Dr David Clampin, from the LJMU History Department, has kindly written a guest blog post about the advertisements in the programmes held in the Royal Court Archive here at LJMU Special Collections & Archives. An exhibition featuring material from the Royal Court Archive is on display until 4th March at the Special Collections & Archives Reading Room, Lower Ground Floor, Aldham Robarts Library.
Whilst the first delight of the historic programmes of the Royal Court Theatre may be the shifting nature of the productions staged, the development of careers from the fledgling bit part actor to the theatrical colossus that is Ken Dodd, spare a thought for the features which tell another history of society through this time. They may be in the wings or backstage but they have as much a part to play as any star name. The advertising that appears innocuously within the pages of these programmes reveals something too of the story of modern Britain.
Advertising is not significant and interesting simply for being there (as important as that is in financing publications) but in its address to people in the moment, casting them in certain roles and describing either where they are or where they ought to be. A run of advertisements from 1914 through to the 1970s does not merely describe the goods on offer but also explains where they fit into modern life, thus revealing the changing nature of modern British society. Commercial advertising layers symbolic meaning onto inanimate goods which, through their consumption shapes our identity and our sense of community.
Such advertisements do not just speak of key moments within British society but more specifically the response of the advertising industry to those developments. Thus we witness a shift from what Pollay (1984) describes as the ‘informational’ to the ‘transformational’ advertisement. For Leiss, Kline and Jhally (1986),
Through the informational function consumers are told something about product characteristics; through the transformational function advertisers try to alter the attitudes of consumers towards brands, expenditure patterns, “lifestyles”, techniques for achieving personal and social success, and so forth (46).
In 1914, Jacobs Biscuits are simply commended because that are ‘USED IN THE ROYAL HOUSEHOLD’; the Frascati Restaurant is ‘Noted for French and Italian Fancy Pastry’; whilst Allen’s tripe is ‘celebrated’.
Yet, over time this commercial advertising becomes less “informative” and objective and more subjective: rather than merely reporting products, this advertising begins to prescribe what those products meant and how you might use them to best effect.
This comes about out of a sense of necessity with a greater profusion of goods chasing potential consumers and the consequent need for one producer to differentiate their products from another the “brand” becomes dominant. Through the course of these advertisements there is a shift from advertisements stressing the simple function and utility of goods towards an implied emotional bond whereby the product advertised is given greater meaning and broader significance.
Through the interwar period a more affluent society evolved a different attitude to life, one defined less according to background, vocation or class and increasingly symbolised by the goods you consumed. Advertisers responded in a more sophisticated fashion to develop the “meaning” of products. Here was a crucial realisation that the product being sold was more than the sum of ingredients plus performance. Whereas the earlier incarnations of advertising had been all about proclamation or reiteration, in the interwar period advertising committed itself to persuasion.
Thus advertising set up numerous commodities as the solution to a variety of woes and troubles: the public, who perhaps up to this point never knew that such matters were of concern, ‘were taught through ads that they could consume their way out of any trouble or misfortune, real or invented’ (Dyer 1982, 45). “Poor breeding” or an inherent lack of “grace” could now be (potentially) overcome by ‘the right hair style and the newest exciting make-up’: ‘LOVELINESS’ was now easily acquired at Owen Owen Ltd. (1938).
Through this time there was an onus on producers of goods and services to inveigle their way into the everyday lives of the average citizen. At this time advertising was less and less concerned about simply informing the public and instead sought to create a space within people’s lives for the products which they promoted. A series of declamations called on you to reflect on your life, asking you to question just how complete and adequate it was:
Have you seen Our New Fur Theatre in Bon Marché?
Have you joined Bon Marché Library?
Have you consulted Mrs. Cromwell Bush in Bon Marché? (Bon Marché 1938).
The ambition was that via advertising, the (supposedly) paternalistic corporation, the producer of such fine goods and services could fill the void in modern life as substitute friend and family. Such advertising was insistent in its efforts to create demand where there previously was none. The suggestion in the Owen Owen advertisement is that you were not naturally ‘lovely this Winter’, that you really ought to be, and that they had your best interests at heart in generously and benevolently introducing ‘YOU TO LOVELINESS’. This modern advertising injects consumption into the innocent pursuit of everyday life, setting targets and markers in terms of how that life ought to be lived.
Modern advertising increasingly said less and less about the product, and more and moreabout how those products could change the lives of people. As consumer society became truly entrenched in postwar Britain a relatively more leisured existence gave rise to more introspection along with feelings of insecurity, confusion and anxiety. Advertising was particularly keen to play on or give rise to such feelings where the solution might be found in the goods that they promoted. Fast-forward to the 1960s and Lewis’s are delighted to be able to announce that the ‘answer to a modern hairdressing problem has now been found’ (1964. Emphasis added).
Material possessions are given meaning beyond their mere utility and practical purpose reflecting significant changes in the nature of British society. What is witnessed through the twentieth-century is the eclipse of the traditional framing institutions of church, profession, and family, by the meaning suggested by the goods you consumed. Advertising could give meaning to goods and you were, in turn, defined by the goods you consumed. In the words of Jib Fowles,
The gradual unveiling of the individual has heightened private anxieties regarding self-identity and psychological maintenance; it is to these aching concerns that the symbol domains of advertising and popular culture have learned to speak because these are the concerns that audience members long to have treated (1996, p. 49).
Advertising becomes the crucial meaning-maker which invests so much more into material goods than the sum of their parts and, via explicit communication of this, allows us to breach that gap between these inanimate objects and the imaginative, distant and illusory which soothes our souls, robustly captured by Brut for Men in 1966.
Dyer Gillian (1982) Advertising as Communication, London: Routledge.
Fowles, Jib (1996) Advertising and Popular Culture, Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Leiss, William, Kline, Stephen and Jhally, Sut (1986) Social Communication in Advertising, London: Methuen.
Pollay, R. W. (1984) ‘Twentieth-Century Magazine Advertising: Determinants of Informativeness’, Written Communication, 1 (1): 56 – 77.