Tuesday, December 12, 2006

On My Dissertation Title: "Myth as Advertising"

I chose my dissertation title, Myth as Advertising, quite carefully after considering many alternatives, including Advertising as Myth. I understood Myth as Advertising to mean that we should considering modern advertising as the form within which the traditional functions of myth could be expressed. The title "Advertising as Myth" implied that modern advertising is composed of pleasantries at best or untruths at worst, and that to consider advertising as myth would allow us to somehow unmask its falsehood by comparing it to all those pleasant but obviously fantastic fairy tales of cultures more primitive than our own.

It is not fruitful to compare the content of modern advertising to classic or primitive myths. The meaning of a image or symbol might be the same, or we might be mislead by labeling. The Keebler elf is not an elf in the classic fairy tale sense of the term, nor is the Jolly Green Giant a fairy tale giant. Just calling them those names doesn't make them so. We can be mislead by being too literal. If we are, we commit the same error as early linguists who thought that meaning could be discovered in the sound of a word, "liquid" vowels having to do with water, etc.

Myth in primary orality cultures served a purpose other than to put children to bed. Without writing, these cultures used stories as ways to think about things. A frog that was master of water to the South American Tupi Indians was more than just a frog. (see Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked). It was also an intellectual peg on which to hang a memorable thought. Sometimes this led to incorrect correlations, forced upon the culture by the overall structure of their stories. But the end result was to allow the consideration of all the elements of that culture's reality as one seamless, uncontradicted whole, to identify the individual's place and purpose in that reality and to justify the mode of existence required by the particular physical environment.

We have trouble understanding the workings of our own culture because we are immersed in it. Take any television commercial and break it down into its underlying structure. Many commercials are merely declamatory and they assume we have internalized our culture's doctrines. Others are didactic, and demonstrate how a product will help us solve a problem. That we weren't aware that we had the problem is irrelevant. My research has shown that more often than not, that problem has to do with the forces of nature or disorder impinging upon a cultural event or ordered activity.

The 60 second commercials from the 1960's and 1970's were more obvious, as I documented in my dissertation. A couple is preparing for a dinner party. The husband discovers that he has "ring around the collar" which threatens the evening's activity. Using Wisk the wife banishes the ring around the collar and the social event proceeds as planned. There are countless other examples.

A convenient dichotomy of nature vs. culture, disorder vs. order, "raw" vs. "cooked" is used in advertising to reinforce cultural assumptions and expectations through the apparently mundane operations of a laundry detergent, a medicine, a perfume or cosmetic, a properly prepared food. Again, intellectual pegs in a secondary orality culture upon which to hang memorable thoughts.

This is what I mean by Myth as Advertising. Advertising is a means by which our culture manipulates and massages its many images and symbols. Ads come and go quickly and are far more efficient for this purpose than longer books or movies. Just as bacteria go through many generations per day in their continuous adaptation to a changing environment, advertisements mutate quickly to encompass the continuous change of our media environment.

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