Anat Rosenberg on her book, The Rise of Mass Advertising

Interview by Astrid Van den Bossche, Kings College London

Oxford University Press

Astrid Van den Bossche: One striking focus of your book is the presence and treatment—legally, culturally, and scholarly—of enchantment as a recurring, and potentially structuring, market experience. As you note, there is much debate on the (dis)enchanted status of modern life, but what led you to this focus in a history of mass advertising in Britain?

Anat Rosenberg: In truth, I did not come with this question to the research. Only after delving into the sources I realized that the tension between disenchantment and enchantment was central to the history of advertising, to ways of loving and hating it, and to its legal ordering.

When you start thinking about it, connecting advertising and enchantment might seem obvious, because there is such a huge body of literature that does just that, both in the critical tradition (think about Barthes, Baudrillard, Raymond Williams and others), and recently with more interest in the possibility that enchantment is not a danger or manipulation, but a form of agency (Jane Bennett for example, David Morgan and others). And yet I saw three gaps in this literature. First, there is almost nothing about enchantment by advertising in the first era of mass advertising in Britain, around 1840 -1914 – it has simply not been a theme for most historians of the period. Second, what you can glean from existing histories is dominated by material from the producer-end: interpretive studies of adverts and archives of businesses and advertising agencies. Additional scholarship is philosophical in nature, the Frankfurt School for example. Finally, there was nothing about the legal treatment of enchantment. 

So, my opening chapter responds to the first two gaps with a study of reception sources for advertising. I have used everything I could find: testimonies of consumers in court suits against advertisers, comments in the press, autobiographies and diaries, fiction, works of art, albums and scrapbooks. I trace what readers of adverts were looking for, how they imagined the mysteries and adventures of their world by inhabiting environments of mass advertising. Then, the rest of the book examines how law was mobilized to respond to mass advertising on the level of social ordering, and particularly how responses disavowed enchantment. That is why I argue that there was a normative project of disenchantment. While disenchantment was not a historical reality – here I side with revisionist historians, it was much more than a wavering ideology. It was an active enterprise made up of multiple legal investments across British culture, which gathered momentum despite of – or because – enchantment was such a constitutive experience of the capitalist economy.

Astrid Van den Bossche: By looking at gambling and indecency, Chapter 6 in particular pushes against the limits of discourses of modern disenchantments, and points to the consequently sketchy theorisation of enchantment. What are your key takeaways for the historical study and conceptualisation of enchantment?

Anat Rosenberg: The censorship of gambling and indecent adverts was my last hope for a significant legal conceptualization of enchantment. Until that point, I encountered disavowals. Almost everywhere, debates about advertising gravitated towards its legitimation and criticism within rationalist paradigms. I then expected debates about gambling and indecency to be the exception to the rule, because they started out by worrying about consumers’ non-rational responses to mass culture. The theory of gambling highlighted gamblers’ defiance of reason and quasi-mystical views. The theory of indecency placed primacy on the power of print to interact with receptive minds, ignite desires, and draw affective responses. However, the potential of theories of enchantment to reconceive advertising was checked, and they ended on a weak and even banal note. The legal logic and practice of censorship in fact shielded the better part of advertising from a developed discussion of enchanting appeals, and so censorious theories ultimately affirmed that adverting was compatible with a disenchanted culture.

This limited conceptualization of enchantment was not a failure of understanding, or a historical accident. It reflected a cultural commitment to modernity-as-disenchantment, which relied on law to make itself present in everyday life. In other words, what might seem sketchy or inadequate was in fact a serious effort to insist that capitalism was a disenchanting force and that modernity was a victory of reason, while a messier possibility was looming large.

From a historical perspective we could ask whether this effort was successful. The answer is complex. Despite its analytic weakness, modernity-as-disenchantment became common sense. The host of perspectives it involved in terms of the rationalities of cultural fields and the dispassionate mentality of economic life itself, were and remain dominant. Yet, all this did not preclude enchantment, it just deprived it of normative conceptual languages, which had ironic outcomes. Because enchantment was disavowed, advertising was treated like a failure: it was described as biased information, vulgar aesthetic, knowledge corrupted by exaggeration. Such attacks unwittingly liberated advertisers from rationalist inhibitions – since they were failing anyway, and finally drove professional advertisers to adopt a theory that celebrated enchantment. This theory was attractive because law had little to say about it. Professionals branded themselves as masters of the nonrational mind, a myth that has held incredible sway.

Astrid Van den Bossche: This leads us, in fact, to the other main argument of the book, which is that the boundaries between advertising and other cultural fields such as the press, the arts, and the sciences, were continuously tested, contested, and redrawn. As you point to above on the celebration of enchantment as the advertiser’s craft, advertising as we know it is the result of this boundary work. Reversely, we might imagine that advertising had a hand in shaping the cultural fields that sought to distance themselves from it.  How far could we go with this argument, in your view?

Anat Rosenberg: Pretty far, I think. Advertising developed by defying and testing cultural boundaries, as it traded and trod on the cultural authority of other fields. Legal boundary work dealt with these challenges, and created differentiations. In this process advertising functioned as a cultural scapegoat, which carried the burden of commercial corruption for other fields. The dangers of the profit motive were attributed to advertisers, who were associated with concepts of bias, vulgarity, or exaggeration, while other fields could claim to represent higher ideals of aesthetic appreciation, objective knowledge, or impartial information. Of course, no field was free from market pressures at this point, but advertising salvaged them because in the ongoing comparison they fared better.

So, the broad argument of the book is that advertising energized an entire culture to examine and explain the terms on which it lived. Its history should not be examined only from the perspective of consumption or commerce – it had a world-generating power across fields in terms of aesthetics, epistemology, and ontology.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Drawing on legal archives, from legal treatises to case reports, has allowed you to unpack the norming and legitimisation of advertising practices. What advice do you have for those who might be less familiar with these resources?

Anat Rosenberg: Law is too important to leave only to lawyers, don’t be afraid to delve into these sources. We have not seen book-length histories of advertising that work with law seriously (as far as I know), which is unfortunate because it has limited our understanding of the its history. Without the legal angle, it is hard to see the commonalities and broad implications of seemingly different areas in which advertising was being contested, challenged and shaped, from art through journalism to medicine and more.

To integrate law into our sources of cultural analysis is more straight forward than might first appear. After all, it consists of very human efforts to formulate social meanings, resolve cultural dilemmas, and frame normativity. It involves not only legislators and courts, and not only trained legal professionals but also local organizations, practices, and material environments that are part of daily pursuits, market relationships, and substate structures. Multiple actors create, adapt, and perform normativity in these environments, and attempt to formalize it within their distinct constraints and opportunities. From this perspective, law is emergent and dispersed, and often non-lawyers will have unique insight. What is more, from this perspective most resources you examine can have a legal angle, if you only ask them the question! Yes, many resources require us to develop expertise in legal fields and their history in order to fully understand them, but the knowledge is available, and worth the effort.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Much of the book celebrates audiences, their engagement, their responses, and the balancing of imagination and reason. There are no crowds or masses without attention to the particular circumstances in which consumers read their advertisements. At the same time, you point out that using reception evidence allows us to see a phenomenon at “the level of wholes,” thus theorising the effects of advertising not as the result of exposures to single images, but as the result of their accumulation. What have we missed in our histories of advertising by not attending to these wholes?

Anat Rosenberg: I love this juxtaposition between masses of people and masses of adverts, I hadn’t considered the conceptual play here!

            Yes, I argue in the book that the accumulation of adverts en masse was a historical form in its own right. It was at the forefront of cultural consciousness as all media were characterized by unprecedented advertising concentration.

When we focus on accumulation as form, we include things that otherwise look banal and have received little attention from historians. For example, one- or two-liner text adverts or unknown advertisers. As we move beyond leading advertisers and spectacular campaigns, towards the numerous and trivial, we can also move beyond the animation of the commodity, which is the most theoretically developed aspect of consumer enchantment. A focus on commodities and brands is insufficient because advertising in the long nineteenth century advertised the market, or more precisely life as a market. This was the broadest and yet very concrete imaginary that forged audiences. Hefty mixtures of adverts for commodities, second-hand goods, entertainments, services, labour and financial opportunities, politics, personal messages and more are critical, because they gave shape, feeling, and meaning to abstract ideas about market society.

A focus on accumulation as form cannot limit itself to semiotic approaches that begin with single adverts and campaigns. There have been famous studies of accumulation, like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but I have tried to join historical readers for walks through a variety of British passages, physical and imaginary, and see how they experienced the world with and through them. It was often fascinated (and fascinating) travel. In other words, the question of accumulation invites a study of ways of reading, where my analysis of readers of adverts joins other cultural studies of reading mass culture.

Astrid Van den Bossche: You draw on many fascinating cases that bring people’s experiences with advertising to life – is there one in particular that has stuck with you?

Anat Rosenberg: Many, but to connect to your question about the accessibility of legal resources, and my emphasis on the banal, the trophy goes to a case of an obscure businessman, which made no legal precedent or economic drama.

Arthur Lewis Pointing was the mind behind the Oriental Toilet Company, which advertised “Invisible Elevators.” The adverts urged short people to buy elevators, promising a magical transfiguration that would raise their height by up to four inches. He was in fact selling pieces of cork to place inside shoes. Within a year and a half, he sold 4,150 pairs. The trouble was that not all consumers got high; the elevators were too small, or too painful, or both. The company was not responsive and so some consumers went to the police. Pointing was charged with fraud in the Bow Street Police Court, but when the case moved to the Old Bailey it was dismissed.

There are two lessons to learn from his case. First, the testimonies showed how the power of commodity advertising played out in the lives of ordinary people. The stories revealed the extent of imagination in the reception of adverts, which continued even after the pieces of cork arrived, when consumers’ dreams of transformative science met with the simplicity of conception and with the actual smallness of size. For example, a domestic servant said she did not use mirrors and did not know whether she looked taller with the elevators. What we see here is a projection of dreams and an active avoidance of knowledge, which I have found to be a peculiar characteristic of modern enchantment. When knowledge was readily available, people had to make efforts not to know.

Second, Pointing defended himself by arguing that his adverts were just puffery, which is not enforceable in law. Puffery is an extraordinary legal doctrine. It licenses advertising by keeping advertisers immune to claims, but it also ridicules it by explaining that legal immunity reflects the fact that advertised claims are exaggerations that no reasonable person believes. This explanation is another evasion of the seriousness of enchantment. But anyway, because of the ridicule, as soon as Pointing won with his puffery defence, he rushed to the newspapers to fix the damage done to his reputation. This turn of events helps use appreciate the ridiculing effect of law, which legal scholars have not examined.

Pointing went on to become a successful seller of quack medicines with a flair for bodily transformation. He sold remedies to prevent inordinate blushing, getting too fat, and getting too lean. When he died in an asylum, his will, which was a huge $40,000–$80,000 (approximately £4.8–£9.6 million in 2020), was fittingly contested by an advertising agent!