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Author: Karl Hack

Selling Empire: Introduction

Updated Monday, 21st January 2013

Get an overview of our 'Selling Empire' articles, which explore the selling and marketing of the British Empire.

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Article 1: Exhibitions

Exhibitions traces how Empire changed from being a bit-player in the 1851 Great Exhibition, to the main focus of the 1924-5 Wembley Empire Exhibition. The latter featured replicas of Empire buildings and trades, and attracted 27 million visitors over two years. 

Highways of Empire 'Highways of Empire' (TNA) CO956-537A

Article 2: The Empire Marketing Board

EMB The Empire Christmas Pudding 'The Empire Christmas Pudding', by F.C. Harrison; 25 ins x 40 ins, displayed November-December 1928; Roberts and Lete Ltd, London; EMB ref A02; (TNA) CO956/63

The Empire Marketing Board (EMB) looks at the origins and role of one iconic Empire marketing institution. The EMB was founded in May 1926 to encourage Empire trade, and was given committees for research, marketing and publicity. 

In reality, it spent as much money on research as publicity, but it was the latter which lodged in the public mind. In its six-year life, it unleashed  millions of posters, from a few gigantic billboard features, such as Highways of Empire (shown above, 1927), through cheap, reduced-size copies sent to thousands of schools and sold to the pubic, to miniature versions that you could stick on your car window. 

To appease home producers, the EMB also publicised British and Irish produce. In 1931, it ran a massive ‘Buy British’ campaign. The EMB’s message in and beyond this campaign was to buy British first, Empire second and foreign last. The Empire, it argued, was Britain’s best market, so money spent there would support British jobs as well. 

Above all, the EMB portrayed the entire Empire as a family, with the housewife building Empire through her shopping choices. 

The ‘Empire Christmas Pudding’ poster shown here, from 1928, is a good example of how the EMB used diverse marketing tools, such as posters, menus, talks on BBC radio and publicity stunts, such as the cooking of a seven-foot high Empire Christmas pudding. 

The poster was followed in 1930 by a film on the same theme, entitled One Family (69 minutes). That film is in turn discussed in more detail in Article 4: Film. The Board was dissolved in September 1933, following the introduction of ‘Imperial Preference’ (charging a tariff on foreign goods, but less or none on their Empire counterparts).




Article 3: Posters

Posters discusses the Empire Marketing Board’s posters in more detail, starting with the Highways of Empire poster shown above. 

Article 4: Film

Film shows how EMB filmmakers were given enormous scope to experiment. It traces how this allowed them to progress from cheaply shot shorts on British topics to innovative films such as Out of Ceylon. The EMB was abolished at the end of September 1933, but Film Unit members joined other important bodies, and so continued to make important contributions to the British documentary tradition and to wartime propaganda. 

Article 5: Epilogue – the slow death of heroism?

Epilogue: the slow death of heroism?, traces the change from optimism over the Commonwealth and over Britain as a jet-age great power in the 1940s-50s, towards comedy and cynicism over Empire by the 1960s. Starting with the Empire and Commonwealth Annuals of the early postwar years, it ends with Carry on Up the Khyber and the Flashman novels. 

Other ways Empire was marketed

Inevitably, these articles are no more than a taster for the innumerable ways Empire has been sold, from music hall songs to the sets of cards given away with cigarettes and tea packets from the late 1880s.

Players cigarette cards combined Three cards from the 'Military Uniforms of the British Empire' series of John Player and Sons cigarette cards (branch of the Imperial Tobacco Co. of Great Britain and Ireland Ltd), 1938

The cards above are good examples of these latter. They carry detailed descriptions on their reverse, and are from a card-set on ‘Military Uniforms of the British Empire Overseas’ (1938). Other sets around this time including ‘Industries of Empire’ (Typhoo Tea, 1938) and ‘Wings Over Empire’ (1939). The latter featured empire sites as if seen from the air, from Blackpool beach to Burma’s Shwe Dagon Pagoda. In the thirties such empire sets competed with many others ranging across a mind-boggling array of topics: from Eastern Proverbs, through film and football stars, to trees and railway history. It is all too easy to forget – in the internet age – just how difficult accessing such information might otherwise have been.

At the same time, a myriad of private companies were marketing themselves as able to bind Britain and Empire together, as in the 1930s to 1950s advertisements below.

The Blue Funnel Line Pre-war advertisement for The Blue Funnel Line in Times Weekly Edition (Special Singapore Naval Base Number), Thu 3 March, 1938, p. 30

Sime, Darby Sime, Darby advertisement from Straits Times Annual (Singapore); precise dates unknown but circa 1940s/50s


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