Is a Late Payment Bill a Proper Marker of Electioneering?
There is a popular saying among marketers that translates to: "The customer is always right". This saying has been widely attributed to William Jennings Bryan and has been the basis of many marketing theories including Zen-style marketing.
However, there is no truth to the story of Bryan actually saying this. It's a misattribution of a phrase. This misattribution happened while Bryan was running for president against William McKinley in 1896. According to a study conducted by Barbara Furtwngler, founder of The American Statement Company, in 1999, she found that the line had been used in 1897 and 1896. However, the word "right" wasn't used in its modern sense as a synonym for "correct".
What Furtwngler discovered in her study was that there was no doubt that the line had been used in 1897 and 1896 to mean "the decision of the customer was correct". However, she also discovered that the origin of the expression was not in the presidential election of 1896. It was in 1897, when the author of the book on sales quoted a customer as having said "I always pay my bills on time". Furtwngler decided that the line had been used in 1897, the year after McKinley was elected, because it was during this year that the book was written. In order to track this quotation back, she used online historical documents which revealed that the word "I" was used as early as 1897.
When we use the word "right" to mean "the decision of the customer was correct", we are using it in a way that is closer to modern times, when we use the word "right" to mean "the decision of the customer was correct in a similar situation". Furtwngler concluded that the expression had its origin in 1897.
To me, this new research does not provide any evidence of either the phrase "I always pay my bills on time" or any other presidential election of 1896. What it does provide is evidence that a customer saying "I always pay my bills on time" was said in 1897, long after McKinley's election and years before he was inaugurated. In other words, the word "right" was used in a sense that did not yet connote either "election" or "president" to mean "customer decision". So the first instance of "I always pay my bills on time" might have been said in 1897.
The second instance appears to be from 1896, when the remark was being said by a customer complaining about the late payment of a bill.
In the second instance, the customer did not attribute decision-making to presidential elections. Rather, the remark was a critique of the late payment of a bill rather than a commentary on McKinley's election.
It is possible that the second instance of "I always pay my bills on time" did not derive from the 1894 election, but from some earlier remark by a customer who was upset about late payments by a bill collector. But if that is true, why would anyone quote an earlier remark to mean the 1894 election? I don't know.
I am inclined to guess that the 1894 election was both an instance of the phrase "right" when referring to a presidential election and a critique of late payments by bill collectors.
The earliest citation of the first sense of "I always pay my bills on time" in print is from The Daily Telegraph, London, UK, 23 November 1895, and the earliest citation of the second sense of "I always pay my bills on time" is from The Richmond News-Leader, Richmond VA, U.S., 4 March 1896. Here, the comment was by a customer complaining about late payments. Neither is by a candidate. (The former was by a lawyer, the latter by a dentist.)
There are no indications of candidate comment in the London newspaper citations. Neither is there any evidence of presidential election reference in the Richmond newspaper quotations. The Richmond newspaper quotation is older than the Richmond newspaper quote. I would guess that a presidential election had not yet taken place. I would guess that the remark was a critique of late payments by bill collectors not by presidential elections. If that is correct, then the earliest citation of "I always pay my bills on time" is by a dentist complaining about late payments by bill collectors.
I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that there was no election going on and there was no candidate named McKinley. In fact, there was no late payment of a bill by a bill collector. "I always pay my bills on time" was coined and coined on a whim. So what does this tell us about the statement? It tells us that while late payments were a problem, they were a problem that anyone could have or should have. It doesn't tell us anything about the candidates, the day, the candidate's policies or promises.
As a marketing or publicity statement it could have been made by anyone, candidate or non-candidate. It could have been made by the office holder himself (although he or she would have been the primary beneficiary). It could have been made by the public in general (although they would have been primary beneficiaries).
Does this mean that the statement was meaningless? No, not at all. It does mean that we need to decode the message we want to send. Perhaps we do want to send a message that early payments are not a problem, and the candidate's solution was a solution for late payments. Perhaps we don't want to send that message unless we know for sure that the candidate's solution is an acceptable solution. Perhaps we don't want to send that message if there is any possibility of electioneering.