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  • This is Not an AdThe Post-Mortise Stage of Advertising
  • Robert Goldman (bio)

Goldman, Robert (1992), “This is Not an Ad: The Post-Mortise Stage of Advertising,” Reading Ads Socially, New York: Routledge, 115–172. Reprited with permission from Thomson.

When this study of advertisements began in the late 1970s the advertising industry was extensively engaged in streamlining the advertising form initiated in the early twentieth century. Decade by decade, ads underwent a process of abbreviation, as the ratio of text to image was reversed—text was deleted, its meanings tacitly compressed and abbreviated into framing conventions. By the late 1970s, standardized formulas such as the mortise and frame had become overdetermined in pursuit of achieving perfectly transparent preferred interpretations. But already the commercial avant-garde was trying to differentiate itself from the crowd by adopting eccentric framing techniques or pursuing the logic of frame reductionism to its minimalist limits. Through the 1980s, more and more advertisers opted to acknowledge to viewers the nature of the framing process in ads. By the end of the 1980s, the hippest advertisers were gravitating not toward transparency in their messages but toward opacity.

Constant pursuit of differentiated sign positions in the 1980s led to a positioning category I call ‘this is not an ad.’ This type of ad has been designed to look as if it is not an ad, as if it has foresworn the agenda of ads—to sell us a commodity-sign. This style of advertising, it must be emphasized, is only effective to the extent that it remains a minority method of advertising.

In print advertising, the not-ad structure evolved from early incarnations such as the media-hyped Dior campaign featuring a pretentious serial about a pretentious ménage à trois. Soon, however, the strategy shifted to an avant-garde minimalism that elided formal boundary and coding markers. Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan affected this minimalist style in print ad campaigns. Upscale designers could rely upon widespread recognition of their name and utilize a post-mortise format that slurs and omits the product image altogether. Leaving out the usual framing techniques could throw viewers into minor interpretive quandaries—turning away from such ads wondering ‘what does this mean?’ Could viewers accustomed to framing markers and the expectation that images bear coherent meanings interpret images which lack borders or lines or words? Calvin Klein pressed ad minimalism forward with a campaign that featured sensual and eroticized embraces (see Figure 1). As with the subsequent Calvin Klein Obsession campaign, the only textual frame was the product name, but the instructions and cues necessary to interpreting the ad had been condensed into the frame/format of the ad. Viewers were thus impelled to complete the advertising narrative by supplying the missing equation between the product and the signifying relationship. Still, Calvin Klein’s early forays into minimalism produced little interpretive mystery because they were so highly charged with visual sexual meanings. The later Calvin Klein Obsession campaign courted intentional ambiguity with a style of representation that featured scenes of frozen blue passion under the name ‘Obsession.’ A textured photographic veil clouded nude bodies intertwined, limbs akimbo like pieces of modern sculpture. The blue veil made problematic the exact number and meaningful relationship of body parts. How does this photographic style steer the meaning of obsession—as fetish, fixation, preoccupation, control, monopolization, domination or phobia? Without further framing directions such ads resist interpretive closure, although abstracted body surfaces placed beneath a superimposed or adjacent designer name can still be interpreted if it is understood that subject and product have been collapsed into a single semiotic plane where the subject as signifier and the product as signified are no longer differentiated.

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Figure 1.

Calvin Klein

Source: Vogue, December 1985

Advertising has historically signified the commodity self by the visual abstraction of body parts. We are accustomed to equating persona with unblemished components of the human body—most notably the expressive surfaces of the eyes, mouth and hands. And, of course, American media culture has abstracted female breasts so relentlessly that they are often treated as if independent of the person who bears or...