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Book Review: Adland: a Global History of Advertising by Mark Tungate

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Advertising is ubiquitous. Read the newspaper in the morning, in print or online, and you are confronted with ads. Billboards line the highway on your drive to work. If you use public transportation to get to work there are ads at the station or shelter. Get on the metro or bus and ads become convenient focal points away from the eyes of strangers. Heck, duck in to use the restroom and you are likely to have advertising in your face.

As Mark Tungate puts it in his new book, Adland: a Global History of Advertising, "advertising agencies and their clients have an immense impact on our lives," and as new technologies give us not only multiple entertainment options, but also the ability to bypass ads, "brands are forcing their messages onto every blank space, into every crack in the urban landscape." Because we live in a society "over-supplied with brands, they can't afford to stop trying to imprint their names on our minds."

Whether you see advertising as a fascinating and colorful part of modern life in a consumer economy, or as visual pollution and an intrusion into our mental space, this book goes a long way towards showing us how we got here.  Mark Tungate is a British freelance journalist and author based in Paris, specializing in media, branding, travel, and lifestyle trends. He is the Paris correspondent for WGSN (Worth Global Style Network) and Campaign, the British advertising and communications magazine; a columnist for the French communications magazine Strategies; and a lifestyle writer for various magazines and newspapers. Tungate is the author of Epica – The Best of European Advertising, (Kogan Page, May 2004), Fashion Brands: Branding Style From Armani to Zara (Kogan Page, UK, July 2005), and Fifty: The Amazing World of Renzo Rosso and Diesel, (Die Gestalten Verlag, Berlin, January 2006), in addition to Adland. He is currently working on another new book, Branded Male, to be published in 2008.

In the introduction to Adland Tungate provides a brief description of how he came to write the book and what it is about. When asked if he could recommend a book on the history of advertising, he was unable to think of any. While many books have been written about advertising, most were largely focused on individual approaches, or on particular national industries. None had taken a global perspective. There is an archive, The History of Advertising Trust, but it is, it need hardly be said, not very digestible. Tungate is quick to disclose – and it's good that he does so – that this book has a somewhat European slant. That is only to be expected, he says, of a Brit living in France. Besides, four of the six biggest agency groups in the world are based outside of America.

Because advertising is so in one's face and has the potential to be so irritating, Tungate spends a little time on the offensive, offering reasons to love advertising. There is, for one, the sheer curiosity factor that makes one itch to take a peek beneath the covers. Advertising is also the necessary "intermediary between a product and a potential customer," stimulating competition, creating demand, and encouraging new product development.  Hence it is, thus far, the most "effective means of financing a free, varied and democratic media."

Most of those points can, of course, be contested. Tungate concedes the possibility that "advertising agencies provoke avarice, obesity and lung cancer," but he claims we increasingly have the ability to ignore them. He also provides a long list of writers and film directors who have worked in advertising, leading to the argument that it can be a springboard for creative talent.

The introduction also includes a helpful little lexicon, helpful to those new to the terminology of advertising. As Tungate is quick to point out, however, for an industry specializing in the creation of memorable brands, advertising has, until recently, had a remarkably short-sighted naming policy when it comes to its own agencies. The practice has been to string together the initials of last names, making it very difficult to remember the names of the agencies and even more difficult to distinguish among them. Nevertheless, this section provides the novice reader with some useful terminology.

Contrary to my initial expectations, Tungate's global history of advertising is largely confined to the last 200 years. He makes only very brief mention, in very informal and vague terms, of early examples of advertising found in the ruins of Pompeii and, according to some, in prehistoric cave paintings. "But it's safe to say," he writes, "that advertising has been around for as long as there have been goods to sell and a medium to talk them up – from the crier in the street to the handbill tacked to a tree."

His global history of advertising really begins with Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1447, and more concretely with the French doctor Theophraste Renaudot. In 1631, Renaudot established the first French newspaper, La Gazette, so that he could reach a broader audience for his job notice board. In the UK, the first advertiser was probably William Tayler, in 1786. From there we move rapidly into the Victorian era. "Everyone agrees that advertising got into its stride with the industrial revolution – aided and abetted by the rise of newspaper as a mass medium." I find it interesting that newspapers and advertising have been in bed from the beginning. It is only relatively recently that some of us have become concerned about the ways in which news content can be distorted and limited by powerful advertisers.

We move rapidly onward. "Advances in technology meant consumer goods could be produced and packaged on a previously undreamed-of-scale," and suddenly producers had to find new and distant markets for their products.  "To blaze the names and virtues of their products into the memories of consumers, they branded their goods – and began to advertise them." In Europe, posters, newspapers, and magazines took off, while in America patent medicines "were the first products 'to aim directly at the consumer with vivid, psychologically clever sales pitches, the first to show – for better or for worse – the latent power of advertising.'" Of course it took quite some time to shake off the negative image of quack doctors selling potions.

The bulk of the middle portion of the book, for those like myself more interested in the larger concepts behind advertising, can get somewhat dry and tedious, and is made more so by the absurd naming system already mentioned – it's very difficult, at times, to keep the various agencies apart. Much later – though I'm getting ahead of myself here – they quite literally couldn't be kept separate.

Most interesting in this section are the pioneers, the individuals who somehow stood apart to innovate, to change direction, to make conceptual leaps. Ironically, many of those original pioneers, like Albert Lasker, who is often touted as the "true father of modern advertising," had wanted to be something else, but ended up in advertising.

Perhaps most interesting and memorable are the leaps from newspapers to posters, to radio, to television, and now new media. Also very interesting, and perhaps more revealing than some would like, is how easily advertisers have historically been turned into propagandists during war. Leaps in advertising have also historically followed wars.

Often in separate chapters or sections, Tungate writes about the pioneers, the propagandists, the Madison Avenue aristocracy and the creative revolutionaries of the 1950s, giving the reader a feel for the larger developments. He jumps to British developments in advertising, with emphasis on the 60s, 70s, and 80s. A whole separate chapter is devoted to the extravagant 80s, "often regarded as the golden age of TV advertising," with the beginnings of cable television and MTV. And of course, we shouldn't forget ‘1984,’ the IBM commercial that "established the National Football League's Super Bowl game not only as an essential sporting fixture, but as the annual showcase for the best TV advertising."

No history of advertising, or of just about any industry over the long term, can leave out the significant impacts of the dotcom boom and bust and the era of mergers and consolidations. These sections, while interesting in their own way, were perhaps the driest and the most dizzying. What I found amazing, and frankly disturbing, was the fact that globally most people in advertising today work for one of about six giant multinational corporations. This frighteningly parallels what has been happening with news corporations as well.

Tungate's coverage is global in that it includes France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Japan, China, India, and Thailand, in addition to the UK and US. What I found wanting, however, was coverage of indigenous advertising, for lack of a better term – advertising in China and India, for example, that has its roots in those countries. There is much colorful homegrown advertising there, and in Latin America and Africa too. Yet Tungate's coverage is mostly of modern Western agency-driven advertising. And I don't recall any discussion of advertising in Middle Eastern countries. Surely they have advertising as well.

The book also lacks sufficient coverage of the serious opposition to advertising in certain quarters. There is one brief mention of 'publiphobes' in France, but not much else. Tungate could have mentioned Adbusters, the Bubble Project, Naomi Klein and No Logo, Sut Jhally and the Media Education Foundation, or the various places such as Sao Paolo, Brazil and a few American states that have outlawed billboards. Even brief mention of some of the forms of protest and opposition to advertising, and the industry's reaction to them, would have rounded out and balanced the book.

At the close, Tungate speculates about the agency of the future. He states, first of all, that "[f]or almost 30 years, the advertising landscape evolved remarkably slowly," with the biggest technological changes being the adoption of FM radio. Beginning with the 80s and 90s, however, and accelerating now with the diffusion of new media, there is a real technological drive for change. I'll leave you with this clever and comical image Tungate uses to characterize this challenge: "The advertising industry is in danger of looking like a fat kid playing tag with a group of nimbler opponents who remain tantalizingly out of reach. It will end up red-faced, exhausted and undignified."

Adland is an excellent resource for anyone interested in getting into advertising or in learning about its history, stories, and major players.

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