In their text, “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning”, Goldman and Papson outline the ways in which the process of reading advertisements as cultural texts has shifted over the course of advertising’s history. They posit that now, in the so-called age of accelerated meaning, viewers are consuming advertisements at a neck-breaking pace. Furthermore, due to the fact that “…the commercial framework is accepted as unproblematic, we are able to routinely decipher and evaluate the combinations of meanings that commercials advance as potential sign currency. We rarely pause to consider the assumptions imposed by the advertising framework…our attention is usually fixed on the question of whether or not we like the ad” (81).

Thus, an advertisement’s success hinges upon its ability to effectively advance sign currency in a manner that is both easily (and quickly) recognizable to the consumer, and able to cut through the oversaturated marketplace. There are tools that advertisers use to accomplish this, and which Goldman and Papson refer to. The Mercedes-Benz 2013 Super Bowl commercial employs quite a few of them.

The Mercedes-Benz advertisement entitled “Soul” uses a familiar narrative and an abundance of celebrity endorsements as sign currency. The ad features the timeless story of a man being tempted to sell his soul to the devil (played by the villainous-looking Willem Dafoe), in exchange for a life filled with fame, fortune, and super hot women (like Sports Illustrated covergirl Kate Upton). By doing so, Mercedes-Benz is cashing in on celebrity endorsements and an implicit cultural understanding of what Americans find desirable. It is important to note here that viewers are not meant to engage with these implicit assumptions in a moralizing way—they are only asked to find the presentation of them entertaining.

To avoid the trap of being too conventional in the age of accelerated meaning, the ad is shot in a highly cinematic way, giving it the appearance of a movie trailer, or perhaps a short film. This is further supported by a series of short teaser spots that Mercedes-Benz ran preceding the Super Bowl, to hype the release of the ad. These used similar stylistic elements, and featured the popular Rolling Stones song, “Sympathy for the Devil.” Woo, foreshadowing!

In Goldman and Papson’s discussion of spirals of referentiality and reflexivity, they introduce the concept of referential density. It is a technique in which “…frames become packed with multiple referents minus unifying threads that give the viewer clues about their relationships” (93). According to them, referential density became a preferable tool to advertisers, instead of sticking cohesive narratives to tell a story. This is one stylistic element that the Mercedes-Benz “Soul” ad certainly contradicts. Their decision to adhere to one cohesive narrative is perhaps indicative of a new stage in the cycle of advertising. If referential density has indeed become the prevailing format for advertising, then going against it will be considered necessary to cut through the oversaturated realm of ads, and appeal to viewers. Such is the nature of the age of accelerated meaning.

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