The ancient Roman city of Herculaneum was preserved by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Like Pompeii, its archaeological remains provide many insights into life in Roman times.
In bringing all these things together — across time, place, and cultural boundaries — Laver's definition emphasizes the antiquity of advertising. Rather than being something thought up yesterday, it seems as old as humanity and as universal as culture. Advertising, seen in this light, is thus a part of social life. We humans exchange things with one another. And we do it in a way that benefits us and those we deal with. Certainly, in our own time and place, it is impossible to imagine life without exchange. How could the residents of North Carolina smoke all the cigarettes produced there? How could the folks in California eat all the lettuce they grow? And what would New Yorkers smoke or eat?
Whether we think of the relatively small-scale societies of the non-Western world before Westernization, England at the time of the Norman Conquests, or the globalized society of the 21st century, it seems that exchange is the name of the game in social life. We barter, we trade, we sell — but most of all we exchange what we have too much of for what we want instead. And where does advertising fit into this? According to Laver, it is the "device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange."
2. Defining Advertising Narrowly
During his lifetime, Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was one of Britain's most influential social critics. He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was one of the founders of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. He devoted his scholarship to the changes brought about as a result of the industrialization of society and the rise of mass consumption, neither of which he saw in much of a favorable light. In his extensive writings, Williams focused on social dislocations, wealth and poverty, changes in the nature of work and how people relate to one another, environmental pollution, and the like.
Raymond Williams helped establish the field of cultural studies, and is one of the founders of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies.
On several occasions he wrote about advertising, but nowhere more insightfully than in an essay entitled "Advertising: The Magic System."3 Recognizing the historical role of advertising as a means of getting attention and providing information (the essence of Laver's definition), Williams focused on the institutionalization and professionalization of advertising that began in the late 1800s in Britain and elsewhere, its commercial function, and its persuasive force. As a social critic, he was also interested in ways its enormous power might be limited and resisted.
Williams too offered a definition of advertising. He called it simply: The official art of capitalist society. It's a catchy phrase, but what does it mean? In exploring its meaning, the first thing to note is that Williams locates advertising in a social context. For him, it belongs to a particular historical moment. It is a part of modern capitalist society, and this distinguishes it from attention-grabbing devices in non-capitalist societies in other times and places. For Williams, advertising cannot be decoupled from the way it came into being and the work it does in society.
Modern advertising in Britain (and America as we shall see in Unit 2) developed in the late 19th century in support of mass consumption in highly industrialized societies. In the late 1800s advertising agents began providing services — buying and brokering space in newspapers, magazines, and other media, writing copy and eventually producing illustrations, and developing persuasive techniques to persuade consumers. These agents found consistent demands for their services, and out of the provision of these services emerged advertising agencies. These full-service agencies charged hefty fees for their work and were able to attract talented writers and artists. Soon advertisements began to fill public spaces — posters in train stations, billboards in the streets, and the pages of mass-circulation magazines and newspapers. In fact art itself had found a new patron.