What Is Advertising?
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What Is Advertising?*

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

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We know it when we see it. We are exposed to it thousands of times every day. Most of us are reasonably good, although seldom perfect, at distinguishing it from other kinds of messages. It is something that we tend to take for granted, seldom thinking about what it is or how it came into existence. But what is this thing called advertising? inline graphic inline graphic

A library or Internet search will turn up no consistent definition. Scholars, novelists, journalists, laymen, and practitioners have taken turns offering insights into its nature and scope. This unit examines some of those attempts, but be forewarned of the conclusion: no single definition will do, and each effort at describing advertising plays up some aspects while ignoring others. Taken together, these definitions emphasize the complex relationship of advertising with society, culture, history, and the economy. inline graphic inline graphic

1. Defining Advertising Broadly

A stroll through the galleries of one of London’s great institutions, the Victoria and Albert Museum, takes you deep into the history of Britain. You can see ivory and jewels from colonial India, or spend your time exploring the evolution of English furniture, metalwork, and ceramics. Imagine the job of James Laver (1899–1975) who became Keeper of Engraving, Illustration, Design, and Paintings. This Oxford-educated art critic wrote books on subjects like British Military Uniforms (1948) and A Concise History of Costume (1969). Little wonder that the compiler of a book on Victorian advertisements1 would invite Laver to introduce and comment on the bold graphics, curiosities, and outlandish claims common in late 19th-century advertisements. (This was a time when advertisers could make fantastic claims with almost no regulation, save for what the public would stand.) Ads from the period describe the means of slaughtering beef for extract, they promise to regrow hair, and they use allusions to race to suggest the cleansing power of soap. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 1. A 19th-Century English Ad for Beef Extract
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Fig. 1.

A 19th-Century English Ad for Beef Extract2

Fig. 2. Extravagant Claims Were Common in Victorian Advertisements
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Fig. 2.

Extravagant Claims Were Common in Victorian Advertisements3

Fig. 3. A Gratuitous Use of Racial Imagery in 19th-Century Advertising
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Fig. 3.

A Gratuitous Use of Racial Imagery in 19th-Century Advertising4

In introducing Victorian Advertisements, Laver asks, “What is advertising?” Here is his answer:

Advertising is as old as Humanity: indeed, much older; for what are the flaunting colours of the flowers but so many invitations to the bees to come and “buy our product”. Everything is already there: the striking forms, the brilliant hues, even the “conditioning of the customer”.... Advertising might be defined as any device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange.5 inline graphic inline graphic

FYI…
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is one of the world’s great museums. James Laver is frequently quoted for his pithy comments about the world of fashion.

A device to arrest attention—now that’s a broad definition if ever there was one. It would cover a traffic cop in a busy intersection, a gun pointed at you, an ice cream cone on a hot summer afternoon, the snarl of a Pit Bull, and a nude person streaking through a classroom. There are many ways to arrest human attention, and only some are advertisements. But Laver goes on: and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange. Does this qualification separate ads from the rest? Think about it a moment. Stopping for a police officer at an intersection offers mutual advantages: you avoid an accident, as well as a possible fine or even arrest; the officer does his or her job (surely an advantageous thing to do) and manages to maintain public order. Acquiescing to someone holding a loaded gun can keep you from getting shot, and can assist the criminal in his or her “work” as well. The ice cream seller makes money, and you get cooled off. The dog protects its territory, and you avoid injury. The streaker gets attention, and you get a break and perhaps...