June 11

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Jun 11 - 6:11:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 11, 1767).

“JUST IMPORTED, In the Rachel & Mary, Capt. Anderson, a fresh ASSORTMENT of DRUGS and MEDICINES.”

At a glance, a significant number of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements look much the same as many of their counterparts. This often has the effect of underplaying the distinctiveness and innovation of some commercial notices. In addition to inciting demand for the goods and services they sold, advertisers simultaneously pursued two goals when writing copy.

First, they sought to incorporate several common appeals (price, quality, choice, fashion, gentility) that they believed resonated with potential customers. They often deployed formulaic language in the process. While this gave the impression that their notices more or less reiterated others, it also demonstrated that advertisers understood the conventions of current marketing practices. It implied a level of competence that presumably transferred to other aspects of operating their businesses.

On the other hand, advertisers also attempted to distinguish their commercial notices from others in hopes of attracting customers or clients that might otherwise employ their competitors. The Adverts 250 Project regularly identifies and examines such innovations. As a result, some of the repetitiveness and standardization of eighteenth-century advertisements gets overshadowed.

Today’s advertisements help to remedy that. Published one immediately after the other, both advertisements for “DRUGS and MEDICINES” use the same language and structure: a notice that the wares were “JUST IMPORTED,” the name of the vessel that transported the goods and its captain (which allowed readers to compare to the shipping news and assess how recently they had been “JUST IMPORTED”), and a brief indication of that customers could choose among an array of merchandise (“A large ASSORTMENT” versus “A fresh ASSORTMENT” in these two advertisements). William Biers and Benjamin Catton posted advertisements that looked and read strikingly similar to each other.

Still, the notices had small variations. Biers doubled down on his appeal to choice by listing more than three dozen specific items. In contrast, Catton emphasized low prices when he pledged to sell “wholesale or retail, on reasonable terms.” Neither advertiser devised any sort of innovative appeal. Even in making decisions that created advertisements slightly different from the other, both Biers and Catton selected from among well-established elements of eighteenth-century advertising. Then, as now, many advertisements played on methods widely considered effective rather than attempting to create some sort of marketing sensation.

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