7 For All Mankind (or 7FAM, for short), is a high-end denim retailer based in Southern California. Since the company launched in the Fall of 2000, 7FAM has strived to establish itself as a brand worn by the rich and famous—or at least anyone who wants to be perceived as such. Using its proximity to the Hollywood Hills to the company’s advantage, 7FAM has succeeded in tapping into (and manufacturing) a lifestyle of Los Angeles leisure. One that might entail, for example, throwing on a pair of 7 Bootcut’s to dash to the nearest Coffee Bean, and spotting Jessica Alba as she orders a skim milk latte in her Classic Straight Leg 7’s (Celebrities! They’re just like us).
Now, thirteen years later, 7FAM continues on a tradition of mainlining Hollywood glamour with their Spring/Summer ’13 campaign, entitled “A Beautiful Odyssey”.
This campaign marks the company’s second, highly publicized endeavor with actor/writer/jack-of-all-media-trades James Franco. The project relies heavily on an Internet presence, with some print ads to supplement. “A Beautiful Odyssey” is at its core an interactive, social media film experiment self-described as a “… film envisioned by James Franco, inspired by the poetry of William Blake.” The story follows two denim-clad lovers on their way to the altar, as they must overcome an obstacle and either reconcile or be torn apart—a fate that was left to be determined by voters via Facebook. The campaign launched in March, culminating in two mini-films that debuted a month later, on April 25th, 2013. Through a thorough examination of 7FAM’s S/S ’13 campaign, I will illustrate how “A Beautiful Odyssey” is a carefully crafted example of “marketing that thinks it is culture” (Klein, 66), that strives to cash in on cultural capital and interpellate its audience through heavily coded messages.
(James Franco, from Interview magazine)
The most integral part of properly contextualizing this campaign hinges upon an understanding of how advertisements can be viewed as cultural texts. Unlike some of Franco’s other films, “A Beautiful Odyssey” requires a more critical viewing than, say, “Pineapple Express”. A Hollywood blockbuster might certainly be trying to sell an audience on products besides the film itself, but the ultimate goal of filmmaking is to produce entertainment for consumption. Franco’s mini-films for 7FAM have reverse objectives: sell jeans first and entertain second. Viewers play an important role in the process of interpreting and assigning meaning to advertisements. The ways in which they do this can be broken down through modes of analysis, perhaps most suitably by semiotic analysis. This theory suggests that “…we are not mere bystanders in the advertising process, but participants in creating a code that unites the designer and reader…if we are not adequately aware of the relevant referent system, we will not be able to decode the message” (Leiss, et. al, 164).
Indeed, decoding the trailer for “A Beautiful Odyssey” reveals a system of signs that will only resonate with a viewer in the intended way if he or she is familiar with the set of cultural values and trends being transmitted. The video opens on a grainy shot of two young lovers canoodling happily, as the text “A Beautiful Odyssey” lays over them.
(still of film trailer, from 7FAM YouTube channel)
A nostalgic synthpop melody plays in the background, while a collection of clips flashes across the screen in an accelerated sequence (similar to something one might observe while watching a music video). Everything about the stylistic elements are consistent with the retro vibes and quirks that have come to define contemporary commercialized indie culture. A quick trip to any Urban Outfitters should suffice as evidence. While the process of reaching this conclusion might seem intuitive, it actually requires an active engagement with the signs of the video. For example, if we take the background song as a sign, we understand that at its basic signifier level, it is a song being used to provide a soundtrack for the film. What is being signified depends on the viewer’s knowledge of the song, but perhaps they might recognize that it is “Cherry” by the Chromatics, and then recall that the Chromatics are a synthpop band from Portland (aka indie Mecca), and/or perhaps even associate them with that time they saw them at Pitchfork’s Music Festival, or some other indie music fest. All of these potential associations are what we can call the signified, and they are very much intentional. As Barthes writes in his seminal text, The Rhetoric of the Image, “…in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible” (15). Of course, in his discussion Barthes is referring to still images, which are more constrained than the moving images of this video. However, the interaction of the aforementioned song and the images of the film trailer are clearly being used to transmit signified messages, making Barthes’ argument relevant to this discussion. The process of identifying the signifier and the signified illuminates how meanings and cultural values are projected onto a product. In this case, 7FAM’s “A Beautiful Odyssey” trailer is loaded with signs that signify indie-ness/hipness, with the intention of projecting traits that are associated with that subculture onto their product, in order to appeal to a demographic that identifies with (or wishes to identify with) that particular subculture. As with all advertisements, everything is constructed in the hopes of one ultimate goal: interpellating viewers to gain customers.
The speed at which these messages can be transmitted effectively to viewers is absolutely crucial to the success of the campaign, especially in the digital/modern age. With “A Beautiful Odyssey”, 7FAM is attempting to cut through the noise of the overcrowded and inundated modern advertising landscape, by using James Franco as a brand ambassador and a pseudo indie-film format to formulate a commodity narrative. Franco’s celebrity status and iconography is easily identifiable, and works to create a powerful commodity sign for the 7FAM brand. This is by virtue of the fact that, “…advertisements are structured to boost the value of commodity brand names by attaching them to images that possess social and cultural value: brand-name commodity + meaning of = a commodity sign” (Goldman and Papson, 81). By marketing “A Beautiful Odyssey” as a film project by James Franco, 7FAM have provided viewers who are familiar with the Franco brand a hefty incentive to watch the mini-film saga unfold. Furthermore, those who follow his career will have noticed his detour from the mainstream and temporary retreat into the indie film world with projects like Howl. In other words, through a process which Goldman and Papson refer to as “cultural cannibalism” (88), Franco brings instant indie cred and socio-cultural value to the 7FAM campaign, making him an ideal commodity sign and celebrity spokesperson.
In order to keep viewers attention, the campaign calls upon audience participation, and uses a voter-driven format, beginning with Chapter One of the mini-film installment. Here we are given more information about the couple in question, and asked to decide which “obstacle” the two altar-bound lovers will have to face.
(still of Chapter One video, from 7FAM YouTube Channel)
The first video was released in early March, and asked voters to pick between two options: either the couple gets torn apart by pre-wedding jitters, or by the resurfacing of a past lover (to be played by former hockey player turned fashion icon, Sean Avery). Unsurprisingly, viewers selected the option with rock-hard abs. The “dark secret love” portion of the campaign, as 7FAM referred to Avery’s role, was also supported by a sprawling print ad that ran in fashion magazines targeted at a young hip demographic, such as Nylon. The composition, which ran in the 2013 March issue, features two very similar, simplistic ads, with one enormous fold-out in between.
The middle ad is printed on thick cardstock, and features a shirtless Sean Avery on one side, and several photos of the film shoot on the other. This print ad is, in a word, a spectacle. It is impossible to ignore, and easily the most eye-catching one of the magazine, which is quite a feat considering the types of ads that run in Nylon. Goldman and Papson write, “Where advertisers once sought to maximize the transparency of the framework, they now try to jar viewers into interpretive quandaries as a way of keeping them engaged in ads” (83). Certainly, this opulent and jarring ad is doing everything it can to make itself known, without regard for transparency. It’s a veritable sign and signifier frenzy. The gaudy print ad and interactive social media elements of the campaign are clear illustrations of how 7FAM is trying to fully engage viewers at any expense.
Moreover, it is interesting to consider the audience participation element of “A Beautiful Odyssey”, specifically within the framework of the digital age of information, and advertiser’s use of data collection via “veiled third parties”, as Manzerolle and Smeltzer discuss in their analysis of consumer sovereignty. They state in their piece, “A consumer’s profile now substitutes for the real embodied individual at the commercial level, elevating it ‘to the rank of superhuman authority through forgetting or rendering irrelevant its human, all too human origins, together with the string of human actions that led to its appearance…’ (Bauman 2007, 14)” (326). It stands to reason that, knowing this on some level, consumers might feel they have suffered a loss of agency. By calling for audience participation on Facebook, 7FAM is perhaps trying to make consumers feel like they can regain control of how they express taste preferences, and add some clarity to the data collection process. Additionally, 7FAM encouraged conservation about the campaign on both their Twitter and Instagram platforms.
(still of Twitter ad, from 7FAM Instagram)
Here we see an ad inviting consumers to join in a “twitter party”, to discuss the progress of the campaign’s journey. In keeping with the film format, the ad is styled similarly to a film poster, or perhaps a TV ad urging viewers to tune into a program (catch Franco on channel 7!).
The final installment of the campaign premiered on April 25th, and consisted of two mini-films: one crafted using audience input from the Facebook polls, the other a “director’s cut” of solely Franco’s vision.
(still of final Audience Cut, from 7FAM Facebook)
Aside from dressing the actors in head-to-toe 7FAM brand clothing, there are no obvious brands or logos featured in the film. As is the case with every other facet of the film installments featured in the campaign, it relies entirely on the sign currency of James Franco, heavily coded messages to appeal to indie youth, and its pure entertainment value. It is well known that, “…advertising appropriates cultural symbols and then repossesses and disseminates those symbols back to society in new ways, usually in very creative but often quickly forgotten message packages…ads in and of themselves must be integral in the meaning generating system of popular culture” (Leiss, et. al, 482). Ultimately, “A Beautiful Odyssey” follows in the footsteps of Gen X marketing strategies, and attempts to present itself as a culture producing machine. This of course is problematic, considering that the “film” was produced with the intent of selling more jeans, as much as it tries to masquerade as art. If we accept, as Klein writes, that “…generational identity had largely been a pre-packaged good and for whom the search for self had always been shaped by marketing hype” (66), then perhaps for contemporary audiences it is not problematic at all for a blatantly corporate sponsored film to promote itself as an indie project—it’s welcomed and expected.
Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Studying culture: an introductory reader. 2nd ed. London: E. Arnold ;, 1993. 15. Print.
Goldman, Robert, and Stephen Papson. “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning.” Sign wars: the cluttered landscape of advertising. New York: Guilford Press, 1996. 81, 83, 88. Print.
Klein, Naomi. “Alt. Everything.” No space, no choice, no jobs, no logo: taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador USA, 2000. 66. Print.
Leiss, William, Jackie Botterill, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally. Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Manzerolle, Vincent and Sandra Smeltzer. “Consumer Data Bases and the Commercial Mediation of Identity.” Surveillance and Society 8 (2011): 326. Print.