The Troupe: Celebrities As Dramatis Personae in Advertisements


Linda M. Scott (1991) ,"The Troupe: Celebrities As Dramatis Personae in Advertisements", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 355-363.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 355-363


Linda M. Scott, University of Texas at Austin

The theater of advertising plays on a stage where the curtain never falls. Plots range from farce to melodrama, from pathos to parody, requiring a range of actors to fill the roles. Because ads depend on quick characterization, their dramatis personae often come from the repertory troupe of popular culture. Public characters appear in ads in all their variety: heroes and harlots, villains and virgins, paupers and pop stars make up the ever-assembling ensemble. The typical, the ideal, the notorious, the famous, and the fictive jostle each other as the cast rushes from television to film to-sports to politics to art--stopping here and there to act in a commercial mise en scene. Easily, like a film star slips into a soap spot, advertising creatures creep into the discourses of art or politics. The interconnections between players and texts become increasingly labyrinthine.

The commercial stage is large, the cast is huge, and the plays various, yet scholarly study of celebrity advertising reduces it to ahistorical, untheatrical formulae. The purpose here is to broaden the scope of inquiry by elaborating on Grant McCracken's argument (1989) that celebrity advertising is a culturally-grounded phenomenon. I will argue that these ads combine the power of two cultural constructs: the celebrity persona and the advertising text itself. My intention is to refine McCracken's notion of "meaning transfer," providing articulation between his concept of celebrity and the suggestion, made by Wells (1988), Stem (1989), McCracken himself (1987), and others, that ads be viewed as a cultural form, specifically as literary or dramatic texts. In the process, several means by which consumers invoke cultural frameworks and perform interpretive moves within the genre of celebrity advertising will be described.

I also wish to address here McCracken's concern that current cultural critiques of celebrity are reductive of the market system and the public mind:

There is indeed a delicate and thoroughgoing relationship between the culture, the entertainment industry, and the marketing system in modem North America. We are beginning to understand what this relationship is and how it works. We must hope that the first victims of this emerging understanding will be the glib assertions that characterize North American consumers as the narcissistic, simple-minded, manipulated playthings of the market place.... As we begin to render a more sophisticated account of how these systems work, we will begin to see that North American culture and commerce are more interesting and more sophisticated than its critics have guessed (McCracken 1989, 318-319).

In broaching this issue, I intend to bring the discourse of cultural criticism further into the collective knowledge of consumer research, adding to the process begun by Rogers (1987).


The study of popular culture in industrial society currently comes under the rubric of "cultural studies." Because departments of literature, music, and art have historically shunned the scholarly analysis of popular artifacts, the serious study of "mass" forms has been a fairly recent phenomenon-one that still retains the stigma of dilettantism in more traditional circles. But a certain intellectual status has been attained by cultural study employing the neomarxian perspective known as "critical theory." This work on popular culture is increasingly known preemptively as "cultural criticism."

Cultural criticism is rooted in the work of the Frankfurt School, a group of German Marxists who began to write about capitalist culture shortly before World War II. The School sought to reestablish the Hegelian dialectic as the analytical template for Marxist thought and applied the theory to culture as well as to economy. The emphasis was on identifying negations in cultural forms as symptoms of dialectical antinomies at work--proof of the process of an idealized History (Jay 1973). Cultural criticism, as practiced by Adomo, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Benjamin, tended to favor theory over empirical observation and historical research. Their essays on popular culture thus often convey a disturbing sense of presentism, elitism, ethnocentrism, and even a limited familiarity with the object. Further, the School's theory of the culture industry conceptualizes culture as ideological form imposed on the populace by an economic monolith (Arato and Gebhart 1988). Today's cultural critics are influenced by other theorists, such as Althusser, Barthes, and Bakhtin, but despite efforts of later marxians, especially Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, there is still a marked tendency to look for contradictions as a basis for theoretical speculation, to ignore the "us-ness" of culture, to avoid empirical study in favor of abstractions, and to shut out consideration of historical continuities.

Celebrity fascinates cultural critics. However, their assumptions about the nature and conditions of celebrity reflect the motivations of theory. These critics assert that celebrity:

(1) is unique to capitalism, existing to perpetuate a consumption ethic through emulative desire (Dyer 1982)

(2) is unique to the twentieth century, a product of technologies that reproduce images (Schickel 1985, Dyer 1982, and others)

(3) depends on audiences given to trance-like adoration/emulation (Tudor 1974)

(4) requires large-scale, bureaucratic societies (Alberoni 1972)

(5) occurs only in societies that produce a surplus and have a "culture industry" charged with perpetuating dominant ideologies (King qtd. in Dyer 1982, p. 8, Marcuse 1964).

Cultural criticism characterizes the theatrical roles of stars as a deceptive ideological device, rather than as interpreted experience grounded-in dramatic tradition. The difference between the "real" celebrity and the playing of a character is seen as evidence of "inauthenticity" or "contradiction" (Braudy 1986, p. 580; Dyer 1982, pp. 22-24). To appear in a commercial renders the celebrity "meaningless" (Boorstin 1961; Dyer 1982, p. 14). Ads themselves are given only superficial ideological critiques, poorly researched, without a sense of cultural or historical links between forms, between political economies, or even between the ad and the object it fetishizes (see especially Miller 1979; Williamson 1978). Cultural critics cast the audience in remarkably denigrative terms, particularly given their social sympathies. Mass communications audiences are seen as ideologically blinded, helpless at the mercy of their industrial controllers, easily led into slavishly emulating capitalist idols (Dyer 1982, Braudy 1986, Schiekel 1985). Mass communications "speakers" are presented as prime movers in a "top down" ideological apparatus, collaborating to control the passive populace.

Although the opposites engaged in dialectical process can be correctly seen as intermingled and transformative, cultural criticism generally insists on treating the market society and all its attributes as an anomaly. This is apparently due to an overemphasis on the oppositions of the dialectic, as opposed to its processual aspect. Thus, in current cultural criticism, forms produced by capitalism are presented in opposition to both a past and a future moment in History. The finding that something approximating celebrity occurred in a previous period would fundamentally challenge the overriding grand theory. Further, the possibility that celebrity occurs in nonindustrial culture, or that it serves some cultural purpose, would violate the negative hermeneutic that has driven cultural criticism since Adorno and Horkheimer (Arato and Gebhart 1988). It should not be surprising, therefore, that past foundations of celebrity are never explored in such works. Celebrity in all its forms becomes a contemporary phenomenon that has no forebears in pre-industrial history and no commonality of experience within the sociology of the human.


Advertising researchers have seen themselves as applied scholars, serving the needs of the marketing community with objective, generalizable, and commercially-useful findings. Thus, the historically intertwined axes of science and instrumentality are everywhere present. The hallmarks of scientific method control for the particular, accidental, and problematic in pursuit of the universal. Thus, in its desire for universality, the prevailing practice of advertising research has tended to ahistorical and culture-blind.

As McCracken argues, studies of the commercial use of celebrities search for the quintessential elements in a public personality that result in persuasion and purchase (recent examples are Akin and Block 1983; Homer and Kahle 1990; Kahle and Homer 1985; Kamins 1990; Kamen, Azhair, Kragh 1985; Klebba and Unger 1983). Celebrities are rated for "likability," "credibility," and "attractiveness" in a process that smoothes over individuated meanings. -Results are correlated with reported viewers' responses, suggesting-that the celebrity insinuates desire for the product in the viewer directly through his/her personal attributes. So, any highly likeable celebrity could sell any product to any viewer in any format at any point in time. This leaves little room for a discriminating viewer. Furthermore, none of this literature studies textual mediation of the meaning of the celebrity appearance. The cultural tradition, stylistic particularities, or historical grounding of the celebrity endorsement are merely extraneous sources of variation.


McCracken calls attention to the anomalies existing both within the literature and in the experience of celebrity advertising. He proposes that celebrities have specific, highly-refined meanings that are culturally-derived and brought to the advertisement. He argues that these meanings are transferred to the product by the ad. Consumers then choose those meanings and products that best fit their "production of self" project.

McCracken's article constitutes a challenge to both models outlined above. It insists on the specificity of celebrities and of products, and cites culture as the source and ground for making their meaning (see also McCracken 1988). Yet in proposing such a straightforward model of meaning transfer, he implies a certain sameness of advertising forms. While emulation is frequently suggested by celebrity advertising, it is not the only stance that ads take with regard to the famous. A model of celebrity advertising should accommodate many stories and many voices, not just those we wish to emulate. For example, as McCracken points out, the characters previously played by a celebrity impinge on the ads in which that person appears. But this is true whether the referred character is a hero, a clown, or a villain--and the ad may use that character theatrically without intending or effecting a transfer of that meaning to the product. In this way, the narrative, poetic, or rhetorical text in which a celebrity persona appears has an impact on the meaning ultimately conveyed. Modern advertisements bend, refract, even parody the meanings of the celebrities they employ. The relationship between character and meaning is far from direct. Finally, celebrity advertising is a genre with traditions that frame the viewer's interpretation. So, advertising history and conventions are themselves germane. The practice of linking a celebrity to an object has a long past. Today's celebrity ads are part of that tradition, making each present instance but the latest one.


Despite the desires of the scientific and cultural critical schools to separate the modern market from more "primitive" or "communal" societies, an illuminating avenue for understanding the modern marketplace is to look for its roots in preindustrial culture (Hirschman 1985). In his classic analysis of gift systems, Marcel Mauss outlined the practices of tribal cultures of North America, Asia, and the Pacific, as well as archaic cultures from Greek to Hindu (1954). Among other similarities was a consistent tendency to imbue goods with personified meanings, generally associated with the giver of the item, but also elaborated by stories of trading and ownership. Exchanges were accomplished through the tribal chieftains, who often played a shamanistic role in which ancestors or mythical characters were invoked in the gift transfer. Objects thus became both profoundly storied and thoroughly personified.

More recent anthropologists have contrasted these practices with modern commodity distribution, arguing that the homogeneity of things in modern capitalist society is fundamentally anti-cultural, working against a basic need to singularize goods (Appadurai and Kopytoff 1986). Yet even a cursory acknowledgement of modern advertisements must admit their effort to singularize commodities. Particularly in celebrity advertising, there appears an intention similar to preindustrial rituals for personifying material objects.

In archaic societies, goods were often personified by association with gods, military heroes, or athletes. The mythologies of Roman, Greek, Egyptiarl, and Teutonic cultures are supported by arcane systems of attribution between goods and gods. Decorative artifacts frequently depict the lives of gods, heroic battles, or athletic contests. Among cultural critics, Dyer dismissed similarities between ancient gods and current celebrities by insisting that gods were ideal, unlike the depressingly "typical" heroes of today (1982, p. 24). Yet we can easily recall myths that depict gods with human foibles, such as vanity, greed, and forgetfulness, and tell stories of gods participating in such unidealized acts as treachery and rape. Further, the current angst over criminal acts by athletes could be explained as cultural disappointment in idealized heroes.

In Western medieval society, goods were no longer decorated with images of the gods. The transition to a monotheistic, abstract notion of god--as well as to a religion that denied the material-made this practice both narratively limited and blasphemous. However, the institution of a Christian pantheon of saints finds expression in household artifacts decorated with and dedicated to personages of Christian celebrity (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Today's penchant for Elvis plates and Lucy figurines suggests the continuity between the saints of the Dark Ages and the celebrities of these dark ages. Ultimately, the rise of the secular state provided another basis for artifactual celebrity--that of the royal patronage. The insignia of the sovereign on a commodity testified to its quality and social acceptability. Even today, royal endorsement of goods is a significant gesture in Great Britain.

Just before industrialization, the public "arbiter of taste" emerged. These worthies were often royalty (Empress Eugenie, Josephine, Princess Borghese) or aristocracy (Mme. Pompadour), but sometimes warriors (Napoleon) or just self-proclaimed connoisseurs (Beau Brummel). They affected the distribution of goods of all sorts: permission to associate their names with a fragrance or type of cloth was considered a guarantee of success (Morris 1984).

Mass distribution of print media and goods, as well as the aristocracy's decline, eventually supported another source of celebrity, the arts. The cultural critics' notion that there were no stars before television or film is, of course, nonsense. It is hard to argue that Caruso, Bernhardt, and Njinsky were not stars simply because we have no tapes of them. And, even in those times, creating an association with the- people, characters, and works of the arts was thought to bring an "aesthetic appeal" to goods and to retail establishments (Wicke 1989). Showing Shakespeare on a brochure, putting a Rudyard Kipling story in a pack of tobacco, or caricaturing Oscar Wilde in an advertisement represent common practices during this period (Wicke 1989).

During the period from about 1850 to 1920, we also see a growing incidence of fictive characters in advertising: characters portrayed on stage, characters of literature and myth, and characters designed specifically for ads. For example, the characters of the Pickwick Papers appeared right away in the names and ads for goods and services in Dicken's London (Wicke 1989). In 1920s magazines, actresses endorsing products are often pictured in costume. Many "celebrities" were developed specifically for advertising: the Campbell's Soup Kids, Betty Crocker, Lydia E. Pinkham. In the early industrial public mind, as in ancient and preindustrial cultures, the meanings of celebrities and objects were tied up in the fictive and storied.

It appears plausible that a cultural trajectory goes from the personification of gifts and the material attributes of gods to the royal patronage to the modern celebrity endorsement. All give meaning to goods through association with people that have a shared status in the public mind.




Advertisements themselves are cultural artifacts. As such, they reflect both the traditions of the past and the styles of the moment: they are unavoidably situated in history and society. Ads have formal conventions of their own. But they also reflect the formal conventions of other, related forms such as literature, drama, and art, as part of the historical path in which the mass media have developed. In turn, if the style of the moment is for irony or parody, we can be sure that some ads will be parodic or ironic. In each case, the viewer must correctly assemble the meaning of the ad by invoking the norms of both past and present. So, we learn to interpret the actor in an ad in much the same way that we interpret an actor in a play--within the framework of that particular theatrical instance. In sum, actual advertisements are complex cultural constructions that require real reading, as opposed to mere "decoding" or "response."

Cultural critiques of advertising advance rapidly to the systemic level of analysis, leaving behind the empirical study of specific ads (Simon 1980, Wicke 1989). Similarly, the scientific approach to advertising, in its penchant for isolating executional elements or aggregating large numbers of commercials for testing, also advances to the systemic level without first building an appreciation for the specificity of the texts. In both cases, generalizations thus reached are often in basic conflict with the particulars. Notions of stimulus/response, direct meaning transfer, or blind ideological manipulation are all contradicted by the complexity of the forms themselves, as the following examples will demonstrate.


In the Slimfast ad in Figure 1, Tommy Lasorda makes the kind of straightforward, exhortative pitch that is clearly paradigmatic for both the cultural critical and scientific studies of celebrity advertising. As readers living in twentieth-century Western culture, we know that a corporation is, in fact, the real speaker behind this advertisement. But as an organizational abstraction, the company has, in actuality, no voice. Instead, it has hired or otherwise persuaded Lasorda to endorse its product and represent it as a speaker to the community. So, Lasorda's function is fundamentally one of representation. As a speaker chosen by the company, he represents its character. He is thus suggestive of what rhetoricians call the ethos or what reader-response theorists call the implied author (Gibson 1980). The ethos/implied author is a fictive construct that exists between the characters in the piece (including direct speakers like Lasorda) and the author/speaker who is responsible for the work itself.

The ethos is suggested by actions and words, and by the style and choice of visual and sound cues. The entire system of cues that describes the ethos- the deixis--constitutes a description of the implied author. Characters in any symbolic form are considered deictic, especially first-person narrators or direct addressors. In this ad, the picture(s) of Lasorda, the exhortative tone of the copy, the excess of verbiage, and the overuse of bold-face, italics, and call-outs all suggest a particular, perhaps rather overbearing, ethos.

The construction of the implied author directly describes a corresponding fictive reader, known in reader-response theory as the "mock reader" (Gibson 1980). The deictic cues, designed to appeal in a certain way to a certain sort of reader by describing a certain ethos, suggests the desired relationship between speaker, reader, and object (Bakhtin 1989), and thus are a major basis for building the ground of mutual confidence necessary to persuasion. Importantly, the reader, in order to be persuaded, must choose to step into this triangle. Texts are rejected by readers who don't want to become the implied reader suggested by the deixis (Booth' 1961). Thus, we can see that the foundation for celebrity advertising is the dialogic relationship between speaker and viewer that the celebrity alone merely suggests.


The deixis in a celebrity ad may point to an ethos in a veiled, indirect, or playful way. In the recent commercials for Oldsmobile, the children of famous stars of television and film are shown driving under circumstances that allude to the fictive characters played by their parents. In one spot, Deborah Moore, daughter of Roger Moore, drives an Oldsmobile through a car chase scene that is full of James Bond conventions: gadgetry, fancy driving, sudden explosions, an attack by a helicopter, close calls, shadowy bad guys dressed like cat burglars, and so on. These formal features point not to Roger Moore as a person, but to the fictive character of James Bond--who has been played by other actors. But the ethos being constructed, despite the preponderance of Bond/Moore references, is neither Bond nor Moore. We know this because the theatrical circumstances, the appearance and cool demeanor of Deborah Moore, and the campaign tagline actually play against the fictive character so carefully evoked: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." Taken together, these spots suggest an ethos that is the progeny of fast car drivers and spaceship captains of yesterday--yet a progeny that is marked by an assertive insouciance. Clearly, this campaign, which is self-referential and intertextual at many levels, is far more complex than a transfer of the meaning of Roger Moore--who doesn't even appear in the spot. Instead, the meaning must be understood as a youthful, rebellious challenge to that celebrity insofar as he may be seen to allegorize the authority of fathers.

Just as constituting the ethos suggested by a celebrity often requires complex interpretive moves by the viewer, so may finding the mock reader. In the Colgate toothpaste ad in Figure 2, we see the image of the quintessential Chinese wise man. The headline, written like a Confucian proverb, and the "wisdom tooth" pun all play on a conventional picture of Oriental wisdom. Yet this not just any spiritual teacher, but Pat Morita, who effected the most recent popularization of the Chinese wise man in the "Karate Kid" film series. Morita himself is not identified anywhere in the ad--his meaning is confined to the narrative character being evoked. In the case of Morita, two potential narrative characters could be evoked: the wise teacher of the "Karate Kid" and Arnold, the comical malt shop owner of "Happy Days." The other formal elements constrain the choice of the character. The reader must correctly interpret the cues and make the choice in order to "get" the message. This is the reader's portion of the narrowing and selection of formal cues alluded to by McCracken (1989, p. 316). Even so, the meaning transfer is not between Pat Morita and the actual reader, because there is a mock reader involved with a strong narrative character of his own: the neophyte who is always the counterpart to the Chinese wise man. Thus, the reader is not being asked to identify with Pat Morita, but with his implied student. Entering into the relationship of this persuasion thus requires stepping into the role of the neophyte--not the emulation of the speaker.

In situations like these, we are dealing not just with dialogue, but with theater. Thus, we can't assume that celebrities function only as emulative models in advertising, or even that they always appear as "positive stimuli." In a Mastercard commercial made about five years ago, Vincent Price appears gleefully watching insects die in a bug light he bought with the card. Is emulation the purpose? Or laughter based on parody? Clearly, the circumstances of appearance direct the interpretation of the celebrity by the viewer.


As in the production of a Broadway play, the choice of casting a "star" in an ad is available to those who can pay the price. But, as in the case of a play, the meaning of the star is both brought to and altered by the drama itself. Think about the famous Joe Namath ads for Beautymist pantyhose. In these mid-1970s ads, the camera pans slowly up a pair of sleek, pantyhosed legs to register their owner (surprise!), a famous football player. Now, surely, the potential buyer of the pantyhose is not supposed to be attributing the meaning of Joe Namath to the pantyhose and thus to herself. And, surely, to interpret this ad as an example of perverted gender contradictions in late capitalist society entirely misses the point.

Here we have a time-honored dramatic form of entertainment--the farce. Farce dates to medieval France and is typified by ridiculous situations and burlesqued characters. The ancestor of the farce, the fabliaux, brought ribaldry to the tradition--cross-dressing is endemic to the genre. The choice of Joe Namath in this farcical construct is not coincidental. When these advertisements appeared, Namath had established a strong national persona who was flippant, bawdy, arrogant, and vain. He was also aggressively virile and heterosexual. Yet he was repeatedly characterized in the popular press as someone who could "get away with it," whether "it" was a swinging singles lifestyle or an unabashed vanity--or wearing a pair of pantyhose. The meaning of Joe Namath is part of the farce. It could not have been Dick Butkus in these pantyhose. Nor Truman Capote. Nor Richard Nixon. We read this commercial as farce and not as a mean perversion precisely because it is Broadway Joe and no one else on the other end of those sleek legs.

The theatrical form of the spot is important not only to its interpretation, but to its evaluation as felt experience. In the American Express credit card campaign of the 1980s, various celebrities who were well known by their names, but not their faces, talk about the problems. they have when they are not recognized at a restaurant or on the road. From the beginning of the spot, the actual identity of the "celebrity" is held in secret. It becomes part of the game of watching Sse commercials to guess who the celebrity is. At the end, we are told by the now- familiar punching of their name on the American Express credit card.

This campaign mirrors the form of the masque, in which masked players enacted a drama without revealing their identities. That is, until the end. The pleasure of the entertainment, usually conducted among friends, was to guess who was playing behind the mask prior to the revelation. In this case, a similar kind of pleasurable suspense is being recreated. It can occur only by using celebrities because these are the "friends" that we as the culture of viewers would recognize. Notice also that the suspense can only take place because there is that category of celebrities, even in the electronic age, who are known by their names, but not their images.


Cultural critics and advertising researchers tend to overlook uses of advertising that are not consumption-related. Yet in this area we see an increasingly important use of celebrities--the "subversive" celebrity as social spokesman. This kind of celebrity, usually a rock star, (1) challenges the dominant order artistically or politically, (2) becomes famous, and (3) does not become famous or successful enough to be considered "coopted." These celebrities differ substantively from the implicit celebrity in traditional advertising research--a celebrity who is likeable, credible, and unequivocally mainstream. But it is this very difference that gives subversive celebrities their rhetorical power, particularly in the ads where we now find them.

On an average evening with MTV, there are many commercials for goods, but there are also a noticeable number of ads telling viewers not to take drugs, not to drive drunk, not to have sex carelessly, not to litter, not to smoke, not to drop out of school, and so on. In many cases, the speakers in these spots will be scruffy celebrities dressed in black leather, affecting a rebellious stance, and wearing earrings in unlikely places. The subversive celebrity has become a crucial tool in an advertising genre that attempts to prevent socially destructive behaviors. These speakers do not fit the traditional advertising model of celebrity likability. In fact, their apparent persuasiveness on such sensitive topics is that they decidedly do not represent the dominant order--in the form of parents or teachers. Thus, their credibility lies in subcultural standing, rather than mainstream appeal. In light of this genre, the ethnocentricity of the scientific model's notions of "credibility" and "likability" is made starkly visible.


As in stylistics or linguistics in literature (see Hirsch 1976), the texts that disprove simple models of meaning in advertising have meanings that are "doubled," as in parody, irony, satire, puns. Such forms are becoming frequent in advertising, as an outgrowth of postmodern style.

In a Tony Lama boot ad appearing currently, a full-length photograph of an old cowboy is identified as "Calvin Klein--Horsebreeder, Klein, Texas." The picture of this old cowboy is purposefully juxtaposed with the name of a famous designer. The small copy block explains, "We're told our boots are preferred by rockers, celebrities, movie stars, even presidents. That notion always brings a chuckle to Calvin." A rural working man-with the ironic, but fortuitous, coincidence that his name is Calvin Klein-- is thus invoked to make the preferences of the rich and famous look ridiculous. The point here isn't that the boots are endorsed by Calvin Klein, but precisely that they are not. This ad reverses the conventional roles of celebrity advertising, and so employs one of the classic strategies of satire, in which the pretensions of the high and mighty are reduced metaphorically and effectively to the absurd. Yet this ad cannot exist except within a recognizable tradition of celebrity endorsements.

An eleven-page ad for Nike features photographs of five famous athletes with corresponding athletic shoes. The copy, however, is a stream-of-consciousness rambling that is clearly parodic of celebrity endorsements: "Israel Paskowitz after considering long and hard the technical superiorities of Nike Aqus Socks and how they've helped his surfing career --'Huh?"' All of these interludes are introduced by a picture of Michael Jordan with the headline: "Things they might have said but never did." This ad is a far cry from the old Vitalis ads where athletes would nuzzle the bottle and grin for the camera. In fact, it is clearly a spoof of all such ads. So, reading it requires a culturally-sophisticated, self-conscious, and historically-grounded reader. Not an organism giving an automatic response. And not an ideologically manipulated marionette.

In such parodic/ironic/satirical constructions, the reader must be able to stand apart from the discourse of advertising and laugh at it. This requires a cultural knowledge and awareness of ideology that would defy the viewer construct of either the cultural critic or the advertising scientist. Further, if the reader were simply seeking a role model, he/she would be thoroughly confused by these ads. Interpretive distance is required: by the authors, by the celebrities, and by the readers. The joke is on them all and between them all. This is hardly the capitalist-as-cultural-puppeteer model of a communication at work. It is a shared, negotiated, and transformed meaning, one that recognizes the traditions of the genre, the purpose of the ideology, and the intelligence and independence of both reader and celebrity.


Celebrity advertising is a historically continuous phenomenon grounded in pre-capitalist, pre-electronic media cultures. The continuity of celebrity has been seen in the genealogy of gods, saints, royals, actors, athletes, statesmen. The continuity of product personification in the tradition of the potlatch, of divine attributes, of royal patronage, of modern celebrity advertising. The continuity of advertising forms in the narrative myth, the proverb, the farce, the satire, the masque, the parody. Thus, to understand celebrity advertising as a phenomenon is to understand it as being culturally and historically linked to other times, other forms, other practices--yet reinterpreted in the styles and norms of the present. This requires historical scholarship, both of consumption and advertisements, as well as the use of both anthropological and textual interpretive concepts. Finally, a theory of celebrity advertising thus cast introduces us to a most reassuring figure--the selective, participating, and, ultimately, empowered viewer.


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Linda M. Scott, University of Texas at Austin


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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