I once heard someone say that you should always leave out two volumes of short stories in your guest bedroom – one by O. Henry and the other by Saki.
For a person of their generation, they were absolutely right. And while I’d supplement the list with one or two modern volumes, a copy of Saki on the bedside table is a sign that you’re staying with someone who takes hospitality seriously.
I first read Saki’s short stories while staying in a guest bedroom, and was an immediate convert to his writing.
From the cruelly funny Unrest Cure to the sardonic talking cat in Tobermory, I soon discovered Saki rarely puts a comma wrong.
But as a copywriter, the story I most often turn to is Filboid Studge – a tale in which a humble poster designer remarkets an unloved breakfast cereal and transforms it into a bestseller.
There’s a useful tip in it, you see – and it still has the power to work today.
What happens in Filboid Studge
(It seems a bit strange putting in a spoiler alert for a story published in 1911. But if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now – or spend five minutes reading the whole story for free.)
Mark Spayley, a poster designer wants to marry the daughter of an apparently rich man (whose fortune is actually heading for the rocks).
The rich man has sunk a lot of money into a breakfast food called Pipenta. The only problem is that no-one is buying.
But the poster designer has a brainwave. Instead of marketing the food as a desirable and delicious start to the day, he changes its name to the ominous-sounding ‘Filboid Studge’.
And then he really gets creative:
Spayley put forth no pictures of massive babies springing up with fungus-like rapidity under its forcing influence, or of representatives of the leading nations of the world scrambling with fatuous eagerness for its possession. One huge sombre poster depicted the Damned in Hell suffering a new torment from their inability to get at the Filboid Studge which elegant young fiends held in transparent bowls just beyond their reach. The scene was rendered even more gruesome by a subtle suggestion of the features of leading men and women of the day in the portrayal of the Lost Souls; prominent individuals of both political parties, Society hostesses, well-known dramatic authors and novelists, and distinguished aeroplanists were dimly recognizable in that doomed throng; noted lights of the musical-comedy stage flickered wanly in the shades of the Inferno, smiling still from force of habit, but with the fearsome smiling rage of baffled effort. The poster bore no fulsome allusions to the merits of the new breakfast food, but a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.”
The approach was a resounding success. And Saki tells you exactly why:
No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply. In small kitchens solemn pig-tailed daughters helped depressed mothers to perform the primitive ritual of its preparation. On the breakfast-tables of cheerless parlours it was partaken of in silence. Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. “You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!”
If a food has few or no other redeeming qualities, then market it as something that’s good for you – and make clear that it’s your duty to feed it to yourself, your family and your children.
And then be sure to put the price up. If you’re lucky, you may even provoke fights in the aisles at Waitrose.
(No wonder the health food industry’s worth millions).