New Directions in the History of Nursing: International Perspectives

By Barbara Mortimer; Susan McGann | Go to book overview
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'Beware of worthless imitations'

Advertising in nursing periodicals, c. 1888-1945

Elaine Thomson

Advertisements are one of the most influential means of communication in the modern Western economy. Since the Victorian period, print media advertising has evolved from simple line drawings and fulsome accounts of product attributes into sophisticated visual constructions involving the persuasive use of images and words that shape and reflect our aspirations, our self-image and our perceptions of others. As an influential form of modern media, advertisements have attracted the critical attention of scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, including sociology and gender studies, 1 linguistics and semiotics, 2 history and art history, 3 as well as drawing critical scrutiny from marketers and advertisers themselves. 4

Even without these scholarly accounts we, as consumers, have become increasingly critical of advertisements. In the twenty-first century, when the average individual living in the developed world sees or hears about 500 commercial messages a day, 5 we consider ourselves to be streetwise about advertising and the moneymaking objectives of the advertisers and marketers who create it. Even as we buy a new product, we can acknowledge that advertisements are manipulative, that they try to sell us things we neither need nor want through the use of cleverly engineered images-images that show an idealized social reality to which we can only aspire. Attaining this ideal, of course-so promotional material encourages us to believe-can be achieved only by purchasing the goods or services advertised. 6 As Judith Williamson observed, one of the reasons why modern advertisements are so persuasive is because they do not simply sell us a product or a consumer good. Rather, in providing us with a structure of meaning for products and commodities, a language of objects that translates into a language of people, advertisements are 'selling us something besides consumer goods…they are selling us ourselves'. 7

Implicit in Williamson's structuralist-semiotic interpretation is the notion of ideology: the understanding that advertisements are inherently based on a culturally determined misrecognition of the real relationship between certain ideas, for example the status of nature and culture and, in the context of this paper, the notion that women are naturally fitted to be nurses and that nurses themselves 'are who and what they are because that is who and what they should be'. 8

But how have the nurse and her profession fared at the hands of advertisers? The portrayal of women in advertisements has been a subject of outrage among


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