Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 25 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.


There is a long sf tradition, often tinged with Satire, of speculation about future advertising. Rudyard Kipling's With the Night Mail (November 1905 McClure's; rev 1909 chap) includes sedately conventional ads for Airships and their trappings, supposedly from a magazine of the story's year 2000. More often, the latest Technology is subverted for advertising purposes: electric light, for example, is used to project slogans on to the night sky in Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's "Celestial Publicity" (in Contes Cruels, coll 1883; trans Robert Baldick as Cruel Tales 1963). More plausibly and semi-prophetically, the future world of H G Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes 1910) is dense with advertising, from an early mention of the white cliffs of Dover (and all England's other cliffs) being plastered with four-colour-process posters a mere twenty years hence, while further in the future the omnipresent sales pressure includes "great fleets of advertisement balloons and kites" and much more. Robert A Heinlein's Space Cadet (1948) opens in a railway car whose "telescreen" alternately displays travel information and live-action ads for such products as Sorkin's SuperStellar Soap. A kind of super-skywriting involving fireworks and cloud projection delivers the old-fashioned message SMITH BROS. COUGH DROPS in E E Smith's First Lensman (1950).

Skywriting was quickly extrapolated to space-borne advertising, as in George Allan England's "The Lunar Advertising Co, Ltd" (August 1906 The Gray Goose; vt "A Message from the Moon: The Story of a Great Coup", April 1907 Pearson's), in which ads are projected on to the Moon. Similarly, Robert A Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (in The Man Who Sold the Moon, coll 1950) proposes that soft-drink ads might be written in carbon black across the face of the Moon; Arthur C Clarke's "Watch This Space" (28 May 1956 Evening Standard) features a Moon-based scientific experiment to create a luminous sodium-vapour cloud visible from Earth, which thanks to a secretly inserted stencil becomes a vast Coca-Cola ad; further ads are projected on to our satellite in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004). Jack Vance's "The Unspeakable McInch" (November 1948 Startling) mentions a failed advertising venture: "sky-writing with luminescent gases across interplanetary space". Aliens acquire Jupiter as a gigantic billboard in Isaac Asimov's "Buy Jupiter!" (May 1958 Venture). Fredric Brown outdoes these publicity efforts with a device that rearranges the apparent positions of stars to advertise Snively's Soap in "Pi in the Sky" (Winter 1945 Thrilling Wonder). In the Red Dwarf (1988-current) spinoff novel Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (1989) by Grant Naylor, stars are deliberately detonated to create a pattern of supernovae spelling out a Coke ad in Earth's sky.

Such relatively naive visions of bigger and better advertising contrast with the darker Satire of The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth, in which ruthless ad agencies dominate the world and techniques of mental manipulation are augmented by physically addictive products. The sf dream of Colonization of Other Worlds (here Venus) is no longer seen as desirable in itself, but must be vigorously promoted via television commercials. J B Priestley's creation of the term "Admass" to describe a world married to and defined by advertising followed in 1955. Consistent with his vision, the ad business has increasingly permeated the Arts: in The Space Merchants, "grand old masterpieces" in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art include the classic "I Dreamed I was Ice-Fishing in My Maidenform Bra". Advertising is also the satirical target of Sam J Lundwall's King Kong Blues (1974; trans by author as AD 2018, or The King Kong Blues 1975), and of The Merchants' War (1984), Frederik Pohl's inferior solo sequel to The Space Merchants.

Experimental ad campaigns in Frederik Pohl's solo "The Tunnel Under the World" (January 1955 Galaxy) are inflicted on a miniature, simulated human community whose reactions to outrages – like the unforgettably brutal, bullying promotion of Feckle Freezers – are carefully observed. A similar but Computer-generated Virtual Reality created for market research is central to Daniel F Galouye's Counterfeit World (1964; vt Simulacron-3 1964).

First Lensman, as above, additionally speculates on Alien advertising (EAT TEEGMEE'S FOOD!): the ability to tune out intrusive roadside ads while driving becomes an unlikely cultural link between humans and Rigellians. In Ann Warren Griffith's "Captive Audience" (August 1953 F&SF), packaging contains tiny radio receivers that loudly announce the product's virtues in a Near Future USA where earplugs have been ruled unconstitutional. Robert Sheckley makes comic play with promotional packaging (VIGROOM! FILL ALL YOUR STOMACHS, AND FILL THEM RIGHT!) in the Alien warehouse of "One Man's Poison" (December 1953 Galaxy; vt "Untouched by Human Hands", title story of coll 1954), where the clearest fact about its mysterious creators is that "they wrote a lot of lousy advertising copy" – which also has resonance as a possible epitaph for humanity. Writing such copy has become a lost art in the 2337 of Lloyd Biggle Jr's "... On the Dotted Line" (June 1957 If), until the banning of Hypnosis as a sales technique leads to its rediscovery and the twenty-fourth century's first tentative shoe advert: "Looking shabby? Worn out? Buy a glimmering new pair of EXCONS!" John Sladek's Wholly Smokes: The Rise and Fall of the GST Tobacco Empire (2003), tracing the history of the titular tobacco company, includes some mordant sarcasm about cigarette ads. Mysterious universal panaceas or McGuffins promoted in recurring spoof ads include Snibbo in many of J B Morton's humorous Beachcomber columns; Ubik in Philip K Dick's novel Ubik (1969), the only clear statement about this protean product being that it is "Safe when taken as directed."; and Q.R.V. in Edward Gorey's Q.R.V. (graph 1989; vt The Universal Solvent 1990), whose entire text consists of cod advertising jingles.

Hypnotic, mind-controlling television advertising features in the film Looker (1981), while the "blipverts" of Max Headroom (1985) can cause fatal physical damage. Sinisterly mendacious ads, baited with Sex, promote the attractions of a literal Hell in Piers Anthony's Science Fantasy On a Pale Horse (1983), and lure hapless innocents to the hell of mind-possession in Peter F Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy. Echoing The Space Merchants (though unsatirically), impressive Virtual-Reality theme park techniques advertise Space Flight and the Terraforming of Mars in The Barsoom Project (1989) by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes.

Further manipulatory developments include Subliminal ads and mind-invading Memes, which are discussed in their own entries. [DRL]

see also: Blade Runner; Halloween III: Season of the Witch; Media Landscape.

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies