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      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”. 

Image       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.  

 Image(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. 

Image(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. 

Image(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. 

Image(photo of Nylon ad by Nicolette Harris)

       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. 

Image(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.

Image(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.

 

 

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 Works Cited

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.

Bordo’s text, Hunger as Ideology, is deeply rooted in understanding how advertising plays a role in constructing consumer identity, and cultural ideologies with regard to gender representation. Her focus in particular is the construction of women’s relationships to food, and their eating habits, as portrayed in advertisements. By narrowly signifying women’s patterns of food consumption and attitudes toward food, she argues, advertisers are creating a dominant representation that plays dangerously into (as well as constructs) larger narratives of “normalized” thin body images and unhealthy eating habits.
For a while now, Carl’s Jr. has been running ads that feature scantily clad (and physically fit) women suggestively devouring burgers. The most recent of which features Heidi Klum in an homage to the seminal film, “The Graduate”. It’s important to note here that the immediate success of the ad hinges upon its use of “cultural cannibalism” and intertextuality (Goldman & Papson). If you haven’t seen “The Graduate” or don’t understand the Mrs. Robinson reference, then it won’t resonate as strongly. However, even if one doesn’t understand the film reference, the strong sexual themes are so overt, they are impossible to misinterpret. Yes, she is seducing him with that burger. On a surface level, showing a thin icon of beauty (Klum) enjoying a large fattening burger might seem counter-hegemonic. However, by acknowledging the limitations usually placed on women engaging in such behavior, it becomes clear that the Carl’s Jr. ad isn’t subverting anything. Rather, it is directly supporting the idea that women can only enjoy food to such an extent when it is seen as satisfying a sexual appetite as opposed to their actual appetite. Bordo writes, “When women are positively depicted as sensuously voracious about food (almost never in commercials, and only very rarely in movies and novels), their hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for their sexual appetite” (180). Indeed, in this Carl’s Jr. ad, it is used exactly in those terms and as a pretty thinly veiled metaphor.
Given the ad’s grounding in a film reference, and its general outlandishness, some might write off its effects as being irrelevant, since we all know the movies aren’t real, and this ad doesn’t attempt to represent any semblance of real life behavior—gendered or otherwise. Bordo would argue that its furthering of unequal gender representation has more to do with the fact that it strongly romanticizes an unattainable standard of beauty and grotesquely objectifies women’s desires. In fact, the world as depicted by advertising often has little to do with actual interactions, and much more to do with a constructed realm in which supposed fantasies and desires (that are created through ads) run free and are made attainable by simply purchasing a product. Therein lurks the real danger.

I found Imani’s application of mass culture critique to the Samsung galaxy ads to be spot on.  In order to fully understand and critically engage with the present day ad, it is important to consider it in a historical context, which she outlines at the beginning of her post via a brief summary of the creative revolution in advertising during the 1960’s.  Certainly, Bill Bernbach and like-minded pioneers paved the way for advertisers to create content that both engaged and critiqued the masses, which is a practice that continues to be in place. 

 

It is also interesting to consider how the Samsung ad ties into the ideas discussed in Klein’s article, “Alt. Everything: The Youth Market and the Marketing of Cool.”  At the center of the Samsung ad is a message that conformity to popular products of the mass market is often accompanied by an abandonment of independent and genuine thought.  The Apple users in the ad clearly don’t understand the technology in question, nor are they concerned with the functional aspects of the product—they merely want to buy into the brand.  As everyone knows (and as supported by mass culture critique), this behavior comes across as being totally “fake” and inherently not cool.  Enter Samsung: the “alternative” savior.  The Samsung phone is presented as the solution to being a mass produced drone, which until the creative revolution and implementation of mass critique strategies, hadn’t been considered as a problematic.  By linking their product to the ideals associated with being alternative (read: hip), Samsung hopes to interpellate consumers who want to build their own identities (through consumption) around this idea of being alternative and distinguished from the masses.

 

Of course, as Klein points out, the idea that “alternative” as a philosophy can be manufactured and sold on a mass level is entirely contradictory to any pure notion of what being alternative means.  Klein writes, “…branding’s insatiable cultural thirst just creates more marketing.  Marketing that thinks it is culture” (66).  In this sense, the branding of sociological values/movements in order to masquerade as pseudo culture is nothing short of crude exploitation. 

 

Furthermore, it is common knowledge that by the rules of “coolness”, once something becomes mainstream, it can by definition no longer be considered alternative (or cool).  This is also explored in the Frontline special we watched in class regarding “cool hunters”.  Clearly, the purpose of advertising is to successfully market a product to as many people as possible.  Thus, even if the strategy used employs alternative or mass critique elements, the goal is always to become mainstream. This paradox is perfectly embodied by the evolution of Apple advertising.  Prior to their domination of the market, Apple advertisements played heavily into the notion of going against the grain, and offering an alternative solution.  Their “1984” ad and the Mac vs. PC campaigns are prime examples.  Now that they’ve achieved mainstream success, they must find new ways to market their products, and watch as Samsung seeks to overthrow them as the new “alternative”. 

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.