SPRITE AD WITH KRS-ONE
The referent of hip-hop culture in this ad is used in a variety of ways to signify different things to different readers. By trying various conceptual models to analyze this ad, I mean to probe the intended and multiple meanings in this piece. As my analysis will, show, this advertisement uses the hip-hop referent system not only with the signifiers that most mass-media spectators will recognize, but also with codes that hip-hop connoisseurs can appreciate.
When skimming over the framing in this ad, one is struck by a variety of framing devices that shape the way this as is constructed. For one, instead of the product's mortise being placed within the images, it is placed behind and in-between them. The framing box that usually gives clues to the metastructure of an advertisement is imposed by images that become their own mortises. The two rappers are shown framed by the film they were supposedly shot on, its blue edge and developer type so casually revealed on the horizontal sides of the images. While these images of images surmount and surround the text and product, the frames within the images lead us back into the unifying slogan. The rappers are positioned in, and framed by, a boxing ring which serves as a metaphorical space for their verbal battle. At the same time, however, the ropes of the ring also serve to guide the readers eyes back into the colored text that hails the viewer.
The appellation in this advertisement works on several levels. The most obvious of these is the command "OBEY YOURS". It speaks in a voice that both commands authority and yet encourages you to listen to yourself and your thirst. It presumes the unquestionable alreadyness of your thirst, demanding that you obey this alreadyness and thus exert your own individual sovereignty. However, this advertisement also hails in another way. Although the advertisement is arguably aimed at a large population of viewers, the question of who is the ruler is not directed at them all. Even situated between two black men with microphones, this question does not inherently make any sense and instead relies upon intertextual knowledge. If the viewer knows that the rapper on the right is the Large Professor and the rapper on the left is KRS-One, that these rappers are significant players in hip-hop's history and that they have both been commissioned to show their skills in competing Sprite radio ads, this question now has an respondent. A viewer with this knowledge is being invited to use their expertise to judge who is the ruler and is thus being appellated into the ad by a different set of codes. Their alreadyness is thus not only in their thirst, but in their being a connoisseur that can understand the codes.
Once the viewer has been brought into these frames and becomes a participant in the ad, s/he is led to translate the equivalency exchanges that give the ad meaning. This advertisements guides this exchange by telling us that the battle has been settled between these rappers because they have realized their equal subordination to their thirst. Thirst is the great unifier, it brings them together on the page. However, this is still not enough equivalency exchange to lead us to the product. Even if we accepted the logic of these rappers relationship to thirst, we still don't know which product can satisfy this command. Fortunately, we are supplied with the color coordinating Sprite bottle that solves this second question and completes the clues of equivalency exchange by suggesting an axis of combination.
This pattern of equivalency exchange works very well for those with little or no involvement in hip-hop culture, but I also think that Sprite might have suggested other meanings that they were or were not aware of. For one, there is an elite within hip-hop that is highly critical of rappers "selling-out" in their "thirst" for cash by doing advertisements that supposedly commodify hip-hop culture. Sprite is a major player in this debate because it's entire radio campaign is based on famous or up-and-coming hip-hop artists rapping about Sprite. The fact that they ask hip-hop connoisseurs who the ruler is, and then offer "thirst" as the answer is either ironic, astute, or unintentionally self-deprecating. Rappers, including the Large Professor and KRS-One, regularly rap about the supremacy of money in the capitalist system, and Sprite seems to be inadvertently affirming it by framing these same rappers whom many viewers know are doing the ad for the money with a slogan of "OBEY YOUR THIRST". The fact that rappers constantly discuss their "thirst" for money makes me think this ad is less hypocritical than Pearl Jam posing with Pepsi saying "Gotta Have It", but the potential for an unintended capitalist critique is still there.
Whether Sprite was aware of these multiple meanings or not, they avoided many messy implications of these readings by safely abstracting these rappers from a loaded context. These rappers are situated within a boxing ring which serves as a metaphor for the verbal battle in which they are engaged. Although any other background would not necessarily be any less constructed, by removing these rappers from a street space or from a larger cultural context, Sprite is able to crop out meanings from the referent system of hip-hop culture. Their comments and videos on urban degeneration, racism, gang violence and outrage may linger in their signified meanings, but they are not immediately present in the boxing space. These rappers are abstracted from their context within black cultural expression and national oppression. Sprite may seem to recognize this abstraction by showing the edges of the film and thus showing their process of mediated production. However, this also becomes but another signifier of a self-reflexive meta-structure that is actually anything but. Under the guise of revealing the usually unseen, it distorts the more important modes of production that underwrite advertising's ideological discourse.
In fact, these rappers fit quite neatly into advertisements ideology because they are reified as icons for Sprite. Sprite has either not tried or not succeeded at having the kind of ownership over complex cultural figures like NIKE has, but these ads still are involved in the process of reification. Their signified stature, skills and respect within the hip-hop community are all encouraged to be exchanged with the object of Sprite. Sprite has repeatedly set itself up as the product that discourages this kind of reification. Their "IMAGE IS NOTHING" campaign works on the premise that human attributes can not be transferred and exchanged to people via a product. And yet, their advertisements rely on the opposite being true. They have repeatedly associated themselves with whatever was hip, black and urban which would mean nothing if they did not hope to have these adjectives exchanged with their product.
So what exactly are these adjectives that are being invoked? There are several signifiers and a multitude of signifieds in this piece. I have discussed many of the framing signifiers like the boxing ring and the film edge earlier. But the more central signifiers are the people. For the non-knowledgeable viewer, the skin color, the microphone, the hand gestures and the facial expressions all give clues that these figures are rappers. They become symbols of hip-hop subculture with its signified hipness, prowess, individuality, expressiveness and confidence. However, for those with the cultural codes to decipher the meaning of KRS-One and the Large Professor, they become the signifiers for a host of different signifieds. Both of them are "Old-School" rappers who were major players in the beginning of hip-hop and whose history of hardship has gained them a position of considerable respect by the "New-School". They thus offer signifieds of stature, respect, longevity, skill and history within the subculture.
This ad does not, however, exist on its own. It is usually read in the context of both other products and other Sprite ads. In fact, Sprite was running a parallel radio campaign on hip-hop radio shows with these and other rappers at the time I found this advertisement in VIBE. This is important in the reading of this ad because the signifiers listed above intertextually refer to these other branches of Sprite's campaign. In assuming this knowledge of the other ads, I believe this ad can also be read as a second-order signifier. This may not be the conventional use of Barthes, but if I understand his idea of mythology correctly, I think it can work. This ad acts as one meaning-system in which hip-hop culture is signified through KRS-One who is mortised to Sprite to make a sign of Sprite +KRS-One. But we must consider it alongside the multiple other signifying systems which link Sprite to other hip-hop artists and the "Slam it or Jam it" surveys. These become another host of signifieds such as Bahamadia, a Tribe Called Quest, or as is the case in the phone polls, Sprite is connected with the activities of supporting new artists, listening to the people and knowing the slang. These intertextual signifieds serve to support the KRS-One + Sprite sign to prop a larger sign of Sprite = being down with hip-hop culture. Now, arguably, this is not a second-order signifier because these multiple signifiers are all referring back to the same culture, and the same basic signified of hip-hop hipness. This could simply be a case in which the many signifiers add the same value to the Sprite sign. However, since these artists also have individual signifieds within the subculture and each have their own sign relative to sprite, I believe it can be argued that the unifying symbol of the Sprite bottle and Sprite slogan creates a larger myth that constitutes a second-order signifier.