Wit and scholarship for the 20th  Fleeman

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Kate Burridge: “Magnificence of Promise”: Johnson, advertising and the anodyne necklace

Complaints about advertising are a mainstay of cultural criticism, and we should not be surprised that Samuel Johnson should have cast a wry and critical eye upon advertising in his own time.  This was the subject of the JSA’s twentieth annual Fleeman Memorial Lecture, given a witty and scholarly treatment by Professor Kate Burridge of Monash University.

According to Prof. Burridge,  readily identifiable advertisements were printed by Caxton, making the practice as old as printing in England.  But the growth of consumerism and of newspapers in the eighteenth century meant that the number and range of advertisements grew rapidly over Johnson’s lifetime.
Johnson was a keen of observer of,  and sometime contributor  to,  newspapers, and devoted his Idler essay no. 40 (for  January 20 1759) to surveying a range of 11 or so advertisements, the originals of which Kate actually tracked down in contemporary newspapers, and displayed for her audience on slides.

She particularly highlighted the advertisements for a washball, duvets, cosmetics (“beautifying liquid”), and the anodyne necklace, a teething implement for young children, advertised with the shameless assertion that a mother “would never forgive herself” if her child were to perish without it.

All the techniques used by advertisers today were familiar to eighteenth-century readers. Advertisers would use language to bamboozle or mislead (puffery): “large promise,” Johnson says, “is the soul of an advertisement.”  Word choice is important: products are not made, but “crafted,” not “mixed” but “blended.”

Of course the adjective “new” is always a recommendation.  Pseudo-scientific language is deployed, and advertisers criticise their competitors. Even the celebrity endorsement and product placement are pioneered in eighteenth-century newspapers.

Johnson would have approved of modern laws that restrain false advertising, but of course they simply make advertisers sneakier. Products are described as better or faster or cleaner or crunchier, but the point of comparison is not mentioned.  By leaving out verbs, advertisers make their points without making assertions that can be doubted or contradicted.

Admirers of Johnson enjoy his prose and conversation as a refuge from the cynically manipulative and degraded language of public discourse, crafted as it is by ever more expert and pervasive advertising professionals and spin doctors.

Kate’s Fleeman lecture was itself an illustration of language used for better purposes: to inform and entertain and give us tools for wide-ranging cultural criticism.