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The Investigation of Advertising as a Cultural Form

The fourth issue of the 2005 Advertising and Society Review is an inaugural one. Though I began as editor in time to help prepare issue three, I have planned this number as an opening statement of editorship. Under the leadership of William O'Barr, this journal has had a solid beginning as a unique resource in the academic discourse on advertising. The journal has dedicated itself to examining a variety of social issues related to advertising and has done so in a manner that is consistently independent, rigorous, and critical. The focus, theories, and methods, have been drawn mostly from the more humanistic of the social sciences—anthropology, history, interpretive sociology. My intention, as the new editor, is to continue to follow the basic path established by O'Barr: to focus on social questions in an independent, critical way and to base most of the work in the interpretive social sciences.

My mission as editor is also, however, to expand that base of work in two ways. First, I plan to add an artistic interest to the scope of Advertising & Society Review. I wish to encourage more work on advertising that is in the tradition of arts criticism; that is, work that analyzes and interprets advertising as a cultural form, as a unique artistic genre, much as literary critics may focus on novels or poetry and art critics may focus on painting. Since the analysis of cultural form falls easily into any notion about study of 'the social,' this new stream of work is consistent with Advertising & Society Review's mission, but it would draw on slightly different sources—literature and the other arts, for instance—and might have somewhat different concerns—building a theory of genre, for example. The second area in which I hope to expand Advertising & Society Review's scope is to widen the purview to a more global perspective. Over the past few years, the number of articles that have been submitted about advertising outside the United States has been increasing. And, of course, advertising is a basic structural element in the increasingly planetary economy. So, though the journal has already become broadly international in scope, I will be trying to stimulate that trend further.

This inaugural issue is designed to advance the first part of this agenda: the investigation of advertising as a cultural form. To my mind, this aspect of advertising presents two initial avenues of inquiry: the question of whether advertising is an art in the same sense that novels, symphonies, and paintings claim to be, and the related question of whether the formal features developing in advertising have come to represent a new sign system for communication. I have chosen the material for this issue for the specific purpose of staking out the ground on these two questions. Most of these works focus, one way or another, on the peculiarly postmodern aspects of advertising in the last two decades of the twentieth century, as well as the controversy surrounding postmodern forms (especially advertising) at that time.

Book chapters from two important texts of advertising are reprinted: Robert Goldman's 'This is Not an Ad,' from Reading Ads Socially and James Twitchell's 'Halo Everybody, Highlow,' from Adcult, USA. Goldman's chapter documents a phenomenon now well recognized by observers of advertising in both the academy and in industry: a sea change in the look, tone, and style of advertisements near the end of the 20th century. Goldman performs a nice exegesis of several examples and offers social commentary on each. Twitchell's chapter looks at the intersection and overlap between 'high art' and advertising, and provides a surprising historical context by recasting the art of the Renaissance.

Two articles are also included. One of the them, Barbara Phillips and Edward McQuarrie's piece called, 'The Development, Change, and Transformation of Rhetorical Style in Magazine Advertisements 1954-1999,' includes a painstaking content analysis of print ads over the past fifty years. What Phillips and McQuarrie are counting is the incidence of complex tropes and, especially, the degree to which these ads rely on visual signs without verbal cues for interpretation. The findings of this article tend to support Goldman's contention that something has fundamentally changed about the way advertising communicates, but suggests a rather different explanation. In my own opinion, the Phillips and McQuarrie piece also points to the possibility that the visual cues growing in importance over the past fifty years have come to function as a sign system. This notion is the basis for the second article, my own essay called 'Spectacular Vernacular,' in which I trace the interaction between communications technologies, formal properties of texts, critical response, and the scope of communication. I use this history to argue that communications technology has actually created a new sign system that melds the properties of sound, text, and picture into an expansive, inclusive, and multiformed 'vernacular.'

For this issue, there are also two pieces of original material. The first one is a roundtable discussion among a group of scholars with special expertise related to these questions: John Sherry of Notre Dame, Melanie Wallendorf of the University of Arizona, and Edward McQuarrie of Santa Clara University. In this roundtable, we look at several 1980s commercials (the 1984 commercial for Macintosh, the early Infiniti spots, the Nike campaign) that were thought to represent the watershed moment identified by Goldman and others, as well as several spots, both older and newer, that seem to be related to this change in voice and form. All of the commercials are, of course, reproduced in the article. The scholars discuss a variety of issues, from the impact of marketing strategy on the formal properties of television commercials to the possibility of a new 'sign-acy,' as opposed to classic literacy, emerging from texts that are primarily visual or musical.

I have also written a short original essay to act as support for this issue. In this essay, I am critically re-examining the ideology of art that divides advertising from other cultural forms. My intention is to stimulate questions about the accepted boundaries between commerce and art, as well as to point to some of the new avenues of inquiry that might open up to scholars if they took advertising as a legitimate art form.

This issue also includes the next installment of the advertising curriculum being written by William O'Barr. This unit of the curriculum is extremely important for anyone teaching or studying advertising: it traces the history of the concept of "subliminal advertising," showing the original claims, reactions, and press coverage from the 1950s, then watching the power of this dubious concept extend through the 1970s into the present.

Linda M. Scott