Advertising in literature: The rattling of a stick in a swill-bucket?

Not all fiction writers have such a low opinion of advertising as George Orwell, but it's still proved a popular subject for the greatest authors to write about

By Jeremy Lee

If fictional writing is an attempt to hold up a mirror to society and culture in a particular time and space, then it’s fair to say that the image of advertising reflected back has often been a distorted one. A mirror crack’d, as Agatha Christie might say.

Charles Dickens thought advertising indicative of an era of over-consumption and it figures prominently in several of his books (Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend). In Sketches by Boz he wrote: “...all London is a circus of poster and trade bill, a receptacle for the writings of Pears and Warren’s until we can barely see ourselves underneath. Read this! Read that!”.

To some extent his view was informed at least. Before gaining fame as a novelist and becoming an advocate of social reform, Dickens had worked at Warren’s Blacking – a shoe polish manufacturer – and had helped copywrite some of its commercials. Quite what he’d have made of the 2019 “Beyond Limits” spot by Saatchi & Saatchi for BT that paid homage to his classic novel A Tale Of Two Cities by following the story of a young girl as she travels through modern Britain to reach her classroom of the future, or any of the schmaltzy ads that ape A Christmas Carol, we’ll sadly never know.

More contemporary writers have also not been particularly generous, viewing advertising as a plot device or convenient shorthand for shallowness or venality (in fact, much like its depiction in the movies). Even some authors who helped hone their writing skills working within advertising have been quick to mock it as Fiona Gordon, the chief executive of Ogilvy UK, points out: “Fay Weldon’s Ruth Patchett in The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil takes a job in advertising as a means to wreak revenge on her cheating husband.” (Weldon of course had been an acclaimed copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather).

Not flattering, but at least fun

Matt Beaumont, a former advertising copywriter, set e (originally subtitled The Novel of Liars, Lunch and Lost Knickers) in the fictional agency Miller Shanks and it consisted entirely of e-mails written between the employees of the agency and some of its business partners. Gordon describes it, and its successor e at Christmas, thus: “Whilst no more flattering of advertising types, it does make it seem a lot more fun than the authors who cut their ties with us lot for good.”

George Orwell is responsible for probably the most famous literary epithet used to describe the ad industry. In his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying he called it "the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket". Gordon Comstock (the protagonist in the novel and a struggling poet who has fallen on hard times) begrudgingly takes a job as a copywriter and spends the whole of the book riddled with self-loathing. It’s clear then that Orwell thought it a tragic outcome for someone with high literary ambitions to be ‘reduced’ to such a position.

Matt Gladstone, planning partner at Grey London, disagrees with Orwell’s assessment. He says: "[In Keep the Aspidistra Flying] ‘jingles and rhymes’ are the lowest form of literature. I’m not aware that Orwell ever worked in advertising, nor did Douglas Adams, who depicts marketing executives, PR people (and by implication, ad people) as the original corruptors of the Eden that was Planet Earth. The biblical snake, the catalyst to our Fall from Eden, is replaced by a wonky Spaceship of discarded, useless Golgafrincham middlemen – including marketing executives and PR people (by extension, we may consider ourselves included, folks). It’s an easy rap, this one. We are the reflectors of desires after all (or do we call that insight?) – in a moral universe where desire is Sin.”

Lacking moral fibre

Orwell's distaste for advertising is mirrored in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, says Gordon - it is inferred that the weak and arrogant Tom Buchanan has connections with the industry – a plot device to show the depths to which one can sink if lacking moral fibre. “‘Working in Advertising’ is more often than not vague – used as a metaphor for sleaze, the grind, a pedestrian way of life, it describes either lack of ambition or too much ambition of the slightly grubby kind,” she says.

But at least Gladstone can find some positives about advertising from some authors who have worked in the business. “We get a better deal from writers who have, themselves, worked in advertising, and thankfully there are a few of those,” he says. “They are happy to stay in the landscape of glamour and surface. Dorothy Sayers ("Guinness is good for you", "Toucans") uses an ad agency for the setting of a cocaine-fuelled society murder mystery in Murder Must Advertise. F Scott Fitzgerald (“We keep you clean in Muscatine”) placed Nick Carraway as a bond salesman and Gatsby, the avid consumer, drowning in an autumnal leafstorm of shirts. Fay Weldon (“Go to work on an egg”) actually wrote a sponsored novel, The Bulgari Connection, which she described as 'a good piece of advertising prose'. Salman Rushdie (“Naughty. But Nice”, Aero “Irresistibubble”) celebrates the myth-making movie posters of India, crying out across the streets, their rip-roarious, supercollosal! messages, even with their own biscuity perfume.”

Given that advertising, by necessity, errs on the side of commerce rather than art it’s little wonder that writers see it as the driver of consumerism and over-consumption, and exaggerate, embellish or confect its excesses to labour that point. Danielle D’Cruz, strategist at Wunderman Thompson, says this can be identified from the rise of advertising in the nineteenth century coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, and continues to the present day.

“As consumerism evolved and tightened its grip throughout the twentieth century, advertising in literature takes a darker, more invasive form. Some authors expose it as a façade, masking sinister forces at play. In Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, a comically stereotypical ‘real man’ beer commercial begins to pervade reality, dictating real-life gender roles and posing an underlying threat to women’s safety,” she says. “Meanwhile, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club explores the role of advertising in an American culture of consumerism so relentless that consumers themselves become consumed: ‘Advertising has us chasing cars… working jobs we hate…the things you own, end up owning you.’”

Lessons from Joyce

Al Young, joint chief creative officer at St Luke's, points out a more positive spin on advertising, which comes from James Joyce, and which should provide inspiration to contemporary creatives. He says: “Ulysses was written after Joyce went to the cinema and saw one of the world’s first moving picture shows. He walked away aghast because he knew that films would become the ultimate mass-market means to tell stories. He was determined to write a book no camera could capture. An exploration of the inner world of its characters.

“I’ve read it twice. Not because of the above and certainly not because I understood the complex literary allusions to Classical Greece. They went straight over my head. I read it principally because its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is an ad man. He sells advertising space in, and writes copy for, the Freeman’s Press - a Dublin Newspaper. As he wanders about town, he imagines creating ads that make people stop and stares, invents visual puns and composes jingles - yes jingles - long before radio, yet alone TV existed.”

Bloom, he says, is a twentieth century man living in a time of transition into a new age of advertising and he can’t help but feel that a more modern approach to it needs to be explored. “Joyce is one of his generation’s finest writers, but he is in no way sneering at the advertising industry. Even if he's not celebrating it, he is certainly intrigued by how ads work. He gives Bloom a philosophy in his approach to creating great adverts. His rules are that adverts 'should have the efficacy to arrest involuntary attention, to interest, to convince, to decide', pictorial advertising 'must be bold, vigorous and simple'. And that to me, over 100 years later, are still very much the rules."

So advertising doesn’t receive universal praise from fictional writers – but then again, what do you expect and why should it? Wunderman Thompson’s D’Cruz points out: “As advertising plays an increasingly omnipotent role in our lives, the threats of consumerism explored in literature feel more tangible than ever - serving a pertinent reminder of the power and influence that advertising has over us, and the responsibility that we hold to use it wisely.”

And, as the examples from Weldon, Beaumont, Sayers, Rushdie, Amis, Scott Fitzgerald et al, show advertising may have helped provide inspiration and clarity and crispness to their writing that might otherwise be missing, and which make them a joy to read. The swill to their buckets, perhaps.

Gladstone concludes: “In the final inside-out twist, Ted Geisel’s Dr Seuss really has us nailed - his books are advertising slogans with the commerce taken out of them. He shortens, he rhymes, he creates melodies inside your head that would do any copywriter proud - “So would you like Green Eggs and Ham?/ I am sam/ I am sam/ sam I am”... because, of course, he was an ad creative too" [see Geisel's ad for Flit insect repellant below].


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