Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period
Grimes, Kyle, The Byron Journal
ADVERTISING AND SATIRICAL CULTURE IN THE ROMANTIC PERIOD. By John Strachan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN: 978 0 521 88214 9. Pp. xii + 353. £55.00.
John Strachan's Advertising and Satirical Culture is an ambitious book about a topic that has too often seemed beneath the purview of literary scholars. While Romantic-period satire has become increasingly prominent in recent critical work, advertising as a subject of literary and cultural significance has been ignored or overlooked. This neglect raises two closely related scholarly challenges.
First, of all genres of public discourse advertising is often viewed as the most decidedly low-brow. While many would agree that, in the Romantic period as in our own, advertising displays some remarkably creative and adaptable verbal and graphic techniques, it does so for the baldly avowed and sometimes fraudulent purpose of developing brands and selling products, frequently by appealing to the audience's basest anxieties and desires. Commercial puffery and 'metrical mercantilism', in this perspective, constitute a discourse utterly antithetical to the high purposes of literature, especially literary Romanticism with its emphasis on truth and sincerity, vision and genius. In this high culture/low culture construct, any study that takes advertising as a legitimate aesthetic form must be suspect from the start.
Second, even if Strachan manages to make the case for the legitimacy of advertising as a focus of literary-critical study, he then needs to provide a sufficient survey of the primary texts so that his readers will grasp the distinctive qualities of the genre and develop a clearer sense of the place of advertising in Romantic print culture. Most readers of early nineteenth-century writing, after all, are generally aware of the pervasive presence of advertising (in the front page columns of The Times, for example), but few have really attended to these advertisements as texts worthy of study in their own right and even fewer have mapped out the allusive intertextual relationships between advertising copy and its numerous and various sources. To accomplish this end Strachan must engage in a form of critical jujitsu. Traditional literary scholarship may encounter commercial discourse, but it does so in order to explain some topical reference in a more canonical work (for example, Byron's reference to Macassar Oil in Don Juan). Strachan, by contrast, may encounter canonical literature, but he does so in order to demonstrate the uses of literary 'cultural capital' in advertisements for hair oil, lottery tickets or 'S. Jones's Patent Promethean' matchsticks.
Strachan's answer to these scholarly dilemmas is evident in the structure of his book. After an introduction that sets forth Strachan's basic thesis - that 'the rhetoric of advertising has clear analogies with the period's central cultural formation' and with Romanticism itself, 'the leading cultural brand of the period' - the remainder of the book falls into two distinct sections. The first section offers a descriptive survey of the genres and rhetorical techniques of advertising in the period extending from the 1780s through to the 1830s. Strachan finds, unsurprisingly, that many advertisements take an 'elevation by association' approach in which some product or brand is deliberately said to be used and/or endorsed by some royal or aristocratic figure or cultural celebrity. What is perhaps more revealing, however, is the way some advertising copy mimics the tone and cultural force of 'high literature' (Shakespeare and Milton were favourites, as was, during the later decades of the study, Byron), often mixing elite literary allusions indiscriminately with 'low culture' references to street ballads, Punch and Judy, pantomime and rival advertisers. Advertising thus emerges as a pastiche rich in literary allusion and pop-cultural reference, but ironic, imitative, sometimes parodic in form. This is particularly the case in the surprising number of early nineteenth-century advertisements written in verse jingles, of which Strachan offers numerous examples.
One of the more striking observations in this section involves advertising for those products that are associated with and usually sold by some individual. The 'Patent Prometheans' made by Samuel Jones offer one example, as do Robert Warren's blacking, Charles Wright's champagne, Alexander Rowland's Macassar Oil and dozens of other 'name brand' product lines, many trumpeting the wares of quack doctors who extol the extraordinary healing powers of medicines derived from their own painstaking research. Strachan draws an explicit analogy here between the concerns of literary Romanticism and the values promoted in advertising that often touts, for example, the originality of the products and the unmatched yet selfless genius of the inventor or explorer who discovered the product. 'Advertising copy', as Strachan puts it, 'manifests a preoccupation with innovation, originality and creativity' - all of which are 'concepts [that] resound through the wider literary scene'. The parallels here with the still-prevalent concept of the Romantic Artist are evident enough; similarly, the development and marketing of 'name brands' provides an enriched context for understanding, for example, John Murray's careful handling of the 'Byron' brand or the jostling for 'fame' (market share?) among the Cockney School poets.
The second section of the book presents a series of chapters centred on the advertising for particular products - boot blacking and the ubiquitous Robert Warren, hair and cosmetic oils, Thomas Bish's lotteries and the culture of gambling, and so forth. These are useful historical essays in themselves as they outline the social, economic, legal and cultural tensions that combined to determine the forms of the advertising Strachan documents. The key chapter, however, is the conclusion, in which Strachan turns his attention specifically to book advertising. In such advertising, high literary pretensions that are ostensibly unsullied by the tawdry economics of the marketplace meet face-to-face with the shady marketing techniques - puffery, planted reviews, bogus endorsements and the like - that became the stock-in-trade of less scrupulous publishers such as Henry Colburn. Those in intellectual and literary circles feared that the taste of a reading public would be shaped more by commercial marketing gimmicks than by the literary merit of an original genius like Coleridge or Wordsworth. In Strachan's view, the fear proved true: during this period, 'Romanticism is ineluctably involved with marketing and an author's original and individual genius is sold along the same lines as Robert Warren's "original matchless BLACKING"'.
Advertising and Satirical Culture is an insightful, admirably researched and well-indexed book. This is not to say that there are no blemishes. For instance, the emphasis on satire, particularly satirical or parodic treatments of familiar advertising techniques, is not very clearly integrated into the central cultural or historical argument about advertising itself. Though it is easy to see why writers and publishers would treat advertising copy with satirical disdain or parodic humour, the generic emphasis here seems to conflict with and sometimes confuse the central focus on advertising as a genre in itself. But such shortcomings must also be balanced against the joys of Strachan's prose, in which he often parodies the effusive language of his subject advertisements - at one point, for example, borrowing the language of a Charles Wright champagne advertisement to offer a wry comment on a lyric by Thomas Moore: 'Moore's poem provides an appropriately frothy base, allied to a gratifying hint of licentiousness, even lubricity.' So too with Strachan's diverting and original volume, whose ingenious arguments, heretofore circulated within the halls of Pickering and Chatto and greatly esteemed among the highest circles of Romanticists, are now respectfully laid before the public.
University of Alabama at Birmingham…
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Publication information: Article title: Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period. Contributors: Grimes, Kyle - Author. Journal title: The Byron Journal. Volume: 37. Issue: 2 Publication date: December 2009. Page number: 185+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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