« PLACING THE HISTORY OF ADVERTISING ». UNE HISTOIRE SPATIALE DE LA PUBLICITÉ À SHANGHAI (1905-1949)
Entreprises et Histoire, a French academic journal devoted to business and economic history, features in its last issue a review of Cécile Armand’s doctoral dissertation “‘Placing the History of Advertising’. A spatial history of advertising in Shanghai (1905-1949)” EH_090_0151 by Marie-Emmanuelle Chessel (senior research fellow, CNRS). It is rare for doctoral dissertations in France to get reviewed (unfortunately in the United States Dissertation Reviews has discontinued its irreplaceable service) and Entreprises et Histoire, shall be commended for this excellent editorial initiative. Armand’s innovative historical work is without contest a very rare achievement in historical research in France and even within American historical scholarship. She is currently a Andrew Mellon Foundation fellow in the DHAsia Program at Stanford University. The text that follows is a translation of the original article in French (see link above).
Cécile ARMAND « PLACING THE HISTORY OF ADVERTISING ». UNE HISTOIRE SPATIALE DE LA PUBLICITÉ À SHANGHAI (1905-1949), doctoral dissertation in history (advisor : Christian Henriot), defended on 27 June 2017 at the Université of Lyon (École Normale Supérieure de Lyon), 1133 pages
This dissertation, which focuses on advertising spaces in Shanghai in the first half of the twentieth century, contributes to the broadening of the history of consumption, which is now also written outside Europe and the United States. The dissertation also supports what we know about the Republican period in China according to historians: the emergence of the advertising profession enriches our knowledge of the modern tertiary sector that emerged at that time.
Yet we can only be struck by the resonance with advertising in France in the interwar period. Let me mention two examples. In France as in China, advertisers in the 1930s offered their services to the community through propaganda or the preparation of exhibitions. In China as in France, we can observe the same “aesthetic obsession”: the discourses and measures taken to prevent posters and billboards from disfiguring city centers or landscapes.
The contribution of this dissertation to the history of advertising thus lies less in the exoticism of the Chinese reality than in its methodological innovation, with an assumed exploratory dimension, and in three innovative results. Let me start with methodological innovations. First, this dissertation is associated with a digital platform – MadSpace.org – designed and implemented in parallel with the work of writing. This platform includes both archival documents (texts and photos) and intermediate research documents (e.g. spreadsheets). Moreover, the dissertation focuses on the advertising space in Shanghai from 1905 to 1949 by examining this space – these spaces – in a double movement, advertising printed on the pages of two major newspapers (Shenbao, North China Daily News) and outdoor advertising that appeared on the walls, billboards, buses and various supports across the city. This approach differs from usual studies that choose a single medium (the press or outdoor advertising). It also focuses on the history of advertising actors, whether advertisers or regulators.
Methodological innovation is in part a response to the lack of an archive of advertising agencies, which is common in the history of advertising, both in Europe and China. Apart from the Shanghai Municipal Archives, from which she exhumed more than 650 advertising case files, Cécile Armand also relies on the private papers of various personalities and the archives of the Ministry of Commerce (Foreign and Domestic) Department). Finally, the author draws on an iconographic corpus of more than 700 street photographs taken in Shanghai between the end of the Qing and 1949 which include the presence of an advertisement.
Innovation also concerns the writing of the dissertation. The general economics of the dissertation aims to address all the different aspects of advertising: its place in the press and in the city (first part), the organization of the advertising sector (second part), the content it conveys ( third part), how it was “administered” by the settlement authorities, how the « Shanghai observatory » is engaged with evolutions on other scales and the construction of its relation to time (fourth part). The structure of the dissertation is classical, but the dissertation innovates in terms of ordering the chapters with a construction based on “rhizomes”, relatively independent of each other.
Apart from these methodological innovations, which can sometimes be confusing but are undeniably stimulating, I shall mention three contributions that the dissertation makes: it revisits the professionalization of advertisers, it contributes to the history of circulation and to that of Americanization.
Cécile Armand’s work can first be read as a way of revisiting the “professionalization” of advertisers by insisting, in the approach of American sociologist Andrew Abbott, on the competition of the group with others in service offer, relations with the authorities, and practical work practices. It is in relationships with others and in labor relations that the profession is built, not just because the profession knows how to promote and sell itself well. Looking at relations with the municipal administrations, Armand studies part of the work of advertisers, for example evoking the daily “wanderings” of advertising agents in the streets of Shanghai (inspection tours of factories and artifacts, location of virgin land, monitoring of competitors).
The dissertation is also a contribution to the history of circulations and appropriations. The author mentions the circulation of advertisers (between Great Britain, the United States and China), that of agencies, even if eventually few foreign advertising agencies were established in Shanghai. The dissertation evokes very successfully the materiality of circulations, and in particular the practices of translation or the size of the packages. The circulation concept, which is fairly operative, is applied to circulation between the press and the street. It is a very strong idea of the dissertation to work on both media together. This brings to light elements of the professional culture (especially the relation to spaces) that we would not see otherwise. Finally, the focus is on elements that are not circulating, which is also very interesting.
Finally, Cécile Armand revisits the history of Americanization. Of course, it shows American practices circulating (for example, the establishment of the Rotary Club, which emphasized the ethics of service), and concrete niches for exchange between the United States and China. But it is the Chinese advertisers who were trying to Americanize their advertising, while Westerners sought to “sinicize” them. And in a general way this opens the door to a reflection in terms of appropriation by the local elites, of discourses, practices or modes of formation coming from elsewhere. This resonates with recent work on colonial or European contexts.
The jury acknowledged that the existence of a digital platform could have shortened the text of the dissertation to facilitate the work of the reader. We can only expect from Cécile Armand to propose for publication a synthetic version of this ambitious and innovative work.
Authored in French by Dr. Marie-Emmanuelle Chessel
Directrice de recherche/Senior research fellow (CNRS)