Advertising has been a significant concept in our everyday lives for a long time. When exactly did advertising begin? Early examples of advertising were found in the ruins of Pompeii. Others argue that prehistoric cave paintings were a form of advertising. Tungate says it’s safe to say that “advertising has been around for as long as there have been goods to sell and a medium to talk them up.” (Tungate, 2007, p.10) Roland Marchand claims in Advertising the American Dream (1985), advertising took on a new scope and maturity between the 1920s and 1930. The number of advertisements has been increased, however, this is not the only change, also, advertisements started to pay attention to consumers more than the product itself. This progress to a focus on consumer anxieties and satisfactions made American advertising ‘modern’. In this post, I will analyse a 1950’s commercial video by using the semiotic approach and David Machin’s method.
In linguistics and in discourse analysis it has been emphasised that “analysing the details of the action in written texts or speech can reveal more subtle messages about the way that people are represented as having power or as being passive.” (Machin, 2007, p.109) In textual analysis, one can do it by using lexis analysis of verbs. One can basically ask what kind of verbs has been used. It is possible to do the same thing in visual communication by asking what kind of visual verbs has been used. It enables us to think about who has agency, who has the ability to act upon the world. In visual advertising, participants are always placed in a certain way to create a certain relation between the image and the viewer. With the help of Machin’s method, I will analyse visual verbs and their effects on a commercial video.
Coca-Cola Christmas (1950s) – Classic TV Commercial:
Positioning the viewer in relation to people inside the image can easily present the power relations and goals of the commercial. In order to analyse that power structure, one can look at the gaze, angle, and distance.
Figure-1: Screenshot from the Youtube video.
The gaze shows to what extent they are encouraged to engage with the participants. (Machin, 2007, p.110) In pictures, as in real life, the person is able to look at the viewer, in this way there can be a symbolic contact or relation between the viewer and the depicted person. The depicted person may also not look at to the newer intentionally, this is a situation of absence of contact and direct address. One can separate these two situations as demand image and offer image. Demand image is when there is direct contact, looking at the viewer suggests power. Offer image is when the viewer is the observer who is observing the scene happening. (Machin, 2007, p.110) In the Coca-Cola commercial, it is possible to see these two ways of relation. At the beginning of the video, the viewer has strong eye contact with the depicted character who is talking about the coke. Almost more than half of the video continues like this, and the viewer becomes a participant of the scene. After a while, women and a man shows up at the screen without eye contact. At that point, the viewer becomes an observer of the scene instead of a participant. This shift continues until the end of the video, therefore, the viewer experience being both observer and participant.
Figure-2: Screenshot from Youtube video.
Angle of interaction
As with offer and demand, the angle that we see a person can create different relations between the people depicted and the viewer. (Machin, 2007, p.113) There are three different angles identified by Machin which are horizontal, oblique and vertical angles. “Moving around on the horizontal plane reduces the involvement and creates detachment.” So, in the Coca-Cola commercial case, one sees a group of people drinking Coca-Cola and having fun are simply witnessing to a scene. “This decreases the sense of audience identification.” (Machin, 2007, p.113) In that way, one does not have to think about their ideas since one is engaged in their activity. Vertical angle is associated with size, people associate size with power and status. If you look up at someone, this has the metaphorical meaning of them having higher status than you. The degree of vertical angle can decrease or increase the power of the viewer, it can also imply equality by showing someone at the same level in a photograph. Oblique angles can be used to “give an unsettling effect or to suggest tension”. These are used less in news photography but are generally seen in movies and cartoons. In the commercial, one becomes both witnesses of the drinking together scene, at the same time one is able to share their experience with the help of equality presented by angles.
Distance between the depicted person and the viewer can shape the level of intimacy. Just like in real life, the closer you get the more intimacy you have with someone. In the case of commercials, this distance is shown with the size of the frame. In the commercial, the scene starts with a man standing very close to the viewer. You only see his upper body and facial expressions very closely. This creates an emotional closeness with the person. Afterward, the group of people starts drinking coke and the viewer gets a little bit far away from them. In the end, the first man comes back and continues advertising the coke from a very close distance. In that way, his suggestions create a feeling of friends advice and an honest suggestion.
Figure-3: Screenshot from Youtube video.
Kinds of participants
In images, people can be shown as individuals or as a group. This can make a difference in the way that people and the events that they involved are represented. Individuals and groups are important in connecting the viewer to the experiences of the participants. (Machin, 2007, p.118) Categorisation represents the kinds of participants involved in the image. In the case of the Coke video, there is a group of people who are drinking coke in the middle of the commercial. They wear casual outfits of the 1950s, shirts, pants, sweaters, a scarf, etc. This represents a middle-class friend group which represents the most of the society. Also, the single man standing in the begging and in the end improves the effect of humanisation. He is not in the group, but he also watches them with the viewer, in the end, his suggestions to the camera create a reality effect on the viewer.
Tungate, M. (2007). Adland: a global history of advertising. London and Philadelphia: Kogan Page Publishers.
Machin, D. (2007). Introduction to multimodal analysis. London: Hodder Arnold.