What is Advertising?

ADText: Advertising Curriculum
Unit 1: What is Advertising?

ADText Unit 1

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?

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 introductory 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.

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 advertisements 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.

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