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.