Find a suitably ambiguous television advertisement and record how

By Stanley Anderson,2014-01-15 11:21
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Find a suitably ambiguous television advertisement and record how


    Differences in the Interpretation of a Commercial

Television has traditionally been used as an advertising medium since its early days. The

    very development of television in the US was for commercial purposes with the first

    television commercials broadcast in the late 1940‟s, although commercial television

    would not reach Britain until 1955. Since then the number of commercials broadcast and

    the number of commercial channels has been on a steady increase (Wikipedia 2004,


Outside of the cinema, televised commercials are the heaviest impacting form of

    advertising there is. Businesses have always recognised this and, providing they can

    afford to and it is appropriate to the product, will choose to promote their product though

    means of commercials. Such a large quantity of advertisements competing against each

    other has lead to improved quality of advertisements, each one trying to outdo the other

    in the hope that they will be the one that the viewer remembers. Doing this has led many

    advertisers to hire acclaimed film makers to direct and well known faces to appear in

    their commercials (Wikipedia 2004, WWW). One such example of this is the British

    Telecom campaign of the early nineties in which Bob Hoskins, under the direction of Hollywood filmmaker Ridley Scott told British Viewers “It‟s good to talk”, the company

    using Hoskins hard man persona to their advantage.


The increased importance and emphasis on advertisements has led many companies to be

    brave and create more ambiguous commercials because most commercials are made to

    reflect reality and so violating reality is a sure way to attract attention to the advert and

    therefore the product (Messaris 1997, 5). Such seems to be the case with the Playstation

    2 commercials that aired across Europe in 2000. For these, Sony Europe hired cult

    filmmaker David Lynch to produce for them sixty and thirty second TV spots advertising

    „The Third Place‟, a tagline associated with the Playstation 2. The only clue to the

    product that is really being advertised is the logo for the product which reads, rather

    enigmatically in an unclear typeface, “PS2”.

Lynch had to his credit such celebrated pictures as Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977), Blue

    Velvet (Lynch, 1986) and Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990). His ventures into television had given the world Twin Peaks (1990-1991), arguably one of the most daring and imaginative television series ever made. Since 1988 he had also been directing

    Television commercials, most of which used his unique style to their advantage. This

    Playstation 2 commercial has many of the hallmarks of a David Lynch movie, and they

    are easily recognised within it, most notably Lynch‟s fondness for surrealism.

    The sixty second version opens with a flame across the screen. The flame disappears and

    a dark suited man walks forward He walks down a corridor which turns into a forest and

    back again to a corridor. He looks to one side and through a window he sees a woman

    flying upwards signalling to him to be quiet. He looks the other way and sees a man who

    gives him the thumbs up so he returns the gesture. The other man walks away and the

    suited man looks forward and sees a loud speaker. He turns round and see the word


“WHERE” hanging from the ceiling and smoke filling the corridor. Turning back

    slightly he sees the loud speaker again. Turning back completely he sees nothing but

    smoke. He moves forward curiously. The suited man stands still but without a head at

    first but the head is sucked back on and he throws up an arm which disappears. He sees

    smoke again. He looks down at his arm and finds his hand to be missing with smoke

    emitting from his forearm. He looks up as the smoke clears to reveal a room with three

    characters. One is himself who he stares at, the other is someone completely bandaged

    like a mummy and the last is a human sized duck wearing a black suit similar to the

    man‟s. Two titles follow in quick succession, one reading “PS2” and the other “the third


That description above is founded on my own personal interpretation of what is going on

    in the commercial: a shot breakdown of the complete advertisement is attached as

    Appendix 1. I questioned twenty-five individuals on their views of what is happening in

    it, my question quite openly being “what is going on in the ad?”: a question which

    generated some very different answers.

Six people expressed feelings that the suited man was a Government agent of some kind.

    The suit is probably responsible for these reactions as the associations such suits have

    with secret agents such as James Bond or Federal Agents such as Dale Cooper in Twin

    Peaks or Fox Mulder in the X-Files will influence the viewer into making that presumption. Several theories about perception highlight the function of sensory data or

    knowledge in the process of interpretation (Chandler, 1997: WWW). Viewers know that


a black suit with a white shirt is the stereotypical uniform for a Federal agent so they are

    using that knowledge to presume something of his identity.

     Figure 1: The Bright Room (Lynch, 2000)

It is in a bright room with some men and a duck dressed as a man. One viewer recalled

    this account of the end of the advert, shown in Figure 1. She missed out the details of the

    man seeing himself as one of those men, through either not seeing it or not remembering

    it. And only two people questioned said that they noticed the arm that had been thrown

    up next to the three seated men. This relates to Gestalt principles of visual organisation.

    Most people have sought the dominant shapes of the three men away from the

    background in accordance with the Gestalt principles (Sukhatme: WWW). But some

    have viewed differently, seeing the room itself as dominant, perhaps because it is light

    when most of the rest of the image is dark making it stand out. Or it could relate to the

    individual context of that particular viewer.


     Figure 2: Man throws up an arm (Lynch, 2000)

“The man threw up” was one account of the man‟s throwing up of an arm (shown in

    Figure 2). This person omitted from their account or did not take in the detail that it was

    an arm. The selective process which causes some details to be omitted from a person‟s

    recollection of an image is called levelling (Chandler, 1997: WWW). Their mind sees this extra information as irrelevant or insignificant to the overall interpretation, but it

    might not be irrelevant. The viewer may be missing the importance and significance of

    the arm, leading to the advert being misinterpreted. It could be that the arm has an

    association with video gaming so that specific connection with the product being

    promoted is lessened or lost completely.

To make sure there was a reasonable balance of age groups nine of the people I surveyed

    were over forty years of age. The answers of four of these people to the question of what

    is going on in the ad, equated typically to “I couldn‟t even hazard a guess”. The

    interpretations or lack of interpretation by these people may be hindered by historical

    context of perception. Theorists such as Marshall McLuhan (1962) have argued that over

    time there has been a change in the way we use and the importance we place on the

    different senses (Chandler, 1997: WWW). Nowadays people, especially the young, are


more reliant on sight than any other sense due to the importance of computers and the

    increase in literacy. Older viewers may concentrate more on senses other than sight and

    be better at using those other senses, but because of this their abilities to interpret images

    will likely be worse than that of a younger person.

    Figure 3: Man from the advert (left). Henry from Eraserhead (right)

Historical and socio-cultural context may also be responsible for the differing reactions

    from different age groups (Chandler, 1997: WWW). In recent years film narrative and

    style has become much more elaborate and inventive, with surrealism being an especially

    important part of this. Younger people are today‟s movie audience and their familiarity

    with the styles and conventions of surreal imagery will probably make them better

    equipped to form an understanding from the clip. David Lynch has long been popular

    with young film fans and because this commercial is littered with typical Lynch imagery,

    fans will be able to better construct an idea of images and the narrative. One can clearly

    see from Figure 3 (above) and Figure 4 (below) how images in the Playstation 2

    commercial of the man are almost lifted from David Lynch‟s well known works

    Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. But it is not just similarities of the man: the smoky floor is also iconographical of Eraserhead and the bright yellow room an obvious contrast to


Twin Peak’s Red Room. Older viewers who are more likely unfamiliar with these films

    and television programmes would be unable to recognise these links.

     Figure 4: Man from the Advert (left). FBI Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks (right)

Eight of those twenty-five questioned were familiar with David Lynch and all of those

    people where able to express an interpretation of the advert. Of the remaining seventeen

    candidates, six of those where unable to say what happened in the advertisement. From

    this I think it is fair to assume that watching this with the knowledge of the same kind of

    production gives the viewer the means to interpret the piece more easily and perhaps

    form the intended reading.

With the moving image viewers will try to understand the image in respect of a narrative,

    attempting to make sense of one image in the scheme of a larger construct. Because of

    this a series of loosely connected images may be interpreted as being related to each other

    and the viewer may find themselves adjusting their understanding of one moving shot by

    the presence of the following or the influence of the previous shot. In this particular

    advertisement some shots like the smoke may not be what the man in the advert is seeing:

    it may just be flashes forward to the smoke towards the end of the clip when we see the


man actually looking at the smoke. If the images are not related in a process of causation,

    as two people in the survey suggested, the process one would take to try and make sense

    of the commercial would be very different.

If I were to conduct the survey again I would definitely ask more people as a survey of

    twenty-five people is not representative enough. Also to produce more meaningful and

    representative results, I would pick survey candidates using some form of reliable

    sampling technique, such as stratified or random sampling. I also feel the question that I

    asked did not go far enough and that I should have also asked “What is the advert trying to say?”, “Is it set in our world?”, “What are the key images of this advertisement?”,

    What product is being advertised and how do you know this?”. Asking these questions as well would probably overcome the problem I had with some people who seemed

    unwilling or unable to provide an answer to my main question due, in my opinion, to it

    being too open. The extra questions would help raise some of the points which should be

    included in the answer to the question “what is going on in the ad?” but are often not

    because survey interviewees need more direct questions to give fuller answers.

    Paul Messaris observes “surrealism is sometimes thought of as a representation of dream imagery and, therefore, as a source of various hidden meanings” (Messaris 1997, 9). By

    this it is expressed that the fantastic nature of this advert will ask the viewer to look

    deeper into it to try and uncover the truth of what it all signifies. I agree with this

    statement because my chosen advert was enigmatic and bizarre from start to finish and I

    know that it stayed in the minds of my survey interviewees long after viewing. Like a


good mystery film, they took the commercial with them mentally to try to gain a better

    understanding of it, like an addictive puzzle that may or may not be solved.

Dr Daniel Chandler has suggested that we open up and allow more free-ranging

    interpretation of images we know to be intended as a work of art (Chandler, 1997:

    WWW). The Playstation 2 advertisement was obviously created for commercial

    purposes which some would argue prevent against it being a work of art. But Lynch is

    recognised as a true artist filmmaker - an auteur. If this idea of Lynch as an artist is

    applied to the advertisement and we consider it as a work of art then we may open up to

    further interpretations. Informing interviewees that what they were about to watch was

    an advert only forced them to limit their interpretations.

The prior knowledge of the younger age groups of surrealist films, television and perhaps

    most relevantly computer games, gives them the logistics they need to decipher the

    commercial more effectively and easily than the majority of older people. This makes

    sense as the advert can be interpreted by the target audience of the product. The text

    which reads “The Third Place” is symbolic of the unknown, possibly a third dimension - but whatever it refers to it is not in the real world. Those three words sum up the advert

    and explain everything that needs to be explained.


Chandler, Daniel (1998): 'Visual Perception' [WWW document] URL



    (HTW) (2004): 'ITV: A (Very) Brief History' [WWW document] URL


    Messaris, Paul (1997): Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images In Advertising. Sage

Sukhatme, Shirish: 'Visual Perception Gestalt principles of organisation' [WWW

    document] URL


    (Wikipedia) (2004): 'Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia Television Commercials' [WWW document] URL (01/05/04)


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