June 26, 1917 – So you think fake news and sponsored stories are just a trend of the internet age?

Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Fake news, click bait and sponsored stories are a 21 st century phenomenon, aren’t they? Well if you think that you’re wrong: because at least a hundred years ago newspaper editors were quite happy to take a commercial shilling for promotions wrapped up in editorial clothing.

It is a regular occurrence in the news columns of the Market Harborough Advertiser and the June 26, 1917, issue is no exception.

In fact there are TWO blatant examples of ‘stories’ written as ‘news’ complete with headline, picture and quotations from ‘real’ people.

Take this story extolling the virtues of Doan’s backache kidney pills (available for 2s 9d from Foster-McClellan Co, 8 Wells Street, Oxford Street, London).

The news features ‘Mrs A Wright of 20 East Street, Market Harborough’ – there is even a line drawing of her taken from a photo.

Apparently in 1912 she caught a cold and suffered ‘agonising pains across the kidneys’. She is quoted in the story saying: “There was pain in relieving the bladder and the kidney excretions were in an unhealthy state. My eyes were puffed up and my sight was bad; I also had a heavy listless feeling about me.”

How on earth could Mrs Wright escape this terrible plight? You guessed it – she started with Doan’s backache kidney pills. “I quickly began to improve. My back was not so painful and after I had been using the pills a short time the bladder trouble was corrected and I felt better in every way.”

Now you might think this is pretty old news happening FIVE YEARS ago. Well, don’t be so sceptical because the ‘news’ story is updated and Mrs Wright says: “I am pleased to say I am still keeping very well indeed.”

Now, we don’t know how much Doan’s pay for this kind of space especially presented in such a way that it appears to be a news story and endorsed by the Advertiser.

We do know there IS a ‘20 East Street, Market Harborough’, but what we don’t know is if ‘Mrs Wright’ actually exists – and, if she is real, whether she gets a slice of the business she is promoting. What we do know is that it is a perfect example of FAKE NEWS presented 100 years ago. There is a similar ‘news’ story for Reudel Bath Salts with Harry Lauder, a genuine A-list celebrity of the day, giving a prominent thumbs-up to the product.

It is hard to believe Harry, who was a musical hall artist and famous for such songs as Roamin’ in the Gloamin and The End of the Road, would not have been paid for such support.

So did the readers of the Advertiser get taken in by these ‘news’ accounts? We do not know for certain, but the device is a pretty popular one so it must have been successful or the advertisers wouldn’t keep shelling out money.

There is of course plenty of REAL news in the issue this week and that sadly includes the names of many young local men who have died.

There are very few details about the fatalities – name and regiment mainly – but over the coming weeks the stories behind these bare facts will no doubt be told. And those stories will be REAL.