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  • Advertising: the Magic System
  • Raymond Williams (bio)

Williams, Raymond. 1980. Advertising: The magic system. In Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: Verso, 170–195. Reprinted with the permission of the author’s estate.

1. History

It is customary to begin even the shortest account of the history of advertising by recalling the three thousand year old papyrus from Thebes, offering a reward for a runaway slave, and to go on to such recollections as the crier in the streets of Athens, the paintings of gladiators, with sentences urging attendance at their combats, in ruined Pompeii, and the fly-bills on the pillars of the Forum in Rome. This pleasant little ritual can be quickly performed, and as quickly forgotten: it is, of course, altogether too modest. If by advertising we mean what was meant by Shakespeare and the translators of the Authorized Version — the process of taking or giving notice of something — it is as old as human society, and some pleasant recollections from the Stone Age could be quite easily devised.

The real business of the historian of advertising is more difficult: to trace the development from processes of specific attention and information to an institutionalized system of commercial information and persuasion; to relate this to changes in society and in the economy: and to trace changes in method in the context of changing organizations and intentions.

The spreading of information, by the crier or by handwritten and printed broadsheets, is known from all periods of English society. The first signs of anything more organized come in the seventeeth century, with the development of newsbooks, mercuries, and newspapers. Already certain places, such as St. Paul’s in London, were recognized as centres for the posting of specific bills, and the extension of such posting to the new printed publications was a natural development. The material of such advertisements ranged from offers and wants in personal service, notices of the publications of books, and details of runaway servants, apprentices, horses and dogs, to announcements of new commodities available at particular shops, enthusiastic announcements of remedies and specifics, and notices of the public showing of monsters, prodigies, and freaks. While the majority were the simple, basically factual and specific notices we now call ‘classified’, there were also direct recommendations, as here, from 1658:

That Excellent, and by all Physicians, approved China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head Cophee-House in Sweeting’s Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.

Mention of the physicians begins that process of extension from the conventional recommendations of books as ‘excellent’ or ‘advmirable’ and the conventional adjectives which soon became part of the noun, in a given context (as in my native village, every dance is a Grand Dance). The most extravagant early extension s were in the field of medicines, and it was noted in 1652, of the writers of copy in new-books:

There is never a moutebank who, either by professing of chymistry or any other art drains money from the people of the nation but these arch-cheats have a share in the booty — because the fellow cannot lye sufficiently himself he gets one of these to do’t for him.

Looking up, in the 1950’s, from the British Dental Association’s complaints of misleading television advertising of toothpastes, we can recognize the advertisement, in 1660, of a ‘most Excellent and Approved Dentrifice’, which not only makes the teeth ‘white as Ivory’, but

being constantly used, the Parties using it are never troubled with the Tooth-ache. It fastens the Teeth, sweetens the Breath, and preserves the Gums and Mouth from Cankers and Imposthumes.


the right are onely to be had at Thomas Rookes, Stationer, at the Holy Lamb at the east end of St. Paul’s Church, near the School, in sealed papers at 12d the paper.

In the year of the Plague, London was full of

SOVEREIGN Cordials against the Corruption of the Air.

These did not exactly succeed, but a long and profitable trade, and certain means of promoting it, were now firmly established.

With the major growth of newspapers, from the 1690s, the volume of...

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