Playing With Pictures: Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, and Advertising Visuals

ABSTRACT - The postmodern environment in consumer research has led to a diversity of approaches to consumer culture. As is typical of many postmodern enterprises, the new ethic of research has often resulted in recasting consumption and its culture as "texts" to be read and interpreted. Within this framework, several interpretive essays on commercial art have appeared, but all have used structuralist/ semiotic theory. This essay explores the advertising visual as a postmodern text, proposing that poststructuralist theory offers particular promise as an appropriate strategy for interpreting graphic signification in consumer culture.


Linda M. Scott (1992) ,"Playing With Pictures: Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, and Advertising Visuals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 596-612.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 596-612


Linda M. Scott, University of Colorado, Boulder


The postmodern environment in consumer research has led to a diversity of approaches to consumer culture. As is typical of many postmodern enterprises, the new ethic of research has often resulted in recasting consumption and its culture as "texts" to be read and interpreted. Within this framework, several interpretive essays on commercial art have appeared, but all have used structuralist/ semiotic theory. This essay explores the advertising visual as a postmodern text, proposing that poststructuralist theory offers particular promise as an appropriate strategy for interpreting graphic signification in consumer culture.

"Our advertising is fed by postmodernism in all the arts and inconceivable without it," writes Fredric Jameson in his landmark essay, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society"(1983, p. 124). The postmodern critique has reached a momentous level among cultural theorists (compare Gitlin 1989; Hassan 1980; Hebdige 1989; Jameson 1983, 1984; Kellner on Baudrillard 1989; Lyotard 1984; McRobbie 1986; Morris 1989). Although there is disagreement about postmodernism's meaning, political orientation, and artistic effects, there is a consensus that the postmodern aesthetic comes from the marketplace. Postmodernism, it is argued, is the artform of the consumer society, an outgrowth of mass production, mass media, and mass marketing (Hebdige 1989; Jameson 1984; Gitlin 1989). Critics assert that postmodernism represents the rise of the visual at the expense of the verbal, and the archetypal example is often the advertisement (McRobbie 1986, p. 54-56). Yet the textual, technological, and historical developments in commercial art that point to the postmodern aesthetic have not been traced.

As this academic kettle was brewing in the humanities, a paradigm shift occurred in consumer behavior that brought us into a "postmodern" period (Lutz 1989, Sherry 1991). This new ethic of research welcomes multiple voices and pluralistic methods for their diversity, richness, and new insights--and mirrors similar moves toward intellectual pluralism in fields like literary criticism and anthropology. As is typical of postmodern enterprises, initial efforts have often recast consumer culture, indeed the act of consumption itself, as a form of text (Stern 1989 is just one example). The study of advertising texts has drawn specific interest, including several essays on advertising visuals (Durand 1987, McQuarrie 1989, Mick and Politi 1989). So far, however, all the new work on commercial art in our own discipline has adopted the mantle of semiotics/structuralism as its theory. My purpose in this essay is to introduce poststructuralist thought as a new framework for studying advertising visuals, particularly within the context of the postmodern aesthetic. This is an exploratory piece, presenting concepts along with historical illustrations as a way of suggesting the potential and parameters for a different way of thinking about advertising images. I am motivated to do this by the uncanny confluences among certain poststructuralist concepts, the formal and historical characteristics of advertising texts, and the marks that are generally agreed to typify postmodern style in graphics.


"The entire elusive phenomenon that has been characterized as postmodernism is best understood not just as a style but as a general orientation, as a way of apprehending and experiencing the world and our place, or placelessness, in it" (Gitlin 1989, p. 101). Postmodernism has been notoriously hard to define. Part of this difficulty is traceable to one of its most characteristic traits, a tendency to embrace diversity. As in our own field, postmodernism in art, literature, and everyday life is often seen as a fundamental multiplicity of viewpoints. To some, this is a democratic characteristic; to others, this multiplicity is seen as a cynical inability to commit, a jaded lapse of conscience, a vision that is hopelessly "fragmented," or simply the absence of viewpoint caused by the tolerance of many views (Donoghue 1986, Gitlin 1989, Jameson 1984, Lyotard 1984). Postmodernism in intellectual discourse is often also relativistic and historicist, distrustful of transcendent principles or underlying structure (see, for example, Anderson 1986). Thus, for those who prefer hierarchical orders, traditional art, and absolute truths, postmodernism can be quite threatening.

"Postmodern" and "postmodernism" are terms that are used to describe a philosophy, an aesthetic, and the conditions of living in a certain period of history, much as the terms "Renaissance" or "classical" are used for the same purposes. This overlap in terminology is not peculiar to the discourse on postmodernism. However, our awareness of the overlap of these forces in social experience is a rather salient feature in postmodern thinking. In the current practice of cultural criticism--influenced as it is by neomarxism and the cross-fertilization between anthropology, "high theory," and the arts--it has become a truism that philosophy and aesthetics are produced by the conditions of living and, in turn, affect the conditions of living via their influence upon values, beliefs, and perceptions. So, although we are primarily concerned in this paper with a visual style and aesthetic, both the conditions of living and the philosophical orientations of the twentieth century will be constant subtexts.

In cultural works, a certain constellation of styles and tones are generally thought to characterize postmodernism: pleasure in the play of surfaces; allusion; mimicry; irony and parody; formal self-consciousness; fragmentation; repetition; mixtures of forms, periods, and styles (Gitlin 1989, Hassan 1980, Jameson 1983). Although postmodernism occurs in music and literature, it is frequently characterized as profoundly visual, and thus a death threat to the culture of the word (Donoghue 1986, Hassan 1980, McRobbie 1986). Since postmodern artifacts frequently allude to other artifacts in a visual way, postmodernism has been called (pejoratively) an art that quotes "images already man-made" (Donoghue 1986, p. 36; see also Benjamin 1968). These allusory exchanges are often between mass media texts--the print ad that "quotes" a TV sitcom, for example, as in Figure 1.

Postmodernism is bashed by both political extremes. The New Left reviles postmodernism as the culture of "Thatcherism"; high art traditionalists bemoan it as the degenerate voice of popular culture (Hebdige 1989). Nevertheless, if one observes postmodernism as it exists in everyday life--those things in ads, album covers, table settings, magazine layouts, and music videos that are "pointed to" as being postmodern--a number of other social aspects become clear. One is that the postmodern is a popular style in both senses of the word: it is a mass form and it is well-liked by many people (Gitlin 1989; Lyotard 1984, p. 76). Indeed, the positive reception given postmodern culture appears to be one of its greatest sins in the minds of intellectuals (Jameson, p. 124; Lytoard 1984, p. 76). In the forms it takes and the allusions it makes, postmodernism is an art of the every day; for example, its text and context is often television ("that mongoloid medium," Hassan, p. 124). Postmodernism is often identified, explicitly or implicitly, as a peculiarly American phenomenon; descriptions often focus on sites of mass consumption, like shopping malls and fast food restaurants (see Gitlin 1989). Postmodernism shows a penchant for the retro and the tacky, as well as a preference for the imaginative recombination of everyday forms over the exaltation of the rare, privileged, or expensive. Thus, postmodernism is an aesthetic that is accessible to the many and not just the few. Further, the ability to broadly communicate is a mark of postmodern cultural artifacts that distinguishes them from modernist works--and raises the ire of the critics (Lyotard 1984, p. 76; Merquior 1986, p. 17). Taking advantage of the shared discourses of television, radio, films, and mass magazines, the postmodern style can tap into a world of artifice and allusion that is easily as sophisticated as the world of gentlemen literary critics--but with a much wider audience. The knowing audience implied by postmodernism challenges both the elitist assumptions and anti-empirical methods of the culture of modernist criticism (McRobbie 1986, p. 55-56). Thus, in many ways, the thrust of postmodernism works against "modernism's relentless hostility to mass culture" (Huyssen, qtd. in McRobbie).


As both a philosophy and a theory of language, poststructuralism exists in opposition to structuralism and its contemporary manifestation, semiotics (Davis and Schliefer 1989, pp. 147-148, pp. 205-213; Eagleton 1983, pp. 127-150; Newton 1988, pp. 147-148). Poststructuralism was introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1966, and gained rapid acceptance, notably among famous structuralists like Roland Barthes and Jonathan Culler (Davis and Schliefer 1989, pp. 205-213; Eagleton 1983, pp. 135-145; Lentricchia, pp. 157-210; Newton 1988, p. 171). Using Saussure's principle that a sign has distinctive meaning by virtue of its difference from other signs, Derrida built the poststructuralist argument that all gestures signify according to their present place in a web made of the existing universe of signs (Eagleton 1983, pp. 127-134). The locus of meaning, then, is not an immutable, ideal structure of language that acts as a "center" for signification--and thus knowledge and life. Instead, meaning inheres in the surface of an ever-changing web of signs, making all language acts essentially provisional and allusory. Each signification is seen as being constructed of fragments of prior significations, being meaningful by virtue of the traces that each fragment carries of previous uses (Derrida 1972). These already-used words and images are then reassembled, in an act and form that Derrida calls bricolage, and they come to mean in the way that they shimmer against each other and against their previous context. This "play" among the fragments is what is known as the freeplay of the signifiers. Since each fragment means by virtue of association with other fragments, meaning is said to be always deferred to another chain of signifiers. This constant deferral of meaning is known, in a play on Saussure, as the diffTrance (Derrida 1972; Eagleton 1983, pp. 127-135).

A primary interpretive strategy of poststructuralists has been to reveal the constructed nature of texts by unravelling the associations upon which they are built, a technique called deconstruction (Abrams 1977, Miller 1976). Indeed, this technique is so famous and controversial that poststructuralism is often called "deconstruction" or "deconstructionism." In particular, the deconstructive strategy often aims to subvert the binary oppositions presumed by structuralists, showing the text to be undecidable in binary terms, due to the freeplay of the signfiers (DeMan 1979, Eagleton 1983, pp. 132-134). As the text is unravelled, poststructuralists assert, one catches a glimpse of the absence of an immutable structure, or philosophical center, underlying the utterance. This momentary insight into the chasm underlying language is known as the mise en abyme (Abrams 1977, p. 560). The work of the critic toward the moment of the abyss has given poststructuralism a bleak metaphysical aspect (Abrams 1977; Gitlin 1989, pp. 106-107), and led to a reputation for the theory as, ironically and at once, both playful and nihilistic (Derrida 1972, pp. 243-246; Lentricchia, pp. 160-163).

For our purposes here, we must note that poststructuralism also differs from semiotics in another important way. While structuralism is a speech-based theory of language, or phonocentric, poststructuralism is a writing-based theory, or graphocentric. Everything in poststructuralism is a text, and there is nothing that exists oustide the text (Derrida 1972, Davis and Schliefer 1989). Among other things, this difference opens poststructuralism to the differences in how images, as a form of writing, are portrayed, as opposed to focusing on or assuming their referentiality, as has been the case with structuralism (for example, Barthes 1982). The effect of poststructuralism is specifically to divide the signifier from the signified, as well as to decenter the privileges of the word over the image (Eagleton 1983, p. 128; Morris 1989).



Given its preoccupation with fragments, allusion, playfulness, surfaces, and the work of bricolage, poststructuralism predictably has become nearly synonymous with postmodernism in cultural critical discourse (Gitlin 1989; McRobbie 1986; Morris 1989). Poststructuralism, seemingly the most suitable analytical tool for postmodern artifacts (though by no means the only tool), has become identified with them, much the same way New Criticism became identified with Modernist poetry and fiction (Davis and Schleifer 1989, p. 15). Consequently, it seems likely that poststructuralism would have much to offer our own scholars in their desire to analyze that prime mover of postmodernism, advertising.

In the remainder of this essay, I wish to suggest how advertising came to exhibit the distinguishing characteristics of postmodern artifacts and show the suitability of poststructuralist concepts to the explication of ads-as-text. We will look first at the historical basis and ground for pictorial allusion in advertisements, thus sketching out the symbolic web and the trajectories of the diffTrance. Then, practices of signification typical of advertising, the reuse of images and mimicry of styles, will be analyzed as overt acts of bricolage. Target audiences will be discussed as the coin of which one side is fragmentation and the other, multivocality. The development in television advertising of story-telling and character description as a progression of broken images will be examined. Finally, the changing relationship between image and word will be explored in order that the question of an emergent pictographic culture may be raised.


The history of advertising as a visual discourse, as opposed to its verbal history, must be traced from retail signboards to the popular printed poster to the magazine ad (Hornung and Johnson 1976, Presbrey 1929). Key to the momentum is the ability of printing technology to reproduce visual forms in an increasingly accurate and full-bodied way--with line, color, half-tones, and so on. Both the reproduction of pictures and the growing vocabulary of typefaces have been of central interest to advertisers throughout graphics history (Hornung and Johnson 1976). Advertisers, however, were precluded from running elaborate pictures in newspapers and, later, in magazines, for decades after pictures were routinely included in editorial (Hornung and Johnson 1976, Presbrey 1929). Once allowed to use fully the pictorial capability of a medium, advertisers frequently appropriated the styles of the contextual vehicle. For example, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, the most popular early-century magazine and the most aggressive in soliciting advertising, was mimicked in advertising layouts as early as 1905 ("Pro-phy-lact-ic Tootpaste" ad 1905) and continues today ("Durolast" ad 1989). As the "Golden Age of Illustration" progressed, more illustrative styles and layouts were both known and mimicked, not only in advertising but in other cultural forms as well. Furthermore, once the technology was sophisticated enough to reproduce high art forms in quantity, the practice of visually alluding to famous paintings and sculptures became common. Typical of this genre is the current ad for Minolta (Figure 2), which alludes to the works of Rene Magritte. The sense of this ad, like others of its type, is based on a sufficient reproduction of the original, graphically altered for the purposes of rhetoric. Thus, it signifies through partial allusions, recombined in fragments, that "shimmer" against each other in a new message. Such ads often result in a visual parody of high art, like the 1970 Levi's ad that simply showed Michelangelo's David dressed in a pair of "cut-offs" (Goodrum and Dalrymple 1990, p. 170).

In the 1930s, growth in two other cultural forms, comic strips and radio, is mirrored in advertising pictures. Throughout the magazines of the thirties are examples of comic characters or strip styles being adapted for commercial use. Advertisers, apparently trying to effect synergy between the new medium of radio and the more mainstream medium of popular print, also tended to announce their sponsored radio offerings in the corners of print ads, often signalled by an appropriate picture, like a drawing of an orchestra conductor ("Coca-Cola" ad 1936). In the 1936 ad for Campbell's Tomato Juice reproduced in Figure 3, we see a full-blown example of this kind of intertextual allusion: the visual convention of the comic strip is used to evoke the sponsored radio show by making a box-and-balloon recreation of the comic antics of Burns and Allen. Eventually, similar practices would be used to announce sponsored television shows, as well. The main visual in Campbell's Soup advertising of the 1950s is usually a photograph of Timmy and Lassie or Donna Reed's TV family, since both Lassie and The Donna Reed Show were sponsored by the soup-maker ("Campbell's Soup Print" 1900-1985).

Given this pictorial past, then, it is perhaps easier to see how the TV allusion in Figure 1 came to be. The headline does not refer exclusively to I Love Lucy, nor to the characters of Fred and Ethel Mertz, nor to Vivian Vance and William Frawley, though certainly the advertiser is banking on the viewer making those connections. The headline's allusion, however, is more general than that. It gestures toward all the domestic squabbles that typify the genre of television situation comedy. The headline is aided by a graphic screen over the photograph, a convention that we know signifies "television." Thus, both the textual referent and the manner of "writing" are important to the allusion. The graphic style is not empty mimicry, as is often claimed by critics of postmodernism, but a purposive, meaningful gesture.



Looking at the "flip side," if you will, we also find allusions to and parodies of advertising in other media forms. Saturday Night Live is but one in a long history of late-night TV shows that have used advertising parody as a staple comic gimmick. But new forms such as Nick at Nite, which reruns old TV shows but parodies them in the promos, have made such allusions even more complex. In Figure 4, Nick at Nite pretends to offer a ceramic sculpture of the graphic sign of a classic sitcom, My Three Sons. In so doing, it parodies "mail-away" ads like those of the Franklin Mint, ending with the send-up, "Not available anywhere, even from us." This ad's picture must be understood, therefore, as both the intertextual referent and its parody. We can see, then, the web of signs being altered by this use, refabricated in the current play of signification. Our sketch of the pictorial web is now more or less complete: we have seen the interaction of the advertising visual with popular magazines, high art, radio, comic strips, television, and, ultimately, with itself. This formal consciousness of self is, in many opinions, the essence of postmodernism.


The ability to accurately reproduce and mimic other images also led quickly to the reuse and repetition of the advertiser's own signs. For example, in 1897, Colgate paid Maxfield Parrish twenty-five dollars for the painting of a Dutch boy for the purposes of advertising Cashmere Bouquet. Once in possession of the painting, Colgate had other artists copy it, adapt it, and reconfigure it in various forms, large and small, in line art and halftones, as a female and a male, in multiple repetitions and for many other products. Consequently, it became one of the best known advertising signs of the turn of the century, constantly reappearing in new incarnations (Ludwig 1975, pp. 105-106). The Dutch boy image itself--like thousands of others that would follow--became meaningful specifically through the mechanism of graphic reconstitution and repetition and referring always to its string of previous appearances.

Using unknown artists to mimic the visual styles of well-known popular illustrators in the production of new images became a common strategy among advertisers. By borrowing certain visual styles, the advertiser alluded to the associations that the known artist had come to have (Scott 1991). Thus, the style of rendering itself came to signify. Beginning in the late 1920s, advertising art directors also appropriated the styles of high art, as they were articulated both pictorially and typographically, often to lend an air of authority or prestige to their campaigns (Marchand 1985, pp. 140-148). This taught the conventions of Cubism, Vorticism, Impressionism, Bauhaus, and other styles to an audience that might never have otherwise been exposed to them (Marchand 1985). Over time, the social and historical associations of these styles could be invoked through their reproduction to create an ethos or a sense of period. Ultimately, the profusion of popular and high styles that could appear and be meaningful within the context of a single magazine issue comes to constitute a kind of visual heteroglossia (Bakhtin 1981); that is, cultural multivocality stated in visual terms.

As it appears in a magazine, the Jello Jigglers ad in Figure 5 has a noticeable all-over yellow cast, similar to that caused by the color print-production technologies of the 1950s. The headline is set in a typeface popular in the 1950s and the graphic recipe cut-out is much more typical of that decade than the present one. The consumption texts, both the little boy's pajamas and the recipe itself, are also evocative of the baby boom years. For all appearances, this is an ad from the 1950s; however, it actually ran for the first time in 1989. This ad is thus a particularly good example of the postmodern genre of pastiche. The pastiche is a form of historical parody that Jameson criticizes as one text aping another without the humor or affection characteristic of "real" parody (Jameson 1983). Yet if we think of all the signs here as fragments coming together to signify through their associations with prior symbolic gestures, as well as their appropriateness for the task at hand, then this pastiche is merely using visual forms to communicate in much the same way words do under the poststructuralist model. Notice also that the graphical manner of signifying in this ad is as important as what objects are pictured--perhaps more so. Thus, the structuralist principle and practice of brushing aside the surface manifestations of pictures in search of the underlying structures or the apparent referents would obscure much of what is being said here (see Leymore 1987, Barthes 1982). And, surely, though the literary critics may not view these pajamas as an affectionate allusion, most of the rest of us would. Using these affectionate allusions, the Jigglers ad visually evokes a fondly-remembered historical period as a means of building the ground for mutual confidence that is necessary to persuasion.


In ways similar to the work of the Jello ad, various visual strategies may be used to appeal to and create alliances with certain groups of readers, or target audiences. Targeting audiences obviously is further achievable through the channels and vehicles of media. For example, in the current Toyota ads, different pictures rendered in the same style target the typical readers of various magazines: a youthful, male sportscar driver for Rolling Stone; a young woman for Mademoiselle; a family around the fireplace for Metropolitan Home. The pictures and the placements carve out various audiences, while the consistent visual style creates formal campaign unity.

As a consequence of this use of pictures and styles to carve out smaller groups from the larger society, however, consumer texts are often charged with "fragmenting" culture (Gitlin 1989). This is a specious argument, in my mind, which is best refuted by considering the textual alternative. Opposing this kind of fragmentation in the media can only be done by homogenizing both the approaches to society and the channels for reaching it, as well as the depictions of its members, thus denying its diversity and multivocality on all levels. Recently, Dick Hebdige, has argued in support of the multivocality--and implicit democratic impulse--behind such postmodern developments, and, taking his cue from Raymond Williams, suggests the worthiness of "demassifying the masses," even unto the point of forging alliances between Marxism and market research (1989, especially p. 52-53).



A further source of criticism falling under the general heading of "fragmentation," is the convention of visual collage or montage, particularly in television. This convention was begun by advertisers in the early 1960s as a means of telling stories and evoking characters in the short time frame allowed for television commercials (Haber 1989, Levine 1984). Since there wasn't time in a TV spot for the careful plotting and revelation of character allowed by traditional dramatic forms, advertising producers experimented with stringing together multiple visual moments--an action, a facial expression--that would, together, constitute a narrative, describe a character, or evoke a mood. Television programming itself has generally continued to use a much more traditional form of dramatic exposition--essentially the "naturalistic theater" form of storytelling--while the commercials have become increasingly composed of vignettes and montages, especially as lengths shortened. Even so, such "fragmentation" is constrained by the achieved unity of story or character comprehension, as intended by the advertising author (Haber 1989, Levine 1984). In other words, the composition of the fragments is not open-ended, but constrained by normative strategies of seeing, story-telling, and inference. It is often aruged, on the other hand, that the poststructuralist model avoids the issue of interpretive norms that circumscribe the play of associations and therefore make communication possible (Abrams 1977).


The community of criticism, being heavily invested in the culture of the word, has traditionally viewed pictures as atavistic icons, powerful implements that bypass our rational faculties to drag us back to more primitive times, while the word is the very heartbeat of civilization (Mitchell 1986, p. 3 and 7-46). There is thus a thoroughgoing antivisual bias in cultural criticism that nearly always lies just beneath the discourse on popular culture. The tendency toward verbal imperialism in structuralist theory plays well to this disposition; the impetus of poststructuralism is directly against it (Saussure 1959, p. 16; Mitchell 1986, pp. 53-74; Morris 1989). Further, the gestures of postmodernism, particularly in advertising, have tended to change and subvert assumptions about the relationship between word and image.

In Western culture, verbal literacy has long been equated with power. Access to the skill to read has been the goal of the oppressed, as in the heroic efforts of the American black community to attain literacy in the 19th century, as well as the means to keep the oppressed in their place, as in reading requirements for voting rights. It is important to understand that the rise of the mass media substantially changed the role of reading in several ways. First, popular fiction, as published in mass magazines or cheap books, made reading a pastime of the masses for the first time (Darnton 1987). Secondly, the growing hegemony of the visual and aural cultures of television and radio, have threatened the preeminence of the written word. Finally, the ever-widening visual vocabulary caused by the practices I have described here has changed the interaction between pictures and words in popular texts. Whereas pictures in a written work have traditionally illustrated or elaborated the text in a subordinated fashion, the postmodern work is more likely to show a meaningful interaction--a free-playing--between image and word. And, the use of communicative styles of typeface, as well as purposive layouts, have come to mediate the word in a profoundly visual way.

For example, in Figure 6, the meaning of the ad must be inferred by holding the picture and the headline in semantic tension. The headline, which uses a typical diplomatic phrase that normally occurs in situations of conciliation, "strengthens our ties," is contradicted by the visual, a caricature of Ayatollah Khomeini dangling Uncle Sam by a string. Together, they form an ironic trope. Neither picture nor headline alone can produce the trope, a proposition you can easily test by covering one while "reading" the other. Both must be present to constitute the irony. So, the meaning occurs precisely in the space of interaction not only between two signs, but between two sign systems (see also Foucault 1983).

The inablity of structuralism to account for meanings that must be inferred in a state of ambiguity has been one of its weakest points, and a place frequently attacked (Davis and Schliefer 1989; Eagleton 1983). In poststructuralist theory, this argument is further articulated in the demonstration of the undecidability that occurs in a text between binary categories of structurality (see De Man 1979). For a demonstration of this phenomenon occuring on both a visual and verbal level, look at the J & B advertisement in Figure 7. Here we see a messy representation of the alphabet that looks like it was brushed hastily in black paint. The letters "B" and "J," however, have been set in a neat, Garamond typeface, in red. They contrast succinctly, but not overly, with the surrounding alphabet and they are not in the order of the product's name. The legend is simply, "J & B neat," simultaneously a play on "J & B straight up"and on the contiguous representation of the messy alphabet with the neat letters "B" and "J." The meaning here is created by both a metaphor (the pun on "straight up") and a metonymy (the letters)--and is thus undecidable. It is also undecidable whether the joke inheres in the letters themselves or the visual representation of the letters. Therefore, neither a paradigmatic (metaphorical, rhetorical) model nor a syntagmatic (grammatical, metonymic) model is sufficient by itself to decide the meaning. It is found, instead, in the shimmering surface between each binary opposition.



M. H. Abrams has explicated the Derridean notion of language as a graphocentric system in which we constitute meaning from black marks and spaces that have been estranged from our usual prior model of speech acts. These marks and spaces, however, are signs we have seen before, not random markings, and as they are reused to make new meanings, they carry with them the disembodied traces from previous uses. Thus, any act of interpretation or attempt at definition ties one to the never-ending, ultimately meaningless chain of deferral. By breaking down each text into an endless chain of associations, synonyms, and etymological roots, purposely working across those places where the possibilites are generally narrowed and guided by norms, the poststructuralists interpret their texts into oblivion. This action is intentional; its purpose is to lead to the aforementioned moment of the abyss. The deconstructionists claim that all linguistic configurations are ultimately undecidable, or, as Abrams puts it "more bluntly: 'All reading is misreading'" (1977, p. 560). Thus, though the Derridean concept of language is grounded in shared knowledge and past experience as the source (indeed, the only source) of meaning, the poststructuralist activity of deconstruction finally denies the way that social experience and norms constrain the limitless possibilities presented by the text. In this way, the Derridean concept has led to a model of language that does not communicate. Poststructuralist critics, by exploding shared practices, knowledge, and historical events, ultimately reject the possibility for either communication or action in a way that many feel is cynical (Abrams 1977, Gitlin 1989, Hirsch 1976).

Figure 8 provides a surprising play on this cynical model of language. This is a recent advertisement for Cointreau that appears only in hip, upscale, postmodern magazines like Spy, Details, and Vanity Fair. The visual is a very artificially dressed and made-up woman. Tinted purple, and superimposed slightly to the left of her image, is the partial face of a man, who seems to be the speaker. (Perhaps he is the human equivalent of a "fragment.") The backdrop for the copy block is even marbleized, like the world of these readers, hopelessly hip.

But it is the copy that is remarkable in its strangeness. It is an odd French-based patois, at once Gallic and pidgin. A second headline and copy block appears at the bottom of the ad, but it is cut off, as if the run of the press was crooked. (Freeplay in the machine?) It is as if to indicate that the next signification, the next diffTrance, is already in the process of being formulated. When we are first confronted with it, this language has all the strange and threatening appearance of the innovative text described by Poststructuralist J. Hillis Miller: "...the terror or dread readers may experience when they confront a text which seems irreducibly strange, inexplicable, perhaps even mad" (1989, p. 567). The traces of French and pidgin are even a bit offensive, implying a cruel, long-ago, but still destructive colonialism. We may, perhaps, despair of understanding this ad, considering ourselves not qualified to aspire to the hipness demanded by postmodern society. Maybe we turn the page.

But maybe we try reading this out loud. The language, it turns out, is completely phonetic. A minimal knowledge of French makes the sense of these lines come rolling out when they are spoken. The primacy of speech reasserts itself in a wonderful little joke; the closed graphic presentation is opened by a phonetic key. In a playful gesture between writing and speech, the word reasserts its communicative power.


I have tried to draw here the outlines of a visual history in which images have come to communicate in abstract, allusory, and stylistic ways that challenge verbal language. We have seen several instances in which the visual presentation of words impinged heavily on meaning, conflating the traditional separation between image and text. We, as collective viewers and readers, have moved and continue to move beyond a past in which pictures largely confined themselves to referentiality or ritual, and toward a culture in which pictures demonstrate, exhort, explain, allude, and, above all, play. What we are making here, it seems to me, is a full-blown pictography that can both speak to and represent a wide, diverse audience. Unfortunately, it appears that a mistrust of consumer society, a vested interest in the culture of the word, a thinly-veiled contempt for the "masses," and an unwillingness to support art as communication, have led cultural critics to greet this development in human ability as the death knell of civilization.

The role of advertising in this development appears to be direct. Many developments discussed here grew out of the desire to address people in an attractive and economical way, taking advantage of technology, channels of discourse, and cultural history, as opportunities presented themselves. It seems logical to me that in harnessing pictures to the service of rhetoric, a subtle and complex language of the visual would be born.

The appropriateness of poststructuralism for research on consumer culture lies its awareness of the dynamic nature of signifiers and their inherent intertextuality. It also seems possible that poststructuralism offers much in its ability to deal with pictures and graphics without subordinating them to referentiality or to the "structure" of another sign system. The overall concern with the constitutive effect of surfaces is also peculiarly relevant to advertising. Advertising makes much of its meaning by borrowing from other texts and altering them on the surface to make new meaning. Ultimately,


however, our own disciplinary concerns with communication and persuasion would find poststructuralism lacking. For concepts of the norms that guide practice, we would need to return to theories of grammar, such as structuralism. To evaluate persuasion and social effects, we must continue to develop the tools of history, ethnography, and rhetoric. In other words, to truly accommodate the multivocality of consumer culture, we must be multivocal ourselves, recognizing language theories and methods as strategic efforts to get at particular kinds of knowledge, just as in science. The current postmodern climate promises to provide a welcoming environment for this kind of effort.


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Linda M. Scott, University of Colorado, Boulder


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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