Find advertisements for products that have been in production since before the second world war (Coca Cola or Bovril for example), in the modernist period and today, and annotate them to show how, or if there has been a change from product to lifestyle as the selling point


I have chosen look at a Pears advert because my mother owns a copy of the print, has done all her life, and currently has it on her bedroom wall, (as you can see there is a crack in the glaze). In my mind as I research for A5 , answering the impossibly large question, “what is reality?”, I am beginning to comprehend and make sense of the fact that advertising operates in relation to metanarrative, i.e. “a story about a story, explaining other smaller stories within an overall scheme” (Haveland, 2009) Adverts are themselves small stories that reflect and reinforce the bigger story as well as the smaller stories. They appear to be devices for selling, but in fact they are mini-verses (30 seconds usually in the case of TV advertising) that offer the human condition (individual and society)  a reference point within a host of stories, which we rely on to structure an internal image of reality. The reference point contributes to forms of representation internalised by us as we make sense of the world in way that is still coming to be understood by neurologists. As such advertising is immensely powerful because there is so much of it. We receive stories made by advertisers all day everyday, and aside from the fact this results in a commodified version of ‘reality’*, stories have the power to humanise or dehumanise, shape morality and influence perception of what is acceptable or not. Religious stories are hardly told nowadays. They have been replaced  by advertising stories. The impact of this on our collective perception is profound.

*I have highlighted the word reality here as it is a tricky word. It has several meanings and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I will need to explore this and write a separate post before submitting A5.

The advert above is a painting by William S Coleman (1928-1904) called The Sunny South and was included as a free poster given away in the 1898 Pears Annual. Perhaps this makes it less of an advert since it was not designed for Pears specifically – however, once included in the annual it was branded and therefore indicative of the brand voice. It is an example of a commodified narrative entering social discourse.  Coleman was a prolific illustrator whose brush style might be described as influenced by Pre-Raphaelite, although it may be fair to suggest the brush style is more generally Victorian. The content is quite different to the Pre-Raphaelite, who are described on a video produced by the Tate as Victorian avant-gardes, where subject matter contains socialist values, opting for Realism to explore uncomfortable subjects for the time such as lust, death, class, adultery etc. Their work was shocking in its day and made in direct opposition to the contemporary artistic influence from the Renaissance’s Raphael (Barringer, 2012). Can we say the same for Coleman’s painting? If it was controversial in any way it would have been a subversive sleight of hand, and missed by the advertisers. I would suggest it is not subversive, rather, it is highly idealised and the sort of thing that gives Victorian art a bad name in some circles. I suspect there is all sorts of Victorian symbolism in it that only art historians and experts will now be able to recognise but the impression I receive from it  is as follows.

The painting is described on an auction site as being a portrait of two young sisters (, 2002). They are lounging on a veranda that looks Mediterranean and quite un-English. Behind them is a tapestried carpet on the wall, and they are also  sitting on one, along with lots of cushions. The younger  sister dozes with a fan, which, like the tapestried carpets looks in some unspecified way to my own eye exotic and not very English. There is also a large decorated china plate leaning against the wall. Coleman designed for ceramics and tiles in his time and one can hazard a guess the design might even have been one of his own. There are pot plants and creepers suggesting nature which links to Coleman’s main interest. The picture’s face value narrative is one about two girls who can be seen relaxing in an idyllic location that is warm (Sunny South) and peaceful. One rests and the other does some needlepoint. I have looked online but can find no references to who the girls are or meant to be. However, the Victorians were about to begin a bloody and brutal war in South Africa, one in which the concentration camp is said to have been invented. (, 1998) This fact might be seen as indicative of the dehumanising lens  the British Empire. So the sense of peace represented in the picture is quite different to the actions taking place in the physical world at the time. There were also rather a lot of girls who worked in factories in England at the time. Very few actual children could have experienced such a setting in real life. The Empire was in full swing in 1898. The English had galloped all over the world appropriating exotic lands, people and objects, (treating people like objects to be owned). Much of Pear’s advertising at the time, as described in several places online, exemplified the Empire’s desire to wander round cleansing the world of its ‘savagery’ and replacing it instead with various versions of supposed English civility. The Coleman painting, although not as overt as some, nevertheless in linked to a brand that can be described as follows:”… Pears used their product as a sign of the prevailing European concept of the “civilizing mission” of empire and trade, in which the soap stands for progress.” (Wikipedia, 2016) If you Google Pears advertising you’ll come across plenty of remarkably offensive examples of Victorian racism along with the racial superiority complex that fuelled Empire’s agenda. However, any sense of moral high-ground related to today’s advertising is misplaced since our own society is responsible for the infamous UKIP referendum photograph used erroneously on many levels.  Stuart Hall is quoted in a blog about visual culture which explores Pears advertising; ““The racialized discourse is structured by a set of binary oppositions. There is the powerful opposition between ‘civilization’ (white) and ‘savagery'(black). There is the opposition between the biological or bodily characteristics of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘races’, polarized into their extreme opposites-each the signifiers of an absolute different between human ‘types’ or species.” (Hall 232).” (Visualcultureblog, 2014) The UK is not the only country that continues to represent reality in these terms and again a Google search yields too many examples of racist and deeply misguided narratives from across the globe.

The Pears Annual, I am told by a dealer of rare modern literature was “…hugely successful up to the Great War. Typically they serialised major middlebrow writers and were more commercially minded than say, The Strand, which published literary heavy hitters…..It’s in many ways the birth in the UK of that kind of American Sponsored programme… [which]…died off in this country on account of the BBC”. (Blakeney, 2016) This would suggest the annual had a huge influence on the way in which people perceived reality along with any group, structurally informed morality, although I would posit such sponsorship didn’t quite die off, but the presence of the BBC certainly curtailed it for some decades.

How does Pears do today?

It has been difficult to find a UK Pears Soap campaign. I know I have seen them in recent years, and I know you can still buy it in the shops, although I have stopped doing so since I no longer like the smell of it. I remember really loving it. And I recall an English romantic (commodified) illusion attached to it,  which I found appealing in my younger days (perhaps especially so, having grown up abroad). Trying to find an up-to-date UK campaign led me to two articles from 2011 and 2010 which state that Unilever, the current owner of the brand, has changed the formula leading to a change in the quality and smell. In fact, the writer in the Guardian surmises Unilever are perhaps trying to phase out the brand altogether and replace it with Dove (perhaps Dove’s less racist advertising past underpins such a desire if it exists, consciously or otherwise, although it is more likely to be an economic consideration). (Stanley, 2011) A 2010 Telegraph article claims the soap’s old formula would be revised following considerable complaints. However, the Guardian article suggests this did not happen and the writer spent considerable effort finding old stock, which he hoped would last him for the rest of his life.

Customers have tried to find the original soap online through Amazon or Ebay, although looking at reviews it would seem plenty of people have been duped into buying the new version, as sold in the supermarkets, and which currently contains the following: Sorbitol, Aqua, Sodium Palmate, Sodium Stearate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Rosinate (May cause sensitization by skin contact), Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, PEG – 4, Alcohol, Glycerin, Parfum, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Metabisulfite, Etidronic Acid, Tetrasodium EDTA, BHT, CI 12490, CI 47005, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate Cinnamal, Eugenol (Sainsburys, 2016).

This compares to the old list which is described by a reviewer on Amazon as follows:
“Pears soap’s formula has changed as of 2009. It is no longer the wonderful, natural product we all knew and loved.Original ingredients: Sodium Palmitate, Natural Rosin, Glycerine, Water, Sodium Cocoate, Rosemary Extract, Thyme Extract, Pears Fragrance Essence.” (Amazon, 2010)

On forums you can find conversations discussing the new formula. One person writes in response to a suggestion about where one may be able to find the old formula, “Nope. That’s the nasty Indian kind” (, 2011) It’s striking that racist rhetoric steeped in a sense of superiority over another race is projected onto a bar of simple and innocuous soap. The soap is not to the person’s taste (arguably a culturally constructed appreciation of what is acceptable and desirable) however, she has managed to communicate her feelings about India and Indians in just five short words. She views the Other, in terms of nasty, fake, abuser and ruiner of a romantic English Victorian version of reality. There are a plethora of non-abrasive, holistic soaps available in the world, although it is probably true they are more expensive than Pears Soap. The new formula will undoubtedly have been decided on due to an economic decision by a mass-production factory whose main aim is to make very large quantities of product for as little cost as possible. The soap people want to buy does not fit into that model. That type of soap is specialised nowadays. It is not affordable in a mass production model, and the commodified dream of Victorian country purity is also too costly on many levels. In Zizek’s film, The Reality of the Virtual, he describes his interpretation of the Real that separates objects from their Symbolic and Imaginary realities. For example, this is a bar of soap. It is not a dream, or a romance, although people project that onto it. Yes, it no longer has the same ingredients it once had. People are understandably annoyed. But rather than simply move onto another of any number of non-abrasive, ‘natural’ soap bars they become angry. They project racist feelings about Other onto the product and mourn the loss of the old product, which felt better to use, and also represented something from the past which has gone. Soaps that don’t include synthesised chemicals in their ingredients are much more  expensive to produce but they too are merely bars of soap. What you buy when you spend money on ‘natural’ ingredients is in actual fact identity.

The irony here is that the soap embodies a time when the industrial revolution made it possible to mass produce products in the first place, and Marx had plenty to say about this new mode of production, especially in terms of how capitalists employed people who were far removed from the end-user, and the effect that had on society. He also explored the fetishisation of goods. Here a fetishised product is no longer a viable commodity unless the recipe is changed. Mass production has no truck with expensive ingredients when cheaper alternatives are available. The new manager-owners making the soap far away from the UK or the States are the same people the Victorian Empire appropriated and attempted to cleanse of their non-Britishness. Being non-white and non-British they are inhabitants of Other. These people have internalised Victorian manufacturing values and changed the beloved soap. Pears advertising, as discussed earlier and in more detail on The  Future is Visual blog epitomised cultural ideas about cleansing people of their non-civility. Now the most up to date Pears Soap advert I can find online is aimed at Indians. What’s more it also references Disney, the most overtly commodified children’s dream-maker ever to exist, and hugely powerful in terms of the represented realities young people are handed by society.

My mother’s Pears’ poster represents an idealised view of reality where little girls can laze away the day in fantasy worlds that are warm and idyllic, unlike the many children across the world working in factories and fields, as well as poor-houses in the UK. They are white and peaceful and surrounded by objects that symbolise foreign influence on aesthetics which came about through conquering and appropriating Others’ culture. It is an image that feeds into an illusion about ideal childhood,  as well as the British Empire’s superiority.

What I have not discussed here is repetition and the building up of a brand through a variety of means. I may cover repetition and the way it helps to construct a metaphysical entity at least in some way in the final assignment for this section. (2016). Coleman, William Stephen (DNB12) – Wikisource, the free online library. [online] Available at:,_William_Stephen_(DNB12) [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016].

Haveland, P (2009) Understanding Visual Culture. Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Barringer, T. (2012). Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. [online] Tate. Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016]. (2016). Pears (soap). [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016]. (2002). AFTER W.S.COLEMAN. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016]. (1998). The Concentration Camp in South Africa – HistoryWiz. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016].

Visual Culture Blog. (2016). Visual Culture Blog. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016].

Blakeney, A. 2016 – text message conversation (Rare book dealer)

Stanley, B. (2011). This Pears soap just won’t wash!. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016]. (2011). Does anyone know how I can get the original Pears soap …. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016].

Zizek, S. (2012). Slavoj Zizek: The Reality of the Virtual. [online] YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 19 Dec. 2016].




4 thoughts on “Project 5.1 (ii) Illusion only is sacred, truth profane

  1. Enjoyable and informative reading. The picture has a Turkish look about it to me. It’s still hard to link it to soap though unless that’s concerned with the ingredients – grown in warm sunny climes and full of fragrance.

    I was reminded as well of the green carbolic soap that was prevalent in kitchens for at least half of the C20th, well, at least for us poorer people!


    1. Glad you enjoyed it – it’s probably far too long for its purpose but it is part of my research for A5, so really for me mainly perhaps. Good thought about who actually used Pears Soap and how prevalent the carbolic sort was. It makes me wonder about the way in which ‘middle classes’ take for granted so much that they/we see as the norm now. I also meant to mention the audacity behind the various strains of modern Pears Soap. The recognisable version is called Original even though the contents are nothing like. It’s only the idea of it that is sold as original.


      1. I just got this memory of seeing,the Bubbles advert probably on a soap packet and the idea it was a soft, luxurious, foaming soap. Such a contrast to the green carbolic in the kitchen and the bits and pieces of soap my Nan used to put into a perforated soap holder that she swished around in the washing up bowl. That’s why I mentioned it as I reckon that in those early days adverts must have been aimed at the middle and upper classes who could afford such luxuries. I’m still musing about that “Sunny South” advert though and the link with the faintly exotic.


      2. Thats’ so intersting to consider….advertising was aimed at a section of society but ended up making everyone aspire to an idealised vision of something. In SA TV was banned until the mid 70s, because they didn’t want any outside influence. Amazingly controlling and held the status quo in place – state out-controlling consumerism as power structure


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s