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timeline: 1744
wit and wisdom
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Franklin's political cartoon, Join or Die
Franklin's political cartoon used to sell the concept of colonial unity
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Today, advertising is everywhere—on television and the Internet, in newspapers and magazines, and on billboards and the sides of buses. Advertising wasn't nearly as prevalent in Franklin's time. When someone wanted to sell something in the eighteenth century, he or she had to devise a way to get the word out on the product. As today, some people did it better than others, and Ben Franklin (who is sometimes called the "Patron Saint of Advertising") did it better than most.

Franklin used his position as a publisher to advertise ideas as well as products. Through letters to the editor, often appearing with pseudonyms, Franklin tried to convince the public to "buy" his ideas. It was through letters like these that he convinced the population of Philadelphia that they needed fire fighters. He also sold the ideas of forming a militia to protect lives and property, of building a public hospital to minister to the sick and ailing, and of keeping the streets clean.

Early in his career, Franklin realized that the public's perception of reality was as important as the reality itself. He believed that he would get more work for his business if people thought of him as a really hard worker. Franklin made sure that townspeople saw him hard at work early in the morning and late at night, hoping that people would perceive "hard work" as "good work" and become customers of his print shop.

Late in his career, Franklin used this same technique when he became America's first Minister to France. During the voyage to France, Franklin wore a simple fur cap to keep his balding head warm. He was wearing it when he arrived in Paris. Franklin was already well-known in France as a scientist and intellectual, but the stylish Parisians were amused by the cap. They thought it made him look like a natural backwoodsman. Franklin continued to wear the cap to give the impression that he was a simple man from the Americas, even though he was one of the slyest diplomats the French would ever meet.

Franklin's talent for affecting people's perceptions translated into the ability to sway public opinion. Franklin was instrumental in convincing many colonists that they should be free of British rule. Throughout the Revolutionary War, Franklin continued to affect public opinion in America, France, and England.

When it came to selling products, he successfully marketed his redesign of a wood-burning stove through a pamphlet that used a number of sales techniques that are commonplace today. He talked about the science of heat and heat transmission, called upon authorities to reinforce his arguments, and highlighted the healthful benefits. He also used graphics and ended the pamphlet with a clever verse, not unlike our modern jingles. Ironically, Franklin's stove didn't work very well until another inventor improved its design. Yet still today we believe the "Franklin Stove" is one of the best heaters ever invented — perhaps a tribute to Franklin's marketing prowess.


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