Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period

By Grimes, Kyle | The Byron Journal, December 2009 | Go to article overview

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.

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