Selling Themselves: The Emergence of Canadian Advertising

Russell Johnston

The advertising executive David Ogilvy once wrote that managing an agency was akin to overseeing one of the finest kitchens in Paris. Both require an appreciation of the eccentric behaviour and bursts of creative genius that underlie the work habits of copywriters and pastry chefs (1963, pp. 1-20). The comparison between advertising workers and those in haute cuisine represents one of the many attempts at theorization of advertising as "art" and of the advertising professional as craftsperson, well versed in the techniques of the trade.

Uncovering the path to legitimacy in the Canadian context is the goal of Brock University professor Russell Johnston's impressive study Selling Themselves: The Emergence of Canadian Advertising. To retrace the development of the advertising trade from the late nineteenth century to 1930 was an ambitious task, as few advertising agencies have kept or maintained solid historical records. Combining the existing archival sources with research culled from advertising trade magazines and anecdotal evidence, Johnston has taken a synthetic approach, integrating the advertising industry within concurrent transformations in the Canadian publishing industry and the modernization of Canadian life.

The first chapter establishes the context for the emergence of the Canadian advertising industry. The development of Canadian cities, technological changes in printing, and the revolution of consumer products spurred on changes in the Canadian newspaper from partisan journals into commercial ventures with advertising space to fill. It is within this context that the advertising agent emerges, offering businesses an understanding of the local marketplace to ensure publicity messages are reaching their proper audience. Chapter 2 is devoted to profiles of these advertising agents working in Toronto, where a substantial proportion of the publishing and advertising businesses were established.

The challenges for advertising agents at this time are twofold. On the one hand, they must be convincing in their ability to act as honest brokers between media outlets and manufacturers. At the same time, ad workers must also convince manufacturers of the power of advertising as "salesmanship in print." Chapters 3 and 4 offer Johnston's detailed analysis of the steps taken to satisfy this first element through the industry's professionalization - a move that Johnston depicts as due to the actions of a small number of ad workers primarily based in Toronto. With an organizational structure taking shape, the advertising industry instituted a series of standards, including agency agreements, the standardization of commission rates and rate cards, audited circulations, and the improvement of advertising business practices through negotiations with organizations representing Canadian media and advertising interests.

If these developments provided the organizational infrastructure, Johnston's discussion in chapters 5 and 6 of the adoption of the tools of the emerging social sciences formally established the scientific rationale for advertising as both practice and profession. The incorporation of applied psychological methods to copywriting also provided a means of training for the rapidly expanding advertising workforce, and helped to elevate the advertising profession into its place as an essential component of business. In conjunction with market-research techniques, "no longer would managers have to base crucial decisions on their impressions and guesswork concerning the market for their goods" (p. 182). The result is that advertising campaigns become oriented around increased research and planning to maximize advertising exposure and minimize risk.

However, the sheer presence of numeric information used within the advertising industry brought a number of controversies over the interpretation of these "facts." Johnston presents a fascinating case of the attempt by one advertising firm to redraw the "marketing zones" of Canada to better represent the province of Alberta's alignment with the British Columbia coastal economy rather than its affiliation with the Prairie economy, centred in Winnipeg. This tactic was undertaken to encourage Alberta businesses to hire the agency and capitalize on its ability to better understand the changing marketing landscape. In the newly created industry publication Marketing, newspapers from Winnipeg and Vancouver battled over the available demographic information to dispute the changing importance of the two cities in the newly developing Canadian West. The final chapter of Johnston's book outlines the effects of how the integration of modes of market research affected the development of Canadian consumer magazines.

Johnston's coverage of approximately 50 years of Canadian advertising history has left a few underdeveloped areas. These stem from ambiguities that begin with the author's title. While Selling Themselves refers to ad workers, The Emergence of Canadian Advertising connotes a discussion of advertising as a communicative mechanism, a means for endowing commodities with more transcendent qualities. The strength of works such as Roland Marchand's Advertising the American Dream (1985) - one of the inspirations for Johnston's research - is the author's use of advertising campaigns as well as industry background to show how advertising workers were at once "apostles of modernity" and mediators within that process, bringing North Americans into the modern consumer society (Marchand, 1985, p. 1). Here, Johnston's intention to provide this analysis is present, but his implementation is less convincing. He indicates that advertising participated in the construction of a Canadian society "increasingly homogenized to fit an anglophone, liberal Christian, middle class" and that "advertising played upon the anxieties of readers by suggesting that specific products would help them to achieve the status or acceptance they desired" (p. 17). However, the only advertising campaigns discussed in great detail are those that promote the advertising industry itself. His brief discussion about the pitfalls of content analysis (p. 10), while relevant, does not excuse the author from providing evidence from Canadian advertising campaigns that would only strengthen the claims made in this book.

Another intriguing element calling for additional examination is the author's discussion of the uneasy relationship between Canadian ad workers and their colleagues in the United States. While openly embracing the practices and themes of American advertising, Canadian ad workers expressed concern about losing their jobs due to the northern incursions of American advertising agencies. However, apart from one recounting of a group of Canadian advertising practitioners appearing in Scottish garb at an industry convention, Johnston does not highlight any other attempts by Canadian ad workers to distance themselves from their U.S. counterparts. Here again, some examples of how Canadian ad workers may have integrated Canadian folklore and imagery into specific advertising campaigns in order to demonstrate their knowledge of the distinctiveness of the Canadian market would have bolstered this area of Johnston's study.

These criticisms should not detract from the overall strengths of Johnston's work. Canadian communication scholarship has been slow in understanding the transformations of Canadian culture brought on by the mass consumption and production of images that emerged at the turn of the century. Selling Themselves makes a positive contribution toward repairing this absence and provides the basis for additional explorations into the role of advertising in Canadian society.

References

Marchand, Roland. (1985). Advertising the American dream: Making way for modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ogilvy, David. (1963). Confessions of an advertising man. New York: Dell.



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