Automobile Advertising

by hyphology

[This is an excerpt from Open Structuralism: An Answer to Derrida, a project that attempts to find a third position between structuralism and post-structuralism.]

There is a unique phenomenon that is particular to the advertising of automobiles. Commercials portray their product in motion. Cars drive through fields, deserts, mountains, and cities, which are all completely empty. Even in the cities, there is not a single car or person around. Trucks are magically loaded with heavy objects to show off their suspension, but there is no one doing the loading. Even the driver is often totally occulted. When the driver is revealed, it is usually a masked professional or only the hands. The question arises: why is the automobile always presented in isolated environments? What can a synchronic analysis tell us?

To really understand the commercial-structure, it must be isolated in time from any transformations that may have existed before it or will exist after it. As Barthes instructs the reader on the last page of Elements of Semiology, this method is infinitely favorable to one that accounts for the evolutionary development of the commercials. (This is also a condemnation of the trace.) So, one is left with a bundle of commercials that share the characteristics described above. A contrast exists between the product and its environment that resembles the figure-ground relation. The car is emphasized by being in an empty field; it draws the viewer’s attention like the eyes of the Mona Lisa. The absence of the driver is an invitation to imagination. (To invite the viewer to the dealership has become common practice. Buying a car is treated like a festival, which should remind the reader of the lyric from the Claude Channes song in La Chinoise (1968): revolution is not a banquet.) One can picture oneself steering the car through the vacant city streets. The commercial allows the viewer to test drive the car in the very best environments. Thus, a synchronic analysis can provide an answer to our question. It has revealed the viewer’s relation to the commercial to be part of the very sign-system established by that commercial, and has also explained the meaning of the isolated environment to be a tactic of emphasizing the product. The quality of this answer will now be weighed against that of an open structuralist analysis.

The importance of diachronic elements cannot be stressed enough. Even in the last page of Elements of Semiology there is a tension between completely negating these elements and formulating a method that gravitates around them. To interpret the commercial, the past of the automobile and its marketing must be summoned. This means that an exploration of the verticality of the signs in the commercial will be conducted. When watching or using a car, we are participating in a mnemotechnology that carries its history within it (cf. Bernard Stiegler). To understand the commercial today, we will explore the commercials of the past.

As soon as a market for the car developed, it became a recreational object. The car was designed for transportation, but advertised for recreation. This can be seen in the advertisements for the first affordable car: the Ford Model T. The Model T represented an escape from the city that was not time-consuming or expensive. Car owners could run away from city life for an afternoon and have a picnic in the country. The car owners were predominantly families. Thus, the Model T extends the private sphere, but it also continues to maintain it at the same time. The car protects the privacy that the family shares in its home and extends that privacy to places even more secluded. By the 1950s, this foundational aspect of the automobile will be proliferated in the forms of drive-in restaurants and movie theaters. Hence, the car represents the border between the private and the public. This clarifies the significance of contemporary car commercials in a way that the synchronic analysis could not. It is not the emphasis of the car that the commercial-structure draws attention to, but the car-as-private-space and the distancing of the public sphere. Yet this analysis can be carried even further.

The orthodox structuralist will find this method to be negligent, but it helps uncover the peripheral effects of any structure, which should also be considered to be part of the structure. So, the open structuralist accepts that there is no outside the text insofar as this principle takes on significance in both Derrida and Barthes. One peripheral effect of the culture of the car commercial is the public phenomenon of a person singing along to music in the car. This is an absurd event; the more invested the person is into the music, the more absurd it becomes. Albert Camus claims that the absurd cannot be explained, it must be encountered. The example he gives is not that far from our own: a man on the phone behind a glass partition. However, the goal of open structuralism is precisely to explain this phenomenon; one must develop an analytic of the absurd. The synchronic analysis cannot speak to this event at all, but the diachronic assessment reveals the origin of the absurdity through the very tension found in the history of the automobile. The absurd, in this case, arises through the paradoxical revealing of the private within the public. The automobile, more than ever before, is a personal space that is isolated from the public, yet it is also revealed to the public in its very formation. Even if one were to sympathize or act similarly, the phenomenon persists in its absurdity because it consists in displaying the private act to the public. This absurdity could not be understood without following the traces of how the automobile has been culturally represented in the past.

The open structural analysis, which includes diachronic elements, of automobile advertising has provided an adequate response to the question first raised over the commercials. The synchronic analysis gave a consistent answer, but was an answer that was ultimately wrong and could not explain related phenomena. The mythology of automobile advertising has presented two important points: the necessity of including diachronic elements in structural analyses, and the impossibility of closing a structure due to peripheral effects.