High Culture/Low Culture: Advertising in Literature, Art, Film, and Popular Culture
[Editor’s Note: This article is a part of ADText.]
This unit examines the relation of high culture (fine art, classical music, great literature) to popular culture (blockbuster movies, rock concerts, comic books, and advertisements). To many people, they seem worlds apart. A more careful examination shows that literature, art, and film are intimately linked to advertising. And on at least one occasion each year—Super Bowl Sunday, advertising is elevated to the status of popular cultural spectacle to rival almost every other form of expressive culture.
1. Literature and Advertising
Scholars and literary critics differ over what constitutes literature. The once revered canon of texts (such as The Canterbury Tales, The Merchant of Venice, and Wuthering Heights) has given way to the study of a much broader range of texts (including popular romances, soap operas, and advertisements) and voices (especially kinds of voices that had not been included among canonical texts such as African-, Asian-, and Latin-American writers). Some definitions of literature specify criteria that a text must have in order to qualify as literature whereas others emphasize acceptance by a reading community as the primary marker. The following two definitions of literature represent these differing approaches:
In antiquity and in the Renaissance, literature or letters were understood to include all writing of quality with any pretense to permanence. [focuses on textual criteria]1
... literature is a canon which consists of those works in language by which a community defines itself throughout the course of its history. It includes works primarily artistic and also those whose aesthetic qualities are only secondary. The self-defining activity of the community is conducted in the light of the works, as its members have come to read them (or concretize them). [focuses on community acceptance]2
Whether one of these or yet another definition of literature is preferred, there is a widely shared sense that literature stands apart from more ordinary texts such as telephone books, shopping lists, operating instructions, and advertisements. A practical approach to understanding literature might enumerate some widely shared characteristics:
- Literature consists of written texts.
- Literature is marked by careful use of language, including features such as creative metaphors, well-turned phrases, elegant syntax, rhyme, meter.
- Literature is written in a literary genre (poetry, prose fiction, or drama).
- Literature is intended by its authors to be read aesthetically.
- Literature is deliberately somewhat open in interpretation.3
Are advertisements “writings of quality with pretenses to permanence”? Are advertisements widely understood to be a form of literature? Are they careful in their use of language, written in a recognizable literary genre, intended to be and actually read aesthetically, and deliberately open in interpretation? In fact, advertisements fail by any of these definitions to qualify as literature. It is this difference that gives rise to the sense that literature is a part of “high” culture while advertisements are something else and belong to “low,” or mass, culture.
However, this binary division does not reflect the real relationship of literature and advertising either in the present or the past. The literary theorist Jennifer Wicke argues that neither the novel as a literary genre nor the advertisement as a text can be properly understood alone but rather share a long and intimate history. She notes that prior to Gutenberg, scribal manuscripts contained avertissements (or notices) that explained the circumstances of the copying. For example, a notice that copying had been done during holy days would signify that the text was not to be sold. At first, such notices appeared at the end of manuscripts. Later, after the printing press was invented, printers began placing them as prefatory material before the main texts. The content of these notices expanded to announce, describe, and indicate ownership of the texts that followed. Thus, the very technology of printing spurred the development of advertisements of printed texts.
Elizabeth Eisenstein, investigating this historic relationship of the book and the ad, writes: “In the course of exploiting new publicity techniques, few authors failed to give high priority to publicizing themselves. The art of puffery, the writing of blurbs and other familiar promotional devices were also exploited by early printers who worked aggressively to obtain public recognition for the authors and artists whose products they hoped to sell.”4
This promotion of printed works by printers also led to the significant identification of texts with authors. The crediting of the author had not always occurred previously when oral stories were written down. These new techniques established books as intellectual property and made many authors into celebrities.
These early advertisements eventually became separated from the texts themselves. “By the late seventeenth century ... [these] publicity techniques called ‘advertising’ had slipped out from the covers of literary works and helped to create the newspaper—The Advertiser became a generic name for journalistic offerings.”5 At this point, advertisements as we know them today began to develop separately from books, appearing not only in newspapers but in public spaces as signs and posters as well.
In the 19th century, the novel emerged as the most important literary genre and remained so until film, radio, and television challenged its popularity it in the 20th century. After advertisements became separate and independent texts in their own right, the relationship between literature and advertising did not cease. Rather, it assumed complex new forms, as Wicke shows in her masterful analysis of three classic novelists—Charles Dickens, Henry James, and James Joyce (See Figure 3).
|Novelist||Writing Period||Relation to Advertising|
|Dickens||1833–1870||Wrote concomitantly with the institutional formation of advertising and the economic crisis of overproduction that engendered it.|
|James||1862–1916||Wrote during the transitional phase of advertising (beginning in the 1800s), when it becomes the handmaiden of oligopolistic economic concentration, as the corporate period begins.|
|Joyce||1900–1939||Wrote and published Ulysses on the cusp of further developments in advertising practice.|
In several of the novels by Charles Dickens (Sketches by Boz, Pickwick, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend), advertising figures prominently. In Sketches by Boz he wrote: “...all London is a circus of poster and trade bill, a receptacle for the writings of Pears and Warren’s until we can barely see ourselves underneath. Read this! Read that!”6
Dickens knew intimately of what he wrote. Before establishing himself as a novelist, he worked in Warren’s blacking factory where shoe polish was manufactured. It seems that he sometimes helped write the copy for advertisements and that for a while he was placed in a window polishing shoes as a form of advertising. Later, when he wrote his novels, the power and presence of factory work and the promotion of goods played significant roles.
Cigarette cards were illustrated cardboard inserts used to stiffen packages of cigarettes in the late 1800s. They soon became collectibles.
In addition, Dickens engaged with advertising yet another way by taking great interest in the advertising of his own novels—choosing or writing ads for them. The great popularity of his stories led to the incorporation of many of his characters into a broad range of advertisements in ways that are familiar today. Player’s cigarettes issued in 1912 a set of trade cards (one inserted in each pack of cigarettes) for Dickens’s characters. Various commercial products mimicked the style or used the name of one or more of his characters—from Dolly Vardon aprons to chintz fabrics emboldened with Dickensiana. This trend continues even today as various brands make reference to “A Christmas Carol” or ask “Oliv’r Twist?”7
Read more about P.T. Barnum and advertising history in Unit 2.
The American author Henry James similarly engaged advertising in his novels. The American stage for spectacle, exaggeration, and outrageous claims was set earlier in the 19th century by P.T. Barnum and his extravagant and outlandish publicity for his traveling shows, circus, and museum. An America that succumbed to Barnum and unchecked advertising claims of every sort fascinated James. This fascination is reflected in his novels. According to Wicke, James’s own style of fiction “bears a confessed kinship to the melodramatics of advertising.”8 His late work The American Scene (1907) takes up the subject of the consumer society.
His book commemorates the trip he took in 1904, after returning from twenty years in Europe, a “pilgrim” come to see his own native land. The patchwork of places and sights—St. Augustine, Newport, the Waldorf-Astoria, Hoboken—may seem impressionistic renderings of his journey, but above all the text explores the phenomenon of a capitalist culture that has come into its own since his departure.9
Irish author James Joyce, like Dickens before him, wrote advertisements at an early stage of his career. (He ran a film theatre and often wrote the ads for it.) It is his masterful Ulysses (1922) that directly conjoins literature and advertising. Leopold Bloom, the central character in the novel, works as an advertising canvasser thus occasioning many references to advertisements in the novel. More profoundly, “the constantly unfurling ‘stream of consciousness’ that is Bloom’s narrative style is largely made up of his ‘mind’ wending its way through the eddies, currents, and shorelines of advertising or advertised goods.”11
Many literary theorists have recently noted connections like those above between literature and the culture of consumption for which advertising is the mouthpiece. The James Joyce Quarterly asserts that advertising influenced the writer at least as much as Thomas Aquinas, Dante, or Shakespeare did.12 Other writers like George Eliot and Sherwood Anderson have been studied for their connections to advertising discourse as well. Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2) contains passages reflective of Bloom’s interior monologues about consumer goods in Ulysses.13 Anderson himself had a long career in advertising before writing his many observations about its practices.
Thus, what all these connections between literature and advertising show is the impossibility of maintaining any strict division between the “high” culture of literature and the mass culture of advertising. Some writers of great literature were also authors of many advertisements to which and from which they took their style of writing. More importantly, many influential writers have brought advertising into their stories in order to analyze the role of advertising in society. Finally, the study of literature has opened itself to the examination of many kinds of non-canonical texts such as advertisements in order to understand the culture that generates them.
2. Advertising and Art
The relationship between advertising and art is even more intimate than that with literature. Over the centuries, artists have been hired to paint signboards, shop walls, and other kinds of images in the service of commercial promotion. However, it was in the 19th century that a much closer relationship between advertising and art developed.
George Cruikshank’s illustrations appeared in scores of English publications including many of Dickens’s books in the 1800s.
In London, the well-known illustrator Cruikshank was commissioned in 1820 by Warren’s blacking company (the same company that Dickens worked for as a boy) to illustrate an ad. The drawing he produced—a cat frightened by its own reflected image in the sheen of a highly polished boot—clearly added spark to the long-copy advertisement it accompanied. Such relationships were typical 19th-century interactions between the art world and advertising.
In addition to the drawings and other images produced directly for commercial use, a second relation of advertising to art was the appropriation of high art for use in advertisements. For example, John Everett Millais’s sentimental painting Bubbles (1886) became a poster for Pears soap, but not without considerable critical uproar from those who wanted to keep “art” on a high pedestal above the crassness of everyday commercial appeals.
Modernism is a progressive cultural movement that emerged prior to World War I. It encompasses art, literature, music, design, and architecture.
Even more significant, however, was the close connection between advertising and modern art that developed in the later years of the 19th century. Both advertising and the artistic movement known as modernism emerged about the same time—around 1860 to 1870. The stage for their collaboration was set by at least two factors: the development of techniques supporting the mass production of images, and an abundance of consumer goods hitherto unknown. Modernism dismissed literal representations in favor of freer modes intended to evoke the sorts of fantasies and emotions that marketers were coming to realize would help move products. By the final years of the 19th century, modern art and modern advertising were freely borrowing from and influencing one another.
Posters date from the 15th century, but it was the development oflithography in the late 19th century that made them a popular advertising medium.
The French advertising poster of the late 1800s marks the beginning of this crossover between advertising and art. For example, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced advertising posters, as did many other artists who are usually thought of as belonging to the “high art” tradition. It was Jules Chéret, however, who invented and perfected the advertising poster as a new genre that had no real precedent in earlier artistic traditions. His poster for the Folies-Bergère in Paris privileges movement over literal representation. Its bright colors also depart from literalism to convey the excitement of the spectacle of the Folies-Bergère.
Despite widespread use, the advertising poster did not always meet with universal acclaim. There were those who felt that filling the streets of Paris with advertising was a sure sign of cultural decay rather than progress. A conservative writer, Maurice Talmeyr, published an article entitled “The Age of the Poster” in which he assessed its impact on society.
[The poster] does not say to us: “Pray, obey, sacrifice yourself, adore God, fear the master, respect the king ...” It whispers to us: “Amuse yourself, preen yourself, feed yourself, go to the theater, to the ball, to the concert, read novels, drink good beer, buy good bouillon, smoke good cigars, eat good chocolate, go to your carnival, keep yourself fresh, handsome, strong, cheerful, please women, take care of yourself, comb yourself, purge yourself, look after your underwear, your clothes, your teeth, your hands, and take lozenges if you catch cold!”14
The artist Georges Seurat became a great fan of Chéret and the style of his posters. He drew inspiration for some of his later work from them. Chéret’s high-stepping dancers in Les Girard: Folies-Bergère, a lithograph from 1879, reappear a decade later in Seurat’s Le Chahut (1889–90). Many similar links between “high” artists and the popular cultural artists producing advertising are recognized by historians of art.
In 1990, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibition entitled High and Low: Modern Art, Popular Culture that explored the relation in such areas as words, graffiti, caricature, comics, and advertising. The exhibition catalogue noted: “[T]he story of modern artists’ responses to advertising, and vice versa, is the most complex and tendentious of the various histories [the exhibition] addresses.”15 The exhibition traced the link between art and advertising from the French advertising poster to the present.
An artistic movement based around “found objects” spilled over into advertising itself. The now familiar Michelin Man (1898) emerged from Édouard Michelin’s observation that a stack of tires might resemble a man with the simple addition of arms. It was in such moments, where art and life come together, that many great advertising ideas of the 20th century were born. Another example is the RCA dog inspired by a real pet and an actual incident.
The influence between advertising and art moved the other way as well. Picasso, in his Landscape with Posters (1912) and Au Bon Marché (1913), and many Dada avant-garde artists incorporated images of ads or actual parts of advertisements into their productions. In the 1920s, Fernand Léger modeled his painting The Siphon (1924) on an ad that appeared in the French newspaper Le Matin. Examples such as these abound in 20th-century art.
The social theorist Michael Schudson has termed American advertising “capitalist realism” in order to indicate the similarity of advertising art in the 1930s to the propagandistic art forms that grew up in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at that same time. According to Schudson, each of these states celebrated the different local ideas of heroism (communist, national socialist, or capitalist) in styles that were “reassuringly legible and impervious to ambiguity.”16
After World War II, artists like Andy Warhol commented on modern life through references to advertisements. Warhol painted cans of Campbell’s soup repetitively to comment on modern life—a world in which endless copies of mechanically produced products are available and serve to homogenize experience. (Ironically, Andy Warhol was later commissioned by Absolut Vodka to produce an image of its famous bottle in the Warhol style as an actual advertisement.) Artistic commentaries on the nature of capitalism, consumption, and a world populated with advertising imagery are mainstays in contemporary art.
The omnipresence of advertising imagery in contemporary society is surely one of the hallmarks of this period in history. When future generations look back on 20th- and 21st-century life, they will surely marvel at how little care we took to preserve the popular art of advertising—most of which disappears quickly. TV commercials are intended to evaporate, billboards to come down, and magazines and newspapers to be recycled. Yet, the mutual influence of high art and popular culture is one of the most salient characteristics of contemporary expressive culture.
3. Advertising and Film
Since the end of World War II, first Hollywood films and later TV scripts have frequently included advertising as one of their themes. The Hucksters (1947) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) tell stories about the lives of men who work in advertising, but the stories they tell are not flattering. In fact, they constitute the beginning of a long tradition in Hollywood to use advertising (often as a backdrop to a story rather than its central focus) in a highly stereotyped manner. The establishment of this screen version of advertising and its perpetuation even into the present has provided for members of the public—most of whom have never been inside an advertising agency and do not know anyone who works in one—their primary source of information about the inner workings of advertising. It is no different really from how the mass media has constructed images of lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, airline pilots, movie stars, and a host of other professions. Although these representations develop mythologies through repetition and are usually secondary to the main themes of stories, they nonetheless leave after-images that linger in our minds about what we have seen.
How does Hollywood represent advertising? For the purposes of this unit, a list of several films that deal with advertising in some way was developed. This list is contained in Figure 27. Then about half of these films were studied in detail for how they represent advertising. On the basis of this analysis, recurrent themes about advertising in the films were identified.
The themes that will be discussed in detail are the Hollywood representation of: (1) advertising as a profession, (2) the impact of advertising on society, and (3) the characteristics of people who work in advertising.
By setting a film in an advertising agency and/or featuring people who work in advertising, the film describes (albeit inadvertently) the profession of advertising. Films typically make advertising appear to be easy work. Creative ideas are not depicted in relation to strategy and research, but rather ideas seem to emerge while throwing pencils like darts at the ceiling or in a moment of serendipity. For example, a creative team in Nothing in Common (1986) invents skits and songs by acting out an idea for a commercial. The scene conveys a convivial, friendly, and fun atmosphere at work. Ray Liotta’s character comes up with the perfect jingle in Corrina, Corrina (1994) while banging out notes in a piano duo with his housekeeper, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Many scenes show the fun aspects of his job as a writer for commercials for Jell-O and Mr. Potato Head. In the clip, the creative solution “just happens.” In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Matthew McConaughey’s character is engaged in a conversation with Kate Hudson’s, who uses the word “frosting” to describe diamonds. He recognizes the originality and power of the description and develops the tag line, “Frost yourself,” for a diamond company.
None of these representations portray the lengthy process that goes into making an advertisement nor the strategy that lies behind it. Rather, the most photogenic aspects of the creative process are selected and edited into the story about advertising that gets told through movies.
Another aspect of advertising’s appearance in film is the glamorous lifestyle that surrounds the field. The collage of images in Figures 31–34 below shows advertising professionals dressing stylishly, working in beautiful offices, attending elegant parties, and living in extraordinary apartments and houses. For example, Ben Affleck in Bounce (2000) has a home whose large glass windows give a spectacular view of Venice Beach and the waves of the Pacific beyond it. Keanu Reeves in Sweet November (2001) lives in a high-ceiling refurbished loft in San Francisco. This early morning scene shows the elegant furnishings that include 12 flat-screen TVs. Mel Gibson in What Women Want (2000) lives in a Chicago high-rise apartment with a large balcony, elegant furnishings, and a killer view of the cityscape.
Offices are at least as impressive as homes in Hollywood’s version of the lifestyles of advertising professionals. Offices are lively, colorful, interesting places to work. For example, Mel Gibson’s office in What Women Want is filled with award trophies, leather chairs, and advertisements. Its dark woods and colors signify masculinity. By contrast, Helen Hunt’s office in the same film is brighter and has lots of flowers and a more feminine feel. Her large office has not only a very big desk but plenty of other furniture and memorabilia of her career. The interior shots of the agency in the film show a large open space with many workstations where mid-level employees work. The architecture of the old building, complete with mezzanine and old ironwork, exudes style and good taste.
Advertising people attend lots of parties in the movies. Meg Ryan is shown below in a still from Kate & Leopold (2001). The setting is a business dinner where everyone is well dressed, all the tables have beautiful flowers, and the room itself is lovely. In a second clip from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the party is a gala evening black-tie affair; the occasion is the celebration of an ad campaign for diamonds, plenty of which sparkle in the room. In Picture Perfect (1997), guests attend a lavish dinner where canapés pass on trays and two models dressed as the product celebrate Gulden’s Mustard.
Not to be outdone by their surroundings, advertising people dress exceedingly well in the movies. Doris Day’s character in Lover Come Back (1961) steps out of a convertible only to be covered by a canopy leading to the door of a fashionable New York building. She wears a matching dress and jacket outfit that is complete with a fur collar. Cuba Gooding, Jr., in The Fighting Temptations (2003) is smartly dressed in a well-tailored, fashionable suit as he addresses attendees at a board meeting. Meg Ryan in Kate & Leopold wears an expensive crushed velvet riding jacket to a business lunch in an uptown restaurant.
On top of the glitz and glamour that is advertising in film is a darker image that is repeated again and again. This is the notion that advertising is filled with lies and manipulation. The following clips from films are typical. Each of them conveys this idea rather directly. In The Fighting Temptations, Cuba Gooding, Jr., says in a conversation with his boss that deception is company policy in advertising. In Picture Perfect, Illeana Douglas’s character, speaking with Jennifer Aniston’s, remarks, “I didn’t lie, I sold.” Even more pointedly in Crazy People (1990), Dudley Moore describes advertising work by saying, “We lie for a living.”
Read about Vance Packard and motivational research in Unit 3.
This notion dates back at least to the age of P.T. Barnum, whose exaggerated and frequently false claims, as mentioned earlier, gave the public a bad taste for advertising. It was not helped by traveling salesmen who drifted in and out of town in 19th-century America nor by the unrestricted claims about the benefits of patent medicines that were common well into the 20th century. When Hollywood began to depict advertising, all this plus Vance Packard’s exposé about motivational research had alerted the public to the idea of deceit in advertising. This is the image of advertisers that was laid down on film, and these stereotypes have remained largely unchanged though there has been little if any effort to offer evidence for them.
A second theme about advertising in films concerns its impact on society. The idea is that advertising generally causes people to buy things they do not need. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House features Cary Grant as an advertising executive who wants to move from New York City to the country. It is his success in advertising that provides the means to make this decision, but the work Mr. Blandings does is not respected by his children. In a particularly pointed statement, one of his daughters speaks of the social evils associated with advertising. In The Fighting Temptations, another indictment of advertising’s social policy in the willingness of Cuba Gooding’s character to exploit the public for gain and his condescending attitude toward them.
A third idea in the Hollywood depiction of advertising is that there is a certain kind of person who does well in advertising. This is someone who is willing to do almost anything asked of him or her, to put job before family and personal life, and to sell things that they might not believe in themselves. The following clips illustrate these characteristics:
An additional theme in some of the films is discrepancy between men’s and women’s jobs in advertising. For example, in Lover Come Back, Doris Day and Rock Hudson both work in advertising. However, she works while he plays. In What Women Want, Mel Gibson gets all the credit for Helen Hunt’s ideas.
4. Advertising and Popular Culture: The Super Bowl
Each January advertising moves onto center stage in American popular culture. The occasion is the Super Bowl—itself one of the country’s most watched TV programs. In the weeks and days leading up to the actual event, media hype about the game and the commercials predicts game outcome, celebrates fans, and promises ever more spectacular ads.
The Super Bowl is the championship game of the NFL. The game and its festivities constitute Super Bowl Sunday which has almost become a de facto national holiday.
In 2006, viewers in more than 45 million homes tuned in to the Super Bowl, making it the second-most viewed program in the history of American television.17 More than 15 percent of these viewers claimed to be watching primarily for the commercials.18 As for the commercials themselves, they are among the most expensive to produce and air. It was reported that airing a 30-second spot could cost as much as $2.5 million in 2006. Having come to appreciate the appeal of Super Bowl commercials, advertisers are making their Super Bowl offerings available for video streaming online—for watching again, forwarding to friends, adding to personal web pages, and even downloading to video iPods.
In return for their investment, advertisers hope that viewers will remember their commercials and associate them with their brands. Nothing is more distressing than a viewer who says, “That was a very funny ad for light beer, but I couldn’t tell you if it was for Miller or Bud.” Despite the entertainment value of Super Bowl commercials (including the picking of winners and losers), these ads must still do their work of reinforcing brand loyalty, encouraging selection of their brands over the competition, or, more rarely, introducing new products or services.
Figure 48 reports Super Bowl advertising statistics from its inception in 1967 to the present. The cost of airing commercials has risen from $42,000 during the first year to $2.4 million in 2006. The reach to homes and viewers has steadily increased during this period, making it a highly ranked and prestigious venue for showcasing ads.
Visit a website that has several Terry Tate commercials.
A few spots from previous Super Bowls have achieved something of a cult status as best-liked ads. According to a poll conducted by America Online, the three best Super Bowl commercials ever were Coca-Cola’s Mean Joe Greene (1980), Apple Computer’s 1984 (1984), and Reebok’s Terry Tate (2004). Each of these commercials struck responsive chords with audiences by focusing on themes like sports heroes, distrust of corporate giants, and work environments.
Newspapers, magazines, and above all the Internet reviews the ads after they appear on the Super Bowl. This publicity, if it is positive, is of incalculable value to the sponsors, but not all of it is positive. For example, the 2006 post-Super Bowl assessments included the following:
Let’s start with the lowest of the low: GoDaddy.com. Talk about a $5 million vanity project (so bad they had to run it twice). This complete mess was what it took Bob Parsons 14 tries with ABC to get through.— Barbara Lippert, Adweek
A prehistoric air express delivery—of a stick, via pterodactyl—is stymied by a hungry tyrannosaurus, leading to the first-ever mailroom firing. Adorable and funny. Also, how can you fault a strategy (nobody ever lost his job for choosing FedEx) that’s 40 million years old?— Bob Garfield, Advertising Age
Ah, now here’s a show stopper that should have been our lead-in: Burger King puts on a Busby Berkeley musical number. Singing and dancing “Whopperettes” dress as various burger components (my favorite is the mayonnaise dress, followed by the beef-patty tutu). This was the only ad all night that was outsized and garish enough to be Super Bowl-worthy.— Seth Stevenson, Slate
Visit the Pizza Hut Cheesy Bites site.
Atmosphere BBDO developed an extension of Pizza Hut’s Super Bowl promotion with Jessica Simpson creating a site that allows consumers to literally play with their food. The Pizza Hut Cheesy Bites site allows visitors to remix their own version of the Jessica Simpson Pizza Hut song, “These Bites Are Made for Poppin.’” With 28 musical tracks and 40 sound effects to choose from, people can watch and share their version of the song played along with the television commercial and see Jessica singing along to their creation.— AdRants.com
Our favorite of all the Anheuser-Busch work this year is the hysterically funny, “On The Roof,” where Bud Light-loving husbands seek refuge. The comic timing is perfect. Ditto the meticulously realized visuals.”— Lewis Lazare, Chicago Sun-Times
In Michigan, competing universities Michigan State and Western Michigan assembled advertising faculty on Super Bowl Sunday to assess the ads. MSU’s advertising program, has a website calledAd Pulse that reviews ads.
In addition to these professional columnists and commentators, many others offered their opinions of Super Bowl commercials via the Internet. One blogger wrote, “Nicely shot, but what’s the point?”, incisively cutting through the usual verbiage. Bulletin boards posted rants and raves about the commercials. And more than a few groups specially assembled for the purpose of reviewing Super Bowl commercials were reported on in the press. For example, in Boston members of ad agencies assembled to view the ads together. From their group emerged the not surprising finding that men and women liked different ads more. The women in the group were especially approving of Dove’s commercial focusing on women’s self-esteem.
Many times when people express opinions about ad preferences, they lack reasons for the preferences. Even when reasons are given, they tend to be more emotional than rational reactions. The Wall Street Journal, in an article quoting viewers’ opinions about Super Bowl ads, included the following:
- the ad broke through and was attention-grabbing.
- it was so unpredictable.
- the spot was very moving.
- hilarious, everyone cracked up laughing.
- didn’t like it, I was waiting for a spoof.
- tons of impact and very memorable.
All this hype about Super Bowl commercials brings the phenomenon of the TV commercial to public attention once a year and results in considerable discussion about the aesthetic and business value of this mode of advertising. Unlike the more highbrow domains of culture like literature, art, and even film, the commercial is at home in popular culture. For many, it is unabashed fun and hilarity. Maintaining the suspense about the commercials can be as exciting as the football game itself. The Super Bowl becomes the one moment in American cultural life where advertising is unabashedly welcomed.
William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.
He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.
In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society — An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to AS&R.
1. René Welek, “What is Literature?” in What is Literature?, Paul Harnadi, ed., 16–23 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 20; quoted in Jim Meyer, “What is Literature?: a definition based on prototypes,” in Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session 41(1997), 2, from http://www.und.edu/dept/linguistics/wp/1997Meyer.PDF on April 8, 2006.
2. George McFadden, “’Literature’: a many-sided process,” in What is Literature?, Paul Harnadi, ed., 49–61 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 56; quoted in Jim Meyer, “What is Literature?: a definition based on prototypes,” in Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session 41(1997), 2, from http://www.und.edu/dept/linguistics/wp/1997Meyer.PDF on April 8, 2006.
3. Jim Meyer, “What is Literature?: a definition based on prototypes,” in Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session 41(1997), 3–4, from http://www.und.edu/dept/linguistics/wp/1997Meyer.PDF on April 8, 2006.
4. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 228–29; quoted in Jennifer Wicke, Advertising Fictions: literature, advertisement, and social reading (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 5.
5. Wicke, 6.
6. Quoted in Wicke, 27.
7. Wicke, 52.
8. Wicke, 102.
9. Henry James, The American Scene; quoted in Wicke, 113.
10. Mark Goble, “Delirious Henry James: A Small Boy and New York” Modern Fiction Studies 50/2 (2004): 371.
11. Wicke, 130.
12. Garry Leonard, “Joyce and Advertising: Advertising and Commodity Culture in Joyce’s Fiction,” James Joyce Quarterly 33.4/34.1 (1993): 573–92.
13. William Deresiewicz, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 38, no. 4 (Autumn 1998): 723–740; taken from note 23, page 740.
14. Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, High & Low: Modern Art, Popular Culture (New York: Museum of Modern Art: Distributed by H.N. Abrams, 1990), 236.
15. Varnedoe and Gopnik, 231.
16. Varnedoe and Gopnik, 305.
17. The final episode of M-A-S-H is reported to have been watched in an average of 50.15 million homes while the 2006 Super Bowl was watched in an average of 45.85 million homes, according to David Bauder of the Associated Press, “Super Bowl ratings 2nd only to ‘M-A-S-H’,” Mercury News, February 6, 2006, from http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/entertainment/gossip/13806916.htm on April 8, 2006.
Fig. 1. From the author’s collection.
Fig. 3. Chart based on Wicke, 15.
Fig. 4. An ad recently discovered at the British Newspaper Library suggests that Dickens wrote this “comic poem.” It is an early form of the advertising jingle. Quoted in John Drew, “A Twist in the Tale,” The Guardian Unlimited, November 1, 2003, from http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1074257,00.html on April 8, 2006.
Fig. 6. From the author’s collection.
Fig. 7. From the author’s collection.
Fig. 8. Color print by Ferdinand Mayer and Emil Meineke, “The Bill Poster’s Dream,” Harry T. Peters ‘America on Stone’ Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, from http://americanhistory.si.edu/petersprints/lithograph.cfm?id=326062&mode=printer&Category=Music&Results_Per=10 on April 8, 2006.
Fig. 9. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.
Fig. 10. Frank Presbrey, The History and Development of Advertising (New York: Doran & Co., 1929), 86.
Fig. 18. © 2006 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Fig. 19. © 2006 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Fig. 20. © 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Fig. 21. Advertisement for Campari aperitif; from Le Matin, September 12, 1924, p. 3. From Varnedoe and Gopnik, 289.
Fig. 24. Literary Digest, June 26, 1933: 1.
Fig. 25. © 2006 Andy Warhol Foundation / ARS, New York / TM Licensed by Campbell’s Soup Co., all rights reserved.
Fig. 26. Twitchell.
Fig. 27. List compiled from various internet sources.
Fig. 28. Nothing in Common, Dir. Garry Marshall, Columbia/TriStar © 1986.
Fig. 29. Corrina, Corrina, Dir. Jessie Nelson, New Line Cinema © 1994.
Fig. 30. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Dir. Donald Petrie, Paramount Pictures © 2003.
Fig. 31. Bounce, Dir. Don Roos, Miramax Films © 2000; Sweet November, Dir. Pat O’Connor, Warner Bros. Pictures © 2001; What Women Want, Dir. Nancy Meyers, Paramount Pictures © 2000.
Fig. 32. What Women Want.
Fig. 33. Kate & Leopold, Dir. James Mangold, Miramax Films © 2001; How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; Picture Perfect, Dir. Glenn Gordon Caron, Twentieth Century Fox © 1997.
Fig. 34. Lover Come Back, Dir. Delbert Mann, Universal Studios © 1961; The Fighting Temptations, Dir. Jonathan Lynn, Paramount Pictures © 2003; Kate & Leopold.
Fig. 35. The Fighting Temptations.
Fig. 36. Picture Perfect.
Fig. 37. Crazy People, Dir. Tony Bill, Paramount Pictures © 1990.
Fig. 38. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Dir. H.C. Potter, RKO Pictures © 1948.
Fig. 39. The Fighting Temptations.
Fig. 40. Sweet November.
Fig. 41. Sweet November.
Fig. 42. Kramer vs. Kramer, Dir. Robert Benton, Columbia Pictures © 1979.
Fig. 43. Picture Perfect.
Fig. 44. Kate & Leopold.
Fig. 45. The Hucksters, Dir. Jack Conway, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer © 1947.
Fig. 46. What Women Want.
Fig. 47. Lover Come Back.
Fig. 48. Nielson Media Research, Nielson Monitor-Plus, MSNBC.
Fig. 49. McCann Erickson.
Fig. 50. Chiat/Day.
Fig. 51. Godaddy.com.
Fig. 52. BBDO, New York.
Fig. 53. Crispin, Porter & Bogusky.
Fig. 54. BBDO, New York.
Fig. 55. DDB-Chicago.
Fig. 56. Ogilvy & Mather.