A CONSUMER AFFAIR
We all sense that different nations, different peoples, have distinct personality traits, some of which prove remarkably durable over centuries. These differences of character, of values and of manners came to be called culture when the word acquired its modern anthropological meaning more than two centuries ago.
Cultures are formed and transmitted by the myriad voices that surround the growing child: those of their parents, conveying care and affection but also setting limits and moral boundaries; those of representatives of religious institutions and the tribe, or later the state; and finally those of literature, art and philosophy. Each of these influences may complement, contradict or nuance others in an endless variety of permutations, never predictable because human character is always more than the sum of its influences.
This is broadly the process that raises individuals to be members of a society, steeped in its shared beliefs and customs. But it can also be considered as the framework that helps human beings to be sane, to learn to control and limit their appetitive impulses, to acknowledge the reality of others, and even to envisage higher moral and spiritual horizons beyond egoism.
Unfortunately cultures tend to define themselves in contradistinction to other groups, so they represent only a minimal form of sanity; people who are well-behaved and even benevolent members of a group can be filled with irrational hostility towards outsiders. That is why philosophy and spiritual practices attempt to go much further in liberating the individual from irrational desires and fears.
In this respect, contemporary society is increasingly polarised. There are, for example, more people engaged in alternative spiritual quests, or even in fundamentalist forms of religion, at a time when weekly attendance at churches, once almost universal and an important part of the fabric of community, has almost disappeared. Among the voices that form the growing child, that of shared religion, once absolutely fundamental, is now largely missing.
In its place are clamorous voices from the mass media, entertainment and advertising. These voices are not about controlling the primitive impulses of the mind and body, but about indulging them; not encouraging us to recognise the reality of others, but reinforcing narcissistic self-absorption; not helping us find balance but encouraging the insatiable appetite for consumer goods presented as the way to happiness. In other words, these pervasive influences in modern mass culture encourage misery and neurosis rather than sanity.
The advertising industry began in effect with the appearance of newspapers in the middle of the 18th century, although at first they were only commercial notices of various kinds. The National Library’s exhibition devoted to advertising in Australia begins with simple advertisements of this kind from the end of the 18th century, shortly after the foundation of the colony in Sydney. Indeed a printing press was brought out with the First Fleet, although apparently not used until 1795; from the following year we have Australia’s oldest surviving advertisement, for a production at what is already intriguingly referred to as the Theatre.
More striking is a broadsheet from 1845, printed in large letters under a coat of arms to evoke the power of the state, offering a reward for runaway convicts, with what appears to be a description of identifying tattoos on their arms.
Later advertisements cover all sorts of prod- ucts, from skin cream to tea and sweet biscuits, and from travel to domestic appliances and television sets. A 1960s advertisement urges us to have a television in our home: and television, as we know, was to be the first vehicle for the unrelenting delivery of advertising messages to a mass audience, as well as a force that caused irreparable damage to domestic and social life. Families stopped talking and sat watching the box, and pianos, once played for guests after dinner, fell silent.
One of the interesting aspects of this exhibition is to see how assumptions have changed over the past century. An early advertisement for sweet biscuits, for example, has a drawing by JS MacDonald, better known as a critic and museum director, with the simple assertion that “Swallow and Ariell’s biscuits are delicious!”
There are obviously forms of imagery that would not be used today, including pictures of Aborigines or even of boomerangs, or the Indian comic book character Chunder Loo. His adventures, drawn by Lionel Lindsay and popular at the time, were used to promote Cobra boot polish.
There are many cases of women being used to market various products — in one case men’s shirts — but mostly in a fairly low-key way, in no way comparable to the rampant exploitation of sexual imagery that has, perhaps unexpectedly, flourished since the rise of feminism. The exhibition includes, towards the end, examples of the activist group BUGA-UP’s protests, more than a generation ago, against underwear ads that now seem amusingly tame.
Posters promoting beer were once ubiquitous outside Australian pubs, although they have largely disappeared in recent years. Two examples here remind us of the way advertisers tried to pitch different products at different age groups, mostly of men: thus one beer is associated with a couple of youngish and fit men returning to the clubhouse after a game of golf, while another shows a distinguished older gentleman at home reading the newspaper.
The most interesting case, though, is the promotion of tobacco and smoking, particularly when it betrays a suspicion, even before medical proof, that smoking might do harm. Thus there is an ad from 1939 in which Irina Baronova, a well-known ballerina at the time, tells us that in her line of work she must always be in perfect health, and that is why she smokes only Black and White cigarettes, which are supposedly exceptionally “pure”.
It is a myth that no one knew of the harmful effects of tobacco before the 1960s. In fact, there
A Philips lamps advert (c. 1948), above; the Hills Hoist dilemma (c. 1955), far left; for medicinal purposes only from Penfolds (1933), left