ESB Advertising: The Early Years
By Deirdre McParland, ESB Archives
From the very beginning of the Shannon Scheme, quality advertising was used to inform, encourage and entertain the public on the benefits of electricity. Electricity was a new technology and while available in towns and cities from local suppliers since the turn of the century, its use was limited. Through the medium of advertising, ESB sought to convince the population of Ireland that electricity was not only perfectly safe but also easy to use and would transform the lives of Irish people for ever.
Less than a year following the foundation of ESB, Thomas McLaughlin (ESB’s first managing director; read more about his vision for the Shannon Scheme here), established ESB’s Public Relations Department on 1 July 1928, ‘the main function of which is to keep the public as fully informed as possible to the Board’s activities’ (ESB Annual Report 1927-1928). McLaughlin appointed Ned Lawler, a Dublin journalist as public-relations manager.
Long before social media, the only guaranteed access into the homes of Ireland was through the national and provincial newspapers. A massive publicity campaign was launched and a national advertising campaign began on 1 September 1928 with the aim of making the country ‘electricity conscious’. Advertisements featured in the daily and provincial weekly newspapers and in a number of other weekly and monthly publications.
Advertising had to be clear and concise, (note the headline PROGRESS), educate the public on the general advantages of electricity for domestic and industrial use and possibly most importantly allaying fears of electricity.
One of the first advertisements announces ‘Visit the Shannon Works! See this mighty project in the making’, no doubt to instil a sense of national pride at the mammoth undertaking. Within the first nine months of operating tours to the Shannon Scheme, 85,000 visitors descended on the site. (ESB Annual Report 1928 -1929).
Many of the early advertisements also detail the mammoth construction of the Shannon Scheme and the benefits of electricity to the public. The choice of language is interesting, ‘In industry and in the home electricity does the heavy work easily and cheaply. It is the modern labour saver and youth saver’ (left). The final line ‘It converts the workman and housewife from labour slaves into directors of machinery’ is a powerful statement, providing a sense of empowerment and ownership of the customer’s future. Another advertisement (right) in the same series also looks towards the future noting ‘The Shannon is being harnessed to lighten human burdens, to brighten human minds’.
The initial press advertising was soon followed by a campaign advocating the complete and adequate wiring of houses, emphasis being laid on the fact that unless a home was well fitted with wall plugs full advantage could not be taken of electricity for general domestic purposes. Advertising also promoted the skilled expertise of ESB staff noting ‘Our aim is to give you an Electrical installation that will make you a satisfied customer and to give it as quickly, quietly, and smoothly as our highly trained Electricians can do the job’.
Ardnacrusha was officially opened by President Cosgrave on 22 July 1929 and attracted a global media audience. Throughout the 1930s advertising continued to focus on the benefits of electricity and promoting the sale of electrical appliances.
The advertising collection preserved in ESB Archives is a unique collection, reflecting the social, cultural and economic impact that ESB continues to play in Irish society. Further adverts from this collection will be on display in the forthcoming Electric Generations exhibition.
Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Deirdre and the Electric Generations team here.