‘Rhetoric’ definition – the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques. (Google)
‘Image’ definition – 1. A representation of the external form of a person or thing in art. 2. The general impression that a person, organization, or product presents to the public. (Google))
We have been asked to make very brief notes on 2or 3 current adverts. Since I made rather long notes about the first one I tried hard to be brief here (and failed). I should have chosen a less contentious advert.
I was interested in the way in which either side of the argument relating to the forthcoming EU referendum is being advertised. The current polls suggest that the Leave people have over the weeks rolled out a more powerful and convincing campaign; perhaps because organisations on that side of the argument are tapping into fear; certainly fear of other people – xenophobia as described in this article on Huffington Post ; fear of job security, fear of economic cost, which all serve to trigger and intensify feelings of anxiety during an extended period of ‘austerity’. These messages help to construct a raft of possible myths (depending on one’s position) perpetrated by people who believe that the UK will be better off outside of Europe for any number of actual reasons. “26 million people are looking for work in Europe. And whose job are they after?” (click link to advert) is spelled out in big letters with a gigantic finger pointing at ‘you’ and ‘yours’, playing on fears relating to job security, which is so prevalent at the moment due perhaps, not to the hordes of people expected to ‘invade’ our isolated bit of land, but rather by a turbulent changing economy. Those insecurities in fact relate to how we are currently only part way through a technological revolution that began in the late 80s, early 90s; with a fundamental and deep structural re-configuration taking place, or at any rate an urgent need for one, over the way in which a capitalist society might operate as technology develops.
The IN people however seem to have been less successful at finding emotive myths to tap into. Perhaps that is because the arguments for staying in Europe are based within more rational terms than those based on xenophobic bigotry, such as the amount of money it costs to be IN, and how that is earned back over time due to free trade; or else how the seemingly large amounts it costs to be part of Europe are relatively small when compared to other parts of the country’s budget. Recently Gyles Brandreth humorously pointed out in an episode of Have I got News for You that perhaps none of us really know what will happen if we leave the EU. But the problem for the IN side of the argument is that not many of us really know why we are in Europe in the first place, or what we will lose by leaving. As demonstrated when a Facebook contact of mine recently asked, “Will someone please tell me what it’s all about?” She attracted a host of quite strident answers pertaining to either side, which may be why I can no longer find the post to reference properly here; but I was struck by the fact that her question was likely to be fairly representative of many people’s confusion over the issue. We are being asked to vote on something very few of us understand. That said one of the major challenges is encouraging people to vote at all, especially those who wouldn’t traditionally do so.
Saatchi & Saatchi, an extremely high profile agency, were commissioned by an organisation called “Operation Black Vote” to encourage ethnic minority groups to register in time for polling day (If anyone tried last night they will have failed as the website crashed). The advert has caused some controversy all round and in the article below is castigated by Nigel Farage who called it ‘disgusting’ (H Stewart, 2016) which in light of some UKip posters is an interesting response. (see example above)
Links to the Saatchi & Saatchi/OBV poster, along with an article in The Guardian about it below:
- A vote is a vote – strapline placed in the centre of the advert – perfectly balanced above the seesaw
- Equally set beneath the seesaw, again central, The EU Referendum is on 23rd June, below which, further factual information calling for action Register to vote by 7th June at aboutmyvote.co.uk
- Finally at very bottom of the advert is the logo of the organisation specifically set up up to encourage certain groups of the population to vote and participate in politics (Wikipedia).
A vote is a vote
There is something strangely empty in the cadence of this strapline which perhaps fails to communicate the strength that Saatchi’s client might have hoped for. Barthes refers to tautology as an ugly thing “…one takes refuge in tautology as one does in fear, or anger, or sadness, when one is at a loss for an explanation: the accidental failure of language is magically identified with what one decides is a natural resistance of the object….” And later he equates such statements to tired parental explanations that answer a child’s questions with “…’just because, that’s all’, a magical act that is ashamed of itself, which verbally makes the gesture of rationality but immediately abandons the latter…” And finally, “tautology creates a dead, a motionless world.” (Barthes, 67:26/27) That, if he is to be believed, might explain why I found the cadence empty, devoid of any powerful rhythm, content and possibly even meaning. So what it might be signifying is difficult to answer. Nevertheless, I’m sure deathly emptiness was not the intention.
Barthes refers to ‘fear, or anger, or sadness”. Which of these things is Saatchi (inadvertently or not) suggesting Operation Black Vote (OBV) feels towards the people it hopes to encourage to vote? Fear about what might happen if certain groups don’t vote? Therefore tapping into or perhaps attempting to induce fear (as the Leave campaign have done). Anger and its accompanying emotion, frustration, towards the people who don’t choose to vote, or perhaps at a possible outcome should they fail to vote. Or is it sadness because people really ought to utilise their right to vote if they have one, since all over the world people have fought extremely bloody battles in order to earn that right. Regardless of the conscious and unconscious motivations behind the strap-line, in the end my initial response was, “And? So what?”, perhaps in a mode of belligerence to the latent sense of ennui from an authoritarian object which the strap-line just about communicates. I would be interested to know what people who the advert is aimed at feel when they read it, and wonder if/how different reactions might be. (At the moment, I’m waiting on a friend’s response. – see notes at bottom)
The EU Referendum is on 23rd June
Register to vote by 7th June at aboutmyvote.co.uk
Because of the ‘dead, motionless’ and empty tautological statement that the advert starts with, the next two lines, the factual information and call to action tumble out of a sense of nothingness and so fall flat. How this advert might encourage people with an “entrenched cynicism about politics” (OBV; n.d.) to vote is difficult to imagine.
Operation Black Vote
I feel a bit weary of saying the following but I think it is an important element in the advert, as well as in relation to Saatchi’s apparent decisions when fulfilling the brief. Although the logo and name of the organisation Operation Black Vote (OBV) seemingly tells us exactly what the group do, what is signified by that particular combination of words, for many reasons, has the potential to suggest a range of messages that the organisation would not have chosen. Is our society’s difficult relationship with with skin colour, and therefore its way of receiving and interpreting things associated with race, the responsibility of the organisation? The answer should be a resounding ‘no’, but some awareness of how words are received is indeed the responsibility of the marketing department and its chosen advertising agency. Saatchi will have been paid a substantial fee so identifying and highlighting how the name might be received, given context, is a reasonable expectation. As is avoiding certain tropes. Instead, the agency seem to have honed in on particular stereotypes and enhanced the underlying differences groups may feel in some instances, which might be what gives the group’s name an aura of pastiche. It’s a name that was chosen by the organisation nearly 20 years ago. I would suggest it might now be an unhelpful title, considering the organisation’s aim is to tackle mythical views present in society, along with some sense of self-identification in young people about their role in a society where they have traditionally felt excluded from the political machine. (Stewart, 2016) But perhaps, as I am seeing the term through the lens of a white person, whatever is making me see the potential for pastiche is irrelevant, especially since the advert is not aimed at me.
Wording shape and spacing
Finally the wording is centralised and balanced giving a visual/spacial impression of balance, indicating a desire to express the need for a balanced debate, balanced response, a balanced representation of people within the voting process. i.e. the voting system needs “your*” vote to truly reflect a balanced view. If you “you don’t vote” the results may not be balanced in the final result and might be skewed by who does choose to turn up, and who doesn’t (Authoritarian messaging). *Your – i.e. the audience OBV’s work is aimed at, ethnic minorities, especially young people, who statistically are under-represented in the voting process.
I do wonder if the title of the organisation might not have carried the same level of suggestive pastiche if the overall advert had come across as less divisive. Again, my own lens may be what is contributing to me seeing it as divisive.
- Urban/suburban very English looking housing estate and tower blocks. English because of shape of house and blocks. Houses, updated Victorian terraces on left hand side and possibly modern take on Victorian terrace, or else modified and extended. Tower blocks mid to late 20st century architecture.
- Usual cloudy English sky, not too grey, a bit of an anaemic blue but processed to look more ‘stormy’ than it actually is – shadow emphasised, some grain added too
- Grass – background, looks relatively natural
- Grass foreground – highly clarified
- Seesaw – perfectly balanced, colour and dirt enhanced
- People – Woman in sari, strongly lit, aged, again clarified to enhance wrinkles, colourful, inexpensive sandals, grey tied back hair, ethnicity obvious with red circle on forehead – bindi, a look of measured, strong defiance on her mature and sensible face. She looks like a women who knows her mind, isn’t afraid to speak it, to stand up to people, no matter how threatening they might appear to be. She wears a wedding ring, and gold jewellery. Man: highly lit, clarified and enhanced, looks HDR – especially in the face, lots of tattoos, of which there is a skull, some barbed wire, a traditional looking pattern, a cross in his cheek bone, a spider web on his neck and something else on his forearm which is too difficult to make out. He wears ripped jeans, Doc Martins (very English brand) and a white polo short with red and blue stripes (colours of British flag). He has very short hair, i.e skin head. He points his finger in an aggressive manner at the women and his facial expression looks highly aggressive, as does his body language.
- There is a path behind the seesaw
- They appear to be in a park/playground
- The processing gives the image a look of a cartoon
It’s very difficult to pull apart what is actually being said in this advert, or rather why it is being said and how that might encourage people who may not be automatic voters to take part in a system they feel alienated from. My initial reaction was – here is a skinhead having a go at women because he’s a racist. Voting, I’m think I’m being told, might change that.
My 12-year-old son’s initial reaction was, “Why has the so-called aggressive man got all those tattoos? That’s so obvious and offensive.”
The setting is very English but not the bucolic, pastoral, possibly rather idealised middle-class England we are often shown (no Constable here – more of Ken Loach’s England, although I’m not sure Ken Loach would not go for the highly processed HDR with such enthusiasm)
The women is middle-aged, not young, and appears a sensible, responsible member of society. The man is not too old to stop being frightening but not so young as to seem silly – he’s meant to be scary. He wears British colours (stripes on his shirt) but the advert suggests that doesn’t give him the right to claim exclusive Britishness. Other variations of Britishness have just as much right too even if they wear clothes that may not look as easily identifiable as “British” in the eyes of some. Saatchi are guilty of entrapment because they are utilising signs that are likely to trigger predictable responses, and consequently related arguments, surrounding Britishness. That may or may not be a good thing – I can’t tell.
- My questions as a person responding to the advert are;
- Why are they sitting on an object designed for children in a child’s playground?
- What is he saying to her?
- Why is she listening?
- What is the point?
- If I vote will I be able to stop this sort of thing happening?
- If I don’t vote will this sort of thing continue to happen?
- What exactly are you saying about a vote then? Because the vote is a vote line seems meaningless.
- My questions and responses as someone interested in visual culture are;
- Why the heavy HDR on the man in particular (I find it very difficult to get past that but I also am aware that it might only be photographers who would care….) This is something about taste I think and although I joke I think it’s important and plays into myths too in some way
- Are Saatchi intentionally aiming to inflame people by choosing a caricature (the skinhead) to represent a view; a view that is meant to be representative of an organisation in some way, if only as some form of Other in relation to them, but whose main goals are encouraging societal inclusion. Was the conscious intention to be inflammatory in order to prompt some immediate action? I assume that Saatchi were keen to have very obvious and easy to read signifiers, regardless of whether or not they are deemed ‘appropriate’ or offensive.
- In contrast (and despite the over-lit, over clarified editing) the women is far less of a caricature, although still a very obvious signified representative – a middle aged ethnic women who chooses to dress traditionally rather than in western style clothing, therefore still linked to a heritage that is viewed as non-British by some or many (one could get into Empire here but I will refrain) In addition her facial expression and body language are strong, firm, unthreatened which might go against some mythical views that women in saris are meek, shy, afraid of men, subservient, not able to stand up for themselves, don’t consider themselves able to vote
- I understand that the seesaw is meant to signify balance therefore suggesting that if only “you” the receiver of this advert would register to vote we could have a balanced and true outcome in the referendum but I question its use. Both people look a little strange, even ridiculous, especially him on the object meant for children. (And unconsciously, are we are being told this referendum and the interracial fights that will certainly continue if “you” the errant voters don’t register to do so are childlike, playful, not actually very grown up? Or that the genuine racism one might experience is akin to playground bullying in some way. Since I think the whole idea of balance in the voting process can only ever be a fallacy I’m not sure I can think of an alternative balance metaphor that might have been less strange – but if one were to go down that path, a set of scales might have been less suggestive of childishness. Perhaps childishness was the thing they wanted to suggest though.
- The shadow and ‘grain’ in the sky gives the picture an overall menacing feel – are they suggesting the referendum is full of menace, the fight between the two protagonists is menacing (it looks that way), the failure to vote will promote a menacing atmosphere
- Thanks to the manipulation and processing, harsh lighting contrast, body language and dirty seesaw, non-prettified setting the whole photograph looks quite ‘ugly’ – see also Barthes words above about tautology. I wonder if it was merely meant to look urban instead. But in the end, the fight that might take place or is taking place is potentially ugly and grimy, says this advert. Unless “you” vote.
Warning: Some of these myths are debatable and will vary according to people’s personal views
- Voting makes a difference to everyday lives, including to the lives of people who are extremely distanced from traditional political machinations
- Voting in the EU referendum has the potential even to stop racists from ruining lives – that’s how important it is (racism cannot and will not be eradicated anytime soon, regardless of what takes place in the referendum). In fact life will continue be difficult across a range of issues for people who are excluded from the political system either through self-imposed absence, disinterest or a sense of not really mattering
- People with tattoos and very short hair who wear braces and Doc Martins are violent thugs – do people still dress in this way or just in films nowadays? Whatever the answer some may be violent racists thugs and some might not be. Saatchi honed in on a cliché and presented us with a cartoon (intentionally or not)
- All sorts of assumptions and myths made about women in saris are being made and I feel a bit nervous about decoding those myths (this is meant to be brief so perhaps I’ll just leave it at that)
- The process of voting is the best way of achieving a balance of power. Perhaps it might be. But perhaps in fact activism is a better, more productive way in some cases. Whatever the answer there is no way of achieving perfect balance in any world, but especially not in one that contains racist thugs (regardless of their clothing)
- Racism is easy to spot – because the people who are racist dress in a coded costume. In fact racism is often disguised as concern about schooling, housing, even shopping. Racism is often muddled up with classism. Groupishness exists across social spectrums and between any number of and types of social groups and cannot be rectified by voting in a referendum that for many feels like something entirely separate from their everyday lives (when in fact it probably has a profound impact on they way in which the structures within which they exist operate – however, its difficult for anyone to work out how/why/what)
- Non-voters are easy to spot – they’re likely to be the ones in the clothing that looks a bit foreign. This is patently not true and perhaps it seems a bit lazy to rely on that sort of thinking in the making of this advert (unless the intention was to deliberately offend)
- Relations between groups is stormy like the way in which the sky has been edited – the press/media can be guilty of fueling things with their messages, and in this case they do seem to have been divisive
Overall the advert looks like it is deliberately playing into people’s fears, pre-conceived ideas, clichés (we all have them) surrounding immigration and the various attitudes to it. It reminds us that there different versions of Britishness, in some cases as a result of previous immigration, but at the same time stokes concern and provokes alarm about differences in subtle and not so subtle ways. Nigel Farage complained about the advert as you might imagine since it relies on an obvious illustration of someone we are meant to assume is racist, playing into our preconceptions, who seems to behaving aggressively and violently towards a non-white women. And Farage, like so many in his party are extremely keen to deny that their rhetoric is about race. But I would imagine lots of other people finding it offensive too. For many of the reasons outlined above. In the end I think the advert is difficult to read because the messages aren’t entirely clear, or some aspects of it are so obviously skewed and cliched that it becomes almost a bit of an offensive joke.
Edited and added later: I spoke to my friend today. She is of Jamaican descent although born in the UK. She is married to a white Irish/Italian man and has 3 boys, 15, 13 and 8. She said the main thing she saw in the advert was the strong women who was on an equal footing to the man. She didn’t really notice the man as much as the woman, who she was pleased to see was strong, sure of herself and able to stand up to the aggressive body language. She did not understand why the man was dressed as if from the 60s and thought he was a bit of a cartoon. The equally balanced people and the seesaw were the fist things she saw and she liked the fact that they were equal. My friend asked her eldest son about it and she felt it would convince or encourage him to vote. He felt it gave a positive message. In light of my friend’s response I would say that Saatchi have succeeded in producing an equal and strong representation of a person that can be described as one of an ethnic minority group, when so often in the past, such representations have been less positive. However, the man is a caricature and that is really clear for anyone to see.
(An interesting article looking at how we view democracy – https://theconversation.com/ancient-greeks-would-not-recognise-our-democracy-theyd-see-an-oligarchy-60277)
http://www.itv.com/news/story/2014-04-22/farage-defends-racist-ukip-immigration-posters/ (accessed 08/06/2016)
http://www.obv.org.uk/about-us/mission (accessed 08/06/2016)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-27105374 (accessed 08/06/2016)
http://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/may/25/eu-referendum-poster-minority-ethnic-voters (accessed 07/06/2016)
Myth Today, Mythologies, Roland Barthes (translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York 1984) http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Mythologies-MythToday.pdf (31/05/2016)
Image (c)SJField 2016