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Reviewed by Kate Miles
"As with any war, there is not only something to be won here,
but also much to be lost. When advertisers tap into, extract, and
appropriate new cultural styles and images for the purpose of placing
them in association with their commodities, they also risk a haemorrhaging
of meaning. Paradoxically, the more intensely advertisers compete
for the most valuable signs, the faster their signs cease to sizzle."
Sign Wars becomes a bit convoluted when initially communicating
the theories; it's real strength is in the deconstruction of the
ads themselves. Unfortunately, the illustrations provided are limited
to small black-and-white stills which do not always demonstrate
that which is being analysed. This insightful and exhaustive analysis
of our "cluttered landscape" of commodity signs focuses
on the beer, sneaker, credit card and soft drink image wars. When
the products themselves are indistinguishable, brand name recognition
and loyalty have created a billion-dollar industry of intangible
assets. But consumers are not simply fickle, they are becoming more
media literate. As the sign wars escalate, viewers resent feeling
manipulated. The struggle to capture but not alienate the viewer
has led the advertising industry to abandon the Technicolour musicals
and saccharine depictions of white-bread culture of the 1980s. Goldman
and Papson trace the introduction of advertising "realism",
such as the hand-held camera and jump cuts, as an initial attempt
to play on the viewer's search for authenticity.
Exploring the contemporary landscape of signs and images, Goldman
and Papson identify three modes of communication. Ads such as the
Energizer bunny banging its way through inane commercials for bogus
products affirm the alienated state of the spectators who feel manipulated
into parting with their money. By contrast, the Saturn campaign
uses home movies, Pat Boone songs and sepia toned footage to invoke
nostalgia for a simpler time, when one wasn't bombarded with advertisements.
Saturn's commitment to personalised service and company loyalty,
including the infamous Saturn owners picnic in Spring Hill, population
1200, responds to the consumer's yearning for a commodity community.
Finally, in one of the more illuminating chapters, Sign Wars
examines "Authenticity in the Age of the Poseur", which
seeks to explain why your favourite indie band just showed up in
an ad for The Gap.
Sign Wars also includes a chapter on green eco-marketing
and the exploitation of the spectacle of nature. An analysis of
the Downy refill reveals a societal acceptance of recycling as a
viable method to save the planet, and the use of children as a signifier
of environmental wellness. A chapter on corporate promotional videos
reveals a similar agenda to manipulate the public trust. Following
Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the U.S. Committee for Energy Awareness,
ran a series of TV ads featuring the "Nuclear Mom". She
states, "When I was in college, I was against nuclear energy,
but I've reached a different conclusion. It means cleaner air for
While the motive behind every advertisement is obviously money and power, Goldman and Papson's focus is sociological, therefore they tend to highlight the methods of mirroring and challenging the culture of the viewer rather than the needs and motives of a commodity-based economy. Although they do comment on the disintegration of history as a compelling narrative, and the celebration of superficial appearances over the scared and meaningful, Sign Wars is primarily a deconstruction of a series of advertisements. This can become repetitive, and one longs for an analysis of the "why" along with the "how". Nonetheless, Papson and Goldman's sweeping research makes for compelling reading, and would be of tremendous use to those investigating advertising in the world of contemporary media.
Published in Sources, Number 43, Winter 1999.