Being All-British: language and the politics of advertising in WW1

For Clark, advertising — even before war began – had seemed to offer fertile territory for anyone who might be minded to investigate the interactions of language and society. Brand names and the language of persuasion easily exploited other aspects of language and identity, playing on common anxieties and aspirations. As Clark noted, adverts played with meaning in markedly creative ways. War, however, quickly brought other new elements into play, mobilising particular patterns of meaning and connotation to good effect. Nationhood, patriotism, and purchasing could dovetail with precision.
Being All-British, for instance, emerged as a newly prominent locution. This was, and remains, a form unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Its appearance as a new and hyphenated compound from the first days of WWI nevertheless acted, as a range of clippings in Clark’s notebooks indicate, as a guarantee of quality which was closely aligned with new issues of identity — of both product and purchaser —  in a time of war. As soon as Germany invaded Belgium, commodities on the Home Front, as Clark observed, could be made symbolic of conflict in a wider sense. Buying products manufactured in Germany was popularly conceived as a form of patriotic betrayal, demonstrating a now untenable support for the enemy as well as evoking what was often referred to as ‘Teutonic taint’. Meaning, and use, of relevant words could shift dramatically, as in the ‘“Made-in-Germany” riot ‘which the Daily Express reported on September 26th 1914:

“The appearance of a van laden with cases conspicuously marked “Made in Germany.” created a lively scene yesterday outside the premises of a toy dealer in High Holborn…Soon an angry crowd of nearly a thousand had gathered’

One of the offending cases was set on fire, while the toyshop (outside which the van had parked), denied all knowledge of the consignment. The police were called to sort out the fracas which ensued. For Clark, this provided a new compound adjective, with markedly negative connotations – being ‘Made-in-Germany’ as applied adjective was self-evidently not being read by the assembled crowd as a signifier of quality (as it might have been before the all too partisan politics of war intervened). Instead, as the ensuing ‘riot’ confirmed, it was a form which, displayed on a set of packing cases, was able to evoke widespread opposition and distrust.
In contradistinction, as Clark observed, diction which proclaimed the absence of ‘Teutonic taint’ was deployed as an effective weapon in what seem a widespread war of commodities on the Home Front itself. Advertising for Lyons Tea in September 1914, for instance, made insistent use of this compound as it sought to gain tactical advantage over possible competitors: Lyons, as readers were told, represented an: All-British Company with All-British Directors’, as well as ‘14,000 All-British Shareholders’, and a product which was delivered to ‘160,000 All-British Shopkeepers selling Lyons tea’. All-British likewise heads an advert for Icilma cream (‘made in England by a British Company employing only British workpeople’). This statement was guarded by the visual image of two soldiers in profile, defending product and purchaser alike from any untoward – and unpatriotic — associations. All acted as an intensifer in both quantitiave adn qualitative ways.
Non-native names – like, say, the modern use of French — had, at least in pre-war days, intentionally conveyed the exotic and sophisticated. Yet, in terms of language and the play of connotation, this could now misfire; the non-native might easily prove a liability. Advertisements for Icilma in September 1914 as a a result carefully reminded readers of the links to Arabic rather than German for the name under which it traded: ‘The word “Icilma” is a trade mark, composed of Arabic words, meaning “Flows the water”, as it explained, with reference to “the beautifying Icilma Natural Water which is contained in this famous toilet preparation’ . ‘No other toilet cream contains this wonderful Natural Water’, it stressed. Its purity was thereby guaranteed in more ways than one.
The advertising of Hovis bread on September 12th 1914 conversely suggested an act of patriotic defamation in this respect. War could, it seemed, be fought on many levels, with diverse forms of attack and counter-attack.As the advertisement declared:

‘It having come to our knowledge that a rumour has been spread abroad that this Company is of German origin, we desire to state that this Company is and always has been BRITISH in its composition, is under BRITISH control and employs only BRITISH LABOUR.

It offered a reward of one hundred pounds ‘to anyone who can supply the Company with information leading to a conviction of the person or persons originating the false report’.  Clark’s intuitions on the value of advertising– and its language — would, as his later notebooks confirm, prove highly accurate. Across 1914-18, war – in word and image — could exploited for commercial advantage in a range of sometimes surprising ways.

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