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!
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.
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.’
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