In the spring of 2007, approximately 4000 advertising films shown in Danish movie theatres during the 20th century and around 40,000 ads shown on the Danish channel TV2 since 1988 will be available in a database at the State and University Library in Aarhus. The material has been digitalised with support from the Research Council for Culture and Communication (the advertising films) and the Ministry of Culture (TV2 commercials, financed by revenue from selling the UTMS license) as part of a major initiative to preserve and promote the Danish cultural heritage.
The collection of TV2 commercials is complete and covers the entire period since the station began broadcasting as the second Danish public-owned television station with public service obligations, but partly financed via advertisements broadcast between programmes. Advertisements aired by commercial stations are not incorporated in the database at present. Unfortunately, the database is not nearly as complete with respect to the cinema advertising films. What has been preserved of advertising films from the first half of the 20th century is rather accidental. Unlike movies from the same period, as commercial products they were not considered of any particular cultural value and therefore not preserved systematically. The hope is that older advertising films may be found and incorporated into the database at a later stage. Furthermore, advertising films since 1995 need to be digitalised and added to the collection in order to cover the period up to the present time.
In this article, my primary purpose is to discuss the extent to which it makes sense to view advertising films and TV commercials as part of Danish cultural heritage. And more specifically, I shall discuss how advertisements should be analysed as cultural indicators and characterise advertising films and TV commercials respectively. Finally, I will illustrate my points of view through an analysis of a few advertising films from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, focusing on the role of housewives.
Advertisements as cultural indicators
In the late 1970s, a major research programme in Sweden investigated cultural indicators within the Swedish symbolic environment between 1945 and 1975. One of the publications focused on advertising and social change as reflected in the Swedish popular press from 1950 to 1975 (Nowak, K & Andrén, G: 1981). Through quantitative content analysis of 2,300 advertisements from the period (90 per year) they identified a series of indicators and compared the evolution of these ads with social developments during the same years. Basically advertisements were conceptualised as mirroring society:
The reasoning, so far expressed, concerns the question as to what extent the total characteristics of advertisements justify conclusions about conceptions within society - that is to say, the general cultural climate. Content in advertising is understood as determined by the culture at large, and the content studied (the indicators) is consequently presumed to provide knowledge about ideas and concepts outside the world of advertisements (95).
But in the last pages of the report the authors admit that the relationship between advertisements and society might be more complex:
… it (is) not only the correlation between content and the development of ideas and living conditions in the surrounding society that are of interest, but also its dependence of these conditions. If the content of advertising is unvarying in spite of changes in society in opposite directions (or vice versa) this might indicate that advertising influences (or even encourages) cultural changes (96).
Unfortunately, this more dialectical view of advertising was not incorporated in the cultural indicator project. In accordance with a general left-wing presumption of the time, advertising was, directly or indirectly, analysed and interpreted as the direct persuasion of innocent consumers to buy products beyond their needs.
Within the tradition of cultural studies a broader perspective on advertising was launched during the same years. As early as 1960 Raymond Williams suggested, "Advertisement is also, in a sense, the official art of modern capitalist society" (1960/1980: 184). Later, Erving Goffman (1976) elaborated this viewpoint using the term "commercial realism", (15) and he was followed by Michael Schudson (1984: 214), who used the label "capitalist realism":
[Advertising] does not represent reality nor does it build a fully fictive world. It exists, instead, on its own plane of reality, a plane I will call capitalist realism.
And Schudson draws a parallel "…between what socialist realism is designed to do and what advertising in capitalist society intends to do" (215).
Contemporary to this argument, others (Williamson 1978, Marchand 1985, Jhally 1989, Featherstone 1991) compared advertisement to fetishism and called commercialism a new religion - the religion of capitalism.
Common to these three concepts is a recognition of advertising as part of culture, but at the same time the concepts express clearly different understandings of the relation between culture and society. At one end of the spectrum culture is viewed more or less as a reflection of society, while at the other end culture is given an almost transcendental function as religion. Personally I support the understanding of culture embraced by the cultural studies tradition - the middle position - and view culture as "a whole way of life, a general social process" as formulated by Raymond Williams (1958/1961:273).
It is from this position that I will investigate the position of advertising in society and, more specifically, locate types of advertising that influence people's lives and help to shape the way they see themselves, others and society.
Advertising films and TV commercials
In a macro-economic perspective, advertising is viewed as part of promotion costs versus production costs in manufacturing the product. But to transform a product into merchandise involves more than advertising. Huge parts of promotion costs are spent on wrapping products in unique aesthetic ways that supply the products with a visible image and a name different from other products in the same category. Furthermore, in order to obtain the best selling position within supermarkets and department stores - places where the attention of buyers is caught - manufacturing companies pay large sums directly to shop owners. Whether these costs spent on attention-catching activities should be considered an aspect of advertising is open for discussion but will not be further considered in this article.
My focus is on advertising as media communication to inform consumers about products, and within that limitation I exclude product-specific information (product catalogues) used for business-to-business sales and today's bargain from individual shops. What is left is advertising for specific trademarks - product branding.
This article investigates the relationship between advertising and culture as expressed within advertising films and TV commercials. Consequently, the focus is on types of advertisement in these media, which leaves out pure information (normally not found in the media in question, unless public information campaigns are considered advertising); but also still images such those as found in print media, although these show many similarities with advertising in films and television as far as product branding is concerned.
The dominant genres in advertising films and TV commercials are testimonials in which a person - often known previously from television - recommends a certain product, and short narratives telling/ showing a story in which the product is integrated and plays a decisive role as a problem solver. Neither genre is propaganda with an authoritative sender persuading an audience through argumentation and rhetorical performance. Testimonials communicate with consumers by trying to persuade them to buy partly through enlightening information about the pleasures related to the consumption of the product and partly through consumer identification and sympathy with the main character. By purchasing the product, the consumer is promised a share of the glamour of the (known) presenter.
More complex is the communication between addresser and addressee (consumer) in short narrative advertising. On the one hand, the ad refers to the real world in which the consumer is able to buy the branded product, while, on the other, the content of the ad offers a world of fiction to which the consumer may relate. Within the text the branded trademark (the product) becomes the implicit sender, and the addressee (the reader) is staged as an implicit reader, which turns out to be the reader/viewer as a future consumer. John Berger talks about the consumer becoming "envious of himself" as a future buyer (1972/1979: 131-2).
Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal.
It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. (…)
Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour. (…)
It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be.
Advertisements arouse our associations and longings. The reader installs him- or herself in the universe of an ad and consequently starts to communicate with him- or herself in the terms of the ad. As in fiction, the reader fills in more or less open symbols, images and structures with his or her own experiences and fantasies. The ad becomes a script to be realised on our individual "inner" stage. In an earlier article (Bang 1983: 83), I have described the process in the following way:
On the one hand a fictive text, as the term indicates, is invented and imagined, dealing with a non-real world. On the other hand fictive texts are able to arouse our "inner" visions, which are themselves complex mixtures of experiences, dreams, longings and hopes, with an offshoot in the real world of the reader.
Fiction has an ability to catch attention of the reader, to create imagination, and to establish understanding, insight and coherence, which relate not only to reason, but also to emotions and feelings. The acknowledgement of the reader is established more through images than through concepts and ideas. Basically the communication is aesthetic.
Short narrative advertising is aesthetic communication offering the reader an opportunity to invest his or her "experiences, dreams, longings and hopes" in the text when filling out its "open empty spaces", while, at the same time, the text in itself constitutes a framework - a fictive world - in which meaning and insight are presented to the reader.
This complex reception indicates how short narrative advertising relates to culture. Considering advertising films and TV commercials from earlier years, the reception becomes even more complex. The content of an ad with its images, words, music and narrative is not a mirror of the world at the time it is made, but an interpretation offered to the reader to elaborate on and complete according to his or her interpretation of the world. To understand the reader's interpretative operation, we, as analysts, have to establish a socialising reading of the ad (comparing the reader's interpretation to the society of which it is an interpretation) (Bang 1983: 85). With older ads we are not able to conduct empirically based demographic research of their reception through qualitative and quantitative methods. We may build up general knowledge of a period from other sources and compare ads to other materials, but in order to grasp the interpretative impact of an ad we have to look for "open empty spaces" in the texts and focus on possible ways of reading for different readers.
Staying the perfect woman
The majority of the advertising films in the database have been produced and distributed by Gutenberghus Reklame Film, among these, two advertising products for dish washing liquid from the 1960s: LUX (1963) and AJAX (1966). Besides promoting similar products they both contain the same basic message: washing dishes with LUX or AJAX, respectively, is easy and keeps your hands nice and soft.
The LUX ad plays for 30 seconds, contains four independent scenes with few cuts and camera adjustments, and is kept together by a voice-over. Very little action takes place in each scene.
Scene 1 presents the LUX bottle with the remark, "All the best qualities in one and the same bottle," accompanied by music in the background.
In scene 2 the camera focuses on the LUX bottle standing next to a sink. The next cut is to a woman seen from behind doing the dishes. She lifts up a clean glass from the sink and examines it. The camera zooms in on the glass. During the scene the narrator continues his monolog by saying, "Liquid LUX. Clearly the best for dish washing. You get shining bright dishes, …"
Scene 3 starts with a dissolve from the hand holding the glass to the same hand holding a rose, and the woman is now in evening dress. The narrator finishes his sentence, "…and you keep your hands beautiful and well cared for." While the woman - the hostess - continues to arrange her flowers in the hall, a chorus sings: "Liquid LUX. Liquid LUX. Gentle towards your hands."
In scene 4 the camera focuses on the liquid LUX bottle, and the narrator announces, "Liquid LUX, clearly the best for washing-up."
The LUX ad is a clear illustration of the previously mentioned self-staging of the consumer as she reads it. If the ad catches her attention as a consumer, she is offered the option of transferring her dreams of becoming a "true woman" with gentle hands by identifying with the image of the perfect hostess arranging flowers while waiting for her dinner guests to arrive. And liquid LUX becomes the addresser that promises to fulfil her wishes.
In Ways of Seeing , John Berger (1972/1979: 134) gives a similar description of the operation; but, at the same time, he twists the argument in a moralistic direction, typical of the left-wing approach of the 1970s:
The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she becomes if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.
Before going further into an examination of the relation between the ad and the cultural environment of the 1960s, let us take a look at the AJAX ad.
The AJAX ad lasts 44 seconds and is divided into three live action scenes plus a final shot of the AJAX liquid bottle. In the establishing shot of the first scene, a young women and two men are standing in a modernly furnished living room getting ready to leave the apartment when a second young women (the hostess) comes flying into the room with a bottle of liquid in her hand. Her remark is, "Now I am ready," to which the other woman comments: "But you flew out of the kitchen," and the hostess replies, "Yes, with AJAX, washing-up is no problem. You get out of the kitchen in a hurry."
Scene 2 takes place in the kitchen and consists of a dialogue between the two women as they examine the dishes and wash up a final serving dish. The key remark of the scene is made by the hostess: "But it is no problem with AJAX because it contains Mild Ammonium Chloride", which is simultaneously spelt out on the screen.
The scene ends with a dialogue about the hands of the woman doing the dishes: (the guest): "But what about your hands"; (the hostess): "They have never been softer".
In scene 3 the camera position is again in the living room and the two women come flying out of the kitchen. This time the guest has the AJAX bottle in her hand.
A voice-over accompanies their flight: "AJAX for washing up gets you out of the kitchen in a hurry" as the camera zooms in on the AJAX liquid bottle.
The LUX and AJAX ads have some similarities and even more differences. They were released for showing in Danish movie theatres within a time span of 4.5 years (1963 and 1967), but there are indications that the LUX ad might be older and partly produced outside Denmark - probably in the US. Unfortunately, no data to confirm this are preserved. The absence of dialogue and the use of voice-over make it easy to produce many different language versions in which the same pictures are used. Therefore, I would not be surprised if the ad was originally filmed some years earlier, in the late 1950s. Also, the product branding both at the beginning and the end of the LUX ad seems a little out of date with the general style of the 1960. More in line with Danish practice of the period is the way the AJAX ad incorporates product information and branding into the content and action, and consequently complements the exposition of the product as advertiser and problem-solver at the end of the ad.
Furthermore, the AJAX ad is unfolded in a more realistic environment than the LUX ad and tries to capture the attention of the viewer/ reader through the action and creating a possible feeling of familiarity with the situation. In the AJAX ad the furnishings of the apartment, the style of the kitchen and of the characters indicate Denmark in the 1960s, whereas the locality in the LUX ad offers a cosmopolitan touch of glamour, class and womanhood. This clearly indicates that the two ads do not address the same group of possible buyers. The AJAX ad addresses an audience able to identify with the characters belonging to the same age group or feeling solidarity with the situation and the environment, whereas the LUX ad appeals more to a mature woman wanting to realise her womanhood.
From a textual point of view, the LUX ad is more openly and metaphorically structured than the AJAX ad. The less specific portrayal of the environment and characters offer possibilities for freer interpretations and types of identification, but, of course, there is no guarantee that the viewer/reader will realise these textual possibilities and read the ad as a future consumer according to the lines offered by the advertiser.
Considering the focus on soft hands within a framework of cultural studies as part of mental history and sociology offers interesting perspectives. In the LUX ad the gentleness of the product almost overshadows its usefulness for washing up, and in the AJAX ad the emphasis on soft hands is equally important to its effectiveness. Seen from the vantage point of 2007, the LUX ad in particular approaches a cosmetics advertisement. What indirectly becomes visible here is an ideal of womanhood freed from labour both inside and outside the home. When the LUX woman receives her evening guests as the perfect hostess, she is a replication of a bourgeois woman or even a noble lady behind whom a staff of servants and maids does the practical work. She is never supposed to touch a dish herself - much less wash it.
In the LUX ad this illusion of womanhood is made believable as the hostess stands with her roses in front of the mirror. In the AJAX ad the social environment, the behaviour of the characters and the concreteness of dishwashing make it more likely that both young women have jobs outside the home. AJAX becomes an aid for women offering them the possibility to work both inside and outside the home and still maintain their soft hands and sense of womanhood. Within the universe of the ad this interpretation is further supported by the role of the two young men. It never crosses their minds - nor the young women's - that they should be helping with the dishes, and it probably never crossed the mind of the audience in the 1960s either.
New options for cultural studies research
The analysis of possible readings of the LUX and AJAX ads doesn't really take advantage of the new research options made available through the digitalisation of the short advertising films and the TV ads. Easy access to the material and possibilities to browse through the large collection have offered me opportunities to select the best cases for illustrating my point of view on the reception/reading of short film advertising and TV ads.
In a perspective beyond cultural studies, the database offers opportunities for studying changes in different areas like advertising language (including the use of images), narrative techniques and film language (cutting rhythm, zooming etc.). Furthermore, the database contains an enormous educational potential for broadening interpretations of cultural products like literature, painting, film, theatre and so on. Advertising is popular culture - never provocative or satirical, at most ironical and humoristic, and never out of reach of public opinion and commonly accepted values. As such, advertising constitutes a basis on which the challenges of art in the same period become visible.
Within cultural studies, a more advanced use of the database could be to compare images and conceptions integrated in advertisements from different periods - for example, how housewives were portrayed in different periods, how images of family life changed during the 20th century, and how everyday life has been reflected and interpreted in different social and historical situations.
To exemplify the changes in the concept of the housewife, I will present a small mosaic of images from four short narrative ads (inspired by the non-verbal chapters in John Berger's Ways of Seeing ). All the ads brand the same product from AJAX: "Liquid AJAX. Cleans like a white tornado" and its successor AXJA. Four images are chosen from each to illuminate the changes in the concept of the role-model housewife. I have called the mosaic "When the housewife turned into a male".
The four ads were released for showing at movie theatres in 1965 (playing 44 seconds), 1978 (playing 34 seconds), 1982 (playing 42 seconds) and 1987 (playing 30 seconds).
A closer analysis of the development indicated in the mosaic goes beyond the scope of this article, so let me conclude by repeating the idea that analysing short film advertising and TV ads in a cultural studies perspective is part of mental history and sociology. Advertisements don't have a one-to-one relation with the surrounding world; they are themselves interpretations of the world offering interpretive options for their users/viewers/ readers who, with their own experiences and dreams, enter into a dialectical relationship with the text.
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