- Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany
David Ciarlo’s insightful study is a notable addition to the growing scholarship on the materials, methods, and influences generating modern “imagined communities.” Utilizing a diverse range of visual sources from late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century Germany—such as posters, trading cards, stamps, magazine illustrations, product packaging, and, most importantly, trademark registrations and advertisements—Ciarlo is able to trace the contours of the visual language by which the mass media constructed German cultural and racial superiority through practices of consumerism. The everyday images of advertisements or product logos became not only saturated with but also codified and popularized racialized images of colonized peoples, most notably black Africans. Through meticulous synchronic and diachronic analysis, Ciarlo shows how the colonial and consumer “gaze” involved a kindred logic whereby visual techniques to subordinate the “uncivilized” African became crucial to the success of creating a “modern” consumption-oriented German. In an increasingly visual and commercialized world, “Germans saw what they would become before they became it” (p. 305). [End Page 750]
The first three chapters detail the origins of what Walter Benjamin described as the “aura creation” around commodities, interwoven with an examination of the transnational and colonial influences on racial and commercial imagery in Germany until 1900. The last three chapters then take a more detailed look at these developments, comparing the 1890s to the first decade of the twentieth century and showing a definite shift toward more extreme and ubiquitous forms of racial pictorialization. The work concludes with implications for Weimar and by foreshadowing the success of the National Socialists.
Chapter 1 immediately exposes the link between the commercial and the colonial in the form of exhibitions from the last decades of the nineteenth century. The staging of commodities with exotic, strange, and unrelated objects—elephant tusks, maps, the hair of cannibals—illustrates some of the earliest examples of using arbitrary sensationalism to generate interest in a commercial good. This relationship is not a simple one, however, as Ciarlo describes the confluence of interests operating to stage these exhibits. Ticket-selling organizers, educational- and national-minded colonial enthusiasts, and the commodity producers themselves all came together with their particular needs to construct a public image linking the commercial with the exotic. Some of the biggest buzz generated from these events, however, came not from their content but from their promotional posters. Considering the discussions these posters inspired, the sheer number produced, and the fact that more people witnessed these than ever attended the expositions, the coming century, Ciarlo asserts effectively, would belong to the visual.
It is the mapping of the interconnections inside and outside this visual world that makes Ciarlo’s work so innovative. Instead of simply looking at a few images and analyzing their content, he examines the shifting tropes of commercial imagery and race within the larger political discourse of colonialism. One of his more creative utilizations of sources comes from his readings of newly created advertising manuals, books written for the novel profession to legitimize their practices and offer practical advice. Ciarlo discusses the advertising technique of “command and flatter” (p. 203), where the ad attempts to grab the attention of viewers without offending their sensibilities. Here, advertisers could use black Africans as a counterpoint to define modernity while praising the taste and level of civilization of German consumers. By caricaturizing or abstracting Africans, juxtaposing their “savagery” with a superior modern commodity, and using numerous visual techniques to otherwise denigrate Africans in order to promote European products, these ads invited everyday Germans to share in the spoils of [End Page 751] colonialism by involving them in the “visual constellations of power” (p. 304). Even a brief consumer’s gaze could thus affirm white supremacy and black difference without the complications of firsthand experience or critical thought. And if visual hierarchies of race could be used to get Germans to use more toothpaste or buy new products like margarine then all the better for a quickly expanding consumption-based society.