Capital frames culture. More specifically, Capital draws on culture -- broken down into signifiers -- to frame itself. Reduced to stereotypical signifiers, cultural allusions provide the constitutive elements used by advertising to signify the impact of globalization brought about by neo-liberal economic practices. On the one hand, cultural signifiers serve as markers that visually demonstrate the global presence of a particular corporation. On the other hand, they serve as apparent proof that corporate practices are beneficial to all peoples. The expansionist tendencies of Capital as it flows across the globe at an accelerating pace searching for higher rates of return makes use of advertising to legitimize its power as it transforms socio-cultural environments (Goldman and Papson, 1996, Klein, 1999).
And, as salient critiques (e.g., anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Quebec City) arise, corporations respond by creating a mediated 'atmosphere of trust' that ameliorates and redirects critical moments. By re-animating the grand narrative that links technological development to unending human progress, by celebrating universal humanism, and by using recognizable cultural signifiers to construct corporate narratives, corporate advertising opens a protective umbrella under which corporations can seek to 'do business as usual'. Corporations use signifiers and narratives drawn from cultural wells in order to brand themselves as positive global citizens.
We have seen how advertising mines cultural referent systems for signifiers to valorize corporate practices. Signifiers don't exist in isolation. They make sense because they are embedded in narrative structures in the encoding process. Signifiers are the building blocks of abbreviated corporate stories. Advertising discourse uses familiar encoding practices, placing signifiers in recognizable flows. The flows of signifiers are supported by discursive cues such as voice-over, music, story-line, etc. which serve as markers of interpretation. While these markers are visible, they tend to remain transparent or taken-for-granted. The process of encoding is an assembly process, which tends to follow pre-determined structures that decoders will intuitively recognized and make sense of the flow of signifiers.
The thematic montage assembles disparate signifiers and binds them together by a device external to the images themselves: usually sound (music or narration). Corporations insert themselves in the form of logos or products into the flow of images creating equivalence by association. The thematic montage takes two forms: the serial montage which strings together racial and ethnic portraits which are given coherence by a monologue fragmented and spoken in serialized multiple voices speakers and given affect by a background musical score, and The Family of Man montage which uses both portraits assembled from images that express diversity--race, culture, ethnicity, and age to connote universal humanism, and fragments of cultural and natural landscapes to indicate the global reach of a particular corporation.
The testimonial uses a narrative structure to follow the trail of global capital into the most remote locals. Usually, the narrative follows one of two paths: transformation or rescue. In the former, investment capital and/or technology transform primitivism into modernity. In the latter, some disaster has befallen an underdeveloped part of the world and a corporation participates in the rescue by providing food, medical supplies, and infrastructure repair. The testimonial is also used to attest to the beneficent nature of corporate work. Using a documentary realist format to connote truthfulness of the narrative (Nichols, 1981), testimonials are presented from three points of view: the generalized voice of capital (the voice-over), the specific representative of capital (usually female), or the transformed/rescued native/beneficiary. This format does not disguise corporate power but rather constructs it as paternalistic and beneficent, reminiscent of older forms of rationalized colonialism.
The ethnography focuses specifically on one cultural formation. It shows a compressed moment of this formation, which is associated with underdevelopment and exoticism, and then integrates corporate-produced technology into that moment. Paradoxically rather than promoting modernism and development, the imported technology preserves traditionalism and authenticity. Information technology corporations, such as IBM, Compaq, and Microsoft, use this structure. Here advertising parallels the theoretical stance of British cultural studies (DuGay et al., 1997; Nava et al., 1997). It operates on the premise that once an object enters the cultural realm users will work it over in particularistic ways; negotiated uses then replace hegemonic ones.
Humorous ads use a joke structure to dissipate negative connotations associated with cultural difference while still affirming Otherness (O'Barr, 1994). Jokes are constructed out of exaggerated stereotypes. One type uses language jokes in which the meaning is misinterpreted. Another uses cultural transvestism in which disparate cultural signifiers are blended, e.g., Japanese patrons doing the polka in a nightclub. A third type exaggerates a cultural trait to the point of absurdity then turns the joke. The joke psychologically ameliorates threat and risk associated with rapid socio-cultural transformations.