Scratching Surfaces: Attractions and Pitfalls of Using Ads as Historical Sources

Jess-Borge-2-croppedThis post was contributed by Jessica Borge, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Old adverts for contraceptives fascinate, illuminate, offend, perturb and delight. My own Doctoral research project, ‘Communicating Contraception in the Age of the Pill’, unravels obscured marketing practices for commercially traded birth control in the 1960s. As such, I have spent a lot of time looking at contraceptive ads from this period. But using advertising as source materials is a complex business.

c.1968. Physician's circular / Searle, 'Ovulen'. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

c.1968. Physician’s circular / Searle, ‘Ovulen’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Unlike non-commercial material from the archives, dusted-off remnants of ad campaigns are possessed of a particular mystique, which might justifiably be described as a sort of ‘faded power’.

At one time, any given advert almost certainly sought to cajole, inform or to inspire action. But, removed from the conditions that engendered their creation and dissemination, impotent old ads no longer sell as powerfully as they might have done in their original setting.

For the researcher, immunity to ‘the sell’ can be an empowering invitation to step in. With the added benefits of historical distance and 21st-century savvy, defunct ads are particularly emasculated by the passing of time, leaving the stage open for involved analysis.

In the case of 1960s contraceptive ads, bonus layers of intrigue expand the potential for fun decoding games beyond the semiotician’s wildest dreams. For one thing, contraceptive products obviously involve sex somewhere along the line. And sex is always interesting. For another, contraceptive manufacturers have long been regarded as, well, ‘a bit dodgy’, which was always part of the challenge of contraceptive communication. An annoying cultural association with wartime prostitution and general grubbiness, for example, marred the image of the condom in post-war Britain. Regulatory barriers also impeded the public use of contraceptive trade names in some advertising (top tip: don’t give your condoms and rubber gloves the same handle – it only makes things worse). For ‘the Pill’, a prescription pharmaceutical contraceptive, print ads were ostensibly intended for the eyes of medics rather than laypeople. Sex – believe it or not – was frequently left out of these ads all together.

But how would you choose? More to the point, how would you be persuaded?

c.1970. Physician's tri-fold circular / Parke Davis, ‘Orlest’ and ‘Norlestrin’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

c.1970. Physician’s tri-fold circular / Parke Davis, ‘Orlest’ and ‘Norlestrin’. By kind permission of Pfizer. Courtesy of Julia Larden, and the Wellcome Library, London. Photography by J Borge 2014 CC BY 4.0

Recovery of the advert’s mechanism of persuasion is, for some researchers, the ultimate goal. When this is the reason ads are used as sources, a salvage of probable intentions and effects is – more often than not – conducted by sweeping an imaginary net over the surface, scooping up symbols of interest, and subjecting these to the mill of theory. What or whom is represented here? With whom do these representations resonate? How do such signs govern, or attempt to govern, the roles of those subjects represented, in real life? What does this mean in terms of power and authority? These are all important questions, for sure, and reminiscent of motivational cues known to be employed in creating advertising campaigns in the first place.

But the problem with ads, past and present, is that they are the most available expression of long, labour-intensive processes that are themselves difficult to recover. In portfolios and in archives, as in magazines and on screens, the ad is showcased in isolation. An ad’s workings (i.e., brand history, strategy, rationale, brand objectives, targeting) are concealed, discarded or forgotten. Of course, that is part of the enigma of advertising; it is always very difficult to identify which elements (or combinations of elements) ultimately make an ad effective. Furthermore, many ads that exist in archives are the sole surviving components of bigger, multi-faceted marketing campaigns, minor elements that did not lead campaigns, but rather rode on the coat tails of numerous (unrecorded) promotional activities.

If, as researchers, we primarily regard the surface of a campaign, and consider the visual ad the most choice cut of the marketing mix (primarily because it is more readily available), we risk further obscuring the already illusive apparatus of production and communication. This is regrettable, because production circumstances and processes yield potentially important information. Marketing strategies are conceived not within vacuums, but within complex environments, in which influences and meanings ebb and flow, accrue and evaporate. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it is useful to start with the edges, rather than the middle; in the end, it is surprising how things come together.

With thanks to Alison Payne, Julia Larden, Bryony Merritt, Janet McCabe, Suzannah Biernoff, the Wellcome Library, London, and Pfizer.


Related websites:

About Jessica:

Formerly a backstage technician in Musical Theatre (electrics, lighting, stage and video), Jessica Borge decided to undergo a significant career change in 2011 by pursuing research interests in 20thC History at an academic level.

Following an MA in Historical Research from the Institute of Historical Research, Jessica won AHRC funding for her PhD project, ‘‘Communicating Contraception in the Age of the Pill’,’ on which she now works full-time.

She is currently conducting primary research, which includes extensive original archival work undertaken in the UK and the USA.

Jessica can ordinarily be found at Birkbeck School of Arts, where she is supervised by Drs Janet McCabe and Suzannah Biernoff. Jessica is also a Smithsonian IPS Fellowship awardee [for 2015] and sub-edits for Dandelion.

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ExoMars landing site 2: This time it’s geological

This post was contributed by Dr Peter Grindrod, of Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Read the first post from this series. It was originally published on his personal blog.

It’s been nine months since the last workshop about where the next rover will land on Mars. During that time there have been some fantastic space firsts, including the European Space Agency landing on a comet, and NASA testing a spacecraft that will take humans back into deep space.

But we’ve always kept one eye on Mars. Over the summer the proposed eight landing sites for the ExoMars rover were officially reduced to four. We were really pleased that our two sites got through, but we’ve now got a lot of work ahead of us.

Last week we were in Italy to discuss the detailed geology of the final four landing sites. With ExoMars trying to find life on Mars, we have to decide which one place offers the best chance of finding it. Such a tough call meant it was a fascinating meeting, as each site offers its own advantages and challenges.

The final four sites are Mawrth Valles, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Valles and Aram Dorsum. Despite all four being in the same region of the planet, they show a diversity that you’d expect from an overall area the size of Western Europe.

Regional context of the final four landing sites for the ExoMars rover. Black regions show elevations that are too high for the rover to land in. (Image credit: THEMIS/MOLA/Peter Grindrod)

Regional context of the final four landing sites for the ExoMars rover. Black regions show elevations that are too high for the rover to land in. (Image credit: THEMIS/MOLA/Peter Grindrod)

Mawrth Vallis, named after the Welsh name for Mars, is a candidate as strong as its namesake’s rugby team. Mawrth made it through to the final four choices for the Curiosity rover, due to its thick sequence of clay minerals – a sure sign of past water that’s also probably neutral in pH (and presumably good for life).

Oxia Planum is about 400km from Mawrth, and shows similar thick, clay layers, but with the added bonus of a channel that may have emptied into a shallow lake. This means we can be even surer of water, which we think is a prerequisite for life.

The landing site at Hypanis Valles is actually at the end of the channel of the same name, and most likely represents ancient delta deposits. Here we think sediments, and hopefully life, were laid down in a low energy environment. This site is good because it might concentrate the evidence for life, thus increasing our chances of finding it.

And finally Aram Dorsum, which was such an unknown before the last meeting it actually had a different name. At the time there was no feature nearby that we could use to name our landing site. So in the end we had to officially apply to name the site. Despite my attempts to name it after the River Irwell, whose tiny tributary flowed through my village when I was growing up, it was deemed to be a positive relief feature and thus needed a different name. So Aram Dorsum it is.

That positive relief at Aram is something that isn’t immediately familiar, although there are quite a few similar features on Earth. It’s basically an inverted river system, where water carves a channel, deposits sediments that then become cemented, while everything outside is eroded away by billions of years of erosion. After this you’re left with a river system, albeit with positive relief. So again, water was flowing through this region, probably about 3.8 to 4 billion years ago, a time when life was probably just getting started on Earth, and possibly Mars.

Now it’s a matter of figuring out the complicated history of what has followed at all sites since the water disappeared, and what it means for the possible evidence of life. Can rocks rich in fossilised microbes survive the bombardment from meteorites? Do these meteorite impacts actually make it easier to get at the deeper rocks, which could have been warmer and wetter?

So part of what we did last week was to assess the complex histories at each site, discuss the likely habitability of the environments we think were around when the features formed, and ultimately what it all means for life.

The other part was to listen to the safety assessments carried out so far on the sites. All the four sites met the global engineering constraints, but local factors such as small, but steep slopes, or the presence of too many sand dunes, increase the risk when it comes to landing on Mars.

So although the science might be great, we’ve got to hope that there are no engineering show-stoppers at this stage. As the Philae lander showed, landing on another planetary body is difficult. So I’m happy to keep figuring out the science of where we’ll go, while the engineers work out how to get there in one piece.

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My experience at Birkbeck as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor and its impact on my research

This post was contributed by Professor Michel Rosenfeld, a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Birkbeck’s School of Law

As my semester at Birkbeck is all too soon about to come to a close, I briefly pause to take stock on how my experience has added up to a rich, rewarding and unique contribution in furtherance of my research. I have greatly benefited from exchanges with faculty and students at Birkbeck as well as at other UK universities where I made various presentations as part of my Leverhulme obligations.

For many years, my research has focused on how pluralist societies that are divided along religious, ideological, ethnic and cultural lines can live together in an institutional setting and under laws that they could all genuinely accept as legitimate. In the past, I have conducted separate inquiries within my various fields of expertise, namely legal and political philosophy, on the one hand, and American and comparative constitutional law, on the other. My work has always been interdisciplinary and comparative and I have elaborated a normative pluralist perspective that I have named “comprehensive pluralism”. In the past, I have explored the latter’s implications for each  of my separate fields of inquiry, and more recently, in conjunction with my Leverhulme award and my coming to Birkbeck, I have concentrated on integrating and harmonizing the insights and the learning that I had gathered from my separate areas of inquiry.

Three subjects present particularly difficult challenges to any attempt to balance unity and respect for a plurality of viewpoints and basic commitments within a constitutional democracy. The first of these is the handling of crises that threaten the physical or psychological well-being of the citizenry, such as in the case of global or international terrorism. The second subject is religion, particularly in view of its revival, re-politicization, the growth of fundamentalism, and diversification primarily through migration, which have been prevalent in the last few decades.  This has led to various clashes between secularism and religion as well as among diverse religions, and has raised questions about the viability and legitimacy of constitutional secularism which has long been deemed an essential prerequisite to the success of the modern democratic state. Finally, the third subject is the broad question of justice within a pluralist constitutional society in which people disagree over what the good life consists in and over what political society should require from, and provide to, each of its members.

I have had a chance to explore all of these subjects in my various Leverhulme interventions, starting with my Leverhulme lecture I at Birkbeck on October 31, 2014 on “Constitutionalism, Globalisation and Ethno-religious conflict” in which I addressed all three of the above subjects. At a faculty legal philosophy workshop at King’s College I focused on the subject of justice, and presented a paper entitled “Is Justice All-Encompassing or Subject to Moral Override?” in which I explore the role of justice in pluralist societies where there is wide disagreement about moral values and what should count as the good for all. At the University of Glasgow, I co-taught with Professor Adam Tomkins of that university an advanced seminar class that focused on comparing how the UK and the US have handled the international terrorist threat through legislation and judicial intervention. I addressed the constitutional problems posed by the increased politicization of religion at a faculty workshop at Westminster University where I had a political theorist, Professor Chantal Mouffe, as my principal interlocutor. A few days later, I had a further discussion of the new challenges posed by religion in front of a diverse, interdisciplinary audience at a Public Law Discussion Group meeting at the Oxford University Law School. Finally, in what has thus far proven the most enriching and rewarding experience in terms of my current research projects, on December 5, 2014, a full day workshop was held at Birkbeck in which eight scholars, including Professors Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schutz from Birkbeck, and various scholars from other UK universities and from France and Italy, provided invaluable comments, criticisms and suggestions on my paper entitled “Constitutional Theology?” in which I provide a very preliminary analysis of a major issue that I intend to make the subject of a book project:  in the context of the daunting new challenges posed by the revival of religion and post-modern critiques, should modern constitutionalism rooted in the Enlightenment be reconceived as elaborating a theology of its own–albeit one that does not appeal to the transcendent or the metaphysical–or as that which remains distinct from all theology and that may be reframed so as to preserve a its capacity to mediate among competing religious and non-religious ideologies?

I look forward to my last official intervention of this extraordinary semester that I have spent at Birkbeck, the Leverhulme II Lecture on “Post-Secular Constitutionalism“, which will take place on Friday 12 December 2014. In that lecture, I will address certain aspects of some of the subjects mentioned above, and in particular how secularism might best fare in view of the various religious and post-modern challenges it has encountered in the past couple decades. Would secularism fare better in the future by remaining firmly anchored in the institutional framework established by the constitution? Or would it be better off by being recast as one ideology among the many that are deserving of constitutional recognition and protection?

[Note: interested parties can still register for this free public lecture 6:00 – 8:30pm 12 December via Eventbrite]

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The World Prison Brief: database of global imprisonment levels

This post was contributed by Roy Walmsley, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies’ world-renowned World Prison Brief. In November ICPS was merged with the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in Birkbeck’s School of Law.

iStock_000012313253XLargeThe aim of the World Prison Brief (WPB) is to enable more well-informed discussion about appropriate levels of imprisonment and about issues such as the use of imprisonment for women, the use of pre-trial imprisonment and the problems of prison overcrowding; and to contribute to the making of sound evidence-based decisions by all who are endeavouring to improve prison systems worldwide.

The WPB was launched in September 2000. It contributes to the knowledge base on the use of imprisonment by giving details of prison population levels in over 220 independent countries and dependent territories. It shows the variations in practice in different countries, regions and continents and makes it possible to estimate the world prison population total (over 10 million). It also gives information on the proportion of pre-trial, female, juvenile and foreign prisoners in the total, as well as on the official capacity of each prison system and its occupancy rate, thus indicating the level of overcrowding. Recent trends in prison population levels are also shown.

The information comes from a variety of sources, principally the national prison administration, the Ministry responsible for the prison administration or the national statistical office. So these are official figures and they are obtained from publications by these bodies (including annual reports and data on official websites), direct communication with contacts in the prison administrations, responses of these bodies to international surveys etc. Sometimes information comes via a third party (e.g. an international body or a non-governmental organisation) and such material is used when the source is established as reliable and the data consistent with what is already known about prison population levels in the country concerned. Information is collected on an ongoing basis and the website is updated monthly with data obtained during the previous month.

It is essential that the information should be as reliable as possible. This is of course dependent first of all on the reliability of the data published by the official bodies in the countries concerned. In practice the main difficulty encountered – apart from the fact that so many countries do not publish prison population numbers, or do so only rarely – is incompleteness of data. This can result, for example, from the omission in some countries of figures for a part of their country that is separately administered and in other countries the omission of data on persons whose pre-trial detention occurs in police facilities instead of prisons. When this is known to be occurring the WPB draws attention to it alongside the official figures.

Ensuring the reliability of data also depends on validating it carefully. Newspaper reports quite often quote a prison department or Ministry official giving a figure that is obviously wrong. All new figures are compared with data previously recorded in order to minimise the chances of mistaken information appearing in the WPB.

The WPB is the only source of comparative data on prison systems worldwide and is regularly quoted in briefings by Governments, by inter-governmental bodies such as the OHCHR, UNESCO and OECD, by NGOs and pressure groups, in academic articles and journals and in the media.

Academics use  the data in the WPB to explore policies that lead to higher or lower rates of imprisonment  issue, and politicians, NGOs and think tanks use the data in arguments against the introduction of policies that will lead to a higher rate of imprisonment relative to comparable countries.

That the WPB is considered relevant in prison policy-making circles around the world is evident from the fact that the comparative figures appear in prison administration annual reports in many countries. There is widespread sensitivity to the ranking position in which a country is shown to be, particularly in comparison with its nearer neighbours.

Sometimes it is clear that national policy is quite directly being influenced; governments occasionally send up-to-date figures so as to demonstrate that their situation has improved – numbers have come down – since the figure that the WPB was showing. One government has developed a project to introduce reforms that are designed, in the words of their published report, ‘to eliminate their country from the 50 that are leading in terms of prison population’.

The WPB has, therefore, affected the discourse on the use of imprisonment among governments, academics, NGOs and think tanks. The ability to compare a country’s prison population level with that of its neighbours, the rest of its continent and the rest of the world has caused administrations to think more deeply about their own use of imprisonment.

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