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No set of signifiers better demonstrates humankind's technological progress than the imagery of flight. Signifiers of flight weave their way through corporate advertising. Jets of all kinds streak through the sky, gliders and birds float on air currents, while rocket engines blast into space. The "history of flight" as signified by the implementation of technology represents the trajectory of human accomplishment. It represents the capacity of humans to dream, and to thus overcome the limits of Nature.

The Greatest Risk is Not Taking One
AIG World Leaders in Insurance and Financial services

Flight is sometimes depicted as a matter of human will power. A philosophy of achievement and human transcendence is succinctly summed up in the bedtime story retold in the AIG ad. AIG uses the history of flight narrative as a metaphor for human will and the discipline necessary to transcend failure. AIG implicitly likens itself to those daring young men on their flying machines. In this way, a motivational story about risk taking, perseverance, and achieving transcendence is joined to the presence of similarly motivated insurance and finance capital.

AIG uses black and white 'archival footage' of the pre-history of flight: men jumping off sand dunes with wings strapped to their arms, planes with seven wings, a dirigible-like machine hovering above the ground, and three men pulling a rope tied to a winged man. All these attempts at flight failed. But such inauspicious attempts of leaving the ground are given meaning by a child narrating the classic children's story about the "little engine that could."

I'm not very big said the little blue engine
But we must get over the mountains before the children awake
I think I can
I think I can
I think I can
She tugged and pulled
And pulled and tugged
And slowly, slowly, they started off
Hooray! Hooray!
And the little blue engine smiled
And seemed to say I thought I could
I thought I could.

As we might have anticipated, the final scene in the sequence simulates the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Instead of a flight that skims the ground for a hundred or so feet, this plane heads into the sky. Perseverance in support of a vision pays off.

Though the explicit narrative frames a motivational ideology, the visual focus of the ad presumes a connection to the symbolic history of flight from the story of Icarus onward through the Romantic movement, flight has been associated with connotations of human transcendence (Roszak, 1972).

Myth tends to be reductionist. This ad is illustrative. It strips away complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction. The commercial structure offers a formula well-suited to reproducing myth insofar as it demands abbreviation and abstraction, but still relies on the premise of narratives.


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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey