EMBLEMS AND ADVERTISING AS WAYS OF SEEING AND THINKING: SWEET HEREAFTER OR BRIDGE TO NOWHERE? A RESPONSE TO GYÖRGY SZŐNYI.

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Written by DAVID GRAHAM

Let me preface my reaction to György Szőnyi’s thoughtful essay with some impertinent questions: Is the emblem relevant today? Can it be made relevant? Does the question of its relevance matter?

Like Michael Bath, I am grateful to Szőnyi for having identified, presented and discussed with clarity and succinctness the principal issues in contemporary emblem studies in such a way as to make them accessible even to readers who have not closely followed the historical and theoretical debates that have so animated the field in the last twenty-five years. Like Bath, I have found especially thought-provoking what he calls the “fracture” between Szőnyi’s pessimism about the possibility that the emblematic mode of thinking/writing/reading can be maintained and his suggestion that the emblem is, at least in some respects, the wellspring of our contemporary fondness for code-mixing: “those periods were the true forerunners of our multimedial age” (p. 1). Szőnyi’s position, it seems to me, is analogous to the concerns that Alison Adams has raised on more than one occasion (see, for example, Adams 2002) about our continued ability even to detect (let alone decode) Biblical references in emblematic texts and pictures.

It is not surprising that Michael Bath should have picked up on Szőnyi’s reference to modern advertising; as he points out, Peter Daly has spoken extensively on the connection between emblematic forms and this contemporary genre, and has also published some reflections, most recently in Daly 2002. Of all the mixed-code contemporary media, advertising certainly appears to present some obvious connections to the emblem. Daly’s title suggests one possible approach to establishing a connection between emblems and advertising or propaganda, namely the persistence of certain structures common to these forms. In an article soon to appear in Emblematica, Daly has pointed to some emblematic survivals in corporate logos: this suggests that there may actually be traces of emblematic content to be sought in contemporary advertising, so that a historical approach to the problem may be in order. A third area of investigation is suggested by Winfried Nöth’s suggestion that all advertisements are both referential and conative (to use Jakobsonian terminology): they depend on conveying information about a product and an appeal to purchase it (Nôth 1998, 15). Similarly, in addition to combining visual and verbal information, all emblems depend on conveying information about a form of behaviour, and an appeal to the reader either to imitate or to eschew that behaviour. These areas – structure, content, semiotic or discursive strategies – form part of a context of at least half a dozen potential areas of analysis in which an investigation might usefully take place, with the remaining immediately identifiable ones being topic, purpose, and communication/reception strategies.

The connection between emblems and advertising is thus both suggestive and seductive. In the end, it may also be somewhat elusive. While a full treatment of the subject cannot occur within the confines of these remarks, perhaps it will not be inappropriate to build on Szőnyi’s paper to explore some of the implications of this association. As he suggests, that exploration may well hold at least some answers to the question of what status, if any, the emblem may lay claim to in the twenty-first century, and to the rather blunter questions I posed at the outset of this response.

There exists an abundant scholarly literature on modern advertising in which its historical, social, psychological and – increasingly – its semiotic and discursive dimensions are explored. It is probably fair to conclude, as Daly does (p. 50) that the emblem makes few if any appearances in that literature, and that scholars who have made a study of advertising (a group by no means restricted to “colleagues who teach marketing”, since it includes social historians, sociologists, psychologists, semioticians and many linguists) are essentially ignorant of the emblematic corpus. On the other hand, emblem scholars may have taken somewhat for granted that there is a necessary relationship to be teased out of what is at least a very tantalizing superficial resemblance between emblems on the one hand, and advertising or political propaganda on the other.

Szőnyi makes reference to the well-known and traditional structural division of the prototypical emblem into inscriptio, pictura, and subscriptio, and Sabine Gieszinger’s thought-provoking description of modern advertising is instructive in this connection (Gieszinger 2001, 17-18). Gieszinger outlines three dimensions defining a “consumer advertisement text type”. These are structure, function and topic. Of these, given their very different origins, audiences and purposes, topic seems least likely to provide an element of continuity with the Renaissance emblem, though as we shall see, rhetorical and linguistic modes of functioning may well provide a good substitute for this area of analysis. On the other hand, the five-part structure posted by Gieszinger as typical of the modern advertisement may well have some bearing on the emblem-advertisement relationship. In her view, the ad consists of headline, illustration, body copy, “signature”, and “standing details” providing information on how the intended purchaser of the product being advertised may set about locating it (e.g. retailer’s location, telephone or fax number, web site URL, e-mail address and so forth).

Of these five parts, not all are explicitly incorporated into the emblem, though each has its counterpart. The “standing details”, for example, would in an emblem book typically form part of the “front matter” informing readers of the identity of the book’s author and publisher, its date and place of publication, and where it could be purchased. The “signature”, consisting of elements such as a corporate logo, brand name and slogan, is in my view much more akin to the device than to the emblem, for a number of reasons. While it often consists of three parts in its own right, it typically offers a “stripped-down” visual and verbal structure in which the visual component is deliberately reduced to the simplest possible structure in order to maximize ease of recognition: in his forthcoming article on corporate logos, Daly documents the increasing simplification of visual elements in more than one logo through the latter half of the twentieth century. The verbal component of the logo, like the visual image, tends to be highly succinct, typically consisting of the corporate name and a brief slogan meant to be tightly associated both with that name and with the image. Think, for example, of what is perhaps the most widely known logo of our time, the “Nike swoosh”, which consists of the single word “Nike”, the visual “swoosh itself”, and the slogan “Just do it.” The combination of these three elements, like those of the device, is meant to convey a combination of characteristics that taken together, create the brand. Associated with the actual brand name, this particular case, are a visual element implying ease and success and a verbal component meant to convey encouragement and empowerment.

Following earlier analysis, Gieszinger suggests that it is well established that advertising’s two functions are persuasion and the communication of information; different theorists, not surprisingly, are divided on the relative importance of these, but it does seem clear that advertising, to be effective, must persuade (as Bath suggests, “advertisers do not pay good money for propaganda that doesn’t work”, at least not willingly or for long!). The remaining elements of the advertisement – the combination of headline, copy and illustration – thus provide a much higher degree of resemblance to the prototypical emblem structure, since they are associated in the first instance with a product or service rather than with a corporation, just as the emblem is associated with a mode of behaviour – whether virtuous or not – and an exhortation to behavioural change in the reader rather than with the person or status of the author. This suggests that Gieszinger’s second dimension of analysis, namely function, may have an important role to play, since both advertisement and emblem are clearly conative in nature, seeking to bring about a modification of the reader’s or viewer’s behaviour. As Guy Cook writes, both normal consumer advertisements and public-service ads can be accounted for “[i]f we view the ad as a genre advocating a change of behaviour.” (Cook 2001, 231)

At the same time, however, it is clear that both emblems and advertising share more than a persuasive function, since they hold that in common with a variety of other genres. Here, Szőnyi’s suggestion that emblems are a genre “bordering between images and text with a condensed and multi-layered communication potential” seems equally appropriate to advertising. Before going any further, I should say therefore that where political or religious propaganda is concerned, like Daly, I would limit my discussion to the kinds of posters and symbolic expressions combining pictures and short texts that he discusses. In other words, I would be much more hesitant about extending any conclusions reached to political or religious discourse per se, for example to the speeches of politicians or to the sermons or broadcasts of religious leaders or evangelists, fascinating as they may be. If there is a connection between emblems and advertising – and from now on I will use “advertising” to include propaganda of the sort under discussion, for reasons that will become clear shortly – it must in my view lie not just in superficial commonalities of structure but in the discursive/semiotic strategies deployed through the encoding and decoding the texts and images contained in that structure.

While a full discussion of this topic must await a future treatment, it is possible within the confines of this response to point to a few potentially fertile areas that should be explored. Many theorists of advertising have suggested, for example, that advertisements function largely through the establishment of indexical relationships (using the term “index” in its Peircian sense) between the product to be sold and characteristics whose association with the product is considered desirable. A luxury vehicle, for example, will be pictured in a setting that itself conveys the notion of luxury: a large home, elegantly dressed people and so on. In a similar way, the emblem is often at pains to establish indexical relationships in which characteristics associated with figures from classical literature, mythology or legend, or with biological or zoological entities drawn from traditional natural history, are ultimately transferred to a situation involving the reader. In this way, the strength of Hercules, the foolishness of Icarus or Phaëthon, the watchfulness of the crane or the cunning of the serpent can be associated with moral situations and the reader encouraged to adopt or shun them, as the situation requires.

Similar remarks could be made about the use of iconic and symbolic relationships involving picture and text in both advertisement and emblem. The discursive strategies used are also similar in some ways: the attention-getting advertising headline, for example, duplicates in its function an important characteristic of the emblem recognized as long ago as the Jesuit theorist Claude-François Ménestrier (see, for example, Ménestrier 1662; Ménestrier 1684), who ascribed similar functionality to the emblematic pictura. The iterative “back and forth” reading called for by the emblem is highly suggestive of the modern advertisement (in this connection, see Graham 1987; Graham 1993). Since the emblematic picture, as Daniel Russell has pointed out, floats in a semiotic space where any one of an indeterminate number of meanings can be made to fit it, it will invariably be enigmatic at first sight, and only a reading of the text combined with repeated references to the elements contained in the image can enable the reader to resolve the enigma. Many advertisements function similarly, especially by invoking a deliberate disjunction between headline and image which only consultation of the body copy can resolve.

It would seem, then, that on the face of it, the modern advertisement may well continue the emblematic tradition not only in actual content – in a few cases – but in important structural and functional aspects as well. What of the remaining areas I identified near the beginning of this response, namely topic, purpose and communicative/reception strategies? Here, it turns out to be much more difficult to establish meaningful links.

While the topic of the emblem is the specific moral dilemma to which the reader will ultimately be shown a desired solution, the topic of the advertisement is always either a product or service. In other words, while bringing about a change in behaviour is an end in the case of the emblem, it is but a means in the advertisement, where acquisition of the advertised product or use of the advertiser’s service is always the true end. This entails a profound difference in purpose: except in the case of a small number of public-service advertisements intended to bring about desirable changes in public behaviour (one thinks, for example, of ads placed by organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving), the enrichment or betterment of the addresser of the message, not the addressee, is always the purpose. Warren Berger has asked rhetorically why “so much advertising [has] stopped telling us what to buy, opting instead to tell us how to live our lives” (Berger 2001, 328). A moment’s reflection reveals, however, that advertising has not stopped telling us what to buy at all: the “sell” has simply been backgrounded rather than foregrounded, as in the case of the Apple advertisement featuring a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi that faces the page on which the Berger quote appears. While there is no explanatory or informative body copy whatsoever, the Apple logo (which, being an apple, enables the advertiser to dispense with adding the corporate name in words) and slogan (“Think different”) figure prominently, as does the URL for the Apple web site. The indexical transfer of presumably desired qualities (“difference”, probably standing here for a combination of daring, courage, innovation, and simplicity presumed to be closely associated with Gandhi) is still operative, and the transfer is tended to associate those qualities with the computers and software that are still for sale in the background.

In this connection, Szonyi’s point derived from reception theory is an important one: “if the meaning is generated during the reception process between the text and the audience, then the horizon of expectation, as defined by Hans Robert Jauss, will change from reader to reader, from community to community, thus finally resulting in uncountable variants of possible correct meanings”. The limitation of those “uncountable variants” to just one outcome is indeed a common problem for both emblem author and advertising copy writer, but where the emblematist uses text to constrain the interpretation of the emblem to a single possible meaning, the contemporary advertiser is increasingly content to allow the reader to make the necessary indexical links without heavy-handed prompting.

This brings me to two final points about emblematic as opposed to commercial communication. While the emblem is tightly constrained from a hermeneutic point of view, I have argued that it is but loosely embedded in the socio-political matrix surrounding its composition (Graham 2002). The advertisement, on the contrary, is deliberately linked as closely as possible to a contemporary cultural matrix. While the emblem, because of its preoccupation with general moral behaviour, is – at least in theory –applicable to any reader regardless of her or his temporal or geographical position, the advertisement is subjected to a degree of social, economic and temporal specificity that makes it entirely different. From the point of view of communicative strategies as well, the advertisement differs fundamentally from the emblem. Guy Cook has pointed out that the sender and addresser of an advertisement are seldom identical; this is of course also the case in the emblem, where the author, publisher and seller of an emblem book are very seldom one and the same. Cook goes on, however, to show that the addressee and receiver of an advertisement are not identical either: an advertisement may be seen – and presumably disregarded – by a great many people for whom it was never intended. And advertisers accept that as a fact of advertising life, though they do their best to maximize the degree of overlap, for example by placing advertisements in highly specific locations or at particular times: ads for beer at sporting events, for example. In the case of the emblem, it appears that the coincidence between addressee and receiver is usually entire, since the emblem’s intended audience, with some exceptions in the case of emblem books produced for particular readerships, is – at least theoretically – the whole spectrum of humanity. Every reader is potentially in need of the advice conveyed by the emblem, and this entails a level of general applicability that is simply neither required nor desirable in the advertisement.

There are quite clearly fundamental differences between emblem and advertisement, then, that should warn us against any conclusions based on superficial resemblances. Like the advertisement, however, the emblem is a deliberately encoded communication; the ability to interpret that code successfully is a learned ability, and one that must be relearned as references lose their currency, or the text discarded as outmoded advertisements are. Despite the emblem’s avowed generality of audience, such loss of currency remains – as Adams and Szőnyi both point out – an ever-increasing obstacle to effective communication with modern audiences. Szőnyi is entirely correct, however, when he writes that “the study of images has been and remains more a methodology and a special area of investigation than an independent critical theory having its own philosophy”. In that regard, I believe that emblem studies and advertising theory have much to teach each other: these few remarks have but scratched the surface of what may be a fertile ground to till. It is almost certainly true, from a semiotic and discursive point of view, that advertising functions in way entirely analogous to those of a good many emblems. Structurally speaking, there are clear resemblances between the genres. In some cases, modern advertisements and modern corporate logos do draw on the vast corpus of early modern iconographical material, including both emblem and device. For all these reasons, the emblem – quite aside from what it has to teach us about the history of ideas and culture in early modern Europe, does remain vitally relevant to the transmission and reception of the messages contained in the mixed-code sign systems of today’s commercial world. Today’s advertisement is every bit as persuasive, and pervasive, as the early modern emblem it resembles.

 

Adams, Alison. “Reading Georgette de Montenay.” An Interregnum of the Sign: The Emblematic Age in France. Ed. David Graham. Vol. 6. Glasgow Emblem Studies. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2002. 17-28.

Berger, Warren. Advertising today. London: Phaidon, 2001.

Cook, Guy. The discourse of advertising. 2nd ed. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 2001.

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---. “‘Voyez ici en ceste histoire…’: Cross-Reference, Self-Reference and Frame-Breaking in Some French Emblems.” Emblematica 7.1 (1993): 1-24.

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Ménestrier, le P. Claude-François. L’Art des emblèmes, où s’enseigne la morale par les Figures de la Fable, de l’Histoire, & de la Nature. Paris: R. J. B. de la Caille, 1684.

Nôth, Winfried. “Advertising.” Encyclopedia of semiotics. Ed. Paul Bouissac. New York Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998. 13-16.

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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