamelessly promoted himself, and how aggressively. And how well. After an early series of travel articles that he wrote was picked up by several newspapers, he decided to leverage this into a publicity event and turn it into a lecture. He rented the Academy of Music, on Pine Street in San Francisco, for 50 (borrowed) dollars. Then he did about $150 worth of printing and advertising to promote the event. This was in 1866. The $200 he spent would work out to more than $2,600 in today’s dollars. Twain would’ve been 30 or 31 years old, and he’d only started writing for money a year or so before that. A young writer today borrowing and spending $2,600 to promote himself seems kind of brazen.

Anyway, here’s part of what the newspaper ad promoting his “Lecture on the Sandwich Islands” said:

A Splendid Orchestra
Is in town but has not been engaged.


A Den Of Ferocious Wild Beasts
Will be on exhibition in the next block.


Magnificent Fireworks
Were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned.

A Grand Torchlight Process
May be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please.

I think this holds up pretty well. Maybe it’s not going to make it into McSweeney’s, but for 1866, it’s pretty self-aware.

More to the point, the ad assumes an audience that’s already used to the tomfoolery of promotion and ready to laugh at a knowing critique of it.

This is worth noting, because so many analyses of the modern “savvy” consumer who “sees through” traditional marketing imply that until relatively recently, consumers mindlessly took orders from advertising. In reality, there’s a mountain of evidence that consumers have been able to see through (and mock, and reject) advertising for a long time. And this might be the earliest example I’ve found that however savvy consumers are today, the widespread ability to see ad hyperbole for exactly what it is, is anything but new.


Moreover, this is a good example of how making fun of advertising can be a good form of advertising: Twain’s performance sold out, and he was on his way to an extraordinary career–thanks to his enormous talent, yes, but also thanks to some pretty clever self-promotion.

Rob Walker is the “Consumed” columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and writes about marketing and consumer culture at