The Interpretation of Advertisements
[Editor’s Note:This article is a part of ADText.]
If the meaning of images and texts were simply transparent, there would be little reason to ask: What does this mean? Instead, we struggle to understand ancient inscriptions, sacred texts, modern novels, films, and even statements made in conversation. Also perplexing are visual images: Neolithic cave paintings, frescoes from the Italian Renaissance, children’s drawings, art from other cultures, and the latest television commercials. This unit discusses interpretive strategies used to understand works of “art” and examines how these interpretive strategies can also be used to understand the meaning of advertisements. Although primary attention is given here to visual images, many of these strategies apply as well to written texts.
1. Cave Painting from Lascaux, France
The caves in Lascaux, France, are among the most famous in the world. They were discovered (or perhaps, more accurately, “rediscovered”) in 1940 by children playing nearby. Their walls contain elaborate paintings made perhaps as much as 30,000 years ago. These paintings have fascinated the public as well as historians of art for over a century, and there have been many efforts to decipher their meanings.
Two common ways to discover the meanings of images are unavailable in the case of the Lascaux cave paintings: asking the artists what they intended, and examining the general uses of art in the society. These unknown artists died long ago; thus, they cannot be asked what they had in mind when sketching animals on cave walls. The society that produced the art has also passed out of existence. We can only imagine the society’s ideas about expressive representations. These facts make the interpretation of the Lascaux cave paintings especially difficult.
These problems have not, however, halted efforts to determine the meaning of the art in the Lascaux caves. Art historians and archaeologists have speculated about the meaning and significance of the images. Although their explanations typically lack supporting evidence, they are frequently accepted as accurate and passed as true. Some “explanations” offered in the 2006 Wikipedia article on “Cave Paintings” include:
-. hunting magic, intended to increase the number of animals1
-. hoaxes thought up by creationists to ridicule Darwin
-. shamans’ visions painted during trance states
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is more cautious in its statement about the meanings of the paintings, noting that “[i]mages of animals are superimposed on top of earlier depictions, which suggests that the motivation for the paintings may have been in the act of portraying the animals rather than in the artistic effect of the final composition. However, their purpose remains obscure.”2
Some scholars, most notably cultural theorist Georges Bataille, have found deep inspiration in the paintings. Bataille claims that the cave paintings shed light on the origins of art itself; thus, understanding their meanings is critical to the history of art. For Bataille, the paintings forge an emotional bond between those who created them and those who now react to them, thereby linking us to our remote ancestors who painted the images. His ruminations on the significance of the Lascaux paintings focus not on whatever original meaning they may have had, but on their contemporary revelations about the history of art, society, religion, and civilization itself. 3
Consumers seldom have access to the corporate strategies or creative decisions that lie behind the ads they see. Most ads must be taken at face value without knowledge of the intentions of those who have generated them.
2. Las Meninas
Las Meninas, painted in 1656 by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, is one of Spain’s most beloved paintings, and it is among the most famous pieces in Western art. At first glance, the painting offers a tableau of aristocratic or royal life from a bygone age. The figures turn out to be the young Spanish princess in white, two of her maids-in-waiting (the meninas), and other members of the royal court as well as the artist himself. A mirror in the background reflects the images of the Spanish king and queen, who stand, along with the spectator, outside the frame of the canvas. Velázquez can be seen on the left side, facing the canvas on which he paints.
The composition challenges classical rules of representational painting, which require that the painting depicts the scene from the point of view of the artist. In this case, the artist stands within the frame of the painting. What he paints on the canvas is not apparent (is it this painting or another?), nor can the spectator see King Philip and Queen Mariana directly, as they stand, along with the spectator, outside the painting. Their images are visible only in the mirror on the back wall. Is the artist painting a portrait of the royal couple, or, as seems more likely, have they just arrived on the scene? One of the maids is in the process of curtseying before the king and queen. The other is offering a glass of water to the infant princess and is not yet aware of the presence of the royal couple. The princess appears to be making eye contact with her parents. Other figures in the painting gaze beyond the limits of the painting, but the objects of their gaze remain out of sight.
Critic John Ruskin wrote, “Every picture drawn in true perspective may be considered as an upright piece of glass, on which the objects seen through it have thus been drawn.”4 However, Las Meninas departs from this convention by portraying the scene at once from several vantages—that of the artist who stands both outside and inside the painting, that of the king and queen, that of the various onlookers within the painting, and that of the spectator who necessarily stands outside the frame of the painting. Pablo Picasso drew and painted more than 50 studies of Las Meninas. His studies laid the groundwork for cubism by offering the possibility of viewing a scene or object from multiple points of view simultaneously.
Modern advertising builds on the representational techniques developed over centuries of experimentation. Some advertising imagery follows classic principles of representation. Other examples depart creatively from such principles.
If we ask what Las Meninas represents, the response must be complex. It is a superb painting in terms of color values, draftsmanship, light space, and rhythm, but the story it tells is somewhat puzzling. The spectator is invited into the interpretive process—to imagine the scene from multiple points of view and to supply incomplete and missing information. The narrative is unfinished, and the spectator must collaborate with the artist to complete it. A quick search on the Internet will reveal the extraordinary attention that has been devoted to deciphering the meaning of this painting. Peter Levine somewhat humorously writes that if he had time to play the academic, “I would look at what had been written about the dog. Pets are domesticated nature, and nothing could be more domesticated than a large hunting dog that allows a dwarf to step on its back without moving.”5
3. George Washington Crossing the Delaware
Some paintings purport to be a more straightforward representation of a particular moment6 in a longer narrative. Just as a picture of a person blowing out candles on a birthday cake represents a particular moment in a party, a day, a week, and a life, George Washington Crossing the Delaware is a particular moment in the history of the American Revolution, Washington’s life, the story of the American flag, and so on. Interpreting a birthday party photograph as well as a painting like Figure 3 requires that the spectator understand the image as less than the entire story. The remaining context can be supplied in a number of ways: by another person explaining how to understand the image; an interpreter in a museum; the spectator’s own knowledge; or its placement in a scrapbook, a history book, or some other context that guides interpretation. The simple point is that an image requires context lest its interpretation stop at comprehending only its elements—a cake, some people gathered around, a man standing in a boat, ice in the water, a flag in the breeze—rather than its significance.
Through the resources available to the spectator, the image becomes a part of a longer narrative. A good analogy to the process is reading a book that contains a few illustrations or photographs. These images illuminate and enhance various moments in the story. Similarly, the birthday photograph and the historical painting illustrate specific moments in a life and national history, respectively. Context determines which particular narrative an image illustrates.
Figure 3 represents General George Washington leading the American revolutionary forces across the frozen Delaware River on December 25, 1776, in a strategy intended to surprise British and Hessian troops in the Battle of Trenton. With this contextual information, the spectator can then examine the painting for details in support of this narrative, such as boats loaded with troops, horses, guns, and cannons, the icy river, the figure of Washington, and so on.
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze created this painting 75 years after the actual event took place. He did not witness the event itself, and his painting therefore reports his idea of the historical event. In point of fact, it contains many inaccuracies, but these have not dampened its enthusiastic reception among those who understand it as representing one of the founding moments of the American nation.
Knowing the circumstances surrounding the creation of the painting adds an additional dimension to its interpretation. The artist, Leutze, who lived and worked in Germany, was stirred by the German revolution of 1848. He undertook several paintings, each of which represented some aspect of the flowering of freedom. The set included Washington’s victory in the Battle of Trenton at a time when the revolution was not going well for the Americans. The painting now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and serves as an icon of American history.
Ads often represent “slices of life.” They invite consumers to link the information in the ad to larger narratives about society, culture, and consumerism.
Just how important context is for interpreting and understanding an image is debatable. There are those who would argue that an image should “speak for itself,” and that viewers should take away whatever meanings they find in it. Others argue that context is all important, and that understanding the meaning of an image depends on knowing as much about context as possible.
4. The Snake Charmer
Although Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer (Figure 4) is a representational painting, just what it represents is a bit puzzling. Its mystery is not so much perspective or representational style as it is unfamiliar subject matter. The spectator looks upon a naked boy, a basket from which he has presumably taken the snake he holds, an old man playing a flute, a group of men who are watching the boy as he handles the snake, and a room furnished in elaborate oriental rugs and tiles. The elements are decipherable, but what does the painting represent?
According to Columbia University professor Edward Said (1935–2003) who selected The Snake Charmer to illustrate the cover of his influential book, Orientalism (1978), this image invites the spectator to collaborate in producing a narrative about “otherness.” Such narratives (which Said called Orientalism) construct a gulf between us (the intended audience for the painting) and them (the people who are the subject matter of the painting). It encourages us to view them as different from ourselves by reminding us that we do not sit on the floor, appear naked in public, handle snakes, or decorate our buildings in this elaborate manner.
Art historians have attempted to determine whether Gérôme intended to represent a real event and a real place in the Middle East, or whether he was using his experience7 and imagination to produce a romanticized view of Middle Eastern culture. Research has located the tile wall used in the background but has determined that the particular room depicted in the painting does not actually exist.8 Biographies of Gérôme indicate that he specialized in orientalist images like this one and that his paintings of Oriental cultures were enormously popular in his native France. The original of The Snake Charmer has made its way to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, where it now hangs.
Gérôme’s impressions of life in the Middle East were painted before photography was widely available to record travel experiences.9 Today, photographs are often understood to represent truth, although they may be edited and manipulated in various ways.10 In the 19th century, Gérôme’s paintings appear to have been accorded a similar truth value.
Ads, like paintings, may represent actual historical events and real people or idealized versions of daily life. In either case, the critical issue is how well the ad represents reality. As with paintings, representations in ads seek to manage and impose particular meanings and interpretations.
Art historians refer to depictions of scenes of everyday life as genre paintings, which differ from history paintings in that they do not purport to depict real events that occurred in the distant or recent past. In the case of a history painting (such as George Washington Crossing the Delaware), an important issue is how well the painting depicts what is known about the historical event. In the case of the genre painting, the parallel issue is how well the painting depicts the daily life and culture that is its subject matter. Edward Said’s claim is that The Snake Charmer and other similar works of art construct a highly selective and exaggerated view of Oriental culture—one that emphasizes exoticism and its difference in quality of life, morality, aesthetics, and otherwise from Occidental culture. Such representations “orientalize” the culture by setting it apart, emphasizing differences, and repeating established views of the Orient. Seen from this perspective, the representation of Middle Eastern culture in The Snake Charmer is politically charged. Said’s critique of representations like this one helped establish a concern for the politics that surround their production and interpretation.
5. Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels
The Western art tradition includes thousands of representations of the Madonna and Child. These images are conventionally understood to represent not only Mary and Jesus but also the idea of a nurturing and loving mother. The Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels in Figure 5 signifies such a relationship—the respected mother holding her divine child. It does not purport to represent any specific historical event in the lives of Mary and Jesus. Rather, it is a highly stylized representation of their relationship that is based in the time when it was created: Mary sits upon a bejeweled throne and holds the naked child (who, like his mother, has European rather than Middle Eastern features). Angels surround them. It is a portrait, although one painted many centuries after the two lived on earth.
The painting is also a portrait of Agnes Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII of France. It was painted shortly after her death as a tribute to the king and country’s love for her. Known as “The Lady of Beauty,” Sorel was a contemporary of Joan of Arc, and perhaps equally responsible for expelling the English from France although she has not been widely recognized for doing so.11 Originally one of two panels created by Jean Fouquet for Nôtre-Dame de Melun around 1450, the painting has been moved from its original church setting and the parts have been separated. A French nobleman, Etienne Chevalier, who got his job as royal treasurer thanks to Sorel, is depicted in the second panel along with St. Etienne. Chevalier, as patron of the work, may have been trying to immortalize Sorel as the Queen of France and of Heaven. Sorel was renowned for her beauty and acts of kindness and charity.
The painting portrays the king’s mistress as Madonna-like, just as it does the Madonna as queenly. Both the Madonna’s breast and the baby’s genitals are prominently displayed. The convention of displaying these body parts served as a sign in Medieval and Renaissance art that these divine beings were also human, in that they had even the most essential features of the human body. However, the overly eroticized representation of the breast has occasioned considerable controversy.
The meaning of an ad can be enhanced by bringing additional information into the process of interpretation. For example, a model in an ad may be viewed simply as a handsome man, or, with additional knowledge, a famous person whose biography gives additional dimensions to the ad’s meaning.
Are additional pieces of information like these essential to understanding the meaning and significance of the painting? There are two schools of thought on this issue. Many theorists believe that the fullest set of contextual information is indeed important in interpreting a painting. Other theorists argue that the aesthetics of the painting should be allowed to come through without extensive, superfluous commentary.12 This latter school also holds that the painter may not even be fully aware of all the meanings that are contained in his or her work.
6. The Streatfields
Portraits served to immortalize images of people in a world before photography, although only the wealthy could afford them. Today, painted portraits continue to be an extravagant luxury despite so many other means to create quality images. Portraits require both time and money, and the elements contained in them are carefully selected and composed.
Ads frequently contain symbols and codes that help facilitate communication of certain messages. For example, a ring may signify marriage and a group composed of people from different ethnic backgrounds can signify multicultural sensitivity.
In the 1640s, the English painter William Dobson painted the portrait of the Streatfield family reproduced in Figure 6. Today, the painting is considered a fine example of portraiture of the period. Dobson employed certain specific codes in the painting, the most important of which are the skulls resting on the broken column in the background and the mother’s finger pointing toward one of the children. Art critic Anita Schorsch wrote of this painting: “A deceased child is not only included in this portrait of an English Puritan family but is decidedly its subject. As the mother, tenderly affected, points to the child (draped unlike the other family members), the father casts his eyes on a death’s head resting upon a cracked column.” When these codes are understood, they transform the meaning of the painting. It becomes the story of a family’s loss of and mourning for a beloved child.
7. Lavender Mist
Modern art perplexes some viewers just as it delights others. Its clear break with representational paintings, with their identifiable figures, scenes, and objects, makes its interpretation impossible for those who look for such representations. However, when the spectator understands that a painting such as Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist in Figure 7 is an action painting that attempts to capture motion, the painting takes on significance.
Pollock believed that his approach to painting invented new conventions for art. Many of his canvases were exceptionally large (this one about 10 feet wide by 7 feet high). He filled them by pouring, sloshing, dripping, spattering, and flinging paint. Nicolas Pioch of the WebMuseum, Paris, writes of Pollock:
[He] was the first ‘all-over’ painter, pouring paint rather than using brushes and a palette, and abandoning all conventions of a central motif. He danced in semi-ecstasy over canvases spread across the floor, lost in his patternings, dripping and dribbling with total control. He said: ‘The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.’ He painted no image, just ‘action’, though ‘action painting’ seems an inadequate term for the finished result of his creative process. Lavender Mist ... is alive with colored scribble, spattered lines moving this way and that, now thickening, now trailing off to a slender skein. The eye is kept continually eager, not allowed to rest on any particular area. Pollock has put his hands into paint and placed them at the top right—an instinctive gesture eerily reminiscent of cave painters who did the same.15
Ads, as a form of art, draw on conventions and innovations in the art world. Many contemporary ads depart from representational style to convey movement or emotions.
Thus, the interpretation of Pollock’s paintings requires suspension of conventional expectations about representation. His colors, perspectives, and motifs depart from all that preceded them. Without understanding the goals of the modernist tradition in which he worked and its search for alternatives to representational art, his canvases are messy and confusing. But with an understanding of his iconoclastic approach to artistic conventions, these paintings become meaningful.
8. Emu Dreaming
Just as paintings may contain codes (as in The Streatfields) or abandon representational conventions altogether (as in Lavender Mist), paintings may come from outside Western culture and contain representational modes that are difficult to interpret without knowledge of the culture that produced them.
Australian aboriginal art has surged in importance on a global scale in the last few decades. Prior to its popularity, the styles and motifs of aboriginal art decorated bodies and objects and illustrated stories told within local communities. Today, it is sought after by collectors and tourists alike. It is enjoyed for its beauty and exoticism, but its meaning and cultural significance are far from simple.
Curator Margo Smith Bowles of the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art at the University of Virginia writes:
As a manifestation of the ancestral past, or Dreaming, Aboriginal art provides a link between the world inhabited by humans, animals, and plants and the spiritual dimension that underlies it. Art gives meaning to landscape and expresses the creative powers inherent in the Universe. While the great variety of forms reflects the local histories of different regions, many common themes are shared across Australia.17
Although no specific information is available about the now-deceased painter’s interpretation of the painting, the larger ethnographic context and shared artistic symbolism in Central Australia give hints, as does the title. Using this ethnographic information, it is reasonable to deduce that the painting represents the emu, a flightless indigenous bird, wandering across the earth during the ancestral past (“Dream Time”). Like other paintings from the region, the perspective is an aerial view looking down on the landscape. The “arrows” represent emu footprints, and instead of the forward direction that Western conventions of “arrows” would represent, the footprints show emu movement in the opposite direction! The concentric circles represent encampments and waterholes and the lines that entwine them represent journeys. The colors are those of the desert landscape—of clay and ochre. Emu eggs are black in color as are their feathers. Blues and greens are absent—just as they are in the landscape of the Australian outback.
Ads often draw on specific codes whose meaning is known within certain communities. Those outside the community are often unable to understand the meaning of the ad without knowledge of these codes.
Paintings like this one use fast-drying acrylics on canvases or other flat surfaces. Although produced today for the commercial market, many of the designs and symbols are actually quite ancient. In the past they decorated utilitarian objects and human bodies. The commercial market for these paintings got its start in 1971 when Geoffrey Bardon, a schoolteacher in Papunya, encouraged local people to paint a mural on an exterior wall of the school. It was from there that the ancient designs and motifs became the basis for contemporary Aboriginal art and the income it generates for its producers.
9. The Interpretation of Advertising—The Perspective of the Consumer
The many similarities between the interpretation of art and advertising demonstrate the essential congruence of the two. In future years, it may well be the case that advertisements from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries will grace the walls of museums of art. Noting the essential similarity, cultural theorist Raymond Williams, has called advertising “the official art of capitalist society.” Today, a few institutions—like the Museum of Radio and Television in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Hartman Center at Duke University—have assembled extensive collections of advertisements. However, in all these cases, advertisements are treated as cultural artifacts and are housed in archival collections rather than art museums. Perhaps advertisements are still too new, too omnipresent in society, and too linked to commercial interests to have yet achieved a status worthy of being called “art.”
However, many of the questions about the interpretation of art can be asked of advertising with instructive results. For example, the issue of authorial intention in advertising is often analogous to the situation of the Lascaux cave paintings. Although it is interesting to know what those who create ads intend, such information is seldom available to consumers. More commonly, ads simply appear on TV, in magazines, and on billboards, and leave consumers to make what they will of them on their own. Corporations and their advertising agents, of course, hope that consumers will “get” their intended messages, and they often conduct research to determine how consumers interpret particular ads. However, there is often slippage between consumers’ understandings of ads and what corporations intend to communicate.
Another consideration in understanding the meaning of advertising is what the critics have to say. On the corporate side, columnists and commentators like Barbara Lippert and Bob Garfield in the trade journal Advertising Age and Stuart Elliott in the New York Times write regularly to inform readers about the latest ads. These critics typically place ads in the context of marketing campaigns, commercial objectives, and other professional concerns. By contrast, many academic critics from various disciplines including anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, cultural studies, and journalism offer their own commentaries on advertising (and sometimes specific advertisements as well), interpreting advertising within the theoretical frameworks of their academic fields. Their concerns relate advertising to capitalism, consumption, mass communications, public opinion, popular culture, and other social and cultural issues. Neither critics with corporate orientations nor those with academic perspectives influence large segments of the consumer world. Most consumers are simply left to interpret ads without knowing what those who produced them intended or what the various experts say.
Advertising is everywhere—in virtually all print media and television, in motion pictures, on clothes, in the streets, and even in schools. Although there are occasional complaints about the excessiveness of advertising, society’s general response is passivity. In most instances consumers understand advertising to be just that, seldom confusing it for anything else. Consumers today are so savvy about advertising that it is almost as if the word “Advertisement” automatically pops up on every single advertising message. Advertising is tolerated, even if it is not appreciated. Consumers understand that its primary purpose is to promote goods and services for sale and consumption. The secondary messages—about family, race, social class, gender, values, and so on—tend to be passed over with only occasional commentary. Few people think of advertisements as a powerful teacher of role models, aspirations, relationships, citizenship, and happiness, although many such additional messages are conveyed in ads.
What then do consumers think advertising means? Many claim to be uninfluenced by it, although it is doubtful that this is really true. Some talk about liking or hating ads or finding them silly or funny. Others can summarize a commercial but fail to remember which brand was being advertised. In this case, the ads function generically rather than promoting specific brands. For the most part, consumers do not take ads very seriously. Since the earliest TV commercials, consumers have often tried to avoid them by going out of the room or turning their attention to another activity. Newer technologies, such as TiVo, make avoiding commercials even easier. Ask a consumer what a particular ad means, and you often get a response like, “It means you should buy that product.” Seldom do consumers overtly mention all the other communications, messages, and meanings an ad may have.
In addition to authorial intent, expert critical analysis, and the consumer’s point of view, there are other issues associated with the interpretation of art that are also relevant to understanding advertisements:
Creating emotional bonds with consumers
Many ads attempt to create bonds of shared emotion between advertisers and consumers. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the recent American Airlines campaign claiming, “We know why you fly.” Various ads give reasons like “Grandma’s cobbler” and “Seeing your niece turn five years old.” These ads attempt to show consumers that American Airlines understands their motives for flying. In doing this, the ads attempt to forge an emotional and aesthetic bond between corporation and consumer.
Understanding the larger narrative within which the advertising image belongs
Ads—whether they are single images or little movies—represent moments in the larger narratives of consumers’ lives. For example, an ad for, say, a vacation or a new car places it in the context of a narrative about work, play, family, leisure, happiness, and so on. If one were to collect such ads and arrange them into a life story, the narrative would highlight hard work, success, rewards, family life, time for relaxation, and so on. Specific ads become illustrations of particular moments in this larger story about life. Just as important are the narratives that are absent in advertising representations. It is uncommon, for example, to find ads that tell the story of the life cycle of commodities, from their production through distribution and purchasing to consumption. Although ads promote commodities, the stories they tell are about consumers and the role that commodities play in their lives.
The context in which the image was produced
Although knowing the context of a painting or other work of art often enhances the process of understanding it, ads often function without their audience having such knowledge. Understanding that a company is banking everything on a new product, or that the TV networks censored several earlier versions of a commercial, or that a commercial was filmed in such-and-such a place does add to a consumer’s interest, but this information is not usually a part of the interpretive process. Rather, consumers often must determine what ads are saying to them in the absence of such details.
The manipulation of meaning
Art invariably works to produce certain meanings and to exclude others. So too does advertising. Camera angles, cropped photographs, carefully considered perspectives, and other technical aspects shape and influence meaning. But no amount of technical manipulation can change a basic fact about the meaning of ads—namely, an ad must always be understood to tell a positive, beneficial story about the advertised product. A picture of a middle-aged man giving a glass of juice to a small child must be interpreted in a product-supportive way. It must be understood to represent a father (or other close relative) giving a healthy drink to a child for which he cares. It simply would not do to understand such an image as representing a pedophile giving drugs to a child. There are specific boundaries within which ads must be interpreted, and this particular rule must be respected in interpreting the meaning of all ads. Within these bounds, images are manipulated for maximum positivity. For example, strawberries are made to look fresher and sweeter, models younger and more attractive, water bluer, and clouds whiter. Just as there are boundaries as to what an ad can mean, there is also the general understanding that images are, as a matter of course, manipulated in ways that enhance them.
The depiction of feelings, relationships, and other non-narrative factors
Sometimes advertising departs from its usual world of narrative representation to link advertised products to emotional states. Music, motion, color, and other features are sometimes used in an attempt to evoke attitudes and feelings in consumers rather than to tell specific stories. As difficult to accomplish in advertising as it is in art, non-narrative ads communicate messages about products and the emotional states they seek to invoke.
The culture of symbolic representations
Ads draw heavily on cultural symbols, especially those whose meanings are widely shared within a society. An apple can evoke the Garden of Eden and Eve specifically. Red, white, and blue colors in combination evoke patriotism. A mortarboard signifies education. And on it goes. Sometimes ads themselves create new symbols that enter the culture. Whether symbols have been around for a while or are of more recent origin, ads depend heavily on shared symbolic representations. As ads seek to operate globally, they must attend to possibilities that colors, gestures, and other symbols do not mean the same thing in all cultures. Recent print ads and TV commercials proclaim the sensitivity of the international banking corporation, HSBC, to cultural differences that can affect business success around the world.
10. The Interpretation of Advertising—The Perspectives of Expert Analysts
Analogous to art critics, experts on advertising also offer their own analyses of what ads mean. Some of these critics come from the academic community while others are journalists and business commentators. Some write about the phenomenon of advertising in general while others focus their commentaries on specific ads or campaigns.
Advertisements as Social Tableaux
Historian Roland Marchand thinks of advertisements as social tableaux analogous to the living tableaus that were popular in 19th century America. In these moments of frozen action on stage or at an elaborate dinner among the affluent, the audience studied the panoramic presentation before them. Whether it was a simple manger scene at Christmas, a famous moment in history, a scene that evokes the pleasures of a summer evening, or a living frieze of Greek goddesses, these tableaux functioned, like other artistic representations, as reflections and comments on social life. Using this analogy, Marchand thinks of advertisements as displaying tableaux of society in which consumers can see how products should be used, how homes should look, how their families ought to behave, and how tangible commodities can signify intangibles like success and happiness. His mode of interpretation shifts analytic focus away from primary selling messages to the social ideologies portrayed in ads.
The politics of representation
Ever since Edward Said pointed out the political context within which Western culture has tended to represent the Orient, scholars have unceasingly looked for vested interests, built-in biases, and political orientations of representations of all sorts. It is standard practice nowadays to question the political environment within which an image, text, or other representation is produced. Concerning advertising, the working assumptions in interpreting all ads from this perspective are that they tell the stories that the sponsors want told; that advertising in general is a social narrative about consumption; and that the narrative is told to an audience of consumers who live in a society dependent on mass consumption for its very existence. Thus, advertising in this context is the ideology and mythology of consumption. The myth of advertising tells of heroic commodities and fabulous lives enhanced and fulfilled through purchase and consumption.
Reading against the grain
The cultural theorist Stuart Hall describes three ways of understanding texts. Whether interpreting a novel, TV program, commercial, or some other text, Hall argues that readers can take one of three positions with regard to decoding the meaning of the text. First, they can give it a dominant-hegemonic reading, meaning that they accept the text in a passive manner and accept it unquestioningly. This mode does not challenge the intended meaning of a text that its producers have encoded. An example of this approach would be accepting as normal or natural a male-dominated world in a story. Second, they may give it a negotiated reading, meaning that they interact with the dominant meaning in terms of their own cultural backgrounds, social positions, and individual memories. This mode does not leave the text to its producers’ intentions, but rather involves a negotiation by readers/viewers/consumers. An example of this approach would be to understand the male-dominated world not as normal or natural but as existing in particular social and historical circumstances. Third, they may give the text an oppositional reading, meaning that they challenge the dominant ideas in the text outright and bring alternate meanings to it. This mode overtakes the intended meaning of a text and replaces it with the meaning readers/viewers/consumers supply.18 An example of this type of reading would be to interpret an ad about say, “better things through chemistry,” as corporate America’s attempt to distort the reality of industrial pollutants in the atmosphere.
Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (1978) proposes a strategy for interpreting advertisements ideologically. Using semiotic theory, she argues that ads communicate in many ways beyond the strict, overt messages they offer. Many of these additional messages are, according to Williamson, messages that encourage consumers to accept the dominant ideologies of the power of corporations, the values of consumptions, and their tacit role as purchasers and consumers of products. Her analysis is geared toward an understanding of advertisements by “reading against the grain” in order to decode or uncover such deeper meanings.
11. Analyzing Advertisements
The remainder of this unit is devoted to the analysis of four TV commercials using the various analytic concepts discussed above. All four concern computers—two for Apple, and two for IBM. Two commercials date from the 1980s when personal computers were being introduced to the American public. Two are contemporary commercials advertising the same brands more than two decades later.
The two earlier commercials appeared at a time when IBM had overtaken most of its early competitors and only Apple remained a serious challenger. IBM, as category leader, focused on the benefits of using a computer for small businesses. By contrast, Apple promoted itself as an alternative to the commodity standardization of IBM.
The current commercials also reflect the competition between Apple and IBM. The Apple commercial makes the point that IBM computers are more susceptible to computer viruses than Apples. The IBM commercial focuses its strategy on helping companies identify their unique features in the competitive global marketplace.
12. Apple’s 1984
Apple Computer launched the Macintosh personal computer during the 1984 Super Bowl. Although the commercial in Figure 17 aired only once on national television during paid time,18 the media event that surrounded it provided Apple with many hours of free publicity. The central theme of the spot is Apple’s challenge to IBM’s domination of the computer market. Although IBM is not named directly, both critics and the public understood that the commercial tells the story of Apple’s struggle against IBM’s near monopolistic domination. Former Apple chairman John Sculley left little doubt about the reference to IBM when he quoted the commercial’s copywriter, Steve Hayden, as saying, “[The commercial’s] going to announce Macintosh as this big event that’s going to save the world from having to become inundated with all this boring stuff that IBM represents.”19
The commercial opens on a great hall where sallow-faced workers march in endless lockstep. “The air is thick with smog, a bluish-grey haze overlaying everything, reminiscent of [director Ridley] Scott’s vision of the future Los Angeles in Blade Runner; the pallor and sickliness of the workers are accentuated.”20 A talking head on a giant TV screen intones in an authoritative electronic voice a litany about the value of controlled information:
My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we bill bury them with their own confusion.—“Big Brother” in Apple’s 1984 commercial
The commercial stated “...you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984,” meaning that the year 1984, in which the Apple personal computer was being introduced, would not be like the 1984 imagined by George Orwell in his novel of that name. Orwell’s novel, written in 1948, critiqued the political environment created by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union—a world of standardization, surveillance, and conformity. By identifying IBM with this conformity, Apple warned of a future world dominated by a single computer company. Apple offered itself as the liberating force that would provide an alternative to such mindless conformity.
Critics praised director Ridley Scott’s high production values and attention to detail, which were more typical of feature-length films than TV commercials. Scott had been chosen to direct the commercial because of the success of Blade Runner (1982), an award-winning science fiction film about Los Angeles in the future. In addition to drawing on Orwell’s 1984 for inspiration, Scott invoked other important cultural symbols and filmic references. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a 1927 film about working class conditions in capitalist society, supplied the opening sequence of the marching workers. The disembodied head of the male authority figure was reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz, and the figure of the female athlete evoked Dorothy arriving in the Land of Oz. Critics also noted the commercial’s references to the biblical stories of David and Goliath and the Tree of Knowledge. Although the classic story of David and Goliath is about a battle between two men, the challenger here is a female confronting male authority. Through this twist of the myth, Apple identified with the ideology of New Wave Feminism, then in full force. However, the commercial failed to take note of the fact that most workers in Third World electronics factories were actually women.
The corporate logo—an apple with a bite missing—evokes another biblical story in which the apple signifies knowledge. In that story, taking a bite of the apple signifies challenges to divine authority and submission to the forces of nature. As with Eve’s apple, Apple computers offer humanity a means of taking control of its destiny.
Former Apple CEO John Sculley assessed the impact of the commercial in his autobiography:
It became a phenomenon overnight. The commercial sparked widespread controversy. When word got out that we had spent nearly $1.6 million on a single sixty-second commercial, irate shareholders began firing off letters. They asked what right I had to take the company’s money and plow it into something that no one at Apple had any experience with. Other so-called advertising gurus contended the commercial was utterly alien to the product. But the commercial also was the basis of news stories on all three networks, on nearly fifty local news shows, and in countless newspapers and magazines. Some 43 million people saw the film, even though we only paid for it to run once. It would go on to win the Grand Prix at Cannes—the first American commercial to do so in years—as well as thirty-four other international and national advertising awards.21
13. IBM’s Little Tramp
The IBM commercial in Figure 19 appeared a few months before the Apple 1984 commercial. Its message is about the business benefits of using PCs to help manage small companies. In this commercial, IBM introduces a product and discusses its benefits to consumers. Most advertisements today do not introduce new products. Rather, they serve to reinforce brand loyalty or to encourage brand switching. This commercial is one of the exceptions.
IBM produced a series of print ads and TV commercials to introduce the personal computer and educate the public about its use. Specific settings and messages varied across the ads, but the “Little Tramp” character made famous by Charlie Chaplin during the silent movie era appeared in them all. The Little Tramp never spoke on screen but rather communicated as Chaplin always did, through movements, gestures, and antics. Other consistent elements in the ads were an IBM PC on a literal desktop and a single red rose.
As the story unfolds, the chaos and confusion of the pre-computer factory is transformed into a precise choreography of movement and efficiency after the computer is introduced. A wheel motif appears in many scenes: the rollers on the skates manufactured by the company, the Little Tramp character who wants to be a “big wheel” in the company, the pie-chart on the computer screen, the circular insert showing the boss, and the logos on the workers’ clothes. This motif unifies elements that are normally oppositional: people versus machines; management versus labor. With the computer comes harmony and efficiency. The post-computer world is not like what preceded it.
Sociologists and labor historians report the tedium and monotony of real line work and its dehumanizing effects on laborers. However, the commercial paints a different picture of factory work. After the introduction of the computer, workers are ecstatically happy. Smiles appear on their faces, and line work seems to be a joy.
The meaning of the rose is a bit more mysterious. Some critics surmised that IBM was trying to introduce romance, humanness, and emotions into an otherwise cold world of machines. The rose was the single element of color in print ads and TV commercials that were otherwise overwhelmingly black, white, and gray in tone.
The commercial pays specific homage to one of Chaplin’s most famous films, Modern Times (1936), a biting satire criticizing the mechanization of human labor. Modern Times was set in a factory where the Little Tramp (representing the “little man” in society) punched in and out on a time clock and subordinated himself to the demands of his boss. His monotonous work motions become so reflexive to him that they break out in bodily spasms during his lunch hour. In Modern Times, the time clock, the machinery, and the line work stand in opposition to the Little Tramp’s humanity. The film is anti-business, anti-industrial, and anti-mechanization.
How did such an oppositional film come to represent capitalist productivity and the Little Tramp, icon of the little man, become instead an emblem of capitalism? P. David McGovern, ad director at IBM, offered this explanation: “Chiefly, we wanted something that people would remember. Using the Chaplin character was one way to create ads with stopping power.”22 Time commented that, “The Tramp, with his ever present red rose, has given IBM a human face.”23 Jane Caputi, feminist literary critic, wrote: “Now ... in perfect accord with double-think, the home computer is plugged as a ‘tool for modern times,’ and the image of the Tramp is made to perform as the thoroughly identified advocate, indeed tool, of the Machine—International Business Machines, to be precise.”24 Cultural studies critic Ted Friedman noted, “Rewriting the story of the dystopian Modern Times to give it a Desk Set -style happy ending was an act of astounding gall, but judging from the IBM PC sales, it was quite successful.”25
The advertisers had their reasons for selecting the images they used just as the critics had their assessments of their choices. Through the commercials, the IBM character became a memorable and much-loved character just as the original character had been in the Chaplin films. Putting a face on the machine did serve to humanize IBM somewhat, even if the corporation did rewrite history in the process by transforming the ideological significance of Modern Times and its hero.
Thus, both the Apple and the IBM commercials tell stories that are ideological in nature—one is the story of a small company challenging the dominance of a near-monopolistic competitor, and the other is a story about a means of increasing capitalistic productivity. The ideological filters through which these stories view reality are akin to the ideological lens through which Gérôme portrayed Middle Eastern culture.
14. Apple’s Viruses
Apple continues to challenge IBM in its current advertising. In a pool of commercials that aired through the late spring and summer in 2006, Apple addressed several advantages of Macs over PCs. The commercial in Figure 21, reminiscent of Apple’s challenge in 1984, proclaims the Mac’s superior immunity to computer viruses.
The young guy in jeans and a T-shirt introduces himself, “Hello, I’m a Mac.” The older guy in a coat and tie says, “Hi, I’m a PC.” The PC guy sneezes. “Are you okay?” asks the Mac guy. “No, I’m not okay. I have that virus that’s going around.” The Mac guy explains that Macs don’t get most PC viruses. Demonstrations like this in the commercials are visualizations of the advantages of a Mac.
Telling the story against a white background, accompanied by simple piano music focuses attention on fundamental differences. These elements stand in contrast to the busyness and complexity of many contemporary ads. The Mac is efficient, flexible, and immune to most viruses. The PC isn’t as flexible or trendy or safe. It’s as simple as that. Head-on comparative advertising in which the competition is mentioned directly rather than through symbolic illusion is now standard in American advertising. The advertiser has to convince the lawyers and network censors that the claims can be supported. Then it’s fair game in the competitive marketplace. Some consumers like to see the competitor trashed in this type of aggressive competition while others do not. Nevertheless, it is difficult to miss the point of such a clear and direct set of claims backed up by powerful visual imagery.
The two actors (John Hodgman and Justin Long) encapsulate Mac-PC differences: standard equipment versus trendy innovations, businessman versus hipster, older versus younger, and so on. The ad neither shows the two computers nor does it contain any complex symbols that require decoding in order to understand the message.
4. IBM’s Anthem
IBM’s strategy in 2006 focuses on helping companies determine and deliver on the unique factors that distinguish them in a world of global competition. Their ads and commercials do not mention their competitors by name but talk instead about competition in general and IBM’s role in helping companies discover what makes them special. This strategy was developed from research findings that show that many top business managers expect their companies to change radically in the near future as a result of global competition.
In April 2006, IBM published a 16-page supplement to the Wall Street Journal outlining this approach. Just as the newer Apple commercial is reminiscent of the approach in the older one, the new IBM commercial recycles the focus on the benefits to businesses that IBM’s products offer. Adweek ‘s review of Anthem, one of the 2006 IBM commercials, reads:
It depicts a stream of blue flower petals that emerge from a factory’s smokestack and float over various settings, such as a cluster of office cubicles or the maternity ward in a hospital. The focus then shifts to groups of men and women who appear to be singing along to a song from the Kinks that speaks to the new positioning: “I’m Not Like Anybody Else.” The spot, which was shot in New York, London and Shanghai and directed by Joe Pytka, ends with a series of questions presented in white screen copy: “What makes you DIFFERENT? What makes you UNIQUE? What makes you SPECIAL?” The flowers are a metaphor for hope, optimism and change, explained Chris Wall, co-executive creative director at WPP’s Ogilvy in New York. “They’re a deliberate kind of magic symbol,” Wall added.26
IBM’s corporate website gave this description of its campaign:
Globalization is forcing companies to re-examine how they compete. Today’s hit product is tomorrow’s commodity. Bottom line: companies have to do more than make their products or services unique—they have to be unique. The key to differentiation is innovation. Not the innovation that sparks new inventions per se, but innovation that reinvents how businesses do business at every level of the enterprise. No one does innovation better than IBM. We’ve learned alongside hundreds of clients across industries and continents. We have the technology. The people. And the expertise.—From the IBM corporate website27
The intended audiences for the 2006 IBM and Apple commercials are not the same. The Apple commercial targets dissatisfied IBM users and tries to persuade them to switch from PCs to Macs. By contrast, the IBM ad is directed to a relatively small and elite group of corporate decision makers. TV commercials may reach large numbers of current PC users, but are they a good means to address top corporate executives who manage global companies? Some critics did not think so.28
The production costs of the Apple and the IBM commercials were also quite different. The IBM spot features complex computer graphics and diverse locations, while the Apple spot uses just two actors. The Apple commercial employs a straightforward, no-nonsense approach while the IBM spot includes complex references and symbols that need to be decoded, including IBM’s use of the color blue.29
Analysis of commercials proceeds along similar lines as the interpretation of art. Many of the same questions and issues are relevant. The discussion of the meanings of the four commercials shows the value of understanding what the producers (both client companies and advertising directors) had in mind, although this information is often inaccessible or difficult to obtain.
Adult consumers are unlikely to confuse the commercials with programming or anything else since the commercials follow well-known formats and expectations. In addition to factual information, the commercials often attempt to engender particular emotional responses in consumers and to change their attitudes and beliefs.
The process of interpreting commercials often requires some active participation on the parts of consumers so that they become collaborators in determining the meanings of particular commercials. As with paintings, commercial narratives function within the context of larger master narratives about production, consumption, and the “good life.” The symbolic codes used within advertisements are often familiar, but sometimes they require considerable work to decode.
Commercial messages, like other forms of artistic representation, are frequently governed by underlying ideologies. Knowledge of corporate strategies and the context within which ads are constructed add depth of understanding. Critical assessments made from particular theoretical positions can help round out the decoding process.
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. Wikipedia 5/26/06 article on “Cave Painting” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_painting. These popular explanations are attributed to Abbè Breuil, a French archaeologist who died in 1961; Emile Cartailhac, a 19th-century French prehistorian, and unnamed ethnographers of contemporary hunting-and-gathering societies.
3. Suzanne Guerlac, “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux),” Diacritics 26, no. 2 (1996): 6–17.
4. John Ruskin, “Introduction to Elements of Perspective,” in The Elements of Drawing: Elements of Perspective, Everyman’s Library, Essays and Belles Lettres 217 (London: Dent, 1907), 210.
6. Sometimes paintings combine more than a single point in time in one grand image. Nonetheless, whether a single point or multiple points in time are represented, there is a longer, more complex narrative from which the images are drawn. Snapshots are like this in that they represent moments in a longer narrative.
7. Gérôme traveled extensively in Turkey and Egypt before this painting was created.
8. Walter B. Denny, “Quotations in and out of Context: Ottoman Turkish Art and European Orientalist Painting,” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 219–230, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0732-2992%281993%2910%3C219%3AQIAOOC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-0.
9. Photography was invented in the mid-1800s. In its early years, picture taking required cumbersome equipment and lengthy exposures of photographic plates. It was not until around the turn of the 20th century that Kodak introduced the box camera, which made photography by non-professionals practicable.
10. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, “The myth of photographic truth,” Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 16–21.
11. Betsy Frioleau, “Agnes Sorel, 1422–1450” in Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love, (New York: Viking, 2003), 235–239.
12. These two schools of thought run through the humanities disciplines and move in and out of vogue. For a general discussion of the issue, see http://www.sociocritique.mcgill.ca/theorie/literature.htm.
13. According to art critic Malcolm Rogers, a broken column is a traditional emblem of fortitude in adversity. Malcolm Rogers, William Dobson 1611–46 (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1983), 67.
14. Anita Schorsch, Images of Childhood (New York: Mayflower Books, 1979), 51.
15. WebMuseum, Paris, “Pollock, Jackson; Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950,” Nicolas Pioch, http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/pollock/lavender-mist/ (accessed September 18, 2006).
16. Margo Smith Bowles, “Introduction,” in Art from the Land, ed. Howard Morphy and Margo Smith Bowles, 1 (Charlottesville, Va.: The University of Virginia Press, 1999).
17. Stuart Hall, “Encoding, Decoding” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During, 90–103 (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). See also Sturken and Cartwright, chapter 2, for an extensive discussion of Hall’s work and related perspectives on the interpretation of texts.
18. It also showed once in December 1983 on local television in Twin Falls, Idaho. The purpose of this airing was to allow it to be considered for 1983 advertising awards.
19. John Sculley, Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple … a journey of adventure, ideas, and the future (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 171.
20. Marcin Wichary, “Macintosh. Twenty years later,” Attached, http://www.aresluna.org/attached/computerhistory/articles/macintosh20yearslater (accessed September 18, 2006) http://www.uiowa.edu/~commstud/adclass/1984_mac_ad.html.
21. Sculley, 178.
22. Kathy Root. “Kudos for a Tramp and a Motor Mouth,” Nation’s Business (April 1984): 44–45.
23. “Softening a Starchy Image,” Time, July 11, 1983, 54.
24. Jane Caputi. “Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Phallotechnology,” Feminist Studies (Autumn 1988): 486–524.
25. Ted Friedman, Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 106.
26. Andrew McMains, “Ogilvy Touts IBM Innovation,” AdWeek, March 10, 2006, http://www.adweek.com/aw/national/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002156263 (accessed September 18, 2006).
27. IBM, “Advertising,” IBM, http://www-306.ibm.com/innovation/us/advertising/advert_helpdesk.shtml (accessed September 18, 2006).
29. IBM is frequently called “Big Blue” and its massive computer that competed in a chess tournament with Garry Kasparov was known as “Deep Blue.”
Fig. 1. Courtesy French Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Fig. 6. Courtesy Yale Center for British Arts.
Fig. 7. © 2006 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Fig. 9. Courtesy American Airlines/TM Advertising.
Fig. 10. Courtesy Energizer/TWBA\Chiat\Day.
Fig. 11. Courtesy HSBC/Interpublic Group.
Fig. 13. American Magazine, April 1929, 148.
Fig. 14. Paper Magazine, October 1998.
Fig. 15. From the author’s collection.
Fig. 16. From the author’s collection.
Fig. 17. Courtesy Apple/TWBA\Chiat\Day.
Fig. 19. From the author’s collection.
Fig. 20. From the author’s collection.
Fig. 21. Courtesy Apple/TWBA\Chiat\Day.
Fig. 22. Courtesy IBM/Ogilvy & Mather.