Catalogue designers employ various promotional advertising strategies that allow consumers to identify with accessible models. Their objective is quite simple, that is, to achieve customer loyalty; reaching the customer is not enough. Through the use of commercial imagery that follows specific patterns and procedures, catalogues stimulate interaction between consumers and companies.

Truly a social phenomenon, catalogue shopping was a new method of consuming that focused entirely on the customer. In a capitalist context characterized by competition, the major players — Eaton's, Simpson's, Woodward's, Dupuis Frères, etc. — fought fiercely to corner the market. Whether or not they admitted it, their goal was to attract new buyers and, more importantly, to keep them as customers. As a result, they had to do everything possible to secure customer loyalty, which is why catalogues were necessary. In addition to promoting the company and its products, catalogues were a more direct link between the issuer (the company) and the receiver (the customer).

This interaction between the consumer and the company was achieved through representation and imagery. Th Read More
Catalogue designers employ various promotional advertising strategies that allow consumers to identify with accessible models. Their objective is quite simple, that is, to achieve customer loyalty; reaching the customer is not enough. Through the use of commercial imagery that follows specific patterns and procedures, catalogues stimulate interaction between consumers and companies.

Truly a social phenomenon, catalogue shopping was a new method of consuming that focused entirely on the customer. In a capitalist context characterized by competition, the major players — Eaton's, Simpson's, Woodward's, Dupuis Frères, etc. — fought fiercely to corner the market. Whether or not they admitted it, their goal was to attract new buyers and, more importantly, to keep them as customers. As a result, they had to do everything possible to secure customer loyalty, which is why catalogues were necessary. In addition to promoting the company and its products, catalogues were a more direct link between the issuer (the company) and the receiver (the customer).

This interaction between the consumer and the company was achieved through representation and imagery. The large firms hired catalogue designers whose mandate was to reach the target market and secure its loyalty through promotional advertising. In other words, they had to get buyers to identify with accessible models, that is, models that reflected their reality and daily lives.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

The principle is quite simple: Images play a determining role in every advertisement. They transmit ideas, concerns, and messages, and can influence an opinion, become elements of persuasion or impression, or simply imprint a memory on the collective imagination. The main role of catalogues is to act as intermediaries between companies and potential customers, and images are the driving force. In addition, consumers are more likely to remember images than text because images attract attention without effort, since no language is needed to translate what they express. In short, an image is worth a thousand words.

Commercial imagery, therefore, fulfilled various functions. First and foremost, it allowed consumers to identify with the models in the catalogues and adapt to the proposed style. As styles changed and it was important for buyers to see what they ordered, more and more, major department stores illustrated their catalogues. With time, therefore, the modest thin booklets that described an impressive list of products and had few illustrations, if any, became thick, full-colour volumes. Photography contributed to the evolution of commercial imagery. More real than d Read More
The principle is quite simple: Images play a determining role in every advertisement. They transmit ideas, concerns, and messages, and can influence an opinion, become elements of persuasion or impression, or simply imprint a memory on the collective imagination. The main role of catalogues is to act as intermediaries between companies and potential customers, and images are the driving force. In addition, consumers are more likely to remember images than text because images attract attention without effort, since no language is needed to translate what they express. In short, an image is worth a thousand words.

Commercial imagery, therefore, fulfilled various functions. First and foremost, it allowed consumers to identify with the models in the catalogues and adapt to the proposed style. As styles changed and it was important for buyers to see what they ordered, more and more, major department stores illustrated their catalogues. With time, therefore, the modest thin booklets that described an impressive list of products and had few illustrations, if any, became thick, full-colour volumes. Photography contributed to the evolution of commercial imagery. More real than drawings, it inevitably strengthened the relationship between the products offered and potential customers.

Nevertheless, images were double-edged swords. As catalogue designers endeavoured to illustrate consumers' ideals, they shaped those ideals. They inevitably transposed their own values into images, as well as those of the companies that hired them. As a result, the models illustrated conformed to various standards that were considered acceptable by the target group, even though the catalogue sometimes presented contradictory social standards. This occurred as morality evolved and various taboos progressively disappeared, so that the values conveyed by society were soon reflected in the catalogues.

The fact that firms adapted to their clientele provides a good indication of the promotional advertising strategies employed to secure consumer loyalty. Having said that, the association of imagery and values transmitted brings to mind the expression "promotional propaganda." Since the objective was to convince potential customers to consume and continue to buy from the companies, the work of publicists and image specialists implied a highly developed art of persuasion. As the virtues of the companies were praised, buyers did more than just obtain a consumer good; they often sided with a particular company. The one that reached them, that spoke to them, quite simply became their frame of reference when it came to shopping.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour Photo of the Cover of a Winnipeg Eaton's Catalogue

The catalogue, a new way of consuming, had become a part of daily life.

Utilisation autorisée par Sears Canada Inc.

© Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Utilisation autorisée par Sears Canada Inc.


Colour photo of the cover of the W. H. Perron Catalogue

The "V" for "victory" was very symbolic in wartime and allowed the company to communicate the desired message effectively without including a long text.

Used with permission of NORSECO, Ronald Chabot Collection, Lévis

© Used with permission of NORSECO, Ronald Chabot Collection, Lévis


Who Was Targeted?

Whether they targeted the well-to-do (Simpson's catalogue, for example, featured a lot of clothing and luxury articles) or people with more limited means (such as Army and Navy, which offered more modest clothing), each store had its own clientele, philosophy, and vision. Yet, the designers hired by large companies had similar mandates, since the images and subjects used were often the same (women, workers, new consumer goods, etc.).

Basically, to reach targeted consumers, they had to make them feel involved so that they would identify with the models illustrated in the catalogues.

Furthermore, it was not enough to depict the customers as such; designers had to illustrate the vision consumers had of themselves, or else the one they idealized. Therefore, the greater the similarity between the two images — the one conveyed by the catalogue and the one idealized by consumers — the greater the chance people would buy to move closer to their objective. However, consumers maintained their free will, since they obviously had the last word.

Wom Read More
Who Was Targeted?

Whether they targeted the well-to-do (Simpson's catalogue, for example, featured a lot of clothing and luxury articles) or people with more limited means (such as Army and Navy, which offered more modest clothing), each store had its own clientele, philosophy, and vision. Yet, the designers hired by large companies had similar mandates, since the images and subjects used were often the same (women, workers, new consumer goods, etc.).

Basically, to reach targeted consumers, they had to make them feel involved so that they would identify with the models illustrated in the catalogues.

Furthermore, it was not enough to depict the customers as such; designers had to illustrate the vision consumers had of themselves, or else the one they idealized. Therefore, the greater the similarity between the two images — the one conveyed by the catalogue and the one idealized by consumers — the greater the chance people would buy to move closer to their objective. However, consumers maintained their free will, since they obviously had the last word.

Women at the Heart of the Purchasing Process

It is obvious that the layout of the catalogue, the front cover, and the main images (the larger ones) focused mainly on women. Truly a target clientele, women were a source of inspiration for all catalogue designers, and especially for those who worked on the Toronto version of the Eaton's catalogue. When they focused on female characters, companies often depicted them making a purchase, flipping through a catalogue or filling out a mail-order form. Furthermore, the image of the woman was right at the heart of the advertising.

This privileged or strategic position can be explained by the fact that women were at the centre of the purchasing process; the catalogues were meant first and foremost for them. In addition, women were almost always depicted in two principal roles: participants in fashion and mothers. As fashionable women, they became models for the consumers who wished to follow trends. Such images generally emphasized a youthful attitude, beauty, grace, recreation, gardens, or urban streets. In its depiction of mothers, advertising was more focused on women's role as buyers for the whole family .

Images were thus ideal vehicles for imposing style and "good taste" on female consumers. There was an incentive to buy desirable items. Women were invited to criticize their appearance, so they compared themselves to the images of beautiful women and the ideal they represented. This type of advertising implied that, by purchasing the products featured in the catalogue, women would become attractive, desirable, and fashionable. This marketing tool, in which the consumer is in turn "consumed," appeared in the early 1900s and still exists today.

Since women also made purchases as mothers, the practical and useful aspect of various household articles had to be strongly depicted in every good catalogue. However, this type of advertising sometimes required models of women with fuller figures and heavier statures. Clearly, there had to be a good balance between fashion and the practical, more down-to-earth, aspects of consumer goods.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Catalogue cover of Simpson's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue in colour

Whether or not it was accessible, the depiction of "chic and good taste" captured the imagination of the consumer.

Hudson's Bay Heritage Services, Toronto

©Hudson's Bay Company, used with permission


Black and white drawing of the fashionable woman

As a general rule, the main advertising images in catalogues featured women. The example of the fashionable woman is clearly visible in this image.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Ronald Chabot Collection, Lévis

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Ronald Chabot Collection, Lévis


Several catalogue covers highlighted family values. The images may seem trivial, but they contain an assortment of values associated with Canadian society at the time. The colours, places, people and action, and especially the role of the models, all provide clues to the way the "model" Canadian family was depicted. Consumers identified with the people in the photographs and they did not want to compare themselves with people who were unpleasant. Thus, family members were portrayed as charming and cheerful individuals. That is why the publications contain images of housewives who are smartly dressed, strong, and in charge of their households; of strong, proud, hardworking men with muscular features; and of children who are happy and well-behaved.

The roles assigned to each individual are clearly identifiable. The mother was the radiant "queen of the castle" who looked after the household. Dressed almost exclusively in black or sombre colours, the husband was a strapping man who protected the members of his family and provided for them. Yet, he smiled approvingly. The retailers thus endorsed one of the widespread myths of the time, that women should n Read More
Several catalogue covers highlighted family values. The images may seem trivial, but they contain an assortment of values associated with Canadian society at the time. The colours, places, people and action, and especially the role of the models, all provide clues to the way the "model" Canadian family was depicted. Consumers identified with the people in the photographs and they did not want to compare themselves with people who were unpleasant. Thus, family members were portrayed as charming and cheerful individuals. That is why the publications contain images of housewives who are smartly dressed, strong, and in charge of their households; of strong, proud, hardworking men with muscular features; and of children who are happy and well-behaved.

The roles assigned to each individual are clearly identifiable. The mother was the radiant "queen of the castle" who looked after the household. Dressed almost exclusively in black or sombre colours, the husband was a strapping man who protected the members of his family and provided for them. Yet, he smiled approvingly. The retailers thus endorsed one of the widespread myths of the time, that women should not make purchases without the consent of their husbands.

As for the children, they were generally between the ages of four and twelve, old enough to help select articles from the catalogue. The strategy is obvious: Children under the age of four were too young to understand how catalogue shopping works. As for those over the age of twelve, they were considered closer to adults than children. This does not mean that babies and toddlers were absent from the catalogues. On the contrary, every publication had a colourful section devoted especially to them. However, the images were intended more for the mothers than the children.

Family members' daily activities also inspired catalogue designers. Not surprisingly, some subjects, such as the religious reality of Quebec's Catholic families and the assignment of duties to each member of the household, were frequently exploited. Males were generally portrayed as virile workers with a rather imposing stature (delivery men, farmers, miners, merchants, settlers, etc.), or as professionals and politicians.

Once again, the message was clear: Men worked outside the home, while women were confined to it. This idea was depicted in several catalogue covers; one shows a mother and her daughter in the house, dressed accordingly, while the father and the son get ready to work outdoors. Finally, it should be noted that, when they were not portrayed as workers, the men and women were shown practising a Canadian sport such as skating, cycling, or swimming.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour cover of the Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue

The family was extremely important in Quebec and often inspired Dupuis Frères designers, who portrayed cheerful and likeable people. The store also marketed its catalogue as the "family catalogue."

Archives-HEC Montréal, Dupuis Frères Limitée fonds, P049

© Archives-HEC Montréal, Dupuis Frères Limitée fonds, P049


Patriotism and Pride Help Make the Sale

A highly regionalized country, Canada made it possible for companies to target various groups: western farmers, miners, members of the Quebec clergy, Maritime fishermen, etc. Certain companies specialized, while others sought a national market. This shows that companies were adaptable and made every effort to reach as many consumers as possible. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in 1898, Eaton's published a Klondike Catalogue especially for people who were participating in the gold rush. In 1903, the Toronto firm adapted to another reality with the Settlers' Catalogue for the new settlers arriving in the West. Another example is the Business People's Number, published in 1924. Essentially, the point to bear in mind is that Eaton's, like its main rivals, made it its duty to adapt to the market by every means possible. However, two of the most influential department stores, Dupuis Frères and Eaton's, distinguished themselves from their competition by drawing on patriotism to secure consumer loyalty.

Dupuis Frères

Dupuis Read More
Patriotism and Pride Help Make the Sale

A highly regionalized country, Canada made it possible for companies to target various groups: western farmers, miners, members of the Quebec clergy, Maritime fishermen, etc. Certain companies specialized, while others sought a national market. This shows that companies were adaptable and made every effort to reach as many consumers as possible. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in 1898, Eaton's published a Klondike Catalogue especially for people who were participating in the gold rush. In 1903, the Toronto firm adapted to another reality with the Settlers' Catalogue for the new settlers arriving in the West. Another example is the Business People's Number, published in 1924. Essentially, the point to bear in mind is that Eaton's, like its main rivals, made it its duty to adapt to the market by every means possible. However, two of the most influential department stores, Dupuis Frères and Eaton's, distinguished themselves from their competition by drawing on patriotism to secure consumer loyalty.

Dupuis Frères

Dupuis Frères is certainly the most eloquent example of a company that invited the population to buy "French Canadian" to further the survival of a race. A veritable empire that controlled an extremely large share of the Quebec market, the Montréal store never hid its patriotism, and proclaimed loudly and clearly that it was the largest French store in North America. Added to this clearly stated patriotism was the pride of having accomplished a "feat," that is, having established a company that was owned, managed, and kept afloat by French Canadians.

Through Duprex, a publication that served as a tool for communication between the employees and the company, Dupuis Frères drew on patriotism to encourage its employees and to convince them that it was a just cause, but also, and above all, to make them convincing, once they were convinced. For example, in a 1927 issue of Duprex, the company stated that "in a country such as ours, submerged by immigration, surrounded by US, British or Jewish financing, we do not have the right to be ordinary, mediocre, inferior, and to resign ourselves to the perpetual role of hewers of wood and drawers of water, obsequious and fearful servants. In this Canada that was discovered, colonized, and evangelized by our own people, we have a moral obligation [to show ourselves] as superior in distinction, knowledge, and value." [transl.] (Cited by M. C. Matthews in his MA, 1998.)

The use of patriotism was clearly one of the highlights of the promotional advertising strategy employed by Dupuis Frères throughout its history. This can be explained by the fact that the company clearly gave itself the mission of working towards an economic conquest by French Canadians, and in particular Quebeckers. As a result, it structured its advertising around the concept of pride, pride in language, faith, and homeland. It is not surprising, therefore, that Dupuis often used the traditional fleur-de-lys, as well as the maple leaf.

The company also claimed that it served the interests of French Canadians and the Catholic clergy, so it did not hesitate to use various expressions, harangues, and words as strategies to achieve consumer loyalty. Defining itself as a national institution, the firm endorsed the view that the survival of French Canadians was a miracle in a British country. This strategy was rather effective, since Dupuis Frères was the main competitor of the major Toronto companies, Eaton's and Simpson's, and made it difficult for them to penetrate the Quebec market.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white promotional sign for Dupuis Frères

In Montréal, Dupuis Frères could boast about making it difficult for Eaton's and Simpson's, two large Toronto companies, to penetrate the Quebec market.

Used with permission of Josette Dupuis-Leman, Ronald Chabot Collection, Lévis

© Dupuis Frères Limitée


As Lorraine O'Donnell showed in her research, covers of Eaton's catalogues with a Canadian theme offered a particular vision of the company with respect to the country. Eaton's positioned itself as a key element of national development and Canadian identity. The company's name, the T. Eaton Company of Canada (and later, Eaton's of Canada), reflected the idea that Eaton's was an important force in the development of Canada. The company also boasted about its mail-order service, which was offered from coast to coast, even in the most remote areas. As early as 1887, Eaton's informed its customers that its catalogue would go wherever the maple leaf was found within the Dominion.

Eaton's promoted itself as the Canadian department store that marketed the widest variety of products throughout the country. In doing so, it emphasized that Eaton's was a Canadian company managed by Canadians, present in every region, selling Canadian products to meet the needs of Canadians. The company clearly appealed to a sense of patriotism, so it is not surprising that the first page of the catalogue regularly featured a visual image of Canada in the form of a map or globe highlighting the co Read More
As Lorraine O'Donnell showed in her research, covers of Eaton's catalogues with a Canadian theme offered a particular vision of the company with respect to the country. Eaton's positioned itself as a key element of national development and Canadian identity. The company's name, the T. Eaton Company of Canada (and later, Eaton's of Canada), reflected the idea that Eaton's was an important force in the development of Canada. The company also boasted about its mail-order service, which was offered from coast to coast, even in the most remote areas. As early as 1887, Eaton's informed its customers that its catalogue would go wherever the maple leaf was found within the Dominion.

Eaton's promoted itself as the Canadian department store that marketed the widest variety of products throughout the country. In doing so, it emphasized that Eaton's was a Canadian company managed by Canadians, present in every region, selling Canadian products to meet the needs of Canadians. The company clearly appealed to a sense of patriotism, so it is not surprising that the first page of the catalogue regularly featured a visual image of Canada in the form of a map or globe highlighting the country.

Other symbols such as the maple leaf, the beaver, the coat of arms, and the flag were used to evoke Canada. The colours of the Canadian flag, excerpts from the Proclamation of Confederation, or the image of the Parliament buildings strengthened the ties between Eaton's and the Canadian population.

It should be noted that these deliberately nationalistic ads were found more often in the Toronto editions of the Eaton's catalogue. It is clear that the editors of the Winnipeg and Moncton editions did not necessarily play on patriotic feelings. On the other hand, an image that was heavy with meaning — that of newcomers settling on their land in the West — helped show the importance attached to Confederation, a recent undertaking at the time.

The newcomers in turn became a key element of national development and forged Canada's identity in their own way. Adapting to the target audience was, therefore, a priority in the main ads in Eaton's catalogues. There may have been differences in the approach, but the basic mechanisms and the common patterns were maintained. In short, the Winnipeg and Moncton distribution centres, for example, did not go against Eaton's advertising principles and inevitably remained under Toronto's normative influence.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour cover page of the Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue 1950

Eaton's was present throughout Canada. The company highlighted this in ads that emphasized the country's geography.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

© Archives of Ontario, T. Eaton Co. fonds


The Need to Adapt

The department stores were always willing to adapt and modify the design of their catalogues to keep their customers. The country's increasing modernization and the idea of progress forced them to revise their ads. For example, when they used images of farmers labouring in the wheat fields, they took care to illustrate the progress achieved in agriculture. Better still, the image of the western farmer who looked to the future of the country, its open spaces, forests, and urbanization definitely left its imprint on the collective imagination. Similarly, the inclusion of desired accessories in the photographs, such as an automobile in a rural area, made it possible to show technological improvements and elements of modernization.

As the years went by, retailers began to use more images of people who were politically involved, such as women who showed their patriotism by waving flags or by encouraging people to donate blood in wartime.

At the end of the Second World War, several companies exploited the theme of victory. In one ad, children were depicted as symbols of victory, each holding a fl Read More
The Need to Adapt

The department stores were always willing to adapt and modify the design of their catalogues to keep their customers. The country's increasing modernization and the idea of progress forced them to revise their ads. For example, when they used images of farmers labouring in the wheat fields, they took care to illustrate the progress achieved in agriculture. Better still, the image of the western farmer who looked to the future of the country, its open spaces, forests, and urbanization definitely left its imprint on the collective imagination. Similarly, the inclusion of desired accessories in the photographs, such as an automobile in a rural area, made it possible to show technological improvements and elements of modernization.

As the years went by, retailers began to use more images of people who were politically involved, such as women who showed their patriotism by waving flags or by encouraging people to donate blood in wartime.

At the end of the Second World War, several companies exploited the theme of victory. In one ad, children were depicted as symbols of victory, each holding a flag that was highly significant (those of Canada and Britain) and standing in front of the famous lion that represented the power of Britain.

Conclusion

Securing consumer loyalty through mail-order catalogues inevitably involved commercial imagery. Such imagery encompassed various strategies of promotional advertising that can easily be observed on catalogue covers and in main ads. As a result, the messages that retailers wanted to convey were, for example, built mainly around images. Women inspired the designers quite often, since they were at the heart of the process of catalogue shopping.

In addition, the importance attached to consumer loyalty is reflected in the fact that companies adapted to their clientele. As Canada is a highly regionalized country with a diverse population, retailers wanted to satisfy as many people as possible by adapting to their reality. It is not surprising that certain differences can be identified in the approaches taken by the companies, who often deemed it appropriate to focus on a more specific clientele at a particular point in time. However, the basic mechanisms and the common patterns were always maintained in order to secure the loyalty of each of those groups using identical procedures. Viewed from this perspective, no matter where they lived, consumers identified directly or indirectly with "their" store, with the one that contributed the most when it came to forging their personal identity and affirming their membership in the community. This proves that catalogues stimulate interaction between consumers and companies.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour cover of the Eaton Spring-Summer Catalogue 1945

The Allied victory in the Second World War inspired numerous ads. This one was no exception.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • observe and identify the characteristics of early 20th century lifestyle;
  • compare the evolution of the Canadian and Quebec society over several decades;
  • explain the similarities and differences between past and present society;
  • discuss the main events of the 20th century (economic crisis, World Wars, unionization, feminist movement) and the impact that they had on Canadian and Quebec societies.

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