Long before the start of the 20thC, advertising was financially essential for mass media in Ireland as elsewhere. As competition for readers grew more and more ruthless, and the target demographic for many publications stretched down the socio-economic ladder, fewer and fewer publications could afford to support themselves principally by their cover price. The penny and even halfpenny weeklies (as well as halfpenny daily newspapers like the Irish Independent), which appealed to a broad readership, could not cover their costs at that price and so were increasingly dependent upon advertising just to survive. At the same time, advertising itself changed dramatically during the late 19thC, as branded goods became the norm for many kinds of commodity, especially relatively cheap household products. The development of branding meant that goods such as tea and soap, once bought from a trusted retailer who measured them out by weight and wrapped them in his own packaging, were instead now asked for by product name. This required the invention of modern packaging, brand names and logos, but above all else it required advertising in order to establish the brand sufficiently for customers to remember it, recognise it and ask for it in shops. The effect of this was to shift advertising conventions away from mainly informational announcements by retailers of new stock or improved premises, and towards the promotion of individual brands by their manufacturers. Along with this the style of advertising changed too – it became less wordy, and more focused on the brand name and logo of the product in order to embed it in customers’ imaginations. This kind of advertising also needed to be more frequent, in order to maintain brand recognition, and as time went on the adverts themselves became even less informational and more focused on the impact the product would have on customers’ lives, promising abstracted effects such as happiness, confidence and self-fulfilment, rather than just the practical qualities of the products themselves.
All of this combined to create a symbiotic relationship between the popular press and advertisers. The press needed advertising revenue to survive, and advertisers needed access to their readerships, all the more so as different publications appealed to different demographics, who could then be targeted by advertisers keen to reach specific potential markets for their products. The result of this was that the number of advertisements in all kinds of publications had increased dramatically by the start of the 20thC, as did the size and visual impact of those ads, as they began to use more white space and illustrations, larger and more elaborate typefaces, colour and (eventually) photographs in order to draw the reader’s eye. The other important change was behind the scenes, to the business of advertising itself. Until the very late 19thC, advertising ‘agencies’ as we understand them, did not exist. Instead ‘placing agents’ bought space in newspapers and magazines and then sold it on to companies looking to advertise – this was a much more limited service, and did not include the planning of campaigns nor (usually) the provision of design services or any kind of market research. This gradually changed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as some placing agents expanded their firms and the services they provided. The most famous (if fictional) representative of Irish advertising, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, was an advertising ‘canvasser’ for the Freeman’s Journal, and as has been pointed out by several critics, was by 1904 a very marginal kind of figure in the rapidly-developing landscape of ‘full service’ agencies.
In Ireland, one of the first advertising companies to begin that change was Wilson, Hartnell and Co., established in 1879 by Crawford Hartnell. As discussed in a previous post here, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. developed an innovative business model during the 1890s, when they established an entire publication, Lady of the House, on behalf of their clients, the upmarket grocery chain Findlater and Co. A women’s magazine aimed primarily at the suburban middle-classes who might well have a monthly account with Findlater’s, it published stories, fashion columns and household tips, as well as discussing a surprising range of social and economic issues for a publication of its type. Distributed free to those who did have a Findlater’s account (and costing a shilling per month for other readers), it also included the grocery chain’s full monthly price list in its back pages and was, despite appearances, primarily a platform for their advertising. Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had other accounts as well however, and with an impressive circularity, used Lady of the House to place advertisements for those too. They held the Irish advertising accounts of several big English household brands, most notably Mazawattee tea (then one of the most widely-recognised brands), for whom advertisements appeared in almost every issue of Lady of the House. If the magazine itself operated as an extended advertisement for Findlaters and Co., it also provided a useful platform for Hartnell to place advertisements for other products likely to appeal to a middle-class Irish readership.
An enormous range of products were advertised in Irish newspapers and magazines by the early 20thC, but some categories of goods were especially dominant in advertising – for example almost no publication ever appeared without advertisements for soap, or for some of the apparently infinite range of patent medicines. Soap was one of the products which first became branded and heavily advertised, and with its connotations of cleanliness, health and freshness – all especially powerful in a world without either antibiotics or many labour-saving devices, and when dirt was a constant and dangerous presence in people’s lives. Soap was heavily promoted in campaigns which helped to invent the modern form of advertising itself, with its reliance upon connotation and associative qualities. Sunlight Soap, Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, Pears Soap and Lifebuoy Soap (‘makes health infectious’) all took regular illustrated whole page advertisements in publications as varied as Lady of the House, Ireland’s Own and Irish Society, and they were the pioneers of lavish illustrations (including some of the earliest full-colour advertisements) which were intended to associate their products with sturdy children, rosy-cheeked young women and cheerful, bright homes. Indeed, these large weekly soap advertisements may have been the principal financial support of penny papers such as Ireland’s Own by the start of World War One.
Far less respectable (and often less lavish), but at least as numerous, were the many ‘patent medicines’ being sold in an unregulated market in which it was perfectly legal to advertise pills or potions which claimed to simultaneously cure impotence and migraines, despite the fact that they often consisted mainly of entirely inactive ingredients (for which customers should perhaps have been grateful). Some of these products barely skirted the 1889 Indecent Advertisements Act, others simply traded upon people’s health problems or personal insecurities. Pills claiming to cure haemorrhoids, restore thinning hair or cause dramatic weight loss proliferated across all kinds of publications. While many (especially those offering barely legal products) were small and relatively discreet, their sheer quantity and frequency provided valuable income for newspapers and magazines. And some of the more successful used full-page illustrated advertisements every bit as eye-catching as the ads for Sunlight Soap. Holloway’s Pills (which promised to cure ‘indigestion, feverishness, dizziness, loss of appetite and energy’) and Beecham’s Pills advertisements were especially lavish – and in Beecham’s case were the medically-dubious but very profitable foundation of the pharmaceutical giant which still uses the Beecham name today to market cold and flu medications. The recurring themes, styles and promises of these advertisements tell us a great deal about the culture and preoccupations of the era, and some of them will be the subject of more detailed blog posts here in the future. In broader economic terms, however, the important point is that more frequent and more lavish advertisements became the financial underpinning of the entire mass media industry, from daily newspapers to monthly magazines, allowing them to sell copies below cost-price, and thus expand (and maintain) their readership.
As advertising grew and became more sophisticated, more and more agencies opened in Dublin. By the start of the 20thC, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had competition from the Parker agency established in 1888 on Dame Street (just down the road from the Hartnell offices), and in 1892 they were joined by Kevin J Kenny’s agency which opened on Amiens Street and initially traded under the truly wonderful name of ‘Multum in Parvo’. Others would soon follow, including the legendary McConnell’s agency which was founded (with timing its founder was very proud of) during Easter Week 1916. Some of these agencies would go on to be among the dominant forces of 20thC advertising in Ireland, at least one of them lasting into the 21stC. For all the enormous changes their industry continued to see during that time – including the ascendancy of new media platforms such as radio, television and the internet – it was the late 19thC and early 20thC era which established the structures of modern advertising, its shift from an informational to an emotive form of address to consumers, and its absolutely inextricable economic links to mass media.
Matthew Hayward, ‘Bloom’s Job: the Role of the Advertisement Canvasser in Joyce’s Dublin’, Modernism/modernity, Vol.22, No.4 (2015), pp. 651-666.
Hugh Oram, The Advertising Book: the History of Advertising in Ireland, MO Books: Dublin, 1986.
Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, Stanford University Press: Stanford CA, 1991.
Juliann Sivulka, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875-1940, Prometheus Books: New York, 2001.