American Studies Workshop - Amongst the Most Desirable Reading: The Dialectics of British Press Advertising, 1850-1914
Department:Program in Law and Public Affairs
Audience:Restricted to Princeton University
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Anat Rosenberg's research brings together law, literature, sociology and cultural studies, to study the history of late modern capitalism. She is currently at work on a history of consumer capitalism, focused on consumer credit and advertising law, in 1850-1914 England.
Precis: The history of British advertising in the formative years between 1850 and 1914, was in significant senses a legal making of genre. This essay traces a part of that history, focusing on press advertising and its generic distinction from news. I examine a dialectical process, which began with the mid-century campaign to repeal taxes on the press, one of which was the advertisement duty. The campaign framed advertising as a communication of essential information. Its success gave full reign to advertising in the press, but also triggered a readjustment: Newspaper owners soon faced a threat to the effective control of their medium. Their proprietary power to place limits on advertising and differentiate it from their own genre – news – was put to the test. The overall process spawned generic distinction and hierarchization: Advertising emerged from it as different from and, inferior to – because more biased than – news. The framing of advertising as an informational genre of a lesser order served contradictory pulls. On the one hand, the informational focus legitimised advertising, which was necessary to sustain newspapers without political patronage. On the other hand, the same focus elevated news over advertising, and kept it as the press’s main public service. Reflecting a set of historical compromises, the informational focus was hard to sustain. It asserted a difference between news and ads which had little to hang on in the historical realities of the press. Messiness was embedded, and gave rise to challenges still familiar today, among them fake news. The informational focus was also conceptually blind to the much more layered appeal of advertising in this era, to fantasy, playfulness, and adventure.