Review of 'Selling Britishness: Commodity Culture, the Dominions and Empire' by Felicity Barnes

Hamish McDougall




This article was originally published in New Zealand International Review, Volume 48 Number 2, Mar/Apr 2023

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Anyone pondering the strong and persistent cultural links between Britain and the former Dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada is well advised to read 'Selling Britishness' by Dr Felicity Barnes.

Selling Britishness follows Barnes’ well-regarded 2012 work New Zealand’s London, which chronicled the cultural marks that New Zealand made on the British capital in the Twentieth Century, and vice versa. This time around the timespan is more focussed, looking particularly at the inter-war period, but the geographic scope is expanded to take in the Australian and Canadian experiences as well as New Zealand. In this, Barnes follows a now large body of ‘transnational’ historical research looking beyond single national narratives to explain the past. The research is all the richer for comparing different colonial perspectives and identifying common aspects or points of difference between them.

A central premise of the book is that cultural links between Britain and the Dominions were not ‘natural’, nor an inevitable result of shared ‘kith and kin.’ Rather, this sense of shared Britishness was constructed. Of those building such ideals in the 1920s and 1930s, Barnes convincingly argues that the advertising agencies tasked with marketing Australian, New Zealand and Canadian products in Britain (and British products in the opposite direction) were exceedingly influential. Further, this process was not wholly, nor even primarily, imposed by those in the colonial metropolis of London. Rather, it was agencies from the Dominions leading the way, reflecting, creating and sustaining a shared British cultural identity that transcended the vast physical distances across the empire.

The book is lucidly written, and the history is brought to life by fascinating examples of ingenuity and accomplishment by Dominion marketers, which have largely been forgotten today. Trade films about Australian, New Zealand and Canadian agricultural produce and tourism generated long queues for tickets down British city streets. Attractive window displays; banners towed by aeroplanes; children’s clubs (British schoolchildren were sent birthday cards by ‘Captain Anchor’ extolling the virtues of New Zealand butter); and ‘demonstration ladies’ were all used to market Dominion commodities as ‘British’, seemingly to good effect. Touring sportspeople, politicians, film stars and other celebrity endorsers were also used. Print publicity boasted catchy descriptors of New Zealand lamb as ‘British to the backbone’, ‘All British’ Australian butter and Canadian apples that were ‘British to the core’. Illustrated advertisements depicted bucolic landscapes tended by archetypal ‘British’ farmers. In this golden age of advertising and commodification, Barnes suggests that advertising executives from Sydney, Auckland and Toronto were at least a match for their lauded American competitors from Madison Avenue in capturing the hearts, minds, and Pounds of British spenders.

This may appear a success story, however Barnes points to a darker by-product of such marketing, which emphasised a British cultural identity riven by race, gender and class. Depictions of yeoman settler farmers espoused white and masculine ideals, while women and indigenous peoples were either marginalised, stereotyped into subservience or (most likely) omitted altogether. The rural farming hinterlands of Australia, New Zealand and Canada were presented as naturally and bucolically ‘British,’ with no reference to the often brutal or underhand ways these lands were acquired from first nations, nor the environmental degradation required to make them productive. Even native plants were excluded.

The book contests previous interpretations, including finding that Dominion marketing reinforced a sense of British imperial sentiment at a time when many historians suggest it was dissipating. Barnes also argues that historians’ previous focus on the relatively ineffective Government-led Empire Marketing Board should not obscure the very vibrant and arguably much more productive and influential private sector advertising efforts. Perhaps surprisingly, advertisers did not greatly emphasise the immense First World War efforts made by the Dominions, although as the book suggests, this may have been because another shared crisis, ‘the Great Depression’ implored shoppers to ‘buy empire.’ Nor did the Ottawa Agreements of 1932, which established lower-tariff ‘imperial preference’ for the Dominions, have a significant effect on advertising content, with imperial marketing efforts gaining momentum afterwards.

To offer a mild criticism, only one chapter addresses efforts to ‘sell Britishness’ in the Dominions, while the other five focus on Dominion products in Britain, making the content slightly lop-sided (probably because of uneven archival distribution). The book is compact and the conclusions only stretch to five pages; however, tasty morsels are served that leave the reader wanting more.  As one example, the research finishes at the start of the Second World War and does not speculate on the effect that the outbreak of hostilities, military threat to empire, and post-war austerity may have had on commodity marketing efforts.

To a more fundamental point, and perhaps most intriguingly, Barnes suggests that it is insufficient for historians to say that ‘Britishness’ lingered in the Dominions’ cultural identities longer than was once supposed, only to be suddenly and completely subsumed by the nationalism, liberalism, globalisation and new technologies of the mid Twentieth Century. She implies that not only did a sense of ‘Britishness’ endure, thanks in no small part to marketing and commodity culture, but that it continued to evolve through adoption of new technologies. Do aspects of ‘Britishness’ remain in the cultural identities of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians even to the current day, surviving the emergence of ‘new’ national identities from the 1960s and 1970s? Are there cultural similarities in the supposedly distinct national identities across the former Dominions, and in Britain itself? These are fascinating questions that, one hopes, will be addressed by Felicity Barnes and others in future research.

Dr Hamish McDougall is Executive Director of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. The views here are his own and not those of the Institute. 

SELLING BRITISHNESS: Commodity Culture, The Dominions and Empire.

Authored by: Dr Felicity Barnes

Published by: Auckland University Press, 2022, 264 pages. NZ$49.99.


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