Project description

Advertising has played a central role in shaping the history of modern media. While often identified with American consumerism and the rise of the ‘Information Society’, motion picture advertising has been part of European visual culture since the late 19th century. Following the co-evolution of transport and information infrastructures during the Industrial Revolution, motion pictures indeed became central within an ever-expanding promotional ‘Medienverbund.’ With the global spread of ad agencies, moving image advertisements turned into a privileged cultural form for making people experience the qualities and uses of branded commodities, for articulating visions of a ‘good life,’ and for inciting social relationships. Yet no book-length study exists that would critically survey the history of motion picture advertising from a Cinema or Media Studies viewpoint. Abandoning a conventional delineation of fields by medium, country, or period, this project suggests a lateral view. It aims to chart the audiovisual history of advertising by focussing on objects (products), screens (exhibition, programming, physical media), practices (production, marketing), and intermediaries (ad agencies). Our research will trace continuities and links across countries, media or periods, in order to better understand, and evaluate, advertising’s role in transformative screen cultures. The project proceeds along three work packages:

Objects and Screens (Work Package 1)

The project will follow the ‘object lessons’ of specific products advertised in moving image media, and the complex careers of such objects across campaigns. This includes the screen histories of particular branded products (such as automobiles or chocolate, for instance), and the relation of advertised objects to subjectification processes. We will also analyze exhibition and programming strategies and the variety of physical screens on which advertised products and services are displayed. In how far do the products and services to be advertised determine their own representation, and which formal invariabilities (if any) can be found in, say, the promotion of a 1960s refrigerator across nations, media, and audiences? How did specific forms and formats of moving image advertising emerge across media and over time? How to account for a given films’ place in the field of changing media practices? What pragmatic conditions for viewing did exhibition contexts provide?

Practices and Intermediaries (Work Package 2)

Our project also analyzes the development of specific campaigns and the role of motion pictures within such campaigns. How did the making of dedicated formats (e.g. commercials) and parasitic forms (promotional rhetorics in other genres) go together in the history of a particular brand or company? What kind of norms and rules of thumb emerged in advertising practice? Taking up the notion of practice, as it was introduced in sociological studies of markets and marketing, the project aims to offer richer characterizations of what it is that is being shaped through market practice, and of the process that lead to these outcomes, i.e. how a certain market is shaped. Practice is thus not confined to what people do, but highlights the relation between actors of different kinds. In addition, we will analyze the role of ad agencies and other ‘inbetweens’ such as distributors, media institutions, and online platforms, in order to understand the ways advertising is practiced in these contexts. An emphasis will thus be put on intermediaries, following the recent suggestion to develop a “sociology of the intermediary” and media industry studies of the management cultures they form part in.

Archives and Approaches (Work Package 3)

How to select, preserve and present advertising films stored in existing archival collections? In answering this question, we will – on the one hand – sum up the findings from our exemplary studies on objects/screens and practices/intermediaries, in order to devise a conceptual approach to advertising by motion pictures. On the other hand, however, this approach will evolve in a continuous dialogue with the archives themselves. A key strategy of our research consists in connecting our findings and the resulting approach to discussions held between archivists and collectors, in order to make them operational for archival practice. Resulting in a book-length study for archival, research, and class-room use, our project will thus complement earlier initiatives and an existing collaboration with archivists and curators.