Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Instant Universes in Advertising

The language of advertising, in fact the whole communicative package of advertising, is very interesting. It provides an object that is relatively easy to study, since the only important underlying message is ‘buy this product’. You know that the advert is saying that, and the chances are that it’s saying it very successfully because, although not all adverts are commercially successful, the people who make them are very good at what they do.

There are many ways of representing that basic message, usually involving the creation of some sort of narrative structure, in a single image or a few seconds of film, and it often means providing the mark customer with just enough cues that the cultural baggage they are assumed to have will suffice to let them invent the narrative for themselves. It saves time, but it’s hard to do.

Some adverts go so far as to create that cultural baggage within themselves, in a single sentence or a short sequence of images, planting in the viewer’s mind the necessary assumption on which the whole story is based, where no such assumption existed before. Such adverts don’t so much disappear up their own navels as loop the loop inside it and come shooting out again.

Readers of a certain age will remember adverts for the Electricity Board (I think) which showed scenes of family life and began with the words ‘Sunday breakfast in the kitchen, electric…’ The implication in the phrase, the tone and the image was that it was natural to have breakfast on Sundays all together in the kitchen, which you wouldn’t do the rest of the week. It did a very good job of creating and transmitting the (false) cultural assumption that it needed you to use to interpret the rest of the advert. The real reason for it was that they wanted to have the whole scene set in the kitchen rather than going from there to the dining room, so that you could see the nice shiny electric oven and hotplates, but equally they couldn’t present the idea as new, so it was slid into your brain at the start and then a moment later you found it there, the tool required to interpret the advert in the way they intended, as though it had always been there. It’s clever, and difficult to do. If it’s obvious, it doesn’t work.

Recently there has been an advert on TV here for some kind of yoghourt, premised on the assumption that children are happy drink milk in the morning but not in the afternoon, and they need to drink two glasses a day. This is presented so naturally that you could easily just accept it and start trying to pour yoghourt down your children’s throat. Unless you stop to think, but the clever adverts don’t let you think.

A slightly different version is an advert for a car, from a couple of years ago, which involves a mouse in some way that I don’t recall clearly. At the end, and out of nowhere (I mean it doesn’t emerge from the narrative) there is a voice-over by a middle-aged actress pretending to be a simpering little girl, who says, ‘Daddy, will you buy me the car of Ratoncito Pérez? (a mythical mouse who’s our version of the tooth fairy). In one line it manages to create and implant in the viewer’s mind the entirely false impression that children are naturally referring to this car in that way. Familiarity and confidence in the product swell up manifold within as though attached to a helium cylinder. The mouse in the advert isn’t even intended to be a representation of the Tooth Mouse, it’s just a mouse, but in the final two seconds, almost as an afterthought, they attach the product firmly to a cultural icon, effortlessly forming in your mind an association that you can believe has been there since you were a child. It’s the speed and the finality which make it so interesting. It’s a great trick if you can do it.

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