The year was 1953; I had just turned 12 and was about to experience one of my first lessons in personal accountability and in understanding how advertising may create short-term desires. It all began while reading a comic book. (It was probably an Archie book, as he was a teenager coping with how to interact with girts and, although it would be several more years before I attempted any interaction with girls, I found his escapades interesting.) But I digress. Anyway, while reading the book I stumbled across this irresistible ad; I mean, what 12-year-old boy could resist it? All I had to do was sell this “salve” product (whatever that was) and I would earn a .22 rifle. (Now, my parents would never have allowed me to have a firearm, and I didn’t know what I would do with one anyway, but such facts were easily ignored in my lust.)
So, I mailed in the coupon and, in a few weeks, a large package arrived for me. The package contained a large tube with twelve little tins of salve, plus twelve religious pictures. I was to sell each tin of salve for twenty-five cents and give the happy customers a free picture of their choice. This looked easy. From the ad, I assumed that adults knew whatever this product was and that I would quickly sell all twelve tins. In sifting through the paperwork included, I also noticed that I had, in fact, “purchased” these twelve tins and owed the company for them. That is, I was now in debt; whether I sold the tins or not, I owed the company. I was starting to realize this was no game: I was in business and in debt.
Being a child, it was easy to put this out of my mind — until Saturday morning came and Mom reminded me that I needed to sell those tins so I could pay the company. Hey, this was Saturday and I wanted to ride my bike. Selling tins of salve had not been in my plans for the day. By now, I had already forgotten that .22 rifle in the ad; my only goal was ridding myself of this debt. Walking the neighborhood with my tins of salve and pictures, I knocked on every door and sold just one tin, to a woman who must have seen the desperation on my young face. Just what was this salve, anyway?
Discouraged, I escaped the issue for the day by riding my bike the remainder of the afternoon. Mom, in her wisdom, kept quiet. Some days later, Mom (ever supportive) mentioned that, as our church’s secretary, she had to spend a few hours at the church to handle some business and I might be more successful by selling to people who lived in the church’s neighborhood. I liked that; Mom was making it an adventure by letting me experience a new territory and new faces. With new enthusiasm, I attacked the opportunity. However, here again, I encountered puzzled faces, curiosity — and nostalgia. It was at the home of two elderly ladies that I encountered the nostalgia; they happily reminisced about having used the White Cloverine Brand Salve in their youth and were kind enough to purchase not one, but two tins. I was beginning to realize that maybe I was selling a relic; that explained the many puzzled looks I had seen on my prospective customers. (I noticed today that these original tins are selling on Ebay for $8 up to $35; maybe I should have just kept them as an investment.)
Reviewing my balance sheet, I had sold three tins, yet still owed for all twelve. Worse, I had spent a Saturday morning and this day at church with Mom to no avail. I walked back to the church and placed the tube with the remaining tins on the sill behind our car’s rear seat (Mom had warned me to not leave the tube of tins on the upholstery) and went into the church to tell Mom of my miserable performance. Mom had brought a sandwich for lunch and shared it with me, giving us time to discuss what I had committed to, why I had wanted to do it, and the consequences. A wiser child I was becoming. Life was looking up.
Yes, life was looking up, but not for long. When we returned to the car for the ride home, Mom noticed a large spread of melted salve all over the back window sill; the southern sun had melted all the salve into a gooey mess and destroyed the remaining pictures. My business was now bankrupt. I did successfully emerge from what I considered a financial catastrophe; Mom talked to Dad and he sent a check for the cost of the twelve tins to the company.
The subject of White Cloverine Brand Salve was never mentioned again, but I will always remember the lesson whenever I see an ad for something I had never considered; the vision of that .22 rifle always comes to mind. I had been seduced to do something for an item I had never needed or even considered. My priorities, my focus, and my daily activities had all been changed by the need to sell that darn salve. There would be more situations in my life where my priorities became confused, but that first lesson I always remember. Later that year, I did take a job delivering a paper route for the afternoon newspaper, but that’s another story.