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Postmodern Dangers ~ Co-option, Coffee and the Meaning of Life

by Dale Rominger

My interest is the interpretation and appropriation of religious images, symbolism, myth, and characters in the narrative arts, primarily in popular films. If the narrative arts can be a challenge to and a substitute for traditional institutional religion, they can also co-opt religious meanings. While this has always been the case, there are three particular developments in postmodern artistic expression (particularly in film) that directly challenge the process of co-opting religious value creation. These dangers are: image ambiguity, exact repetition, and new technologies.

I would like to approach these postmodern dangers to narrative interpretation and religions meanings by way of one of the most powerful and common narrative vehicles for creating and promoting meaning, the final aim of which is the commoditization of image and value and, therefore, meaning itself (including religious meaning). Let us look at the ever present filmic genre the advertisement and then turn to the difficulties of ambiguity, repetition and technology.

It is, of course, not such an odd place to start. The merging of artist expression, meaning making, and selling is complete in filmic advertising. Awards are given for the quality of advertisements. The public embraces the advertisement not just as a vehicle of information and persuasion, but as a form of entertainment.[1] Film makers produce advertisements and advert makers make feature length films. They embrace narrative structures. From the sexual to the surreal, they tell stories, and tell them well.

Filmic advertisements are so fundamentally a part of our western culture it has been suggested that all "current forms of activity tend toward advertising and most exhaust themselves therein."[2] Baudrillard believes that advertising has led to a "superficial transparency of everything," where a "language of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities...progressively converge." This convergence in time defines the society in which we live, a society where there is "no longer any difference between the economic and the political, because the same language reigns in both..."[3]

Baudrillard makes a distinction between advertisement proper and a mode of expression that is advertising-like. He begins his essay Simulacra and Simulation with the words, "...what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising"[4], by which he means the form and a language of advertising. Thus, not only are the political and economic made similar, but the social is also absorbed: "an absolute sociality finally realized in absolute advertising…The social as a script, whose bewildered audience we are (emphases added)."[5] The scripting is so complete that the purpose of true advertising is "the design of the social, in the exaltation of the social in all its forms, in the fierce, obstinate reminder of a social, the need for which makes itself rudely felt."[6]

Given the possibility that the script of the social is an advertisation of image and meaning, the paradox of belief is illuminated. Nothing is demanded of us. The artistic expression no longer offers a "signifier" to believe in. Nothing lies beyond the image: there is no referent. The advert no longer functions to inform or even persuade, but becomes a commodity in and of itself. It is not persuasion to sell, but existence for its own sake. It becomes a parody of itself, where the medium really is the message and there is a "demand for advertising in and of itself, and that thus the question of 'believing' in it or not is no longer even posed..."[7]

While this book is not a study of commercial advertising, the power and influence of advertising as a narrative form does pose two important questions. To what degree has religious meaning also been absorbed by the advertisation of the social? And, to what degree has the advertisation of the narrative forms of drama and film affected their use and creation of religious meaning?

To explore these questions, let us now turn to a coffee advert I first saw in the British cinemas.[8] I chose this example for two reasons: first, given its unlikely use of religions images and ideas, it powerfully demonstrates the relationship between the narrative arts and religion and what is happening beyond the walls of the Church. Second, the ad is a good example of the effects of image ambiguity, exact repetition, and new technologies, though all these dangers are realized in film with the availability of videos and DVD's and new digital technologies.

As the ad begins, we see, on a cold and wet evening, a young women walking along the Thames in London. She is alone and obviously sad, if not disturbed. She walks towards us and eventually sits on a bench facing the river. In her hand is a letter which gives her no joy. What the letter actually says, who it is from, whether it has to do with her walk along the night river, we are not told, but given the mise-en-scene we can presume it has something to do with her situation. What exactly that situation is, also remains somewhat of a mystery, but the images, the lighting, and the performance, lead us to consider the possibility that she is sadly alone and, perhaps, newly homeless. The entire scene leaves us with a sense of insecurity.

During her walk and sitting on the bench we hear the voice over of Louis Armstrong speaking to the audience and the music to his famous song What a Wonderful World. The song, written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss and recorded by Louis Armstrong, was released by MCA on the album of the same name in 1968 and re-released in Compact Disc in 1988. In the information provided with the CD, Bob Thiele says, "Basically, the idea was how wonderful the world would be if there were no wars, in Vietnam or anywhere else." The selection of the song for the advertisement was, of course, very deliberate. It is worth reminding ourselves of the words:

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you.
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

As we watch the woman, Armstrong addresses the young people in the audience with the words:  "You young people have told me..."[9] As the music, and by suggestion the words to the song, float in the dark theatre, he speaks in a comforting and kindly paternal voice, assuring us that he hears when they, the young people, say it is not such a wonderful world, that there is war, poverty, loneliness, homelessness. As Armstrong reassures us of his sensitivity, we watch the young woman and, crucially, begin to equate her situation with the real woes and worries of the world. She begins to represent both the troubles of the world and the young people who voice their concerns.

To her left is a kiosk and we, the viewers, can see inside through its side door. The kiosk is brightly lit, indeed it is the area of most light in the film. Inside the kiosk, inside the light, is a young man who notices the young woman approaching and then sitting on the bench. He obviously shares our concerns for her condition, he represents our anxiety for the woman, and perhaps the state of the world. At the point where Armstrong completes his list of woes that young people have accused him of ignoring in his famous song, he actually admits that they exist and that the world is a pretty tough place. How could he deny it? The young woman sitting on the bench confirms all he has now agreed to. Her representation is acknowledged.

At this point two things happen simultaneously. Armstrong says that what he really means in his song is that it is not the world that is bad, but what we are doing to the world. As he says this, the young man comes out of the kiosk with a brightly coloured cup of coffee and gives it to the young women (my memory tells me that the cup was red, in contrast to the darkness of the rest of the scene). The woman looks up at the man, takes the cup and smiles. She warms her hands on the cup and then lifts it towards her face as Armstrong declares that love is the answer. The music plays on, the young man smiles and, for a moment, all is right with the world.[10]

The advert is artistic, well filmed, well performed, and very affective. The ad address real issues that actually do affect people’s lives and the making of meaning in life. Like Read's theatre, it draws us into the everyday, while at the same time endowing the everyday with significant importance. The ad deals with global and personal problems. It applies to issues of war, want, sorrow, loneliness, the just and healing qualities of love, compassion, and relationship; all concepts of religious import and meaning. However, just in case we become too caught up in the plot and characters, the red cup of coffee, bright and obvious, reminds us at the crucial moment in the story what the ad is actually about. 

The audacity of the advert's story is impressive. It has the temerity to speak of significant human concerns, tragedies, and sorrows, and to offer a solution. The solution is, of course, love, to which most of us would agree. However, the blatant association of the power of love with a particular cup of coffee can take our breath away. The juxtaposition of real concerns and the salvific properties of love with the selling and buying of a particular product is exploitative and offensive, though the utter quantity, repetitiveness and commonplace of such ads has overwhelmed our sensibilities and dulled our discernment. The scenes and over voice claim, without apparent embarrassment, that the coffee can, in some mysterious way, save the young woman through genuine companionship and security, and bring peace to the world. If we would all drink a particular brand of coffee, what a wonderful world it would be.

The association of images with values is paramount for the selling of products, and the expressing of religious value and the making of meaning. This obvious fact is the very factor that lends persuasive power to advertising and enables film to engender secular problems with sacred significance. However, by associating the human reality and religious value of love with the consumption of a commodity, the ad trivializes the problems we face (particularly, in this example, strife and alienation) and love as a solution to those problems, just as excessive materialism trivializes life. Perhaps given the association of love with religion, it also trivializes religious faith. While it is unlikely that people are going to begin worshipping coffee, it is true that the devaluation of image and meaning by associating love's salvific power with consumption, the repetition of the ad (like all adverts it was shown over and over again), and the technology used to introduce Armstrong's voice over, all have their impact.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger

[1] In the United States people talk about and anticipate advertising during the Superbowl to the extent that the advertisement is a significant aspect of the viewing experience.

[2] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1994, p.87.

[3] Ibid., pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid., p. 87.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] Ibid., p. 90.

[7] Ibid., p. 90.

[8] I do not chose this example lightly. Coffee plays an important role in our lives and in the global economy. Brad Weiss has written an interesting article entitled "Coffee Breaks and Coffee Connections: The Lived experience of a commodity in Tanzanian and European words" in Howes, David, editor, Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markets Local Realities, Routledge: London and New York, 1996. Weiss says that "concrete spatial and temporal relations...(are) both imbued with cultural meanings and serves to direct creative culture activities. To inhabit a world in this way - to construct its orientations in the course of ongoing collective action and interaction - is, at the same time, to objectify the values that guide, restrain, enable, and motivate the agents of these actions. The significance of commoditization processes and the value of particular commodity forms can only be understood, I would argue, in relation to such encompassing socio-cultural processes of acting and objectification" (p. 94). Speaking of the commodity coffee directly he says: "As a central feature of both economy and everyday experience, coffee is a substance that embodies articulations within and across local and global orders. In the construction of class relations, social space, and even bodily intimacy, coffee provides a medium through which connections and disconnections, conjuctures and disjunctures, can be recognized and acted upon" (p.103).

[9] Louis Armstrong died on July 4, 1970. I first saw the coffee ad in the cinema in 1995. The young people in the audience had actually told Armstrong nothing, since he had been dead for twenty-five years, which is to say he had been dead longer than many of the young people had been alive.

[10] I do not have a script or a video of the advert and so have described it from memory: which is to say, I have shared my impressions of the advert, created by the advert itself. This is not an insignificant point, for the coffee company is both creating and selling an image and an impression before the coffee itself.

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