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Are Advertisements Different from News? The Legal Making of Press Advertising in Britain, 1850-1914

May 1, 2018, 5:30pm BST - 7:30pm
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, School of Advanced Study, London

Insitute of Advanced Legal Studies, 17 Russell Square
London WC1B 5DR
United Kingdom

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Speaker: Dr Anat Rosenberg, Radzyner School of Law, Israel; Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Abstract: The legal history of British advertising between 1850 and 1914 was process in which law created a genre. Advertising was rapidly expanding and experimented with in this era, and had no clear boundaries. Advertisers were claiming commonalities with other culturally central genres, most notably news, science, and art. In this context, the meaning of advertisements, the epistemological status that readers should assign them, the seriousness with which consumers should be treated when they respond to advertisements, were all open questions. Diverse sites of legal power shaped advertising by debating these questions and delineating advertising’s conceptual boundaries vis-a-vis other genres. In this talk I trace a part of that history, focusing on press advertising and its generic distinction from news.

I examine a dialectical process, which began with the mid-century campaign to repeal taxes on the press, one of which was the advertisement duty. The campaign framed advertising as a communication of essential information: the people's wants. Its success gave full reign to advertising in the press, leading to the press's decisive capitalization, but also triggered a readjustment: Newspaper owners soon faced a threat to the effective control of their medium. Their proprietary power to place limits on advertising and differentiate it from their own genre – news – was put to the test. The overall process spawned generic distinction and hierarchization: Advertising emerged from it as informative, yet different from and inferior to – because more biased than – news.

The framing of advertising as an informational genre of a lesser order, served contradictory pulls. On the one hand, the informational focus legitimized advertising, which was necessary to sustain newspapers without political patronage. On the other hand, the same focus elevated news over advertising, and kept it as the press’s main public service. This framing reflected a set of historical compromises, and was hard to sustain. For one, it theorized a hierarchic difference between news and ads which, as I will show, was daily contradicted by the realities of the press, where messiness was embedded and gave rise to challenges still familiar today, like fake news. For another, the focus on information was conceptually blind to the much more layered appeal of advertising in this era, which exceeded concerns with information, and ventured into worlds of fantasy, risk, play, and adventure.

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April 30, 2018, 6:00pm BST

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