Connotative Meanings and Advertising Music

Erkki Pekkilä

University of Helsinki
Roland Barthes was fascinated by the hidden meanings of newspaper advertisements. In one of his articles on the subject, he elevates them (1988) to a status comparable with the greatest achievements of humankind, in the same category with literature, cinema, sports, journalism and fashion. A good advertisement, in his mind, embodies the rhetoric of poetics, puns, metaphors, and the great themes of humankind's existence. Although Barthes' essay deals with newspaper advertisements, it raises the question of whether something similar can also be found in the television commercials.

The music of television commercials is not a totally unknown phenomenon in ethnomusicology or musical semiotics. There are some case studies that come into mind (Toivanen 1993, Välinoro 1993, Pekkilä 1994, Tarasti 1996). There is also a mention in Titon's (1992, p. 439) standard study book, in which the authors talk about research projects that can be carried out in one's neighbourhood or "backyard." In one of these projects, the authors suggest video-recording television commercials with music, and then describing the musical style, the visuals and one's own feelings about the commercial, i.e. whether or not the message was regarded as successful, or insulting to the intelligence.

An interesting point here is that the music of television commercials is regarded as comparable with the "real" music of one's own surroundings. As we think of this more closely, we find that this may indeed be the case. From the point of view of the music listener -- the receiver -- it is not important whether the performer or the sender of the message is present physically, or through the mass media. Today the mass media are creating an artificial, electronic reality that becomes a part of our "neighbourhood," the "soundscape" surrounding us (see also Pekkilä 1996).

What is essential in television commercials with advertising music is the music's meanings. The music of commercials does not spring from nowhere; it can be seen as a reflection of the music surrounding members of a culture in their everyday life. Here, "real" musical genres or pastiches are often transferred into commercials to communicate certain social meanings. A typical example, described by Walser (1993, 15), is the borrowing of the heavy guitar sound of the 1980's by the mainstream pop music industry to evoke intensity and power (for instance Robert Palmer's "Simply irresistible"). According to Walser, it was soon transferred into commercials bearing the same semantic connotations. For instance, heavy guitar was used in a jingle ("Be all that you can be") in a U.S. Army recruitment ad, where military service was described as an exiting and youth - oriented adventure. Thus advertising music may very often make use of the social and cultural meanings of heavy metal music, as a rhetorical means of strengthening its message. Thus if the advertising music borrows cultural meanings, this may also work the other way around. We can say that advertising music is a cultural mirror reflecting the social meanings of different music. For instance, the fact that it was just the heavy guitar that was used in the television-commercial that was targeted at action-minded men tells something about the social meanings of music.

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AS/SA Nº 4, Article 6 : Page 1 / 11
© 1998, AS/SA

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1998.01.16