If you haven’t noticed, we have begun the Christmas shopping season, which is when retailers sell to us the idea that material things equates to love. Buying things that create a sense of nostalgia are even better because they remind us of a ‘better time’, when having things were more exciting than are now. Advertising today can even be meta: John Lewis will sell you the penguin from their advert, and Compare the Market will give you a meerkat toy for successfully using their website; they sell us collectibles that are part of their brand, not part of their service. We are bombarded every day with thousands of adverts on television, in magazines, on Facebook, on Internet sites, on the radio, on the street. Many of us have learnt to filter this out and take little notice in changes in adverts. Those that get our attention tend to be the advertisements that play on our emotions: making us feel nostalgic, sad, happy or, in the case of Go Compare, incredibly annoyed; but even the latter was a success because to be noticed is to be remembered. As the Strand Magazine once said, (paraphrased) most advertisers aim to build a brand in your mind so at the moment of need and purchase, theirs is the product you buy.
The Strand Magazine ran monthly from 1891 to 1950 and a lot of what made it so successful was its revenue through advertisements (of course the exclusive publishing of the Sherlock Holmes stories did a lot too!) At a time when advertisements weren’t as plentiful as they are today, the skill of advert writing was still being honed. A lot of adverts resorted to just listing the products they had, or offering to send a catalogue for free. There were even adverts for training on how to write adverts! (See, meta adverts aren’t a modern thing) But advertisers were beginning to get grip on what made their products sell. Dr. Christopher Pittard has pointed out in his book Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction that advertisers in the 1890s particularly fetishised the idea of purity, cleanliness and uncontamination in their advertising, which is unsurprising given how many poisonous substances were being used in food, clothing, building, toys, and anything else you can think of, that were slowly poisoning people to death.
Recently, I have been combing through the Strand Magazines (1891-1930) that Richard Lancelyn Green collected over his lifetime. Many of the magazines in the collection are the bound volumes that left out the advertising, but there are also many of the original magazines as well, which give a fascinating insight into the Victorian world of commerce and middle-class values. It also struck me as interesting how many advertisements included brands that are still around today, as well as advertisements that were similar, or at least employed similar tactics, as those of today. Compare, for example, the Hovis advertisements from the 1890s to now. They both employ the idea of being good for your health, but there are significant changes – the Royal family’s name being used as an endorsement today would not hold the same power as it did then. We listen far more readily to our favourite celebrity than to the Royal family who hold a lot less power than they did. Notice also the hands holding the advert as encouragement to rip the advert out and keep hold of it. The entire advertisement section of the Strand was removeable from the magazine content as they were kept solely in the front and back of the magazine; they were not spread throughout as in magazines now. If you ripped an advertisement out, it would not damage the look of the rest of the magazine, meaning you could keep it to remind yourself of the brand name later.
Kodak was another brand name I hadn’t expected to see. This advertisement is one of your more basic, text only adverts, and its product was expensive but photography was becoming much more popular, both in the amateur and professional world. Photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron were becoming famous for taking photographs of famous people like Tennyson for display or for magazines (like the Strand and their Celebrities at Different Times of Their Life section).
The rise of photography meant that people were a lot more aware of how they looked to others. As some commentators of our own age claim about the rise in social media, the increase in self-awareness is a gold mine for companies who want to sell you beauty products. These can range from products that claim to clear up skin complaints, exercise machines that can improve your body, fat-loss aids, teeth whitening, and soap that promises to be so gentle on the skin that you can lick it (yes, really).
There were plenty of products available for the improvement of your looks and unlike today, most products were aimed at both men and women. Testimonials like the ones in the advertisement above did not discriminate because, remember, at this time it was the men who primarily shopped, so it had to be seen to work on both sexes. Men and women did not want to pick up products that were seen to be feminine or masculine as opposed to their own sex. Though of course some products, like sanitary towels, had to be aimed at women only; but these were picked up from the outfitters, drapers or chemists where discretion was possible.
Of course, some advertisements were not all about health or looks at all. Sometimes, they were just for fun! See the examples below:
And some adverts, in a very Sherlockian way, offered to help you improve your brain to help you achieve more in life. Success, we are told, depends firmly on a good memory; or maybe like George Newnes you’ll make your money through advertisers begging for space in the magazine that homes Sherlock Holmes.