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Reading Grotesque Images in Advertising: a Re-inquiry
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The research stream that explores consumer response to images in advertising has been revitalized with the Phillips and McQuarrie article, "Narrative and Persuasion in Fashion Advertising".i The authors focus on grotesque images which they define as the opposite of the cloying, idealized pictures for which advertising is (in)famous. In the attempt to uncover and to explain the change in consumer response caused by the presence of grotesque elements, Phillips and McQuarrie conducted interviews with readers of fashion magazines such as Vogue, whom they exposed to both grotesque and non-grotesque ads. Based on these interviews, they suggest that grotesque imagery can facilitate transportation into the story world of the ads. The authors believe that these ads follow a distinct route to persuasion not taken into consideration by current consumer response theory.

To unpack the mechanisms that make this different route to persuasion possible, they introduce the construct "modes of engagement" referring to the different approaches consumers can take towards an advertising image. With this construct, Phillips and McQuarrie attempt to bring into the spotlight something other than the personal idiosyncrasies that are known to lead to different "readings" of one and the same image. In their view, modes of engagement can be seen as a function of the properties of the visual text. The authors call for a more systemic exploration of the causal relations that can be established between specific properties of ad images and the modes of engagement they elicit.

Although their contribution is valuable in showing how aesthetic properties of the images shape readers' approach towards an ad, I believe that some of their research conclusions are worthy of closer examination. I focus on their claim that these grotesque ads do not employ "picture-writing systems" (a term coined by Scott and Vargasii). I believe that the main weaknesses in Phillips and McQuarrie's account stem from their attempt to explain the persuasive outcomes of these ads outside a "picture-writing" framework, which makes them ignore essential aspects of the "language -game" people play with advertising pictures.

Integrating grotesque imagery into consumer response theory

Phillips and McQuarrie discuss a set of print ads they define as belonging to the aesthetic category of the grotesque. They import the term from aesthetic theory and use it to describe imagery that employs negative cues and therefore departs from standardized commercial images of pretty people in lovely environmentsiii. For example, a Jimmy Choo ad shows a gorgeous woman in a bathing suit and high heels standing next to a pool (Figure 1). Instead of displaying a typical supermodel-in-fashion-ad position, we see her using a tool which resembles a mythical bident to get a handbag out of the water. In the pool, a man wearing a tuxedo has a blank stare — Is he dead? The woman's aggressiveness and her indifference to the man's condition amplify the disturbing character of the image and might be expected to constitute an incongruent set of stimuli for a fashion magazine reader.

Figure 1. 

Jimmy Choo

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In another print ad (Figure 2), a beautiful young woman dressed in a Napoleonic costume is on the verge of plunging a skewer into the throat of another. The threatened woman holds a Dolce&Gabbana bag. No explanation is given: the only words on the print are the brand-names. Although their selected ads come from magazines such as Vogue, the authors insist that their theoretical focus is grotesque imagery and not the fashion category per se: "First we need to clarify that the genre under study is not the fashion ad genre, but the genre of grotesque representations".iv

They offer these ads as counterexamples to mainstream theories of advertising persuasion, according to which positive response to advertising imagery is a function of the positive cues present in an image.v They criticize the shallowness of such "sympathetic magic" theories for assuming that if positive imagery is present in an ad, then positive emotions will automatically be associated with the brand in the audience's mind. The authors rightfully notice that such theories do not take into account the resistance, boredom, or skepticism a consumer may feel when...

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