Reading Between the Signs: The Impact of Literacy on the Development of Advertising in Early Modern Europe

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Southern New Hampshire University
This study involves discovering how growing literacy influenced the development of advertising in early modern Europe. The goal is to show that as cities became more literate, visual advertising started incorporating more text, creating a shift toward literacy-dependent advertising. A comparative analysis of British, French, and Dutch advertisements (signs, periodicals, and trade cards), as well as secondary sources, show that literacy rates influence the sophistication of the advertisement’s message and purpose. Upon examination, it becomes clear that merchants in early modern Europe transitioned from only communicating awareness to communicating more complex brand messages. This evolution of the brand message echoes the Aristotelian appeals: logos, ethos, and pathos. The first stage of visual advertising persuades by using simple graphic information to show the customer examples and facts. The second stage is related to ethos. It requires the ability to read persuasive text that often attest to a merchant’s character or reputation. The last stage of advertising relates to pathos. It requires a stronger command of the language to understand the figurative meanings behind an advertisement. Understanding the history of literacy-dependent advertising will contribute to future research in social history, as well as advertising history. However, more research is needed to determine if this pattern can be identified in other societies.