Tag Archives: rhetorical devices

Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay

Meta-Topic: Animals

Perhaps this should have been posted from the get-go. Come to think of it, there should have been a little series of these “what-to-expect-categorically” posts, in order to orient the focus of this blog. But whatever. It’s happening now.

One of the main topics this blog explores (or will come to explore in more depth as it continues) is that of non-human animals in culture. This is broad, obviously, so it might be good to lay out in general terms what posts under this category might deal with in the future. The theoretical orientations and analytic tendencies will be mainly anthropological, and a little radical in cases where I become un-tethered to scholarly moorings. (Yes, we’re doing nautical metaphors, now. Animals can go on ships, too. Just roll with those waves and sail on.)

People incorporate other animals into their lives to different degrees in various ways. So too, cultures as a whole. This happens on different levels, such as discursive, physical interaction, and broad mental categorizations that can become verbally rationalized when the topic comes up. I hope to have several different series in the future that use non-human animals as their center to explore various culture issues–as well as topics that focus on animal-human relationships specifically. Indeed, there are many avenues to explore, and I just hope these forays into fauna will be as interesting for readers as they are for this writer to think about.

One can explore the tendency to personify or give human qualities to nonhuman animals–especially for use in allegories and literature in general. But this also happens everyday when people talk about animals. Or talk for them.

Another main topic I’d like to explore as this blog continues is the ways in which consumer culture uses various animals to sell things. Closely related is the use of animal imagery or culturally constructed characteristics identified with certain nonhuman animals and how they are used to signify various things. Semiotics for everyone!

Nonhuman animals can be implicated in political discourse, used to embody gender norms, symbolize anything you can think of, and deployed as terms of abuse (thank you, Edmund Leach). They are everywhere and nowhere, and we can even look at issues of agency (see the last post and a particularly good comment from the author of Instruct/Deconstruct). They are differentially valued, thought about, and interacted with based on a complex system of categories enacted daily in cultural practice, and no one animal means the same thing in two situations, for two people, in two cultures. I could go on about this for days, so perhaps I should just end by saying that if you like thinking about animals, stay tuned…

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Filed under Animals, Meta

A Fragment: Practice Makes Meaning(?)

I had this half-baked thought back in March, when I read the headline of a news story about the possible impending government shut-down in the U.S. It’s sort of still relevant, topically, and the argument I jump to from the topic is almost always relevant, so here we go:

In the news story, the possibility of the (then) current government shut-down was automatically compared to that of 1996. Maybe this is a valid parallel, but it might not be. The contexts of the shut-downs, the possible causes, will necessarily be very different. They are located in different socio-historical moments, after all. But in mass-mediated news, even publicly-funded news outlets, those contextual details get lost in favor of familiar narratives and neatly packaged parallels. And then future historical narrative–as presented by the media, at least, and perhaps high school text books, will remember the parallel and constructed similarities of the incidents, if it remembers these two incidents at all. (Maybe they won’t–maybe they’ll stress the differences. I can’t predict the future. But the two incidents will, in all likelihood, be compared and packaged together in some way. The will reference one another and thus imply similarity.)

The larger point is that, regardless of context, political discourse and the way in which it is structured, both internally and as a genre with all its connections and within the wider culture–and importantly, the ways in which it is mediated to various segments of society (pundits, the public, the politicians themselves, etc)–makes these instances meaningful. In this case, the mediated political discourse makes the parallel a talking point, maybe even an accepted truth, because of the way that political discourse and the media frame events–stripping them of context to make that neat parallel. (This argument just got dangerously circular, but hopefully it’ll pull out.)

Other types of narrative and rhetorical tricks and performatives exist as well, parallelism is just one of them. One easily understood and accepted by the masses, perhaps because it is so often relied upon to make the news familiar and digestible. To make the masses return to particular outlets for their updates, to make students remember things in history classes. Familiar narrative structures win over the unexpected and un-categorizable. The latter is just an unexplainable horror until it can be narratively stretched and twisted until it fits into a safely shaped box.

Anyway, one point I want to return to is that use makes meaning. Saying it and repeating it makes something true: political discourse and historical narratives like patterns. Patterns are safe. And the patterns become reality. The idea that meaning comes from use is a tired argument, itself, and the basis for a lot of anthropology, but it seems to hold up when confronted with fieldwork data. (But perhaps we anthros are just making that fit into our own familiar, underlying-premise box. Disciplinary existential crisis warning!) Back to the topic that started this whole fragmented musing, reporting things makes them relevant to the debate; to the voters; to the election. The media and the pundits do have power: they have the power to shape the debate. And on a larger scale, the historians have the power to shape the grand narrative. Not sure exactly the ways in which those two entities are related, but they are…maybe someone else has the energy to unpack that messy box.
Returning to the potentially obvious conclusion, meaning comes from use, and performativity. Practice proves it. Maybe.

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Filed under Contemporary, Media