Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Structural Study of Television Advertising

Anonymous asks:

I do not understand why you want to relate advertising to mythology. Yes, I know that McLuhan refers in his subtitle to folklore, which he does not really explain, so far as I recall.

Apart from McLuhan, I would not have spontaneously thought to relate advertising to mythology. So what exactly prompts you to make this connection?

Because you are a graduate of the NYU Media Ecology program, perhaps you have been influenced by the thought of Neil Postman. Postman sees advertising as bringing irrational influences into decision making about buying things. He notes that the theory of capitalism is that capitalism is supposed to rely on rational decision making. But advertising influences us to make decisions based on non-rational influences.

So are you connecting advertising with mythology to suggest the non-rational influence that advertising can bring into decision making about buying things? Or does Levi-Strauss suggest a connection between advertising and mythology?

You say, "advertising operates in our culture the way mythology operates in primary oral culture." I'm sorry, but this claim is far from self-evident to me. How does mythology operate in primary oral cultures in your estimate (or in Levi-Strauss's estimate)?


Most attempts to assign meaning to the content of television programming operate under the same mistaken assumptions that plagued linguistics in its early years. The first linguists mistakenly assumed that meaning could be found in the particular sounds of a language, so that words having to do with water would always use the so-called liquid vowels and consonants, and so on. It wasn't until linguists realized that the sounds of a language have no meaning in and of themselves that they were able to arrive at a viable hypothesis concerning the structure and function of languages. Similarly, until scholars concerned with interpreting the mass media realize that the meanings of our popular culture are to be found in the structural configurations and not in the isolated images and symbols, attempts to discover those meanings will be stymied.

In my dissertation I showed how the seemingly random and isolated elements of television advertising conform to a general overall structure, and I suggested that this structure is similar to one that the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, has identified in the myths of primary orality cultures. In order to better explain what I mean I will first give an example of the similarity between the type of logical processes evident in myths and in advertising, and then I will outline briefly what I believe is the general structure of television advertising.

Lévi-Strauss has determined that the logical processes that go into the creation of a myth can be divided into two categories, “empirical deduction,” 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."(Levi-Strauss, C. “The Deduction of the Crane,” in Structural Analysis of Oral Tradition, Pierre Maranda and Elli Kongas Maranda, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), p. 3.

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." (Ibid, p.3)

The metonymic association (fangs of a snake) is used to make a metaphoric assertion (fang-shaped seeds cure snake bite). In 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 was used as the product mascot. The Volkswagon “bug,” the Turtlewax turtle, and the old Exxon tiger are further examples of this type of association.

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 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." (Ibid, p. 4)

The functioning of transcendental can best be illustrated by using Levi-Strauss’s own example.

According to the Tupi Indians of South America, the tree frog and the bee are opposites. The frog is the master of water because it lives in water that collects in hollow trees, and seems able to find such habitats even during the dry season. However, the bee also lives in hollow trees, but in honey rather than water. Because honey is not water and water is not honey, the two creatures are seen as opposites. (This version of the argument has been simplified for the sake of brevity, and therefore leaves out other determining factors, such as high/low, etc.) The Tupi also see the jaguar as an opposite of the tree frog. While the frog is present master of water, the jaguar (for reasons excluded here) was the former master of fire, which it gave to mankind. These comparisons, which are based at least in part on some empirical observation, now lead to a third comparison which transcends the objective reality:

"If the frog is opposed to the bee, which has honey instead of water (while the frog itself has water instead of honey), we may now introduce transcendental deduction to conclude that the jaguar (opposed to the frog by empirical deduction) must be like the bee and therefore, possess honey in some fashion." (Ibid, p.6)

This line of reasoning explains why Tupi mythology makes the jaguars the first owners of the honey festival. The association “bee equals jaguar” is forced upon the Tupi by the empirical associations they have given the frog, bee and jaguar. Levi-Strauss says that this type of intellectual process is typical mythic thought. Much that appears illogical and contingent in a myth can ultimately be attributed to this combination of empirical (metonymic-metaphoric) deduction and transcendental deduction.

That this type of thinking is also present in the construction of television advertising has not yet been noted.

Generally, the pro­cess of structural analysis involves the comparing and contrasting of many var­iants of a tale in order to determine what is important and what is not. Levi-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 tribe that relies on the oral 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.

"…mythic thought transcends itself and, going beyond images retaining some rela­tionship with concrete experience, operates in a world of concepts which have been released from any such obligation, and combine with each other in free asso­ciation: by this I mean that they combine not with reference to any external reality but according to the affinities or incompatibilities existing between them in the architecture of the mind." (Levi-Strauss,C. From Honey to Ashes: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. 2, translated by John and Doreen Wcightman (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 473.)

This point about the use of images in mythology is particularly pertinent to a discussion of television advertising. People in general perceive the television image, not as a referent, but as the object imaged. They do not take into ac­count the fact that in the very act of reproducing the objective world on film or videotape, a transformation occurs. The images become symbols that can be charged with meanings above and beyond the concrete reality of the objects they mimic. One of the consequences of this process of symbolization is that the meanings given to each object are affected by the meaning given to all the other objects in the system.

The following arrangement compares three examples of television advertising in terms of their under­lying structure:

This arrangement shows that although these three advertisements seem to be about entirely different types of products, with different characters and events, their underlying structures are the same. The interesting thing about this correspondence of structural elements is the equivalent function assigned to dirt, children, and arthritis (illness).

Finally if we generalize the structure of the Wisk, L’Eggs and Ben-Gay ads, we arrive at this arrangement.

With this sort of (albeit very brief) analysis it is possible to see that, at least in many television ads, there is a similar underlying structure. In addition, it is possible to discover the same sort of interest in the distinction between nature and culture that Levi-Strauss found in the mythology of primary orality cultures. As you can see, my concern isn't with the intention of the advertisement to sell a product or service. To me this is just McLuhan's juicy meat distracting the watchdogs of our minds while the real effect of television content takes hold. This effect involves a definition of what is "nature" and what is "culture" and what values we assign to each.

Also, if we look at television content writ large, we can, perhaps arbitrarily separate three broad categories: entertainment, news and advertising. Within the larger structure of television, advertising deals with defining social vs. antisocial (or cultural vs. natural) behavior on a personal level. Entertainment shows deal with the same dichotomy on an interpersonal level. News programs are the same opposition on the public level.

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