Monday, December 25, 2006

Television Advertising Teaches Us How to Think (in an Era of Secondary Orality)

Every television commercial is a lesson in the ways of thought under secondary orality and, as advertising icons spread out to other venues, they act as constant reminders of the secondary orality way to process experience.

Theatrical television is based on literary conventions. Film school students can tell you how every movie is divided into three acts--just like a stage play. One hour theatrical tv programs extend the dramatic arc to four acts, each about 11 minutes long. The drama progresses via thought processes that are linear, based on literacy-based cause and effect logic. TV Ads teach us to think like pre-literate peoples, using the type of non-linear thought processes that Claude Lévi-Strauss divided into "empirical" and "transcendental" deduction.

Empirical deduction occurs whenever a myth attributes a function value or symbolic meaning to a natural being because of an empirical judgment durably associating the being with the attribution. From a formal point of view the correctness of the empirical judgment is irrelevant. (1)

Empirical deduction begins with some observation of reality. It then treats that observation as if it were an abstract concept. This type of mental process can occur using two different types of association. First, through the use of a metonymic association, some observed characteristic or habit of an animal is treated as if it stood for the entire animal. If this characteristic is found elsewhere in the environment, it too is associated with that animal. The metonymic association then becomes a metaphoric assertion. Lévi-Strauss’s term for such uses of metaphor is “imaginary association.”

An imaginary association…results in the attribution of curative powers against snake bite and tooth decay to seeds shaped like fangs. (2)

The metonymic association (fangs of a snake) is used to make a metaphoric assertion (fang-shaped seeds cure snake bite). In classic television advertising we see this type of reasoning regularly. The air bubbles in Baggies sandwich bags make the bag look like an alligator’s skin, so an alligator is used as the product mascot. The Volkswagon “bug,” the Turtlewax turtle, and the old Exxon tiger are further examples of this type of association.

In current advertising, the associations are more subtle. For example, many ads feature automobiles that will never in real life leave a paved road "roughing" it through forests or deserts, avoiding natural obstacles and endowing the driver with the "freedom of the wilderness." The irony of these images is that the car or SUV, which often is given an animal name, is actually the embodiment of culture that provides the driver with protection against the storm. This is why Marshall McLuhan could refer to the automobile and driver as a knight in shining armor:

The car gave to the democratic cavalier his horse and armor and haughty insolence in one package, transmogrifying the knight into a misguided missle. (3)

"Transcendental" deduction operates at another step removed from reality. The characteristic attributed to an animal or an object is removed from any grounding in empirical observation, and is determined by its relative position in the culture's symbolic structure as a whole. Lévi-Strauss states that:

It does not necessarily rest on a true or false, a direct or indirect empirical base; rather, it stems from the awareness of a certain logical necessity, that of attributing certain properties to a given being because empirical deduction has previously connected this being with others on the basis of a set of correlative properties (4)

Lévi-Strauss has borrowed the notion of redundancy from communication theory to explain the rationale behind this procedure. Imagine that you are the story teller of a culture that relies on oral communication for the transmission of its body of knowledge. Let us assume for the sake of argument that you are fully aware of the hid­den structural associations that your stories are portraying. How would you insure that the information contained in those tales would survive the erosion of time and the individual idiosyncrasies of future story tellers? One way would be to take the basic message or messages and repeat them over and over again using different formats and imagery. Though the stories would seem to be about different heroes, animals, events, and so on, the underlying struc­ture would be more or less the same throughout. Furthermore, future story tellers would internalize these structures so that they would tend to reject any alterations which went against the general pattern.

That's why, in our secondary orality culture, ads want to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives: Not just as an accepted part of television and radio and magazines but also in movies and broadway theaters, in our schools and workplaces. Can our places of worship be far behind?

The type of thought manifest in television advertising represents the symbolic realization of the lesson of the medium itself. A medium of images and sounds, TV's biases toward the non-discursive are represented and reinforced in the narratives of advertising.

(1) Levi-Strauss, C. (1971). “The Deduction of the Crane,” in Structural Analysis of Oral Tradition, Maranda, P. and Maranda E.K., Eds. (p. 3). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

(2) Ibid. (p. 3)

(3) McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extension of Man (p. 17). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

(4) Levi-Strauss, C. Op. Cit, (p. 3)

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