The Television Commercial [Part 3: Special Topics in Television Form]

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Most television commercials are not bashful about their economic function.

They exist to sell products and services. And they do so quite effectively. Huge corporations would not be spending one fourth of their advertising dollars--roughly $50 billion per year--on U.S. television if their market research did not show that viewers are positively affected by this avalanche of ads.' Corporations have come to depend heavily on television networks, and U.S. television networks have come to rely solely on advertising for their economic sustenance-unlike many other countries where television is government- or subscription-supported. Just as with radio before it, U.S. television's economic structure is undergirded by commercials.

To viewers, commercials are annoying, interruptive reminders of our economic bargain with corporate culture. U.S. television has always been "free," if we were willing to "pay" for it with our viewing time and our buying behavior when we visit the store. And so we invite advertisers into our homes to repetitively hammer away at us about the tastiness of Pepsi over Coke or the efficacy of the latest exercise machine or the sublime pleasure of Taco Bell's newest recombination of beef, cheese, and flour tortilla. But not all advertising is alike.

Not all television advertising seeks to persuade us through repetition and sledgehammer exhortations to buy, buy, buy! Not every ad uses the mind numbing blunt approach of a Psychic Friends Network spot. Many advertisers understand what Paul Messaris calls the "value of indirectness."2 They use humor and evocative imagery to persuade without attacking or numbing the viewer's sensibilities. And yet, they all still seek to persuade us in some fashion.

This section explores the form that that persuasion takes. It views commercials as televisual texts that have developed particular techniques of per suasion in order to serve the economic needs of the industry. We know that ads must sell us products in order to survive, but what the television analyst needs to understand is how that selling is accomplished. What ideologically loaded imagery do commercials use and how do they deploy it? How are commodities associated with particular lifestyles, values, and presumptions about the world? How are we encouraged to consume conspicuously? What visual and sound techniques are used to sell? In short, how do economics, ideology, aesthetics, and technology come together in the rhetorical form of the television commercial?


More than any other televisual texts, commercials are shaped by their economic context. Commercials are produced in a certain way due both to the current state of corporate, multinational economics and to specific aspects of the television economy. Thus, a basic understanding of television's economic structure is one key to understanding the commercial. Unfortunately, U.S. television's economic system in the 2000s is in a state of flux that is unparalleled since the rise to dominance of the major broadcast networks in the 1950s. Huge chunks of the audience that the so-called "Big Three" (ABC, CBS, and NBC) commanded have been lost to videocassette viewing, Web use, video games, cable networks, and newer broadcast networks (Fox, WB, UPN, etc.). The older broadcast networks have yet to start losing money, and so-called "dot-corn" industries (i.e., Internet based services) have yet to steal much advertising income from them, but it seems clear that the economic models of the past 50 years are fast changing under the impact of the convergence of broadcast television, theatrical film, cable, satellite, and computer-based technologies. No one truly knows where it will all lead, although venture capitalists are betting on the outcome with enormous sums of money. The next few years are going to be very interesting ones for the television industry.

Before we begin discussing commercials, we must make one additional caveat. Due to space limitations, we will focus on television advertising in the United States. Many countries have commercial-free television, while others blend commercially supported programs with non-commercial fare-resulting in distinctly different persuasive strategies. However, as socialist and communist systems find themselves increasingly challenged by a capitalist, market economy, we may find more nations adopting the U.S. model-for better or worse. Thus, the generalizations we make here about U.S. commercials may soon find application in many other countries.

In the complicated and quickly changing economic model of advertising supported television, there are five principal players:

1. Production companies-who actually create TV programs.

2. Wholesalers-networks and syndicators.

3. Retailers-local over-the-air stations, cable systems, and DBS (direct broadcast satellite) systems.

4. Advertisers-national, regional, and local.

5. Consumers-that is, viewers.

We'll begin our consideration of commercials by outlining the basic structure of U.S. broadcasting and then explain how advertising fits into this structure. Diverging Channels and Converging Corporations: Narrowcasting and Media Mergers In the earliest years of U.S. television broadcasting, corporations produced and sponsored programs such as the enormously popular Texaco Star Theatre (1948 55). However, direct sponsorship of individual programs did not last long. An advertising model began to dominate in the 1950s in which production companies, advertisers, and wholesale/retail broadcasters were quite distinct and separate. Production companies were either independent producers or subsidiaries of large motion picture companies and were not owned by advertisers or broadcast networks. In the 1950s and 1960s, independent studio Desilu Productions, for instance, produced I Love Lucy and Star Trek (1966-69), among others (see section 9 for more information on independent producers). It rented these program's broadcast rights-for a specified length of time -to wholesalers such as CBS and NBC (in the cases of I Love Lucy and Star Trek, respectively) who provided them to their affiliated stations. The affiliates, most of whom were not actually owned by the networks, were the retail outlets that "sold" their wares to the consumers/viewers. (Certain key stations in large cities were owned and operated by the networks and known as O&Os.) After the initial broadcast run, the studios-not the networks-syndicated them directly to local stations or rented broadcast rights to wholesale syndicators, which handled distribution. From the 1950s to the 1980s, U.S. governmental regulation and economic tradition separated production companies, wholesalers, and retailers.

Synergy Within Multinational Corporations

In the 1980s, the loosening of governmental regulation coincided with significant technological changes and colossal corporate mergers. At a time when the federal government was permitting large, merged corporations to stake a claim on more and more of the media terrain, there were also new technologies for delivering programming to television sets-principally, cable, DBS, and videocassette. The number of television channels received in the average U.S. home increased from less than 10 to dozens. In 1999, for instance, the average household could receive 62 diverse channels (ironically, the average viewer watched no more than 13 of those ). 3 And, to complicate matters further, we've also seen the explosion of competing types of video screens-computer and video game monitors that are not even delivering conventional TV programming content. This divergence of programming and technology, however, has been matched by a convergence of media corporations. Fewer and fewer corporations are responsible for more and more programming. The largest corporations have their fingers in numerous media pies.

From the industry perspective, a diversity of holdings encourages a certain synergy among them. For example, Viacom has a media presence in over 100 countries and brought in revenues of nearly $13 billion in 1999.4 Its subsidiaries--such as CBS, Paramount, and Blockbuster-can nurture one another.

CBS-affiliated stations might run features to help support the release of the latest Paramount movie, which will then be featured on Blockbuster's shelves when it goes into videocassette/DVD release and may even wind up as the basis for a ride in a theme park. Synergy can be quite complicated and contradictory, however. Mike Budd, Steve Craig, and Clay Steinman discuss an example of failed synergy within the Disney corporation: In 1997, Wind Dancer Production Group, a partner in Home Improvement, sued Disney, claiming that the company allowed ABC (its newly acquired network) to renew the show's contract for a smaller licensing fee than the program was worth, effectively cutting into Wind Dancer's profits. As the Wall Street journal put it, 'Call it the dark side of synergy: the not-unanticipated consequence of having both the suppliers and the distributors of TV programs and movies under one single roof. In today's Hollywood, deal-makers are increasingly wrestling with a tricky question: How hard a bargain can you drive when, in essence, you're negotiating with yourself?' 5 Moreover, synergy is undercut by longstanding contracts that predate mergers. Consider the example of Frasier. Even though Viacom owns both CBS and Paramount, which produces Frasier, the program is not broadcast on the CBS network. Rather, it appears on NBC where it began its run well before Viacom acquired CBS. And, of course, the syndicated version of Frasier appears on many stations that are not affiliated with CBS or Viacom.

TV Ratings: Coin of the Realm Production companies, networks, syndicators, local stations-all of these entities rely on sponsors to make money.

Some do so directly and others indirectly, but the ultimate source of most money in the U.S. television economic system is sponsors. Broadcasters ostensibly sell broadcast time to the sponsors, but, of course, what they are really selling is TV viewers and their time. Consequently, the value of broadcast time is determined by its ratings-by estimates of the number of viewers and, equally important, the types of viewers who are watching. On a regular basis, the one TV program that typically commands the highest price for its ads is the NFL Super Bowl, which is also the program that usually carries the highest ratings for the year. The Super Bowl has come to attract television's most innovative and prestigious commercials--beginning with a strikingly Orwellian commercial that heralded Apple's introduction of the Macintosh computer in 1984 (see description below). The commercials have come to be as much a part of the Super Bowl spectacle as the game itself, especially considering the frequently lopsided scores. It's not surprising, therefore, that broadcast, print, and online news media give substantial coverage to the commercials themselves. In 2000, USA Today even invited viewers vote for their favorites on the "Super Bowl Ad Meter" on its Web site.

In contemporary television, the size of the audience is not the only deter mining economic factor. Lower ratings do not automatically mean less revenue.

Many advertisers are looking for very specific audiences, for a particular demo graphic group. The explosion in the number of channels has resulted in a phenomenon known within the industry as narrowcasting. Instead of broadcasting to a large but mixed audience, these channels narrowly define their viewing audience and hope to find a limited, but homogenous, demographic population for advertisers. MTV made its fortune on this premise-delivering a much smaller audience than did broadcast networks, but filling its audience with a young crowd with disposable income. It's easy to see how advertisers for music, cosmetics, hygiene products, and the like, would be attracted to MTV. A similar strategy prevails in other specialized channels: Food Network, Court TV, SciFi, Cartoon, Golf, and so on. Moreover, the Web is the ultimate in narrowcasting with entire sites devoted to topics as particular as The Gallery of Ill-Fitting Pants, Modern Moist Towelette Collecting, and The Sheep Brain Dissection Guide.' As one might imagine, these narrowly defined channels necessitate advertising techniques that are distinctly designed for that limited slice of the audience pie. What persuades viewers of MTV is not the same as what persuades viewers of the Golf channel or of general interest networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC. Since ratings and demographics define these narrowcasters, it is essential to understanding how ratings function during this era of increasing specialization.

Nielsen Media Research dominates TV audience measurement in the U.S. Arthur C. Nielsen began developing methods for measuring radio listeners in 1923. These methods were modified for use on television in 1950 and have been the ratings standard ever since. Nielsen ratings are a powerful force in the U.S. television economy. Networks use them to determine whether programs will live or die and what their advertising rates will be.

Anyone with a casual interest in the TV industry is familiar with the term, "Nielsen ratings," but it's worth noting that these "ratings" are not ratings in the sense that they evaluate or rate programs, as a TV critic might. They do not analyze the program's characteristics, as they are solely concerned with the behavior of the audience. Additionally, Nielsen ratings do not indicate how much or how little viewers enjoy a program or even whether viewers might dislike a program that they watch regularly. They also do not explain what meanings viewers construct from TV. The Nielsen data are exclusively quantitative measurements, indicating how many viewers watch and who they are by aggregating them into demographic groups.

Nielsen, like all audience research companies, compiles its ratings by tracking television use in a limited sample of U.S. homes. Obviously, it doesn't ask each of the nearly 276 million U.S. residents what they watch on TV. In stead, Nielsen records viewing behavior through People Meters it installs in 5,000 households-or roughly 0.05% of the 100 million households in the U.S.7 People Meters are brick-sized devices that sit near the television set and automatically record that it is on and that it is tuned to a specific channel. The people in the vicinity of the TV are equipped with a remote control device with a button assigned to each of them. They push their assigned buttons to indicate when they start/stop watching TV. People Meters are not the only method Nielsen uses to measure the audience.

Four times a year, during periods known as sweeps, Nielsen selects viewers in designated market areas (DMAs) -cohesive metropolitan zones-to fill in diaries accounting for a week's worth of TV watching. The origin of the term, "sweeps:' is rather obscure, but Nielsen provides the following explanation: These measurement periods are called "sweeps" because Nielsen Media Research . . . collects and processes the diaries in a specific order. The diaries from the Northeast regions are processed first and then swept up around the country, from the South, to the Midwest and finally ending with the West.' In addition to diaries and People Meters, Nielsen also uses an additional type of television set meter in the 48 largest DMAs. These meters gather information only about the set's off/on status and its tuning, not who is in the room watching.

Through these processes, Nielsen is able, in theory, to measure who is viewing what. There are significant problems with these systems. As previously noted, they do not gauge viewers' feelings about programs and commercials.

The Nielsen numbers tell us nothing about how viewers interpret the programs they watch. They only tell us where viewers are bobbing along in the television flow. And there is some controversy about how effectively Nielsen measures that. In order for People Meters and diaries to be accurate, viewers' must be both honest and diligent in recording their viewing habits. But there's little in the TV viewing experience that encourages diligence. How do we know that a viewer hasn't left the TV on while she takes a nap or he changes the baby's diaper? Or perhaps a viewer might listen to a soap opera playing in the living room while he is in the kitchen, washing dishes, and can't be bothered to push his button on the People Meter's remote control.

One may think of circumstances that might degrade the accuracy of the Nielsen ratings, but this has absolutely no impact on the television industry's acceptance of their validity when it comes time to determine advertising rates.

As Nielsen explains: "... ratings are used like currency in the marketplace of advertiser-supported TV."9 Despite the Nielsen ratings' inadequacies and problems, they are still the coin of the realm. Networks sell viewers to advertisers based on the Nielsen numbers. The Nielsen ratings thus establish the exchange rate under which advertisers purchase broadcast time. Using these numbers, broadcasters promise to deliver a certain number of viewers at a specific cost to the advertiser. Viewers are usually measured in thousands, but, oddly, this rate is not known in the business as "CPT," as in "cost per thousand:' Instead, it takes the acronym CPM or cost per mil-which stems from milk, the Latin word for thousand.


TABLE 12.1 Nielsen Media Research Top 10 Programs Week of October 9-15, 2000 RANK PROGRAM RATING SHARE

1. ER 19.2 30.0

2. FRIENDS-SL(S) 18.0 28.0

3. FRIENDS 16.6 27.0

4. WILL & GRACE 15.8 23.0


6. MILLIONAIRE-TUE 14.5 23.0

7. MILLIONAIRE-WED 13.9 22.0


9. MILLIONAIRE-SUN 13.5 20.0

10. JUST SHOOT ME 13.3 20.0 Copyright 2000 Nielsen Media Research, reprinted with permission.


As you can see in Table 12.1, which shows the top ten programs for the week of October 9 to 15, 2000, the Nielsen numbers actually consist of two components: the rating and the share. Both are calculated as percentages of viewers.

The rating indicates the percentage of households with TV sets (or HUT- "households using television") that tuned into a specific program. Since TV households number approximately 100,800,000 in the U.S., the rating percentage shows how many households out of that 100,800,000 were actually tuned in.

ER scored a 19.2 rating in our sample week, which made it the top-rated show.

This rating indicates that 19.2% of TV households watched the program. We can thus calculate that 19,353,600 households (19.2% of 100,800,000) watched the program that night. And, based on additional data from its People Meters, Nielsen estimated that 29,330,000 viewers in those households were actually watching.

The share indicates the percentage of households with TV sets turned on at that particular time that tuned into a specific program. In our ER example, the program earned a 30 share-meaning that 30% of the households watching TV at that time were tuned in to the events at County General Hospital. Thus, while the rating number marks the percentage of a relatively stable number (total households with TV), the share number is the percentage of a constantly fluctuating number since the number of turned-on TV sets varies through out the day and the year-with summertime being the season with the least viewing.

In light of the calculation of rating and share, it is interesting to consider just how precipitously viewing of the major broadcast networks has declined.

In the 1952-53 season (the first one for which Nielsen ratings are available), ABC, CBS, and NBC had a combined average rating of 74.8. In other words, three quarters of the TV households in the U.S. watched these three networks all the time. In the 1998-99 season, that number fell to 26 or one quarter of the TV households. Additionally, the top program in that first ratings season was CBS's / Love Lucy, with a hefty 67.3 rating. Two thirds of the TV nation regularly watched it each week. In contrast, the top show from 1998-99 was NBC's ER, with a comparatively meager 17.8 average rating-approximately one fourth of / Love Lucy's. This means that only 17.8% of the TV nation watched ER during an average week. Broadcast networks and their programs clearly no longer command the enormous audiences they once did. The dispersion of the audience is obvious. Advertisers have had to adapt their commercials to this new world of increasingly narrow, but more homogenous, audiences.

Paying for "Free" TV

Every time you visit the store and buy Altoid mints that you saw advertised on television, you are paying for "free" TV. A portion of those mints' purchase price was added to the product to ameliorate parent company Philip Morris's advertising budget-which allocated over $787 million to television in 1998.' How do Philip Morris and other multinational corporations pay for television? For the most part, there is no direct contact between TV's sponsors and the companies that actually create TV programs-although there are significant exceptions to this such as sponsor Procter & Gamble's production of soap operas and the occasional instances of product placement, as when Budweiser paid to have Bud Light served to a castaway on Survivor (2000-). Instead of sponsoring/producing programs directly, most advertisers must deal with TV's wholesalers and retailers.

The TV and advertising industries classify advertising expenditures in five categories: network, syndication, national spot, cable, and local. Most of these categories are self-explanatory. "Network" refers to time bought on the four major broadcast networks while "cable" designates commercials on more specialized cable networks such as ESPN, MTV, and CNN. "Local" advertising is time bought on individual broadcast stations and cable services by local merchants. Network and cable purchases are not the only way advertisers reach a national audience. Advertisers may also buy time on syndicated programs that are aired nationwide on local stations and cable networks. Or they may place their ads directly on numerous local stations and cable services through "national spot" advertising. With spot commercials the advertiser may promote its products in specific regions without going to the expense of a full national or network campaign. Katz Television Group, for example, represents 350 television stations and 1,700 cable systems in DMAs across the U.S. Using Katz or another national representative, a manufacturer of air conditioners based in Phoenix could buy air time throughout the Southwest and South while minimizing its expenditures in New England.

Despite declining ratings, the general-interest broadcast networks still command a large portion of advertisers' dollars. In 1998, for instance, advertisers bought $13.7 billion worth of time on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, or approximately 29% of all advertising expenditures." However, one recent trend in TV advertising has been to seek smaller, but more cohesive, audiences. This is reflected in the amount of money spent on cable networks. Although all categories of expenditures have continued to rise in the 1990s and 2000s, the percentage increases for cable networks have outpaced those of the traditional broadcast networks. In 1998, cable networks received less than half of the expenditures that broadcast networks got and only 12.6% of all U.S. TV ad expenditures, but their share of advertising revenue has continued to rise.

Which companies buy this time, buy these audiences? As you might well imagine, TV ad purchases are dominated by huge, diversified corporations. In particular, the top five advertisers on network television in 1998 were General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Philip Morris, and Ford Motors.12 More interesting, perhaps, is the types of goods that are sold on television-as is shown in Table 12.2, Advertising Age's classification of the top categories of network-TV advertising. In the U.S. at least, these are the products and services one sees most on network television. In the following section, we'll explore the meanings commonly associated with these commodities.


TABLE 12.2

Top Categories of Network-TV Advertising

1. Automotive

2. Food

3. Drugs and personal care

4. Fast food restaurants

5. Telephone

6. Retail

7. Financial services, insurance and securities

8. Beer

9. Computers

10. Entertainment

"Top 10 categories by first-half 1998 ad spending,", 1999



Television advertising presents a discourse on modern life in a culture based on buying and selling. It tells us what it means to be a consumer and suggests activities we should pursue as consumers. Principally, it is telling us to buy commodities, but often it does so in quite an indirect manner. Many ads conceal their function as advertising and simply appear to be short stories or evocative vignettes about the human condition. All ads-regardless of their bluntness or subtlety-are inscribed with packets of meanings for viewers to decode. All ads contain the fundamental meaning, "Buy this product," but they also suggest various other meanings that range from "Buy this product and you will become beautiful" to "Buy this product and you will be well liked" to "Buy this product and your dog's fur will really shine". In this section we consider what comes after "buy this product." We look at the socially defined meanings, values, and illusions-the polysemy-that are commonly employed in the service of selling products. TV commercials present an ongoing discourse about objects and attempt to connect them to a range of meanings. We may identify eight broad categories of such meanings:

1. Luxury, leisure, and conspicuous consumption.

2. Individualism.

3. The natural.

4. Folk culture and tradition.

5. Novelty and progress.

6. Sexuality and romance.

7. Alleviation of pain, fear/anxiety, and guilt.

8. Utopia and escape from dystopia.

Although this list does not exhaust all of the meanings that commercials invoke, it does contain the principal values that advertisers use to entice consumers.

Luxury, Leisure, and Conspicuous Consumption

The end graphic in an ad for the Lincoln LS sedan reads simply, " Lincoln.

American luxury." Car companies such as Lincoln, Cadillac, and Mercedes have long traded on their value as luxury goods. The same could be said of Rolex watches, De Beers diamonds, haute couture fashion and high-end electronics.

When ads draw on the notion of luxury, they imply that the goods advertised go beyond filling basic human needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Luxury items, by definition, are ones that are not necessities, that one could do without and still subsist. In addition to providing material comfort and utility, luxurious cars, jewelry, clothing, and electronics serve a significant social function. Such goods offer a way for the consumer to emulate members of an elevated social class.

The emulation of higher classes was initially conceptualized by Thorstein Veblen as the 19th century came to a close. Veblen also coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to refer to the showy, excessive purchase of nonessential, luxury goods. In his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), he argues that members of the leisure class (persons who need not work for a living) must buy expensive commodities in a conspicuous manner in order to maintain their social status.

Conspicuous consumption becomes an emblem, a sign, of their wealth and power. Individuals who are not quite that wealthy, but aspire to be so, emulate the leisure class by consuming conspicuously.

Emulation need not just be about wealth. When consumers buy name-brand clothing in order to adopt a certain style of dress, for instance, they seek to belong to a specific social group. Tommy Hilfiger jeans are no better at keeping one's legs warm than are generic pants, but they serve an important function nonetheless.

They allow the wearer to emulate members of a social group. Emulation is also the central strategy at work in all celebrity endorsements of products. Why would Nike have paid Michael Jordan huge sums of money and created a shoe line bearing his name (the Air Jordan) if it didn't think that viewers, especially young viewers, would want to emulate him and wear the same style shoes as he did? As the Gatorade campaign of the late 1990s suggested, many advertisers banked on teenage boys' desire to "be like Mike." It's easy to dismiss such emulation and conspicuous consumption of luxury goods as crass social climbing and superficial status seeking, but, as Ellen Seiter writes (paraphrasing anthropologist Mary Douglas), "any distinction between necessary and unnecessary goods fails to account for the crucial importance of consumption for ceremonial purposes, for social cohesion, and for the maintenance of networks of support. ... To condemn people to a level of mere subsistence consumption is to exclude them from the basis for success and security within a social network."

In modern societies, what we own shapes where we fit into societies' networks of work and play. Moreover, as Seiter discusses, children acquire crucial social skills through "consumption events": "birthday parties, holiday celebrations, visits at friends' houses, and so on."

TV commercials thrive on and exploit the central function that consumption has come to have in social networking.


One longstanding conflict in U.S. ideology is the rights of the individual versus those of the community. We enter into a social contract with the government and other citizens that holds that we will limit certain freedoms in exchange for a civil, well-ordered society. For instance, we have the capability of driving through the center of town at 80 m.p.h., but we don't. We observe traffic rules because we know that they serve the overall good of the community. Advertising, however, need not follow these rules as strictly. Many ads tacitly override the social contract in favor of individualist values-both good and bad. These individualist values are often based in the self: self-fulfillment, self-reliance, self-expression, self absorption, even simple selfishness.

The U.S. Army entreats young men and women to "Be all you can be," to fulfill themselves and learn self-reliance through the military service-thereby repressing the discipline and obedience that attends that experience. Nike's "Just do it" campaign intimates that determination and self-expression will come to all who wear its clothing or shoes. And McDonald's has sold billions of Big Macs by telling viewers that it's okay to be a little self-absorbed and selfish: "You deserve a break today. So get up and get away to McDonald's." Leave behind your responsibilities to others, it implies, and escape to the comfort of a fast food restaurant.

Pitching individualism in a mass medium such as television is a tricky business. Consider the tag line of a Burger King campaign begun in 1973. "Have it your way" implies that the individual is unique and uniquely deserving of certain privileges-a hamburger prepared a certain way. (Burger King's jingle taunted McDonald's for its assembly-line approach, saying, "Special orders don't upset us.") But there is a fundamental problem when uniqueness is marketed by mass media. Burger King cannot provide hamburgers uniquely prepared a hundred million different ways. Rather, "your way" must be restricted to a fairly limited number of options within a very controlled environment. You can get your hamburger with or without tomatoes, but you cannot get it marinated overnight in an assortment of seasonings and broiled over dampened mesquite chips. Thus, the individualism that Burger King is selling is not unique. As it turns out, "your way" is the same way as millions of others. Similarly, Budweiser commercials may declare, "This Bud's for you," but TV viewers know that this is not literally true, that Anheuser-Busch didn't brew that bottle of beer to their own specifications.

"Advertising shepherds herds of individuals," notes Leslie Sayan.' By this she means that television addresses viewers as individuals not as a group. It invites them to experience life as individuals, to break away from conformity and establish one's own identity. This leads to what she identifies as mass media advertising's "most basic paradox": "Join us and become unique." 17 Clothing and other fashion products often appeal to individualist values and suggest to viewers that they will stand out from the crowd if they purchase these products, but because commercials are simultaneously encouraging millions of other viewers to purchase those same products, they are perpetually creating or reinforcing fashion-based crowds of individuals. Thus, at the same time that commercials encourage viewers to be self-reliant individuals, they also entreat them to emulate others and join certain groups, enter certain networks.

A series of Gap commercials illustrates this paradoxical "herd of individuals" appeal. A group of models in their 20s sits or stands in front of a white back ground, faces the camera directly, and lip syncs to music such as Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" (Fig. 12.1). Each ad concludes with the Gap's logo and an end line such as "Everybody in leather," "Everybody in cords," or "Everybody in Vests." By suggesting (commanding?) "Everybody in ..." the Gap uses the appeal of networking and emulation--hoping the viewer will think, "I want to be like these models." But, significantly, these models do not interact with one another-in contrast to a contemporary series of Gap khaki ads in which dancers gleefully perform swing dances with each other. The "Everybody in ..." ads present a crowd of isolated individuals. They're all wearing leather/cords/vests, but in different ways. Their dress and body language (they all strike different poses) set them up as individuals even as the framing and song pull them together as a group. Hence, they are paradoxically alone together-much like the millions of viewers simultaneously watching TV from their separate homes.

The Natural

Commodities may be associated with nature and aspects of the natural- wholesomeness, healthfulness, purity. Medical, food, and beverage products often emphasize their natural ingredients and thereby suggest that the products are wholesome, healthy, and pure.

Pertussin cough syrup was promoted in the 1960s as a "safe natural way to relieve night cough." Its ads resemble those of homeopathic medicine, claiming it is "made from nature's healing medicinals." The ads don't specify which medicinals, but they do stress that Pertussin does not contain "codeine, antihistamines, and nerve-dulling drugs." Post Grape-Nuts cereal was similarly advertised as the "Back-to-nature cereal" in TV commercials from the early 1970s featuring naturalist Euell Gibbons. He claims, "Its natural, sweet taste reminds me of wild hickory nuts" (emphasis added). Gibbons' comment is a bit disingenuous because Grape-Nuts contains no nuts-hickory or otherwise- but rather is manufactured from wheat and barley (which, granted, are natural ingredients).


In similar fashion, commercials for Coors Light beer make obvious connections between the natural qualities of the Rocky Mountains and Coors beer by suggesting that you "Tap the Rockies." Coors emphasizes its beer contains "Rocky Mountain water" and no additives or preservatives-alluding to nature's purity and repressing the company's exploitation of natural resources in order to make beverages. There have, however, been attacks on its use of the majestic images of the Rockies. In 1997, "Tap the Rockies" billboards in upstate New York were vandalized with the accusation, "Rape the Rockies, racist scum, toxic polluters."18 Another sense of naturalness is that which is opposed to the technological or artificial. Makeup products commonly present this illusion of the natural. An ad for Cover Girl Clean Sheer Stick, for example, promises, "It doesn't look like makeup-just great skin." As with many "beauty" products, the appeal of Clean Sheer Stick is its ability to conceal its artifice and appear natural. Makeup such as this promises to transform a person's natural face (just as certain bras and other undergarments promise to transform the body) while hiding the artificiality of that transformation.

It should be noted that the natural is not always viewed in a positive light.

Advertising often qualifies its use of the natural world. Post's Grape-Nuts commercial extolled its "back-to-nature" virtues at a time when this phrase signified a new environmental consciousness, but in the early part of the 20th century Post seemed just as proud of the scientific processing of the natural world as it was of its naturalness. Text on Grape-Nuts boxes from then avers that Grape Nuts is "a food containing the natural nutritive elements of these field grains thoroughly and scientifically baked" (emphasis added).19 Nature is all well and good, apparently, but only if science is baked into it. Even natural beauty, as alluded to in the Cover Girl commercial, has not always been universally ad mired. In some circles, it is associated with coarseness and vulgarity, or seen as a trait of the presumably inferior working class. The royal court during Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's reign (1774-92), for instance, preferred ostentatious powdered wigs and a blatantly artificial style of makeup and clothing. A more recent example is Goth fashion-including dyed hair, extremely pale complex ions (often achieved through makeup), black lipstick and nail polish colors that are "not-seen-in-nature."2° The Goths and the Louis XVI court have little interest in looking "natural:' Instead of valuing the natural, cultures such as these emphasize otherworldliness, a certain sense of sophistication, refinement, and connoisseurship.

Folk Culture and Tradition

Closely allied to the imagery of naturalness is folk culture. Advertising calls on folk culture to represent traditional principles such as trustworthiness, simplicity, authenticity, and raw patriotism. "We make money the old-fashioned way," intones John Houseman in the Smith-Barney ad, "We earn it." Chevrolet's television commercials have long rested on folk associations-especially in its truck ads. In the 1980s, the "Heartbeat of America" campaign presented numerous images of folk life in the rural United States and thereby evoked the virtues of small-town life. Earlier, during the contentious 1970s, its ads sang the virtues of "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet". In this instance, small-town, folk values are blended with patriotism and nostalgia for a bygone era. Baseball ("America's pastime") and hot dogs connote the positive values of team sport (athletic prowess, cooperation, loyalty, courage in the face of adversity) while apple pie carries implications of motherly nurturing and down-home nutrition.

The Chevrolet truck ad goes like this: In the years that I been livin' lots of things have surely changed. Lots of things have come and gone, some even came back again. But through all the many changes, some things are for sure. And you know that's a mighty fine feelin', kinda makes you feel secure. 'Cause I love baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.' Irony is not normally associated with folk discourse, but Gallo Winery's Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler ads playfully parody folk narratives. They present the ostensible owners of the company as a couple of genial old codgers-Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes. Actually, it is pure fiction, invented by Gab's advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, in order to sell a new alcoholic beverage to young professionals. Over the course of 7 years (1985-92) and some 230 commercials, Bartles (played by David Rufkaur) chronicled their marketing endeavors (Fig. 12.2).


The First Bartles & James Wine cooler ad's text is as follows: Hello there. My name is Fred Bartles and this is Ed Jaymes. You know, it occurred to Ed the other day that between his fruit orchard and my premium grade wine vineyard, we could make a truly superior premium-grade wine cooler. It sounded good to me. So Ed took out a second on his house, and wrote to Harvard for an MBA, and now we're preparing to enter the wine cooler business.

We will try to keep you posted on how it's going. And thank you very much for your support.

The folk values incarnated in the Bartles character included guilelessness, simplicity, and honest directness. Much like the Chevrolet spots that revel in the past as a gentler, "simpler" time, Bartles appears to be from another era where selling products is a direct, honorable process. Sitting on his front porch with a wooden screen door behind him, he seems out of touch with the principles of slick contemporary marketing campaigns. There is considerable irony here, of course, since all of Bartles' guilelessness is a sham and the ad's honest directness was fabricated by a high-powered advertising agency.

Unlike many commercials that rely on folk culture, however, the Bartles & Jaymes' series presume that viewers are themselves wary of appeals based on baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. The wine cooler was designed for sophisticated young professionals who might be skeptical of small-town values and bald-faced sentiment. The ads subtly play to that urban audience by softly parodying small town perspectives-as when the first ad suggests Jaymes would write to Harvard for a Master's in business. The humor of many of the spots relies on the viewer's awareness of marketing jargon and strategies. "Thank you for your support" is a hollow phrase commonly used in marketing, advertising, and PR. When we hear it coming sincerely from the mouth of a country bumpkin, we laugh at the incongruity.

In a sense, the Bartles & Jaymes ads have it both ways: They appeal to viewers' desires for a simpler era and at the same time they chide the simplicity of that era-inviting the viewers in on the joke by alluding to the complicated machinations of modern marketing.

Novelty and Progress

The flip side of advertising's appeal to folk culture and tradition is its incessant hawking of the new and the merits of progress. Longstanding marketing re search shows that consumers are drawn to packaging with the words "new" and "improved" prominent on it. To capitalize on this tendency, advertisers subject consumers to product improvements that are dubious at best. One commercial for "new mild, new formula" Zest soap promises "new lather," but it's hard to imagine what could be strikingly new about bubbles of soap. And the 2001 model of the Dodge Caravan closely resembled other minivans, but nonetheless a spot for it starts with a shot of tulips blooming, the title "Different?' and the claim, "We began anew." It then lists several minor changes. "New, new, new! Dodge Grand Caravan, the best minivan ever?' It concludes with the self-mocking question and a graphic: "And did we mention it's new? [pause] The All-new Dodge Caravan."

Different? There is nothing that is literally "all-new" or completely different in the world of merchandise. If you changed everything in the design of a minivan, it would no longer be a "minivan." It'd be something completely new and different. Manufacturers and advertising agencies are not prepared to risk all-out newness.

Part of the appeal of newness and novelty stems from a positive attitude toward progress. Americans are accustomed to regular reports of scientific advances in medicine, physics, and other technological fields where the work of researchers builds on previous efforts and moves toward particular goals: a cure for AIDS, sending a human to the moon, a car that will get 1,000 miles per gallon. Applying the notion of scientific progress to soap, automobiles, or fashion is usually just hyperbole. Zest's new lather might well be different from its old lather (although even that is debatable), but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is an advance over the older lather. The new lather is different from-rather than an advance over-the old.

Coca-Cola's executives learned this lesson the hard way. New Coke received an enormous publicity campaign in 1985, but it turned into one of the biggest marketing fiascos of the century. Most Coke drinkers found the new, sweeter taste (designed to be closer to Pepsi's formula) was not to their liking. This led Coca-Cola executives to hurriedly reissue Coke's old formula under the name "Coke Classic" -a name that evokes images of a traditional soda fountain and all its folk associations. It's interesting to note that Coca-Cola's marketers changed the position of the word, "Coke," in the name when they released Coke Classic.

That is, with "New Coke" they emphasized the newness of the product, but with "Coke Classic" -and not "Classic Coke" -they stressed its Coke-ness. There are no casual decisions in the naming of products. Deciding to put the word "Coke" first probably arose from hours of brainstorming and focus groups.

Later, in 1992, "New Coke" became " Coke II " After 7 years on the market it was presumably no longer new, although it was still being presented as a successor ("II") to standard Coca-Cola.

Sexuality and Romance

It's no secret that sexuality and romance have been associated with thousands of products over the decades of TV's short history. "Sex sells," it has often been said in the advertising industry. One need not look far to find overt references to sex and sexual allure in television commercials-although, of course, U.S. network standards still prohibit nudity (which is quite common in European commercials) or graphic representation of sexual intercourse. Indeed, most of the networks still refuse to carry condom commercials. Still, ads for perfume or cologne, lingerie, bathing suits, shampoos, and cosmetics-which often feature women and men in revealing, tight-fitting clothing-are clearly banking on associating sex with their products.

The two most obvious ways that sexual imagery sells are (1) implying that the product will make the viewer more sexually appealing and (2) associating the product itself with sexuality and thereby stimulating a hormonal rush in order to draw the viewer's attention to it. The first type of appeal is evident in products such as perfumes and shampoos. The second comes into play in ads for beer and cars, designed for heterosexual men, that have attractive women posing by the products.

FIGURE 12.3 - FIGURE 12.4

Victoria's Secret manages to incorporate both of these appeals in its commercials. During the 1999 Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons, it advertised a Web-based fashion show by addressing itself principally to male viewers: "The Broncos won't be there. The Falcons won't be there.

You won't care." The bulk of the ad consists of images of its minimally dressed models (Fig. 12.3). The "you" in this instance is the male viewer who might be sexually attracted to the women of Victoria's Secret. Entertainment Weekly at tacked the ad as the "Worst Blatant Exploitation of T&A ["tits-and-ass"]" of the Super Bowl ads: "The plot: Jiggle, jiggle, jiggle, Web address. This embarrassingly unsubtle spot announces an upcoming Internet fashion show for the lingerie catalog-because God knows we need more soft-core cyberporn."22 Evidently, the Super Bowl spot hopes to entice men to purchase lingerie for the women in their lives, but in an ad for its Natural Miracle Bra, Victoria's Secret mainly speaks to female viewers. The audio consists of various testimonials by women about the bra's effectiveness: "Makes you feel more natural. Makes you feel more confident as a woman. Very comfortable. Feels just like natural skin.

When I wear the Natural I just feel feminine and more sexy. It gave me more cleavage... instant cleavage. I felt confident and sexy. You felt good about your body." (See the discussion above regarding the significance of the "natural.") The target viewers and the "you" of this ad's text are certainly women, not men. This water/glycerin-filled bra is thus marketed to women themselves. The heterosexual male viewer is not excluded from the appeal of this ad, however, as it features a large-breasted woman in the Natural Miracle Bra, modeling its cleavage-enlarging effects and presumably inciting his libido (Fig. 12.4). In true polysemic fashion, this commercial has room for several sexual interpretations.

Paul Messaris contends that such blatant appeals to sexual themes are matched by covert presentations of the subject in "at least three types of situations": "[F]irst, when sex is being used metaphorically and what the ad is really promising is something else; second, when the link between the product and sex is frowned upon; and, third, when the type of sex is socially unacceptable."' One famous instance of metaphoric sex is a 1960s commercial for Noxzema shaving cream. In tight close-up, Gunilla Knutson, a former Miss Sweden, suggestively runs her lips across a string of pearls (Fig. 12.5). With her distinctly Swedish accent, she breathlessly intones, "Men, nothing takes it off like Noxzema Medicated Shave." A brass band then begins to blare "The Stripper," which accompanies close-ups of a man shaving his face (Fig. 12.6). "Take it off," Knutson commands, "Take it all off"

FIGURE 12.5 - FIGURE 12.6

What is the source of the enduring appeal of this ad? Much like the Miracle Bra ad, this product ostensibly improves the sexual desirability of its user, but the strategy used in its pitch is a metaphoric one. The act of a man removing shaving cream is metaphorically linked to the act of a woman removing clothing: shaving = stripping. The phrase "Take it off" contains the literal meaning of shaving cream removal and the metaphoric meaning of clothing removal. In the 1960s, this was seen to be quite risque. Messaris argues that metaphoric sex and double entendres continue to be widely used in contemporary advertising as well-especially in commercials associating sex and food.

Messaris's second category of covert sexuality in commercials contains ads in which "the link between the product and sex is disparaged or condemned by public opinion. Cars, liquor, and cigarettes are among the most prominent examples of products in this category."24 If advertisers were to state seriously that their cars, liquor, or tobacco products (which have been banned from U.S. TV ads since 1971) will enable men to attract women for the purpose of sexual activity, viewers would scoff or laugh at the ads. And yet that is exactly the implicit message of many commercials-especially local car commercials--in which conventionally attractive women pose beside various products. Messaris' point is that sexual associations with cars, beer, and other products have not disappeared from U.S. television. Rather, they have just been displaced from unabashed verbal statements to the more subtle language of the visuals.

Messaris's third category of implicit sexuality contains forbidden sexual themes. What qualifies as a sexual taboo on broadcast television advertising is, of course, quite tame and circumscribed when compared to premium channels (e.g., HBO or Showtime) or theatrical films. For instance, bondage and homosexuality are never unabashedly represented in U.S. commercials. They find their way into televisions commercials only through covert allusion--often cloaked in comedy or self-parody. In a Finish Line commercial for Reebok shoes, two young men are hiking through the jungle when one of them is bitten on the leg by a snake. The other begins to suck the venom from the wound, giving the appearance of oral sex (Fig. 12.7). A woman jogs by in Reebok shoes and the men disengage and look embarrassed. Allusions to gay sex and male homophobia are communicated through the visuals, but it's hard to imagine a sports shoe commercial that would verbally or directly present homosexual activity--especially considering sports culture's longstanding and virulent homophobia.


Child and teenage sexuality is similarly avoided in the manifest content of TV commercials. Messaris discusses what happened when an advertiser violated this particular taboo in the 1995 Calvin Klein jeans campaign.25 The print and TV ads from that campaign feature very young, barely pubescent, models in revealing poses. Many critics of the ads argued that they appealed to the prurient interest of adult male viewers and thus qualified as child pornography.

After considerable public protest, Calvin Klein withdrew the ads. Evidently, the commercials were not implicit enough for the U.S. media audience.

Alleviation of Pain, Fear/Anxiety, and Guilt

Numerous commercials use a simple narrative formula: Someone is in pain or feeling anxious and the ad's product alleviates that pain or anxiety. Case closed.

All medicinal ads are based on this premise, as are many hygiene (e.g., deodorants, mouth washes, feminine douches) and food products. The Alka-Seltzer jingle, "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it is!" unmistakably exemplifies this approach.

Soap operas, several of which are produced by hygiene and food giant Procter & Gamble, are awash in this sort of commercial. It's interesting to consider how the soap opera narrative structure is the exact opposite of the narrative in its commercials (see section 2 for more on narrative). Soap opera stories never reach a definitive ending. Each small conclusion is the basis for a new enigma and further questions. But in the soap opera commercial, crises are quickly solved in 30 seconds. A child's cough is soothed. A woman's dandruff is controlled. A "tension headache" is eased. Hunger is satisfied. Commercials are small bits of closure inserted into soap opera's vast sea of open-ended narrative.

Guilt is often attached to issues of pain and suffering. Mike Budd, et al., explain how advertisers mount a "guilt campaign": "This involves airing commercials that imply that the viewer is not really a loving mother and home maker unless she uses Downey to make her towels soft, Pampers to keep her baby dry, and Duncan Hines to bake cakes for her husband and children."

Often the guilt is heaped on the woman by someone observing her not using the sponsor's product. A classic in this vein is the Wisk detergent commercials produced by the BBDO agency and begun in 1968. In this series, a wife and mother is repeatedly shamed for being unable to deal with the "ring around the collar" problem-until, that is, she learns to apply Wisk directly to the offending stains. Such ads encourage the viewer to seek alleviation of guilt through the purchase of commodities.

Utopia and Escape from Dystopia

In her consideration of children's advertising and consumer culture, Seiter argues, "Like most popular entertainments, commercials are utopian in many respects--portraying a childhood world more exciting, intense, and exhilarating than everyday life. 27 In Seiter's study she found that child-centered commercials often counterpose this utopian childhood world to the adult world of restraint and boring responsibilities. Of course, utopianism is not limited to children's commercials. Numerous commercials invite the adult viewer into a utopia of intensity of experience, exhilaration of emotion, and, frequently, unbridled hedonism (a total lack of responsibility). Seiter draws on Richard Dyer's more general discussion of utopianism in film, television, and other mass entertainments. Dyer characterizes utopia as "the image of 'something better' to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don't provide." 28 In contrast to the tensions and inadequacies of contemporary life, utopia offers:

• Abundance (elimination of poverty for self and others; equal distribution of wealth)

• Energy (work and play synonymous)

• Intensity (excitement, drama, affectivity of living)

• Transparency (open, spontaneous, honest communications and relation ships)

• Community (all together in one place, communal interests, collective activity) 29

Each of these traits can be found in television commercials.

An ad for the MCI Network explicitly alludes to utopia. It begins by explaining, "People here communicate mind to mind." Then it continues: Not black to white. There are no genders. Not man to woman. There is no age. Not young to old. There are no infirmities. Not short to tall. Or handsome to homely.

Just thought to thought. Idea to idea. Uninfluenced by the rest of it. There are only minds. Only minds. What is this place? This place? Utopia? No. No. The Internet.

The Internet.

The Internet ...3°

MCI represents utopia as a community fostering the unfettered interchange of ideas; a place where nothing will constrict its citizens. Its ad insinuates that the Internet might be mistaken for utopia and that its networking can thus convey the customer to a utopian realm.

A commercial for a Mercedes-Benz roadster is less high-minded in its presentation of a utopian experience. In the ad, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell float into the bedroom of Michael, a middle-aged man. Michael is sleeping in respectable looking pajamas next to a woman who is presumably his respectable spouse.

Peter entices him, "Do you remember when we were 8 and we went flying?" When he protests that he can't fly any more, Peter corrects him, "It's never too late to fly!" We then cut to Michael, still in his pajamas, driving a roadster and shouting, "W0000-h000!" Notably, Peter and Tinkerbell are beside him, but his spouse is not. The spot fades to black as Michael shifts into high gear. Then the only text in the ad fades in: "Exhilaration" (followed by the Mercedes-Benz logo). With its allusions to Never-Never Land and the boy who won't grow up, this commercial associates its product with a utopian view of childhood pleasures and passions.

A dystopia is the exact opposite of a utopia. It's a land where freedoms are restricted and life is oppressive and colorless. Advertisers' products frequently promise to liberate consumers from such oppression. McDonald's modest suggestion that "You deserve a break today" could be viewed as an inducement to flee the dystopian home-soiled laundry, dirty bathrooms, and unfed children - and enter a world of culinary surplus and happy circus characters (Ronald McDonald). The most unequivocal TV-commercial attack on dystopia is the Apple Computer spot that announced the release of the Macintosh computer in 1984. Apple drew heavily on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally published in 1949), which contains the best known dystopia in 20th-century fiction. In it, Big Brother rules a harshly repressive totalitarian state where the Ministry of Truth rewrites history and the Thought Police arrest anyone who dares resist.

The Apple "1984" commercial shrewdly transforms its arch rival, IBM, into Orwell's Big Brother-without ever mentioning IBM by name. IBM tyrannized the computer world at that time, and its corporate culture was a very conservative, contained one. Chiat/Day, Apple's advertising agency, chose to present the Mac as a liberating force, hoping to challenge IBM's monopolistic control of the computer industry. They hired feature film director Ridley Scott, who'd recently shot the dystopian Blade Runner (1982), to direct it. And they paid $500,000 for a one-time broadcast during the 1984 Super Bowl (No other national broadcast time was purchased although the ad was screened repeatedly on news programs.) In the ad, an audience of ashen-faced, shaved-head drones watches a large screen where their ruler harangues them about the "Information Purification Directives" and "Unification of Thought" (see Figs. 12.8-12.9). For today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all 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 more powerful a 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 will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!

FIGURE 12.8 - FIGURE 12.9

A young woman wearing a runner's outfit and wielding a sledgehammer sprints into the room, pursued by armed soldiers (Fig. 12.10). Her red shorts and vigorous skin tone contrast sharply with the colorless minions. She flings the sledgehammer at the screen, which causes it to explode. Text scrolls over the image as the voiceover begins: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984." When this ad ran, viewers had never seen Macintosh computers. The Mac is not shown in the commercial and no features of it are described. Viewers could have had no tangible sense of how Macs might differ from other manufacturers' computers. Instead, Apple relied entirely on the theme of liberation from dystopia to sell its new machine.

FIGURE 12.10


As we have seen, commercials rely on a fairly predictable polysemy to persuade consumers to buy products. One clear persuasive strategy, then, is to build an argument that a particular product is associated with positive meanings and images, or eliminates negative ones. But so far we have not concentrated on how that argument is built. What sound/image techniques and rhetorical strategies do commercials use to make products seem desirable? What, one might say, is the persuasive style of the TV commercial? Some commercials persuade with a jackhammer-blunt style, while others so carefully hide their persuasion that viewers are left wondering just what was being advertised. As we examine the techniques used to persuade us, we'll find that they can be grouped into the following general categories. The list is not an exhaustive one and new persuasive styles will doubtlessly evolve in the future, but the majority of TV commercials rely on one or more of these persuasive devices:

1. Metaphor.

2. Utopian style.

3. Product differentiation and superiority.

4. Repetition and redundancy.

5. Extraordinary and excessive style: "televisuality" and counter television.

6. Graphics and animation.

7. Violating reality (special effects).

8. Reflexivity and intertextuality.

Let's examine how these tactics are employed in specific commercials.


FIGURE 12.11 - FIGURE 12.12

Perhaps the most common way that advertisers assert the desirability of their products is to associate them with activities, objects, or people that are them selves desirable. Essentially, such association constructs a metaphor between the product and that desirable activity, object, or person. This may be accomplished in two ways. Either the product will enable the viewer to become similar to something else or the product itself is shown to be similar to something else.

Our discussion of emulation shows how the former can be quite directly ex pressed through the commercial's script. Gatorade's suggestion to "be like Mike" by drinking its beverages is a clear-cut example of a simile where viewers are told they can become similar to someone else (Michael Jordan) by consuming a product. Thus, the product is offering to transform viewers from their mundane identities into something special and unique, or, at the very least, it is proposing to make them into a simulation of that unique person, Michael Jordan.

In commercials, a metaphor often links a product with an unexpected thing or activity. For example, Noxzema implies that shaving is metaphorically equivalent to stripping in the ad previously discussed, in which "The Stripper" plays and a seductive woman urges men to "take it all off." The metaphor in this case is created through the commercial's sound mix (the woman's dialogue and the music). By bringing normally incongruous sound and image together, Noxzema creates the metaphoric meaning. That is, the commercial's meaning is not a literal one ("The man is stripping"), but rather a metaphorical one ("Shaving is like stripping in that something is removed in both cases"). It sounds bland and boring when summarized so bluntly, but to suggest that removing shaving cream is similar to removing clothing fastens a sexually provocative connotation to a normally routine activity.

Another method for generating metaphors is through a sequence of images-much as Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein theorized 80 years ago.

By bringing two or more images together in sequence, a filmmaker can imply that one image should be compared with the other and that there are similarities between them. A staunch socialist and revolutionary, Eisenstein advocated the use of visual metaphor or, as he called it, intellectual montage, for political causes. In the instance of his film, Strike, he intercut heroic striking workers being beaten by police with shots of a bull being slaughtered (Figs. 12.11-12.12).

The metaphoric meaning is clear: strikers are cattle. And, further, it graphically argues that a gross injustice is being done.

Advertisers have usurped Eisenstein's principle to sell commodities. For instance, a commercial for a line of Hyundai cars begins with 10 images of exhilarating activities: a mountain climber topping a peak, a surfer negotiating a wave, children leaping into a swimming hole, a girl twirling in a water sprinkler, etc. (Fig. 12.13). These are followed by an equal number of shots of Hyundai cars on the road (Fig. 12.14). The final image is a group of mountain climbers on a summit (Fig. 12.15). The order of the images-cars sandwiched between swimming children and mountaineers-suggests that driving a Hyundai is the same as the other actions. Commercials are seldom satisfied only to hint at such meanings visually, however, and the significance of the images is often anchored by the sound. The Hyundai ad incorporates Cream's song, "I Feel Free," and thus makes clear what meaning ought to be generalized from this sequence of images.3I There are those moments in life when absolutely nothing weighs you down. When you feel totally, completely free. This fall, Hyundai is introducing a exciting new line of vehicles that are a joy to drive and virtually effortless to own, thanks to America's best warranty plan. Because we believe freedom should be more than a feeling. It should be something you can actually touch.

FIGURE 12.13 - FIGURE 12.14

FIGURE 12.15

It should be noted, however, that the narration does not explicitly state, "Driving Hyundai cars is like flying a kite or jumping in a creek" The sequentially of the images, aided by the music, carries this meaning indirectly. As Messaris argues, indirectness is commonly used in advertising. He maintains that it has two advantages over direct approaches. First, an indirect, visual argument such as the Hyundai ad elicits a "greater degree of mental participation" from viewers.' It requires viewers to make the semantic connection between the product and the other objects (e.g., between Hyundai cars and children swimming). Messaris contends that viewers are more likely to retain the commercial's message because they themselves have helped to generate it. Second, Messaris contends, " . . . the [explicit] verbal claims made in advertisements tend to be held to much stricter standards of accountability than whatever claims are implicit in the ads' pictures."33 His illustration of this is ads for cigarettes, which show happy, healthy-looking people smoking-thus making the indirect, implicit claim that smoking is a healthy activity when, of course, we know it is not.

Commercials can metaphorically suggest many things in the visuals that they would be prohibited from stating explicitly in the dialogue.

Utopian Style

We discussed earlier how commercials promise admission to utopia through the purchase of commodities-as when Michael escapes with Peter Pan to the utopia of a Mercedes-Benz roadster. Dyer contends that utopianism in mass entertainment is not just evident in the worlds it portrays. He takes the principle of utopianism a step further and finds it in the style of presentation, in aspects of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and, crucially, music.34 That is, he argues that qualities of utopia (abundance, energy, intensity, transparency, and community) may be found in a medium's style. For Dyer, this is most evident in the film musical. Since music is fundamental to most, if not all, commercials, it seems reasonable that we might look for this utopian style in the television commercial.

Soda commercials offer particularly clear examples of utopianism's embodiment in style. To choose one instance among many, consider a Coca-Cola spot from 2000 that presents a rave party in the woods. A mass of people gyrate euphorically near a fire (Fig. 12.16) to the music of Basement Jaxx's "Red Alert". The handheld camera bumps and jumps within the crowd, occasionally craning above them. One stocky guy in a T-shirt and shorts is featured dancing quirkily by himself as three friends sit nearby (Fig. 12.17). There's no dialogue and the lyrics of the music are virtually indistinguishable. The only words in the ad appear on the bottoms of Coke cans. In total, they are: "Bliss ... comes from ... within.

Enjoy" (Fig. 12.18). With so few words to anchor the meaning of this commercial, it must rely on elements of style (bass-heavy techno-styled music, dancing technique, camera movements) to signify its meaning. The utopian "bliss" that we are to associate with Coca-Cola imbues the image/sound style and encourages viewers to join the dance, figuratively speaking. Energy and intensity-in Dyer's sense of these terms-are embodied in the commercial's style.

FIGURE 12.16

FIGURE 12.17 - FIGURE 12.18

Product Differentiation and Superiority

To survive in the marketplace, every product must distinguish itself from others in the same category. Coke must be perceived as different from Pepsi, Tide from Cheer, Ford from Toyota, Levi from Wrangler, and on and on. At the core of all advertising is the establishment and maintenance of a product's identity, its brand. The key to brand identity is a product's unique selling proposition (USP), as advertising standard-bearer Rosser Reeves termed that certain some thing that separates a product from the rest of the field.35 Even when there is very little actual difference between commodities, the USP principle holds that the advertiser must find or even fabricate one. Reeves is often quoted as explaining the USP this way: "Our problem is-a client comes into my office and throws down two newly minted half-dollars onto my desk and says, 'Mine is the one on the left. You prove it's better:"36 This lack of difference between products is called brand parity.

Reeves faced the challenge of brand parity in 1952 while developing an advertising campaign for Anacin, a pain reliever whose active ingredients consisted solely of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid [ASA]) and caffeine. How was he to differentiate Anacin from regular aspirin? His solution was a series of cleverly worded commercials that feature a fanciful animated representation of an ailment he dubbed the "tension headache" (Fig. 12.19). A compressed spring and a jagged electrical spark metaphorically represent the overwrought human nervous system (several ads in the series include a small hammer pounding away, too). The ads' catchphrase of "fast, fast, fast relief" became part of the 1950s popular culture lexicon. But it wasn't enough for Reeves to explain how Anacin relieved pain. He also needed to "prove" that it lessened discomfort in a different manner from aspirin-even though aspirin was its main pain relieving agent.

He needed to find Anacin's USP.

FIGURE 12.19 - FIGURE 12.20

In one commercial from this long-running campaign, the announcer ex plains, "Aspirin has just one pain reliever. Add buffering, you still get just one.

Only Anacin of the four leading headache remedies has special ingredients to relieve pain fast, help overcome depression fast, relax tension fast." Anacin's combination of ingredients composes its unique selling proposition, according to Reeves, because only Anacin has that particular recipe. To emphasize this point, side-by-side animation shows Anacin relieving headache pain that aspirin cannot alleviate (Fig. 12.20). Nowhere in this ad does the announcer reveal that the principal "special ingredient" in Anacin is aspirin itself. Instead, we're allowed to imagine that its ingredients are wholly different from aspirin.

If we examine the text of the ad carefully, we find that the announcer does not deny that Anacin contains aspirin. He is just, let us say, less than forthcoming about the nature of its ingredients. In fact, one premise of the commercial is that "Three out of four doctors recommend the ingredients in Anacin." He doesn't specify what those ingredients are, but we may well suppose that the primary one is aspirin. Note also that the copy does not say that the doctors specifically recommend Anacin, but rather just that they recommend the ingredients Anacin contains.

If we were to rewrite this commercial without the need to create a unique selling proposition and in a more forthcoming, purely informational manner, it might go something like this: "Three out of four doctors recommend aspirin for headache pain. Anacin contains 325 mg. of aspirin and is also laced with 32 mg. of caffeine, which may speed the alleviation of your pain or may just give you the jitters." To be fair to Reeves, we should note that in his book, Reality in Advertising, he contests the suggestion that Anacin's USP is a made-up one. He argues that the difference between Anacin and aspirin is not "minuscule:' He claims that distinguishing Anacin from aspirin is not based on a "deceptive differential," but rather is "the stuff and substance of good advertising."37 Advertisers currently express disdain for Reeves's hard-sell approach. It's said to be too simplistic for today's "sophisticated" consumers and yet television commercials continue to wage battles against brand parity. From the Apple Power Mac G4 commercials entreating computer users to "Think different" to the taste tests of the "Pepsi Challenge" to the Dodge ads beginning and ending with the word "Different," we see the persistent influence of Reeves's unique selling proposition and the need for advertisers to differentiate their products from those of their competitors.

Repetition and Redundancy

In addition to the USP, Reeves was also known as an advocate of blunt force repetition in television commercials. The Anacin spot above exemplifies this in its use of the word "fast." It appears eight times in the 30 second spot and three times in the tagline alone: "Anacin-for fast, fast, incredibly fast relief." Not only did Anacin's slogan contain repetition, but it was itself reiterated thousands of times in repeated airings of this commercial and in numerous different Anacin ads, which were also frequently aired. All successful advertising campaigns use repetition within ads, in repeated airings of ads, and across numerous other ads in the same campaign.

Repetition in advertising serves one major, obvious function: reinforcement.

The first time you hear a word or see an image, you may not remember it. Each repetition of it makes recall more likely. But what, in general terms, are TV commercials reinforcing? They're doubtlessly reinforcing particular qualities of particular commodities, but in a more general sense they're reinforcing brand identity. If advertisers can get you to remember the names of their products when you visit a store, they feel they've achieved 75% of their goal. If they can get you to remember the superiority of their brands and subsequently purchase their products, they've achieved the remaining 25%.


Sidebar 12.1

Top Ten Slogans of the 20th Century. How many can you match with their products? (Answers below.)

1. Diamonds are forever.

2. Just do it.

3. The pause that refreshes.

4. Tastes great, less filling.

5. We try harder.

6. Good to the last drop.

7. Breakfast of champions.

8. Does she ... or doesn't she?

9. When it rains it pours.

10. Where's the beef?

1. De Beers 2. Nike 3. Coca-Cola 4. Miller Lite 5. Avis 6. Maxwell House 7. Wheaties 8. Clairol

9. Morton Salt 10. Wendy's. "The Advertising Century,", 2000, adage.corntenturyislogans.html.


Another technique that is closely related to repetition is redundancy. Most of the information that we hear and see repeated in TV commercials is redundant information. It exceeds what is necessary to make the point. Sound and image often redundantly convey identical information in commercials. For instance, in Apple's groundbreaking "1984" commercial (previously discussed) the narrator speaks the same words that we see crawl up the screen at the end. This is quite typical of the ends of commercials, where ads make their final bids to remain in the viewer's consciousness. Redundancy is common in much of television- as when soap opera characters redundantly rehash plot developments-but it exists at a much higher level and is absolutely crucial to the commercial.

Extraordinary and Excessive Style: "Televisuality" and Counter Television

Viewers do not seek commercials. They do not tune into television for the commercials (with the significant exception of home shopping channels). Indeed, they commonly use remote controls, videotaping, and channel browsing to avoid watching commercial breaks. And so, advertisers are continuously challenged to develop mechanisms for snaring viewers' attention, for hailing them, one might say, as one hails a cab. In other words, commercials must use techniques that say, "Hey, you! Watch me! Watch me now!" One way that hailing is achieved is through what John Caldwell terms "televisuality" -"defined by excessive stylization and visual exhibitionism." 38 He believes that much 1980s television and not just commercials is marked by televisuality, but we will limit our application of it to TV ads. This is a slightly different sense of the word than what we used before, as when the generic "televisual" is used as the adjectival form of the noun, "television:' In order to understand excessive or exhibitionistic television, we must recall its stylistic norm. By the 1970s, television found its own "classical" style, much like the cinema developed its classical style in the 1930s. Part Two describes this conventional television style in terms of mise-en-scene, videography, editing, and sound as they may be observed in sitcoms, soap operas, prime-time dramas, and other narrative and non-narrative programs. Central to this approach is that style should not draw attention to itself, that it should in a sense be invisible.

What's meant by this is that style should support the narrative so effectively that the viewer may submerge into the story without being distracted by the style.

One of the quintessential principles of television commercials is that television classicism may be exceeded-and even violated-in order to attract the viewer's attention. Stylistic excesses and violations are used by commercials to snap viewers out of their dreamlike connection with television narrative, to shock them out of their television lethargy and make them sit up and take notice of the advertised products. Following Bertolt Brecht's "epic theater" and Peter Wollen's claims for a Brechtian "counter cinema" in radical films of the 1960s and 1970s, we might think of this disruptive stylistic approach as "counter television."39 Although epic theater and counter cinema were both Marxist at tempts to combat capitalism and consumerism and although the notion of Brechtian commercials may make Brecht spin like a top in his grave, it is impossible to deny that techniques once associated with experimental theater and film are now routinely used in television commercials.

Since we divided our consideration of television's classical style into sections on mise-en-scene, videography, editing, and sound, we will illustrate the commercial's use of counter television with examples from each of these areas.

FIGURE 12.21

FIGURE 12.22 - FIGURE 12.23

Real Estate Agent

Mise-en-Scene. There are several unusual aspects of performance, of figure expression and movement, in television commercials. The most significant aspect in terms of the commercial's hailing function is the manner in which the camera is directly addressed. As discussed in section 4, news anchors and game show hosts typically address viewers directly by looking straight into the camera lens, but actors in fictional, narrative programs do not. Instead, actors in narrative programs look only at one another and indirectly address the viewer.

Interestingly, commercials incorporate direct address in both non-narrative and narrative instances. In a non-narrative commercial for the Hair Club a client looks straight at the camera and details the benefits of its product (Fig. 12.21). It's evident that he's addressing viewers directly-specifically hailing men who feel anxious about hair loss. We find a more unconventional use of direct ad dress in the narrative commercials for Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. In this case we have fictional characters looking into the camera and speaking their lines (Fig. 12.2). These actors thus violate the taboo against direct-camera gazes, and they do so in a fashion that implores the viewer's return gaze.

Commercials' performance style is commonly pitched a notch or two higher than is the acting in narrative programs and the behavior of individuals in non narrative programs. The goal of performers in many commercials is not so much plausibility or realism as it is notice-ability. An excessive performance style can get commercials noticed during their 30-second bid for our attention. In the 1980s, Federal Express featured fast-talker John Moschitta, Jr. in a series of successful ads. Moschitta's ability to speak at the rate of 530 words per minute served a dual purpose for FedEx: to capture viewers' attention and to make a metaphoric connection between their delivery service's rapidity and Moschitta's speech. Excessive speed is also used in the selling of automobiles-where vehicles frequently careen recklessly around race tracks, desert trails, and mountain passes. A notice on such ads tells us that these are "professional drivers on a closed course" and that we shouldn't attempt such stunts ourselves, but if risky driving draws viewers' attention, then its persuasive function has been served.

Non-human figures also perform in unconventional ways in commercials.

Animals frequently talk, sing, and dance. And objects that usually cannot move on their own commonly violate the laws of physics in commercial performances. We've seen singing raisins and talkative M&M candies, and we've been introduced to the Pillsbury Doughboy and Speedy Alka-Seltzer (Figs. 12.22, 12.23). By giving animals the human property of speech and by animating normally inanimate objects, commercials violate the behavioral rules of the real world.


TABLE 12.4

Classicism Versus Counter-Television


Image fills the frame Balanced composition (Objects centered)

In-focus main figure Regular speed action Color Limited camera movement Eye-level camera angle " Normal" focal length


Letterboxing Imbalanced composition (Objects at the frame's edges)

Out-of-focus main figure Slow motion and fast motion Black-and-white Extremely active camera movement Extreme low and high angles Extreme wide angle and telephoto


FIGURE 12.24 - FIGURE 12.25

Direct gazes at the camera, the excessive performance of actors, and the unconventional behavior of non-human "actors" all hail viewers-entreating them to pay attention and to be persuaded by commercials.

Videography and Cinematography. Despite the televisual exhibitionism Caldwell has found in several 1980s and 1990s programs, most television since the 1970s has adhered to television's classical conventions in terms of videography or cinematography. Music television, however, is a significant exception. When it arrived in the early 1980s, its stylistic flourishes and visualization of music had a major impact on the videography/cinematography of programs such as Miami Vice (1984-89) and the short-lived Cop Rock (1990). More important, it inspired a small revolution in the videography of commercials, which use music-video style to distinguish themselves from the program material they are interrupting. For commercial directors, counter-television videography is yet another way to draw the viewer's attention.

Table 12.4 counter-poses the principal videographic elements of TV classicism with counter-television techniques that commercials use to catch our eye. Letterboxing, out-of-focus shooting, and imbalanced composition are all illustrated in a single commercial for MicroStrategy, a dot-com company specializing in business consulting (Fig. 12.24). Letterboxing was initially developed for transferring wide-screen movies to television and is also commonly used for videotape shot in the high-definition format. For example, compare the letterboxed version of He Said, She Said discussed in section 6 (Figs. 6.26-6.27) with the letterboxing of the MicroStrategy commercial. In both instances, the black bars at the top and bottom effectively reshape the aspect ratio of the frame-making it wider than normal television. This width is emphasized in a later shot where the same woman is placed on the extreme left of the frame while a frazzled man appears in the background (Fig. 12.25). This image would be more conventional if she were moving toward the man and into the center of the frame, but she is not. Instead, she's walking to the left and out of frame.

The result is a strikingly imbalanced composition. Also notable is the fact that two thirds of this shot is markedly out-of-focus and remains that way for the duration of the shot. That is, we do not pull focus to the man in the background (cf. Figs. 6.9-6.10). Although variable speed action in commercials was partially inspired by music videos, television sports was more significant to its popularization. Ever since the 1960s-when advances in videotape technology enabled TV to replay action at variable speeds-slow motion has been an integral part of televised sports. As we have seen with mise-en-scene and videography, variable speed action is an attention grabber. Because narrative programs don't normally use variable speeds, slow motion and fast action make us attentive. They may also be used, as they are in sports programs, to emphasize strength and majesty and to show viewers actions that normally occur too quickly for the human eye to comprehend.

Consider the Mountain Dew commercial in which a cyclist chases a cheetah and pulls a can of soda from its throat-initially aired during the 2000 Super Bowl. Both fast and slow motion are used in this spot. The cyclist's pedaling as he gains on the cheetah is shown in speeded up action-making it seem faster than is humanly possible. Slow motion is used in several shots: the cheetah running, the bicyclist leaping on it, and the bicyclist's friends pouring Mountain Dew down their throats. By using slow motion, we are able to see details in the cheetah's running and the bicyclist's leap that we wouldn't discern at regular speed. And the slow-motion pouring enhances the appearance of the Mountain Dew-in theory making it more appealing.

As is explained in section 9, color came to television through a complicated and circuitous route. Once it was established in the 1960s, however, narrative programs discontinued use of black- and-white-with only very rare exceptions.

Color was the last major technological component of TV classicism to evolve.

Its arrival signaled the beginning of black-and-white as a counter-television component. Before color became the norm, it was capable of hailing viewers.

Imagine how striking a color commercial must have seemed to viewers who were accustomed to black-and-white imagery.

Most frequently, commercials have used black-and-white or sepia-toned images to allude to the past. But, as in many music videos, the significance of black-and-white imagery is not always so clear. Take for example a spot about estrogen loss during menopause, sponsored by the pharmaceutical company American Home Products and broadcast, among other places, during the sit com Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-), which, not surprisingly, is in color. Ac tress Lauren Hutton is shown cooking vegetables, running along the beach, and talking about menopause. Half of the shots are in color and half are in black-and white. The black-and-white images are not supposed to be from the past and, indeed, there is no obvious meaning one can glean from the black-and-white cinematography-aside from the counter-television function of differentiating this commercial from the color programs during which it appears.

Extreme camera movement, angle, and focal length-the final three video graphic elements in Table 12.4 -are not as distinct as the other videographic techniques. Instead of being unambiguous violations of classical TV style, they are more exaggerations of techniques ordinarily used in conventional narrative programs. Where classical programs often include some camera movement (to follow action), slightly low/high angles, and various focal lengths (wide angle to telephoto), commercials incorporate camera gyrations, odd low/high angles, and focal lengths that are so extreme that optical distortion is evident. Unusually active camera movements are apparent in the Coca-Cola rave commercial previously discussed. And strange angles and focal lengths may be observed in the off-balance, low-angle shot of a scooter-rider in a WorldCom commercial (Fig. 12.26) and the wide-angle shot of an Infiniti car (Fig. 12.27). When distortion is this exaggerated, it draws attention to itself and violates the classical tenet of invisible, unobtrusive style. This, then, is the definition of Caldwell's televisual exhibitionism.

FIGURE 12.26

FIGURE 12.27


TABLE 12.5

Aetna Commercial Editing

1. Long shot: the evident owner of the company works with a sewing machine on the floor (Fig. 12.28).

2. Medium long shot: she talks on the phone in her office (Fig. 12.29).

3. Long shot: she sorts balls of yarn (Fig. 12.30).

4. Medium shot: she smiles beside a worker (in black-and-white; Fig. 12.31).

5. Medium long shot: she examines a piece of fabric (Fig. 12.32).

6. Long shot: a loom (very quick shot; Fig. 12.33).

7. Long shot: another loom (very quick shot; Fig. 12.34).

8. Long shot: a room full of looms with the owner in the background staring out the window (Fig. 12.35).


Editing. The first thing one notices about the editing of many commercials is the speed. The editing in commercials is typically paced faster than that in soap operas, sitcoms, and prime-time dramas. An average, 30-second commercial contains 30 or more separate shots while a typical 30-second conversation scene in, for example, As the World Turns has approximately 10. Or, put another way, the average length of a commercial shot is 1 second or less, while the average shot length in narrative programs clocks in around 2 to 3 seconds.

Rapid editing serves as a hailing device because each shot quickly presents new information for viewers to absorb. Additionally, viewers are constantly adjusting to different framing, composition, and camera angles. Each cut is a potential disruption as we instantaneously move from one camera position to another and new visuals are thrown before our eyes. This visual disorientation is used by commercials to jolt us into gazing at the advertised product.

Commercials, even narrative-based ones, are also not bound by the rules of classical, continuity editing and its pursuit of an invisibly seamless style. Jump cuts and breaches of the 180 degree rule abound in TV ads. A commercial for Aetna U.S. Healthcare illustrates the commercial's flexible use of continuity editing (and also alternates color with black-and-white). It tells the story of a fabric company providing choices to its customers-which it offers as a metaphor for the new choices this HMO will offer its clients. In 30 seconds, the commercial presents 30 shots, some even less than 1 second long.

Its final eight shots are shown in Table 12.5. As you can see, the camera hops from the owner at one time/location to another-from sewing to talking to sorting to smiling to examining. If this editing were used in a conventional segment from a narrative program, it would seem weird or disturbing, but it works well in this commercial because it effectively conveys the spirit of this business and the value of free choice, and its editing style differentiates it from the narrative program it interrupted.

FIGURE 12.28

FIGURE 12.29

FIGURE 12.30


Sidebar 12.1

Top Ten Jingles of the 20th Century. How many can you match with their products? (Answers below.)

1. You deserve a break today.

2. Be all that you can be.

3. hits the spot.

4. M'm, m'm good.

5. See the USA in your .

6. I wish I was an wiener.

7. Double your pleasure, double your fun.

8. tastes good like a cigarette should.

9. It's the real thing.

10. A little dab'll do ya.

1. McDonalds 2. U.S. Army 3. Pepsi Cola 4. Campbell's 5. Chevrolet (GM) 6. Oscar Meyer 7. Wrigley's Doubiemint gum 8. Winston 9. Coca-Cola 10.Brylcreem hair cream. 2000,


Jerky, discontinuous editing is not unheard of in narrative programs, but series of shots such as those in Table 12.5 would commonly be relegated to montage sequences where time and information are compressed (see section 7). Such montages are relatively rare in narrative programs and so their frequent use in commercials helps distinguish them from the program they're interrupting.

Sound. We have discussed sound in television in terms of speech and music (see section 8). The style of speech in commercials has been addressed previously at numerous points-including its importance to hailing and direct address. Unlike dialogue in narrative programs, commercial speech must be persuasive in some fashion, and it must be succinct because it doesn't have much time to persuade us. Also, the presence of an announcer's voice distinguishes commercial speech from narrative programs and aligns it with news and sports programs. As in news and sports, a voice that is not part of the commercial's diegetic world talks over it. It's a voice of authority-speaking directly to viewers and urging them to be convinced by the commercial's rhetoric.

The music of commercials is yet another rhetorical device that has less in common with narrative programs than it does with another television genre- specifically, the music video (see section 10). This is not surprising since music videos are essentially commercials for music and musicians. The principal similarity between commercial music and music videos and the crucial difference between it and nondiegetic music in narrative programs is a seemingly simple one: Both commercials and music videos use songs with lyrics while nondiegetic music normally does not (excepting nondiegetic music where it is clearly commenting on the action-as when a popular love song plays while lovers walk beside a river). Why is this apparently modest distinction so important? Because the use of lyrics-jingles in the case of commercials-draws one's attention to the music itself, and classical, nondiegetic music isn't devised for that. Nondiegetic music strives for invisibility, hoping to shape the emotions of viewers without being noticed. Jingles, in contrast, are designed to be noticed and, of course, to be remembered. Many viewers recall commercial jingles decades later, but how many of them can say they remember the nondiegetic music of old programs? Graphics and Animation Almost every commercial on television contains some graphics (letters, numbers, cartoon characters, and corporate logos) on the screen. As we have seen exemplified in Apple's "1984" spot, the most common use of text is a redundant reinforcement of speech. Announcers speak their scripts and the same or similar words crawl up the screen-frequently at the conclusion of the spot and usually accompanied by the product's visual emblem, its brand identity further reinforced by its logo. In the case of "1984," the distinctive Apple logo (a rainbow-colored apple with a bite taken out) follows the concluding text.

Text is not limited to this redundant function, however. It may also supplement, clarify, and disclaim the explicit meanings of the dialogue and the implicit meanings of the images. The supplementing role of text is best exemplified in the nearly illegible legal qualifications included at the end of commercials for contests, car dealerships, and the like. Tiny on-screen text provides disclaimers and clarifications that the advertisers wish to downplay. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on misleading claims in medicinal and food advertising-leading to more and more disclaimers. Consequently, many ads now contain seemingly unnecessary warnings such as, "Use only as directed," in order to avoid legal liability. A Crest toothpaste commercial's spoken dialogue entreats us to "Get ready for a whole new level of clean. Introducing advanced cleaning from Crest Multi-Care." The dialogue implies that Multi-Care is measurably superior to other brands. However, in small text the ad clarifies that Multi-Care is only advanced "VS. CREST CAVITY PROTECTION"--that is, in comparison to other Crest products. It might well lag behind other brands in terms of toothpaste technology. The ad only certifies that it's advanced beyond Crest's previous level of cavity protection, just in case the FTC or the lawyers for Colgate may be watching.

FIGURE 12.36

FIGURE 12.37 - FIGURE 12.38

One final example of textual disclaimers is found in the case of dramatizations. For instance, a Saran Wrap ad visually presents what appears to be a documentary--an un-manipulated record-of a test of its plastic wrap and that of its competitor, Reynolds Aluminum. A blind-folded woman sniffs an onion in both wraps and is repelled when the smelly odor escapes from Reynolds Wrap. But it's all a fiction, a dramatization. We must read the "fine print" to realize this. Only there does text disclaim what the images proclaim-that, despite appearances, this is an actor pretending to be repulsed (Fig. 12.36).

Redundant, reinforcing text and small-print disclaimers are important functions of TV graphics, but equally significant is the ability of graphics to catch viewers' eyes, to hail or entreat them to look at the screen. The most important device for graphical hailing is the ability of text and cartoon elements to be animated, for moving graphics are enormously more attention-grabbing than are static ones. Animation in commercials arrived with television's growth in the 1940s and early 1950s, but it was initially limited to techniques borrowed from the cinema. For example, a 1950s commercial for Philco refrigerators has a cartoon pixie flitting about the crisper and ends with text fading in over a seal of quality: "Philco famous for quality the world over" (Figs. 12.37-12.38). The animated pixie and the simple fading in of the characters were created on film, using an optical printer. (See section 11 for more on animation's evolution.) On most commercials, the graphical elements are sliding or floating or otherwise moving. Further, commercial graphics use an illusion of three-dimensionality to make letters and numbers appear to rise toward the viewer. Even in this 40 year-old spot, the 3D shading on the "Philco quality" letters gives them a more dynamic aspect.

As Margaret Morse explains in her overview of the history of TV graphics, the movement and three-dimensionality of graphic elements accelerated phenomenally with the development of computer technology in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today, hyperactive letters and logos often seem to be flying past us or us toward them. In the opening credits for As the World Turns-a program not known for its visual flourishes-the title comes from a virtual space behind us (Fig. 12.39), rotating and swooping toward a globe constructed out of images from the program (Fig. 12.40). The title then comes back toward us, and we ostensibly pass through the "o" of "World"(Fig. 12.41). "The viewer.. . seems to be freed from gravity in a virtual experience of giddy speed through a symbolic universe of abc's,"4° notes Morse regarding similar sequences. In such a universe, the letters are far from flat or two-dimensional. The movement of the As the World Turns letters and their design makes them look like thick pieces of glass, with a sense of density and smooth texture.

FIGURE 12.39

FIGURE 12.40 - FI GURE 12.41

Graphics flying toward the viewer are the visual equivalent of verbal direct address. Remember that in narrative programs the visuals are designed much like the theater-as if a fourth wall has been removed and you are peering into a room. This is particularly true in sitcoms and soap operas because their sets are constructed with a missing fourth wall, but it also holds true for prime-time dramas shot on location. Consequently, there is limited actor movement in depth-toward or away from the camera. The action mostly occurs on a plane perpendicular to the camera's and thus more left-and-right and less back-and forth. Actors do not enter sitcom/soap opera sets from behind the camera the way the letters in the As the World Turns title sequence do. And actors do not exist by walking toward and past the camera the way the As the World Turns title does. When graphic elements behave this way, they, in a sense, say to viewers, "Pay attention! Here we come-right toward you. Duck!" As you can see, in commercials animated graphics serve a similar purpose to announcers speaking directly to the viewers. Both hail viewers-one through visually moving words and the other through verbally spoken ones. As Morse argues, these graphics are predecessors of increasingly interactive computer environments, from first person games (e.g., Quake) to virtual reality worlds.

A final and obvious form of animation in TV commercials is the use of cartoon characters. The Pillsbury Doughboy and Speedy Alka-Seltzer, previously discussed, are just two of the non-human entities called on to pitch products on television. The function of these characters (differentiating products) has not changed much over the past 50-odd years of television commercials. However, it should be mentioned that computer animation has had a major impact on the technology used to create these characters. Up until the 1990s, animated characters were either drawn or were created through stop-action animation (the frame-by-frame movement of dolls), as in the case with Speedy Alka-Seltzer (Fig. 12.23). Now, however, animated characters are just as likely to have been entirely computer generated-as in the current incarnation of the Pillsbury Doughboy (12.22). Violating Reality (Special Effects)

FIGURE 12.42

FIGURE 12.43

FIGURE 12.44

"In a medium whose very essence is the ability to reproduce the look of everyday reality, one of the surest ways of attracting the viewer's attention is to violate that reality,'" contends Paul Messaris. What intrigues him is advertising's use of distorted imagery to make a viewer notice a product. Studies in cognitive psychology show that this distortion is most effective when it varies only slightly from a familiar object. As Messaris explains, "...if the discrepancy between the unfamiliar shape and some preexisting one is only partial, the mental task of fitting in the new shape becomes more complicated. As a result, such partially strange shapes can cause us to pay closer attention."42 If an object is wholly different from what you are familiar with, you may ignore it completely or place it in a new visual category; but if it is partially similar then your cognitive processes work overtime trying to figure out whether or not it is a familiar object.

Messaris cites computer morphing as a prime example of this principle. A morph takes two dissimilar objects and creates a seamless transition from one to the other. In so doing, it creates a strange, reality-violating hybrid of two familiar objects. Morphing first came to viewers' attention in the films Willow (1988) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) where humans morph into various shapes, but it found its widest exposure in Michael Jackson's Black or White music video and television commercials in the 1990s. Notably, a Schick Tracer razor commercial morphs between a variety of faces-effectively communicating the idea that the Tracer will fit any shaped face and simultaneously getting viewers to concentrate on the ad by violating the reality of human physiognomy-as when a Caucasian man transforms into an African-American one (Figs. 12.42-12.43). Morphing is just one example of violating reality through special effects. The advances in digital graphics of the 1990s facilitated the widespread incorporation of special effects in commercials. What makes digital special effects particularly successful is their uncanny resemblance to historical reality. To choose one ex ample from many, consider a Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal ad where a man is slaving away in his office cubicle. Suddenly, a giant, special effects hand reaches down and starts pushing him around, giving him tasty cereal to eat and a video game to play with (Fig. 12.44). Initially, it looks like the familiar office scene, but then an incongruous and fantastic element intrudes into that reality. As Messaris might say, "It gives us a jolt, and it gets us to look."43 Reflexivity and Intertextuality

FIGURE 12.45

FIGURE 12.46

FIGURE 12.47 - FIGURE 12.49

In section 4 we introduced the notion of reflexivity in non-narrative television. Commercials thrive on the televisual cannibalism that is reflexivity. TV commercials frequently parody films, television programs, other commercials, and even themselves in their efforts to market a product. Energizer batteries were featured in a series of advertisements where a plausible but sham commercial (usually a sly spoof of a familiar one) is interrupted by a battery-powered toy rabbit intruding into the frame. In one, a commercial for the nonexistent Nasatine sinus medicine is suspended when the drum-beating bunny comes through (Fig. 12.45). In essence, the Energizer rabbit spots are commercials consuming other commercials. The Energizer spots were particularly remarkable for the accuracy of their parodies. The Nasatine spot includes Anacin-style animation and a copyright notice for a fake pharmaceutical company, Clow Laboratories (Fig. 12.46)! Reflexive commercials refer first of all to other television material, rather than referring directly to historical reality where their products actually reside. In essence, an extra layer of television has been added.

A close relation to parody is pastiche, the use of fragments of previous texts. Popular songs, for example, are regularly put to new uses by advertisers. The Knack's "My Sharona" was turned into "My Chalupa" by Taco Bell and Cream's "I Feel Free" (discussed earlier) sells Hyundai cars. Even the Beatles' "Revolution" has been used in a Nike shoe commercial (though it did result in a lawsuit against Nike). Pastiche in television commercials has reached new heights of technological sophistication since the advent of digital special effects. One Diet Coke ad, for instance, has Paula Abdul dancing with and talking to film actors/characters Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, and Cary Grant (Figs. 12.47-12.49). Parody and pastiche are two examples of TV's high degree of intertextuality, drawing it away from historical reality and reflecting it back on itself (see the discussion of intertextuality in the context of TV stars in section 3). One television text (a commercial) refers to another (a program or previous commercial), which may well refer to another and another. Commercials are an integral part of this network of meanings and allusions. Familiar songs and images provide a shorthand for developing the persuasive argument for a product. Why write a new jingle when an old tune is already inscribed on the our minds? Why refer to historical reality when we are more comfortable with television reality? Commercials are nourished by intertextuality and reflexivity.

Summary: "Capitalism In Action" At the start of a commercial break on ABC one evening in Fall 2000, a self mocking title came up: "And now capitalism in action." On U.S. television, commercials are the most visible effect of the medium's underlying economic system. Multinational corporations strike deals with wholesalers (networks, syndicators, and national spot representatives) when they wish to buy TV time for national exposure. And local merchants buy TV time from individual stations and cable systems when they are shopping for exposure in a specific DMA. These purchases of time are essentially purchases of viewers' attention as it has been calculated by Nielsen Media Research. TV's wholesalers and retailers use the money they have exchanged for their viewers' time to rent programming materials from production companies, with the goal of attracting more viewers and/or viewers of a more desirable demographic. And that is U.S. TV capitalism in action.

Although it is evident that commercials signify the positive side of consuming, it would be wrong to say that that is their only meaning. Despite their often naked intent to sell, commercials also play host to a diverse polysemy. We have outlined eight components of commercial discourse and examined how they are used to persuade us to purchase products. These include luxury, individualism, the natural, folk culture, novelty, sexuality and romance, the alleviation of various forms of distress, and utopianism. Commercials endeavor to figuratively and literally associate their products with these values, and/or they make claims that their products will transform consumers if they buy them.

Commercials' styles may be rude and obvious or entertaining and obscure, but in some fashion they must always attempt to convince the viewer. We have identified eight persuasive strategies employed by commercials: metaphor, stylistic utopianism, product differentiation, repetition and redundancy, graphics and animation, special effects, and reflexivity and intertextuality. In many instances, we have seen that the style of commercials is excessive and exhibitionistic, and that it falls within John Caldwell's notion of televisuality.

Commercial style, unlike classical narrative television and film, doesn't need to be invisible. Indeed, its forthright visibility may well help draw viewers' interest to the product.

MORE READING: There are many books analyzing advertising and its discourse, but only a few target television commercials specifically. The most comprehensive of such TV commercial books is Mike Budd, Steve Craig, and Clay Steinman, Consuming Environments: Television and Commercial Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), which details the structure of the TV industry and investigates the style and structure of commercials. Ellen Seiter, Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993) is more narrowly defined, but in its analysis of the discourses of commercials for children she provides many insights that may be applied to all commercials. The ideological analysis of commercials is undertaken in Sut Jhally, The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society (New York: Routledge, 1987), which views television through the lens of political economy.

Of the general books on advertising, the most useful to television students is Paul Messaris, Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997). Messaris considers the impact of images in both print and television advertising, and has useful insights into the function of visual style in the advertising process. The specific significance of words in advertising is assayed by Michael L. Geis, The Language of Television Advertising (New York: Academic Press, 1982) and Greg Myers, Words in Ads (London: Edward Arnold, 1994). The semiotic perspective of Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson, Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising (New York: Guilford Press, 1996) applies to both images and words as signs. Their analysis includes discussions of intertextuality, reflexivity, and the process of hailing.

Another general book on advertising is Jean Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising (New York: The Free Press, 1999). As is evident from the title, Kilbourne's book is a strong polemic on the influence of advertising and its discursive world. The analyses of Leslie Sayan, the advertising columnist for The Village Voice are often perceptive and entertaining, although seldom fortified by academic research.

They have been collected in The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).


1. "1999 U.S. Advertising Volume," Advertising Age, 22 May 2000

2 Paul Messaris, Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997), 164.

3 Nielsen Media Research, 2000 Report on Television ( New York: Nielsen Media Research, 2000) 17.

4 "Facts and Figures," Viacom, July 2000, Viacom, Inc.,

5 Mike Budd, Steve Craig, and Clay Steinman, Consuming Environments: Television and Consumer Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1999), 30. 6 Laurie Ann Franks, The Gallery of Ill-Fitting Pants, 1999, Geocities.

Michael Lewis, Modern Moist Towelette Collecting, America Online, 7 November 2000 and The Sheep Brain Dissection Guide, 6 September 1998, University of Scranton,

7 All figures are from the year 2000 and the 1999-2000 U.S. television season.

Nielsen Media Research, 2000 Report on Television (New York: Nielsen Media Research, 2000). 8 -The Sweeps' -Local Market Measurement," 2000, Nielsen Media Research.

9 "What TV Ratings Really Mean ... And Other Frequently-Asked Questions," 2000, Nielsen Media Research,

10 "100 Leading National Advertisers 1998: Profile of Philip Morris cos,",

11 Robert J. Coen, MaCann-Erickson Worldwide, "1999 U.S. advertising volume,",

12 "100 Leading National Advertisers 1998: Sorted by Network TV in 1998,", 2000,

13 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, intro. John Kenneth Galbraith (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973). Originally published in 1899.

14 Ellen Seiter, Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993) 43-44.

15 Seiter, 44.

16 Leslie Sayan, The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994) 8.

17 Sayan, 9.

18 "World Wide Diary of Actions: United States 1997," Animal Liberation Frontline, 1997,

19 "Post Grape-Nuts and Grape-Nuts Flakes," Kraft Foods, 2000,

20 Elisabeth Van Every, "Goth Style," Academia Gothica, 2000,

21 Quoted in Bernice Kanner, The 100 Best TV Commercials-And Why They Worked (New York: Random House, 1999), 17.

22 A. J. Jacobs, "Remote Patrol," Entertainment Weekly, 7 Feb. 1999,66.

23 Messaris, 246.

24 Messaris, 249.

25 Messaris, 255-257.

26 Budd, 79-80.

27 Seiter, 115. Furthermore, she discusses the racism inherent in advertising's utopia: "... access to this child-centered utopia is restricted; full citizenship is denied to girls of all races and to boys of color" (Seiter, 115-6).

28 Richard Dyer, "Entertainment and Utopia," in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) 222.

29 Dyer in Nichols, 228.

30 As quoted in Bob Garfield, "Is Internet Utopia? Good Heavens, No,", 20 Jan. 1997,

31 See Messaris, 196-203, for further discussion of generalization in ads.

32 Messaris, xviii.

33 Messaris, xix.

34 Dyer in Nichols, 222-226.

35 Rosser Reeves, Reality in Advertising (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961) 46-49.

Moreover, he defined advertising as "the art of getting a unique selling proposition into the heads of the most people at the lowest possible cost" (121).

36 Sut Jhally, The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society (New York: Routledge, 1987) 127; quoting Pope, D., The Making of Modern Advertising (NY: Basic Books, 1982), 287.

37 Reeves, 62.

38 John Thornton Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995) 352.

39 Bertolt Brecht, "The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre," in John Willett, ed., Brecht on Theatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964) 33-42; Peter Wollen, "Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent D'est," in Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (London: Verso, 1982) 79-91

40 Margaret Morse, Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998) 72.

41 Messaris, 5.

42 Messaris, 7.

43 Messaris, 7.

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