Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures, by Bo Florin, Patrick Vonderau and Yvonne Zimmerman. Amsterdam University Press, 2021, 338 pp.
Advertising is one of the fields of academic study (tourism being another) in which different disciplinary ecosystems exist in almost complete isolation from each other. In the case of advertising, one ecosystem of research typically springs from researchers working in business studies or marketing departments and is motivated, largely speaking, by a desire to make advertising more effective as a means of selling goods. The other ecosystem of advertising research comes from researchers working in a variety of humanities and social science disciplines who seek to analyse advertising’s relationship to the culture it underwrites and is intertwined with, and the impact that might have upon the individuals and wider society who consume it. Because both the underlying concerns and topics of discussion differ so much between these approaches, these research ecologies rarely intersect with each other—it is only a slight overstatement to argue that, traditionally, those seeking to make advertising more effective rarely considered the wider implications of its practice, while those whose focus is those implications rarely interacted with the advertising industry as a set of institutions and professional practices. In the twenty-first century, there have been some changes of focus as books such as Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through 20th-Century Europe and Sean Nixon’s Hard Sell: Advertising, Affluence and Transatlantic Relations, c. 1951-69 brought a cultural studies perspective to the advertising industry’s own histories in British and European markets in particular.
Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures is a welcome further contribution to this new generation of advertising studies, especially in its more lateral approaches to considering both advertising practices and institutions and the cultural forms they produce through advertising for and on screens of all sizes. In their excellent introduction, the authors expressly discuss the ways in which they delineate their fields of study. On the one hand, they seek to move beyond a focus on a particular time period, country of origin or type of screen, instead preferring to focus on “advertising’s specific objects, screens, practices and intermediaries” (12). On the other, they are also keen to emphasise screen advertising as, in their phrasing, a “tripartite relationship between advertisers, media and agencies” (10). This fluid yet focused approach to analysis is then applied across a fascinating range of examples of screen advertising, from 1970s television advertising to contemporary outdoor advertising screens via lawsuits over the use of brand-names in films and case studies of car and soft drink advertising campaigns.
The book is structured into both chapters and sections, each chapter contributed by one of the three authors. The first chapter, by Yvonne Zimmerman, discusses pre-First World War “process films” depicting the production of branded goods such as condensed milk, and considers them as an example of product placement. Theoretically informed and detailed in its analysis, this first chapter works to establish the embedded place of advertising in screen culture from its origins, as well as pointing towards the ongoing “robustness” of apparently ephemeral texts (40). After this, the next six chapters are grouped into a section entitled “Approaches and Methods”, and they consider a wide range of screen advertising. Patrick Vonderau’s chapter on advertising’s relationship to modernity returns to the famous Pepsi vs Coke advertising war of the 1960s in order to reconsider the ongoing debates about the relationship between advertising and modernity in terms of visual aesthetics and especially the deployment of montage techniques. This is followed—and usefully read alongside—Zimmerman’s chapter on advertising and the avant-garde, focusing on the work of filmmakers such as John Grierson, Paul Rotha and Hans Richter and addressing the equally long-standing debate about where the lines between advertising, propaganda and persuasion are understood to lie. Vonderau’s next chapter switches the focus of the book to advertising as not only an institution (which is in itself a contested term, as he points out) but also as the actions of individual agencies. He focuses then on the work of German filmmaker Charles Wilp whose archive of work includes over four hundred commercials made during the 1960s and 1970s, and which are remembered for their connections to pop culture of the period. Vonderau analyses this archive in order to raise questions about the very definition of advertisements and their boundaries from other cultural forms, as well as the ongoing question of the industry’s institutionalisation. In the next chapter, Zimmerman fulfils the book’s declared intention to address multiple kinds of screen by considering the historical, technological and geographical changes between advertising on cinema screens, television screens and out-of-home digital screens such as those found at train stations or other public spaces. With its focus on a nuanced discussion of moving images and advertising across multiple spaces, screens and moments, the chapter also considers the disciplinarity of such images as viewers experience them. In his final chapter, Vonderau focuses on trademarks as they appear in “testimonial” advertising, using the case study of a legal dispute between the makers of the Louis Vuitton luggage brand and the makers of The Hangover II (Todd Phillips, 2011), a case which tested the boundaries of commercial speech as it might appear in a fictional film. In the final chapter of the section, Zimmerman explores one of the Goliaths of contemporary screen advertising, the Superbowl commercial breaks on American network television. Indeed, this televisual event is chosen precisely because its standing in the advertising industry is also understood by many audiences and therefore provides a useful opportunity to explore self-reference in screen advertising, as a knowing and self-referential mode of address to viewers is adopted by many advertisers in the commercials made specifically for Superbowl night.
The second, shorter section of the book is entitled “Cases and Materials” and consists of three chapters by Bo Florin examining brands, campaigns and types of advertising. In the first chapter, Florin returns to the theme of mobility explored by Zimmerman in her chapter on different screens to consider advertising for Volvo—campaigns which involved moving images, moving cameras and a product which is itself defined by mobility. The case study examines the car brand’s changing campaigns across several decades, paying attention to changes in media but also in the advertising agency employed, itself another useful moment in bringing together critical analysis of advertising with an awareness of the industry’s own structures. Florin’s second case study is of the Swedish clothing retailer H&M and their shift towards using social media (and YouTube) platforms for advertising and, he argues, for archiving. One of the few discussions in the book of computer or phone screen advertising, the chapter provides a detailed overview of H&M’s mobilisation of new kinds of customer interaction with brands and advertisements themselves on platforms such as YouTube. In the final chapter of the book, Florin turns his attention to an important but often overlooked use of advertising—for non-commercial organisations and campaigns, in this instance the UN “Global Goals” campaign in 2015 to promote sustainable development policies. Florin describes and analyses the advertising produced for this campaign as well as the structuring ethos that separates it from more standard screen commercials for products such as Volvo or H&M. Indeed, one of this chapter’s key strengths is the manner in which it synthesises many of the common themes of Florin’s other two case studies in order to function as a concluding chapter for this section of the book.
The sheer breadth of material this book covers—from early film in Switzerland to H&M advertising on YouTube—can make it feel rather unstructured. The selection criteria for the topics considered in each chapter are not made clear, for example, and the (perhaps inevitable) downside of not focusing on a particular time period, place of origin or type of screen is that the book loses the clarity these structures provide in an analysis. One partial solution to this might have been to end the book with a concluding chapter that worked to pull together at least some of the disparate topics and arguments. The introductory chapter does an excellent job of delineating the field of screen advertising and raising key issues, and a final chapter that synthesised those issues as they are addressed in the book would have given it a more coherent structure. However, the benefits of the book’s intellectually wide-ranging approach to screen advertising more than outweigh this concern. The willingness to bridge the gap between critical advertising studies and a consideration of how advertising’s professional and institutional structures actually operate is undoubtedly one of the book’s key strengths and, on that basis alone, it is a welcome addition to the field. The book’s emphasis on non-Anglophone examples of screen advertising is also welcome in a field that is still overly skewed towards American (and other English-speaking) discussions of commercial media and advertising. Overall, the book will be useful to anyone interested in the relationship between screen media and advertising, and between the advertising industry and the culture with which its work intersects.
1. De Grazia, Victoria. Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through 20th-Century Europe. Harvard UP, 2006.
2. The Hangover Part II. Directed by Todd Phillips, Warner Bros, 2001.
3. Nixon, Sean. Hard Sell: Advertising, Affluence and Transatlantic Relations, C. 1951–69. Manchester UP, 2013.
Rains, Stephanie. “Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures, by Bo Florin, Patrick Vonderau and Yvonne Zimmerman.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, no. 23, 2022, pp. 111–114. https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.23.06
Stephanie Rains is an Associate Professor in Media Studies at Maynooth University, and her main research interests are in Irish media and cultural history. She has published monographs on Irish American cultural history, and on the history of shopping and consumer culture in Dublin, as well as several articles/chapters on the Irish popular press of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, published in Irish Studies Review, English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, Media History and the Irish University Review. Her latest book, Advertising and Consumer Culture in Ireland –1962: Buy Irish, is due out from Liverpool University Press in October 2022.