Sunday, November 05, 2006

John Berger's Ways of Seeing: The Language of Advertising

During week 3 of our Theory module's session we watched John Berger's ‘Ways of Seeing, Episode 4: The Language of Advertising’.

Although this episode is filmed and set in the 1970s, last week, over thirty years on, it was still very inspiring and pretty innovative to the novice, but nonetheless I thought it was very educational and thought-stimulating. Hence, our assignment for week 4 is to comment on the video with regards to the following aspects of semiotic analysis:

· The distinction between signifier and signified of the sign
· The transfers of signifieds between signs
· The codes that structure this transfer of signifiers
· The wider structures of meaning which are the ideologies or mythologies
· The ways of seeing that can challenge the signs, codes and ideologies and mythologies
· The social conditions and means of mechanical reproduction that are articulated through the images themselves

Let's start off my analysis with firstly acquainting ourselves with this video episode that caused so much controversy when it was first released over thirty years ago. Part of a four episode series, this episode looks at the phenomenon of publicity with a comparison to oil paintings.

Everyday we are subjected to messages, either mobile on the sides of buses or fixed on walls of tall buildings, nonetheless each of these messages call out to one thing: the promise of another way of life. But then Berger goes on to further stimulate our brain buds by questioning 'where is this other way of life?', and indeed where is it?

Berger then goes on to say that publicity emulates works of art, indeed pieces of art are actually used by publicity to echo certain devices, or signs such as atmosphere, glamour, romance, idyllic settings, places, objects, poses, symbols of prestige, gestures and even, signs of love. And these signs are used constantly in publicity, maybe even to give it a sense of credibility and psychological association. Where oil paintings reflect what people have, publicity shows the aspirations humans want to achieve.

With a technological jump from the oil painting to the more modern device of capturing images, we can turn to the camera. Colour photography and oil painting are definitely related to each other as they both perform the same function. As colour photography is a tool of publicity, homogenising publicity with the colour photographic images it contains, Berger says that publicity and oil painting both scream: ''You Are What You Have''. With the oil painting, we can see that from the settings they are displayed in, back in the days paintings were shown in the comfortable abode of the artist and the grand, rich and expensive frames that held the painting in place; whereas with publicity and the colour photograph what easier way to value what is being publicised than by its popularity, number of exposures and most importantly, its profit margin.

Looking at the material conditions of reproduction, Berger shows us what is visible behind the image with the publicised image of the perfume decorated with the beautiful model adorning it and the contrasting monotonous real ladies working at the factory packing and producing the perfume. This shows us another truth: what is visible is the wealth, but not how it was accumulated.

What oil painting's function was for centuries, publicity has taken over to not just consolidate one's own value, but to enhance it too. But, as Berger asks again: 'Where did this wealth come from?'

As we can see from the many oil paintings of the past, the human body was pretty much glorified as a symbol of beauty, nowadays that human beauty has been renamed to glamour, and replaced in publicity images and messages to the model, replacing the beautiful goddesses of past oil paintings.

According to the Online Encarta English Dictionary, glamour is defined as 'an irresistible alluring quality that somebody or something possesses by virtue of seeming much more exciting, romantic, or fashionable than ordinary people or things' and also 'striking physical good looks or sexual impact, especially when it is enhanced with highly fashionable clothes or make-up'. As we can conclude, the magic words here are that glamorous people or glamorous things are considered to be much more exciting than ordinary people or ordinary things, and the enhancement of seemingly ordinary things or ordinary people with fashionable clothes or make-up seem to do the trick in the transformation to glamour. Thus, adding excitement, romance and fashion to oneself seemingly creates glamour, yet also dries the pocket: as they all entail the provision, and constant funding, of money.

Henceforth, publicity is the process to being glamorous, and glamour is pretty much having what other 'ordinary' people, or objects, don't have through acquiring money which fuels glamour. And with the promulgation of money in the oh-so-fabulous equation of glamour, a state of envy is declared. Therefore, glamour is the state of being envied, and indeed, glamour cannot exist without social envy.

And what better cliché to avert to than 'money is the root of all evil', than now! And what better device to fuel this than publicity? But how I hear you ask. Well frankly put by Berger, publicity appeals to the way of life we aspire to. In other words publicity creates this delusion that our life will be different and our relationships will be radiant but, and there's a very big BUT to follow here, only achievable if money is available, and so creates an anxiety to make more money. For those who lack money, and in turn, lack glamour become faceless: undesirable and inadequate.

Yet the funny thing about it is that we are actually in turn, consoled by a mere dream! For, the more monotonous our present is, the more aspirable, and imaginative our futures can be, and that's pretty much the core philosophy of publicity that makes it almost credible and desirable: The Free World of the Future.

Going back to our original question of where this other way of life is, we can come to the conclusion that there isn't actually another way of life, well not realistically, but psychologically. Publicity creates a mad culture where ideologies control its system, so funnily enough it's all in our heads, construed by what is known as the publicity dream.

There are three main dreams:

· The dream of later tonight
· The skin dream
· The dream of a far away place

The first dream of 'later tonight' takes us to the thought that if we buy a bottle of Vodka Smirnoff and wear the latest Gucci's we will bring the most pleasure, and create the most fun atmosphere, and might even end up waking up in the morning next to the best looking person we pulled during our night of enjoyment. The second dream, 'the skin dream' brings to us the feel of skin, by heightening on our need for the sense of touch; deluding us, or compensating even, with reciprocity almost. Finally, 'the dream of a far away place' takes us to places we only see in travel brochures, giving the sense of distances without horizons; almost like being in two places at the same time. But all adieus to purchasing some object that is publicised in that way will we, supposedly, get to feel and be a part of those dreams.

Thus as is emphasised, only through the spending of money towards the purchase of the publicised image associated with the neutral object, such as perfume or jeans, that we get to be a part of that dream.

This in turn, brings us to the all destructive force of the all mighty capitalism: the power to acquire through spending hard earned money. Capitalism pretty much states that the sum of everything is money, and on that note Berger contends that, the anxiety on which publicity plays is the fear that having nothing you will be nothing. Money is life. Not that if you don't have money you will starve, but in the sense that money is the token of, and the key to, every human capacity: The power to spend money is the power to live.

With this view of money is everything and wealth equates to happiness, and the reality that forces us to be efficient and economic at the same time, two very contrasting worlds are created because publicity abuses reality to make objects seem more attractive to the individual. This is very apparent with images of the luxurious West versus images of the poverty stricken East with hardly anything to eat. That's when the mythology of the free capitalist culture comes into play.

Mythology and ideology both create a sense of denaturalisation of what seems natural. This can be shown by the excessive publicity of fashion where for example, if you buy Chanel No.5 you will automatically be transformed to look like the advertised model or the image of wealth and prosperity that is portrayed.

This is why publicity is a very manipulative play on words, especially when it comes to semiotics, rhetoric tropes, allegories and metaphors too. Publicity uses these devices to transfer meaning to a neutral object. Publicity does this by having an advert or image of a model posing on a beach looking beautiful with a bottle of perfume cradled in the sand beside her, for example. In such an image, beauty is transferred to the purchase of the perfume, entailing with it the desire and sense of wantonness that follows in cue. In this case, the signified, the beautiful model, transfers an image of association to the signifier, the perfume bottle.

Although Berger says in short, that publicity is an abuse of reality, he concludes his documentary by saying that each individual should regard the images/advertised message according to one's experience.

Pondering that though, I wonder how an individual from the oh-so-far-away poverty stricken Africa would react to our glorified Western images of wealth and capitalist ideologies..

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