TOWARD A CRITICAL THEORY OF (MOVIE TRAILER) ADVERTISING


[This trailer foregrounds its purposes and its devices, it’s “systematically distorted communication.”]

According to Professors John Harms & Douglas Kellner in their overview of the scholarly research on advertising emerging within Critical Media Studies, “advertising is a form of social communication which promotes non-communication, or what [Jurgen Habermas] calls ‘systematically distorted communication.’ Distortions result from techniques that are nonrational, nonlogical, imagistic, and that affect individuals subliminally and unconsciously.”

While Harms & Kellner note the work of “administrative” media theorists who study and describe the “use of mass communications within the given political economic order to influence audiences, sell products, and promote politicians,” they are sympathetic to the critical media studies argument that “advertising and mass media have contributed to the development and reproduction of an undemocratic social order by concentrating enormous economic and cultural power in the hands of a few corporations and individuals,” and they call for research on the linkage between the practical work of advertising and the political consequences of it, or “how mass communications in general, and advertising in particular, can exercise the power and impact that critical theorists suggest.”

Insofar as I teach and lecture on the contemporary practice of a/v movie marketing and indulge scholarly aspirations about its history, cultural significance and politics, I am inspired in my own current research on the emergence of movie trailers concurrent with broad campaigns of mass social control (derived from psychological and psychoanalytical inquiry, public opinion theorization and the industries of public and human relations) to attempt, in my own small corner of the subject, that explanation and analyse that linkage.

As I prepare to begin writing an article for publication over the Christmas holiday, I will take the liberty of working through a few ideas in the space of this blog:

The usual rap on advertising is that it promotes “‘commodity fetishism’ and a fetishized consciousness that invests goods, services, and individuals, etc. with symbolic properties, associating products with socially desirable traits.”

What I’d like to know, as an advertiser working with film products and a scholar working with representational practices and rhetorical conventions rather than commodities in the familiar sense of the word, is whether this ideological analysis holds up, when the product is always already invested, nonrationally, nonlogically and imagistically with symbolic properties.

With trailers, the commodity advertised is a film or tv program, entertainments that are consumed in a different manner than say food or clothing or materials, but the choice and the experience of which clearly contribute to the ideological ambience within which we live, work and think. Likewise, such consumption tells others about our interests, our aspirations, our socio-economic identity, though not perhaps as much as one might think since taste in a/v entertainment is not information that is worn on the body, per se, but rather elucidated through conversation and engagement.

Compared to the purchase of a luxury sedan or a habit of shopping at a particular grocery chain, it is a dangerous habit to draw conclusions about the wealth, sophistication or sociological identifications indicated by entertainment decisions. To buy an expensive house or car or vacation testifies to material circumstance. For the movie goer or home video consumer, consumption and appreciation whether of schlock and splatter film, French New Wave Cinema or political documentaries, tells us next to nothing without context and further inquiry.

What complicates the kind of easy reasoning from “ideologically” suspect symbols, messages and emotional appeals in advertising to propagandized and politically disciplined consumers is that the consumption involves various filters through which “problematic” communications pass. Are you an intentional or an accidental viewer? A scholar and student of the medium, or a bored seeker after sensation? Is the experience pleasant or unremarkable or is it repellant and resisted? Above and beyond that, there is the issue of one’s media training and education in “reading” and processing a/v content. There is the setting in which one consume the product.

In the theater, for example, the trailer portion of the program is, by convention, a time of public comment and reaction, unlike when the feature plays and your fellow movie goers are likely to manage your reactions within acceptable limits. Trailers, as Lisa Kernan has pointed out, invite participation and a carnivalesque relaxation of polite spectation. In other words, we are free to resist and resistance is part of the pleasure and the experience.

But to return to the notion of “systemically distorted” communication mentioned in the opening paragraph, it is the systematicity of advertising – it’s persistent and cumulative rhetoric, formulae, image intensity and emotional power–that is adjudged as the problem, the culprit, the danger within critical media studies. In this understanding, even the resisting and sophisticated viewer is overwhelmed by volume and scale, worn down by repetition, susceptible to appeals and persuasions that bypass conscious defenses to work unconsciously, somatically and ineluctably toward ends that are not his or her own.

One of the qualities that I’ve often remarked about and admire within trailers is their self-consciousness, their explicit announcement of their status as commercial films designed functionally and in relation to another film or films. This has always seemed to me to impede– by framing and denaturalizing– the ideological, political or emotional communication of the film and the advertisment itself. And yet, as scholars like Enrica Picarelli, among others have shown, the battle is not met merely at the level of consciousness, reason and logic. It’s somatic, subliminal, emotional and pitched toward our unconscious identifications and desires.

One might say, what communication or message or entertainment isn’t, and that would be a point well taken. Yet, the organization, the resources, the intentionality behind advertising and its critical work of capital accumulation and maintenance of a political economy not necessarily of our choice or making gives me pause.

Creative Commons License
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
This entry was posted in Observations and Provocations and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>