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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Tropes within the genre of “instant coffee ads”

This is my first blog post for the course “Discourses of Advertising”. The assignment specs: “Pick a genre of advertising from the list…and create an informal (though still insightful) commentary on the tropes and conventions of that particular genre. … Some questions you might address: what features of this particular genre are entrenched? What is the value of the patterns that you identify to the particular product in question? How do these patterns reflect things like audience, client, cultural context (geographic, cultural, ideological, etc)? Overall, how do the design features of this genre speak to our society as a whole?” (Wordcount is 1100 without subtitles, endnotes, sources cited, and this paragraph.)

The stereotypical can-of-coffee ad: Blatant product shots

In this Folgers ad[1] and this final shot of a Maxwell House video ad,[2] there is no attempt at subtlety. (I was unable to view the full video, so I will treat the final shot as a print ad for the purposes of this post.) To use Barry’s terms, these renderings are more “literal” than “lateral”. Branding is at the forefront: In both cases, the ad is formed around a picture of the product plastered with the client logo. Fonts and backgrounds reinforce branding within the ads, as well as across contemporary and historical campaigns (a red can and cup match Folgers’ red logo, along with a background that is an ostensibly photographic representation of the mountains in the logo; white text and a blue background mirror Maxwell House’s logo). Calling these rhetorical artefacts “adsy”, to quote Barry, is putting it mildly.

Trope: Home on the range

The emphasis on product and branding makes these ads similar to this 1954 Folgers ad[3] and this 1921 Maxwell House ad[4] (no product shot for this one, but this is made up for by a logo that occupies a third of the visual space). The modern ads remove human subjects from the frame, implying human presence through the human-processed coffee and human-purposed cups; arguably, the modern ads emphasize the individual, rather than society. The Folgers ad, for example, presents the coffee can and cup against a backdrop of jagged mountains, appealing to the North American “myth” (in Barthes’ sense) of the isolated pioneer. (Here, we could segue to Barry’s concept of “exaggeration” (38).) The Maxwell House ad decontextualizes the product further, presenting the coffee can and cup against a plain background; the focus here is almost solely on branding. By contrast, the vintage ads focus on human presence and interrelation, with fictional consumers endorsing the products. The vintage ads, thus, focus on logos (our product is good according to these fictional consumers), as well as ethos (the fictional consumers are middle-class white men – the “unmarked” demographic, to refer to Greimas’ semiotic square). The modern ads focus primarily on ethos, both through long-established brand identity, and in Folgers’ case, an American origin “myth”. The all-American feel is reinforced by the use of “wakin’” in the tagline (this links to Solomon’s discussion of belonging and patriotism (3-4)).

Of course, an appeal to patriotism problematizes my argument that this ad emphasizes the individual; however, I think it’s possible for a rhetorical artefact to appeal to multiple, contradictory “myths” or tropes, and for this to be why it’s effective until critiqued. With this in mind, the Folgers ad places the viewer in the position of the isolated pioneer/cowboy/voyageur – or holiday-maker. In this, individuality and isolation are emphasized. The ad also, through this myth of the individual, leads us to the “Land of the Free”, a collection of (sometimes) like-minded individuals, if you will.

Trope: Coffee as comfort

Cristi Jayo’s 2010s rebranding of Folgers[5] resembles this 1986 ad for Maxwell House.[6] A sense of tranquility is created by using greyscale in the Maxwell House ad and a desaturated palette in Jayo’s rebranding; soft focus contributes to this feeling of calm and comfort, especially in Jayo’s piece. Chunky knit fabrics and casual postures again reinforce the trope. As the Maxwell House tagline claims, instant coffee is “instant relaxation”.

Both ads feature a dark, young woman. Leaving aside questions of beauty norms, this choice of subject/model works on several symbolic levels. Most obviously, it appeals to a young, hip(ster) demographic. Having a young woman as the subject also appeals to tropes of “femininity as purity” and the “domestic angel”, creator of comfort – harkening back to vintage coffee ads like this one by Maxwell House in 1934,[7] and this one by Chase and Sanborn in the 1950s.[8] Jayo’s rebranding bypasses this to some degree by only showing the model’s lower limbs, de-emphasizing gender, but (within a feminist critique) also objectifying the model by “dissecting” her, reducing her to component body parts rather than portraying her as a whole person. (Based on North American gender norms, one would likely assume the model to be a woman, due to her shaven legs and small hands and feet – but this obviously (a) reduces gender to a cis-centric binary and (b) assumes that you can “know” someone else’s gender identity from looking at them.) However, based on socio-cultural “signs” (to use the term from semiotic theory) like clothing, I also feel that these ads appeal to a different, albeit still normative, rendering of femininity – the young woman as a brilliant student, hardworking professional, savvy saver, and enthusiastic traveller – in short, the “hipster” girl.

Then there’s the colour association between the model and the product. Rather than an obvious costuming choice to unite model and brand (red shirt for Folgers, blue shirt for Maxwell House), the models are subtly linked to the coffee through their dark skin and hair. This again is problematic, in this case from the standpoint of postcolonialism. Do these ads break down the racism and sexism entrenched in 19th and early 20th century coffee ads, by featuring a dark complexioned woman whose ethnicity isn’t immediately apparent? (Here’s another excruciating example from Maxwell House.)[9] Or do they perpetuate prejudice, masking it as neutrality?

The lie of realism: Ceci n’est pas une publicité.

The greyscale or desaturated palettes fit neatly with Solomon’s concept of “new realism” (9). The ads are crafted to feel like snapshots of life, with the viewer plopped in the middle of the narrative. In the Maxwell House ad, you share a cup of coffee with a fictional character, perhaps a close friend; in Jayo’s rebranding, you see the world through the fictional subject’s eyes. To further this sense of realism, the product is shown only as a cup of coffee, not a heavily branded can. The claim to realism is stronger in Jayo’s work, with the barely-there, sans serif, text-only logo; claims to realism in the Maxwell House ad are immediately belied by the unnaturally straight border, the high-“chrome” (visually elaborate) logo within it, and the blank background.

To sum up: In many ways, these ads differ from the can-of-coffee ads discussed above. They appeal to realism rather than in-your-face-branding, and a trope of comfort rather than nationalism. But in other ways, the ads discussed in this post share major tropes and advertising “tools” (Barry 18). Most notably: Use of colour reinforces branding (the brand for its own sake, i.e. Folgers = red; or the “feel” of the brand, i.e. Maxwell House = comfort); and the product is featured in the image (either “literally”, as a can of coffee with the brand name on it, or “laterally”, as a cup of coffee with a discreet logo at the bottom of the ad).

Endnotes

[1] All rights owned by Folgers; image accessed via http://hrsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/lstewart3/ENG%2010/advertising_strategies_scavenger.htm .

[2] All rights owned by Maxwell House; image accessed via http://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/tv-commercials/maxwell-house-invitation-11564205/ .

[3] All rights owned by Folgers; image accessed via https://www.flickr.com/photos/alsis35/6783305364/ .

[4] All rights owned by Maxwell House, image accessed via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxwell_House .

[5] Images and concepts owned by Cristi Jayo; “Folgers” name owned by Folgers; image accessed via http://galleryhip.com/folgers-coffee-advertisement.html .

[6] All rights owned by Maxwell House; image accessed via https://www.flickr.com/photos/slantedenchanted/6265187159/ .

[7] All rights owned by Maxwell House; image accessed via http://www.minerd.com/annetteartifacts.htm .

[8] All rights owned by Chase and Sanborn; image accessed via http://www.cracked.com/article_15852_5-retro-commercials-companies-would-like-you-to-forget.html .

[9]All rights owned by Maxwell House; image accessed via http://neatdesigns.net/22-shockingly-racist-ads/.

Academic sources

Barry, P. The Advertising Concept Book. New York: Thames and Hudson 2012. 8 – 42.

Solomon, J. The Signs of Our Time. Toronto: HarperCollins 1990. 59 – 76. Accessed via: http://www.indiana.edu/~slavicgf/e103/assignments/solomon_reading_1.html, 11 January 2015.