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Mountain Dew by PepsiCo
The cultural studies supply a framework for the analysis of television and other types of media, which convey specific messages to the audience. The main assumption of the cultural perspective is related to the interpretations of visual and linguistic signs constituting particular media products. Specifically, researchers maintain that complex relationships exist between the meanings intended by a producer and the people’s perceptions of them. In such a way, scholars such as Stuart Hall speak of different levels of analysis aimed at disclosing the messages and their semantics.
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According to Hall (1980), the connotative level of a particular sign, in contrast to denotative, or preferred, reading, deals with more complex semantic interrelationships between meanings and associations, which are enrooted in the cultural consciousness. In such a way, for instance, advertising discourse never grounds on a “purely denotative” and “natural” representation (Hall, 1980, p. 56). The current paper aims to analyze the commercial of Mountain Dew by PepsiCo from the viewpoint of different levels of meanings.
The Theoretical Framework of the Analysis
As a rule, the mass media does not straightforwardly and unambiguously present images but “represents” them by incorporating numerous additional meanings, whose cultural power was called “politics of signification” by Stuart Hall (Campbell, 2015). Importantly, the researcher emphasizes that people belonging to various social groups normally perceive the same media product in different ways, according to their sets of beliefs and worldviews. In such a way, Hall differentiates between denotative or “preferred” reading, which was initially intended by the creator, and connotative (“negotiated” and/or “oppositional”) levels of understanding (Hall, 1980).
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The analysis of media representations can reveal those multiple contexts, which are often concerned with race and ethnicity. As young Afro-Americans, who posted the well-known photos after the murder of Michael Brown highlighted, popular media was prone to represent the Blacks as pathological criminals in spite of their individual qualities (Campbell, 2015). Moreover, as a rule, popular messages impose the idea of the superiority of the powers that exist and serve the interests of the wealthiest. In this regard, John Fiske acknowledged the fact that cultural studies concentrate on the constant struggle “between those with and without power” (Fiske, 1992, p. 292, as cited in Campbell, 2015).
In general, it is important to understand the context and logic of belying particular commercial, or the so-called “dominant ideology” (Campbell, 2015, p. 55). Otherwise, the analysis will not be successful and capable of disclosing the connotations of the message, while denotative meanings themselves do not have any significant value. To discover political and cultural contexts and implications, it is vital to examine media texts and images on the higher levels that enable a researcher to determine the “mythology” of a particular culture (Campbell, 2015). Media coverage frequently appeals to the commonsense, absolute values, and myths residing in the consciousness of all members of human societies, as they were shaped during many centuries. Furthermore, journalism frequently aims at conveying the values prompted by governmental policy and ideology (Campbell, 2015). Louis Althusser explained that ideology deals with both the real and imaginary relationships people have with reality; they are inclined to represent the real conditions of their existence through the lens of their own myths, concepts, ideas, images, and discourses (Storey, 2009, p. 71).
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The producers of media messages are aware of the needs of the audience, its predominant beliefs, perceptions, and stereotypes, the topics, events, and other constituent parts of the socio-cultural and political contexts. In such a way, as Hall (1980) stresses, the production and reception of a television message are interrelated concepts within the communicative process as a whole. In other words, the producers must follow the basic rules of language and discourse for their messages to be correctly understood. Furthermore, for the encoded messages to be successfully decoded by receivers, the creators of media products must ground in accepted frameworks of knowledge, political and socio-economic structures, and technical infrastructure (Hall, 1980).
The Analysis of the Commercial on the Denotative Level
The given commercial consists of three parts of a single story. At first, it shows the goat at a caf? and a couple discussing this scene. A waitress, who is White, serves the goat a bottle of Mountain Dew, and it makes the animal crazy in love with the drink. Afterward, the goat violently attacks the waitress and runs away, although soon, it is caught by the police and taken to the station. In the third section, which is the most antiracist one, the waitress tries to identify the violator in the row of suspects but escapes with horror.
Even at the denotative level of analysis, the commercial of Mountain Dew makes the viewer feel disgusted by the visual images of violence and apparent disrespect to the Black race. American “dominant culture order” (Hall, 1980, p. 57) makes it easy for every member of the society to recognize the preferred meaning of the story. Felicia the Goat stands in one line with the representatives of the minority race, and all of them have equal chances to be convicted of the crime. Years of racial discrimination have imposed negative stereotypes about African Americans, and they are a part of “maps of social reality” (Hall, 1980, p. 56). According to these maps, the audience is likely to perceive them as potential criminals possessing lower social and economic status. Although the tendency in the modern world is leaning towards racial equality and oneness of the White and Black races, the creators of the commercial openly refer to the negative beliefs and perceptions about the given minority group.
The Analysis of the Commercial on the Connotative Level
The visual signs of Black convicts who stand in one line with a goat suggest the implications, which refer to the existing negative stereotypes associated with the racist perceptions of Negroes in society. The appearance of every suspect presented in the commercial alludes to the images of the most marginalized groups of Black people. The producer shows them as representatives of the lowest ranks of society, with the appearance characteristic of hip-hoppers, gangsters, and muggers. These visual signs point out straightforwardly to the social and political beliefs that have always belied inequality based on the color of one’s skin. Next, the mere fact that the audience can see exceptionally Black people in the line of criminals connotes that only marginal individuals with dark skin can potentially be violators. One subtler detail is that these people, who equally belong to the human race along with the Whites, are placed on the same level as the animal.
It is obvious that the negotiated meaning proposed by the producer tries to impose an understanding of the perceiver, according to which the Black people are lower than Whites; they are on the same stage as animals. Another delicate detail here even strengthens the mentioned implication. Specifically, the goat is wearing a suit and a white shirt while the other suspects, although human, are all wearing specific clothes associated in the “maps of social reality” (Hall, 1980, p. 56) with rappers, hip-hoppers, and other representatives of the lowest social and economic layers. The commercial is obviously dangerous and inappropriate in today’s culture, since the modern tendency of the entire world and American society, in particular, is towards equity of human rights independent of racial background.
In addition, as the producer of the commercial uses humor, his messages and implications receive even more power. The reason for that fact is that the concepts and ideas suggested in a humorous way appeal directly to the human subconsciousness and easily release evil but strong misconceptions. Another example of appealing to the dark side of the human psyche undertaken by the creator of this commercial can be seen in the first part of the story. Particularly, a sip of the drink makes the goat crazy and violent; apparently, the commercial negotiates the message to the public, which is associated with love, desire, and pleasure. The principle of pleasure is the rudest and simplistic conceptual framework for the interpretation of the personality. It leaves out all the highest spiritual needs and considerations and refers straightly to the satisfaction of the primary instinctive desires. Furthermore, when the goat shouts “Give me more of that!” in a passionate outburst, the viewer receives the message about the unrestrained power of pleasure. In such a case, the creator influences the audience by the “common-sense constructs” and “taken-for-granted knowledge” (Hall, 1980, p. 57). Using this technique, this type of knowledge insinuates the majority of people who watch the goat turning crazy the idea about the strong, irresistible pleasure, a sort of addiction, which is difficult to control. On the one hand, the rational mind of a person can warn against the evil nature of such destructive power of pleasure. On the other hand, however, everyone has deep inherent knowledge, settled in the Jungian collective unconscious, that forbidden fruit is sweet and attractive.
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At the same time, one has to admit that the episode potentially suggests another negotiated meaning. As has been mentioned, the goat turns crazy after being stimulated by the lovable drink and attacks the waitress. From this consequence of the violent seeking for pleasure proposed by the drink, the viewer can make contradictory inferences. One side of the psyche, which is the lower dimension of personality-driven by instincts and impulses, can make the audience strive for such pleasure. In contrast, the rational part of the human mind makes a person observe that this doubtful love and ardent desire can lead to severe consequences, namely the attack and imprisonment. In such a way, one has to agree with Stuart Hall that, unlike the denotative level of a certain television sign, which is fixed, the connotative level is open to various interpretations and transformations of meanings (Hall, 1980).
The humanistic values grounded in absolute ethics and morality supply the principal guidance for the global community at the current stage. However, as the Freudian psychoanalytic theory revealed, a human being is the arena for a fight between the noble inclinations and the destructive forces of the instincts. Such products of popular media as the Mountain Dew commercial appeal, unfortunately, to the lowest and evilest human impulses and feelings instead of cherishing the worldview of moral justice and equality.
By and large, the researchers of cultural studies have developed important conceptual frameworks, which are helpful in analyzing the media messages of popular culture. On the example of the Mountain Dew commercial, the current paper demonstrated how the producer conveyed myriads of meanings to the audiences. Specifically, the denotative level of analysis can suggest apparently straightforward meanings of the story told in the commercial. This type of context is normally understood by all people in a similar fashion since it appeals to the social, political, and cultural structures embedded in the mind of every individual as a social being. Withal, the area of connotative meanings suggests a wide field of alternatives in interpreting one and the same image. Unfortunately, the creators of popular media frequently support negative stereotypes and misconceptions, especially those associated with race and ethnicity.
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