Advertising is a tenacious form. Originating in the commercial impulse to promote sales, versions of what might loosely be termed “advertising” can no doubt be traced to wherever and whenever surplus product has needed to be disposed of. The proverb “good wine needs no bush,” for instance, is at least 2,000 years old. It refers to the vintner’s practice, common until well into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of hanging shrubs or ivy around the door to indicate wine or beer available for sale within. The sense of the practice contained within the proverb is quite familiar – good products need no extra promotion.
There are probably numerous other instances of advertising-like activity in early history, but usage of the word in its contemporary sense appears to date from the latter part of the sixteenth century. The term “advertise” itself is from the French meaning to inform, warn, or announce. It is not the only term to have been associated with the products and practices of commercial promotion. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, commercial promotion was often described as “puffing,” with the related terms “puff ” and “puffery” in widespread use. Other terms, including “blast”, “bubble,” and “push,” were also used to describe commercial efforts to boost sales, although, as in the case of the “South Sea Bubble,” these terms were often associated with speculative, dubious, or fraudulent activity. By the close of the nineteenth century, “advertising” had become the preferred term for the practices, products, and institutions of commercial promotion. The subtle changes in the language of promotion reflect broader changes in the technical and technological arrangements that have made up the institutions, form, and media of the advertising field.
Journalists, historians, and social and cultural theorists have approached advertisements as mirroring dominant values, attitudes, and habits and thus as prime source material for divining the “spirit” or “pattern” of the age. This view of advertisements as sociocultural source material has structured critical academic work within the disciplines of communication studies, sociology, and cultural and media studies. For a variety of reasons, including the difficulty of gaining access to advertising agencies and sourcing historical evidence concerning working practices, work in these critical traditions has tended to focus upon form with advertisements analyzed as “texts”. This has sometimes been at the expense of analysis of the practice of advertising – the production processes, institutions, and media that make up the industry. A broad understanding of the advertising field, however, should encompass both elements.
The modern sense of advertising as a commercial promotional endeavor can be traced partly to its institutional origins in attempts in the late sixteenth century to establish bureaus or registry offices where people could come for commercial information. Theophraste Renaudot established the Bureau d’adresse et de rencontre in France in 1630 and published one of the first advertising newspapers. This model informed the formation of similar offices and advertising papers in London and across Europe in the eighteenth century. These offices were variously described as centers of “adresse,” “intelligence,” “discoveries,” “encounters,” and “advice.” By the middle of the eighteenth century, advertising newspapers proliferated across Europe in forms ranging from the state monopoly Intelligenzblatt in Prussia to the mixed economy of commercial newspapers in England. The office function, however, was largely superseded by the growing network of coffee houses across countries like England, France, and Prussia.
Coffee houses were intrinsically multifunctional, acting as centers for the communication and the exchange of commercial, political, cultural, and educational information as much as social and recreational venues. They played a central role in the development of city financial institutions (most notably Lloyds of London, which famously took its name from a coffee house), sometimes acting as travel agents, insurance agents, hotels, retailers, and what we would probably now call “conference centers.” Their main connection, however, was to the press and thus to advertising. The earliest coffee houses distributed newspapers and acted as reading rooms, some even promoting their own newssheets.
Coffee houses were known for their role as forums for rational debate, but their significance as information centers for business and commerce should not be underestimated. Among other things, coffee houses took on the role of the bureaus d’adresse, as institutional spaces where commercial activity could be publicized and promoted. They were supported in this endeavor by publishing and/or circulating advertising sheets like the City Mercuries and John Houghton’s Collection for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade. In London, the production of the Mercuries was inextricably linked to the coffee house trade, as coffee houses provided the key institutional mechanism for both gathering information and distributing the papers. Coffee houses were also closely linked to another key player in the early institutional development of advertising; the proprietary medicine trade. Proprietary medicine manufacturers or “quacks” were one of the largest and earliest proponents of advertising and they conducted much of their business through coffee houses. which often displayed and sold their products.
It was out of these early connections to coffee houses and newspapers that the advertising agency system developed. The first British advertising agency has been identified as Tayler and Newton, established in 1786. This was followed by Whites in 1800 and then in rapid succession in 1812 by Reynells, Lawson and Barker, and Deacons. These early advertising agencies were very closely linked to the newspaper industry. It has been supposed by historians and theorists of consumption and communication that these early agencies existed not to design or advise upon advertising but simply to sell advertising space in newspapers. While space-selling was a key activity in many early agencies, it is likely that the first agencies took on a broader variety of work than this might suggest.
Surviving archive material shows agencies involved in a number of activities including the distribution of news and newspapers, political parliamentary correspondence, and advice on the design and placing of advertisements. In addition, some nineteenth-century agencies in both Britain and the United States combined the sale of advertising space with a diverse range of services ranging from stationery and bookselling, coffee house trade, insurance, and coal sales to dentistry and undertaking. This diversity of function can be traced in many fields and is a reflection of a very different, pre-professionalized occupational structure. By the early twentieth century, advertising agencies in their recognizable contemporary form had begun to dominate the institutional field, with agencies increasingly offering a broad range of service functions to a number of clients or “accounts” under the “full-service agency” model.
Full-service was the term adopted by agencies, including for example James Walter Thompson and NW Ayer in the US and Benson’s in the UK, which sought to offer a complete, professional advertising service. Full-service agencies aimed to provide services that some agencies considered the province of the clients, including research and creative design (involving artwork, layout, and text or “copy”), in addition to account management and media space-buying. Such agencies would typically bill clients for advertising space that they bought at a commission (usually around 15 percent) from the media. Agencies would then retain this commission.
The full-service agency model competed with other institutional arrangements. Until well into the twentieth century, some advertising agencies provided a minimal advertising service, concentrating instead upon offering very low rates for advertising space by “commission splitting” or by bulk buying space, often in obscure, low-circulation journals, a practice known in the industry as “farming.” In addition, some large firms preferred to keep the design of their advertising in-house. By the middle of the twentieth century, the advertising industry had largely settled along the lines of the full-service model. At the end of the century, the institutional field remained dominated by large full-service agencies, but the field retains some diversity with “small-shop” specialist and “boutique” agencies coexisting alongside transnational advertising agencies (TNAAs). The latter are typically the products of long histories of international acquisitions, consolidation, and mega-mergers.
Historians differ over the precise dates and status of the first printed advertisements. The word “advertisement” appears in print in the sixteenth century and over newspaper press announcements in the seventeenth century. These early examples were not really “advertisements” as the term is understood today. Rather, as evidenced by the publication in the 1600s of numerous notices of absconding servants, missing spouses, and stolen property under the heading of “advertisements,” the term was roughly interchangeable with “announcement” or “notice”. By the 1700s the heading “advertisement” was deployed in newspapers like the London Post Man to refer specifically to particular types of advertisement, for instance publisher’s notices. Other eighteenth-century newspapers, including the Daily Courant, disdained advertisements completely, refusing to accept them and referring to paid notices as “impertinences.”
Reservations about accepting advertisements had a strong hold on the press until well into the nineteenth century. While newspapers had a vested economic interest in accepting advertisements (as is often the case today, when many newspapers and other media depend upon advertising revenue for their continued existence), this vied with a powerful moral opprobrium. This ambivalent position is illustrated in the draconian regulations many newspapers imposed upon advertisers. The best known of these was the “agateonly” rule, which stipulated that paid advertisements could be accepted but must use only very small, classified typefaces. Advertisements that broke the column rules or featured illustrations were technologically difficult for newspapers to reproduce. This was not the only reason that newspapers were reluctant to accept them: equally important was the view that they were vulgar, frivolous, and anti-competitive. Advertisers used numerous techniques to circumvent these regulations and achieve display effects, for instance by using drop capitals, repetition, and acrostics. A small agate-type advertisement repeated numerous times across columns can be manipulated to produce patterns or spell out other words, and advertisers made inventive use of such techniques.
Although agate-only regulations were relaxed by the early twentieth century, newspapers remained reluctant to admit illustrated advertisements, often either refusing them or admitting them only at prohibitively expensive rates. Partly as a result of this regulative environment, advertisers used other media to create visual impact. Trade cards, broadsheets, and posters were used throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and these often featured an array of typefaces, visual effects, and illustrations. These advertisements often look “busy” by contemporary standards. Advertisers used a variety of typefaces and borders and often a number of small illustrations in an attempt to stand out. This contrasts with the minimalist styles that came to dominate by the end of the twentieth century, with the widespread association of “white space” with quality and distinction in both press and poster advertising.
In addition to visual display, historical advertisements also feature a range of rhetorical, persuasive devices. The language or “copy” of historical advertisements is often judged “innocent,” “crude,” or merely informative in comparison with contemporary equivalents. It is clear nevertheless that historical advertisements aimed to produce changes in the behavior of their audiences by using a range of different persuasive strategies. Pre-twentieth-century advertisements feature such devices as poetry, jokes, puzzles, rhythm, association, endorsement, and emotional blackmail in addition to product information. Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth-century comment regarding “the improper disposition of advertisements,” by which “the noblest objects may be so associated as to be made ridiculous,” reveals the very long historical disapproval of the rhetorical excesses of advertising. Purveyors of persuasive advertising have received steady criticism across the centuries on a variety of grounds including dishonesty, manipulation, vulgarity, and irritation, as well as social, political, economic, and, increasingly, environmental irresponsibility.
Advertising is an institution that has, throughout its history, utilized a wide range of technologies to allow it to communicate with the public. Contemporary concerns about the industry’s unprecedented saturation of public and private space often center upon the use of new media technologies like radio, television, and the Internet to bring advertising into private, domestic spaces.
In Britain, nineteenth-century commentary in newspapers like The Times, in publications like Punch, and in short books and essays, combined with various legislative measures designed to regulate outdoor advertising, indicate that this capacity to intrude is not necessarily the province of any particular media technology. Advertising at the time had the capacity to pervade public and private space, urban and rural locations. Specifically, advertisements were posted or painted on walls, streets, windows, bridges, public transport, trees, barns, and cliff-faces. Bill-posters and direct mail also helped to ensure that advertising got into residential domestic spaces. In the early nineteenth century, outdoor advertising was largely unregulated and it is therefore impossible to gauge precise volumes.
Published comment and legislation nevertheless indicate high levels of public awareness of the “nuisance” of outdoor advertising. A series of legislative efforts began with the 1817 Metropolitan Paving Act and the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act, which were both intended to curb street advertising. The popularity of outdoor advertising in part reflects the restrictions imposed upon newspaper and periodical advertising. Poster advertising was not only relatively unregulated but offered greater reach and permanence than newspaper advertising. In addition, by the 1820s techniques had developed that allowed the production of large poster displays featuring up to 36 sheets printed up with large woodcut letters and illustrations. Sites for the display of such posters were, however, unregulated and unlicensed, and competition for sites and space within them was fierce. This led to a climate of nuisance bill-posting in which over-sticking, the defacing of private, residential property, and violent confrontations between rival bill-stickers were so commonplace that they became the stuff of urban folklore, immortalized in music hall songs. By the end of the nineteenth century, poster sites increasingly came under the jurisdiction of advertisement contractors who had purchased the exclusive right to particular hoardings. This, allied with an active stance on the enforcement of anti-billposting legislation, resulted in a new, more ordered poster display system.
From around the 1830s, gas lanterns were used to illuminate posters and retail premises, and by the 1870s, magic lanterns displays animated advertising messages. By such means, advertising played a significant role in the visual environment of nineteenth century industrialized cities. Although important, posters were far from the only advertising media in widespread use. Placard bearers were also an extensively used form of outdoor advertising. Men, women, and children in smart, brightly colored costumes, carrying boards announcing drapers, pens, whisky, accommodation, exhibitions, and other services and events, were a common urban sight throughout the nineteenth century.
In post-Civil War America, individuals often worked in groups, sometimes sporting a letter or phrase each that linked up to spell out product names or slogans. Alternatively, placard bearers were got up to resemble the object advertised. These human peripatetic advertisements could also take more bizarre forms. “Obtrusive demonstrations,” Charles Manby Smith remarked at the time, were commonplace in London, creating “a regiment of foot, with placarded banners; sometimes one of cavalry, with bill-plastered vehicles and bands of music; sometimes it is a phalanx of bottled humanity, crawling about in labeled triangular phials of wood, corked with woful faces; and sometimes it is all these together, and a great deal more besides” (1853, 279).
Nineteenth-century advertising media also featured some largely forgotten devices and contraptions known as “advertising machines” or “advertising vans.” These mobile devices came in a variety of shapes: globes, pyramids, and mosques shepherded by exotic others described at the time as “hindoos” and “arabs” were popular. Advertising vans varied enormously in shape but the emphasis was on scale and impact. These horse-drawn devices occasioned bitter complaint about the disruption they caused, terrorizing horses and stopping traffic. Contemporary accounts describe vans flanked by drummers, trumpet players, and other colorfully dressed attendants. The use of the term “drummer” to describe, pejoratively, a traveling salesman most likely originates in such displays. These mobile devices were complemented by large stationary devices designed to carry advertisements that stood in busy thoroughfares. Described in Sampson’s (1874) history as “hideous glass obelisks,” these appear to have fallen into disuse by the end of the century.
Much outdoor advertising was adapted to suit busy urban environments, but other forms traveled further afield. Advertising clock cabinets appeared in public houses; flagstones were stenciled; envelopes, notepaper, sails and bathing machines in coastal resorts, railway embankments, and even copper coins carried advertising; and trade cards, stickers, and handbills were posted through doors and distributed on the streets, in shops, and on buses, and even dropped by balloons from the air.
The country provided little respite, according to contemporary accounts: “You wander out into the country, but the puffs have gone thither before you, turn in what direction you may . . . Puff, in short, is the monster megatherium of modern society” (Smith 1853, 278); or according to The Times in 1892 “advertisements are turning England into a sordid and disorderly spectacle from sea to sea . . . Fields and hillsides are being covered with unwonted crops of hoardings. The sky is defaced by unheavenly signs.” The magazine Punch regularly satirized this promotional environment, publishing cartoons featuring, for instance, Marble Arch converted into an advertising station in 1846, or the moon “improved” by advertising messages in 1886. In addition, a stunning array of merchandise was used to carry advertising, and cross-merchandising of tie-ins with well-known books and plays was well underway by the close of the nineteenth century. Through such means nineteenth-century advertising messages pervaded both public and private, urban and rural environments.
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