Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Port Sunlight Prelude

Lifebuoy and Sunlight were the twin pillars of the Lever Brothers commercial empire. A combination of quality control, attractive packaging, strong brand identity and a massive advertising budget rapidly achieved market dominance to the point that the name of Sunlight was as well known over most of Europe (see examples above) as it was in Bolton where it all began. Today we look at the advertising and promotion of products manufactured by what was then Lever Brothers at their Port Sunlight factory by way of a prelude to a survey of the village of the same name. We have an exclusive interview from the pages of Commercial Art magazine, September 1926, with Viscount Leverhulme (1888-1949) in which he waxes lyrical about the importance of employing only the finest of artists to publicise his products. His florid prose is a wonder to behold:
“But with regard to the ill-drawn, offensive advertisement, it is always the prerogative of the public to decline to purchase goods advertised in that way.”

William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925), the founder of the business (and father of the verbose Viscount) spent a total of £2million on advertising (£175million at today’s values or nearly £9million per year) in the first 20 years of his business. Competitors were comprehensively outspent and the name of Sunlight was hammered into public consciousness across Europe and the wider world. Lever was an avid collector of paintings and sculpture and had the idea of building his publicity around images from the world of art and sprinkle a little lustre on the products. The collection reflected his conservative preferences with pride of place going to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Narrative paintings. To stress the moral virtues of cleanliness improving images were located and put to work adding prestige to the message and give it the force of holy scripture. In due course the Lever art collection would be displayed in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight for the betterment of the inhabitants of the model village he created for his workforce. This fascinating experiment in Edwardian paternalism will be the subject of a future posting. An earlier posting on this topic can be read here.

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