Irish Studies

Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland, 1922-1962

New to our Reappraisals in Irish History series, Stephanie Rains’ Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland, 1922-1962 is an exciting new perspective on the relationship between consumer culture and Irish national identity. In this blog post Rains introduces us to the relationship between mass media and consumer culture in Ireland and the starting points for her research.

It’s not difficult to understand why most discussion of consumer culture in Ireland focuses on the Celtic Tiger era.  The years that brought weekend shopping trips to New York and supermarkets selling water bottles encrusted with crystals need to be understood at least in part in terms of their conspicuous consumption.  By contrast, the ongoing crises of unemployment, emigration, stagnating economic growth and housing shortages which dominated the first few decades after Independence seem to preclude to the possibility of consumerism or the playful culture of advertising.  But consumer culture is not determined solely by access to wealth and disposable income.  Just as important is its fundamental underlying claim that happiness, social aspiration and even self-fulfilment can be achieved or displayed through consumption and consumer goods themselves.  And as we know from our own twenty-first century experience, the power of that ideology extends far beyond those who can easily afford a wide array of consumer goods, and can be just as influential in the lives of those with little disposable income as it is for those in wealthier groups. 

My own background is in media history, so one of my starting points for this research was wanting to better understand the relationship between Irish media and advertising in the twentieth-century.  Well before Independence, all commercial media in Ireland was economically-dependent upon advertising revenue, as is clear from turning the pages of any publications of the era.  National and local newspapers carried advertisements for brands and retailers on every page by the 1920s, and these continued to expand as the advertisements grew bigger, and began using more white space and bold graphic design or images.  Women’s magazines – always a leader in both consumer culture and advertising – saw a flurry of new titles in the decade or so after Independence, and their pages carried even more advertisements.  At the same time, both papers and magazines also carried articles which contributed to a broader consumer culture underpinning the advertisements that paid their bills.  These articles ranged from advice columns for women on fashion, cookery and interior design, to those suggesting which gifts to buy at Christmas, or which places to visit on holiday.  While many of these articles did not promote any specific products, cumulatively they all encouraged Irish readers to believe that consumer goods could be the route to happiness and a better life.

At the same time, when Irish broadcasting began with the establishment of 2RN in 1926 it was (very differently from the rules governing the BBC) allowed to run advertisements, and although these were not much used in the earliest years they became more frequent over time, so that by the 1950s they included sponsored programming as well as jingles, with shows produced by Aer Lingus, Cadbury’s chocolate and Chivers’ jams among other brands.  Many of these brands also erected huge neon signs in busy city streets, such as those overlooking O’Connell Bridge in Dublin.  Indeed, a pivotal moment for me in deciding to pursue this project was when I noticed that the official night-time photographs O’Connell Street during the 1932 Eucharistic Congress (when an altar was erected on the bridge for an outdoor mass that filled the entire street) are dominated by enormous and very bright neon signs for tobacco brands, especially Players cigarettes and Bendigo Flake.  The striking thing to me was not just the quantity of neon advertising signs visible in those photographs, but that they had not been turned off for the Eucharistic Congress photos.  This suggested that, like the advertisements in newspapers and jingles on the radio, their presence and what it represented was so unremarkable by 1932 that they were not perceived to be jarring even in the context of a religious occasion.  This in turn suggested that the advertising and consumer culture those signs belonged to might offer an unexplored perspective on everyday life in Ireland.

If consumer culture is predicated on a belief in consumption offering personal fulfilment, then examining both the specific products being advertised and also the specific style of those advertisements allows us to better understand what happiness and fulfilment was perceived to be at any given moment time and place.  Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland, 1922-1962 explores some of the key forms this took as Irish advertisements and consumer culture are examined in their changing historical contexts.  Among other topics the book explores the increase in home ownership and suburban living, the spread of electrification and the new consumer products it enabled, the changing views on women’s roles as homemakers, consumers and workers, the connections made between consumption and patriotism in the newly-independent state, and the way consumption was one of the shifting markers of social class in Ireland in the decades after Independence.  The story it tells is of a society with a lively advertising industry and deeply engrained consumer culture long before the Celtic Tiger era or even the arrival of television.

Stephanie Rains is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Maynooth University.

Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland, 1922-1962, part of our Reappraisals in Irish History, series is available to order on our website.


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