Medical advertising and trust in late Georgian England

Hannah Barker, “Medical advertising and trust in late Georgian England,” Urban History 36, no. 3 (2009): 379-398.

Baker brings sociological theories of trust to bear on the proliferation of medical advertisements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in four English towns. Using a statistical approach, she evaluates what sorts of rhetorical strategies were used to advertise patent medicines and asks what this can tell us about the people that were purchasing the tinctures and their construction of trust.

Like most of the articles I’ve read today, this one isn’t quite relevant due to its earlier and European (specifically British) focus. Also like the other pieces I’ve read today, however, the approach and language used could prove very useful to my study.

Though Barker claims she is getting at the patient’s perspective (unlike most others who have written on medical advertising), I’m not convinced that she successfully does this. Her approach is very top-down as well. It is notoriously difficult to tease out of advertisements — really a one-way conversation — what the people who were reading and responding to them may have felt about them.

Barker argues that there was a relative absence of concern with professional or elite voices in testimonials; she breaks them down and finds that only about a 18-24 per cent of testimonials appealed to a medical authority in any way. Instead, she asserts that more important in the testimonial was the establishment of a more distant substitute for thick trust (that established through familial, friendly, and neighborly, face-to-face relationships). In an increasingly urban, industrial way of life, this thick trust was harder to come by. People had to start trusting people and institutions they did not intimately know.

Letters were common in newspapers of the time, but they were often signed with pseudonyms. This was not the case for testimonials, where the name, location (majority), occupation/social status (~50%) were given.

“The tendency to include both the name and the location of testimonial writers… offered readers the chance to confirm stories they told either in person or by post, hence reassuring the reader that a more direct affirmation of a product was possible (even if it was never followed up).” (392)

In a study of Victorian advertising, Lori Anne Loeb has described the public testimonial as making readers feel part of a community of consumers whose collective experience engendered confidence in a particular product. The sorts of testimonials that appeared in medical advertisements in the earlier period under discussion here c an be seen in similar terms, by allowing a form of ‘remote’ face-to-face encounter, which provided the reassurance of receiving evidence that a medicine worked from a real person, even if one did not actually meet them. What is most notable is that the ‘real person’ in this instance was not a medical practitioner, nor were they necessarily a member of the social elite, but an individual who typically appeared in print with no indication of his or her social standing or of their expertise to comment on medical matters. Indeed, it is implicit in most testimonials that writers had no medical training and were unconnected to the medical trades and professions. Testimonials were supposedly provided by individuals who were willing to publicize their cures and have their names in print, but who — in the main — were distinguished only by their ‘ordinariness.’ In this way, testimonial writers appeared to stand in for those day-to-day contacts who would have provided the type of word-of-mouth reputations on which most people might have depended previously, aping something of the ‘thick’ forms of trust that were more prevalent when towns were smaller and their populations less diverse and unconnected. (396)

I think this kind of thick trust could also be refreshing for “victims” of heroic medicine in the late 19th century. Distant medical theories, doctors who let their patients’ bodies speak for them, may have engendered a longing for this kind of deep, communal medical trust. 

Next time I look at my testimonials, I may attempt a similar breakdown. What sorts of information is presented? Name? Age? Location? Social status? Profession? What can the absence of certain categories tell me about what the average Joe felt he needed to establish trust in someone/something?

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