Interpellation in children’s advertising

There are several ways this ad for Nickelodeon’s 2014 shows interpellates boys. I am analysing this ad in terms of how it interpellates a “typical” eight-year-old boy, as specified in the assignment instructions, with a focus on scenes from Haunted Hathaways and Thundermans. Dominant (hegemonic) norms overtly and covertly pressure individuals to identify within certain categories, based on a number of oppositional distinctions used to constitute power dynamics within societies (reductive binaries of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, age, class, political affiliation, religion, etc.). This is the essence of interpellation, within a hegemonic social order: it is a mechanism for enacting social order, and cements its goal by disguising itself as commonsense and naturalness.

Most obviously, the Nickelodeon ad features male characters; in particular, the scenes from Haunted Hathaways showcase several lines spoken by a prepubescent boy. Characters hail viewers who share some of their characteristics, such as age and gender, and who are therefore likely to recognize themselves in the characters. Portraying male characters automatically hails male viewers, giving viewers a cardboard cut-out of masculinity to identify with or to apply to others. “In the act of acknowledging that it is indeed he who is addressed, the individual thus recognizes his subjecthood. It is important to note that this subjecthood is double: although he is recognized as a social subject by the [ideology], he is also subjugated to the [ideology]” (Althusser para. in Nguyen). In short, by accepting and enacting cardboard cut-outs of identity, we not only perpetuate them, but implicitly endorse them on a philosophical and ethical level. The act of recognition is key to this process of interpellation; if we refuse to apply the interpellating ideology to ourselves, we potentially halt, or at least challenge, the process of interpellation. Whether or not a truly oppositional reading is achievable, in practical terms we can certainly denounce and critique the act of interpellation, and the ideology it offers us. In many cases, disrupting interpellation may be desirable – it’s often the first step in countering hegemonic norms, such as those presented in many ads.

One way interpellation can be disrupted, or at least reshaped, is if a non-normative subject participates in an interpellation process that society originally targeted to somebody else – a case of brand community taking over from brand strategy. As Foucault argued, labels subjugate through interpellation, but by recognizing non-normative identities, they can simultaneously pave the way to spaces of resistance and independent identity-formation (Nguyen). This is, perhaps, interpellation in reverse – a person enacting their subjecthood by ignoring the subjectivities society intends for them, instead choosing subjectivities that society has pre-packaged for others, or even reshaping these subjectivities into something society hasn’t imagined or is trying not to acknowledge. This reverse interpellation allows Althusser’s passive subject to become an active agent who can interpellate society, as is arguably the case in Foucualt’s example of the queer community changing diagnosis and marginalization into Pride. When the subaltern insists on speaking in a new language and forces society to acknowledge its voice, the society itself is hailed. This is an inversion of Althusser’s police officer hailing a pedestrian; we could perhaps think of it as the pedestrian giving the finger in response to the officer. With such problematization of interpellation in mind, I think it’s important to note that the male characters in the Nickelodeon ad could hail (or be reverse-interpellated by) viewers other than cis-boys. A transgendered or gender-neutral child might also identify with these characters. Any person across the gender spectrum might identify with characters of different genders in different ways, and to different degrees.

To return to the artefact at hand, using the word “boy” for the sake of brevity: The representation of the young-boy character in Haunted Hathaways interpellates young-boy viewers by aligning itself with other mainstream representations of young-male identity. The boy dresses, speaks, and acts according to conventional gender norms for 2010s North America, conforming to young boys’ probable expectations about their own and others’ gender roles, reinforcing the norms through this compliance, and (to a degree) eroding non-normative identification by presenting the norm as the only option. One instance of gender-construction in the ad is the association of fart jokes with masculinity. Interestingly, the female characters are to some extent included in this previously male-chauvinist discourse of physicality – the girl character in Haunted Hathaways doesn’t shy away from the grossness, but addresses it (0:08) and later engages in it (0:38). Flatulence, then, remains a conservative signifier of masculine identity, and normatively hails children identifying with male gender. This contrasts with the ad’s use of body humour as a provocative development in the representation of femininity. This could be an instance of reverse interpellation for some children identifying with female gender. For others, it might simply fail to interpellate them.

This normative rendering of masculinity stands in contrast to the Thundermans scene (0:30 – 0:35). Although the male character that the scene focuses on is an adult, and interpellation for children is therefore arguably weaker, young male viewers are still hailed by the gender category itself. Furthermore, we base our gender identity around adult role models as well as peers. Thus, the adult male character hails young boys based on the fact that this is who they may become as adult males (strong identification), as well as hailing them based on who they are at present – males, but not adults (weak identification). This character presents an interesting representation of masculinity. He is very heavy, contrary to most characters portrayed on live-action children’s shows, and what’s more, he appears to be sympathetically portrayed. (That is, notwithstanding the insulting “Blob” superhero persona – the term “blob” traditionally connoting a disgusting or unformed shapelessness. Perhaps this is mimetic reclamation of identity, a new rendering of obesity? If so, it is problematic.) To a degree, the ad challenges norms of body image simply by including a physically non-normative character. Furthermore, the older Thundermans character presents gender signifiers that are more complex than would have been typical even ten years ago. He is identifiable as a male character, owing to signifiers of appearance such as clothing and hairstyle, but other social signifiers like mannerisms and tone of voice do not conform to traditional norms for masculinity. His voice is high-pitched and his body doesn’t conform to the physical norms of masculine virility signified by extremely high muscle mass in combination with extremely low body fat. This character, then, hails male viewers, including young boys, with a non-normative version of masculinity.

These are only a few of the ways in which this ad hails one of its potential target markets; the complex layering of social semiotic messages makes the subject far too rich to analyse thoroughly in a 1,000 word blog post.

Sources Cited

Nickelodeon. “Saturday Night Ultimate Hangzone.” 2014. Web. 3 March 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lr69QqHNq9c>.

Cindy Nguyen. “Interpellation.” The Chicago School of Media Theory. University of Chicago. Web. 1 March 2015. <https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/interpellation/>.

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