1950s and 1960s Television Commercials

The 1960s Coca Cola advertisement begins with a scene of a woman working on a garment placed on a mannequin. The woman has coiffed hair and is wearing an apron, presenting simultaneously an image of femininity and domesticity. She turns to speak to the camera, creating the impression that she is speaking directly to the viewer, and says “this was me 5 years ago! and it’s still me!”, making reference to the waistline of the dress on the mannequin.

The key thrust of this advertisement for Coca Cola is that it keeps one thin. While the woman in the advertisement is speaking directly to the audience and vouching for the claims of the product, the setting goes a long way to support her claims as well. By placing the woman within a domestic setting, the advertisement is appealing to other women who may be watching the television advertisement at home in a similar situation. The woman in the commercial is in the middle of a domestic task and there is a chance that the audience is in a similar position as well.

The spokesperson then goes on to frame the product as the perfect break in between chores because it of its light caloric content and because it dissuades her from having a snack instead. This appeals to concerns of the time of maintaining a slim figure. The angles of the advertisement remain mostly the same but the slight differences in camera positioning hold significance. The advertisement begins and ends with the woman sat in front of her mannequin, making it seem like the section in the middle when she drinks the product is an actual break she is taking from her chores. She adopts a conversational style with the audience and is filmed leaning against a kitchen table where the product just so happens to be resting.

When she returns to her task, she makes a slight gesture to the camera to follow her. This places the viewer in the position of the camera and adds to the conversational and personable nature of the advertisement. The spokesperson is in the position of a friend or confidante who is sharing a helpful tip with the viewer. This breaking of the fourth wall makes the endorsement seem less like a traditional advertisement and makes it appear more trustworthy. There is no jingle in this advertisement, possibly subverting expectations for advertisements of the time. This makes it seem less professional and more homely, fitting perfectly with the key message of Coca Cola being a perfect product for the domestic homemaker who wants to take a quick break.

This advertisement plays on the gendered expectation of women to stay at home and to be good homemakers. The framing of the product as a “quick break” does not distract from the image of an industrious woman who is hardworking and productive. This industrious female homemaker must also remain sexually attractive as she is presumably a part of a heterosexual family unit. Therefore, there is great emphasis placed on her figure also being maintained through the consumption of Coca Cola.

Persuasion and Rhetoric

Simons defines persuasion as “human communication designed to influence the autonomous judgements and actions of others” (pg. 7). Persuasion works with both power and influence – used correctly, it can give you both power over others and power with others. It deals with matters of judgement rather than with matters of certainty. When one must decide which facts are more relevant and how one ought to interpret them (pg. 4). One can persuade someone to do a variety of things such as vote for a particular politician, buy a particular product or make a choice between two different options. The study of persuasion is known as rhetoric. Any kind of textual communication with a a clear point of view and intent to influence others is rhetoric.

Sonesson goes further to suggest a communication model to explain how rhetoric works. By applying a dual perspective on the interpretation of rhetoric he describes it as the theory of both argumentation and persuasion. For Sonesson, it is important that there is a clearly defined sender of information and a receiver of information. Both parties need to be on the same wavelength in order to communicate with each other. The sender uses rhetoric as a tool to package their message in a way that will effectively persuade the receiver and in a way that they believe the receiver will understand them. According to Sonesson, this communication and act of persuasion  relies on presuppositions that are shared by both participants of the communication – i.e. that they are on the same wavelength. Parties who come from different cultural assumptions, for example, may not understand each other because the codes embedded within the communication message may be lost in translation.

One example of a persuasive advertisement according to Sonesson’s model is a Milo advertisement from Singapore. This works only if one has previous cultural knowledge of what it’s like to be of schooling age in Singapore. The routine of the child in the advertisement is familiar to the Singaporean school system, down to drinking Milo in the morning – a very traditional inclusion to a child’s morning routine. The advertisement also works when one understands the connection between Milo and children’s sporting culture in Singapore. Milo often sponsors sporting events held by schools and so sells itself as a drink that enables energy, sportsmanship and a go-getting attitude. There is also an emotional persuasive tactic made to parents. By framing Milo as a drink that well-prepared mothers give to their children, parents are more likely to purchase the item in order to cohere to the cultural standard put forth in the video. Through these tactics, Milo is framed as a vital component of the Singaporean childhood.

Viral and Spreadable Media

In 2012, the public transport service in Melbourne, Australia ran a safety campaign featuring around the above video. Titled “Dumb Ways to Die”, the video campaign listed humorous and absurd ways to hurt oneself in the form of a song. The end of the song, however, featured unsafe behaviour around trains – the crux of the message. The campaign was a huge success and saw many parody and spin-off videos centring around the song.

One parody was created by YouTube channel “The Movie Maniacs” and featured famous movie deaths. The end of the video was a direct reference to the original Metro campaign with the message “Be Safe If You’re In A Film”. Here, the YouTube channel has repurposed the body of the campaign (the tune of the song, the style of video, the rhyme scheme, the cute yet macabre characters) to suit its own style of movie-related content. It has, however, lost the key message of public transport safety.

According to a news report in the Sydney Morning Herald, at the peak of its popularity, the original video was parodied over 85 times. Like The Movie Maniacs’ parody, most of these remixed videos were situated within “fandoms” or the fictional worlds of popular fan culture. One such example was the GTA V (Grand Theft Auto 5) parody video which dispensed of the cartoon figures in the original video and used in-game footage instead. Because of the wealth of possibilities in the GTA universe, the creators sought to replicate the “dumb ways to die” in the original Metro campaign where possible (“teach yourself how to fly”) while featuring deaths that were specific to the game and would function as in-jokes for its fans (“try to take the store from the ammunition guy”).

The Dumb Ways To Die campaign is a classic example of a viral marketing campaign that took on a life of its own. In describing this phenomenon, Douglas Rushkoff (1994) suggests that media events are viruses which contain ‘ideological code’ that get embedded in our culture. Rushkoff’s idea of virality ascribes the success of media’s dissemination to the content of the media itself. Later scholars, like Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, and Ana Domb Krauskopf, and Joshua Green, have made the point that Rushkoff’s idea ignores the agency of people in spreading media. Jenkins et al argue that media only spreads because people make the decision to share it, not because of an inherent value within the idea itself. Instead of calling it “viral” media, it is suggested that the term “spreadable” media be used instead in order to make a proper distinction.

We can clearly see the value in the second proposition in the case of Dumb Ways To Die – the original message of safe behaviour on public transport was completely lost in the remixes, going contrary to the logic that Rushkoff put forth. The marketing message which was the ideological code within the campaign was wilfully ignored in favour of the “protein shell” (to borrow Rushkoff’s analogy) of the song, characters and video by the greater Internet community.

Jenkins et al actually put forth two models of media contact: the aforementioned “spreadable” media as well as “sticky” media. Sticky media keeps users on its platform with continued engagement while spreadable media sees more open-ended participation that may result in the watering down or alteration of the original intent of the media item.

Interestingly enough, the Dumb Ways To Die campaign found a way to be both sticky and spreadable media. I have already demonstrated its potential for spreadability with the examples of the parody videos above and shown how the spreadability of media may come at the expense of the purity of the intended message. In 2013, Metro released a “Dumb Ways to Die” game as an app for iOS and Android mobile devices. The game invited players to avoid the dangerous activities engaged in by the various characters featured throughout the campaign. The game held fast to its public safety message by incorporating pledges from users to stay safe around trains within its gameplay. In the 2014 sequel of the game, extra game mechanics were introduced which required users to complete additional challenges related to trains. As the game was its own platform, it had the ability to command and hold the attention of its users while embedding the core message of its campaign within the media spectacle. Jenkins et al call this “prestructured interactivity” which is able to “shape user experiences” (pg. 25).

The Dumb Ways To Die campaign is thus both spreadable and sticky media though the resulting effects of both forms of media contact vary. As for its success as a campaign, the Melbourne Metro claimed a 30% decrease in near-miss accidents following its launch. It was also adopted by another city, Denver in Colorado, USA, for its public safety campaigns which perhaps speaks to its effectiveness in getting its message across.

Participatory Culture

Media scholar Henry Jenkins describes Web 2.0 culture as a participatory culture “in which fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content” (Jenkins, 2008, pg. 331). He outlines 5 main pillars of this new participatory culture which I have reproduced in full below:

1. relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,

2. strong supportfor crearing and sharing creations with others,

3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices,

4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and

5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another

What Jenkins has described is a fairly utopian view of the new web where all members are on equal standing and benefit equally from the sharing of information and content. This view of social media presents a democratic virtual society in which users are able to create content instead of merely consuming it. Jenkins has a largely positive view of social media and its potential.

In contrast, Christian Fuchs takes issue with Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture because it ignores the negative aspects of social media and glosses over some inconvenient truths. One point that Fuchs raises is that Jenkins is interested solely in the cultural dimension of social media and that this interest comes at the expense of recognising the political and political economic dimensions of it (Fuchs, 2014, pg. 55). More specifically, Fuchs takes issue with Jenkins’ overlooking of aspects like platform ownership and profit making. For example, giant Internet companies like Facebook are able to mediate the expression of social media users with institutional apparatuses like their Terms of Use or rules and regulations. While the web might present the potential for full expression, individual platforms have expectations for their users and what they upload. Facebook has been criticised for its double standards towards female bodies for taking down images of female nipples (but not male nipples) even in non-sexualised contexts like breastfeeding photographs. This runs contrary to the idea of a fully participatory culture because there is a small group of decision makers who control what can and cannot be shared. These platforms also profit off of the content that users put up through advertising revenue yet users see nothing of this material gain. Fuchs makes the case that the web is an unequal playing ground which favours those who hold the platforms of production. Users also have little say in how these platforms are run and are unable to cast votes or make significant appeals for changes in the management of these platforms – another fact that runs contrary to the idea of fully participatory and democratic culture. For Fuchs, social media and Web 2.0 is just a virtual manifestation of capitalism that runs on “monopolies and capital concentration” (pg. 57).

Fuchs’ assessment of the issues with Jenkins’ treatise on participatory culture echo the sentiments of earlier work by scholars like José van Dijck and David Nieborg. In 2009, they wrote a paper on the manifestos of various Web 2.0 platforms and noted that while key players within the tech industry were keen to highlight the participatory nature of the interactive Internet, they were still endorsing  “a notion of public collectivism that functions entirely inside commodity culture” (pg. 855). While the manifestoes studied promoted the ideals of a communal space for user-generated content, the actual statistics showed that only 13% of web users actually produced content for the web. The catch-all term ‘users’ is misleading in that it conceals the difference between producers and consumers of user-generated content. Nieborg and van Dijck also bring up the fact that platforms collect meta-data from users in order to better advertise to them as a means of generating profit. Facebook may claim that its aim is to connect people to their friends and to the events that matter but its business aim is to connect advertisers to potential consumers. As Nieborg and van Dijck say, “the discourse of commoditization is entirely subjugated to the rhetoric of connectivity” (pg. 866).

It appears as though Jenkins’ definition of participatory culture proffers the same rhetoric as the manifestos of Web 2.0 companies – the ability to connect, share and produce information freely for everybody. However, this view dangerously ignores the material reality of being a member of the web in the age of platform capitalism. While it might be possible to argue that users enjoy the experience of using social media, it does not detract from the fact that users and the data they provide are also being exploited by the owners of the websites. Fuchs elegantly states that “exploitation is measured as the degree of unpaid labour from which companies benefit at the expense of labour. If exploitation does not feel like exploitation, then this does not mean that it does not exist” (pg. 64). This critical perspective is a key reminder for users of the web to remember the unequal playing ground present in interactions between the social media industry and users.


Discourse Analysis II

In her explanation of discourses analysis methods, Rose made a distinction between the type of analysis that focused on the contents of an archive and the type that explores the effects of “archivalisation” on texts. The second kind of discourse analysis is more concerned with the institutions and how they produce human subjects. It chooses not to see the institutions which house and create knowledge as neutral “transparent windows” (2001, pg. 165) but rather to understand how institutions produce regimes of truth. In Rose’s on words, this method of discourse analysis “shifts attention away from the details of individual images and towards the processes of their production and use” (pg. 167).

Referencing Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish, Rose explains that there are two ways in which institutions exert their power – institutional apparatus and institutional technologies.  An institutional apparatus is the forms of power/ knowledge which make up the institutions like its architecture or its rules and regulations. Institutional technologies are more disparate and can be thought of as the tools used to practise the power/knowledge referenced above.

I chose to study the Tropenmuseum as my example for this task. The Tropenmuseum is a “museum about people” in the east of Amsterdam. Formerly the colonial museum, it became part of the Royal Tropical Institute when Indonesia became an independent state after years of Dutch rule. The ethnographic museum has a focus on non-Western cultures. Its permanent exhibitions are divided according to geographical region such as “Africa” and “Southeast Asia”. The museum has a team of curators, a large building and an extensive collection of material artefacts: these are all institutional apparatuses that allow the museum to claim objectivity or truth in its assertions.

Displays are a combination of both artefacts behind a glass case and text (in the form of panels or captions). This pairing leads the viewer to assume congruence between the two technologies while matching the text to the object. Furthermore, the placement of artefacts behind glass so that the audience may not touch them contributes to the sense of authority that the museum has over its visitors. The visitors are not to be trusted with the handling of objects, only museum staff with the proper training have that privilege.

Discourse Analysis I

According to Gillian Rose, discourse is “groups of statements which structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking” (2001, pg. 136).  In my opinion, discourse can be thought of as a conversation that’s being had about a certain issue or within a certain field. Discourses privilege certain viewpoints over others depending on the power relations – political discourse favours those who are politicians or those who work as political journalists over the layman’s opinions, for example. Discourse is not simply a sum of statements, it can also construct positions. Modern conceptions of gender identity are discursive constructions, for one. As Rose puts it, “Our sense of our self is made through the operation of discourse. So too are objects, relations, places, scenes: discourse produces the world as it understands it.” (pg. 137)

Rose is referencing Foucault’s understanding of discourse and his work on power/knowledge relations. In a nutshell, all knowledge is dependent on the presupposition of power relations which are simultaneously upheld by fields of knowledge.

In trying to understand the forces and implications of various discourses, Rose proposes 2 different methods for studying it. In the first form of discourse analysis, Rose is interested in the specific visual images and texts that constitute a discourse.

In her book chapter, she outlines a methodology for conducting the first form of discourse analysis. First, a researcher must identify the right sources from which to collect data. This might be a difficult task because the parameters must be decided by the researcher who must know when to stop and what is the right quantity to derive the most quality of data from. Next, the data must be assessed. According to Foucault’s work, a researcher must look at the information presented in the sources without preconceived notions and to look at them with fresh eyes. Once that is complete, a researcher should sort the information according to themes and codes in order to draw links between the data gathered.

Rose emphasises that it is important to study how a discourse produces the “effects of truth” (pg. 154) – how does discourse claim to represent the truth or establish certainty for the way things are? What is left out or rendered absent by the discourse? And how does the discourse deal with contradictory viewpoints? These are all questions a researcher must answer in order to conduct a full analysis of the data.

We can see Rose’s description of discourse analysis in use through Charlene Elliott’s 2001 study of the discourse of Starbucks and coffee. In her analysis, Elliott looks at the marketing and on-site copy produced by Starbucks and how they produce misleading stereotypes about foreignness and the “Third World” coffee producing nations. Through carefully studying the marketing materials of Starbucks, Elliott discovered that the brand had positioned beans from non-Western locales as “exotic” or “wild”, thus perpetuating Orientalist ideas about the Other. By positioning its premium blends as more foreign, Starbucks afforded Western consumers an opportunity to consume exotic locations in a neocolonialist fashion.

Elliott compared the diction of various blends of coffee and noted that house blends were described with words like “bright” or “balanced” while blends which were marked as being from non-Western places like Kenya or Sulawesi were ascribed terms like “exotic but approachable” and “intense” (pg. 377). She then compared the descriptions within the marketing copy to unexpected sources like postcolonial scholar Edward Said’s Orientalism to demonstrate exactly how Starbucks was exploiting the rhetoric of foreignness in order to market its products.

Cultural Branding

In his 2004 book, Douglas Holt described a new model of branding – cultural branding – employed by the most iconic brands of our time. According to Holt, brands which utilise the cultural branding model are performers of and containers for “identity myths” (Holt, 2004, pg. 14). For Holt, an identity myth is a story embedded within a brand that allows consumers to “associate the product with category benefits, to spread the myth by word of mouth, to emote, and to gather together” (pg. 35). Identity myths don’t necessarily have anything to do with the efficacy or claims of a product. In his assessment of the Coca Cola brand, Holt points to “the irrepressible American spirit” as the core identity myth being utilised (pg. 26).

We can easily see the logic of cultural branding being employed in the brand story of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s. Started in 1978 in Vermont, the ice cream brand’s distinctive factor was the inclusion of “chunks” in its product for a different mouthfeel from other brands. The identity of the brand, however, is one that is typified by its ties to “hippie culture” with its left-leaning activism, irreverent product names and anti-corporatist attitude.

Ben & Jerry’s retains a homemade, community feel to its brand by holding events such as their annual Free Cone Day and by allowing people to visit its headquarters in Vermont where they house a “flavour graveyard” for products that have been discontinued. Product names are fun and make references to pop culture. Notable ones include Cherry Garcia (named after Jerry Garcia of the band the Grateful Dead) which began as an anonymous fan submission. Consumers are encouraged to suggest new flavours and names to the company through its website. Its non-ice cream merchandise frequently features peace symbols and tie dye motifs, reminiscent of the hippie culture that was prevalent when the company first started in the 70s.

Most significantly contributing to its identity myth is the brand’s social and political activism. As recent as last month, Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would not be selling two scoops of the same flavour in Australian outlets until same-sex marriage was legalised in the country. The company also created a flavour commemorating Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 called “Yes, Pecan!”, referencing the president’s campaign slogan “Yes, We Can!”. In 2016, the company launched a campaign titled “Democracy Is In Your Hands” with online videos showing fingers, spoons and ice cream to explain political topics like the power of big money and voting rights, and to encourage more American consumers to vote. The company also created a new ice cream flavour, Empower Mint, to tie in with this campaign.

Despite being bought by multinational giant Unilever in 2000, the brand is still able to embody a hippy ethos due to the strength of its cultural branding model. According to Holt, iconic brands with strong identity myths allow consumers to to address “identity desires and anxieties” (pg. 2). This is to say that by consuming products from specific iconic brands, customers see the brand’s values as an extension of their own and this contributes to the personal identity forming mission of the consumer. Consumers who enjoy Ben & Jerry’s may enjoy the taste of the ice cream but they also appreciate being able to buy into hippie culture and the association with social activism that comes with it.

Thanks to its emphasis on “ethical consumerism” – a concept that is up for debate depending on your political leanings – by way of donations to relevant causes, Ben & Jerry’s largely avoids the main indictments of brand culture made by Naomi Klein in her 1999 book No Logo. Klein recognises the branding model described by Holt (and practised by Ben & Jerry’s) when she describes The Body Shop’s (another brand with a strong ethical approach to its business) success: “[they made] their brand concept into a virus and sending it out into the culture via a variety of channels: cultural sponsorship, political controversy, the consumer experience and brand extensions. Direct advertising, in this context, was viewed as a rather clumsy intrusion into a much more organic approach to image building.” (pg. 39) However, Klein notes that even if the intent of brands tying up with social causes is good, the presence of the brand may overshadow or detract/delegitimise the cause on display.


Semiotics is known as the “science of signs” or how signs produce meaning (Berger, 2010, pg. 3) and is used as a method of studying visual texts. What then is a sign? In language – visual, textual, or otherwise – we use signs to communicate ideas.

According to Saussurian semiotics, signs refer to something other than themselves and consist of two elements: the signifier and the signified. Signs convey meaning that is constructed. That is to say that the connection between the sign and the meaning that it holds is arbitrary and governed by group codes. For example, a word is a signifier. There is nothing about the word “table” that has a direct link to the physical object. English speakers have agreed, as a group, that that combination of letters (both in writing and in sound) has come to signify a physical table. French speakers understand the written “table” to mean the same thing but the sound they use as a signifier for the object differs from the English one. Neither pronunciation adheres more accurately to the idea of a table since they are both arbitrarily assigned representations of a concept. According to Saussure, a signifier is something concrete like a word, a gesture, or a sound that corresponds to an immaterial signified idea (Branston and Stafford, 2003, pg. 13).

Another branch of semiotics, Peircian semiotics, differentiates between different kinds of signs. It argues that the relationship between the signifier and the signified exists in different permutations based on how the link between them is established.

A symbol is a sign that has a completely constructed link to the signified. Its meaning needs to be learnt in order for a reader to understand the sign. A national flag, for example, symbolises a country. The significance of the placement of the colours or images on the flag are created and one has to learn that a specific combination of visual elements corresponds to a particular country.

An index is a sign that has some causal link to the concept it is signifying (pg. 41). Steam rising out of a kettle is a sign that the water within the kettle is boiling. Light being emitted from a bulb These links may have to be learnt still in order for the sign to mean something to its viewer but they are not completely arbitrary like a symbolic sign is. 

The last category is the sign that is an icon. Iconic signs physically resemble the idea that they stand for. Most of the face emojis represent an emotion that can be inferred from the expression that is depicted on them. A smiling emoji represents happiness while a scowling emoji represents anger.

While Peircian semiotics posits that there are 3 different categories of sign, these categories are not discrete and many signs cross categories or have the traits of several categories. Onomatopoeic words such as “crash” or “squelch” are indexical in that there is a sonic representation of the action these words are meant to describe. They are also symbolic, as formal language is, because the meanings of these words still need to be learnt by language users in order to be fully understood.

By understanding how meaning is coded in visual signs, we can unpack the more nuanced or subliminal meanings held in various texts. Berger (p. 27) mentions advertisements as a type of text in which researchers may apply semiotics as a method in order to understand consumer culture. The presence of a female protagonist instead of a male protagonist in an advertisement for washing powder carries gendered connotations that may mean different things about family values and household roles. The dress of the female protagonist also carries meaning – a woman in an apron may signify a domestic and maternal figure but a woman in a swimsuit signifies a more sexualised character. Branston and Stafford talk about the use of semiotics to examine the media and to uncover the origins of the meanings coded within texts such as television and film (pg. 12). In television news bulletins, different signs convey different meanings that may not be explicitly put forth in the speech of the newsreader. The appearance of the eyewitnesses interviewed, for example, signifies different meanings. In a news bulletin about a car bombing, an eyewitness who appears to be injured or has tattered clothes is assumed to have been a victim and occupies a different position to the incident from an eyewitness who is unscathed and is positioned as more of an observer. The study of semiotics allows us to trace the implicit codes within texts and helps us understand more about why we construct meaning the way we do.