In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Roundtable on Advertising as a Cultural Form
  • Edward F. McQuarrie (bio), Linda M. Scott (bio), John F. Sherry Jr. (bio), and Melanie Wallendorf (bio)
LS:

Many scholars and industry experts have noted a marked formal transformation in advertising beginning about 1980. Some have noted that advertising became more ironic; others that it moved from being primarily verbal to being primarily imagistic.1 I myself would also argue that advertising of the past twenty-five years has become more artful—that is, more of an art form—in the process of changing the look and means by which it communicates. And, of course, there is a general speculation that advertising led or exemplified the emergence of postmodern style—thus the irony, the images, the pastiche, and so on. So for our discussion today, I have chosen some ads that I hope will spark conversation on the overall topic of advertising an art form, as an indicator of the overall direction of culture, and even as a sign system.

I’d like to begin with a set of ads that were seen as path-breaking in the 1980s and that have since become touchstones in conversations and writing about this ‘postmodern turn’ in advertising, whether you’re engaged with academics or professionals. They include the Apple ‘1984’ spot, the introductory Infiniti campaign, the Spike Lee campaign with Michael Jordan for Nike, the Absolut Vodka campaign, and Benetton. Let’s get started by taking a look at some of these.

Apple “1984” commercial

Infiniti commercials

Infiniti commercials


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Absolut print ads2


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Absolut print ads2


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Absolut print ads2

LS:

If people point to one ad that breaks open this moment in advertising history, they point to ‘1984.’

EM:

Still one of the great ads.

LS:

Yes. Perhaps less successful, but no less controversial at the time was the early campaign for the Infiniti. Much was made of the fact that the car is never shown; just as in ‘1984,’ we never see the machine. Yet there is also a tone and look to the Infiniti ads that seems to foreshadow much of what was to come. The Absolut campaign has been important for many reasons, but I’m especially wanting to call attention to the conscious connection to art in several ‘sub’ campaigns. Finally, while many cultural critics have scorned advertising on the basis that it glamorizes and just generally cleans up reality, the purposeful courting of controversy and display of unpleasant global realities in the Benetton campaign caused quite an outcry. Indeed, in some ways, the way that ‘reality’ crossed the line into ‘commerce’ for Benetton exemplifies some of the most interesting ways in which the postmodern makes itself evident in advertising.


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Benetton print ads3


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Benetton print ads3


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Benetton print ads3

LS:

Parody, nostalgia, and self-referentiality, of course, are considered essential aspects of postmodern style. The way Spike Lee keeps asking Michael Jordan to ‘say it’s the shoes’ plays off decades of ads where some sports star implies that their ability is the result of having eaten the right cereal or used the right aftershave. Similarly, these Cheer spots play off years of laundry detergent demos. Both campaigns seem to rely on an assumption that consumers would not be persuaded by the old...

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