De la valeurs des images aux images comme mise en valeurs

“One does not think nor act, rather one makes signs”

Gilles Deleuze, Proust et les signes, Quadrige, PUF p.13

I am pleased to discover that one of my recent commentators on this blog is a respected academic whose books and articles I am (moderately) familiar with : Jonathan E. Schroeder. As a matter of fact, I actually have a short comment on amazon.fr about Brand Culture, which he co-edited and where a couple of essential readings appear, among which 3 are especially notable to me:

– Ambi-Brand culture : on wing and a swear with Ryanair by the always devastatingly insolent but accurate Stephen Brown.

– Brand as Ideoscape, by Søren Askegaard.

– Rethinking Identity in Brand Management, by F. Csaba & A. Bengtsson.

If the 2 first articles are from highly respected scholars – though they seriously threaten the foundations of most of their colleagues’ ideas, epistemologies and methods , I believe the 3rd one to be much needed in marketing & branding literature. (disclaimer : F. Csaba was my professor at CBS) This because it convincingly questions THE Holy Grail of branding theory and practice: identity. The authors unveil what one has to call a conceptual desert around the notion of identity as it is used by mainstream marketing academia (e.g Aaker; Kapferer… and, trust me, many others !) and contrast the taken for granted attitude of this tradition toward such a complex concept stemming from various disciplinary fields (e.g philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology) with the profound interrogation it posits in contemporary societies as shown by informed social sciences. (e.g Castells, Giddens).

As invited by Jonathan Schroeder here, I had a look at his projects’ web page and went through the chapter he wrote, “Images in Brand Culture,” for the upcoming (fall 2007) Go Figure: New Directions in Advertising Rhetoric, Barbara J. Phillips and Edward McQuarrie, eds. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe.

Well, first of all the paper deals with advertising so I should say that I have rather limited experience with advertising as such, academically or professionally speaking, as I believe with Benoit Heilbrunn (disclaimer: another former prof. of mine), that advertising has become a marginal element in the consumption and brand societies we live in. Basically, Heilbrunn argues that brands have progressively abandoned the strictly mediated relationship with consumers allowed by advertising in order to engage more directly with them, through PR, design, DM and any below the line alternative. Therefore the fundamentally external relation brand used to entertain with their consumers has become internalized. He explains that (source: Le Monde, 04/23/04):

By multiplying the apparatuses for interactions with consumers, brands have become unavoidable partners of their dailylives and a powerful cement of social bound. Brands have increasingly invaded the psychological, emotional and social spaces of people, thereby becoming true ideological devices able to advocate a genuine political program which relies on sacralizing commodity by enlarging the realm of consumption far beyond market exchange. Thus, consumption takes the form of a set of experiences through which people trade (symbolic) value and meaning and, consequently, negotiate their identities.

This being said, let us go back to our “Images in Brand Culture”. In the context of the extensively visual mode of relation of brands with consumers, where visual websites, print ad, TV (or logos as Heilbrunn would point) have replaced the traditional text, argument-based discursive strategies of communication, Schroeder’s aim is to point to the cultural foundation of the visual rhetoric used by brands in modernity. To do so he focuses on 3 areas : snapshots aesthetic (unposed, loosely framed photographs evoking authenticity & casuality), the tranformational mirror of consumption, and the visual language of architecture.

In describing the mechanics a play when ad campaigns leverage those 3 techniques, Schroeder highlights the need to include an informed investigation of the representational conventions upon which they draw in order to be efficient. So just like “an hour is not an hour, it is a vase filled with flavors, sounds, projects and climates” (Proust, Remembrance of the Past Things), an image in an ad is filled with deeper meaning, socially framed, which provide the basis of the connivance marketers try to establish with consumers.

Well, as much as I agree with that, it does not sound revolutionary to my ears.

A major issue I have is that Schroeder seems willing to draw general laws as for the impact of his 3 conceptual tools on branding activities. With such general questioning one assumes a certain permanence in the aesthetic of the snapshots, transformational mirror or architecture style. Personally, I would defend a more emerging or relational vision (see, Appadurai : “this is a relational argument”) where the snapshot, for example, can only be understood in the peculiar context – or network of associations, in a Latourian fashion – within which it emerges. Thereby obliging to reassess its role each time and in conjunction with all the proximate relevant sources of symbolic value with which the so-called aesthetic of the snapshot interacts . This means investigating the meaning it may convey given, for example, the product category, the history of the brand, the national culture or the competitive environment it appears in. From that perspective the snapshot aesthetics (or role of classical architecture) is fundamentally plural and can hardly be pointed at a category as such. Rather, its value is contextual. Consequently if the context of the snapshot is to be understood, it has to be preliminary delimited. This is why the notion of “net-work”is probably more enlightening. For example, Schroeder explains that classical architecture convey notions of “stability, longevity, permanence” that corresponds to the expectations of clients who entrust their savings to banks’ care but, it seems to me, if these values resonate in today’s consumer when they look-up at the classical HQ of their bank, at the time when these were erected the buildings may have conveyed very different values such as modernity, dynamism, progress. Furthermore, in the contemporary economy of desire, gamble and easy money (Rifkin, 2004) “stability, longevity and permanence” may easily become associated with “conservatism, establishment, overcautiousness”. My point is to say that if, as Schroeder advocates, we are to take broad cultural representation seriously in understanding how advertising works, we should never take culture as a frozen land (btw, run to see the eponymous Finnish movie) but always something versatile.

Of course, this certainly doesn’t impede the emergence of common themes across category limits such as countries, product categories or epochs. As a side comment, I wonder to which extend the renewed snapshot aesthetic is not marketers’ reply to the marketing-savvy consumers’ who have become aware of branding discourse and strategies (Brown, op cit). From that perspective the straightforward, no-bullshit communication tone is actually the most advanced and sophisticated level of the dialectical relation between marketing discourse and consumers’ response to it…
That’s why I doubt one can subscribe to the claim that the use of a given technique or rhetorical system such as snapshot aesthetic or architectural classicism and the possibilities it offers promote certain values per se. (p.9)
Moreover, if they are meant to do so, a culturally astute understanding of advertising still has to figure out how and why certain values (e.g. authenticity, casualness) are favored in certain times in certain places. For example, in their fascinating article (JCR, 2005) “The Fire of desire“, Belk, Ger & Askegaard notice that the longing for authenticity expressed in the form of Norwegian natural landscape voiced by consumers in urban developed societies such as Denmark was not expressed in less advanced countries such as Turkey.

I want to conclude by reflecting on Schroeder interesting remark that, the role of promoting the symbolic values of the bank institutions, once manifested in the proud architecture of their buildings and subsidiaries has been transfered to mere images, to pictures of such architectural achievements. One can see the classical columns and other physical attributes but only on billboards, TV ad, annual reports’ pictures. Under electronics, netbanking, offshoring and TIC, this reality has been diluted and then resurrected in “artificial system of signs” ; the signs of the real have replaced the real itself (Baudrillard, 1981)
As Schroeder aptly points, “banks today are in the business of building brands as much as physical structures”. But paradoxically this does not make them less “permanent” or less “safe” in the eyes of their clients. Probably because, at the end, the symbolic value, as evaluated by consumers, has been preserved, though it takes the form of mere images.

Lastly, and if the issue at stake, as Schroeder states himself, is to understand how pictures and images communicate value (p. 2), I cannot but recommend J. M. Floch’s masterpiece’s works in the field of communication, semiotics and marketing. By prolonging the work of Barthes and Greimas, Floch focuses not on a special type of communication (e.g advertising) which would restrain our understanding of communication. Instead he addresses “signs” whatever the form they may take in a given product category. This agnosticism allows him to deploy the powerful conceptual tools of structural semiotics (semiotic square, generative trajectory of meaning) to analyze product design, ad campaigns as well as users trajectories in the metro or patient- doctors relationships. I think that in order to properly grasp the significance of (post)modern consumption practices we are in desperate need for such transversal look at them.

Probably, his “Semiotics, Marketing & Communication: Beneath the signs, the strategies”, is the most luminous way to navigate back and forth between the versatile and superficial images to the permanent and more significant values. Today, one of the major limitations of Floch’s ideas, it occurs to me, is that his very structural approach restrains the possibility to account for contextual cultural changes and the way it modifies brands/products perceptions in a world deeply characterized by fragmentation, emerging and contradictory social dynamics. This is where Andrea Semprini‘s continuation of his research enters the picture…

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Let this diversity of opinions be propounded to, and laid before him; he will himself choose, if he be able; if not, he will remain in doubt. "Che non men che saver, dubbiar m' aggrata." ["I love to doubt, as well as to know."-- Dante, Inferno, xi. 93] for, if he embraces the opinions of Xenophon and Plato, by his own reason, they will no more be theirs, but become his own. Who follows another, follows nothing, finds nothing, nay, is inquisitive after nothing. "Non sumus sub rege; sibi quisque se vindicet." ["We are under no king; let each vindicate himself." --Seneca, Ep.,33]"
Montaigne - Essais I, XXVI, Of The Education of Children
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