Living With Contradictions: Representational Politics and Politics of Representation in Advertising

ABSTRACT - Drawing from postmodern art theory this study explores the notions of representational politics and politics of representation in advertising. The paper begins with a review of key concepts of postmodern aesthetics and practices, and discusses various postmodern representational strategies identified as a result of a critical visual analysis of a controversial advertising campaign of the Italian clothing company Diesel. The paper concludes with a discussion of the problems and possibilities inherent in postmodern representation in advertising, the importance of critical literacy in the reception of such advertisements, and future research venues.


Ozlem Sandikci (2001) ,"Living With Contradictions: Representational Politics and Politics of Representation in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 309-314.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 309-314


Ozlem Sandikci, Bilkent University


Drawing from postmodern art theory this study explores the notions of representational politics and politics of representation in advertising. The paper begins with a review of key concepts of postmodern aesthetics and practices, and discusses various postmodern representational strategies identified as a result of a critical visual analysis of a controversial advertising campaign of the Italian clothing company Diesel. The paper concludes with a discussion of the problems and possibilities inherent in postmodern representation in advertising, the importance of critical literacy in the reception of such advertisements, and future research venues.

"In contemporary capitalism, in the society of simulacrum, the market is 'behind’ nothing, it is in everything."

Burgin (1986, p.174)

In recent years art theoretical approaches were introduced into the analysis of consumer clture (Ger 1999; Stern 1998; Witkowski 1999) and advertising (Kates and Shaw-Garlock 1999; Schroeder 1999; Scott 1992, 1994). In the consumption area, this stream of research is based on the premise that art expresses historical and cultural context and, hence, reveals social dynamics, including daily consumption practices. In advertising research, it is suggested that art theory can advance our understanding of how meaning is produced, constructed and understood within a given time period and social context. In one such application, for instance, Schroeder (1999) outlines various insights that can be gained from an analysis of the genre of Dutch art, which have markedly influenced the development of photography, and exert a strong influence on contemporary pictorial advertising conventions. Drawing from postmodern art theory, this exploratory study aims to contribute to this emerging field of inquiry by discussing various issues pertaining to the nature of representation in advertising through a case study of a highly controversial ad campaign of the Italian clothing company Diesel.

The paper begins with a review of the key concepts of postmodern aesthetics and, especially, its expression in photography, and argues that the critical discourses and practices that first arose as the symptoms of postmodernism in art are appropriated and reassumed for the use of capital itself. A Diesel advertising campaign is used as an illustration of this argument, and various postmodern representational strategies that are identified through a critical visual analysis are outlined. The paper concludes with a discussion of the problems and the possibilities inherent in postmodern representation in advertising, the role that critical literacy plays in reception of such advertising messages, and suggestions for future research.


While there is no single definition of postmodernism and the term is used to describe multiple phenomena including a philosophy, an aesthetic sensibility, and a cultural condition, there is an overall consensus that the postmodern condition is related to dramatic changes in the material and cultural dimensions of life, resulting from immense advances in production, distribution, communication, and computer technologies (Baudrillard 1983; Harvey 1989; Jameson 1991; Lyotard 1984). In the cultural domain, discussions on postmodernism are centered around the issues of meaning and representation. Postmodern culture is characterized as a landscape saturated with hyperreal images and free-floating signifiers that proclaim the end of fixed, transcendental meanings and truth claims. The aesthetic sensibility emerging out of the postmodern condition is often viewed as related to the market place, and it is argued that postmodernism is the artform of consumer culture, the expression of a fragmented and aestheticized experience of everyday life in the late capitalist societies (Hassan 1985; Jameson 1991; Gitlin 1989; Lash 1990; McRobbie 1989).

As an aesthetic category postmodernism can be read as a breaking away from modernism. The modernist aesthetic can be interpreted in two ways. The formalist account (e.g., Greenberg [1939] 1986) conceptualizes modernism as the pursuit of 'purity’. That is, different art forms such as painting, sculpture, architecture exist as distinct mediums, and each has a specific code governing them. The critical account of modernism, including Cubism, Dada, the readymade and conceptual art, and Futurism, on the other hand, can be understood as an avant-garde critique of the former aesthetic conventions (Frisby 1986; Lash 1990). Whether formalist or critical, the dominant logic of modernism was to challenge the realist notion of representation as a transparent reflection of reality. For modernist, reality was no longer immediately apparent from surface appearances, and their goal was to capture, through formal experimentation, the essential truths hidden from immediate percption.

In contrast to modernist aspiration to reveal the essential truths of the world through appropriate aesthetic medium, postmodernism rejects the existence of such essential truths. In postmodernism, reality, whether it is represented transparently or abstractly, is viewed as a fiction, produced and sustained only by its cultural representation (Foster 1985). As Owens explains while "modernist theory presupposes that mimesis can be bracketed or suspended, and that the art object itself can be substituted (metaphorically) for its referent ... Postmodernism neither brackets nor suspends the referent but works to problematize the activity of reference" (1980, p.235). Furthermore, postmodern art, in contrast to modern art’s search for purity, exists between and across forms, or in neglected forms like photography and video (Foster 1982). The postmodern artists manipulate old signs in a new logic: they are "not in search of sources or origins, but of structures of signification" (Crimp 1979, p.87). The transgression of aesthetic limits and the opening up of cultural codes through strategies such as appropriation, fragmentation, hybridization, repetition, pastiche, framing, and staging distinguish postmodern art from its modernist predecessors (Foster 1982; Gitlin 1989; Jameson 1991; Owens 1980).

Photography, which as a visual art form offers many insights into the understanding of advertising, has an important place within postmodernist art. The works of postmodern photographers highlight many of the issues related to the postmodern crisis of representation, and exhibit the divergences from the formal categories of modernist aesthetic. However, originally, photography came into existence as a major carrier and shaper of modernism (Nichols 1981). Given its technical ability to reproduce from actuality with more accuracy than any other form of representation, photography was seen as revelatory, bringing the hidden truths into the light of day. Thus, photography, itself a part of scientific and technological development, seemed to fit within the spirit of modernity, as well as offering realist possibilities for representing aspects of modern life (Wells 1997). The changes in cultural sphere accompanied by new image production and manipulation techniques including digital technology, brought into question the traditional conception of photography as a document of reality. The central emphasis in postmodernism on construction, the forging, staging and fabrication of images found a strong voice in postmodern photography which refused to take the world at face value and instead invite the spectator to actively read the construction and implicate questions of subjectivity and identity. The notion of construction entailed, first, the idea that art can intervene politically, and, second, the notion of deconstruction.

Indeed, initially, postmodern photography, such as the works of Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Sharon Levine and Barbara Kruger, was identified with a specially critical stance which was characterized by its dismantling of reified, idealist conceptions of modernist aesthetics, including subjectivity and aura, and its engagement with the simulacral (Crimp1979; Krauss 1985). These artists pillaged the mass media and advertising for its subject which is then "repositioned in ways that sought to denaturalize the conventions that encode the ideological and, in doing so, to make those very ideological contents available to scrutiny and contestation" (Solomon-Gadeau 1991, p.134). For instance, Richard Prince’s rephotographs of the 'Marlbora Man’ advertisements that appeared in the early years of the Reagan administration were a critique of the new conservative agenda. By recropping, rephotographing, and recontextualizing the image of the Marlboro men, Prince made visible the link between a mythical notion of masculinity and the prevailing political rhetoric.

Quickly, however, this critical agenda of postmodern photography disappeared, resulting in the domestication of the critical potential of photographic appropriation (Crimp 1983). According to Solomon-Gadeau "the assimilation of postmodernist strategies back into mass culture hat had in part engendered them" had, on the one hand, rendered postmodern photography comprehensible and expanded its market, but, on the other hand, signalled "its near-total assimilation into those very discourses (advertising, fashion, media) it professed to critique" (1991, p.139). That is, although appropriation developed as a descriptive hallmark of postmodern culture, the critical function that it has been expected to perform had become increasingly difficult to maintain and justify once it was appropriated for commercial purposes. The disappearance of a critical motivation has resulted not only in a collapse of any solid distinction between art and advertising, but also the use of postmodern representational strategies in advertising has led to a set of ontological and ideological paradoxes that challenge the conventions of advertising as a commercial genre.


During 1990s a handful of companies have abandoned conventional advertising formats and executed ad campaigns that involved 'shocking’ imagery and explicit political and social messages. Pioneering this move was the Italian clothing company, Benetton, whose advertisements included images of AIDS, environmental disasters, wars, and racism. This highly controversial representational strategy, which is referred to as the 'Benetton-Toscani’ (Falk 1997) effect in contemporary advertising, was soon adopted by a number of companies, including Calvin Klein, Diesel and Death. In 1991 Diesel, another Italian clothing company, started its 'Successful Living’ campaign, which, since then, mocked everything from American evangelism to Japanese consumerism, from sexual and racial stereotypes to materialism. The advertisements used as exemplars in this study is part of the fall/winter 1997 campaign, and entails six different images, all shot in photojournalistic style in Pyongyang, North Korea by the photographer Peter Gehrke (see Exhibit for one execution). The ads feature various fictional 'Brand O’ products and are intended to highlight, according to the company, "the insensitivity of large companies marketing products in poor countries without considering their audience" (Krol 1997, p.11). One advertisement, for example, promotes the 'Brand O Diet’, and features waiflike Western models while the copy reads, "there is no limit how thin you can get". Another one shows a run-down neighbourhood where a poster hanged on the wall of a house promotes 'Brand O Tours’ through a picture of a happy-looking Western couple and a copy that reads "escape now!". Set in a country where a million people are dying of starvation and poverty, the ironic attitude sets the tone of the entire campaign.


Advertising, given its commercial goal of creating a positive image for the brand, is, traditionally, guided by a representational strategy of showing the pleasurable, happy and idealistic experiences associated with the product. Advertising language is characterized by the hedonistic aspects of the good life and festive situations, and by the promises of prestige, self-esteem, luxury, good times, and work-free existence. As such, advertising is viewed as belonging to the realm of fantasy, fiction and 'unreality’.

The emphasis on fantasy is even more pronounced in the genre of fashion advertising, which is particularly concerned by showing what is dramatic, glamorous and exotic. In creating worlds of illusion, fashion photography has been influenced by other genres of photographic practice, and had close links with art photography. Early portrait photography was adopted by fashion photographers (Ewing 1991), and photographers such as Andre Barre, Irving Penn and Erwin Blumefield have been influenced by Surrealism. Photojournalism and documentary photography in the 1930s also affected fashion imagery. Given this historical connection between fashion photography and art photography, it is not surprising to expect that postmodern aesthetics and photographic practices will be adapted by fashion photographers and used in fashion advertising. What is interesting, however, in this interaction is the resultant nature of the ad imagery, engendered largely by the postmodern problematic of representation, which is at once about politics, ethics and pedagogy.

A close reading of the Diesel advertisements from the perspective of postmodern theory reveals various representational strategies operating in these advertisements and help us better understand how they might function within the sign economy. Such an analysis, as outlined below, suggests that these advertisements cannot be understood only as functional tools within the utilitarian logic of classical economy. Rather, they operate as a representational system that introduces a radical challenge to the landscape of consumption, which is yet to be fully explored. As any representational system, they are embedded in power relations and are an integral part of social processes of differentiation, exclusion and incorporation.


One of the first things that one observes after viewing the Diesel ads is their hybrid structure that combines the conventions of advertising and the genre of documentary photography. Hybridization, the picking-and-mixing of styles and genres, is an important feature of postmodern art which eclectically combines previously distinct conventions and art mediums. The appropriation and the recycling of texts, images and styles, and the forms of past and present aim to question and deconstruct the very representations they quote, in order to decenter the subject of such representations, and render cultural meanings ambiguous and indeterminate (Foster 1985).


Diesel advertisements use a photojournalistic approach that addresses consumers through stylized representation whose structuring principle is shock. In contrast to the glamour images that characterize much of fashion advertising, they place images of human suffering, poverty and misery. The disjuncture between subject matter and the motivation of the ad is a shock delivered to the advertising genre itself. The ads do not only blur the boundaries of advertising and documentary photography but also problematize the cultural codes that distinguish different forms. Within their discursive context, the distinction between 'documentary’ and advertising disappears, while social problems become subordinated to the logic of commodity culture. What determines the effect of these images is a function of what has been appropriated and how it has been re-presented. The dramatic, almost violent quality of the images of Koreans, their poverty and suffering creates an element of nightmare that is attached to the erotic and ironic glitter of the commodity and the models that personify its glamour. While the documentary-like nature of the imagery appears to register the poverty and misery of the people featured in the ads and call attention to their problems, their ironic juxtaposition to the ads-within-ads negate the possibility of emergence of any 'true’ social consciousness.

It is not only the blurring of the distinctions between the conventions of advertising and documentary photography that distinguishes these advertisements but the implosion of politics and commerce. Baudrillard (1983) uses the term 'implosion’ to refer to erosion of boundaries and distinctions within culture that were previously differentiated by modernity, and argues that under the regime of simulation in contemporary Western societies the social and the cultural, and the public and private become indistinguishable. The sheer bulk of representations in film, television and advertising, not only threaten the integrity of private world, they actually abolish the distinction between the privte and public spheres: the public possesses the private, the private encompasses the public. In contrast to the conventional indifference of advertising discourse to social and political problems, Diesel ads invades the personal world of consumption through the incorporation of political and social messages. However, the resultant is a blend of both the conflictual and the comic view of the third world subsumed under the logic of commodity consumption. While there is no necessary connection between the two texts (the First World and the Third World), what emerges is a perplexing hybrid that simultaneously acts as a tool to foster capitalist and consumerist ideology and a critique of the very same ideology.


In two influential articles, art theorist Craig Owens makes a strong case for the close affiliation between postmodern artistic practices and allegory which, as a genre, allows proliferation of irony and parody through eclecticism (1980). When one narrative is read as covertly representing one or more other meanings, then it is described as being allegorical. Allegory was an important convention in reading and writing until the late eighteenth century, when it was increasingly diminished as outmoded. Owens argues that postmodern art exhibits a strong allegorical impulse because allegory is inherently appropriative, often chooses fragmentary and incomplete materials, and allows texts to be read through each other. Allegory does not restore an original meaning, it supplants an antecedent one, hence it is "consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete" and "only affirms its own arbitrariness and contingency (Owens 1980, p.70). Using works of artists such as Laurie Anderson, Robert Rauschenberg, Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo as exemplars, Owens points out to the existence of mutually incompatible and even antithetical meanings, and ambiguity in these texts that dissolve them into complicity, ambivalence, and deconstruction.

It is such an ambivalence that sets the tone of the Diesel advertisements and highlights the problem of representation’s relation to the real. On the one hand, by appealing to photo-documentary style the ads stimulate a notion of 'realism’; on the other hand, the logic of commodity consumption and the stylized contrast between 'third world’ misery and 'first world’ joy constructs a spectacle that lands the ads into hyperreality. Suspended in a still picture, poverty, hunger and despair are transformed into a fascination of consumption. The images and the words are all double-coded. "Escape now!" for example one ad-within-ad reads, juxtaposing a happy and smiling Western couple under palm trees to malnourished, poor Koreans standing in despair in a torn-down neighborhood. Should one escape from the suffering and poverty of underdeveloped nations, from communism or from the greed and materialism of capitalism? Multiple, incompatible and even antithetical meanings can be activated in such a way that it is impossible to choose among them, and this works, more than anything, to problematize the act of reading. And, it is precisely this ambivalence that allows shock and violence to be transformed into an aesthetic spectacle.


In discussions of postmodernism, fragmentation refers both to the end of grand narratives and universal truths (Lyotard 1984), and to the fragmentation of meaning and subjectivity due to constant and ever increasing exposure to a whirlpool of images (Baudrillard 1983; Jameson 1991). In postmodern works, fragmentation is used to emphasize that different realities coexist, collide, and interpenetrate (McHale 1987), and to call into question all the assumptions of fixed systems of representation (Foster 1982). Owens (1980) connects postmodernist fragmentation to poststructuralist decentering of language. Postmodern art, he suggests, not only stresses "ephemeral space and fragmentary images" but, more importantly, has an impulse "to upset stylisic norms, to redefine conceptual categories, and to challenge the modernist idea of symbolic totality" (Owens 1980, p.66). The sense of narrative in postmodern works is one of its simultaneous presence and absence, in which continuity exist only in the 'trace’ of the fragment, as it moves from production to consumption.

Diesel ads simultaneously offer and defer a promise of meaning. They appear strangely incomplete, ironic and shocking fragments that both solicit and frustrate our desire to decipher. If by reading we mean extracting from a text a monolithic message, all attempts to decipher these ads fail. The absence of product related claims, the inclusion of socially and politically charged images, the mixing of the codes of different genres contradict with the expectations of an audience and challenge their interpretive assumptions about reading ads. The ambiguous, unconventional, and shocking nature of the ads encourages a polarization of opinions and multiplicity of readings, and poses many challenging questions: What does the framing of third world misery as a pictorial spectacle aim to achieve? What alternative visions are suggested by these images? What meanings do these ads communicate about the Diesel brand? Not providing easy answers to these questions, they construct a pedagogical site that operates at the intersection of morality, identity and consumption.


Culture is increasingly constituted by commerce, and the penetration of commodity culture into every facet of daily life has become the major axis of relations of exchange through which corporations actively produce new, increasingly effective forms of address and new sign values. Diesel, along with companies such as Benetton and Calvin Klein engages in a representational strategy that challenges both the conventions of advertising and the relation between consumption, identity and politics. What legitimizes advertising is its commercial logic embodied in its production and reception. Employment of a postmodern sensibility, as exemplified in these advertisements, points at a transformation in the nature of advertising: a new kind of advertising which is sceptical about the legitimizing discourse of advertising. We have, in other words, a form of advertising whose representational means embody a scepticism as to the commercial logic of advertising through incorporation of images and themes that are directly antithetical to advertising. The effects and possibilities of such a transformation, however, are highly debatable. It seems that any advertising set forth with internal critical intent is bound to be assimilated into its operational logicBselling commoditiesBand redistributed in the form of a style.

In his analysis of Benetton advertisements, Giroux argues that use of shocking and violent images of social and political events in advertising attempts to "redefine the link between commerce and politics by emphasizing both the politics of representation and the representation of politics" (1994, p.5). Clearly, these advertisements appropriate politics and, in this process, aim to position the brands they are promoting as socially and politically conscious. By employing highly shocking and capturing images, Diesel advertisements can achieve broader public recognition of the problems faced in North Korea and add a moral dimension to advertising by turning it into a platform to engage with problems that are traditionally excluded from the sphere of commerce. However, in this process politics becomes highly aestheticized and spectacularized, thus, being stripped away from its socio-cultural context. The ironic offering of commodity consumption, and capitalism at large, as a solution to the problems of poverty and hunger negates the ads’ critical potential. As politics is defined largely through the consumption of images and products, social consciousness appears to be only about consumption, but nt necessarily changing oppressive and unequal conditions of life and relations of power.

Implosion of politics and commerce also constructs such advertisements as a pedagogical site, in which knowledge is produced, values are articulated, identities are shaped and communities are formed. Because advertising is not conventionally associated with politics, such advertisements powerfully challenge our understanding of "who speaks under what conditions and under what authority" (Giroux 1991, p.4). Indeed, a common response to shock advertising [Consider for example Benetton's recent 'Death Row' campaign and the criticism it received especially from those whose relatives were killed and those who are pro-death penalty.] both at public and academic level, is the accusation that these companies are commercializing and trivializing political issues to promote sales of their brands and gain free publicity. From such a perspective, we can easily condemn these advertisements and distrust the sincerity of companies engaging in such advertising. Or alternatively without becoming overtly optimistic, we, as marketing scholars, can start exploring the ramifications of a postmodern sensibility in advertising, and the possibility of a new 'performative’ function of advertising, one that reconciles capitalist aims and critical consciousness, however perplexing it may appear. It is true that spectacles do not invite situating information into a context, but rather create their own meaning systems and own versions of the social. However, these meaning systems may or may not exist in harmony with market ideologies, and by transforming advertising to a language of conflict instead of consensus and inciting debate and dialogue about social and political issues, such advertising may create almost a Habermasian public sphere (1989). Within such an expanded field of advertising, questions pertaining to the functioning and reading of such advertisements require a critical research agenda that is attentive to the dynamics of production and reception as well as to the politics of identity and consumption.

Representation is always contextual and the meanings produced are inseparable from the discursive and institutional structures that contain them as well as the interpretive strategies and options available to the audiences. Consumers produce rather than merely receive meanings, even though the range of reading practices are influenced and shaped by various social, economic and cultural forms of capital (Holt 1996). The advertisements by Diesel, Benetton and the like generate a polarization of opinions and employment of various types of cultural literacy and subcultural skills. Thus, empirical research is needed to find out how these advertisements are read by different groups of consumers, what brand images are formed and what consumption behaviors are motivated. Given that a uniform global culture is said to be formed especially within the young populace, cross-cultural studies are also needed to explore the nature of reception of such advertisements among countries who are at different stages of consumption culture.

From a social policy perspective, such advertisements highlight the importance of critical media and advertising literacy. The notion of critical media literacy points to the fact that representations are instrumental not only in producing meanings but also in constructing subjectivities (Giroux and McLaren 1991; McLaren 1988; McLaren and Hammer 1996). Critical media literacy emphasizes the spatial and temporal features of reception, the relations of power and the distribution of resources among recipients, the social institutions within which individuals appropriate mediated knowledges, the systematic asymmetries and differentials that characterize the contexts of reception, and see them as situated practices (Thompson 1990). Accordingly, future studies on critical advertising literacy need to explore how mediated messages are rejected or incorporated by individuals as well as how the appropriation of mediated messages shapes identities and creates virtual communities of consumers in the sense of 'neo-tribes’ as suggested by Maffesoli (1996).

Representations are always produced within cultural limits and theoretical borders, and, hence, ae implicated in particular economies of truth, value, power, and politics. Representations accompany, adapt to, and influence the nature of changes and trends in the capitalist economy. As Burgin argues "in contemporary capitalism, in the society of simulacrum, the market is 'behind’ nothing, it in everything. It is thus that in a society where the commodification of art has progressed apace with the aestheticization of the commodity, there has evolved a universal rhetoric of the aesthetic in which commerce and inspiration, profit and poetry, may rapturously entwine" (1986, p.174). The consumer is never the consumer of just a commodity but equally of the commodity’s text and ideology. As such, perhaps the highest challenge these advertisements pose is to consumer behavior researchers: how are we to engage with the representational politics in advertising and promote a critical research practice which is not only attentive to representational ideologies, institutional forms and social relationships, but also self-conscious about its own organizing principles, structuring codes and ethical/political standing?


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Ozlem Sandikci, Bilkent University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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