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By Nina J P Evans

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Death by Advertising

Édouard Manet, Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, Musée d'Orsay
I was very surprised by Emile Zola’s short fictional story: Death by Advertising as it’s such a great discovery and written so long ago, yet still completely relevant. It’s about a young man who comes into inheritance at an early age, due his poor father who had worked himself into an early grave. It makes humorous and insightful references to the real ‘values’ of advertising.

The story seeks to legitimize the fact that the newspaper adverts were his first visual introduction to reading material, whilst the advertising pages were of no use to his father; he found them alluring and insightful. From his first readings he learns to believe in the idealist lifestyle they inspire, the lifestyle his father only dreamt about. 

In The Age of Enlightenment advertising a daring and new technological lifestyle seemed to hold the key, to the pursuit of happiness. I admire that this guy is no quitter and sees his chosen path to the end, without remorse or loss of faith. Emile Zola even jests about his reading material being all 'outstanding' in claims when often it was not by far, hence explaining partly his reasons for not seeing reason in quitting. The thing that is most surprising and remarkable is that it was first written in 1866 (translated into English in 1884). 


Today’s books still have outstanding quotations on them, as do cinema trailers/posters, TV guides and electronics. We have billboard advertising, on the Underground animating LCD screens, and neon signs furnish our buildings; all such things in one way or another are promising happiness. Creating a viral marketing video is the latest craze in the advertising world. Also, Twitter introducing promoted tweets, but can’t keep up with advertiser demands.  

The great stand up comedian Bill Hicks whom I've very recently discovered through twitter, in late 1970s and throughout the 80s Hicks warns us about advertising and marketers; playing on the fact that the audience thinks that what he's saying is in someway a joke. “If you’re in advertising or marketing kill yourself *laughs*— silence.” He understood the bullshit and the damage that advertising is accountable for. Where Emile Zola’s character couldn't quit, Bill Hicks was standing up tackling the problem head on, making no joke about it, shaking things up! Bill was very much like this young man in the respect that he was no quitter. Bill Hicks using his comedic talent to enlighten us directly about things that matter, didn’t quit the fight. “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” ~ George Orwell

Visually from a design perspective I’m interested in what advertising was like and could it be as effective as the story Death by Advertising suggests. Here are some examples from Victorian England, based on The Age of Enlightenment. These like the story help illustrate the characters plight a little more emphatically. Typical news paper classifieds at the time illustrated: just a shave, a blood purifier, a skin beautifier and stretched trousers to name, all appear to look good with nice drawings and typographical design.

Emile Zola sees through the advertisements and writes this short story using humour, satire and irony to enlighten and entertain, just like Bill Hicks did much later. He proves in the most remarkable way that it’s impossible—to live by the weekly onslaught of dangerous goods and treatments, advertised and purchased. This could only be achieved with good characterisation and the means necessary and self delusions of grandeur. We can all relate to this story in someway a hundred and forty years later!

Henri Fantin-Latour (14 January 1836 – 25 August 1904) Vase of Roses, 1875

The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories (Oxford World's Classics) by Emile Zola
Print advertisements from the collections of Mr Roland Knaster and The British Museum, and printed in 1968 by William Clowes and Sons Ltd, London & Beccles.

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