Looking at Adverts: 14

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In advertisements different words predominate at different times of the year. I decided to survey the key words that appear in Christmas adverts. I bought a range of magazines from Men’s Health and GQ to Hello and Good Housekeeping and looked for words that frequently appear in adverts. I ignored obvious words such as Christmas and Santa but selected adjectives describing the sort of experiences we are supposed to have at Christmas. There were a lot of words but the most common were: beautiful, dazzling, glamorous, indulgent, innovative, luxurious, magical, perfect, sparkling, special and unique. Once I had identified these key words I reviewed the magazines again and copied the page if an advert contained any of these words. The range of products that are sold with the promise of creating magic, making us sparkle or offering an indulgent and innovative treat is quite staggering!

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After amassing a large quantity of visual material I felt compelled to ‘do something’ with it so I set myself the challenge of producing a series of 12 very short video clips that critically decode these key words. Because I am a glutton for punishment I decided to publish one video clip a day on social networking sites for twelve days of Christmas between 13 and 24 December. Because I am interested in how the advertising rhetoric abruptly changes on Boxing Day from luxurious treats to guilt and diet regimes I plan to carry out a similar exercise in January.

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In the spirit of festive unwrapping I thought I would use this blog to unpack some of the meaning of these Christmas key words. As a slight aside, I should note that I borrow the idea of ‘key words’ from a book for the same title by Raymond Williams. In the book Williams analyses how the meaning of some words change over time. He argues that these changes in meaning can go unnoticed but have political and social implications. I am not a linguist so I won’t be talking about the origin of the words, but I think language conveys more than the basic dictionary meaning of the word, which is important to the study of advertising images too.

I will concentrate on ‘magic’ as it is used to advertise a vast array of products from cosmetics and electronics to home furnishings and food. In Decoding Advertisements Judith Williamson talks about the ‘magic’ of adverts. She says the products we buy offer us ‘ready-made’ solutions to improve our lives so we don’t really need to do anything, just consume. The adverts suggest that if we buy the product life will be easier, better, and a little more magical. However, adverts can’t sell consumer inactivity as a positive thing; we don’t really like the idea that commodities do things for us, we need to feel that we are active creators in our own lives.

This trend was identified early in the development of the advertising industry. The Betty Crocker company created an innovative packet cake mix product but the housewives of the 1940s were not buying it. The company employed Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) to find out why. Bernays discovered that the women he interviewed (no sign of gender equality in the kitchen yet!) liked the idea of a quicker and more convenient way to bake cakes but felt that it was too easy. If they were just going to add water they may as well buy a readymade cake from a shop. The consumers needed to have a greater creative input to feel comfortable taking credit for the outcome. Bernays’ solution was to include the direction ‘add an egg’ to the recipe even though it didn’t need one. The consumer felt more active in the role of cake preparation and proud of the cake they produced. Sales picked up, and the rest is history…

Adverts that claim the product will ‘create magic’ are also sort of ‘adding an egg’. We don’t want to feel that our happiness / success / sexual prowess is due to the commodities we buy but you can’t really add in an extra activity to shampooing hair (for example) so the advertising companies displace the effect of the commodity to ‘magic’. We might not be active agents but we are not created by the commodity either – its magic! As Williamson says; ‘Magic is the production of results disproportionate to the effort put in … In this sense, as I have suggested, all consumer products offer magic, and all advertisements are spells.’

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I will be interested to hear what you think the other key words of Christmas advertising are? Is your festive period going to be innovative and glamorous or traditional and luxurious?

What would you suggest my January key words should be?

I hope this blog post hasn’t taken the sparkle out of your holiday!

Happy Christmas and best wishes!

The videos I have uploaded so far can be viewed on vimeo

1st day of Christmas
2nd day of Christmas

3rd day of Christmas

4th Day of Christmas

5th Day of Christmas

6th Day of Christmas


  1. Linda Razzell 18 December 2015 at 2:59 pm

    I think the insight which is revealed here shows us something quite deep and rather sinister. There is a time of life when it is held appropriate to believe in ‘magic’ – in the affluent West anyway – childhood. Many of us have fond memories of waking up early on Christmas morning to discover a pillowcase full of carefully wrapped gifts from ‘Father Christmas’ – a supernatural being – and many of us will have followed that tradition with our own children.

    Sadly this may have lead to unreasonable expectations and disappointments for the whole of adult life – and it’s precisely that which advertisements are playing on: buy this and you will recapture the magic of childhood.

    A keyword I would suggest for January is ‘overindulgence’ and another is ‘detox’ – the subliminal suggestion being that actually we weren’t good enough and didn’t deserve the magic, and now we must deprive ourselves and pay!

    If this sounds far fetched, what other explanation is there for the frantic orgy of consuming that happens at this time of year? I am not a religious person – my response to this festival is a midwinter feast of a meal on the solstice, and as much of a donation to those less well provided for as I can manage. I ask myself what exactly do people think is being celebrated?

    1. dawn woolley 19 December 2015 at 10:34 am

      Thanks for your comments Linda, I think you are right, many adverts combine ‘magic’ with nostalgia. Images often depict very traditional christmas scenes that seem old fashioned. It probably would be less profitable to show childhood excitement in a contemporary christmas scene as the children are not the target consumers but their parents / relatives are. Having said that, making memories – perfect moments – also feature heavily in advertising rhetoric. They play on adult nostalgia in a different way – calling up our memories of childhood excitement to remind the parents their children are creating their lasting memories now. It is interesting to look at technology adverts at this time of year – televisions, computers and smartphones are also sold in terms of ‘creating memories’ – one advert described an i-pad as a ‘giggle box’ and showed a child and parent in fits of shared laughter while viewing something on the device…things that tend to absorb our attention to the detriment of social interaction are magically transformed into mediums of social interaction and memory-making!

      1. Lesley Goldie 20 December 2015 at 9:37 am

        Marketing (the evil twin of advertising… I have no agenda!) is constantly looking for new areas to exploit, so although the adults may appear to have the power, financially, they are prone to pester power (even in everyday shopping – I have witnessed a three year old telling their parents which brand of instant coffee to buy based on the tv ad, but I digress, sorry) and, of course, the ‘tweenager’. Add peer pressure to the mix, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the adults to buy the ‘right’ gift and nothing else will do, regardless of cost.

        1. dawn woolley 23 December 2015 at 10:44 am

          Hi Lesley, thanks for your comments – I agree pester power is a very strong force. Adverts frequently contain the word ‘love’; either the receiver of the gift will love it or the purchaser can show the strength of their love by buying a particular gift / food / entertainment package. Because love is such an intangible thing, the products ability to create ‘love’ cannot be tested so adverts can make very emotive claims without troubling advertising standards. I think it is because we want to love and be loved that pester power has become such an issue. As so many products and experiences are associated with giving and receiving love it makes shoppers easy to manipulate!

    2. Lesley Goldie 20 December 2015 at 9:16 am

      The third paragraph of your original post is sublime!

  2. nuala513668 19 December 2015 at 7:23 am

    Just one word – BRILLIANT (relating to your blog!!)

    1. dawn woolley 19 December 2015 at 10:39 am

      Many thanks!

  3. Lesley Goldie 20 December 2015 at 9:12 am

    I think this is a thoughtful and insightful project and could be expanded in so many ways as to last a lifetime! Your suggested further development of this project is highly appropriate and I look forward to your findings and how you convey them.

    The psychology of advertising is insidious and, as Linda writes, sinister. It is impossible to escape from (getting rid of the television helps!) and when you do make your own decisions, if they go against the perceived norm (no tv, as stated), you are seen as depriving yourself and others can’t wait to ‘inform’ you of what you’re missing! I can assure you, I don’t!

    The ‘nostalgia’ cooked up by the industry is the dream we all have of the perfect Christmas and surplants our actual memories (I’m not being cynical). For example, as children we didn’t have the worries and concerns that flood in as adults (the pressure of family politics, the cost of the right gifts etc.), possibly only a tinge of guilt that we really don’t like the hand knitted item from a great aunt! We have been taught, by advertising amongst other things, that we deserve the best, the product being promoted is the best, and auntie’s hand knitted jumper is consigned to the bin as an embarrassment rather than something created with love… And so it goes…(Kurt Vonnegut)

  4. Linda Razzell 20 December 2015 at 9:12 am

    Dawn, I’m really looking forward to your January blog. It’s exciting following these subliminal themes through.

  5. liz cashdan 21 December 2015 at 6:10 pm

    As a writer, I often look at adverts and think how clever they are at using the best ingredients of poetry ie images that carry a message. But on the other hand, advert-writers sometimes become self-indulgent and do the thing most decried by effective writers ie use hackneyed and explanatory adjectives. The word “magic” is certainly one of them. If only they would show us the magic without using the word. That is what poets do and that is what effective advertisers should do.

    1. dawn woolley 23 December 2015 at 10:55 am

      Thanks Liz, I also think adverts are capable of moments of brilliance through clever use of text and image, but more often than not, they use codes or shortcuts. Like many other aspects of consumer culture they want to maximise profits by expending as little energy as possible while getting the greatest impact – I think that is why we see heightened sexual or sentimental content in many adverts. They deliver most ‘bang for the buck’.

  6. Catherine 23 December 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Brilliant Dawn. I felt a bit depressed in a way – but – I want one of those watches !!!

  7. Carol Stimpson 10 January 2016 at 11:09 am

    This work is very good – well done indeed. It supports my own feelings about the over-commercialisation of everything in our lives (Christmas particularly).

  8. dawn woolley 10 January 2016 at 3:29 pm

    If anyone tried to view my videos on vimeo over Christmas but couldn’t, my account was suspended because it had been flagged up as commercial / spam material (irony!) Fortunately the people at vimeo were very understanding and reinstated my account. The videos can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/dawnwoolley – minus the last two for January that I will post tomorrow and Tuesday morning.


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