Rachel Bowlby: Appreciating Advertisements

Rachel Bowlby

Rachel Bowlby, Professor of Comparative Literature at University College London, is the author of several books on consumer culture: Just Looking (on nineteenth-century department stores); Shopping with Freud; Carried Away (on supermarkets and self-service); and most recently, Back to the Shops: The High Street in History and the Future (2022). This last, in thirty micro-chapters, is about the history of British shopping; the title is also a call to keep shops, as quasi-public spaces, active and open in an online world. She has also written about the impact on ordinary parental stories of reproductive technologies, beginning with contraception (A Child of One’s Own); on Greek tragedy and modern identities (Freudian Mythologies); and on Virginia Woolf (Feminist Destinations). Other books include Still Crazy After All These Years: Women, Writing and Psychoanalysis; Everyday Stories; and Talking Walking. In preparation is a book of selected essays, Unexpected Items, in Edinburgh UP’s  “Feminist Library” series, as well as a short book on Émile Zola. A Fellow of the British Academy, Rachel Bowlby was previously (2004-14) Lord Northcliffe Professor of English at UCL.

The first thing to say about The Rise of Mass Advertising is also the first thing that will strike any reader, of whatever kind – whether someone who, like me and the rest of us speaking today, has been studying every page, or whether someone who (let’s hope) may pick it up in a bookstore, or see it online. That first thing is that this book is a thing of beauty. It is full of extraordinary images. It has glossy paper of the finest quality. Much care, much time and attention, have been lavished upon its production as a visually and tangibly attractive object. All this is quite apart from the attention devoted to the composition of its many words, the research behind them, and the sophistication of their arguments. Among the many and diverse excellent features of the book, we should congratulate both Rosenberg and her publisher on an aesthetic achievement. The book is a delightful object, and one that attracts attention as such.

But there is an irony in this beauty – or rather, to use the term that is like the Leitmotif of the book, there is an irony in this enchantment. Drawing on Weber’s famous formulation about the disenchantment of the world, Rosenberg’s analysis of the early British history of mass-market advertising takes as its starting point the patent enchantments of advertising, and thus its anomalous status in relation to the would-be rationality of a steady, neutral modernity. There is nothing hidden about advertising’s will to win over its spectators.

From another point of view, however, this book would seem to be far away from the imagined enchantments of mass publicity. The book is long-term whereas advertisements are almost by definition ephemeral. Both metaphorically and physically, the book—and especially this book—is heavy, a quality product made to last; whereas ads are lightweight and pragmatic, here today and thrown away tomorrow. The book is specialized and academic, whereas ads – the title says it directly –are for the masses. The book is high culture where ads are not just low-culture, but almost the personification of low culture. The book has depth, whereas ads are superficial. The list, and the expected contrasts, go on.

But if the book is a non-ad, set at a distance from the easy charms of advertising, it is also exactly the opposite. It is full of advertisements! Ads galore – that is what its many pictures replicate, beautiful glossy reproductions, on almost every page. But then we must ask, are they really ads, in the operative sense of the word? Those nineteenth-century images are present in the book in the role of permanent exhibits, to be studied and perhaps admired, rather than to be acted on. No one will now be persuaded by them; that is not why they are there. Or if they are persuaded, they are surely in the wrong century! Instead, contemporary readers will appreciate these images for what now looks like their bygone naivety, or crudeness – or whatever it may be. That is the retro-effect already beginning in the period that Rosenberg describes, when –as she documents—eager spectators began to collect and preserve the ephemeral and ubiquitous posters before they could be destroyed or pasted over, as would happen in the normal course of things. From being no more or less than an indication of the moment, the now of the ever-changing Baudelairean modernity, an ad could thereby be transformed into history, acquiring its own distinctive aesthetic aura as an image of present times now become the past.

It was suggested that we might begin our reflections by identifying a question within our own field of research that shows up usefully or differently through Rosenberg’s book. So for me, coming out of literary studies, one such issue is that of popular versus serious literature—a putative category division which, like that of mass advertising, arose in the nineteenth century and is part of the same phenomenon. Many novels which are regarded as classics today began life as serialized and short-term formats, published in instalments, very often in the pages of daily newspapers. They were subsequently reprinted in the form of books—physical books—and some of those that survived into twentieth- and twenty-first-century editions now figure as consecrated texts, with their low-key beginnings now forgotten or irrelevant to their current high status. For literature written in English, Charles Dickens is the outstanding example here. His novels began in serial form; he is now perhaps second only to Shakespeare in the canon of English-language literature. Yet the words on the pages are exactly the same as those that appeared in the first periodical, short-term form–just as those beautiful images in Rosenberg’s book are identical to those that once graced or blotted the pages and walls and hoardings of their original Victorian settings.

We can understand how a few bestselling book titles of the Victorian period have changed into enduring and often reprinted classics, as if by a process of gradual if not natural selection. But examples from Rosenberg’s book show us a parallel but different process occurring for posters and other advertising ephemera. Some posters are kept—are deliberately preserved—and through that keeping (with its change of situation) they then acquire a rarity and a value, irrespective of any real aesthetic worth that they may or may not have. They are now separated from the “mass” of similar objects with which they began, and it is that contingency, not any inherent qualities that are attributed to them, which gives them their later significance as survivals.

That is one layer or stratum to the framing of the advertisements in Rosenberg’s book. It involves a pivot from low to high status in cultural valuation. But arguments that relate to the distinction between high and low culture have had their own history of prominence or decline. They peaked, we could say, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, in part through the influential works of the Frankfurt School, but also via widely read, less theoretical Anglo-American cries of cultural distress against all things “mass,” the bad word of the time. Rosenberg’s book is attuned to these contexts, and the title she chose both echoes and continues the historical perspectives that were inaugurated in those mid-twentieth-century times. Semantically, “The Rise of Mass Advertising” –the phrase itself –belongs to the twentieth century, even as it points to a back-story that is located in the nineteenth.

By the same token, however, we find ourselves still, in the book, as if in a twentieth-century conceptual world of rises (and falls), of beginnings or origins; and this brings me to a second, related point about the history of the argument. Mass advertising, in its time—as a phenomenon and as an idea—appeared as relatively new, but also as foreseeably permanent. It was an aspect of a world-dominating system (otherwise known as capitalism), and it was either going to be revolutioned away into something utterly different or it was more or less there to stay. This is not the place to go into the details of Marxist and liberal arguments during what is now an earlier time to our own. But in the new digital era of the twenty-first century it appears that the scope and aims of advertising have changed. A campaign – note the military metaphor of that word – no longer needs to be armed with weapons of mass persuasion aimed at an equally large-scale target: all women, all those in social classes CD, or whatever it might be. Instead each individual consumer can receive, on their personal devices, ads that are customized to their own profile—including their ad-viewing profile. Targeting has shifted from the massive to the individual.

From one angle, and paradoxically, this represents a revival of the place where modern advertising began: with the classified newspaper advertisement, addressed by one individual to another whom they hope that their ad will find: offering situations vacant, or some particular object for sale. Rosenberg lovingly cites the example of Jane Eyre, in Charlotte Bronte’s novel, herself “advertising” for a governess position: she pays for a line or two to be placed in a newspaper in which she presents herself as available for employment. (And she ultimately gets more than she bargained for: a rather complicated man, Mr Rochester, as well as a job.) Historically, the classified ad, straightforward and simple, is represented as the antithesis to the big flamboyant advertisement of the poster or “full-color” magazine spread, designed to attract the attention of anyone and everyone. The classified ad is small-scale and tucked away in a column where it will be seen by someone already looking for such an announcement.

The classified ad, then, is sober and practical rather than over-persuasive. It is informative rather than distracting. It is there to bring about contact between a seller and a buyer who each want to find the other: the buyer is actively looking for the object according to the classification of the ads, whether rooms for rent or chimney-sweeping services. Classified ads today have many digital manifestations, such as dating or property-finding websites, when both parties, the seller and the prospective buyer, are looking to find one another. But the individually tailored advertising that appears in some other contexts is more one-sided. The consumer has no choice in what is put there in front of them, even though it is their past activity and consequent profile which has (in one sense) determined it. Such ads are personal to the point of a direct interpellation that borders on the uncanny, popping up next to an email inbox, say, on the day that the person was earlier googling some related product in what they may have naively thought was the privacy of their own time and place. Crucially, in the context of Rosenberg’s book, the ad received will be one that seeks to solicit and attract attention away from whatever task or pursuit the consumer is otherwise engaged in on their screen. A classified one-on-one ad, by contrast, will likely have no enhancement—no would-be enchantment–at all. It is plain information, no more.

Coming full circle, back to something not unlike the direct address of a classified newspaper listing, the new modalities of online listings and targeted digital advertisement now have the effect of putting mass advertising into the shade. In the twentieth century, all-dominant and ubiquitous, mass advertising looked as if it would last for ever. But today it appears as having been only one phase, the twentieth-century moment, in the long history of public informational announcement and persuasion (that’s my considered and etymological gloss on the word “advertising”).

I would like to end by talking about a question of language history. One of the oldest and most obvious points of contention around the legislative control of advertising concerns its hypothetical truth or falsity. Can the claim in the ad be justified? Is it evidence-based? The factually false can be called out, potentially; but advertising –such is its enchantment–typically works in ambiguous ways that may make it difficult to adjudicate its claim to be stating a fact. Therein lies the difficulty for the would-be regulator—and with it, much of the matter of Rosenberg’s book.

One of Rosenberg’s most memorable case studies, in this regard, is that of supposedly pregnancy-ending pills: in other words (using the nasty technical term) “abortifacient” tablets intended to bring about a miscarriage. The double bind here was that if they worked, they were doing something against the law –and the ads were advertising an illegal product. If they didn’t work, then they were not doing what they were purchased to do; but there was no possibility of comeback or protest, since that purpose was clearly against the law. Advertising for such pills avoided liability through a cloudy lack of specificity in the product description; it would obviously not make practical sense to announce the sale of a patently prohibited product. Instead, a coded language referred vaguely to “blockages” or “irregularities,” and promised to relieve them.

Rosenberg brings out the strength of the coded language here: understood by all concerned, yet not open to condemnation on legal or linguistic grounds, precisely because there were no specifically incriminating terms. But it is not so clear what, at the time – the late nineteenth-century time —could have constituted a factual statement of the situation the pills were supposed to put right. Our own twenty-first-century culture refers to “a pregnancy” and its “termination,” with terms that in their own way are coded as scientifically neutral. Legal and ethical arguments relate to the age of the foetus at the time of its removal from a uterus. No nineteenth-century woman would have had or used such a vocabulary, such a conceptual framework (and nor, for that matter would a medical man or anyone else); it was not available, not part of the culture. The words or the understandings that were or might have been used by ordinary people for this delicate predicament are not even fully known, since – as with all matters close to bodily and especially to sexual experience, such understandings have left few written records; they can only be guessed at. Given that there was no visual picture of the contents of a womb –no scanning or foetal imaging, as we say it and see it today–then the view of those first weeks must have been quite different: more to do with a vague wondering or possible future expectation of an eventual baby than with the sense of a definite process taking its course. Nor was there any would-be scientifically accurate test, one way or the other, in relation to this time –let alone the over-the-counter kits that became available in the later part of the twentieth century. There were only missed periods – irregularities–at first, of a necessarily indeterminate nature. The advertising descriptions, therefore, may not have been so far from the everyday ways of thinking about this situation of what we would now refer to, in our strangely abstracted way, as the first “trimester” of a pregnancy –whether dreaded or wished for.[1]

And as Rosenberg’s book shows many times, there is a broader issue here, which this extreme example shows up. Arguments about truth claims in advertising depend on a clear-cut notion of what counts as fact, as a neutral and unembellished description of a product and its use. But as with the changing descriptions and understandings of early pregnancy, the factual is itself a variable, even an ideological construct, and it has its own powers of persuasion qua fact. In that context the consumer may well be someone who likes to imagine themselves as not swayed by emotional factors but interested only in the information, stripped bare of any enhancement or enchantment.

Consider for instance the delightful American discussions, in the interwar period, of effective advertisements for cars, able to appeal to those who regard themselves as impermeable to specious “sexing up,” to use a term that acquired a sudden currency in twenty-first century Britain. Show the glamorous image, by all means, the big new beautiful automobile and perhaps the attractive female to take for a drive in it; but also provide all the down-to-earth specs and stats, the practical features, the reasonable price, the reasonable gas consumption in miles per gallon. That way the prospective purchaser can imagine that he is making a choice on rational grounds; he can ignore or deny the influence of the emotional forms of persuasion in the image that surrounds the realistic factual information. Already in the 1930s this dual mode of advertisement is theorised in just this way, and by reference to two distinct “types” of consumer –the romantic (happy to see himself as seduced) and the classical (who likes to think of himself as making a sensible, thought-through choice).[2] Versions of just the same game continue to be played in the advertising of today –not least with the marketing that highlights the environmentally beneficial (or at least not harmful) characteristics of a car or other product that is also, at the same time, being sold in relation to clearly non-rational, magical criteria.

What’s the answer and what’s the future? Rosenberg’s book gives us a wealth of material for thinking further about the questions whose concrete institutional beginnings it lays out with such dedication and clarity. Everyone should read it. Everyone should also enjoy it!—and, as Rosenberg does, should ponder and analyse the enchantments by which we continue to live, to buy and not buy, in our twenty-first century world.

[1] On changing representations of pregnancy and abortion see Barbara Brookes , Abortion in England 1900-1967 (1988; London: Routledge, 2014).

[2] On the marketing of cars between the wars as either functional or fanciful, see further Rachel Bowlby, Shopping with Freud (London: Routledge, 1993), 97-100.