Generally, corporate ads position viewers to attach a signified (it could be innovation, humanitarian concern, global reach, flexibility, speed, or any number of other possible meanings) with the particular corporation doing the ad.
Here we are targeting the branding function of the commercial. While, in commodity advertising for consumer-goods the objective is to sell an image-saturated product, for corporations that do not sell retail the objective may be to increase investment capital or to sell their products to specific clientele, such as corporate buyers or tech managers. The goal may seem intangible - it is to build what is called brand recognition and brand equity .
The branding function necessitates repetition of a concept and associated signifiers -- a distinctive musical signifier, a visual logo, a photographic style, a tagline. In commercials, the tools of voice-over and/or musical background provide the necessary adhesive encoding structure that directs us to a particular reading of these signifiers in a way that steers us to the desired concept. The particular combinations (grafts) of signifiers are usually fleeting, and by themselves, of little importance. What is important is recognizability -- that a clear and strong association be made between signifier, signified, and corporation. Branding has become the primary motivation of corporate advertising. It becomes particularly important as a commodity sector matures.
In the quest to add value to this or that corporate identity, commercials draw on already existing ideological values. Commercials in behalf of corporations such as Microsoft, Cisco, Nortel, Sun Microsystems, IBM, seek to frame the meaning of a corporate identity. Information technology commercials give value to 'a way of life' supported by their technology. Though the competitive aim of each campaign is to make its sign stand out, some themes repeat over and over -- technology enhances our relationships; financial services will provide our families with a secure future; independent investors can beat the market, etc. In these narratives cultural myths translate into social, economic and political capital. Successfully executed campaigns can even translate brand value into inflated stock values.
These campaigns valorize a general worldview. Here, commercials do not necessarily compete with one another in terms of dominance of their sign. Rather, they move to higher orders of signification in which ways of seeing and the construction of the social universe reinforce and overlap. Likewise, they express the power of Capital in a free market economy. This function is latent; not in the sense of invisibility, but in that it is less directly motivated. Ironically, it is at this level that advertising tends to be a hegemonic discourse validating a way of life brought to us by Capital.
As these capsulized narratives migrate from business channels to sports channels to news shows to prime time, this world view becomes increasing pervasive in terms of exposure. This does not mean that other forms of discourse have more or less power, nor does it imply that postmodernist descriptions of multiple discourse narratives and the relativistic consequences are without merit. We do argue that the neo-Enlightenment narratives running through this genre of advertising defines and legitimizes the socio-economic trajectory tied to neo-liberal capital. To the extent that this multifaceted narrative rafts through advertising aimed at the general population, the power of this discourse to define American society's sense of future socio-economic formations expands. Likewise discourses of criticism are pushed to the margins, i.e. the IMF protests are defined by mainstream media as a territorial game between protesters and police.
Perhaps the best way to describe the metanarrative function of advertising is by using Roland Barthes' morphology of myth. Like all myth these corporate autonarratives are constructed out of decontextualized signifiers drained of actual history. The signified, the motivated concept, exists prior to the choices of signifiers. Sometimes even, the signifiers are purchased from image banks and then strung together to form stories. For example, a corporation wants to signify global reach and so strings together a series of signifiers that are easily recognizable as 'foreign' -- a Chinese junk, a Tibetan monk, an Asian parapet, African sounding music, the Amazon. Myth takes disparate signifiers and fashions them into a motivated form.
"In order to grasp the power of motivation in myth, it is enough to reflect for a moment on an extreme case. I have here before me a collection of objects so lacking in order that I can find no meaning in it; it would seem that here, deprived of any previous meaning, the form could not root its analogy in anything, and that myth is impossible. But what the form can always give one to read is disorder itself: it can give a signification to the absurd, make the absurd itself a myth" (Barthes, 1972: 126).