We have read Williamson on the metastructure of ads and Herskovitz on the metacommunication of ads. As advertising matures and turns on itself to become more and more self-referential, the issues of metastructure and metacommunication tend to become the subject matter of ads themselves. Analyze the operation of falsified metacommunication in an ad.
A DKNY ad from March 1993 Details: Two men are arm wrestling in a cheap bar, surrounded by friends cheering them on. Cigarettes, lots of rings and black leather, denim, and flannel are the style in which they are adorned. It is a scene of workingclass bonding, of muscular men and leather vests and jackets. After the long day working in the garage, its gather around the all night diner time and let loose yourself, free yourself from that alienation.
But wait, in the realm of content, of the report, things are getting a bit eerie. The tough men have their hair just a bit too fashionably shortcropped, and their faces are a bit too smooth to have just gotten off a shift at the assembly line. And all the black leather is shiny, unscuffed, and not in the least bit worn. We become aware of the artifice of the scene.
I should backtrack a little. More important than the image depicted in the photograph is the way in which the photo is put together. As if taped together on a layout board, or more truly on a wall, the image is really four different photos crudely taped together with stringy packing tape. (Implying that they aren't supposed to seem like layout professionals whoever did it.) The four photos are taped together, but don't match perfectly. There are slight slips in the overlapping. Why call attention to the layout and construction of the frames?
The spectator's attention is called to the medium of the fashion image, depriving the content of the image itself of some value. The ad metacommunicates to us its artificial origins, identifying that it has a creator, and is not a "natural" thing. We are forced to realize that someone took that picture, someone set up that scene in the diner, that those are models arm wrestling and not longshoremen, that those jackets are for sale; that someone is taping together the images, and that that someone is trying to look unprofessional, unslick.
"DKNY", as from a big rubber stamp gives us the all important sign with which we are to associate this self-referential image. A connection between this SIGN and a similar dkny on the arm of the woman clinging to one of the arm wrestlers is made. Mortise job.
What is the meaning of this metacommunication, this appeal to us to realize that this ad is an ad and that it is the product of someone somewhere for some purpose?
I could hardly say that I know enough about Donna Karen (of New York?) corporation to say that this ad is meant to sidestep the spectator from reacting to such pernicious corporate activities as those elided by The Shell Answer Man, and I refuse to step back up on my pseudo-Gramsci soapbox attack on the advertising lackeys of the ruling class for at least a few days, but there is still something ominous in the distortion of reading that I see implied by the way this ad communicates, or, rather, metacommunicates to us.
That the ad calls attention to its own creation as a textual artifact and away from the content of the ad seems to me to parallel the way that in designer clothing, such as that advertised in this piece, the sign of the creator supersedes the produced commodity itself.
To the now almost mythical SAVVY viewer, most advertisements are packs of lies, undoubted distortions of reality. Suspicion is the spectre that haunts Madison Avenue. ("What'll we do if they stop believing us?" they moan on sleepless nights.) How to get around the spectator who has seen everything 11,000 times? Why not by seeming to tell them the truth, by giving them the markers of artificial origin of the advertising piece. Giving them the clues by which to decipher the true power relations of the communication relationship, of the advertiser over the spectator, the advertiser hopes to give the spectator the sensation of insider knowledge, of being a participant in the communication relationship of the ad. We know, because of the markers, that this ad is a human construction, and is not "natural" as are the ads it is to be differentiated from, but because we are "given" this knowledge, we like we are in on the game and then proceed to revel in believing in the naturalness of the ad, pseudo-natural though we know it to be.
I am almost tempted to say that in this ad, not much more is signified by the markers of falsified metacommunication, that the falsified metacommunication in this ad is but a mythified version of falsified metacommunication, lifted from the world of avant-garde postmodern photography or some other advertising in order to be tied to some very very ambiguous concept or other, a concept which, we the readers, I assume, are supposed to supply, since I see little evidence of that except perhaps in the image in the photo itself. Perhaps that is just speculation, as it is a thought I have not worked out just as yet.