Why are clocks in ads always set at 8:20?

Dear Cecil:

I have been puzzled for many years about clocks, specifically why all clocks shown in catalogs are set to 8:20. Some goof once told me they were set that way because that was the time John Kennedy was shot, a notion I dismissed in a hurry as being several hours off. I guessed on my own that they set the hands that way to show the manufacturer's name, often imprinted below the 12:00 position, but it seems setting the clock at 8:15 or 10:15 would do that just as well.

Cecil replies:

If you’d continued along the promising line of reasoning you’ve just described, it might have dawned on you that 8:20 makes for a pleasingly symmetrical arrangement of the hands. So does 10:10, an arrangement that shows up almost as often. Relative to the vertical axis they both make a sort of equiangular tripod, if you follow me, that strikes most people as more attractive than, say, 9:15. The practice dates back at least to the 1920s, judging from the ads in (appropriately) Time magazine; the illustrations in a Sears Roebuck catalog from 15 years earlier show no such arrangement.

You were right to reject the JFK story as bogus; it’s simply a modern update on the old yarn that 8:20 (or, more commonly, 8:18) is the time Lincoln died. Actually Abe was shot a little after 10 PM and died at 7:30 AM. In England they say it’s the hour Guy Fawkes had planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

You might think we’d be hearing fewer of these legends now that digital timepieces have partly supplanted the traditional kind, but no such luck. Here’s a letter we got the other day:

“Why do the digital alarm clocks advertised in catalogues or magazines always show 12:08? What’s so special about that time? I’m desperate for an answer! — Oliver ‘Mr. Cc’ Markwirth, Richardson, Texas”

Needless to say, they DON’T all say 12:08. I have an ad here showing a whole passel of digital watches set for 8:07. It was sent to me by some character who wrote in the margin, “Signals of THE 4 HORSES OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Note all set at 8:07.” (It’s “four horseMEN,” incidentally, but you know how panic fogs the mind.)

If I were an ad agency art director I’d be scared to death — you whimsically set all the watches in an ad to, say, your high school locker number, and by sundown you’ve got every paranoid in the country thinking it’s a plot by the Trilateral Commission. A casual survey of ads and catalogs suggests the time settings on digital watches are random except when they’re mixed in with watches with hands, in which case they’re all set for 10:10. Why? Shoe size of the Antichrist, of course. (He’s a big ‘un.) Now go away and let me work on something important, like how newspaper reporters get their words to line up on the right.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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