With the rise of globalization and multinational companies, plus with more mediums such as television, radio, print and the internet, the volume of advertising is increasing. It is easy to assume that advertising began with the inception of new media and the birth of the global economy post-WWII. Its roots, however, can be traced much further back. Advertising gained momentum in the Victorian era and had a formative role in creating and shaping consumer society.

The industrial revolution and Britain’s imperial century resulted in a geographical expansion of markets. An influx of goods from around the world, and opportunity to promote British products farther afield meant new impetus and possibilities for advertisements: so how did the British Empire’s rise and fall affect advertising?

In an age of travel, expansion and increased opportunity, the effect of Empire on advertisements was profound. Adverts ranged from chocolate products, available due to travel and trade with far off destinations, to new inventions such as the ballpoint pen, demonstrating the effect of the industrial revolution and the expansionist age. As travel possibilities became more commonplace, adverts for tabloid medicine started to emerge.

Drugs which are now Class A substances were commonplace in medicines designed as panaceas for the imperial family. Containing the spoils that a country with imperial possessions could provide, these cure-alls were advertised without regulation.

Mrs Winslow’s Soothing [Morphine] Syrup, circa 1886. Flickr Commons Public Domain
Flickr Commons Public Domain
The Victorian obsession with racial theory, Social Darwinism and the justification of European dominance was reflected in their adverts, with the use of white, middle class families often set in exotic travel themed settings. An advert for Pears’ soap unabashedly displayed a black boy becoming white with its use. The ‘perfect’ family image proliferated until the 1950’s and 60’s; despite the change in media the influence of Britain’s imperial century continued.

The establishment of a post-war global economy led to a rise in imported products. Nevertheless the stalwarts of the imperial century still lingered, advertising products made possible by contact from earlier imperial possessions. Silk stockings, branded tea, tobacco and chocolate products still proliferated, as well as the idealized image of the perfect family.

The birth of the television advert in 1955 borrowed forms from the more familiar print ads of previous decades. As adverts shifted to a more realistic style in the 1970’s, the products also changed from predominantly soap powders and food to cars and alcohol. The shift from an Empire influenced style in both products and family portrayal was complete as the advert adopted its modern form.