HYPERREAL ENCODING

We use the term 'hyperreal' to refer to video techniques that encode a heightened awareness of reality as it is mediated by television. Actually, hyperreal encoding attempts to connote a sense of unmediated reality, but always via a coding system that is mediated. Technique overwhelms substance as a semiotic system. The semiotics of technique dominate the reading of advertising texts which seek to convey a heightened sense of realism. Seamless technicolor realism, so popular from the 1950s through the 1970s, backgrounded technique and disguised the camera's presence. This is what Jean Baudrillard (1983, p.1) had in mind when he used the term "hyperrealism" - a world where reality is represented as more perfect than real. Baudrillard refers to the hyperreal as "The generation by models of a real without origin or reality," such that one can no longer tell the difference between what is real and what is a representation of the real.

By contrast, what we are labeling as hyperrealist encoding techniques tacitly acknowledge the insurmountable gap between photographs and that which they represent. In our use of the term, hyperrealism also acknowledges the presence of the camera, although once those techniques become routinized, the reflexivity about the camera's presence fades.

A familiar technique of hyperreal encoding is the jerky or shaky camera and the searching, or wandering, camera that does the looking for us. Where once there was a fixed object of focus, now the camera leads us in a fidgety search. This has an oddly de-centering effect because there is no central object. This technique mimics the decentering of the self and metacommunicates the claim that there is a new relationship between the viewing subject and the product. The camera technique draws on Jean Rouch's cinema verité method that acknowledges the camera's presence (Heider, 1976). Cinema verité is variously known as 'truthful' or spontaneous cinema - unplanned - because the movements of the actor are not determined by the camera, rather the camera's movements are determined by actors or objects in the frame.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ads used photographic techniques that literally de-centered products by displaying them along the margin of the screen rather than in the center. Or commodities were shown blurry and unfocused, or camouflaged in ensembles of other objects. The product was thus given no apparent priority as a signifier/signified within the narrative. Such tactics sought to defuse criticism that American advertising was but a conduit to shallow materialism, but the more likely motive for such technique aimed at holding the interest of restless viewers. The restless and wandering camera kept viewers guessing what the ad's and aimed at keeping their fingers off the remote control.

Comparable photographic techniques also decenter subjects as well as objects (see the section on hypersignifiers). Though such decentering subtly denies that the subject must become part of the totem group before they can realize their subjectivity - i.e., they claim to privilege the subject over the product - taken together, the hypersignifiers soon comprise a lifestyle ensemble of stylized objects.

Telephoto lenses magnify the grainy and hazy quality of images, and permit a heightened emphasis on hypersignifiers (see next section). Levi's popularized this photographic style by shooting their subjects from two blocks away in order to capture actors in unrehearsed and natural actions (Goldman and Papson, 1991). Advertisers have also used the telephoto lens to create a sharpened sense of realism by allowing objects or persons to pass in front of and between the viewer/camera and the object of vision. Disrupting the frame in this way conveys a perception of an unstaged reality. Levi's "Wildman" ad (1988) provides the exemplar of this technique, since emulated countless times by other advertisers.

Miller Beer's "It's Real" campaign took the kitchen-sink approach of using film code violations to encode "hyperrealism" -- this sequence included swish pans, overexposure, and objects passing in front of the scenes.
Frames may also be disrupted by discontinuous editing practices that create uneven and unpredictable rhythms and emphasize the rapidity of movement between images. Perceptual discontinuity is generated by increasing the sheer number and speed of edits, along with violations of continuity codes - i.e., edits are made to violate expectations about coherence, connection and flow. Specific methods of disrupting the rules of continuity include:a) not matching consecutive actions; b) radical change in image sizes; c) use of oblique angles; d) failure to preserve a sense of direction (action entering from opposite directions in consecutive shots); e) failure to match tone in terms of graininess, film stock, lighting; f) temporal discontinuity through jumpcuts or overlapping action (duplication); g) cutting on movement instead of on a rest; h) violating the content curve, i.e., the amount of time necessary for a viewer to recognize what is going on in a shot (Reisz and Millar, 1968). Discontinuity is further enhanced by using camera techniques such as swish zooms and pans that create perceptual disorientation along with tilts that throw the frame out of balance and violate media codes of symmetry, correspondence, harmony, order and proportion.

When Michelob used this hypergrainy photographic look in 1988 it seemed novel; today it is so common it almost seems "natural."

Exposing the graininess of photographic images is a common encoding technique used to signify 'reality.' Graininess has become a primary signifier in the system of ads - the grainier the image the more it signifies reality. Historically, the semiotics of graininess and film color derive from an era when black and white film stocks were faster than color. Until the mid 1970s color was associated with the studio where lighting could be controlled. Thus color is identified with the musical and fantasy - the more saturated the color the more fantastic the signification. Conversely, black and white was associated with documentaries because these were traditionally shot under natural light conditions. The hyperreal use of grain often exaggerates the code of graininess until it draws attention to itself as a signifier of realism. Drawing out the grain in ads offered a differentiated look or style in the mid 1980s. But just as importantly it functioned as a metamessage about how to interpret the commodity narrative, because tacitly embedded in the use of graininess as an encoding technique is the semiotic history noted above.

Once the value of technically clean images was called into question and made transparent, it became susceptible to a variety of intentional code violations used to differentiate product images. Media code violations multiplied in ads between 1986 and 1989, and gave rise to a revised code. The hyper-grainy look of Nissan or Michelob soon gave way to framing the video screen within the text so that different levels of graininess are juxtaposed (e.g., Michelob "Into the Night").

Michelob: The flicker lines of a screen within the screen serve as a reminder of multiple levels of mediation.

The viewer is thus positioned to decipher between different levels of reality and mediation - between different levels of glamour. Other ad campaigns mixed color video with black and white so that the grain establishes a semiotic distinction - e.g., the yellow Nuprin tablet/the commodity solution is contrasted to the black and white headache. Chic jeans juxtaposed the narrative of an unsettling date, shot in severely grainy black and white, against the less jangled and clearer images of changing into Chic jeans, signifying that you may not be able to count on men as your source of satisfaction, but Chic jeans are always there waiting for you, to please you.

These techniques are finally reduced to the home video, amateur style, where ads claim to signify the space of real life by recapturing the noise that 'naturally' goes with reality, but has been artificially cleansed away by professional studio tricks. Campaigns for Surf detergent and Sprite exemplify campaigns designed to look non-professional and reveal the constructedness of the video. When texts are made increasingly readerly, the final step is to permit the readers/viewers to produce their own texts, as with the Sprite campaign that placed a video camera in the hands of black inner city high school students.

Another encoding method associated with the hyperreal involves a form of ellipsis where the diegetic structure of conventional narrative forms is fractured, so that the narrative process of making sense has to be constructed by viewers. The typical advertising narrative implies a past, a present and future, but compresses time by leaving out the unessential elements of the story. Ironically, by erasing the familiar commodity narrative markers and replacing them with an apparently discontinuous array of images viewers are given a more immediate sense of the phenomenology of lived experience captured in 'real time.' Ad campaigns such as that for Lee's jeans attack classic commodity realism by redefining realism as letting reality break into the text unencumbered by the narrative. The text is littered with ambiguous dangling signifiers, so viewers must supply a narrative based on their knowledge of the connotative and denotative associations of a signifier. Viewers must now retrieve a narrative relationship from the signifier itself. The question of what motivates the sequenced inclusion of particular signifiers is made enigmatic - and again demands that viewers supply a meaningful relationship that connects the apparently unordered markers of real life. There is no longer a guarantee that everything which appears within the advertisement is there to advance the narrative. Though title cards are sometimes directive, they may also mislead - violating the viewer's expectation that written text on the screen clarifies the meaning of images. In Lee's 1989 ads, title cards introduce additional ambiguity rather than solving the mystery of the sequencing of images. Traditional narrative sequences are violated by having images apparently jerking back and forth between time and place.

Every new generation of ads introduces forms of ellipsis based on the abbreviation of encoding rules. TV ads begin by tacitly positioning viewers to bring up their knowledge about the reading conventions of ads without foregrounding those reading rules. This form of ellipsis reached a kind of stark minimalism in recent years when advertisers found they could presume that because of previous exposure to ads, viewers do not require an explicit commodity narrative - the commodity narrative is now embedded in the code itself. A related form of ellipsis involves the disappearance of the product. A third form of ellipsis creates enigmatic ambiguity, challenging viewers to act as self-conscious semioticians. Here advertisers rely upon viewer expectations that images mean something, but they throw viewers a curve by leaving out critical elements of the meaning process.