PHO702 Week 4: Advertising

My understanding is that the point of the week’s overall topic – advertising – is to learn how to study and ‘read’ an image very carefully in order to tease out the intent(s) the image expresses. This is particularly clear in the case of advertising because by its very nature the advertisement is highly likely to be full of manipulative or hidden intents in order to persuade us to do something not necessarily in our best interests – following on from Barthes’ classic exposition of the (Panzani) advertisement in his essay ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’. (Barthes 1977)

Such a study can then be put to very good use when we focus on the intent in the images we make ourselves. And it is also true that the images we make ourselves may contain hidden messages – that is, unconscious assumptions or biases we have not yet revealed to ourselves but which others can see.

So overall, I found this a very useful lesson. However, not an easy lesson to learn because in the case of advertising I am simply an oppositional person to all forms of it because I am looking at an advert. I am not really a fully signed-up member of the status quo and I try quite hard to keep advertising and other intrusive things (like ‘news’ which isn’t and lots of TV) out of my life. This means that dominant and negotiated readings (to bring in the full trifecta) don’t come into my view of advertising whereas they do very much with, for examples, the practice of other photographers or with cinema.

However, looking is a reciprocal process. Looking at an advert can change the way I think, and knowing more about its background can change how I think about it too. For example, I did not know when I wrote below about a Nespresso advert that George Clooney had used some of his endorsement fees to support the people of the Sudan. (Nguyen 2013) Or that Clooney recently expressed support for a report which revealed the user of child labour on coffee plantations in Guatemala. (Guardian 2020) Good man. It’s just a job and it is only an advert.

Anyway, this is an abbreviated version of what I wrote about advertising in the weekly discussion forum:

This is a Nestlé Nespresso advertisement featuring George Clooney who is or was the face of the brand.

nespresso-george-clooney-2020
An advertisement for Nespresso coffee featuring George Clooney.

As with all advertisements, I think it pays to look first at what the parent corporation says about its brand values:

‘Nespresso is not just a coffee. It is a sensorial experience. It is a lifestyle that is simple yet refined, offering timeless elegance … We continually infuse our brand with original ideas, flavours and innovations … Nespresso enhances the consumer experience with creative offerings at every touchpoint. This includes our presence at exclusive events such as the Cannes Film Festival and Le Bocuse d’Or. Our association with some of the most celebrated talents in design and gastronomy brings to life the perfect coffee moments enjoyed by consumers worldwide. … Nespresso has fostered a passionate global community with some of the most discerning coffee connoisseurs. Our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit and dedication to quality, style and service. They have made Nespresso a part of their lifestyle.’ (Nestlé Nespresso 2020)

I am sure this advert has multiple meanings appealing to different people. Clooney is himself a brand, of course, so to begin with we have a double encoding, a brand within a brand.

Clooney’s brand values include elegance, discernment, unruffled success and sexual appeal. He is shown here in a dark, deeply lit, somewhat devilish light which I presume ties in with the brand’s stress on the exclusive, the passionate, the refined and the elegant. But – since the brand cannot speak of this openly – the advert’s unstated intended meaning suggests that behind these socially acceptable qualities lie dark, saturnine powers of caffeinated sexual potency that only Nespresso can elicit (hence the black expresso in Clooney’s hand). Another, similar advert shows Clooney with a finger on a gold Nespresso capsule in an obviously suggestive way so not much is left to the imagination here.

I interpret the strap line ‘What else?’ as saying two things at once. The stated meaning is that Nespresso is the default choice for the discerning connoisseur. The unstated meaning is buy this or else – there is no other choice. What else … nothing else. A slight sweetener is provided by the line in Portuguese ‘Café com corpo e alma’. This implies one might be taking part in something authentically ethnic (Brazilian) but in reality Nestlé is a Swiss-based multinational and the  more pressing  Brazilian connection – poverty and slavery – was revealed by the Guardian newspaper in 2016 (see below).

It is also important to note the presence of a Nespresso machine in this and almost all the other adverts I have seen. Nespresso works by trying to lock people in to buying coffee capsules from the manufacturer. This rather crude though successful and widespread retail model is here presented as membership of an exclusive club (‘our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit …’). So by purchasing a packet of Nespresso capsules or opening an online account you too can make a lifestyle choice, roll with George and become a sophisticated multi-millionaire sex bomb.

However, I do worry that decoding advertising in this way is also potentially missing the point. The real issue for our societies is not what the advert ‘really’ means but what it says about the power relations of major brands and their sometimes unwholesome effects on our lives. So the story with Nespresso isn’t really Clooney. It is about sustainability, environmental damage and headlines like ‘Nestlé admits slave labour risk on Brazil coffee plantations’. (Guardian 2016) These are what matter, I would argue.

BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

GUARDIAN. 2016. ‘Nestlé Admits Slave Labour Risk on Brazil Coffee’. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/02/nestle-admits-slave-labour-risk-on-brazil-coffee-plantations [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

GUARDIAN. 2020. ‘Children as Young as Eight Picked Coffee Beans on Farms Supplying Starbucks’. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/01/children-work-for-pittance-to-pick-coffee-beans-used-by-starbucks-and-nespresso [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

NESTLÉ Nespresso. 2020. ‘Nestlé Nespresso: Brand Essence’. [online]. Available at: https://www.nestle-nespresso.com/brand/brand-essence [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

NGUYEN, Vi-An. 2013. ‘George Clooney Uses Nespresso Money for Satellite to Spy on Sudan Dictator’. [online]. Available at: https://parade.com/59699/viannguyen/george-clooney-uses-nespresso-money-for-satellite-to-spy-on-sudan-dictator/ [accessed 2 Mar 2020].