Landscapes of Global Capital
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merrill-lynch94-01 MCI07-98
Merrill Lynch94-01

This is a project about public, commercial representations of Global High-Tech Capital. We are interested in how space/time (speed), capital and globalization are represented in corporate television advertising.

We view television advertising as part of a larger "cultural economy of signs." By this we mean that advertising is dedicated to the cultivation and circulation of sign values. What we are calling sign values, the industry refers to as branding. In the global marketplace, goods and services that lack an identifiable brand value tend to lag behind, if they survive at all. This cultural economy of branding (circulating signs) seeks to produce values by rearranging and assembling cultural systems of Meaning.

We believe that this cultural economy of signs has become every bit as significant as the more traditional political economy of Capital which precedes it and underlies it (Goldman & Papson, 1996). We want to explore what we perceive to be a correspondence between advertising as an economy of signs and the logic of capital. When capital expands and speeds up (high tech global capitalism) does the cultural circulation process also expand and accelerate? How is this cultural economy of signs related to the most powerful forces within the larger global economy of capitalism?

At the same time, how does this system of advertising depict the changes that are taking place in this global system. We have compiled a collection of over 800 television commercials covering a period from 1995 to the present so that we might investigate how advertising articulates (gives cultural voice to) "worldviews" of global and high-tech capital. We focus on the kinds of narratives corporate sponsors choose to tell about their relationship with a still emerging global economy and civil society.

Many of the ads we've collected could be classified as corporate ads. Though all ads are intended to sell something, a lot of corporate ads aim more at identifying the company and what it stands for rather than offering a particular commodity. Or as they say in the biz, these ads aim at "branding" the company. In our rubric, this "branding" process aims at establishing or reinforcing a corporate "sign value." This type of advertising differs from the far-more-common varieties of commercials that aim at building and selling commodity logos and signs for mass-produced parity consumer goods. One difference between corporate ads and their commodity cousins lies in the tone of address they employ. While today's consumer-goods advertising often assumes a self-conscious winking manner about the nature of the advertising project itself, corporate ads of the sort that we are looking at here are far less likely to address viewers in a self-conscious tone. They tend to be more serious, sober, concerned and purposive in tone.

In this project, we are looking at how corporate ads represent global landscapes: how do they depict globalization as social and cultural spaces, the penetration of e-commerce into people's lives, the role of technology and speed in our lives, etc.

Corporate capital was transforming itself at a furious pace in the 1990s, sometimes through merger and acquisition, sometimes by virtue of new technologies, always by expansion. Our study examines the kinds of public self-representations that corporate entities offer as they transform themselves and the societies in which they exist. The transformations are of several orders -- one is toward globalization; one is toward a new economy of high-tech firms; one is toward the widespread populist incorporation of the middle classes into retail investing; one is toward the Internet and the wireless telecommunications to come. The transformations left out of their accounts will prove no less significant -- e.g., the steadily widening gap between rich and poor, the erosion of the middle classes; the disappearance of a regulatory state; the absence of panoptic authority and power.

Reading these ads as symbolic accounts of the transformations taking place in the world, we want to focus on the landscapes and narratives set forth in these ads.

Merrill Lynch94-01


Why did we initiate this page by joining two such radically disparate images from television commercials? And what do they have to do with advertising landscapes? The first scene resembling a tranquil bridge scene -- patterned perhaps after a venerable Japanese print -- has been lifted from a montage arranged to testify to Merrill-Lynch's global financial reach. The photographic imagery of orange-robed Buddhist monks became a late 1990s favorite amongst corporate advertisers, who perhaps saw the orange-robed monk as a signifier of diversity's inclusion in the "new world order." Or perhaps they include such imagery to connote Eastern wisdom, or to convey a sense of balance between tradition (unchanging) and energetic modern Capital (Merrill-Lynch). What can decontextualized images of orange-robed monks be made to tell us about capitalist cultures circa the millennium?

Merrill Lynch94-01

We ripped the second image from an MCI WorldCom advertisement where it was meant to signify the speed of data transfer over the Internet. Whereas the first landscape scene speaks to continuity amidst the forces of globalization that are penetrating and transforming Asia, the second landscape speaks not to place but to space, an abstraction that more and more seems to lie at the core of the capitalist world-system. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to interpret the second radically decontextualized image as the inside of a fiberoptic cable. Here is the cyber-scape of the moment, not simply a symbol of a future that is upon us, but a functional conduit, the veins of a network that like a river flows through us, connecting us.

In thinking about images such as these we have returned to the tradition of studying "landscapes." The device of "landscapes" has a long-standing place in Western culture's representations of social and cultural geography. Cultural analysts and art critics have long employed the strategy of reading landscapes for clues into the social and cultural makeup of a time and place. "The visual conventions we use to understand" socially constructed landscapes "emerged from painting and photography and were made universal by advertising and film" (Nye, 1997:5). David Nye draws on J.B. Jackson's definition of landscape - "A composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence." Landscapes can thus encapsulate broad cultural understandings of the ways we live and the ways in which we have imposed ourselves upon nature. Any landscape is going to privilege one picture of the world over other possible, but marginalized pictures of that world.

We know that as an agrarian society could be represented via the conventions of the landscape - so too were the industrial era and the modern era. But how might we begin to conceive of the era that has been variously referred to as hypermodern, postmodern, supermodern, global, or turbo-capitalist? What landscapes can we turn to here for enlightenment and deconstruction? We offer television advertising as a source of landscape images to study. What can be said about how Capital conceptualizes spaces as landscapes in its advertising?

We (the authors) see in these television ads, Landscapes of Space and Speed; Landscapes of Globalization and Individualism; Landscapes of Capital; Landscapes of Technology and Science.

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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey