Propaganda & Mass Persuasion: The Spanish-American War and Unethical Implications of Advertisements

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Spanish-American War and Unethical Implications of Advertisements

In the July 1898 issue of Industry journal Printers' Ink, (found in the Primary Documents packet on page 7), among many others in this time period, there is an ad that appeared which has a significant amount of discriminatory, war-selling propaganda underlying the actual Pears' Soap product. This ad, appears to have done way too much to sell a bar of soap. Realistically, the soap can be observed as an aspect of the ad that is almost completely overshadowed by the support for the U.S.'s imperialistic practices and more importantly, their right to wage war "in the darkest corners of the Earth"...but for a "noble" cause of course. The text in the advertisement reads as the following:

"The first step towards lightening The White Man's Burden" is through the virtues of
cleanliness. Pears' Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as
civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations, it holds the highest place-it is
the ideal toilet soap."

This advertisement is obviously not just selling soap. First of all, it is selling the idea that a "white man's" soap is necessary in order to turn evil or darkness into light and is damagingly, acknowledging that the "white man" is superior by mentioning the "white man's burden" as a true concept to consider. With that in mind, the fact that the term "dark" was used leaves the ad open to the vulnerability of double meaning, which in terms of advertising is a huge stength. If an ad can be interpreted in more than one way, there will be multiple types of people making a connection to the specified product, which in turn, will equal more sales. To the Newspaper-brainwashed American consumer during the era of the Spanish American War, "dark" could have translated into a description of perilous and murky regions of the Earth or more likely, a description of places that inhabit people of a darker skin tone (i.e. Cuba) than the typical American with white skin. Furthermore, by stating that "while amongst the cultured of all nations, it (the soap) holds the highest place-it is the ideal toilet soap," the ad is belittling the impoverished or "dark" nations by saying that white men merely use Pears soap as a toilet soap. Yet in those countries, the soap is implicated as the substance that will enable them to clean their way into being considered a "civilized people." This all contributes to the use of propaganda, as a way of portraying a particular group of people as "less than worthy" and worth having a war against. This propaganda is very typical in the Era of yellow journalism and the Spanish-American war.

Another point to consider is that at the Pear's Soap website (, they have a historical background of the company, inclusing old advertisements and a historical timeline of progress. However, 1887 is the last notation on their history and the ad quoted above is completely skipped over, as if it never existed. This type of ad fed to the American people for the goal of nothing but enormous profits and inculcation, must have been something that they later became ashamed of...At the very least, I hope they did omit it for that reason, as being ethically responsible should also be considered in a world of war and advertising.


Blogger A. Mattson said...

A very good post and a nice link.

Yes, white or european supremacy was an acceptable sales pitch at the end of the 19th century. The "White Man's Burden" theme based on the poem by Kipling struck a chord with the American public, though perhaps not in the way Kipling intended. Selling war, or selling soap requires an awareness of racial ideas and attitudes about cultural supremacy and in this case racial paternalism.

2/10/2009 11:17 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home