Commercials as Co-text

One of the things I’m interested in is the impact advertisements can have on the narratives they are trying to sell.  The idea that a reader will draw on other texts as he or she constructs the meaning of text is not new.  Barthes, Kristeva and others have argued that readers construct the meaning of a text as they read by, partly, applying intertextual links.  But what outside text could be more relevant in forming a text’s meaning than an advertisement for that text?  Advertisements are often syntheses of narratives that break down the text they are selling into its most crucial (or attractive) aspects and present them in an extremely compressed format.  It should be no surprise that ads can be a powerful referent in a reader’s construction of a text

Advertisements are usually developed by independent agencies with little input by authors or creators of the target text and sometimes with little access to the actual source material.  Ads may be developed long after the target text is completed (for a second printing, for example) Therefore texts rarely refer to their own advertisements.   Readers may be referring to advertisements in order to construct a text’s meaning, but a literary analysis that looks at the intertextual references within a text itself will not pick up on those sources of meaning.  Readers (or generally, consumers) are immersed in a dialogic commercial landscape that inevitably contributes to the meaning they construct for narratives they consume.  I propose that commercials can be a co-text or pre-text for the texts they advertise.

Some have looked at how the social context of a text can affect its reception (for example, a student reading a text a professor has introduced as important literature will receive it differently than they might have otherwise), but I am interested in the specific ways advertisements influence our construction of a narrative’s meaning.  To investigate that I want to examine this advertisement for the interactive narrative Gears of War:

Gears of War is, for the most part, a narrative that centers around gruff large men using large guns (with chainsaws attached, no less) to shoot their way through large monsters.  The characteristic gruffness of the characters allows for little emotion beyond annoyance or resignation, and little reaction to their situation beyond the occasional sardonic comment.  Although the second and third titles in the series try to develop characters a little more, these come are mere interludes from which the characters quickly recover in order to shoot more monsters.

This commercial, however, which is a completely original sequence that does not appear in Gears of War, betrays the expectations of its target narrative.  It opens on Marcus Fenix, the protagonist, not shooting his way through enemies but rather kneeling down, looking at something.  He is not even holding his rifle.  What is he looking at?  The camera then shifts to reveal that he is looking at his own reflection.  Fenix has stopped in the middle of a burning, ruined city in order to examine his own reflection, apparently absorbed in contemplation of it.  Already this commercial has provided a characterization of Fenix not available in the text of Gears itself.  Within the main narrative he is far from contemplative.

The imagery of the commercial is obvious but effective.  A droplet falls on the puddle reflecting Fenix’s face, suggesting a tear.  It is hard to imagine a tear coming from the half of the hard face that is visible, but a drop in the water combined with a the shadows hiding Fenix’s eyes suggests his emotional state: the setting expresses the emotions he himself, burned out by war, cannot.  Fenix turns over a stone to reveal half the face of a statue: behind the ruination of war the beauty of peacetime can still be glimpsed.  Of course, the half face of that statue evokes Fenix’s own half hidden face.  Fenix’s face too has been ruined by the war that hardened it, but underneath the man that was raised in a peaceful culture that produced such beauty can still be glimpsed.  The discordance between that man and the man he sees in the puddle, hard and armored (both physically and psychologically), is what has prompted him to examine his reflection.

A reader dialogically constructing the meaning Gears of War with this commercial as an intertextual referent will probably find meaning that is not evidenced in the text alone.  The narrative takes place in the ruins of a beautiful stonework city.  In the main text the plazas and galleries serve as little more than set pieces to hide behind while shooting monsters.  However, a reader that has seen this advertisement will see significance in each toppled statue: the tragic ruination of a society so devoted to art and beauty.  And since a parallel has been drawn between statuary and Fenix himself, the concurrent tragic ruination of the humanity of the soldiers and survivors.

The tragedy of the setting is barely remarked upon within the narrative itself.  Similarly the intertext of the commercial provides characterization for Fenix himself not available in the main text.  The characterization of him as self-reflective and saddened by the way war has destroyed the man he was before is not available in the main text where, again, he is only characterized by a few rough sardonic comments.  A reader that has seen this ad will likely construct characterization not available in the source text alone.

Of course, this can lead to a chaotic divergence in meaning construction.  Consumers who see the advertisement will construct a completely different meaning from those who haven’t!  Or different ads might lend themselves to entirely different meaning construction!  And none of this is in the control of the author/director/developer!  Chaos! But if we’re serious about intertextuality (and reader response), I think we have to accept such divergence.

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One thought on “Commercials as Co-text

  1. Interesting. Very nicely done. I do have my own personal peeve and problem with any human in any genre being referred to as “consumers,” (by any theorist) because it reduces humanity to commodities, but think you given thought to some important cultural issues in society at large.

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