REALIST CONVENTIONS

Questions of realism in the video world are always a matter of codes. Fiske (1987: 24) states that

"realism does not just reproduce reality, it makes sense of it - the essence of realism is that it reproduces reality in such a form as to make it easily understandable."

In the mid 1980s the slick polish of 'super-realist' photography gave way to exaggerated realist conventions. Color photo-realism emphasized the perfection of commodities. Along with glossy graphics, this style of color photography located the material desirability of objects on the page or screen itself - the commodity and the image merged and could no longer be differentiated. The ideal in commercial photography from the 1950s till the early 1980s was to flawlessly simulate material objects - aided by the airbrush, commodity images were made to appear perfect. The closer such photography got to its goal, the smoother it became, paradoxically, the less 'real' it seemed. Television ads had lost all sense of texture - they seemed too shiny, polished, glossy and smooth. Prompted by popular criticism of advertising as falsifying the conditions of daily life, advertisers sought a style of signification that would reintroduce a sense of everydayness. Advertisers moved to regain a sense of texture - a visually tactile roughness - that could be juxtaposed in semiotic opposition to 'glossy'. This motivated the recovery of graininess in photography.

Citibank Visa jumped on the real-people bandwagon with imagery like this to boost their authenticity quotient.
This frame, taken from a 1990 Nissan tv ad highlights the effort to signify the perceptual experience of everydayness by stressing extra-grainy video, akimbo framing, and camera tilts.
Advertisers began venturing outside their studios to select subject-matter that connoted everyday life. Levi's pioneered this movement by presenting 'non-models' out in urban backgrounds. Levi's thus distanced themselves from what spectator-buyers had come to regard as the unattainable perfection of GQ and Glamour models. Esprit similarly invited real consumers to become models for a day. 'Real' people have since appeared in ads for cars, soda, burgers, detergent and beer. A second signifying strategy pictured everyday situations and 'unreconstructed' real-life situations (e.g., a Nissan ad showing children bickering and screaming in the backseat) that viewers might recognize as fleeting moments that take place spontaneously (unglamourously) in daily life. A related method represented scenes of minor conflict - persons exhibiting anger, tension and anxiety. These moments of conflict become abstracted and isolated in the form of abbreviated signifiers.

Such decontextualized signifiers differed from previous styles that depicted a world of commodity signs that apparently insulated wearers from the conflicts of daily life. Advertisers next discovered that breaking the narrative flow permitted them to signify a different sort of realism. Ads for Lee jeans and Suave shampoo fractured and fragmented snippets of conversation and placed them against the background noises of daily life - e.g., a Suave ad took place in a cafeteria amid the clatter of trays and glasses. By isolating, and amplifying, phrases of an actual conversation, advertisers turned them into hypersignifiers of real conversations.

Miller Beer commercials sought to fashion a simulation of extreme everydayness by relying on a heavily exaggerated realist photographic code. The goal here was to encode a reality that seemed to emerge from the texture of people's everyday lives, rather than connoting a staged concoction.
The word 'Real' in lyrics and taglines grew so pervasive that its referent became uncertain and less credible. Miller Beer is a familiar brandname that pursued narrative and photographic codes of realism. Linguistically and visually, they positioned themselves as 'Real' - real draft beer and real social relationships. Their "It's Real" ad campaign featured an ethnic wedding party. Pulsing music and video cuts raced along at a frenetic pace, hurling viewers through a collage of images intended to connote real life and real male bonding as opposed to the 'hokey' and 'staged' male bonding that previous Miller campaigns had been media-lampooned for. Miller subsequently abandoned "It's Real" in favor of "Buy that man a Miller" which restaged valiant moments of "everyday heroes." The Miller campaign was then revised to star everyday heroes in ads about their own acts of bravery or honesty. The 'Real Heroes' campaign reenacted dramatizations like that of Eddie Turner of Catawba, N.C. who risked his life to dive down and pull the cord of a fellow parachutist, who had become unconscious. The ads chronicle the heroic act in the photographic codes of scratched and grainy video, but switch to the smooth color video of official television to salute the heroism and pay tribute with the beer. Today this strategy has been adopted by Coors Beer when they hail youthful males about the authenticity of Coors male beer culture.

HYPERREAL ENCODING