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  • High Culture/Low Culture: Advertising in Literature, Art, Film, and Popular Culture
  • William M. O’Barr (bio)

[Editor’s Note: This article is a part of ADText.]

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Fig. 1.

This Print Ad from 1959 Parodies The Birth of Venus (1485) by Botticelli [Source]

This unit examines the relation of high culture (fine art, classical music, great literature) to popular culture (blockbuster movies, rock concerts, comic books, and advertisements). To many people, they seem worlds apart. A more careful examination shows that literature, art, and film are intimately linked to advertising. And on at least one occasion each year—Super Bowl Sunday, advertising is elevated to the status of popular cultural spectacle to rival almost every other form of expressive culture.

1. Literature and Advertising

Scholars and literary critics differ over what constitutes literature. The once revered canon of texts (such as The Canterbury Tales, The Merchant of Venice, and Wuthering Heights) has given way to the study of a much broader range of texts (including popular romances, soap operas, and advertisements) and voices (especially kinds of voices that had not been included among canonical texts such as African-, Asian-, and Latin-American writers). Some definitions of literature specify criteria that a text must have in order to qualify as literature whereas others emphasize acceptance by a reading community as the primary marker. The following two definitions of literature represent these differing approaches:

In antiquity and in the Renaissance, literature or letters were understood to include all writing of quality with any pretense to permanence. [focuses on textual criteria]1

... literature is a canon which consists of those works in language by which a community defines itself throughout the course of its history. It includes works primarily artistic and also those whose aesthetic qualities are only secondary. The self-defining activity of the community is conducted in the light of the works, as its members have come to read them (or concretize them). [focuses on community acceptance]2

Whether one of these or yet another definition of literature is preferred, there is a widely shared sense that literature stands apart from more ordinary texts such as telephone books, shopping lists, operating instructions, and advertisements. A practical approach to understanding literature might enumerate some widely shared characteristics:

  • - Literature consists of written texts.

  • - Literature is marked by careful use of language, including features such as creative metaphors, well-turned phrases, elegant syntax, rhyme, meter.

  • - Literature is written in a literary genre (poetry, prose fiction, or drama).

  • - Literature is intended by its authors to be read aesthetically.

  • - Literature is deliberately somewhat open in interpretation.3

Are advertisements “writings of quality with pretenses to permanence”? Are advertisements widely understood to be a form of literature? Are they careful in their use of language, written in a recognizable literary genre, intended to be and actually read aesthetically, and deliberately open in interpretation? In fact, advertisements fail by any of these definitions to qualify as literature. It is this difference that gives rise to the sense that literature is a part of “high” culture while advertisements are something else and belong to “low,” or mass, culture.

However, this binary division does not reflect the real relationship of literature and advertising either in the present or the past. The literary theorist Jennifer Wicke argues that neither the novel as a literary genre nor the advertisement as a text can be properly understood alone but rather share a long and intimate history. She notes that prior to Gutenberg, scribal manuscripts contained avertissements (or notices) that explained the circumstances of the copying. For example, a notice that copying had been done during holy days would signify that the text was not to be sold. At first, such notices appeared at the end of manuscripts. Later, after the printing press was invented, printers began placing them as prefatory material before the main texts. The content of these notices expanded to announce, describe, and indicate ownership of the texts that followed. Thus, the very technology of printing spurred the development of advertisements of printed texts.

Elizabeth Eisenstein, investigating this historic relationship of the book and the ad, writes: “In the course of exploiting new publicity...

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