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 The phrase “lost money” has often been replaced by “went broke”.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.

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

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)