No One in This World Has Ever Lost Money by Underestimating the Intelligence of the Great Masses of the Plain People

H. L. Mencken? Louis B. Mayer? Arthur L. Mayer? David Ogilvy? P. T. Barnum? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A sardonic comment about the general public has been credited to the famous journalist curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Here are two versions:

(1) No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

(2) Nobody ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American people.

I have not been able to determine the original phrasing and a precise citation. Would you please help me?

Quote Investigator: H. L. Mencken was based in Baltimore, Maryland where he wrote for “The Sun” and its companion newspaper “The Evening Sun”. On September 18, 1926 he penned a column about the success of tabloid newspapers for “The Evening Sun” which included the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.

Mencken’s column was reprinted in other newspapers. For example, on the next day, September 19, the piece appeared in the “Chicago Sunday Tribune” of Illinois 2 and the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California. 3

During the ensuing years the quotation has evolved into more streamlined forms. The prolix remark about searching and employing agents has usually been omitted. The phrase “lost money” has often been replaced by “went broke”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1928 “The Knoxville Journal” of Tennessee printed an advertisement for the Fidelity Trust Company which included a shortened version of the saying attributed to Mencken: 4

Henry L. Mencken says, nobody ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the well-known human race—and just to prove it, The Publishers’ Weekly tells the story of a recent prize contest conducted by Alfred A. Knopf.

The advertisement continued with a discussion of the contest. The prize was $100, a substantial sum in 1928. Unfortunately, 75% of the contestants were unable to read and comprehend the rules; hence, their submissions were immediately rejected.

In 1935 the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Virginia printed a letter from a reader that included an instance of the saying: 5

Every time I read a column like the one by Marie Graves Bonham of Gordonsville, on the Red influence in colleges, I am inevitably recalled to words of Mencken (once editor of the American Mercury) when he said: “No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

In 1944 a letter published in a Pittsfield, Massachusetts newspaper attributed a version of the saying to film producer Louis B. Mayer. This version employed “went broke” instead of “lost money”: 6

Let me quote Mr. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, producers end distributors of motion pictures, whose success consists entirely of estimating the intelligence of the American public. In Harper’s Magazine for July in a signed article he quotes with approval the statement that no man ever went broke by under-estimating the intelligence of the American public.

In 1951 the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio published an interview with Arthur L. Mayer, Vice President of the Council of Motion Picture Organization, who ascribed an instance to Mencken that referred to “taste” instead of “intelligence”: 7

“I agree with Mencken,” he said in conclusion, “that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public! But we do need pictures with wider general and higher general appeal—and you’ll get better pictures by patronizing the good ones!”

Also, in 1951 a newspaper in Vancouver, Canada printed a version that referred to the “North American public” instead of the “American public” or the “plain people”: 8

P. T. Barnum put it pretty bluntly when he opined that there’s a sucker born every minute. H. L. Mencken framed it another way in observing that nobody ever went, broke underestimating the intelligence of the North American public.

In 1963 the prominent marketing communicator David Ogilvy published “Confessions of an Advertising Man”. He included an instance of the saying, but he also expressed his strong disagreement: 9

H. L. Mencken once said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. That is not true. I have come to believe that it pays to make all your layouts project a feeling of good taste, provided that you do it unobtrusively. An ugly layout suggests an ugly product.

In 1978 a reviewer in “The Baltimore Sun” was harshly critical of a new television program. He employed the saying while crediting the well-known showman P. T. Barnum: 10

P.T. Barnum said nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

In conclusion, H. L. Mencken should receive credit for the statement he wrote in 1926. His remark was repeated and simplified over time. In addition, the phrasing was often altered. There is no substantive support for the attribution to P. T. Barnum.

(Great thanks to Jamie Dole whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to Ralph Keyes and Fred R. Shapiro for their previous research on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1926 September 18, The Evening Sun, As H. L. Sees It by H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1926 September 19, Chicago Sunday Tribune (Chicago Daily Tribune), Notes on Journalism by H. L. Mencken, Quote Page G1, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  3. 1926 September 19, San Francisco Chronicle, Tabloid a la First Reader by H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 2F, Column 6, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1928 September 7, The Knoxville Journal, What Comes Down Our Creek (Advertisement for Fidelity Trust Company of Knoxville Tennessee), Quote Page 17, Column 7, Knoxville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1935 June 1, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Section: Voice of the People, Letter Title: For Political Tolerance (Letter to the Editor from M. Mary Terretta of Stony Creek), Quote Page 10, Column 6, Richmond, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1944 November 2, The Berkshire Evening Eagle, Public Intelligence (Letter to the Editor from D. H. McDaniel of Pittsfield), Quote Page 14, Column 4, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1951 April 15, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Get Better Films by Buying Good Ones, Says C. O. M. P. O. Veep by W. Ward Marsh, Start Page 36D, Quote Page 38D, Column 6, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1951 August 15, The Vancouver Sun, Our Town by Jack Scott, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1963, Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy, Chapter 7: How to Illustrate Advertisements and Posters, Quote Page 125, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  10. 1978 April 24, The Baltimore Sun, NBC’s new comedy efforts mixed: one bombs badly, the other at least has potential by Bill Carter, Quote Page B4, Column 3, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)