VIEWPOINT: THE ANNALS OF ADVERTISING

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The great intellectual endeavor of Victorian education was to divide and conquer. What was to be separated was culture, and it was to be divided between high and low, good-for-you and bad-for-you. The institution that was to do the cutting was compulsory education. It was in school that the differences between popular novels and literature were taught; in school you learned that classical music was better than dance hall music, and there, as well, you learned art "appreciation."

This separation was so important because the machine age was rapidly making everyone equal, at least in the marketplace. So a body of material -- the canon -- was separated out to become the special province of the educated. One experienced the canon in newly created tabernacles: the museum, the symphony hall and the university.

Because the canon was gathering accepted value, it was ripe for the picking. Enter Thomas J. Barratt. Barratt married into the family of a man -- Andrew Pears -- who had developed a most peculiar soap. The soap was translucent and hence appealed to the English upper class' desire to lighten their skin color, and hence separate themselves from those who toiled out in the sun.

Problem was, then as now, you couldn't say that. Not PC. But if you associated the soap with an classy product, you wouldn't have to say a thing. It would be understood.

Barratt had some interesting creative ideas. He purchased a quarter of a million French ten-centime pieces (accepted in lieu of English pennies), had Pears' stamped on each of them, and put the coins into circulation -- neatly dodging a law against defacing domestic currency. He also persuaded doctors and professors to testify to Pears' purity, even getting the enormously influential American preacher Henry Ward Beecher to equate godliness and cleanliness and Pears'.

But getting Pears' soap into a certified work of art was his creative coup d'advertising. Here's how he did it: In the 1880s, John Everett Millais was the most popular and famous painter in England. He had even been knighted for his contribution to high culture, and he would become president of the Royal Academy. Since he was not "to the manor born," Millais had to sell his paintings. Sir William Ingram of the Illustrated London News acquired a portrait of Millais' grandson called A Child's World, to use as a full-page illustration in the 1887 Christmas issue. Like competing magazines, the ILN tried to build circulation by printing "images suitable for framing." The painting gained a vast following, for it portrayed the maudlin sentimentality of childhood so popular with aspiring middle-class Victorians. Its commercial value diminished, Sir William sold the original to Barratt for what today would be about $500,000.

The ever-audacious Barratt soon had Pears' engraved on the cake of soap in the picture's foreground. He took a chromolithograph of his handiwork to the painter's studio and made this pitch: If you think art is important and if you want everyone to benefit from art, then give me your permission to reprint your painting with just this little addition. I'll distribute it free to thousands of art lovers all over the globe. It will foster art appreciation.

Millais bit -- and was bitten in return. How could he have allowed this bastardization or miscegenation, depending on your favorite Victorian trope? Marie Corelli, a popular novelist of the day, straightaway put these words in the mouth of a character in The Sorrows of Satan: "I am one of those who think the fame of Millais as an artist was marred when he degraded himself to the level of painting the little green boy blowing bubbles of Pears' soap. That was an advertisement, and that very incident in his career, trifling as it seems, will prevent his ever standing on the dignified height of distinction with such masters in Art as Romney, Sir Peter Lely, Gainsborough and Reynolds."

Millais convinced Ms. Corelli to remove the unkind comment in future editions,but it was too late. The bright line between art and advertising, between high culture and the vulgar, between pristine and corrupt, was evermore blurred. For years the debate would flare up in letters to the London Times. Even today, the English still remember.

Barratt couldn't have cared less. He once said that any fool could make soap, but that it took a clever man to sell it. Pears' "owned" the concept of art, and for the next quarter century published the Pears' Annual, filled with high-quality chromos and popular fiction. Barratt singlemindedly joined what Victorians had rent asunder: art and commerce, high and low culture. While Procter & Gamble might be able to claim 99 and 44/100th percent scientific purity for their soap, Pears' went for, you might say, 100 percent cultural