Thursday, October 8, 2009

We Speak Car

A year ago I ranted about a Chevy commercial. Tonight it's Ford who's won my disdain.

I have long been tired of commercials which use quotation marks around images. It was a novel idea a few years ago. Now everybody does it. Needless to say, "everybody does it" is no reason to quit doing something in advertising. A survey of billboards on any highway will show you that. They still haven't gotten tired of Writing. With. Periods.

Anyhow, Ford spins or drives or zooms in on a Focus or some godawful pretend-low-gas-milage (WOW! We can get you 2 more MPG! THAT'S PROGRESS! Technology SAVES THE DAY!) car, and along with it float the quotation marks as the announcer tells us, "We speak Car."

Is Car a language? It could be considered a system of signs I suppose. "Bitchin' Camaro" carries a very different meaning from "Lincoln Sedan," or even "Jeep Wrangler rollin' 35s." Certainly, cars carry with them a host of meanings, suggestions, and attractions. But can you really speak them?

Cars are (and I hate to say this) probably the best way to use a "We speak X" sort of ad campaign. But they are part of a larger phenomenon of using images in place of language. Again, some of these categories of images can be better forced or wrangled into a system of signs than others, but what of toilet paper? What of dish detergent? (Barthes did take on the semiotics of soap powder, back in the '70s.)

A Target commercial shoves these things and more in between a neat pair of double quotes. Baby wipes, lipstick, lampshades. They're all things we apparently no longer need words for because we can just look at their images on a screen.

And at the end of the Ford commercial, the Focus pulls back into center screen, shattering the quotes. They are no longer needed, because the car is no longer a metaphor for some other kind of pretend language. Ford is pretty sure they've pointed to a real one.

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