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
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).