In this paper I will show how the seemingly random and isolated elements of television advertising conform to a general overall structure, and I will suggest that this structure is similar to one that the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, has identified in the myths of less materially advanced cultures. I will first give an example of the similarity between the type of logical processes evident in myths and in advertising, and then I will outline briefly what I believe is the general structure of television advertising.
Lévi-Strauss determined that the logical processes that go into the creation of a myth can be divided into two categories, empirical deduction, and transcendental deduction:
Empirical deduction occurs whenever a myth attributes a function value or symbolic meaning to a natural being because of an empirical judgment durably associating the being with the attribution. From a formal point of view the correctness of the empirical judgment is irrelevant.(2)Empirical deduction begins with some observation of reality. It then treats that observation as if it were an abstract concept. This type of mental process can occur using two different types of association. First, through the use of a metonymic association, some observed characteristic or habit of an animal is treated as if it stood for the entire animal. If this characteristic is found elsewhere in the environment, it too is associated with that animal. The metonymic association then becomes a metaphoric assertion. Lévi-Strauss’s term for such uses of metaphor is “imaginary association.”
An imaginary association…results in the attribution of curative powers against snake bite and tooth decay to seeds shaped like fangs. (3)The metonymic association (fangs of a snake) is used to make a metaphoric assertion (fang-shaped seeds cure snake bite). In television advertising we see this type of reasoning regularly. The air bubbles in Baggies sandwich bags make the bag look like an alligator’s skin, so an alligator is used as the product mascot. The Volkswagon “bug,” the Turtlewax turtle, and the old Exxon tiger are further examples of this type of association.
Transcendental deduction operates at another step removed from reality. The characteristic attributed to an animal or an object is removed from any grounding in empirical observation, and is determined by its relative position in the structure as a whole. Lévi-Strauss states that
It does not necessarily rest on a true or false, a direct or indirect empirical base; rather, it stems from the awareness of a certain logical necessity, that of attributing certain properties to a given being because empirical deduction has previously connected this being with others on the basis of a set of correlative properties (4)The functioning of transcendental can best be illustrated by using Lévi-Strauss’s own example. According to the Tupi Indians of South America, the tree frog and the bee are opposites. The frog is the master of water because it lives in water that collects in hollow trees, and seems able to find such habitats even during the dry season. However, the bee also lives in hollow trees, but in honey rather than water. Because honey is not water and water is not honey, the two creatures are seen as opposites. (This version of the argument has been simplified for the sake of brevity, and therefore leaves out other determining factors, such as high/low, etc.) The Tupi also see the jaguar as an opposite of the tree frog. While the frog is present master of water, the jaguar (for reasons excluded here) was the former master of fire, which it gave to mankind. These comparisons, which are based at least in part on some empirical observation, now lead to a third comparison which transcends the objective reality:
If the frog is opposed to the bee, which has honey instead of water (while the frog itself has water instead of honey), we may now introduce transcendental deduction to conclude that the jaguar (opposed to the frog by empirical deduction) must be like the bee and therefore, possess honey in some fashion. (5)This line of reasoning explains why Tupi mythology makes the jaguars the first owners of the honey festival. The association “bee equals jaguar” is forced upon the Tupi by the empirical associations they have given the frog, bee and jaguar. Lévi-Strauss says that this type of intellectual process is typical mythic thought. Much that appears illogical and contingent in a myth can ultimately be attributed to this combination of empirical (metonymic-metaphoric) deduction and transcendental deduction.
That this type of thinking is also present in the construction of television advertising has not yet been noted. To he sure, it has been pointed out that TV ads are replete with the traditional figures of myth and folklore. For example Tom E. Sullenberger has compared the Jolly Green Giant, The Keebler Elf and the Ajax White Knight to similar figures in fairy tales. He explains the repetition of such figures in advertising as being due to
…our desire to accept such improbable events, or, to drag in the literary expression, our propensity to “exercise the willing suspension of disbelief’” [which] results at least partially from our remarkable ability to adapt to the constantly changing idioms of whatever media we are currently exposed to. (6)To assume that, because the Keebler advertisers use a figure they call an elf, it is the same elf of fairy tales, ignores the totally different contexts in which the two images appear. The Keebler Elf may in fact be the modern analog to the Grimms’ elf, but this can only be discerned by a careful analysis of the functions and associations given to the newer figure.
Of greater interest are those advertisements which can be shown as analogs of more familiar myths, but which do not immediately call attention to this similarity. For example, the following ad for Budweiser beer demonstrates this unconscious association with the imagery of mythology, while, at the same time, exhibiting a structure based on transcendental deductions.
There are several things worth pointing out about this advertisement, which seems to be about a brand of beer. In the initial situation we, the viewers, are asked along on what seems to be a simple wagon ride. But from the use of camera shots from the driver’s point of view, it would seem that we are not only the passengers, but the driver as well. The frequent shifting in the location and angle of the camera shots forces us to abandon a single perspective on the situation; in effect, to give up our sense of self. We never see another human face, especially not that of the driver. We do see the dalmation in three different shots. We see the hourglass-shaped glass being filled with beer. We see the wagon come to a crossroads, and later cross a river. As the wagon approaches the gates at the end of the sequence, they open by themselves, and the wagon passes through.
The question I would like to answer is this: Why would an advertiser want to use this sequence of images to sell beer? For this particular example we can use a shortcut. There are other sources that can be used to suggest the answer to this problem.
With a heavy thud of hooves, a chariot drawn by black horses appeared, and dashed down the chasm. The chariot-driver’s face was invisible, but his right arm was tightly clasped around the shrieking girl [Penelope]. (7)Set against these examples from Greek mythology, the images of the Budweiser ad take on a new significance. If it is granted that this commercial is a modern analogue of the Hellenic descent into Hades, then the wagon becomes Charon’s ferry, the dalmation becomes Cerberus, and the gates of the Busch Gardens become the Gates of Hell. We also notice similar occurrences in both examples: The heavy thud of hooves; the chariot with the faceless driver; the crossing of the river Styx. All this would be no more than a curious coincidence of imagery if it could not be shown that there is an underlying necessary connection in the association of beer with death. Let us first look at the characteristics of beer.
When ghosts descend to Tartarus, the main entrance to which lies in a grove of black
poplars beside the Ocean Stream, each is supplied by pious relatives with a coin laid under the tongue of its corpse. They are thus able to pay Charon, the miser who ferries them in a crazy boat across the Styx…A three headed…dog named Cerberus, guards the opposite shore of Styx ready to devour living intruders or ghostly fugitives. (8)
Beer is a fermented beverage. It is the product of a natural process which involves the decomposition of foodstuffs. But unlike the normal sequence of events where decomposed food is considered unfit to eat, beer is only consumable when the process of decay is complete. This contradicts the usual patterns of consumption where foodstuffs go from raw (sometime edible) to cooked (edible) on to rotten (inedible). (9, 10) In effect, beer can “survive” the process of decay and still be useful.
But what has this to do with a trip to Hell? If we examine the mythic constellation of death imagery of Classic Greece, we must remember that Hades is a place one visits only after death. The flesh has become useless, and decomposes, and the spirit descends to the underworld. No living person would voluntarily go there, or stay there, as the tales of Persephone and of Theseus so vividly illustrate. One visits Hades only when there is no other choice, whether to search for a lost loved one (Orpheus), or under the irrevocable command of a superior (Heracles), or when dire necessity demands it (Odysseus). Anyone who can descend into Hell and return fulfills the same structural function as fermented beverages. He can go through death, a process which normally involves the decomposition of the flesh, and return as a useful and life-giving entity.
Thus it can be seen that the process of transcendental deduction is determining the composition of this advertisement. The nature of fermented beverages as decomposed foodstuffs is associated with aspects of the heroic descent into the underworld. In fact, the Budweiser ad is a visual pun. We witness the descent of the “spirits” into Hades. And we don’t have to look too far to find similar examples in other beer commercials. The slogan of a recent series of ads for Schlitz beer was “You only go ‘round once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can get.” The Schlitz malt liquor ads featured a large black bull crashing into the scene. Finally, a series of ads that recently ran in New York showed the ghosts of famous movie stars returning to their old “haunts” to sample mugs of Rheingold beer.
The implications of the presence of a logical structure in the use of imagery in television advertising goes beyond just this discovery of the use of transcendental associations, and so in the second part of this paper I will outline the larger underlying structure to which much of television advertising and programming conforms. I want to make it clear that I am not presenting the final and all-encompassing interpretation of the material considered here. It is the nature of structural analysis that the parameters of the interpretation will change as the body of data analyzed is enlarged. Rather than to present a final analysis of advertising, I intend to show that this approach is capable of providing insights and explanations unavailable to other types of analysis.
Vaseline Petroleum Jelly
In the initial situation, a young boy enters a workshop and asks his father, “Whatcha doin’ Dad?” The father replies, “Got chapped lips out on the boat. Vaseline Petroleum Jelly helps take the sting out.” The father rubs jelly on his lips.This advertisement for Vaseline Petroleum Jelly represents an easy point of entry into the structural system of television advertising. Generally, the process of structural analysis involves the comparing and contrasting of many variants of a tale in order to determine what is important and what is not. Lévi-Strauss has borrowed the notion of redundancy from communication theory to explain the rationale behind this procedure, Imagine that you are the story teller of a tribe that relies on the oral transmission of its body of knowledge. Let us assume for the sake of argument that you are fully aware of the hidden structural associations that your stories are portraying. How would you insure that the information contained in those tales would survive the erosion of time and the individual idiosyncrasies of future story tellers? One way would be to take the basic message or messages and repeat them over and over again using different formats and imagery. Though the stories would seem to be about different heroes, animals, events, and so on, the underlying structure would be more or less the same throughout. Furthermore, future story tellers would internalize these structures so that they would tend to reject any alterations which went against the general pattern. How this functions in television advertising will become clear as we examine the ad for Vaseline Petroleum Jelly.
In the next scene, the boy is in a living room where a middle-aged woman is rubbing jelly on her hands. He asks, “Whatcha doin’ Aunt Ruth?” She replies, “Helping to keep my skin smooth with Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. Who needs fancy creams?”
In the last scene, the boy enters a nursery where his mother is changing a baby. He asks, “Whatcha doin’ Mommy?” She replies, ‘Smoothing on Vaselimie Petroleum Jelly. Helps protect Mary from diaper rash all night long.”
Finally, the product is shown as an announcer says, “Baby’s skin, lips, hands too. Vaseline Petroleum Jelly The boy completes the sentence, “ ... is doing it all.”
Within the space of a thirty second commercial we see a young boy in three different situations. In each case, there are two constant elements: the boy himself, and the use of the Jelly. Since the boy is curious about what the adults are doing, let’s examine their behavior more closely. The father suffers from chapped lips. The aunt is keeping her skin smooth. The mother is protecting her baby from diaper rash. If we arrange these three incidents according to the agent. the concern, and the remedy, we arrive at this configuration:
In each case, an adult is using Vaseline Petroleum Jelly to counteract a negative influence brought about by some natural process. In other words, the cultural product is a remedy for the natural affliction. If this tentative opposition of terms is taken as the underlying message of this advertisement, it then can generate a table of permutations according to the procedure for structural analysis outlined by Lévi-Strauss.
- Define the phenomenon under study as a relation between two or more terms, real or supposed;
- Construct a table of possible permutation between these terms;
- Take this table as the general object of analysis which, at this level, only can yield necessary connections, the empirical phenomenon considered at the beginning being only one possible combination among others, the complete system of which must be reconstructed beforehand. (11)
…mythic thought transcends itself and, going beyond images retaining some relationship with concrete experience, operates in a world of concepts which have been released from any such obligation, and combine with each other in free association: by this I mean that they combine not with reference to any externalThis point about the use of images in mythology is particularly pertinent to a discussion of television advertising. People in general perceive the television image, not as a referent, but as the object imaged. They do not take into account the fact that in the very act of reproducing the objective world on film or videotape, a transformation occurs. The images become symbols that can be charged with meanings above and beyond the concrete reality of the objects they mimic. One of the consequences of this process of symbolization is that the meanings given to each object are affected by the meaning given to all the other objects in the system. Thus, the use of pairs of oppositions insures that the meanings given to objects will be clearly defined to the listener (in mythology), or the viewer (in television advertising.) One concept is clearly defined only as it stands in sharp contrast to another.
reality but according to the affinities or incompatibilities existing between them in the architecture of the mind. (12)
If we proceed with the Culture/Nature opposition of the Vaseline Petroleum Jelly ad to steps two and three of Lévi-Strauss’s method, it is necessary to construct a table of the possible permutations between the two types, and then treat this table as the object of analysis. In terms of its presentation in an advertisement, either culture or nature could be presented in a positive or a negative manner. This is because the creators of this type of narrative don’t have the space or time for the ambiguities that would arise from neutral values. Thus we arrive at the following table:
The advertisement for Vaseline Petroleum Jelly presented only one of these possible permutations, Culture + / Nature —. That is, it doesn’t take us farther than the simple statement of a general theme. However, the complete table of permutations can give us clues to what is possible, and then we can return to the material under consideration to see which possibilities are considered, and which are ignored. It is important to keep returning to the original sources in order to check the progress of the analysis, and ultimately, many examples must be considered. Lévi-Strauss points out that
it is impossible to inquire directly into the structure without being previously acquainted with a sufficient number of relationships between the elements. Consequently, whatever the starting point chosen in practice, the nature of the results will change as the inquiry progresses. (13)This next advertisement will help check the results, and at the same time introduce what Lévi-Strauss calls a formal analysis:
In the initial situation, a man and a woman are setting a dinner table. As the man lights one of the candles in the center of the table, the woman walks over next to him saying, “Everything looks great! The candles, the flowers, the... ring around the collar!” She has noticed his dirty collar, frowns, and puts her hand on his shoulder. He shuts his eyes, and then blows out the match. He looks down at shirt in confusion as the announcer says, “Anyone can get ring around the collar.”
The next shot shows the woman in a laundry room looking at the collar. The announcer continues, “But how do you get it out? You’ve tried spray after spray.” The collar is shown being sprayed with a laundry product. Then Wisk is shown being poured onto the collar, rubbed in, and then the shirt is dropped into a washing machine. “Now try Wisk. Wisk sinks in. Starts to clean before you start to wash. Then gets your whole wash really clean.”
In the next sequence, the woman is shown descending a staircase to meet the man at the bottom. He hands her a bouquet of flowers and then kisses her on the cheek. She says, “Flowers for me?” “For the great job you did on ring around the collar.”The first thing that must be done with this example is to submit it to a formal analysis. The following types of questions must be answered: What is happening? What sorts of individuals are involved? What problems do they confront? What means do they use to solve these problems? If this were a myth from an exotic culture, such a formal analysis would also include descriptions and explanations of native objects, beliefs, and practices. However, since most of what goes on in American television advertising is familiar to the viewer, this step is not necessary in this article. With regard to the first step, Lévi-Strauss states that
The final shot shows clean laundry and a bottle of Wisk. The announcer says, “Use Wisk around the collar for ring around the collar every
Formal analyses are indispensable, for they alone make it possible to reveal the logical armature hidden beneath seemingly strange and incomprehensible stories.(14)It is clear at the beginning of the advertisement for Wisk that a man and a woman are preparing for a dinner party. In all cultures the sharing of food is a primary social situation, and when food is scarce and hard to acquire, many rituals and myths are devoted to the origins and continued availability of the staples. In American society, where most people get enough to eat, much attention is still paid to the quality and the quantity of the food we eat and the people with whom we share it. In the case of this advertisement, the dinner party is disrupted before it begins by the discovery that the husband has “ring around the collar.” Mary Douglas has defined dirt as “matter out of place,” (15) and it would seem that the social occasion cannot take place if dirt is present. Notice that fast upon this dreadful discovery we are told that “anyone can get ring around the collar,” as if to emphasize that there is no personal guilt involved here; it is a chance occurrence that can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
What is the effect of this discovery? The dinner party vanishes, and the wife is suddenly sent down to the laundry room to get the ring out of the collar. It may be argued that the viewer is to understand that the dinner party did take place, and this scene takes place afterward. However, in terms of the presentation of the narrative, a causal relation between the discovery of dirt and the immediate disruption of the dinner party must be inferred. If we are to avoid biasing the analysis of the structure of the material, we must not add any elements to the narrative sequence. It must be assumed that the woman’s discovery of the “ring around the collar” is the immediate cause of the disruption by which she is sent to do the laundry.
Compare the woman’s initial and subsequent situations. In the first situation she is engaged in what might be termed a “positive” activity: preparing for a dinner party. But, according to Lévi-Strauss, “Cooking is a technical activity ensuring a transition between nature and culture.”(15) As was mentioned earlier, all cultures give different values to different methods of preparing food, and cooking as a cultural means of transforming edible material is contrasted to rotting or fermenting which are natural transformations. If we apply this insight to the present ad, it is possible to state that anything which disrupts a cultural activity must be seen as an attribute of its opposite, a natural situation. Thus it is possible to align the narrative of this ad according to the table of permutations developed previously:
Typically this advertisement does not portray a situation in which nature is positive while culture is negative. The sudden incursion of “nature” into the sphere of culture seems to be a pre-occupation of advertising, while the concern of television Programming centers around the breaking and reestablishing of social rules.
Though it is not possible in this brief article to complete the third step of the structural analytic procedure, to reconstruct the complete system of which the Wisk ad is only one example, it is possible to indicate some of its broader outlines by comparing several advertisements.
L’Eggs Panty HoseIn this advertisement the cultural event of the home movies is turned into a “disaster” by the young boy’s announcement that his grandma has wrinkly panty hose. This quite literally stops the show.
In the initial situation a family Consisting of a mother, a father, a grandmother and a boy are watching home movies. The grandmother and the boy are sitting on a sofa in front, while the mother and father sit on either side of the movie projector in back. Via voiceover narration, the grandmother says, “Our home movie became a disaster movie when my grandson said...“ “That’s you Grandma. I can tell by the wrinkly panty hose.” The home movie shows a pair of legs from the foot to mid-calf A dog which had been standing beside the pair of legs walks off screen as the boy speaks. The grandmother says, “That stopped the show.”
Next, the grandmother is shown sitting by a window. She says, ‘Now I wear L’Eggs. L’Eggs have memory yarn. It stretches out and it stretches back to fit beautifully.”
Finally, the grandmother is shown carrying the dog in her arms as she walks through a garden, A chorus sings “She’s got L’Eggs, Our L’Eggs fit your legs. They hug you, they hold you, they never let you go.” She arrives at a small pool and sits down in a chair as the boy films her with a home movie camera.
Before discussing this example further, let us consider one more ad.
In the initial situation, an older woman is rolling dough. She winces as if she’s feeling pain, and puts her right hand on her left arm. The announcer says, “Millions of Americans suffer in the grip of minor arthritis pain.”
In the next sequence, an older man dressed as a barber lifts a boy into a barber’s chair. This causes him to feel pain in his left shoulder. The announcer then says, “The kind of pain that can make doing simple things difficult.”
Next, a middle-aged woman takes a tube of Ben-Gay from a medicine cabinet. There is a shot of the ointment being squeezed out of the tube, and the announcer says, “Millions turn to Ben-Gay for relief. Tests prove Ben-Gay’s temporary relief reaches deep down to break up nagging pain and its stiffness where it lives …in your muscles and joints.” The woman rubs the cream on her hands.
Finally, a woman is shown tying a scarf around her neck, and the announcer concludes, “Relief like that has made Ben-Gay America’s number one arthritis rub. So when the pain of arthritis has you in its grip, break the grip of arthritis pain with Ben-Gay.”
The following arrangement presents each advertisement in terms of its underlying structure:
This arrangement shows that although these three advertisements seem to be about entirely different types of products, with different characters and events, their underlying structures are the same. The interesting thing about this correspondence of structural elements is the equivalent function assigned to dirt, children, and arthritis (illness). Returning to the ad for Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, it is possible to see that the young boy’s function corresponds to the overall structure of television advertising. Because the boy is in some sense akin to nature, he is not susceptible to its negative influence.
Finally if we generalize the structure of the Wisk, L’Eggs and Ben-Gay ads, we arrive at this arrangement.
This brief survey of the underlying structure and logical associations of television advertising demonstrates the insights gained by the use of the methodology of structural analysis. It has been suggested that the similarity between television advertisements and mythology is more than just coincidental, and it could even be said that in a very real sense television advertising is our culture’s body of mythic narratives,
What place do these narratives have within the total structure of television content? While it is beyond the scope of this paper to deal more than superficially with television programming, a few suggestions are possible. In examining advertising from a slightly different angle, we may see something of the nature of content structure.
If we look at advertising in terms of the advertiser’s intent, it could be said that, without going into the personal psyche of any particular advertising executive, they all produce their thirty and sixty second spots as propaganda for their clients. (Their degree of awareness of the mythic properties of their commercials is not important for the purposes of this paper.) This sort of “hard” propaganda can be set into opposition to news broadcasts, whose producers strive to balance opposing viewpoints and to present the “news” as objectively as possible The news reporters themselves are aware of another contrast within the structure of television content. They refer to their productions as “broadcasts” to differentiate them from “shows” which purport to have entertainment value. In fact, these three very broad subcategories form a triad that shows how the “stuff’ of reality has been sub-divided for the sake of television:
Within this schema, news broadcasts fall somewhere in between shows and ads in terms of entertainment value vs. propaganda, while shows and ads may have little or nothing to do with the objective world, dividing their productions in terms of their intention to entertain or propagandize. (This is not to say that no show ever has propagandistic intentions, or that no advertising executive ever wishes to entertain. But in general, each is more concerned with the demands of his own domain. Program producers must attract an audience, and advertisers must sell their products.) It could be stated that if the hidden structure of advertising has to do with an opposition between culture and nature, then within the other legs of the triad there are other hidden structures that determine how the particular material is developed and conveyed. If it could be stated that advertisements, by opposing culture against nature, deal with social versus antisocial behavior on a personal level, then I would tentatively suggest that the shows on television are chiefly concerned with social versus antisocial behavior on an interpersonal level, while the news deals with this same general opposition at the public level. Further research is necessary in order to determine the exact parameters of these oppositions.
I have attempted to demonstrate in this article the presence of an underlying structure in television advertising, and to suggest that this structure, operating within the context of all television content, determines the meanings and associations conveyed by those advertisements. It is by becoming aware of these underlying structures in our most dominant medium of communication that we can begin to understand the impact of television on our culture. This sort of approach to the study of the mass media shows that the difference between modern culture and so-called primitive culture is not so great as is supposed, and that human beings at all times tend to concern themselves with the same types of problems, the differences arising from the particular symbols and the particular media used to convey the solutions.
1. Lévi-Strauss, C. The raw and the cooked: introduction to a science of mythology, Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 11.
2. Ibid, “The Deduction of the Crane,” in Structural analysis of oral tradition, Pierre Maranda and Elli Kongas Maranda, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), p. 3.
3. Ibid, p.3
4. Ibid. p. 4.
5. Ibid, p. 5.
6. Sullenberger, Tom E. “Ajax Meets the Jolly Green Giant: Some Observations the Use of Folklore and Myth in American Mass Marketing, ” Journal of American Folklore (January-March, 1974) : 56.
7. Graves, Robert. The greek myths, Vol. 1 (New York: George Braziller. 195.5 p. 90.
8. Ibid. p. 120-21.
9. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Culinary Triangle,” The Partisan Review (Fall, 1966): 586-595.
10. __________, The Raw and the cooked: introduction to a science of mythology. Vol. 1, translated by John and Dorren Weightman (New York: Harper & Row:1969) P. 12.
11. ___________, Totemism, translated by Rodnay Needham (Boston: Beacon Press,1963), p. 16.
12. ___________, From honey to ashes: introduction to a science of mythology, Vol. 2, translated by John and Doreen Wcightman (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 473.
13. Ibid, p. 355.
14. Ibid, p. 157.
15. Douglas, M. Purity and danger (New York: Praeger, 1966), p.2.
16. Lévi-Strauss, C. From honey to ashes, p.28.