Contemporary advertising is more about branding than anything else: it aims, as the etymology of the term “branding” suggests, to imprint the body rather than to convince the mind.
Take the current advert for John Lewis, which has quickly become an Internet sensation for the ways in which it so successfully tugs at the heartstrings, leaving its mark directly on the body.
The ad is particularly targeted at women. Heidi Scrimgeour’s account, in “Why We Love the John Lewis Ad” on Mumsnet, records (as she herself soon admits) what is a typical viewer response:
[I] watched, riveted, until a sob took me by such surprise that it turned into an embarrassed laugh, and I sat stunned and snotty on the sofa, crying in an empty house over an ad for a store I can’t even shop in without boarding a plane and flying back to England. [. . . I soon] realised I was the cliche; one of hundreds of thousands of middle England’s mummies who had watched the ad repeatedly and cried into their John Lewis scatter cushions.
More cynically (however much we’re told that “cynicism must be set aside”, which is itself surely the apogee of cynicism), in the inevitable “Making Of” video, a John Lewis marketing manager states that the “campaign is really about delivering emotion for the brand.”
This is what advertising does today: it delivers emotion for brands. There’s probably no better instance of posthegemony.
And of course, the soft-focus affect that envelops the life portrayed in the 90-second slot, in which we see a woman’s life from infancy to old age, has little if anything to do with the brand’s famous tagline, Never Knowingly Undersold”.
That, too, is now merely a matter of affect; or rather, it has been so infused with affect that it has become what Ernesto Laclau would call a purely empty signifier.
The same goes, of course, for the rather misogynist lyrics to the accompanying Billy Joel song, which are at best merely an ironic counterpoint safely (and again, cynically, “we know, but…”) ignored by the viewer.