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When British Advertising Became Ubiquitous and Beautiful

Lambert tracks British social history through posters, cards, and other ephemera in the vividly illustrated The Art of Advertising.

The Art of Advertising
Julie Anne Lambert

University of Chicago Press

May 2020


In The Art of Advertising, Julie Anne Lambert considers the usefulness of advertising as a source for cultural and sociological discovery. The book takes readers through several research perspectives, looking at advertising in relation to print technology, language, urbanism, and socioeconomic class, in each instance affirming the connection between consumerism and culture, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century. Lambert and her colleagues draw on ephemera from the John Johnson Collection in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

The Industrial Revolution is frequently highlighted through large scale technologies like electricity and public transportation, but here another taken-for-granted industry shows how creativity in both art and machinery had a transforming effect on the distribution and reception of public information. The growth of mass printing, leading to an increased distribution of handbills, posters, and newspaper ads, shows the evolution of type and visual images from a medium to convey information to a medium to attract attention.

In the second essay, Lynda Mugglestone looks at the language of advertising, considering how words were used in conjunction with images to persuade consumers to select particular products to buy. Mugglestone conducts an astute rhetorical analysis of advertisements over time. Exaggeration and hyperbole were frequent, especially to sell quack medicine claiming to have transformative effects. As is still the case in the 21st century, advertisers had to take care to avoid language that misrepresented products: instead of saying a product was "pure" or able to "cure" what the medication was intended to treat, terms like "highest quality" and "relieve" were used to avoid prosecution by government inspectors.

Another technological change that transformed advertising was chromolithography, which enabled the large-scale, cost-effective printing of large posters that promoted brands and products to potential customers. The new technology also made possible the faithful reproduction of color oil paintings, creating connections between brands and highly regarded works of art. Best known among these ads is the extensive use of the John Everett Milliais painting Bubbles (1886) by Pears' Soap. By the late 19th century, the use of color dominated advertising, and posters became the typical benchmark for an advertising campaign, setting the tone for handbills, magazine ads, and other forms of advertising like postcards.

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Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The collectible nature of postcards led to "cartomania" in the 1890s, when postcards became a vehicle for advertising. Advertisers provided postcards for merchants to send to their customers and also provided cards for free for customers to mail to each other, building awareness of the brand as it is incidentally endorsed by the sender.

The art of advertising extends beyond posters and cards to include packaging as well, where product boxes could be transformed into collectible cards. The cards created brand loyalty especially among children, who encouraged the purchase of certain products to grow their collections. While this was common among products targeting children, like chewing gum, it was also popular among cigarette companies.

Along similar lines, The Art of Advertising also offers a detailed examination of how advertising in the late 19th century was tied to socioeconomic class in Britain, providing historical documentation of the rise of the middle class amid urbanization. As middle class consumers began to acquire modest spending power, marts and public spaces devoted to shopping began to sprout up across Britain to sell mass-produced goods to eager audiences. One of the difficulties of documenting this history is that advertising ephemera targeted to middle class consumers was often printed badly on poor quality paper, unlike the high quality of that addressed to wealthier consumers. As such, not much of it survives in museum collections.

In the same way that advertising as a profession is thought to arise as late as the 1930s, readers may be surprised to discover that celebrity endorsements, which have such a midcentury ethos in the United States, were popular in British advertising throughout the 19th century. Celebrities were featured in print ads, along with glowing reviews from satisfied customers and expert testimonials from professionals such as doctors, scientists, and clergymen.

Even more significant was a royal endorsement. Lambert notes that "perhaps the simplest way of promoting a product was by stating that members of the royal household used it too, even if indirectly. The manufacturers of Glenfield Starch, for example, claimed that it was 'exclusively used in the royal laundry' – so, even if it wasn't actually used by members of the royal family, it certainly got very close to them."

With 200 high quality color plates, The Art of Advertising makes an important contribution to the study of ephemeral advertising. The very short-term nature of this printed material means that it was unlikely to be preserved. Recently, more local and personal collections are being catalogued and digitized, creating more opportunities for public knowledge about paper ephemera that also offers insight into public life during the Industrial Revolution and beyond.


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