Pears’ Soap
One of Britain’s still existing brands of soap, Pears’s Soap, came into being in 1807. During more than two centuries of selling and marketing, the brand used a lot of different advertisements and approaches for the same product.

By examining advertisements we can learn a lot about former societies. The ads from Pears’ Soap tell us more than just what kind of soap people used and how much it costed. By looking at them in a particular way we can learn a lot about the underlying values of the brand and the society. Through the values propagated in advertisements companies tried to speak to the people and pursue them to buy the product. [1]

Figure 1: Pears’ Soap advertisement “Lightening the White Man’s Burden.” McClure’s Magazine, Oct. 1899).


Nineteenth century advertisement
When we look at the advertisement Pears’ Soap launched in 1890 (figure 1) we see that there is a very clear linguistic message. According to the French philosopher and literary theorist, Roland Barthes, the linguistic message is the first of three messages that should be taken in consideration when analysing an advertisement.[2] In this case the brand-name is placed in a bold font underneath the image. Above it we see in big letters the words ‘The White Man’s Burden’. Someone with knowledge of British imperialism might recognize these words as the title of Rudyard Kipling’s poem. The ‘White Man’s Burden’ is often seen as the legitimization of white rule over the barbaric indigenous people of their colonies. In smaller letters it is clearly stated that Pear’s Soap can be used as a tool to clean the black people overseas .

When we move on to Barthes second step, the coded iconic messages, we temporarily forget about the text and focus on the image itself. We can distinguish two parts. A man in an oval frame and the background on which this oval is placed. In the centre we see a man washing his hands with a bar of Pear’s Soap placed next to him. The porthole and white uniform suggest that we are looking at the captain of a ship. In the background we see ships at sea and a beach. On the beach a white person is handing out soap to a black person. The black man is crouching down and seems to be begging for the soap.

During the third step, the non-coded iconic message, we are supposed to decode the message and unmask its true meaning. Together with the linguistic message, this will form the literal message. The meaning of the sign ‘soap’ is important. We usually use soaps to physically clean ourselves. However, nowhere in this advertisement we read something about its increase of hygiene or its outstanding quality to clean things. Instead, soap becomes a sign for the myth of the ‘White Man’s Burden’. We can conclude that the bar of soap was not merely sold as a household tool to increase hygiene or cleanliness, but as a sign of the civilization of the superior white British male.

The same sort of analysis can be applied to another advertisement (figure 2). The first order of signs differ from the fist ad. We are no longer looking at an elitist white male, but two children. Still, the soap is used to signify the same myth. The white boy hands the black boy a piece of Pears’ Soap while bathing. When the black boy gets out of the bath his body has turned white. When he sees his new white skin in the mirror for the first time he is smiling. Above the picture it is stated that the soap is not only good for your hands, but also for the complexion. The ad is not telling people that the soaps increases hygiene, but that by using it you can climb the social ladder by gaining a white complexion.

Figure 2: Pears’ Soap advertisement from 1884 based on the fable ‘Washing the Blackamoor white’.

Contemporary advertising
Just like society, Pears’ Soap underwent some rigorous changes. The racist values of the nineteenth century made place for more contemporary values as multiculturalism (by showing people of different colour in their ads without any racist connotation) and the importance of family. A lot of the current ads consist of a mother and daughter, in a clinically clean environment, smiling at the camera. In figure 3, we see that youthfulness is considered important in the modern society, because it is used to make people buy the product.

Figure 3: Contemporary advertisement for Pears’ Soap


We’ve seen how these advertisements tell us much more than the kinds of soap people used. Through advertising, brands hoped to give people the feeling they could reach some cultural or social status by buying the product. These everyday primary sources are vital to historians, because they show us what societies valued most.

[1] Howells, R. and Negreiros, J., Visual Culture (London: Polity Press, 2012), 122-124.
[2] Barthes, R., “The Rhetoric of the Image”, in: idem, Image – Music – Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 152-155.