Erika Rappaport: The Fantasy Life of Capitalism

Erika Rappaport

Erika Rappaport is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses on Modern British and imperial history, and global histories of food, consumer culture, gender and sexuality.  She is the author of Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton University Press, 2000) and a Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2017). She is also the co-editor of Consuming Behaviours: Identities, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth Century Britain (Bloomsbury, 2015) and editor of A Cultural History of Shopping in the Age of Revolution and Empire (Bloomsbury 2022).  She is currently writing Talking Points: How Public Relations Sold the End of Empire, which examines how the public relations industry managed the process, understanding, and memories of decolonization.

In 1963 David Ogilvy published the iconic Confessions of an Advertising Man, described in the forward as “a slender but juicy book.”  Confessions included “commandments” or simple rules on how to get and keep clients, build “great campaigns,” and write “potent copy.”  After offering such profitable advice, Ogilvy ended the book on a very hesitant note with a chapter that asked, “Should Advertising be Abolished?”  The chapter seems to have grown out of ongoing conversations Ogilvy had had with his “Socialist elder sister,” Lady Hendy.  No doubt she had read a draft of the manuscript and like many on the left on Britain, she was uncomfortable with advertising and mass culture in general. Even though he was one of the most famous advertisers of the day,  Ogilvy too expressed a deep discomfort with a profession that skated so close to the edge of fraud.  He wrote Confessions in part to resolve such qualms.  He sought to raise the status of his profession by defining good advertising as market information. His advice urged fellow practitioners to “give up flatulent puffery” and write only “informative advertising.”[1]

Ogilvy’s misgivings also plagued the Victorians who were developing and explaining the social, economic, and cultural uses of advertising.  Anat Rosenberg’s wonderful new book, The Rise of Mass Advertising, Law, Enchantment and the Cultural Boundaries of British Modernity allows us to imagine and understand the significance of the conversations that Ogilvy must have had with his sister.  She offers a genealogy of their concerns about how advertising disrupted the boundaries between fact and fiction, and the dangers and possibilities of capitalism’s enchantments.  We learn about the long history behind Lady Hendy’s reproaches and her brother’s truth claims.  Rather than taking sides in this pervasive debate about the morality and power of advertising, Rosenberg has cast her critical eye on how this argument molded the content, legitimacy, and reception of advertising in Victorian England.  She demonstrates how advertising raised profound anxieties about disciplinary, social, and cultural boundaries.  As it dislocated older forms of value and hierarchies of knowledge, advertising symbolized how industrial and consumer capitalism was seemingly both enchanting and disenchanting the modern world.  Advocates were selling goods and detractors were denouncing their work, but together their conversation did a great deal of what Rosenberg calls cultural boundary work.  Whether they were denouncing advertising as a degraded, yet powerful form of knowledge or defending it as useful information, the Victorians were attempted to draw a line between fact and fiction, news and puffery, art and industry, and science and quackery.  In a variety of legal arenas, educated authorities, manufacturers, retailers, copy writers and average consumers engaged in “cultural negotiation” which articulated a variety of understandings of capitalism, modernity, and enchantment.[2]

People living in early modern and eighteenth-century Britain were certainly concerned that new material cultures and economic systems were upsetting established hierarchies and knowledge systems.[3]  However, Rosenberg demonstrates the contradictory ways in which a liberalizing legal regime, beginning in the 1840s and closing with the onset of the First World War, simultaneously unleashed and contained the destabilizing nature of mass culture. The law operates on multiple levels, as Rosenberg explains, “to formulate social meanings, resolve cultural dilemmas, and frame normativity with the backing of legitimate coercive power.”[4]  The law is not an abstract institution that regulates the market in a top-down manner, rather it is an everyday, socially embedded set of practices that establishes norms and truths.  Rosenberg demonstrates how by defying older notions of value nineteenth-century liberal legal culture was as unsettling as the adverts that promised magical cures and transformations.  The removal of the so-called “taxes on knowledge” between 1853 and 1861 set the stage for the huge expansion of the mass press and mass advertising.  Rather than create a free market in ideas, the advocates of these reforms helped mainstream advertising in Victorian culture.  Through a close reading of the repeal debate and the cultural work of reform groups such as the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee and the Association for the Promotion of the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge, we see how reformers pushed the notion that advertising was legitimate market information. They argued that a tax on advertising was essentially a tax on free speech and the right of trade to communicate with the public. Rosenberg demonstrates how liberals legitimized advertising and the mass culture of consumption that was emerging in the nineteenth century.[5]  Although figures such as William Gladstone argued that advertisements were genuine commercial information, this position was never fully embraced.  British liberals and radicals remained divided about the utility of advertising and mass culture, even as they helped establish its roots and methods.[6]  Thus, Rosenberg details how advertising developed in Victorian England, how law was part of this process, how average Britons understood the new world of goods visually and materially presented in a riot of advertising signs, posters, print, and packaging, and why the British left have repeatedly argued that advertising was outside of rather than at the center of British society and culture. One of Rosenberg’s most important interventions then is to show how critics and advocates of advertising advanced and shaped its place in Victorian society.

This argument significantly redirects British scholarship on advertising, which until the 1990s had  been exceedingly limited.[7]  In the United States historians have long placed advertising at the center of the study of U.S. culture, demonstrating how, for example, advertising and advertisers helped Protestant America come to terms with and contain the desires unleashed by the growth and transformations in capitalism since the nineteenth century.  American advertisers made mass culture equivalent to American culture, a fact acknowledged within and outside of the U.S.[8]  In Britain, the assumption that advertising was American meant that few historians focused on the topic at all.  Literary scholars did, however, interrogate how advertising formed class, gender, and racial identities in Victorian England.[9]  Such work inspired historical inquiries into advertising and urban landscapes, gender and class formation, and the myth of Victorian sensual and sexual repression.[10]  It also launched interest in advertising as a form of imperial culture or a vector which brought the empire home, legitimized imperial expansion, and solidified notions of racial differences.  Soap and tea advertisements, for example, promised personal renewal and revival by relying on racial binaries and fantasies of imperial conquest.[11]  

Rosenberg builds on such studies but provides a reading of advertising through the lens of intellectual history, and considers how advertising manifested fundamental problems about knowledge, modernity, and disciplinary boundaries.  Chapters therefore address critical questions such as how do we know the difference between news and puffery?  What is art and where does it belong?  What are medical ethics? What is indecency?  Through a close reading of court cases, legislative debates, and regulatory conversations, Rosenberg masterfully shows us how average consumers participated in these intellectual conversations.  While most scholars of advertising have asked the ads to speak for themselves, the legal archive that Rosenberg introduces uncovers how ordinary men and women read advertising, used goods, and understood markets.[12]  Rosenberg’s method thus illuminates the everyday worlds of consumer capitalism.

Given the imperial and global turn in British history, we might ask how would Rosenberg’s conclusions look different if she had studied imperial rather than domestic Britain?  In this book the empire is a source of commodities and a topic in Orientalist and racist narratives in advertising, but further research could explore further how and why the empire shaped the culture of advertising in domestic Britain, and whether colonial legal systems influenced, copied or departed from metropolitan examples? [13]  Rosenberg’s book provides a method and archive for detailed comparisons of law, capitalism, and modernity.  She introduces tools and a new legal archive for understanding the cultural work of advertising in colonial settings, and for re-conceptualizing anti-colonial movements.  Since at least the American Revolution consumer boycotts rejected British imperialism, but other anti-colonial movements could also be read as cultural and intellectual critiques of capitalism, advertising, and the mass market.  Capitalism and its enchantments contributed to the transformation of colonies into nation states so can we also explore how anti-colonial movements did similar cultural and disciplinary work that it did in the Victorian metropole?[14]  For example, in a small  1935 essay entitled “Untruthful Advertising,” Mohandas Gandhi condemned the British owned tea industry and its large and harmful advertising campaigns in India as particularly problematic forms of colonialism.  To reject colonialism, Gandhi wrote, Indians needed to learn how to read advertising critically and thus avoid assuming that “the printed word in a book or a newspaper” is the “gospel truth.”  As an example, Gandhi quoted a recent advertisement in a Bengali newspaper that had proposed, “tea helps retain a youthful look and energy.”  The ad then described how a forty-eight-year-old man looked a mere thirty-four because since he was fourteen, he had drunk nearly thirty cups of tea daily.  This ad, which looked like “a report from the paper’s own correspondent,” provided a clear example of what Gandhi presented as the fictional world of commodity culture.[15]  Such advertising was dangerous because it broke the implied contract between reader and text by mimicking the style of the news sections of the paper and because it  invited consumers to commit self-violence by buying things they did not need.  With its state support and wide reach, the tea campaign stood out as a particularly egregious example of how commodity culture was a form of colonialism.[16]  Gandhi’s critique was similar to that Rosenberg explores throughout her book.  He was concerned about advertising that exaggerated health claims, that physically looked like fake news, and which bewitched uneducated readers.

If we take Anat Rosenberg as our guide, we can see Gandhi’s essay and the swadeshi movement more broadly as a rejection of colonial capitalism and its modern enchantments.  We can place Gandhi in conversation with David Ogilvy and Lady Hendy and see how these three were engaged in fundamental cultural work.  They were not merely selling or rejecting goods or advertising but wrestling with the boundaries of truth and falsehood that we all confront every time we look at social media, read a newspaper, watch a television show, or simply walk down the street.  Advertising, as we see in Rosenberg’s book, is a window into how we all participate in the fantasy life of capitalism as consumers and critics.

[1] David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963; London: Southbank Publishing, 2013), 9, 167-69.

[2] Anat Rosenberg, Anat Rosenberg, The Rise of Mass Advertising, Law, Enchantment and the Cultural Boundaries of British Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 10.

[3] There is a huge literature on early modern consumer society that examines how new commodities from trade, empire, and shifting modes of production at home disrupted the idea of stable boundaries between luxury and necessity.  Key works include Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society in England (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1982); Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987); John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds. Consumption and the World of Goods (London: Routledge, 1994);  Ann Bermingham and John Brewer, eds. The Consumption of Culture, 1600-1800: Image, Object, Text (London and New York: Routledge, 1995); Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford, eds. Consumers and Luxury: Consumer Culture in Europe, 1650-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999); Linda Levy Peck, Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); and Jan de Vries , The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[4] Rosenberg, Mass Advertising, 30.

[5] Rosenberg, Mass Advertising, 105

[6]  For studies of how British liberals and radicals attempted to channel the desires they assumed were unleashed by mass consumption, see Peter Gurney, Co-operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England, 1870-1930 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996); Lawrence Black and Nicole Robertson eds., Consumerism and the Co-Operative Movement in Modern British History: Taking Stock (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009); Matthew Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).  On the interwar debate on mass culture, see D.L. LeMahieu, A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind Between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon press, 1988).  The Second World War altered the place of advertising in British culture, see David Clampin, Advertising and Propaganda in World War II: Cultural Identity and the Blitz Spirit (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), but after the war cultural critics still cautioned that advertising was an American import infecting and colonizing “authentic” forms of British culture.  The most famous example of this critique is Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (Middlesex: Penguin, 1957).  In truth postwar advertising was a transatlantic institution.  See Sean Nixon, Hard Sell: Advertising, Affluence and Transatlantic Relations, c. 1951-69 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[7] The two most comprehensive works prior to this time are E.S. Turner, The Shocking History of Advertising!  (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc. 1953) and T.R. Nevett, Advertising in Britain: A History (London: Heinemann on behalf of the History of Advertising Trust, 1982). 

[8] Some foundational texts include, Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and its Creators (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984); Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed : the Making of the American Mass Market (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989: T. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Pamela Walker Laird, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and Charles McGovern, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945 (Chapel Hill: The University of California Press, 2006), especially part I.  Outside of the U.S. the advertising industry was perceived as spreading Americanization.  See Victoria De Grazia, Irresistible Empire : America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

[9] The seminal works include Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (London: Methuen, 1985); Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990) and Andrew H. Miller, Novels Behind Glass: Commodity Culture and Victorian Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[10] I explored this point in my first book, Shopping for Pleasure: Gender in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).  For an overview of this scholarship, see Erika Rappaport and Julie A. Johnson, “Sexuality and Consumerism in the Modern World: The Business of Pleasure,” in Merry Wiesner-Hanks and Mathew Kuefler, ed. The Cambridge World History of Sexualities, vol. IV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2024).

[11] Much of this work was inspired by John MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1984) and feminist scholarship seeking to show how imperialism shaped European bourgeois culture.  See especially Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995).  For a global treatment of British imperial advertising and market culture, see Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[12] In this sense, Rosenberg departs from scholars such as Richards, Commodity Culture and Lori A. Loeb, Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).  The tendency to read ads in isolation is in part an artifact of libraries typically removing the ads from nineteenth-century periodicals before binding.  As a result, many scholars have had to rely on advertising archives such as the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera housed at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, parts of which have recently been digitized.

[13] Scholars are increasingly looking at such topics.  For two excellent examples, see Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996) and Douglas E. Haynes, The Emergence of Brand-Name Capitalism in Late Colonial India: Advertising and the Making of Modern Conjugality (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).

[14] Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[15] Mahatma Gandhi, “Untruthful Advertisements,” Harijan (24 August 1935) republished in M.K. Gandhi, Drinks, Drugs and Gambling, edited by Bharatan Kumarappa (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1952): 140-4.  For a fuller discussion see Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire, 252-53.

[16] Gandhi, “Untruthful Advertisements,” 141.  For a study of Gandhi’s theory of reading and self-rule see Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) also see Lisa N. Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007) for a discussion of how anti-consumerist nationalism could also promote Indian capitalism.