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Reframed: Advertising Hoardings and the Magic System

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Advertising hoardings (billboards) are ubiquitous functional structures and as such are often overlooked. Yet, they assume key positions in our public spaces most often carrying ever-changing messages that shape our existence. There are two examples from the history of photography that provide a vivid insight into the complex relationship between advertising, society and photography’s capacity to transform what it describes. Not least, the photographs illustrate how advertising hoardings form part of a mechanism of control – one that the Welsh academic, novelist and critic Raymond Williams called the Magic System [1].

The introduction of purpose built advertising hoardings, in the UK at least, began in the 1860s. Earlier, during the first half of the nineteenth century, there had already been well over a century of flyposting advertising posters (bills) in public spaces. One of the earliest photographs to document this practice can be seen in W. H. Fox Talbot’s 1844 view of the construction of Nelson’s column at Trafalgar Square, London. The construction hoardings surrounding the site can be seen covered in advertising posters, some with elaborate graphic illustrations, others with embellished texts. Clearly visible are words stencilled onto the same surfaces supporting the various advertisements stating ‘NO BILLS TO BE POSTED’.

There is something rather unsettling about the way the Square has been depicted by Fox Talbot - framed to cut through the column; the mist-laden square appears eerily devoid of people. On one level his photograph acts as a reminder that a nation wanted to celebrate Admiral Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. On another, its sombre mood alludes to the period in which the social order in Europe was fragile as it came to terms with the various political settlements made following the Napoleonic wars. The demographics of the period show a growing population rapidly inhabiting the urban conurbations largely brought about by developments in industrial production. The expanding population was creating a downward pressure on wages along with an upward pressure on prices, leading to a general fall in living standards – in short, a depression. At the same time increasing numbers of the population were becoming literate leading to a growing popular interest in how society was organised and how it might be improved. This was perceived as a challenge by many of the absolutist ruling authorities at the time – the late 1840s would see revolution in many parts of Europe. For whatever purpose - advertising or otherwise - flyposting was considered subversive if not outright anarchic.

From the 1860s an increasing number of ‘organised’ advertising hoardings were used to display large lithographs promoting a range of products such as soaps, polishes, toilet goods and medicines. By the beginning of the twentieth century the development of a modern industrial society incorporated an increasingly complex advertising industry to service the rapid expansion in manufacturing. As new forms of advertising developed using sophisticated psychological techniques, there became a realization that these could be deployed to influence public opinion as well as selling products.

Arguably the Creel Commission undertook the first significant modern government propaganda project. Operated during the American presidency of Woodrow Wilson during the early period of World War One, the commission managed to transform a largely pacifist population into a pro-war one. Techniques developed by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, exploited his uncle’s newly developed theories to assist the shaping public opinion. He, along with other American influencers, considered the population as ‘the bewildered herd’ in need of guidance within a potentially fragile democracy. A member of the Creel Commission, Bernays would later become a key figure in the growth of the public relations industry and went on to develop techniques that he described as the ‘engineering of consent’. He opens the first chapter of his 1928 book on the subject by suggesting,

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country [2].

The deployment of these techniques did indeed serve the progressively powerful industry leaders in not only promoting sales, but also shaping society. In the economic and social crisis of the Great Depression advertising hoardings were used for the National Advertising Campaign sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers. Many of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers of the day incorporated the hoardings within their photographs of contemporary life. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were among those to frame juxtapositions of the positive images of American life seen in the posters of the day, with the reality for many at that time.

Often the same poster appears in different surroundings providing transfigurations of reading – this, in itself, is a constant reminder that advertising hoardings are site-specific. Whilst Dorothea Lange had photographed the same poster, the most memorable photograph to incorporate the American way of life was Margaret Bourke White’s Kentucky image taken during 1937. Through tight, precise framing, she transformed a positivistic projection of America into what is arguably one of the defining images of the Depression era. The poster fills the frame – its illustration shows a white middle-class family enjoying a car ride. Mom, dad, brother and sister - and a happy looking dog - are depicted travelling through pleasant countryside. The headline text announces “World’s Highest Standard of Living” whilst the supporting text to the right of the poster proclaims “There’s no way like the American Way”.

This is of course a powerful message. However, the genius of the photograph is that standing in front of the poster is a row of black men and women queuing from left to right acting as a visual roadblock to the image above. We are quick to read the binary oppositions at work here: black/white, static/moving, sad/happy, poor/affluent, etc. Another element emphasizing the contradictions at play is a wire supporting a telegraph pole, or similar, striking a line through the word “Living”. It is Margaret Bourke White’s photograph, and not the poster itself, that makes such a powerful comment on American society at that time. Ironically, the people are not so much victims of the Great Depression, rather these men and women of Louisville, line up seeking food and clothing from a relief station as victims of the Great Ohio River Flood - a natural disaster at that time. The capacity that photography has to transform and subvert what it depicts is clearly illustrated here.

The present day has been subject to another economic and social downturn brought about by the financial crisis of 2008. We now live in a globalized world serviced by advanced technological developments where communications are increasingly – and instantly – delivered via various media including digital and social forms. Advertising continues to exploit all opportunities to advance its project. Advertising hoardings endure and are used for campaigns that have become increasingly sophisticated, integrated and seamlessly embedded into our everyday lives. Challenging this is difficult. Raymond Williams suggested that “Seen from any distance – of time, space or intelligence – the system is so obvious, in its fundamental procedures, that one might reasonably expect to break it by describing it” [3]. He went on to add that this was now very doubtful.

Photography is itself complicit in a system that exploits the photograph’s ability to create impressions, either gradually or otherwise. Contemporary photographers continue the long-standing interest in advertising hoardings and the ways they are manifest in our world. The functional structures are interesting in their own right, beguiling us with their austere beauty. They also point to a system that has shaped our world: its people, their work, their mobility and their sense of belonging. Advertising hoardings have also become vehicles for artworks – often exploiting the specificity of place and time that these structures eloquently provide. It is perhaps worth noting the inventiveness of nineteenth century advertising companies who, in making a case for expansion, suggested that their hoardings were the “art-galleries of the people” [4].

At some point in the future our contemporary photographs of advertising hoardings will provide an index to the condition of society today. They will also indicate the capacity of current photographers to provide new insights into the complex world they set out to describe.

© Paul Cabuts 2014

[1] Williams, R. 2005. Advertising: the Magic System. In: Culture and Materialism. London: Verso. p170.
[2] Bernays, E. 2005. Propaganda. New York: IG Publishing. p.37
[3] Williams. 2005. p.194.
[4] Ibid. p.177