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Selling Themselves: The Emergence of Canadian Advertising

Author(s):Johnston, Russell
Reviewer(s):Emery, George

Published by EH.NET (February 2001)

Russell Johnston. Selling Themselves: The Emergence of Canadian

Advertising. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press,

2001. viii + 355 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8020-4495-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George Emery, Department of History, University of

Western Ontario.

Russell Johnston is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications,

Popular Culture and Film, Brock University. His book is a useful reference

work for scholars with an interest in Canada’s history of advertising, print

media, and advertising agencies. It introduces key issues for an important

subject, supplies a wealth of anecdotal evidence, and identifies key archival

sources. Future scholarship can build on this pioneering work.

Nevertheless, the book lacks a consistent focus, a problem that starts with

its title. Selling Themselves suggests adworkers as the subject,

whereas the back end states advertising, a larger subject that includes

publishers, advertisers, and readers. Moreover, the book treats the emergence

of modern advertising, not advertising, whose history antedates

the author’s period of study. Much of its content is a Toronto case study, not

a national study. Finally, the book’s title and five of the chapter titles do

not specify a period of study. Chapter 1 does specify “1850-1900,” but Tables

1.1 and 1.2 and Figure 1.1 are for the years 1890-1930.

With its unstable focus, the book struggles to deliver a structured argument.

Even so, it has interesting descriptive findings, some for adworkers, and some

for advertising. The modern advertising industry arose from an

interplay of four interest groups: adworkers, publishers, advertisers, and

readers. The adworkers were young men who “rejected” British practices and

selectively adopted American ones, after a time lag. They changed advertising

from an opportunistic, marginal trade to a vital, service-oriented one. They

moved advertisements from information about the advertiser’s product to

“salesmanship in print” for readers. Through market research and applied

psychology, they placed advertising on a scientific footing; in the process,

they weakened the case for hiring Canadian rather than American adworkers to

interpret the national vernacular.

The book relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and uses quantitative data

casually. About 1864, when the “first reliable” statistics for newspapers

appeared, Canada had 243 journals on p. 18, but 298 journals on p. 20. In 1891

Canada had 837 periodicals on p. 20 but 778 in Table 1.1. Similarly, the 1891

total for Ontario was 434 in Table 1.1, but 427 in Table 1.2. What can one

make of the following logic (p. 54): “J. J. Gibbons was not yet twenty-five

when he established his agency. He was not exceptional. Of the 324 men

working in Toronto in 1921, three-quarters were aged twenty-five to

forty-nine”? Perhaps, as stated on p. 28, “the Canadian economy changed

dramatically between 1880 and 1914,” but the author’s census statistics are

for different time periods and, at best, show growth, not change.

Pro-Toronto, pro-modernity value judgments inform the author’s interpretation.

Compared to big-city dailies, the more numerous rural weeklies were “backward

cousins” (p. 19), and “poorer cousins” (p. 20); their division of labour was

“not sophisticated” (p. 20). Non-local advertisers and agencies “had little

patience for the small circulations of rural papers” (p. 50). Conversely, the

author gives adworkers an easy ride. On p. 94, for example, an apple campaign

in 1914 “was heralded as an unqualified success, the dawning of a ‘New Era in

Advertising’.” Does it matter who made this judgment? Does it matter whether

the apple crop sold out?

Canadian adworkers gave the structure of their trade an American shape and

“rejected” a British shape that featured payment from advertisers rather than

commissions from publishers (p. 59). Did British adworkers oppose commissions,

or were they merely less successful than American and Canadian adworkers in

obtaining them from publishers? Elsewhere in the book (p. 138) commissions

appear to have been part of the British system; was the structure of the

British system stable through the years 1850-1920 or, like the structures in

Canada and the United States, was it hotly contested and changing?

The book’s treatment of the economy needs more engagement with the literature.

As it claims on p. 35, “Canadian manufacturers did not produce trade-marked

goods in great quantity until the 1890s,” and “without recognizable trade

marks, most goods could not be advertised effectively.” According to Naomi R.

Lamoreaux, however (The Great Merger Movement in American Business,

1895-1904. Cambridge University Press, 1985), trademarks characterized the

traditional firm, which relied on patents and high margins for limited

output. The modern firm, in contrast, featured the mass-production of

homogeneous products and low margins. Elsewhere (p. 183) the book states that

pre-1890 manufacturers concerned themselves primarily with the production of

goods and relied on wholesalers for marketing. The genius of the American

implements industry, however, lay not in its production technology, but in its

aggressive, costly, in-house marketing system. Like other modern

mass-production industries, it derived profit from low margins on high volumes

of sales. Thus it used networks of agents, branch offices, and warehouses to

canvass farmers, give credit for purchase, make collections, assemble

machines and adjust them to local conditions, carry inventories of spare

parts, and make repairs (Fred V. Carstensen. American Enterprise in Foreign

Markets, Studies of Singer and International Harvester in Imperial Russia.

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1984, chapter 7).

Criticisms aside, Russell Johnston’s book is an important addition to Canada’s

social and economic history. It is clearly written and has attractive,

appropriate illustrations. It puts an important subject area on the scholarly

map, and chapters 5 to 7 in particular have general interest. In Chapter 5,

for example, the discussion of Alberta’s drift from “the prairie market” to an

“Alberta and B.C. Market” promises to intrigue historians of prairie business,

society, and politics. Selling Themselves is a good first book from a

promising young scholar.

George Emery is Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario.

Among his three monographs is A Young Man’s Benefit: The Independent Order

of Odd Fellows and Sickness Insurance in the United States and Canada

1860-1929 (with J.C. Herbert Emery, 1999).

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII