John Strachan. Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period
Chasar, Mike, Studies in Romanticism
John Strachan. Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 368. $99.00.
Studying the poetry of the consumer marketplace and its surprisingly frequent intersection with "literary" or "high" culture is an oftentimes lonely, thankless endeavor despite the serious questions it asks: How has poetry, the most culturally prestigious of the literary arts, been used to sell not just products but an entire consumerist ideology? How has "literary" poetry positioned itself as oppositional to the consumer marketplace yet imitated, incorporated, or otherwise traded in the discourses of advertising poetry at the same time? And how has for-profit poetry itself been a site of literary innovation, imitating, incorporating, or otherwise trading in the literary discourses from which it is supposed to be so different? Investigations of this sort--these are questions central to Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period--are oftentimes impeded by a number of factors (including the difficulty of recovering much of the primary material itself, which was ephemeral in nature and thus escaped widespread collection), the most significant of which may be a predisposition on the part of mainstream literary critics to disparage advertising poetry and academic efforts at assessing that poetry. In dismissing--or in simply ignoring--this enormous, diverse, and extremely public branch of poetry, these critics, John Strachan's study reveals, in fact follow a critical tradition established during the Romantic Era when writers began to accuse advertising of debasing the genre of poetry as a whole. As Robert Montgomery put it in his 1828 satire on the "Art of Puffing," advertising forced poetry into acting "I" the manner of the whore" (258).
Highlighting the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Romantic-Era advertising and its relationship to the period's satirical writing, Strachan's goal in Advertising and Satirical Culture is, in part, to complicate the literary landscape of England by revealing an entire sphere of literary activity created and sustained not just by copy writers but also by figures such as Byron, Coleridge, Crabbe, Dickens, Lamb, and Wordsworth. Like the most successful advertisers, this is not the only product Strachan is offering for sale. For once we buy this bill of goods--and it's hard not to, given two survey chapters on the interpenetration of advertising and satire as well as "close readings" of campaigns for shoe blacking, the national lottery, hair oils, and barbers--the literary-critical "branding" of Romanticism itself comes under question. "In its widespread focus upon the 'author' of the brand, its claims of originality, creativity and genius, its egotism and its warnings about the dangers of imitation," Strachan suggests, "the rhetoric of advertising copy often has a certain similarity to high Romantic argument" (11). As with advertising during the early twentieth century--when advertisers sought to "make it new" as often as modernist authors did--the values of literary and commercial production can sometimes so overlap that distinctions between "high" and "low" threaten to dissolve. "While I am not blind to the differences between these cultural forms [advertising copy and literature]," Strachan writes, "this book seeks to draw parallels between advertising's self-preoccupation and that of Romanticism's 'egotistical sublime'" (11).
Following Thomas Hood, who in 1843 called advertising a "department of literature," Advertising and Satirical Culture begins with a survey of advertising copy and images that emphasizes the industry's spirit of catholicity that produced everything from short jingles to elaborate imitations of Milton, Shakespeare, and contemporary writers. In an age when advertising increasingly employed brand iconography and used advertising brokers in sustained national and international campaigns, it also became more innovative in concept and medium, oftentimes eschewing newspapers (which "seemed determined to curb advertising ingenuity") in favor of elaborate street theater, handbills, posted bills, wall chalking, and white washing (22). …