The postmodernists have been fascinated by this whole degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels.
Jameson (1991: 2)
I n this chapter our trek through the domain of culture reaches its destination—the modern world, a world characterized above all else by a reliance on visual media, especially television and advertising, for its daily textuality. The focus in the previous chapters was on the nature and type of signs that human beings create, and the codes and sign systems into which these cohere. In this chapter the focus will change somewhat, in that we will be looking more closely at the nature and role of media in representation. The medium can be defined simply as the physical means by which a sign or text is encoded (put together) and through which it is transmitted (delivered). Before the advent of alphabets (chapter 5, §5.5) the primary media were the oral-auditory and the pictographic ones. With the invention of the alphabet principle, a radical change occurred in human cognitive and cultural life, a change the philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996) aptly called a “paradigm shift” (1970).
From the Middle Ages to the 1950s, print was the primary medium through which people sought insight, authority, and guidance. As we saw previously (chapter 9, §9.4), McLuhan called the world of print the “Gutenberg Galaxy.” But there is no doubt that another paradigm shift has occurred since the middle part of the twentieth century, whereby visual media like the cinema and TV have taken over the role of written texts. Television in particular has instilled its own form of visual literacy that informs, stimulates, and engages more people than at any other time in human history.
Today, scientific research papers on the effects visual media purportedly wreak on individuals and on society at large are proliferating. Many blame the media for causing virtually everything from obesity to street violence. Are they right? Has television spawned the sordidness that many think now characterizes contemporary society? Are the people who “scream and shout hysterically at rock concerts and later in life at religious revival meetings” the victims of electronic media, as Key (1989: 13) suggests? There is no doubt that TV has had an effect on behavior, but then so has every social text of the past—from religious texts to novels. In actual fact, TV is hardly ever innovative or emotionally persuasive. It generates images that reinforce already-forged lifestyle behaviors. To do otherwise would be a commercially risky venture, as the ratings that TV executives ask for regularly confirm.
In 1884 the German engineer Paul Nipkow designed a scanning disk that created crude television images. Nipkow’s scanner was used from 1923 to 1925 in experimental television systems. Then, in 1926 the Scottish scientist John Logie Baird (1888–1946) perfected the scanning method, and in 1931 the Russian-born engineer Vladimir Zworykin (1889–1982) built the electronic scanning system that became the prototype of the modern TV camera. The first home television receiver was exhibited in Schenectady, New York, in 1928, by American inventor Ernst F. W. Alexanderson. The images were small, poor, and unsteady, but the set was a portent of what was to come.
By the late 1930s, television service was in place in several Western countries. The British Broadcasting Corporation, for example, started a regular service in 1936. By the early 1940s there were 23 television stations operating in the United States. But it was not until the early 1950s that technology had advanced to the point that it became affordable for virtually every American household to own a television set. Immediately thereafter, TV took an emotional stranglehold on society. Television personages became household names, looming larger than life. Actors and announcers became lifestyle trend-setters. People began more and more to plan their daily lives around television programs.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s television programming developed rapidly into more than an assortment of fact and fiction narratives; it became itself a social text for an increasingly larger segment of society. Today, 98% of American households own a television set, and many of them have more than one. People depend on television a large portion of their information, intellectual stimulation, and recreation. Many have become emotionally dependent upon TV, displaying withdrawal-like symptoms if denied access to TV for even a short period of time.
McLuhan (1964) was among the first to decry that electronic media have an impact far greater than that of the material they communicate. He argued that in each culture the medium in which information is recorded and transmitted is decisive in determining the character of that culture. This is why an oral culture is vastly different in social organization and outlook than an alphabetic one. McLuhan also predicted that the worldwide linking of electronic media would create a “global village.” And indeed, just as he foresaw, through advances in satellite communications, the world has become an electronic village.
Effects of TV
There are three main psychological effects that TV has had on society at large. These have been called various things by different social scientists. We will refer to them here as the mythologizing effect, the history fabrication effect, and the cognitive compression effect.
The term mythologizing effect refers to the fact that television personages are perceived as mythic figures, looming larger than life. Like any type of privileged space—a platform, pulpit, etc. that is designed to impart focus and significance to someone—television creates mythic heroes by simply containing them in its electronic space, where they are seen as suspended in time and space, in a mythic world of their own. To appreciate how emotionally powerful this effect is, the reader should think of how s/he would react to a favorite television personality coming to visit h/er in h/er own home. The reader certainly would not experience that person’s presence as s/he would that of any other visitor. S/he would feel the TV personage’s presence as constituting an event of momentous proportions, a visitation from an otherworldly being. Media personages are infused with this deified quality by virtue of the fact that they are seen inside the mythical space of the TV or cinematic screen. This is why meeting actors, musical stars, etc. causes great enthusiasm and excitement in many people. Media celebrities are the contemporary equivalents of the graven images of the Bible.
The term history fabrication effect refers to the fact that TV literally fabricates history by inducing the impression in viewers that some ordinary event—an election campaign, an actor’s love affair, a fashion trend, etc.—is a momentous happening. People make up their minds about the guilt or innocence of others by watching news and interview programs; they see certain behaviors as laudable or damnable by tuning into talk shows or docudramas. In a phrase, the events that receive air time are felt to be more significant and historically meaningful to society than those that do not. A riot that gets air time becomes a consequential event; one that does not is ignored. This is why terrorists are seemingly more interested in simply getting on the air than in having their demands satisfied. TV imbues their cause with historical status and, therefore, with significance. Political and social protesters frequently inform the news media of their intentions, and then dramatically stage their demonstrations for the cameras. Sports events like the World Series, the Super Bowl, or the Stanley Cup Playoffs are transformed on television into Herculean struggles of mythic heroes. Events such as the John Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald assassinations, the Vietnam War, the Watergate hearings, the Rodney King beating, the O. J. Simpson trial, the Bill Clinton sex scandal, and the like are transformed into portentous and prophetic historical events. They are imbued with the same emotional power that comes from watching the great classical dramas. In a phrase, TV has become the maker of history and its documenter at the same time. People now experience history through TV, and as a result, television is shaping history. The horrific scenes coming out of the Vietnam War that were transmitted into people’s homes daily in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought about an end to the war, by mobilizing social protest. Significantly, an MTV flag was hoisted by East German youths over the Berlin Wall as they tore it down in 1989. More people watched the wedding of England’s Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and later Diana’s funeral, than had ever before in human history simultaneously observed such events.
As mentioned, the history-making power of TV has led many to actually stage an event for the cameras. Anderson (1992: 125-130) calls these appropriately “pseudoevents.” These are never spontaneous, but planned for the sole purpose of being put on television. Pseudoevents are usually intended to be self-fulfilling prophecies. The American invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983, and the Gulf War during January and February of 1991 were concomitantly real events and pseudoevents. The actual military operations and conflicts were real events. But the reporting of these wars was orchestrated by a massive public-relations operation. Reporters were censored and kept away from the action so that the news coverage could be stylized and managed more effectively. The idea was to give the viewing public a military and social victory and, therefore, to allow Americans to “feel good about themselves.” Pseudoevents constitute theater at its best, because they mesh reality (the real killing and terrorizing of people) with acting, drama, and narrative. As Anderson (1992: 126-127) aptly puts it, the “media take the raw material of experience and fashion it into stories; they retell the stories to us, and we call them reality.”
Lastly, the cognitive compression effect refers to the fact that TV structures its stories, information, and events in compressed form for time-constrained transmission. This leaves little time for reflection on the topics, implications, ideas, etc. contained in a transmission, and has created a new way of cognizing and recognizing information that has produced both shorter attention spans and a need for constant variety in information content. TV has habituated people to large doses of information, cut up, packaged, and digested beforehand. This has fostered a psychological dependency on information and visual stimulation for their own sake. This is the reason why television is vastly more popular than reading. After work or school in the evenings, it is an arduous task to read a book, since it entails mental effort and thus causes a slowdown in information processing. TV viewing, on the other hand, is very easy. The images do the thinking for the viewer.
Take TV news programs as a case-in-point. The amount of information presented in a short period of time on a news program is torrential. We are able to take it all in superficially because the information is edited and stylized for effortless mass consumption. The camera moves in to select aspects of a situation, to show a face that cares, that is suffering, that is happy, that is angry, and then shifts to the cool handsome face of an anchorman or to the attractive one of an anchorwoman to tell us what it’s all about. The news items, the film footage, the commentaries are all fast-paced and brief. They are designed to be visually dramatic snippets of easily digestible information. “Within such a stylistic environment,” remarks Stuart Ewen (1988: 265), “the news is beyond comprehension.” The facts of the news are subjected to the stylized signature of the specific news program—the same story will be interpreted differently according to who the television journalist is. Thus it is that as “nations and people are daily sorted out into boxes marked ‘good guys,’ ‘villains,’ ‘victims,’ and ‘lucky ones,’ style becomes the essence, reality becomes the appearance” (Ewen 1988: 265-266).
Immediately following World War II four companies controlled network television broadcasting in the United States. Two of the companies, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), had made vast fortunes in radio broadcasting. The remaining two were the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and the DuMont Television Network; DuMont went out of business in 1955. By the mid-1950s NBC, CBS, and ABC—collectively known as the Big Three—had secured American network television as their exclusive domain. It was not until the mid-1980s that other companies broke their monopoly. At that time, moreover, cable television (television signals transmitted by cable to paying subscribers) ended channel scarcity.
Each network or specialty channel now attempts to attract either a large audience or a specific kind of audience (e.g. movie buffs) through programming, i.e. through the allocation of programs at specific times of the day that will maximize viewership. When looked at globally, programming differences turn out to be matters of detail. Overall, programming patterns are facets of the larger social text that TV has become.
A social text is an overriding text that informs the entire culture. To see what this means, it is instructive to step back in time with our imaginations to some village in medieval Europe, with no TVs, no novels, no modern-day diversionary accouterments of any kind. What would daily life be like? How would common people organize their day? What social text would they likely be living by? It is likely that the daily life schemes of the individuals living in the village would be informed and guided by a Christian social text. Residues of this text are still around today. This is why many people in our society organize significant social activities on religious dates such as Christmas and Easter. In medieval Europe, the Christian text probably regulated one’s entire day. In that era, people emphasized going to church regularly during the day and the week, lived by strict moral codes based on the Bible, and listened conscientiously to the dictates of clergymen. The underlying subtext of the medieval Christian social text was that each day brought one closer and closer to one’s true destiny—salvation and an afterlife with God. Living according to that text no doubt imparted to many people a feeling of security, emotional shelter, and spiritual meaning.
During the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, the Christian social text came to be gradually transformed into a more secular one by society at large. Today, unless someone has joined a religious community or has chosen to live strictly by the dictates of the Bible or some other religious text, the social text by which people live is hardly a religious one. We organize our day around work commitments and social appointments that have hardly anything to do with salvation, and only at those traditional points in the calendar year (Christmas, Easter, etc.) do we reinvest our secular text with its more traditional religious connotations. The secular social text necessitates partitioning the day into “time slots.” This is why we depend so heavily upon such devices as clocks, watches, agendas, appointment books, calendars. We would be desperately lost without such things. In this regard, it is relevant to note that in his great 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) satirized the tendency of people to rely on the watch to organize their daily routines—the Lilliputians were baffled by Gulliver’s inability to do anything without consulting his watch! Like Gulliver, modern individuals need to know continually what time it is in order to carry on with the normal conduct of their lives.
When television entered the social scene in the 1950s, it became almost instantly the medium through which the existing secular social text was delivered to society at large, and through which people thus gleaned information about how to conduct their lives. If the reader were to peruse the daily TV listings and start classifying the programs into morning, noon, and evening slots, s/he would get an idea of what this entails. With cable television and satellite dishes, the range of programming offered would, at first, appear to be a broad and highly varied one. But a closer critical look at the listings will reveal a different story.
Consider morning programming. The listings disclose that most of the programs are information shows (news, weather, sports), children’s shows, fitness programs, and (later in the morning) talk and quiz shows. There is very little variation from this menu. One may, of course, subscribe to a cable movie channel or to some special-interest channel to suit one’s fancy. But, as ratings research has shown, most people are inclined to watch the regular fare of morning programs. That part of the TV text changes somewhat on weekends, reflecting a different kind of social situation associated with Saturdays and Sundays. But on weekday mornings “Wake up, America” is the overall message of the TV text. As you wake up, “here’s what you need to know,” blurt out the newscasters. “Get into shape,” exclaim the fitness instructors. “Because you’re interested, meet people with weird or heart-wrenching stories,” bellow the talk show hosts.
In the afternoon the primary type of program is the soap opera, which started on radio as a drama, typically performed as a serial with stock characters and plots of a sentimental nature. This genre was given its name because it was originally sponsored by soap detergent companies. Rather than go out and chitchat or gossip as did medieval people in village squares, people today do virtually the same thing by peering daily into the complicated lives of soap opera personages. The soaps put people on intimate terms with the private lives of make-believe lawyers, doctors, executives, and other glamorous personages. As social mores change, so do the soaps. One reflects the other.
The afternoon is also the time for TV’s version of the medieval morality play. Talk shows, interview programs, and the like allow common people to reveal and confess their “sins” in public and, consequently, allow a large viewing audience to participate cathartically in acts of self-revelation and repentance. As Stern and Stern (1992: 123) write, talk shows “are a relief in the sense that it is always nice to see people whose problems are worse than yours.” The afternoon is thus a time slot for moral drama, acted out upon a media stage that has replaced the pulpit as the platform on which moral issues are discussed and from which sin is condemned publicly. TV reporters and announcers, like medieval priests, comment morally upon virtually every medical and psychological condition known.
The third part of daily TV programming has traditionally been called “prime time,” the period in the evenings, from about 7 PM to 10 PM, when the largest number of people are home to watch TV. The prelude to evening programming is, as it was for the morning component, the news hour. After this, quiz shows and gossip journalism maintain curiosity and interest, until family programming takes over for a couple of hours, with sitcoms, adventure programs, documentaries, movies, and the like. In the 1980s, soap operas were also introduced into this time frame. Prime-time programming meshes fictional narrative with moral and social messages for the entire family. Documentary programs, in particular, showcase real-life events, so that appropriate moral lessons can be learned.
Prime time is followed by “late night” programming—which constitutes a kind of coda to the TV text. There was nothing for medieval people to do past the early evening hours. If they did not go to bed early, then they would talk or pray. But in contemporary America, when the kids are safely in bed, programs allow viewers to indulge in prurient interests or more gossip. Under the cloak of darkness and with “innocent eyes and ears” fast asleep, one can fantasize and talk about virtually anything with social impunity.
Like any social text of the past, TV has become a primary agent for influencing social trends and bringing about social change. By showcasing significant events it often forces the hand of change. Indeed, without it, there probably would have been no civil rights legislation, no Vietnam War protests, no cynical reaction to politics after Watergate. TV programs have become pivotal also in raising consciousness vis-à-vis certain ethical and moral issues. Here’s just a sampling of what kinds of issues TV showcased, for instance, over a 25-year period, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s:
- In 1968 the science fiction series Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss in an episode titled Plato’s Stepchildren.
- In 1970 the first divorced couple appeared on the sitcom The Odd Couple.
- In 1971 the sitcom All in the Family cast the first homosexual characters in prime time.
- In 1973 the same program dealt with the topic of rape.
- In 1977 the miniseries Roots was among the first to deal; forcefully with the enduring problem of racism.
- In 1991 the first scene of women kissing was aired on anj episode of L.A. Law.
- In 1992 an episode of Seinfeld dealt with one of the more taboo subjects of Western society at the time, masturbation.
With the advent of satellite transmission technology, TV’s influence on cultural change now knows no political boundaries. When asked about the stunning defeat of communism in eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the Polish leader Lech Walesa was reported by the newspapers as saying that it “all came from the television set,” implying that television had undermined the stability of the communist world’s relatively poor and largely sheltered lifestyle with images of consumer delights seen in Western programs and commercials.
But along with the good comes the not-so-good. Today, we live in a global TV culture. Most people today cannot remember a time without a television set in their homes. There are several billion TV sets around the globe. Spending on television programming has reached hundreds of billions of dollars. As Marshall McLuhan had predicted, by century’s end, television had indeed shrunk the world into a “global village.” Demographic surveys show that people spend a significant amount of time in front of television sets, that watching TV is bringing about a gradual decline in reading, that the nation-state concept is gradually dissolving as ideas and images cross national boundaries daily through television channels. Television has changed the general shape of world culture, inducing an insatiable craving for entertainment, variety, and visual stimulation in people around the globe. As a consequence we are more apt than previous generations to want to know and do things quickly and without effort. The only real form of immunity against the barrage of TV images that assail us on a daily basis is knowledge of and respect for the history of the TV medium—what it has been and how it has evolved.
What Will Come after TV?
We should emphasize that this emotional dependency on TV is unlikely to be permanent. Nothing in human affairs is. But as we write, it is difficult to foresee what will come forward in the near future to replace TV. Maybe virtual reality will trigger the next paradigm shift. Virtual reality (VR) is a system of devices that enables users to move and react in a computer-simulated environment, sensing and manipulating virtual objects (objects in computer- or cyberspace) much as they would real objects. Participants have the feeling of being immersed in the simulated world. Virtual worlds are created by mathematical models and computer programs. VR simulations differ from other computer simulations in that they require special interface devices that transmit the sights, sounds, and sensations of the simulated world to the user. These devices also record and send the speech and movements of the participants to the simulation program. In effect, in the VR medium the human subject is interacting inside a world totally madeup, interacting with a pure representation.
To see in the virtual world, the user wears a head-mounted display (HMD) with screens directed at each eye. The HMD contains a position tracker to monitor the location of the user’s head and the direction in which the user is looking. Using this information, a computer recalculates images of the virtual world to match the direction in which the user is looking and displays these images on the HMD. Users hear sounds in the virtual world through earphones in the HMD. The haptic interface, which relays the sense of touch and other physical sensations in the virtual world, is, as we write, the least developed feature. Currently, with the use of a glove and position tracker, the user can reach into the virtual world and handle objects but cannot actually feel them.
Living in a simulated world is the ultimate form of thirdness, a world of the mind controlling the world of the senses. The VR medium raises some intriguing questions: How will the human species evolve in a VR space? How will society evolve? What kinds of crimes can be committed? And the list could go on and on.
The topic of TV raises the larger issue of the effects of media on the signifying order and on cognitive style (how people process and understand messages). This can be defined as the ways in which, and the degree to which, the senses are used in processing information. McLuhan (1964) pointed out that human beings are endowed by Nature to process information with all the senses. Our sense ratios, as he called them, are equally calibrated at birth. However, in social settings it is unlikely that all senses will operate at the same ratio. One sense or the other is raised or lowered according to the representational codes and media deployed. In an oral culture, the auditory sense ratio dominates; in an alphabetic one, the visual sense ratio dominates instead. This raising or lowering of a sense ratio is not preclusive. Indeed, in our own culture, a person can have various sense ratios operating in tandem. The ebb of ratios, up and down, in tandem, in opposition, is what defines the cognitive style of information processing.
Now, signs and texts can be expressed and transmitted through several media, thus involving different sense ratios according to medium. As a concrete example, consider the word ball. If one were to hear this word uttered by someone, h/er auditory sense ratio would be raised in processing the meaning of the word. If, however, the person were to see the word written on a sheet of paper, then h/er visual sense ratio would be raised instead. A visual depiction of the ball together with the utterance of the word ball on TV (as is done on children’s learning programs) would activate the auditory and visual sense ratios in tandem.
Each medium requires the utilization and, thus, knowledge of one or more type of code—e.g. if the sign or text is transmitted through an auditory medium, then the phonemic code of a language must be known by both the sender and the receiver; if it is written on a piece of paper, then the alphabetic code of the language must be known. The medium thus determines which code is to be deployed in encoding a message and this, in turn, raises or lowers certain sense ratios in the person decoding the message. This sequence thus shapes how a message is processed cognitively. As McLuhan so aptly put it, “the medium is the message”:
The same sign or text can, of course, be transmitted in more than one medium. So, for instance, a story can be told and listened to as an oral narrative, raising the auditory sense ratio in the decoding process; it can be read as a novel, raising the visual sense ratio; or it can be watched in movie form, raising both sensory ratios in tandem. In this model, encoding can be defined simply as the use of a code or codes to select or create a text according to the medium through which it will be transmitted; and decoding can be defined as the process of deciphering the transmitted text on the basis of the medium and code used.
Now, as one type of medium becomes dominant in a society, so too does the sense ratio it entails for encoding and decoding messages. In a tribal oral culture, the auditory sense ratio was high and thus shaped cognitive style. In Western culture, the Gutenberg revolution brought about a shift in cognitive style, by raising the visual sense ratio considerably. Since the advent of TV in the 1950s, the visual sense ratio has been raised even more, making people today highly dependent upon visually encoded forms of information.
Another social text that came to the forefront in the twentieth century to raise the visual sense ratio in cognitive style alongside TV was advertising. The contemporary advertising industry was founded at the threshold of the twentieth century on the premise that consumption of a product would increase in proportion to the size of an advertising campaign. Whether or not advertising is as effective as is commonly thought is beside the point of the present discussion. The point we will be focusing on here is that advertising, like TV, is a social text, promoting lifestyle and shaping worldview.
The term advertising derives from the medieval Latin verb advertere “to direct one’s attention to.” It designates any type or form of public announcement intended to promote the sale of specific commodities or services. Advertising is to be distinguished from other materials and activities aimed at swaying and influencing opinions, attitudes, and behaviors, such as propaganda, the term used in reference to any systematic dissemination of doctrines, views, beliefs reflecting specific interests and ideologies (political, social, philosophical, etc.); publicity, the term used in reference to the craft of disseminating any information that concerns a person, group, event, or product through some public medium; and public relations, the term commonly used to refer to the activities and techniques deployed by organizations and individuals to establish favorable attitudes towards them among the general public or special groups.
By the mid-twentieth century, advertising had evolved into a form of persuasive social discourse intended to influence how people perceived the buying and consumption of goods. Over the years it became a privileged discourse that replaced, by and large, the more traditional forms of discourse—sermons, political oratory, proverbs, wise sayings, etc.—which in previous centuries had rhetorical force and moral authority. Advertising exalts and inculcates Epicurean values. It envisions human beings as “numerical units” that can be classified into “taste groups,” “lifestyle groups,” “market segments,” etc. and that can, therefore, be manipulated according to the laws of statistics. As Carl Jung (1957: 19-20) warned not too long ago, this view of a human being as a unit in an assemblage, rather than as “something unique and singular which in the last analysis can neither be known nor compared with anything else,” is probably the root cause of the pathological forms of anxiety and nervous stress that typically beset people living in modern cultures.
Advertising is designed to create a constant craving for consumption, for the replacement of older things with newer ones. As we pointed out in chapter 9 (§9.5), Roland Barthes (1957) termed this craving “neomania,” which he defined as an insatiable appetite for new objects of consumption. Ads and commercials yell out one promise to all: “Buy this or that and you will not be bored, but you will be happy!” With a handful of hedonistic themes—happiness, youth, success, status, luxury, fashion, and beauty—the general message of the advertising social text is that solutions to human problems can be found in buying and consuming.
A Historical Sketch
Advertising messages are now spread through numerous and varied media—newspapers, television, direct mail, radio, magazines, business publications, outdoor and transit advertising, window displays, free shopping-news publications, calendars, skywriting by airplanes, and even posters carried by people walking the streets. The messages and images of advertising are everywhere.
But advertising is not an invention of the modern age. It is actually over 3000 years old. A poster found in Thebes dating from 1000 BC is a relic of one of the world’s first ads. In large letters it offered a whole gold coin for a slave. Archeologists have found similar kinds of posters throughout ancient societies. Throughout history poster advertising in marketplaces and temples has, in fact, constituted a popular means of disseminating information and of promoting the barter and sale of goods and services.
The dawn of the modern era of advertising occurred in the fifteenth century when the Gutenberg press made the printed word available to masses of people (chapter 9, §9.4). Fliers and posters could be printed easily and posted in public places or inserted in books, pamphlets, newspapers, etc. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, the London Gazette became the first newspaper to reserve a section exclusively for advertising. So successful was this venture that by the end of the century new agencies came into being for the specific purpose of creating newspaper ads for merchants and artisans. Advertising spread rapidly throughout the eighteenth century and proliferated to the point that the British writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) felt impelled to make the following statement in The Idler: “Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promise and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic” (quoted in Panati 1984:168).
The first American advertising agency was started by Philadelphia entrepreneur Volney B. Palmer in 1841, when he decided to sell newspaper space to out-of-town advertisers, charging the papers 25% of their space rates plus postage and stationery costs. By 1849 Palmer had offices in New York, Boston, and Baltimore. Between 1890 and 1920 industrial corporations grew into mammoth structures that transformed the workplace into an integrated economic system of mass production. At that point advertising became a crucial medium not for informing people about the availability and qualities of goods, but for restructuring perceptions of lifestyle that could be associated with the goods. Business and aesthetics had obviously joined forces by the first decades of the century. From the 1920s onwards, advertising agencies sprang up all over, broadening their approaches in attempting to build an unbroken, imagistic bridge between the product and the consumer’s consciousness. Everything from product name, design, and packaging to the creation of lifestyle moods came gradually within the purview of the advertising business.
Consumer advertising gave birth to the first agency for recording and analyzing data on advertising effectiveness in 1914 with the establishment of the Audit Bureau of Circulations in the United States, an independent organization founded and supported by newspaper and magazine publishers wishing to obtain circulation statistics and to standardize the ways of presenting them. Then, in 1936 the Advertising Research Foundation was established to conduct research on, and to develop, advertising techniques with the aim of enhancing the authenticity, reliability, efficiency, and usefulness of all advertising and marketing research. Today, the increasing sophistication of statistical information-gathering techniques makes it possible for advertisers to target audiences on the basis of where people live, what income they earn, what educational background they have, etc. in order to determine their susceptibility to, or inclination towards, certain products.
Advertising is thus intertwined with marketing. Marketing agencies conduct extensive surveys to determine the potential acceptance of products or services before they are advertised. If the survey convinces the manufacturer that one of the versions exhibited will attract enough purchasers, a research crew then pretests various sales appeals by showing provisional advertisements to consumers and asking them to indicate their preference. After the one or two best-liked advertisements are identified, the advertiser produces a limited quantity of the new product and introduces it in a test market. On the basis of the outcome the manufacturer can make a decision as to whether a national advertising campaign should be launched.
The two main techniques of modern-day advertising and marketing are known as positioning and brand image. Positioning is the targeting of a product at the right people—e.g. the perfume Drakkar noir is positioned for a male audience, Chanel for a female audience; the marketing of Audis and BMWs is aimed at upper-class or aspiring upscale consumers, the marketing of Dodge vans is aimed at middle-class suburban dwellers; and so on. Brand image is the creation of a personality for the product that is meant to appeal to specific consumers. This is done by giving the product a recognizable name, logo, packaging presentation, and pricing.
One way in which advertisers create brand image effectively is through logo design. Take as an example the McDonald’s logo. The first thing to note is that people go to fast-food restaurants to be with family or friends, to get a meal quickly, and/or because the atmosphere is congenial. Most people would also admit that the food at a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s is affordable and that the service is fast and polite. Indeed, many people today probably feel more “at home” at a McDonald’s restaurant than in their own households. This is, in fact, the semiotic key to unlocking the meaning that the McDonald’s logo is designed to create. The arches constitute a mythic symbol beckoning good people to march through them triumphantly into a paradise of law and order, cleanliness, friendliness, hospitality, hard work, self-discipline, and family values. In a sense, McDonald’s is organized and managed like a religion. From the menu to the uniforms, McDonald’s exacts and imposes standardization, in the same way that the world’s organized religions do. The message created by the arch logo is therefore that, like paradise, McDonald’s is a place that will “do it all for you.”
A fast food eatery would be inconceivable in a non-industrialized culture, and would have been unimaginable even in ours not so long ago. The popularity of McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants is tied to the socioeconomic need for a two-income household. Fewer and fewer North American families have the time to eat meals together within the household, let alone the energy to prepare elaborate dinners. And even when they do, it is highly unlikely that they will perceive the eating event as a structured one aimed at preserving family harmony and traditional moral values. In modern-day households, meals are routinely consumed in front of television sets. The home, ironically, has become a place where people now tend to eat apart. Enter McDonald’s, to the rescue! Eating at McDonald’s is affordable, quick, and cheery; it is a place where the family can eat together, at the same table, with no TV or other distraction. All these connotations are embedded in the symbols that are associated with McDonald’s, from its logo to its Ronald McDonald figure.
It was Roland Barthes (1957) who drew the attention of semioticians to the value of studying advertising. Today there is considerable interest in ad analysis. If there is one finding that is of specific relevance to the present discussion, it is that many ads are interpretable at two levels—a surface and an underlying level. The surface level is the actual ad text. The way in which the text is put together, however, is both a reflex of, and a link to, an underlying level: i.e. the surface elements cohere into images that conjure up an array of connotations in the underlying subtext. The latter is typically evocative of mythic themes (the intertexts). The main intent of advertising, therefore, is to speak indirectly to the unconscious, mythic part of the mind.
The Connotative Sequence
To get a concrete grasp of how ads generate meaning, it is instructive to analyze a lifestyle ad chosen at random from a magazine. For this purpose, we have selected an ad for Marilyn Peach, a sparkling wine, that was found in many European magazines a few years ago. This ad cannot be reproduced here for reasons of copyright. It can only be described verbally. The ad text shows a peach background which appears to match both the color and the taste of the wine. Subtextually, however, the idea that comes to mind is that of the dawn, which, in turn, suggests the Genesis narrative (the dawn of creation, the dawn of life). Several surface level features bear this out—we see a woman’s hand holding out a drinking glass of the wine, offering it temptingly to someone; the woman is wearing a bracelet in the form of a snake. Now, in the Book of Genesis the devil came to Eve in the body of a snake to prod her on to tempt Adam. A male partner is probably the one who is being seductively offered the glass. Will he take it? Well, like the Biblical Adam, how can he resist? If one still has doubts about this subtextual meaning, the accompanying French verbal text—La pêche, le nouveau fruit de la tentation (“Peach, the new fruit of temptation”)—will undoubtedly dispel them.
Whether or not this ad will induce consumers to buy Marilyn Peach is open to question. It is certainly not the point of semiotic analysis to determine this. Nor is it the goal of semiotics to criticize makers of such ads. On the contrary, a semiotician should approach an ad as s/he would any text. Indeed, the same questions that art and literary critics ask about a painting or a novel are the ones that a semiotician asks about an ad. To the semiotician, advertising provides an opportunity to examine how varied aesthetic experiences and classical forms of expression are realized in a contemporary textual genre.
It should also be pointed out that an interpretation of any advertising text is just that—one possible interpretation. Indeed, disagreement about what something means is not only unavoidable, but part of the fun of doing semiotic analysis. Differences of opinion fill the pages of the semiotic journals and lead, as in other sciences, to a furthering of knowledge in the field. The point of the above analysis was simply to illustrate the technique of semiotic analysis itself, not to provide a definitive interpretation of the Marilyn Peach ad. The key to unlocking the underlying subtext is to consider the surface signifiers in a sequence, just like a comic strip, in order to see where the sequence leads in the subtext. This technique can be called connotative sequencing because each signifier evokes a connotation which then evokes another, and then another after that, and so on. In the above ad the connotative sequence goes like this:
the peach background = dawn = dawn of creation = Garden; of Eden scene = Eve tempting Adam = prodded on by a serpent (bracelet) = he who drinks the wine will yield to temptation (La pêche, le nouveau fruit de la tentation)
In most lifestyle ads, the mythic intertext can be wrested from such connotative sequences, which are often reinforced by the visual and verbal signifiers in the surface text—e.g. by the shape of the product, by shadows and colors, by the name of the product, etc.
The statement La pêche, le nouveau fruit de la tentation is designed to reinforce the connotative sequence. In lifestyle advertising language is both a reinforcing element in the ad text and a reflex of its subtextual and intertextual meanings. It is also designed by advertisers as a form of poetic discourse, in the Jakobsonian sense (chapter 5, §5.6), in order to get a product embedded in the signifying order. There are many verbal techniques that advertisers use to realize these objectives. Some of these are:
- Jingles and Slogans: These have the effect of getting a brand name incorporated into daily discourse: Have a great day at McDonald’s; Join the Pepsi Generation; etc.
- Use of the Imperative Form: This creates the effect of advice coming from an unseen authoritative source: Pump some iron; Trust your senses; etc.
- Formulas: These create the effect of making meaningless statements sound truthful: Triumph has a bra for the way you are; A Volkswagen is a Volkswagen; etc.
- Alliteration: The repetition of sounds increases the likeli-hood that a brand name will be remembered: The Super-free sensation (alliteration of s); Guinness is good for you (aliteration of g); etc.
- Absence of language: Some ads strategically avoid the use of any language whatsoever, suggesting, by implication, that the product speaks for itself.
- Intentional omission: This capitalizes on the fact that secretive statements like Don’t tell your friends about...; Do you know what she’s wearing? etc. grab people’s attention.
- Metaphor: As we saw in chapter 6, this shapes the way in which people come to conceptualize something: e.g. Come to where the flavor is...Marlboro country.
- Metonymy: This too shapes concept-formation and. thus, evaluation of a product: e.g. Bring a touch of Paris into your life.
In television and radio commercials, the poetic techniques involve the mode of delivery. The tone of voice, for instance, can be seductive, friendly, cheery, insistent, foreboding, etc. as required by the subtextual theme of the commercial. The sentence structure of ads and commercials is usually informal and colloquial, unless the ad is about some “high-class” product (e.g. a BMW automobile, a Parker pen, etc.), in which case it is normally more elegant and refined. In general, the sentences used in ads are, as we have seen, short imperative phrases—Pump some iron, Trust your senses—or aphoristic statements —Somewhere inside, romance blossoms. Advertising also borrows discourse styles to suit its purposes: e.g. a TV commercial can take the form of an interview, a testimonial on the part of a celebrity, an official format (Name: Mary; Age: 15; Problem: acne), and so on.
As the foregoing discussion implies, the analyst, the text, the social context, the culture, the product, etc. are all inextricably intertwined in ad interpretation. The connotative sequences that ads generate are psychologically powerful because they are embedded in mythic subtexts, as are many works of art, for that matter. Advertising is not only social discourse, it is also modern art. And, indeed, it has become an artistic genre of its own, with its own prize category at the annual Cannes film festival. Advertising is adaptive, constantly seeking out new forms of expression reflecting fluctuations in social trends and values. Its forms have even been adapted and coopted by mainstream artists and writers. Although some may be inclined to condemn its objectives, as an aesthetic experience virtually everyone enjoys advertising.
As mentioned above, media influence cognitive style and thus are critical shapers of cultural worldview. One effect of advertising, for example, has been the juvenilization of Western culture at large—i.e. the emphasis on being, staying, thinking, and looking young at any age. The roots of this phenomenon can be traced to the first decades of the twentieth century, when for the first time in history a single economic system—the one that took shape after the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century—was capable of guaranteeing a certain level of affluence to increasingly larger segments of society. With more wealth and leisure time at their disposal, common people became more inclined to live the good life. And with the economic capacity to improve their chances of staying healthier, and thus of living much longer than previous generations, a desire to preserve youth for a much longer period of life started to define the collective state of mind. This desire was nurtured by the messages that bombarded society from radio and print advertising in the early part of the century—messages that became more persuasive and widespread with the advent of television as a social text in the early 1950s. By the 1960s, the desire to be “young” not only meant the desire to stay and look healthier for a longer period of life, but also to act and think differently than “older” people. Being old meant being a part of the corrupt and morally fossilized “establishment,” as the consumerist way of life was called by the counterculture dissidents of the era. By the end of the decade, the process of juvenilization had reached a critical mass, on the verge of becoming the defining feature of the mindset of an entire society.
Advertisers tapped into this process astutely and skillfully. Being young and rebellious came to mean having a “cool look”; being anti-establishment and subversive came to mean wearing “hip clothes.” “New” and “different” became the two key words of the advertising and marketing lexicon, coaxing people into buying goods, not because they necessarily needed them, but simply because they were “new,” “cool,” “hip.” The underlying subtext of this clever discourse allowed buyers to believe that what they bought transformed them into ersatz revolutionaries without having to pay the social price of true nonconformity and dissent. As the social critic Ewen (1988: 20) has aptly put it, the business world discovered fortuitously in that era how to incorporate the powerful images of youth protest into “the most constantly available lexicon from which many of us draw the visual grammar of our lives.” It was those images that allowed advertisers and marketers to write a new lifestyle grammar with which they could easily build new semantic bridges between the product and the consumer’s consciousness. This grammar has now systematized the behaviors of neomania into the psychological structure of everyday life. This is why the constant craving for new items of consumption is no longer perceived as an aberration, but as part of the search for happiness, success, status, or beauty.
A society bombarded incessantly by advertising images is bound to become more and more susceptible to the effects of extreme forms of objectification (chapter 9, §9.1). Because our consciousness is shaped by the type of stimuli and information to which we are exposed, the barrage of images generated by advertisements surreptitiously influence lifestyle and behavior, especially the perception of how many desirable material objects we should own and of how many pleasures we should be feeling.
Junk Food Culture
As an example of the potentially harmful effects media images may have, we will conclude this chapter with a brief commentary on the phenomenon of “junk food.” When fast food eateries first appeared in the 1950s—as burger and milkshake “joints"—they were designed to be socializing sites for adolescents. The food served at such places was viewed, correctly, to be junk, injurious to one’s health and only to be consumed by young people because their metabolism could ostensibly break it down more quickly and because they could purportedly recover from its negative health effects more easily than older people. But in no time whatsoever junk food, promoted by effective advertising campaigns, became an indulgence permissible to anyone of any age, from very young children to seniors. The compulsion to consume junk food has become powerful in contemporary society, inducing dangerous eating habits. The inordinate consumption of junk food is, in fact, one of the main factors contributing to the rise in obesity.
But the negative effects of junk food are hardly just physical. Obesity is at odds with the ultra-slim body images that the media perpetrate as the norm for attractiveness. This disjunction of fact and image has generated culture-based diseases, previously unknown. Anorexia nervosa, fear of gaining weight, leading to excessive weight loss from restricted food intake and excessive exercise, is one of these. Predictably, it occurs chiefly during adolescence, especially in young women, who perceive body image as critical to their sociability among peers. Sufferers may also exhibit bulimia, the practice of eating large quantities of food and then inducing vomiting. No standard therapy for anorexia nervosa exists, nor can exist, given its cultural etiology. Psychotherapy often helps, but many cases of successful recovery show Selfresolution without relapses.
But, as a closing word, the answer to the dilemma of advertising is not to be found in censorship or in any form of state control of media. Even if it were possible in a consumerist culture to control the contents of advertising, it would invariably prove to be counterproductive. Moreover, the ravages of overeating are not a product only of contemporary ad-mediated cultures. They have always been symptomatic of the excess of affluent lifestyles. Scenes of obese aristocrats and emperors abound in history books. The protection against such excesses today is not suppression, but knowledge of how advertising produces messages. Only the latter is effective, because it puts people in a more critical frame of mind for fending off the negative effects that these messages might have.