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Climbing the Social Ladder

Posted: April 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Lauren Griffin

Social behavior is influenced greatly by what we see in the media. We take from it how to act, what to buy, and where we stand on the social spectrum. Our cultural identity can be determined by what we are surrounded with on the day-to- day and how we interact with it. In the case of printed matter, imagery in particular can have a great impact on the thoughts and views of the public. This can be used to communicate the goals of a publication as well as define the consumer they are gearing it towards. An example of this can be seen on the cover of Harper’s February edition in 1895, created by artist Edward Penfield. He shows a glimpse of everyday life as a group of respectable citizens read their copies of Harper’s on the train. The artist’s choice of subject-matter, composition, and even media all speak to the goal of the publication: he wants it to seem readable and desirable by upstanding members of society and those who wish to act as such.
Harper’s tagline is “America’s window on the world,” which sounds as though it were everywhere, read by everyone. At first glance, the ad seems to support this because all of the people in the image are busy reading it. Upon further investigation, however, the word ‘everyone’ comes into question. The fact that Penfield chose to illustrate the cover primarily with proper citizens of the upper class sheds some light as to the audience he hopes to reach. The exaggeratedly straight postures and extravagant dress, even the way the passengers use the magazine itself as a screen to block out their surroundings, all inform the identity and status of the expected Harper’s consumer.
The addition of a train conductor in the background also reading the magazine acts as a foil to the above-mentioned, compositionally dominant characters in the foreground. The conductor’s casual posture and even the possible neglect of his job contrast greatly to the dignified mannerisms of these upper-class passengers, reinforcing a social divide. Of course, that is not to say that the publication is exclusively for the upper-class; as the train conductor illustrates, people with a lower social status can participate as well, but it is the emphasis on the status of the more dignified readers that draws the potential buyer’s eye. Others can emulate the actions of people of a higher social ranking to ‘play the part’ so that, for a moment, they too are a part of the same culturally enriching activity, and thus can achieve some form of propriety.
Another example similar to the Harper’s ad that speaks to a specified consumer through subtle imagery and subtext is a French poster advertising Cigarette la Bohème (bohemian cigarette), illustrated by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen in 1894. The ad depicts a young man in casual dress with a gentleman lighting his cigarette at nighttime. As the title suggests, the ad is geared towards a lower class, portraying a lifestyle that is unconventional but excitingly so. The fact that this prim and proper gentleman is stepping off his high horse for a moment to light the cigarette of a member of a lower class would be both atypical and appealing to one of a lower social rank. The gap between classes is upheld as much, if not more, in this ad than in the Harper’s cover. The stiff posture of the gentleman contrasts greatly the casual lean of the smoker. Even the difference in attire- the gentleman wearing a full suit, top hat, and frock, and the smoker wearing a jaunty cap, and loose-fitting clothes- points to the stark difference between upper and lower classes. This further enforces the surprise of the interaction between the two characters. Steinlen, the artist, uses this social divide as a tool to enforce the romantic ideal of a bohemian lifestyle, free of convention. This, in effect, portrays a specific cultural identity that cigarette smokers (and non-smokers) living a similar lifestyle can relate to, making the image more engaging and the product advertised more attractive to the consumer.
We use similar tactics in our advertisements today as well. With the oversaturation of media in television, billboards, posters, etc., designers and publishers use a visual language and cultural context to attract public interest. Celebrity endorsements are a popular way of doing so because celebrities, to us, are a part of an unattainable social class who’s lifestyles are something to be modeled after. When one puts George Clooney as the face of a product, as Omega recently did in 2010 in an ad for their latest watch, his presence becomes the underlying message; their product is desirable, even to someone of such high status in our society. Their goal is to make such an intriguing member of this elite class seem more attainable, making the product he is endorsing that much more appealing. In the case of the Clooney ad, his direct gaze and casual body language bring him down to the level of the everyday person, making the product seem accessible, but its his celebrity standing makes the purchase of this watch particularly attractive. Of course, this is a much more forward approach of communicating intent to the viewer, but it is effective due to its stylistic choices and the cultural context in which they are presented.
When visiting OMEGA’s official website, one can find Clooney’s name as well as a slew of other notable persons under the ‘Ambassadors’ tab. Under the George Clooney page, the same photo of him from the previously mentioned ad fills half of the page layout, though it has been cropped from his forearms up. This obscures the watch completely from the photo, which would seem at first to be completely contrary to the point of a watch ad. This, however, only calls attention to the fact that his affiliation to the company distributing the product alone is important, not the quality of the product he is endorsing. The text below seems to support this theory as it describes him as “the perfect complement to the elite ranks of OMEGA’s champions and high-achievers,” rather than the perfect complement to the elegance and sophistication of the watch, or something to that effect. This statement, elitist though it may be, draws upon the desire of a potential buyer to be on par with such a notable member of our society.
One’s cultural identity is inarguably affected and manipulated by one’s surroundings, which the printed media has played a large role in since its growth in the late 1800s. Advertisements are geared to particular consumers, and the products they display are presented in a calculated fashion by artists and designers with the public eye in mind. As a designer, one must always consider the audience, their response, and how the overall image comes across. Social climate, consumer bias, and the customs and aspirations of the general public are all tools to be understood and used in order to communicate one’s message effectively. With this in mind, a parallel can be drawn between marketing tactics of the late 1800s that Penfield and Steinlen worked in and the ones we use in the modern day. Public opinions and tastes are still heavily influenced by what artists and designers choose to strategically present in the media. They are, and probably always will be, the primary interest of the commercial creator.

Works Cited
OMEGA. Advertisement. OMEGA Watches. Web. 16 Feb. 2011. .

Eskilson, Stephen. “Harper’s and Japanese Prints.” Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. 52-53. Print.

“Posters.” Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923). Gallery Administrator. Web. 16 Feb. 2011. .

“Omega Seamaster Replica Review.” Watches by James – Replica Watches, Fake Watches Blog, Watches and Websites Reviews. Web. .

Drucker, Johanna, and Emily McVarish. “Mass Mediation.” Graphic Design History: a Critical Guide. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. 142-43. Print