Automobile Advertising

[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. Read the rest of this entry »