Political Advertising: The 1964 Presidential Race

Specs: Go to the website http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/ and choose an election year. Your task for the blog is to use our readings and lecture material to generate an insightful discussion on the meaning behind the meaning of each candidate’s campaign. Questions that you might consider include: in what light do the ads cast the candidate? What connotations are used to what associative effect? What implications are made about the opponent and how (move beyond the literal on this one)? What demographic do the ads seem to target? What demographics are ignored? Is the aim of the campaign (or individual ad) to lure in new voters, swing undecideds or reinforce supporters? Simply pick a question (or questions), devise an argument and see if you can bring insight to these campaigns.

In this analysis, I apply Franz and Ridout’s findings that political advertising tends to be most effective on “those lower in political information” (485) – people who aren’t well informed about various candidates’ platforms (Deman, February 5 2015) – as well as undecided voters, moderates, and some partisans (typically Democrats) (Franz and Ridout, 485). I use these findings to explore possible target audiences, defined by Franz and Ridout’s political-demographic categories, in three ads from the 1964 American presidential race: Barry Goldwater’s “Punchcard” ad (no. 1), Lynden Johnson’s “Daisy” ad (no. 2), and Johnson’s “Achievements” ad (no. 1) (http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1964). My analysis focuses primarily on “Achievements,” as a refreshing departure from the typical mudslinging smear campaign.

Both Johnson’s “Daisy” attack ad and Goldwater’s “Punchcard” attack ad resort to logical fallacies such as oversimplification, generalization, either/or dichotomies, and ad hominem; both also appeal to pathos (which could be counted as another fallacy, an appeal to pity), with less emphasis on ethos and none on logos (if we think of logos as solid data rather than generalizations – Johnson’s “Achievements” ad, by contrast, cites specific motions Johnson passed, along with the dates on which he passed them). As is typical of mudslinging, these fallacies and the focus on emotion create spin without having to resort to vigorous analysis and constructive political debate (much like the ridiculous but successful campaigns that have consistently annihilated Stephen Harper’s opponents).

Target audiences for the “Punchcard” ad and the “Daisy” ad are presumably politically uninformed voters, both moderates and partisans; politically informed partisans might also appreciate the ads’ mockery of the opposition, although they likely wouldn’t be basing their (entire) decision at the ballot box on this type of ad. (I say “entire” because of our discussion in lecture today about the negative associations and residual effects created by smear campaigns, even in viewers who are politically informed and can see the ads’ fallacies.)

Johnson’s positive, platform-based “Achievements” ad relies on ethos and logos, with a generous helping of pathos thrown in. It begins with 2 minutes of concentrated pathos, as Johnson establishes his ethos by riding JFK’s coattails. However, the ad then switches tactics, cataloguing a list of Johnson’s “promises kept” with the specific dates that these motions were passed (2:00). (It of course enacts this transition by discussing “promises” made during JFK’s presidency that Johnson subsequently passed into law.)

“Achievements” portrays Johnson as a leader who unites the House of Congress (“The President sought and won support from both parties in passing a bill that fulfilled our founding fathers’ commitment that every American have his constitutional right” 2:30) and, moreover, acts as a mediator within the country (railroad dispute, 3:20), similarly to Theodore Roosevelt (who brokered a deal between coal miners and coal companies, ending the Coal Strike of 1902). He isn’t just a fat-cat on Capitol Hill, the ad claims – he gets things done legislatively, keeps commerce running smoothly, keeps the country safe from foreign attacks, and cares about the average Joe; Congress has never been so united and so efficient (2:30 – 4:10). In fact, Johnson is more or less portrayed as a beneficent monarch, ironically enough for the “Land of the Free.” This is especially ironic given the ad’s references to the “free world” (1:15), the “founding fathers” (2:30), and the American constitution (2:30), and the implicit comparison of Johnson to Roosevelt. As was discussed in class, despite the claims that the US, in particular, makes of being a democracy, it seems as though people like to feel that they’re voting for an individual leader rather than a committee. And arguments, even fallacious ones, that develop or destroy a celebrity persona are thus very effective in politics.

The target audience for “Achievements” may be the undecided moderate or the politically uninformed voter. This ad could be trying to garner the support of politically uninformed viewers by informing them about Johnson’s achievements – and trying to pre-determine what they get informed of before their opinions solidify, as we discussed with regard to the Conservative smear campaign against Michael Ignatieff. In “Achievements,” the focus is on forming a persona for Johnson. In fact, as noted above, this persona involves co-operation between Democrats and Republicans; this is ethos-building at the expense of ad hominem “arguments,” and arguably precisely through the exclusion of ad hominem fallacy from the ad. We could even posit a “reverse ad hominem” approach that aims to develop the myth (in Barthes’ sense) of a fairytale presidency, although that would be outside the scope of this assignment.

Alternatively, it’s possible the target audience for “Achievements” is a politically informed demographic – as Franz and Ridout point out, political advertising tends to be less effective on people who have the “facts” of the situation at hand, and can therefore critique the ads’ messages (if we endorse the notion that any piece of information is an unbiased fact, especially when it is mediated in a “two-step flow” (Franz and Ridout, 467)). Ethos and logos would seem to have a better chance of convincing such an audience, who would be able to unravel the usual pitiful logic of attack ads. This isn’t to say I think ads that point out the opposition’s shortcomings are inherently weak debate – but if you’re going to make an ad that criticizes someone, make the criticisms legitimate. Although this ad isn’t necessarily any more “honest” or ethically sound than the other two, it does at least change the tone of the conversation into something more constructive than a smear campaign.

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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.

Constructing Socio-Cultural Context

In another post that I’m drafting, I claim that “individuals and societies together construct socio-cultural context”. Reading that got me thinking, and I want to explore that statement in more depth. So, what do I mean by “constructing socio-cultural context”?

Well, probably in large part due to assumptions fed to me by my educators (parents, teachers, documentaries, books), I take the view that societies and cultures (interrelated but still distinct concepts), along with their component parts (such as languages, narratives, medical and scholarly practices, laws, and so forth), are constructed. So, according to this framework for looking at life, individuals are also constructed (at least, to an extent). I’m constructed. In my opinion, my belief systems are a product of the society and culture I’ve grown up in. They’re also the products of other things:  my family and peer environment, during both my developmental years and my adult years; other experiences I’ve had as an individual that, arguably, don’t derive directly from socio-cultural context; genetics; and personality. (But isn’t personality socio-culturally constructed, you ask? Yeah, probably, to some degree. But while I’m not spiritual, it seems to me that everybody has an innate kernel of personality. For many people, it seems to be in conflict with strong socio-cultural forces in their life, whether that’s family, demographics, or something else, so – unusually, for me – I’m not convinced it comes from socio-cultural context. And I have a very difficult time convincing myself its roots lie in genetics, although I don’t even have anecdotal evidence for that. People who are markedly different from their relatives, I guess? So this spark that, in my little hypothesis here, is integral to each individual – a soul, perhaps? A spirit? Brouhouahoua, cough cough, much too metaphysical for me, back to dry theory.)

Now, “construct” is another loaded term (I talk about loaded words and connotation a lot in the upcoming post). And within my field, it can have quite negative connotations – it can indicate something false, manipulative, even conspiratorial. It can also have more positive connotations of something carefully shaped through dialogue and general consensus. As a rhetorician, I often like double-edged words like this, because so many concepts have different, sometimes contradictory facets. Double-edged words can be very useful for exploring these concepts’ big personalities.

So, back to socio-cultural context: Using the word “constructed” makes me uncomfortable, because it puts me in mind of authoritarianism, Big Brother societies, imbalances of power, and non-democratic trends generally, whether overt or covert, and whether rooted in the state, in religious authorities, in the military, or in business power-houses (perhaps it’s not so surprising these institutions are often mixed together).

But “constructed” can also mean democratic, diplomatic, organic, and dynamic; as with so many things, I think it’s mostly how you go about it. As human beings we (sometimes) network, bounce around ideas and prototypes, do maintenance and tweak the system, and occasionally scrap things altogether and start fresh.

I think “constructing socio-cultural context” can be either one of these things – an abuse of power, or an exercise of empowerment. In my typical fence-sitter way, I think societies and cultures embody both (abuse and empowerment), often in different proportions during different historical periods. I think of it as being like a yin yang, or the constantly shifting image you would get if you put a yin yang underwater and then prodded the surface of the water. As I always say, things tend to fall somewhere along a continuum, and most of the time they’re not quite at the endpoints. And they can move to different places at different times.

And how exactly do we construct socio-cultural context? Well, as a rhetorician, I tend to see things through the analytical lens of communication acts. So my answer would be that we construct socio-cultural context both through codified means and through uncodified means:  our daily conversations, architecture, fashion, folklore, popular culture, academic discourses, social infrastructure and institutions, identity politics (the normative labels we place on people – or refrain from placing – based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, class, and other demographic groupings). Anything we create embodies our assumptions, our biases, our receptivity, and our tolerance. Well, ok, maybe the shape, dimensions, and materials of a saucepan don’t say quite as much about our views of life, the universe, and everything as a newspaper article does. But the saucepan can still give a small hint.

Compare and Contrast: Part 1 “Toy Story That Time Forgot”

Here’s an exercise that I’ve done a lot of in my undergrad – comparing and contrasting cultural “artefacts” or “texts”, as we call them in literary criticism. Guess I just can’t shake the essay bug! Just to let you know, it’s a long one. Seriously. You’ll probably need a coffee break before the end of this post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

One evening before Christmas, I was flipping through channels and landed on City TV.  In between Mom and Two Broke Girls, oddly enough, the channel aired two Christmas specials: Toy Story That Time Forgot” and “Prep and Landing“.  I have mixed feelings about the “Toy Story” short.  My misgivings centre around two main things: The moral synthesis at the end of the movie, delivered by the character Trixie; and potential interpretations of some subtler elements of the film, such as word choice and characterization. “Prep and Landing” left me with a better feeling overall – more on that in another post.

Here’s a barebones plot summary of “Toy Story That Time Forgot”, to provide some context. Trixie is a triceratops action figure who is repeatedly cast as “Baby Reindeer” by her child-owner, Bonnie. Trixie wants her dinosaur identity to be realized during the play sessions, but when Bonnie finally decides to play “dinosaurs”, she takes a kitten-angel ornament off the Christmas tree and makes it the dinosaur. When Bonnie takes the toys to a playdate at another child’s house, the children play video games and the toys are left to explore. Trixie’s dream comes true when Bonnie’s toys meet a group of warrior-dinosaur action figures, the Battlesaurs.

Ok, now for the analysis. At the end of the movie, Trixie says that the meaning of a toy’s life is…not friendship or love, as I anticipated, but: “Surrender to your child” (the word “surrender” comes up several times, developing into a central theme for the film). The Battlesaurs have a horror of surrender and employ brutality as a binary alternative; Trixie’s monologue in the denouement offers an alternative to this harsh way of life. While this is all very poetic (surrender to love, surrender to your inner child, allow yourself to be vulnerable, trust), and re-imagining one word (“surrender”) has aesthetic and rhetorical appeal in certain situations (Luce Irigary’s mimesis is a concept that has interested me for years), I would have gone with a different choice of words due to the denotative qualities of “surrender”. Although there can be positive interpretations of this wording (such as those mentioned above), I’m concerned by other interpretations which, to me, seem more overt in the movie. Trixie says that it’s up to the child who the toys will be during playtime – which to me suggests radical disempowerment, on a physical level (the toys have to feign being inanimate when held by the children, mirroring Rex’s physical disempowerment in the remote-controlled armour; the children’s names are written on the toys’ feet – disturbingly similar to a brand), and also on a psychological and ontological level of self-identification (the child gets to decide what the toy “is” during each play session, even if that means the toy never gets to enact – to realize – their core identity). Doublethink, anyone?

So, maybe I’m overthinking a kids’ movie? It’s all in good fun, right?  And there are positive messages that can be taken from this film, as I’ve said myself earlier in this post. The thing is, as a rhetorician, that’s a very difficult stance for me to accept. From my memories of my own childhood, from my work experience with children, and from other observations of children’s behaviour, I strongly believe that kids do take messages, often subtle and profound ones, from pretty much everything in their world – TV, clothing, figures of speech, you name it. In fact, as a semiotician, that’s my basic premise for how individuals and societies together construct socio-cultural context.

Now, do I think that means we need to sanitize everything to the point of having no personality whatsoever? No. Does it mean I think all global citizens and interconnected individuals have a vital responsibility to be deliberate and reflexive in their acts of communication, and to engage in continuous reassessment of said communication acts? (Or “periodic reassessment”, if “continuous” sounds too exhausting.) Yes, indeedy. And I would further say that I think children, even more than adults, present an intriguing mix of questioning everything and taking things at face value. How kids interpret something depends on the kid, the issue, what day you catch them on, how they’re being told to behave and think by the people around them – so conscientious communication is especially important with children, I think. They’re definitely sharp enough to pick up little things, but they may or may not be able, or encouraged, to question a particular issue or speaker – or to articulate questions that do arise in their consciousness.

All of that being said, there’s another element of “Toy Story That Time Forgot” that also makes the pop culture critic in me squirm. Maybe it’s the associations I have with the word “cleric”. I would definitely have chosen a different word in this case, too. At first, the Battlesaurs put me in mind of a Lord of the Rings/Star Wars cross, and to be honest I was tickled pink. But as soon as the Saruman/Chancellor dinosaur was referred to as a “cleric”, I became very uneasy. Of course, denotatively, a “cleric” is simply a member of the clergy (Dictionary.com), and if the term was coming up in Chaucer or Johnson, I’d probably be a happy camper, at least as regards word choice. The thing is, the socio-historical context for “Toy Story That Time Forgot” is the present day, and “cleric” has some different connotations at present. In particular, what came to mind for me were Western (or certainly North American) media portrayals of the Middle East and of Islam. Google “cleric” in the regular Google search bar and you get word definitions like the one I’ve linked above. But search “cleric” in Google News and I bet you’ll get different results. When I did, seven out of the ten news stories were about Muslim clerics. The other three were about Christian clerics. But in day-to-day speech, it’s very rare that I hear “cleric” used to refer to a Christian religious official. “Priest”, “minister”, “reverend”, there are different terms that come up depending on the denomination, but “cleric” isn’t usually one of them these days. So, for me as someone consuming popular culture in North America, the word “cleric” connotes (a) a Muslim religious official, rather than simply a religious official in general, and (b) due to the pervasive media spin on Islam for the past thirteen years (or come to think of it, since the Gulf Wars? Or maybe the Crusades? Hmm…), links to “extremism” and “fundamentalism” – which, in a scholarly sense, are different things, but which seem to have become equated with one another in the popular understanding of the topic.

A little bit more about plot and characters: The cleric dinosaur is the evil mastermind behind the Battlesaur society. While the child who owns the Battlesaurs focuses on his video games, the Cleric uses an Eye-of-Sauron-like device both to distribute propaganda and to spy on everyone. He has Woody, Buzz, and the Angel Kitty taken prisoner when Bonnie’s toys enter Battlesaur territory, then pits them against his deadly warlord dinosaur, Reptillus Maximus, in a gladiator arena. He uses remote-control armour to force Rex to (almost) kill his friends, and orders Reptillus Maximus to stop (i.e. kill) Trixie, to whom Reptillus Maximus is emotionally attached. When Trixie confronts the Cleric, he gleefully admits to his nefarious acts and tries to have her friends thrown into an air vent with lethally sharp fan blades at the bottom. Clearly, this is an unsavoury character.

Now, here’s a word in the movie’s favour. I’m not trying to paint a picture of “Toy Story That Time Forgot” as simply engaging in a two dimensional perpetuation of racial prejudice. The film critiques religious rule and military rule. It engages with some of the horrendous acts of cruelty of the Roman empire (through the gladiator scene and Reptillus Maximus’ Romanized name), and by extension, imperialism in general; with the habit of governments around the world, including our own, of “disappearing”, detaining, torturing, and executing people (the Cleric’s abduction of Buzz, Woody, and the Angel Kitty); with gender roles (perhaps an occluded reading, but I think the movie’s gender critique has some strengths); and with materialism (“Everyone needs an apartment shaped like their own head!”). These themes are prevalent and problematic in North American society and worldwide. So I think there are tons of things the film does that are extremely interesting in a very positive way.

And I also think that the creators’ choice of the word “cleric” was probably deliberate, because of its vague denotative meaning. If you go by a dictionary definition, “cleric” is much less loaded than a lot of other names for religious officials. If they had chosen the word “priest”, for example, they would likely have run into a similar problem to the one I see with using “cleric”: “Priest” could be construed to be hinting at Catholicism, since although it may be used to described some non-Christian religious officials, within a Christian/Western context it most often refers to Catholic clergy. But from a popular culture point of view, from the angle of the associations – conscious or unconscious – that many viewers may link to that word, its connotative meaning, this choice of wording seems like bad public relations to me.

Ok, so what’s my alternative, if I’m going to complain so much about how the movie’s creators did things? Well, if I was working on the movie, I might have had an authoritarian character who bore similarities to a religious official, without actually naming him or her as one. My reasoning is as follows: It seems to me that it’s generally authoritarianism and other forms of abuse that are the problem, not spiritual belief itself. Most religious texts that I’ve encountered have some passages that resonate with me and others that I find troubling; and I always meet some people who interpret the text in ways that are nurturing towards others, and other people who behave abusively and use the same spiritual text to justify this to themselves and to other people.

Anyway, for the most part, I think the movie’s creators have done a good job of not making references to any one religion, but as I’ve been arguing, there are a few problematic artistic decisions. For example: Add present-day connotations of the word “cleric” to the fact that the Cleric is the movie’s antagonist, throw in the movie’s Christmas setting, and for me you have a substantial problem. Again, I’m not saying everything should be sanitized – I don’t have a problem with movies having Christmas themes, whether they focus on the Santa side of things or the holiday’s religious aspects. Those things are part of one of Canada’s many component cultures, and should have a space to speak into, just like all the other cultures that make up this (ostensibly) multicultural society. The issue for me is that in some ways, the movie portrays Christmas as the morally-sanctioned binary opposite of the Cleric’s world of death and psychological enslavement (notwithstanding that Bonnie’s toys are pretty much enslaved themselves, with this crystallized in Trixie’s monologue, as discussed above). The Christmas theme and all-American characters are juxtaposed against the hints of Otherness in the Battlesaur society: The Cleric, the non-present-day-Western-sounding name (Reptillus Maximus), the desert landscape.

Of course, for many subcultures in “Western” society, these things are not Other at all – but the society overall Others them because they’re not considered mainstream. (This Othering closes out both immigrants, such as my family, and people who supposedly belong to the mainstream but live in non-normative subcultures based on geography, religion, historical cultural influences, and other factors – physically / linguistically / culturally “visible minorities”, and also “invisible minorities”.) I’m not saying things have to be this way, just that despite good changes that have been put into place over the decades, there is still an Othering tendency – not only in the West, but in most societies that I’ve encountered. In a society with a lingering backdrop of binary normativity, the juxtaposition of “familiar” and “Other” invites viewers to engage in hegemonic interpretations of their world. In doing so, the film sets up messages that can’t be effectively dismantled in the denouement, because it binds its (attempted) moral message of kindness and tolerance to its (probably unintentional) message of hegemony and normativity in the character of the Cleric. The film fuses a message of “Other” and “bad” (cruel, tyrannical, etc.) to the only Othered character who is implicitly linked to Islam (a) through the use of the word “cleric” and the things modern-day Westerners associate with that word, and (b) through the juxtaposition of all this against the Western, Christian Christmas tradition (and a very North American representation of that tradition, to boot). Again, it’s not the individual elements themselves that are a problem (discussing or portraying Christmas, religion, authoritarian rule, accountability, etc.) – it’s how these things are put together, how they interact with each other and with the viewer’s assumptions.

For example, there’s the scene where Trixie confronts the Cleric. She admonishes him by saying, “It’s only two days after Christmas!” I’m able to appreciate the universal theme of holidays as holy days, days of mercy and moral uprightness, etc. But again, within the context that hails viewers through the word choice in the work, Christmas as the measure of goodness becomes Christian-ness, Western-ness, Anglo-diaspora-ness as the measure of goodness. And specifically (within the context activated by the use of the word “cleric” and other Othering elements in the film), this is contrasted against Islam, non-Christian-ness and non-Western-ness as the measure of what is Other, dangerous, and just all round bad news. Well, ok, not all bad news – many of the individual Battlesaurs are portrayed as decent sorts who have been brainwashed. But they aren’t on solid moral ground, or safe to be around, until they assimilate into Bonnie’s toys’ worldview.

And then there’s the scene where Rex is being forced to march Woody, Buzz, and the Angel Kitty to a bloody death-by-vent-fan. The Angel Kitty starts playing “O Come, Emmanuel” on its bugle, until the instrument is snatched away and thrown into the vent fan: This incarnation of Christmas, goodness, and peaceful wisdom (on the rare occasions that the Angel Kitty speaks, it’s to deliver aphorisms) is to be slaughtered on the orders of the Othered Cleric. Again, while this type of scene could be a good rendering of current affairs on a kid-friendly level, the way that it brings religion into the mix massively detracts from what’s really the issue – cruelty and abuse (in this case, institutionalized abuse through authoritarian rule). And as I’ve been arguing, it’s particularly problematic within a Western context because of the particular religions that have been contrasted, and the roles assigned to characters from each camp.

#Hashtag …and other thoughts

Quote

Hashtags have become such a common practice these days that people have started using them outside of their intended purpose. People use them in text messages, chats, songs, and advertisements.

via How to Use Hashtags on Every Social Media Network | Sprout Social.

As a semiotician, I find this very interesting. It suggests to me that hashtags started out with relatively uncomplicated semantic value, but have become a quasi-linguistic phenomenon with much richer meaning. Much in the way that human beings will, purposely or without planned direction, reshape the connotations, denotations, and forms of words (see my earlier post linking to Dictionary.com’s slideshows), it seems that we’ve expanded the meaning of hashtags. While for me, the word “hashtag” (signifier) denotatively still refers to the visual pound sign # (signified), the connotations are much richer. The sign act (if I may so put it) that we engage in when using this signifier and signified has come to include socio-cultural phenomena that are linked to the use of hashtags: The frivolity or grassroots empowerment, depending on how you see it, of the social media trend; the age-old debate about whether the latest crop of young people is ruining the world or saving it (I frequently cite Socrates’ distaste for the burgeoning fashion of writing as an example of how far back this goes). Perhaps the hashtag has become a visual, verbal, and experiential metaphor for our experience(s) of digital life, as intertwined generations, cultures, and societies?

Now I’m extra excited for the documentary Life After Digital, airing on TVO at 9PM Wednesday, December 17!

Reverse Graffiti by Moose Curtis

Fantastic meeting of medium and message. I love the way the artist articulates it! http://www.upworthy.com/his-street-art-is-beautiful-but-then-you-realize-how-its-made?c=upw1

Great National Geographic Mini-Lecture: Circuses and the Carnivalesque

Great lecture:  “Inside a Mexican Circus” by Emily Ainsworth with National Geographic (about 17 minutes). Very moving human stories and brief reference to Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque.