Category Archives: history

E.S. Turner’s The Shocking History of Advertising

From notes I took in 1999, when I was researching the early history of advertising in England and its relationship to the development of a commercial fiction industry. The key link is something Turner quotes from a 1970 Atlantic article in regard to Americans’ good-natured acceptance of ads: “to be good-naturedly imposed upon is a positive pleasure, provided the cost of it is not too great.” In other words, advertisign not only subsidizes entertainment; it is entertainment, and fosters a complimentary mind-set to that which entertainment proper fosters.

Turner suggests ads succeed because they furnish people with preferable lies to live by that are more convenient to believe than the truth. He cites Bacon:

People would be unpleasing to themselves without an ad world to identify themselves within. It’s a ready-made imaginary for those who are too lazy or busy to spend the time developing their own. And it is a social imaginary that integrates one with his/her society. It’s a means to feel at home and at peace with one’s contemporaries and feel as though one can participate in the zeitgeist and know the terms by which one can secure social recognition.

In the early 20th century, advertising about advertising consolidated this idea. Ads create demand, teach us to want things, which allows to experience “success” on consumerism’s terms

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year documented a pivotal year for advertising, demonstrating how panic opens gateway to public susceptibility. The panic yielded early examples of quackery in print, and underscored the longstanding association between advertising and quackery, which sells the experience of being duped as a cure. The process of being fooled, of suspending disbelief becomes the point, the experience justifies the product, which is nothing but an inert souvenir of how the ad kicked off an alchemical process within one’s imagination.

He notes Addison’s Tatler No. 224 as an early survey of English advertising. As advertising grew as an industry, it became an increasingly reliable source of revenue as governments taxed them with stamp taxes.

Turner makes a sort of defense of 18th century patent-medicine hawkers:

Worth noting that tobacco and snuff were basically patent medicines at the time, and advertised as such.

Mass market not sought by advertisers until the early 19th century.

He quotes Carlyle from Past and Present complaining about the inauthenticity problem with ads: that they allow manufacturers to focus their energy on convincing people of something that they could spend the same energy simply making it so. “The Quack has become God.” Of course he had — Turner alludes to the argument that consumer capitalism and advertising must follow from the industrial scale of production. A sufficient demand must be industrially manufactured to make it profitable to manufacture goods on the industrial scale. That is what modern media and advertising rest on.

More early history of advertising: the Edinburgh Review in 1843. And Idler (1759); Quarterly Review (1855).

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