7 UP’S MESSAGE IN THE BOTTLE
Presentation before the Committee of Mass Culture of the Netherlands Intitute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences
Drs. Ashraf Ramzy
Blogdate October 12th 2013
21 years ago, in May 1992 I had the honor and privilege to deliver a paper and a presentation on the Influence of American Popular Culture on Europe at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Just four years earlier, in 1988, I had earned my master’s degree in Narratology on a comprehensive study of the narrative structure and mythology of the Hollywood Film. This six year study included a comparative analysis of the European Story and the American Story and resulted in amazing insights in the differences between the national identity, culture and mentality of Europe and America. After graduation I started a career in advertising as a brand- and communication strategist at FHV/BBDO. And in 1992, in the early years of my career, NIAS approached my agency who referred them to me. I recently stumbled on this paper while writing a rebuttal to an article written by yet another consultant who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of storytelling but sadly missed the boat. I am referring to John Hagel’s ‘distinction’ between story and narrative. A distinction that, by the way, does not exist and does not occur in 2000 years of academic and practical literature on story or drama. A distinction that seems only to exist in his mind. Anyhow. That rebuttal is on the way.
The paper I presented in 1992 is published below. First I will set the stage and paint the setting for you.
“Life is a Story. So if I understand how stories work, then I’ll understand how life works. and then maybe, I’ll figure out how get my life in order”. That’s what I believed in the summer of 1982, age 21, when I stumbled on a book on Screenwriting. A book that would change my life.
In 1982 I had just wasted two years of my life studying Psychology. I thought I would find the answers to the big existential questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I belong? Partially of course, this is your typical adolescent angst. But for me it had an extra charge. I am a Christian from a Muslim country, an Egyptian in the Netherlands, a European in America. I really had Identity Issues and was really looking for real answers.
In that summer we visited my uncle who lived in Los Angeles. On the last day of our visit we were doing some last minute shopping and I wandered into a bookstore. Inside that bookstore I wandered around aimlessly until I found myself standing in front of a section called Film & Performing Arts. Then, as if my hand had a life of its own, it reached out an and pulled out a book titled: “Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field.
Just the title alone sent shock waves through my system. That something so magical, yet so real as a movie, a story, was written – I actually thought they just happened – and that there were rules and laws governing that process and that you could learn those rules, well, that just knocked me off my feet. I flicked through the pages and found what I was looking for, right then and there. The Answers to my Questions. And I had an epiphany “Life is a Story. So if I understand how stories work, then I’ll understand how life works. and then maybe, I’ll figure out how get my life in order”.
The flight between Los Angeles and Amsterdam is about 10 hours. In those ten hours I devoured that book five, six times. I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t get enough of it. I soaked up the words, the knowledge, the wisdom, the lessons, like the parched desert sand soaks up the rain. This was IT. When we landed I vowed to spend the rest of my life in pursuit of understanding and applying the Power of Story.
In 1982 the Dutch university system had undergone a structural change and suddenly there was a new faculty. Guess…. Film & Performing Arts. They offered a specialization. Guess…. Narratology, the science and study of Story. I enrolled immediately. I knew exactly what I wanted to learn. I was not interested in the Cinema of the Ukraine, nor in the mindset of Jean Luc Godard, or in the montage principles of nouveau cinema. No, I wanted to understand the Hollywood Film, the blockbuster, the box office hit. I wanted to understand and unlock the secret of the stories that had universal appeal and that touched movie goers all over the world. So for 6 full years I focused on one objective; to learn how Hollywood tells its story and what Story Hollywood tells in the first place. So you might say that I am specialized in the Success Story, the reconstruction of the successful transformation of the Character, the Fate and the Universe of the Victorious Hero.
In the midst of this pursuit to understand the Hollywood system I stumbled on the notion of Mythology as a story society tells itself to make sense of life. And I stumbled on the notion that the American Dream is as much of a mythology to America as Greek Mythology was to the Greek, the Romans and to Europe.
In May 1985 Coca Cola announced that it would change the taste of Coke. I witnessed a revolution. People everywhere protested. People were genuinely shocked. I heard that there were marches on Washington and that people even wrote the President. One remark really hit home. “You can’t change Coke; Coca Cola is the American Dream in a Bottle.” (emphasis mine).
There I was studying the art, business and craft of Storytelling and Mythmaking, analyzing and interpreting the Mythology of Hollywood, the American Dream, reading books, watching and analyzing film. And then this happened.This event made me realize that story isn’t limited to storytelling, to fiction only. And that a story can be told through products and brands as well. As a matter of fact, that incident made me realize that people don’t buy products, they buy stories. People don’t buy brands they buy into the Myths and Archetypes those Brands represent. Beside an instrumental purpose, products and brands have a symbolical purpose as well. This insight,by the way, has been the source, the foundation and the frame of a successful career in brand and communication strategy.
So when I had to write a paper on the influence of American Popular Culture on Europe, I took a 30 second commercial, analyzed it and poured my thesis into it.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it!
In the context of the study of American Mass culture and its influence in Europe, I define American mass culture as the communication, expression and enactment of “Americanicity”; that quality of America that distinguishes it from other cultures in the present as well as in the past. The main purpose of this paper is to examine that distinctive feature more closely and define it more precisely.
I will do this by analyzing the 7Up commercial “Black Belt” starring Fido Dido. In spite of its apparent simplicity and ephemeral quality this 30 second commercial contains such a rich abundance of values and meaning that, as part of the whole, it is a wonderful example of American mass culture.
To facilitate the analysis of this commercial as a meaningful entity we must make a distinction with regards to the three layers of its communicative functioning. These three layers are its surface-, intermediate- and deep structure. These will be discussed prior to the analysis.
On the first layer, and in terms of its surface structure, “Black Belt” is a commercial in which Fido Dido functions as a brand symbol. This will lead to a discussion of (brand) advertising.
On the second layer, and in terms of its intermediate structure, “Black Belt”, (although used as a commercial) is a dramatized narrative in which Fido Dido appears as the main dramatic character: the Victorious Hero. This will lead to an examination of narrative structure and narrative communication.
On the third layer, and in terms of its deep structure, the narrative of “Black Belt” stems from and is part of a larger whole of stories from which it ultimately draws its meaning. As such, the narrative of “Black Belt” not only derives from, but could not have been possible without 20th century mythology: The American Dream.
Adding to the definition of American mass culture, I regard the American Dream as the essence of American mass culture and as its distinctive feature. It is this mythology that distinguishes American (mass)culture from other cultures.
I situate the influence of American mass culture in Europe on that level. When a commercial shows us images of America these images function as indicators where the reference to “Americanicity” is intended to reflect well on the brand. The difference between commercials of that type and “Black Belt” is that the first evoke and refer to what the second represents and stands for. Hence, an exploratory analysis of this particular commercial exemplifying Americanicity, rather than a comparative analysis of several.
In the course of the analysis I hope to be able to show how one 30 second commercial contains a rich abundance of values and meaning on its three layers of communicative functioning, and exemplifies Americanicity.
2. LEVELS OF ANALYSIS
2.1 Brand advertising
We must first distinguish between the product and the brand.
The product is a tangible, physical (or material) construction: in this case a transparent carbonated softdrink with a lemon/lime taste.
The brand is an intangible mental construction: a network of associations in the mind of the consumer. Compare it if you will with the distinction between body and soul. Strange as it may seem, marketers and advertisers do speak about the “soul” of a product. (1)
We must also distinguish between physical consumption and symbolical consumption. (2) This distinction is very important. It is the core assumption in Brand advertising.
Symbolic consumption means that we buy and consume products predominantly for what they represent to us in terms of values and meaning. The product simply serves as the carrier. This notion of symbolic consumption is not new: Adam and Eve, for instance, didn’t eat of the apple just because they were hungry; they did so because of what they thought the apple stood for. So when dealing with a soft drink, we are not dealing with the liquid, but with the message in the bottle. (3) What 7Up’s message is will become clear in the course of the analysis.
Before Fido Dido was used for 7 Up, the soft drink suffered from a dull, unattractive and childish image. The previous campaign featured a thirsty macho type in the dessert cooling down with 7Up. It didn’t quite work. Then, in 1989, Fido Dido appeared and, as a result 7 Up’s image was radically improved. It became hip, cool, attractive and appealing. (4) In the analysis I will show how this commercial contributed to the improvement of the brand image.
The next point to make is about the various techniques and forms used in advertising. I will limit myself only to commercials and will give a quick overview just to situate our commercial within its context.
One distinction is between “hard sell” and “soft sell”.
Hard sell employs a technique called “USP”: the Unique Selling Proposition. This type of advertising consists of finding a product achievement that distinguishes one product from other products within the same category. This obviously does not apply to our case. “Black Belt” does not make any claims on the level of product achievement. (5)
Soft sell focuses on image. David Ogilvy was one of the first advocates of this advertising technique. Product- information is replaced by (or supports) image building. This is the case with “Black Belt”.
Another way to distinguish is between forms. The prevalent distinction with regards to commercials is:
- the testimonial, where an authority speaks to the audience about the product/brand,
- the demonstration, where the benefits of the product/brand is demonstrated to the audience, and;
- the drama, the enactment of a narrative in which the product/brand plays an instrumental role.
The last type being the format used in this commercial.
One important thing to keep in mind is that advertising (usually) is persuasive communication employing elementary causal logic and rhetorical techniques. We all know the before/after and the problem/solution type of advertising still used today for detergents. The communicative logic in the drama, as in Black Belt, is not of this type. Drama, being the enactment of narrative, uses narrative communication, rather than persuasive communication. The kind of logic employed in narrative communication is poetic and associative, rather than rhetorical and causal. This too will be discussed in the analysis.
2.2 Narrative structure and narrative communication
Before I define narrative it is worthy to note that “drama” derives from the Greek verb “dran” (dran) which means to act. A drama, is the enactment of narrative.
Definition of narrative:
Narrative does not exist without expression in some form or another. Narrative is an intangible phenomenon: it is a mental (re)construction that needs expression. We can thus tell stories through oral anecdote, literature, poetry, music, dance, paintings, commercials, film, etc.
Of itself, a narrative (as a mental re-construction) is a chain of logically and chronologically connected events that happen to or are caused by narrative agents (characters, objects, forces). The narrative event is a situational transformation or a transition from one situation to another, preferably its opposite. As such; a narrative as a whole is a process of transformation; in other words; the reconstruction of Crisis. (6)
The chain of events in dramatic (i.e. enacted) narrative has two aspects. The first is its formal/temporal structure, the second its dynamic/teleological organization.
By formal/temporal structure I mean that a narrative is a chain of events with a beginning, a middle and an end. This temporal division, obvious as it may seem, is what makes the events intelligible to the audience. It provides the audience with a finite form of understanding. In narrative, the beginning is the introduction of time, place, and characters. Furthermore, the beginning introduces the dramatic problem; the introduction of danger and/or deficit. The narrative middle is the phase of complication and conflict. It is the part where the hero meets antagonistic forces that keep him from solving the dramatic problem. The narrative end is the phase where the hero is engaged in the final confrontation with the villain. The danger and/or lack is liquidated, the problem is solved and the initial situation is restored and reversed.
The second aspect of the chain of events is its organization. Within the formal/temporal structure we’ve just seen, the events and actions are dynamically and teleologically organized around eight key events. These eight elements are the constitution of narrative irrespective of form, duration or genre. The presence of these element is what defines “Black Belt” as a narrative in the technical sense. They will be discussed in the analysis.
1. Initial situation (implied or manifest) of peace, prosperity and order
2. The Disturbing Event, a transgression of the initial situation that causes a danger or lack (the dramatic problem) that the Hero needs to liquidate
3. the Initial Crisis which forces the hero into the conflict,
4. the Transformation Crisis or the “Dramatic Change”, a pivotal event (not necessarily emphasized)
5. The Final Crisis or “Point of no Return”, the “do or die situation”, the “radical decision”
6. the Confrontation; the conjunction of the opposing Wills of the hero and the villain, the “final battle”
7. the Resolution; the outcome of the conflict, somebody wins and somebody loses; something is gained and something is lost
8. the Final situation, giving a sense of closure and the possibility of a new story. It not only marks the restoration but also the reversal of the initial situation. (7)
Having defined narrative, and explained narrative structure, let us now look at narrative communication.
The first question to ask ourselves is where would we be without narrative, let alone without the ability to tell and understand stories? The news of the world comes to us in the form of stories. The global drama unfolds every day. For each and every one of us there is a personal history, the narrative of our lives which enables us to construe what we are, who we are, where we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Without narrative, I wonder, how we would be able to make sense of our personal lives or our universal existence. (8)
And that is the first observation: narrative enables us to make sense of life by incorporating mere cause and effect in a larger whole where events, actions, choices, decisions, characters, etc. are related, to one another. Narrative thus is a means of understanding, that transcends mere logic.
As we all know from personal experience, from time to time we need to reflect on the events in our lives. Without being consciously aware of it, perhaps, what we do when we reflect is activate in our minds our narrative capacity.
On a cultural level, and that is my second point, narrative also serves that function. In the case of “Black Belt”, as we shall see in the analysis, the spirit of the times are reflected in the trials and tribulations of Fido Dido.
2.3 Mythology and the American Dream
The narrative of “Black Belt” stems from and is part of a larger whole of stories, from where it ultimately draws its meaning. Some stories take root in a specific society and provide for that society a network of shared allusion and experience. (9) This is what I mean by mythology. In order for stories to take root in a society, the (society as) audience needs to do more than just suspend their disbelief and the stories need to be more than just entertaining, plausible or even convincing. It is only those stories that are believed that take root and together form a mythology. The question of credibility, is the crucial aspect and the final touchstone of narrative (10).
A mythology then, conveys to us what a society believes in as a whole whether it is aware of it or not. And it is through this body of beliefs, rooted in collective experience and aspiration, that reality is perceived. Thus mythology simultaneously functions as a deep structure of perception and as an overarching mode of understanding. As Northrop Frye puts it:
“Man lives, not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imagination may recognize elements of it, when presented in art or literature, without consciously understanding what it is that we recognize.” (11).
Since narrative is the reconstruction of crisis, mythology, as a body of narrative, deals with existential crisis. Simply put: a mythology tells us how a society deals with its problems. And by telling its members how it is done, it teaches them how to participate. Mythology, thus also functions as collective education.
In order to understand the significance of The American Dream as a dominant mythology and its influence in Europe we really would have to compare it with a comparable mythology within Western culture. And we only have to go back to the end of the last century, when Europe was still the dominant force in the world, to find the dominant mythology: the Oedipal Tragedy. In the “Interpretation of Dreams” Freud writes:
“If the Oedipus Rex is capable of moving a modern reader or playgoer no less powerfully than it moved the contemporary Greeks, the only possible explanation is that (…t)here must be a voice within us which is prepared to acknowledge the compelling power of fate in Oedipus, (…). His fate moves us only because it might have been our own (…). As the poet brings the guilt of Oedipus to light by his investigation, he forces us to become aware of our own inner selves...”(12).
Since a comprehensive comparative analysis of both mythologies would lead far beyond the scope of this paper I will only compare Fido Dido and Oedipus in terms of their respective fates and their characterization as heroes. A comparison is only possible between comparable entities in terms of similarity and difference. The fact that both Fido and Oedipus are dramatic characters, exemplifying an underlying mythology and function as carriers of meaning and vehicles of values, makes the comparison possible. In what they differ will be shown in the analysis.
Before we turn to the analysis of Black Belt, let me summarize the above.
To facilitate the analysis of this commercial we had to make a distinction with regards to the three layers of its communicative functioning.
- The first layer, that of surface structure, was brandadvertising. In this context the points to be discussed in the course of the analysis are the message in the bottle and how this commercial managed to improve the image of 7Up.
- The second layer, that of intermediate structure, is narrative structure and narrative communication. In this context the points to be discussed in the course of the analysis are associative logic as opposed to causal logic, the narrative function (the role) of 7Up, the eight constituent elements of narrative and how the trials and tribulations of Fido Dido reflect on the times we live in.
- The third layer, that of deep structure, is The American Dream as mythology. In this context we will see how Fido – as a characterization of the Hero within the framework of The American Dream – relates to Oedipus. Since I situate the essence of American Mass culture on this level of communication, its influence in Europe will be discussed in this light.
3. ANALYSIS BLACK BELT
The story of this commercial is as follows.
Fido a cool cartoon character playing with his yoyo enters the scene from left to right. Suddenly there’s a shadow hanging over him when a hand intrudes into the scene. The Hand draws Fido a more conservative hairdo. Fido is less then enthusiastic and quickly puts his hair back into shape. Now the Hand draws him a new outfit. Fido Dido is given a jacket and a tie. He is horrified and, angrily, he pulls off the jacket and slams it to the ground. Then the height of impertinence: the Hand tries to censor Fido’s choice of soft drink: 7 Up. Fido resists and, taking a karate position he executes a swift kick crippling the pencil. At last he can enjoy his 7 Up in peace and quiet. We hear a female voice singing: “It’s cool to be clear”. And finally, before walking out of the scene, Fido administers a final flick of his yoyo to the pencil point which falls on the floor. Triumphantly he exits from the right to the left. The End.
Fido a cool cartoon character playing with his yoyo enters the scene from left to right.
This is the Initial situation of peace, prosperity and order. Fido is in a playful mood and in a peaceful state of mind. He is dressed casually, not formally: his hair is uncombed, his shirt is not tucked in his pants, and his shoelaces aren’t tied. Although he is not a pauper it is clear that he is not a king. All of this denotes freedom. Furthermore, he isn’t drawn elaborately, just a few lines; black and white. This is easy on the eyes and on the mind to digest. It is very clear. Note that he enters from the left and moves to the right.
Suddenly there’s a shadow hanging over him when a hand intrudes into the scene.
This is the Disturbing Event: first there was light, now there is darkness; first there was peace now there is danger. The conflict begins…
The Hand draws Fido a more conservative hairdo. Fido is less than enthusiastic and quickly puts his hair back into shape. Now the Hand draws him a new outfit. Fido Dido is given a jacket and a tie. He is horrified and, angrily, he pulls off the jacket and slams it to the ground. Then the height of impertinence: the Hand tries to censor Fido’s soft drink: 7 Up. Fido resists.
There are three attacks: the attack on his hairdo is the Initial Crisis which forces Fido into conflict. The second attack on his clothes is the Transformation Crisis or the “Dramatic Change”. If we compare Fido’s state of mind at this point in the story with his state of mind in the beginning, we see that it has turned to its negative opposite. He is horrified and angry.
The third attack on the can of 7Up is The Final Crisis or “Point of no Return”. If Fido allows the Hand to change it, like his hair and his clothes, he will not be able to undo it, there would not be a way back; he will have lost. On the other hand if he resists, he faces mortal danger. This is the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation that forces upon the Hero to make the radical decision and cross the threshold of safety. And Fido, through resisting, takes that decision and crosses the threshold.
It is these three crises in the narrative that establish Fido as a Victorious Hero and contribute significantly to the change of the image of 7Up from undesirable to desirable.
Being one of the three attributes of Fido makes 7Up an intrinsic part of his identity. In other words; 7Up is as much part of Fido as the hair on his head and the clothes on his back. As I said the drama employs associative rather than persuasive logic. 7 up is closely associated with Fido.
Furthermore, 7Up is the third attribute that is attacked: the third attack is the Final crisis; the height of impertinence; and the final test. And by virtue of being the third attribute under attack the can of 7up assumes a distinguishing function as the Most Valuable Possession. The thing worth fighting for.
Anything Fido would have held in his hands at that point in the narrative would function as the Most Valuable Possession. What is recognized unconsciously by the audience’s imagination on a deeper level of existential concerns is its symbolic function as a mark of distinction and as symbol of life, of freedom. This moment, the Point of no return forces upon the Hero a radical choice: “give me freedom or give me death”.
Taking a karate position he executes a swift kick…
This moment marks the Confrontation between the Hero and the Villain. It is the actualization of his resistance.
…crippling the pencil.
This is the Climax; the resolution of the Conflict. (Note that he only disarms his enemy). Fido resists, he defends his most valuable possession with decisive action. Even if he had lost the battle, he still would have been a Victorious Hero, for by now we know it is a moral battle. The most difficult threshold to cross was the point of no return. Crossing that threshold takes courage and conviction. Fighting only takes strength.
At last he can enjoy his 7 Up in peace and quiet. We hear a female voice singing: “It’s cool to be clear”. And finally, before walking out of the frame, Fido administers a final flick of his yoyo to the pencil point which falls on the floor. The End.
This is the Final situation that marks the reversal and restoration of the initial situation. Fido, who entered from left to right, now exits from right to left in a triumphant state of mind. Once again a happy man. The Hero receives his reward.
Compare this with Popeye’s relationship with a can of spinach. Popeye, when attacked draws his strength from spinach. That causal logic is not employed here. The narrative function of 7up evolved from being one of the attributes of his identity. By opposing the attack on it, Fido crossed the threshold of safety and 7up assumed the function of the Most Valuable Possession.
Then, having won a righteous victory, 7Up becomes his final reward. And by now it must have become clear that he is not only drinking from a can of 7up, but from the fountain of Youth, or the Well of Life-giving Water and that he is drinking the Elixir of Life and experiencing a Taste of Heaven. This is a very powerful message.
Instead of being attacked, praise is now sung to him. The Hero receives his recognition. Compare this final song of praise, with the final verses of Oedipus Rex as quoted by Freud:
“Behold, this is Oedipus,
Who unraveled the great riddle, and was first in power,
Whose fortune was all the townsmen praised and envied;
See in what adversity he sank” (13)
This is not a song of admiration, joy and praise but, its opposite: of pity, grief and lamentation. Great literature, but terrible advertising!
And as a final closure Fido Dido administers a final flick of his yo-yo to the pencil point which falls on the floor. Ultimate victory.
The trials and tribulations of Fido Dido also reflect the times we live in right now. This is the topical quality of good advertising that makes it such an interesting barometer of the times.
In the first place Fido Dido is contrasted with the YUP, the Hero of the Materialistic Greedy 80’s. In the narrative The Hand tries to draw him in a Yuppie outfit; slick hair, a jacket and a tie. Fido resists and maintains his relaxed leisure wear. As a Hero Fido is both the heir and successor of the Yup who crashed from grace at the end of the 80’s. Thus he represents a new image of Men for the 90’s: The New Man in the bud if you will. As such Fido not only embodies 7Up values but also the dominant values of the 90’s; it is cool to be clear. With all the positive connotations attached to the adjectives cool and clear. Cool; meaning not hot with fury; not cold with indifference but calm, unworried. Clear meaning transparent, innocent, distinct, pure, free from danger, confident, clean, free. (14)
He also embodies a new vision of masculinity and demonstrates the kind of masculine strength that is no longer machismo, aggressive or accumulative, nor effeminately caring and sensitive but assertive and protective. Fido thus also marks the end of the antithetical role model of the 80’s, “the sensitive man”. Fido integrates both poles. (15). By integrating those antithetical poles, Fido Dido has broken the molds of social conventions and thus functions as an emancipatory and liberating force. As such Fido Dido is a cathartic figure.
Looking at the state of the world right now it would seem that there is a tremendous need for catharsis these days; a massive cleansing, clarification and purgation of troublesome and disturbing elements. There is a public need for clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean forests, clean blood, clean sex, clean politicians, clean campaigns, clean media. etc.
This brings us to another aspect of these times. Wherever you look nowadays, America, the former USSR, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, The Middle East, Africa, Japan we see Crisis. Not only on the political, economical or military level, but also on the sociological and psychological level. The world is going through a Crisis of Identity. In America, the American Dream is being murdered, in the Soviet Union, communism has ceased to exist. In Europe, the nation state and its sovereignty are being replaced by a supra-national identity.
Furthermore, the generation in power now, especially in the media and in the public eye, are the Baby Boomer’s. This is the generation that either established current popular culture or witnessed its emergence. And this generation reaching their 50’s, are going through a collective mid-life crisis on their ongoing quest for a post war identity. Hence, the current nostalgia and revival of the 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s.
And it goes even deeper than that. Even the human identity itself is going through a crisis. Lately, we’ve seen a lot of sex related cases in America. The one with mythological overtones and high dramatic intensity being the Thomas Hearings. This represents a crisis in the relationship between Man and Woman; masculinity and femininity. (16)
As I said a narrative is a reflection on and of the times. The story of Fido, his trials and tribulations, how trivial it may seem and how lightly it is drawn, is nonetheless a poetic representation of the successful resolution of an Identity crisis.
The successful resolution of Crisis brings me to the last point: the comparison between Fido Dido and Oedipus in terms of fate and characterization.
Firstly in narrative terms, fate is the Plot; the change in the hero’s fortune. According to Aristotle, this change “must not be from misery to happiness, but on the contrary, from happiness to misery”. The hero’s downfall is caused by “some great error in his part”. (17)
The second point is the characterization of the Hero. In the Tragic Myth the Hero is guilty of the worst crimes imaginable in a familial/tribal setting; patricide and incest. The Hero’s guilt is the cause of the crisis within the community and it is through the Hero’s fall and exit that order is restored within that community. (18)
The change in Fido’s fortune is not from happiness to misery, rather the opposite. What, for that matter, is more characteristic of the American Dream than a transformation from “rags to riches”, from misery to happiness?
The restoration of peace and order and the resolution of the crisis is not brought about by the Hero’s downfall and exit, but by his victory through decisive action which consisted of crossing the threshold of safety. (19)
As opposed to the characterization of the Hero in Tragic myth, Fido is innocent. Fido did not cause the crisis, but successfully resolved it.
It would seem that the American Dream has a completely different point of view with regards to a character trait that in Tragic Myth is represented as a “great error” causing social crisis and leading to catastrophe. In Tragedy that trait is punished, in The American Dream it is rewarded. In Tragic light this trait is represented both as (futile) rebelliousness against fate and as the kind of pride that goes before the fall (hubris).
Looking at Fido however, we see that he is protective and defensive of what is dear to him, rather than rebellious. In this light the same trait is represented as “assertiveness”: the golden mean between blind obedience on the one hand and aggression on the other, and as the kind of pride we now would call “self esteem”.
If we zoom in on that quality from this perspective, using Fido’s trials and tribulations as an example, we see the Character of the Hero in the American Dream depicted, not as the Subject of aggression as in Tragedy, but as subjected to aggression. Narratively, this entails the audience’s identification with the victim, not with the aggressor.
And in the final close up it becomes clear that it is precisely that character trait (in this case an attribute, namely the can of 7Up) that functions as its distinctive feature, that is threatened, attacked and successfully defended. That distinctive feature of character is Individuality; man’s universal need to be recognized in his own rights.
Unlike Tragic Myth in which this trait is represented as a flaw and is punished, The American Dream recognizes, acknowledges and rewards this universal need. It addresses a universal audience in their individual capacity and basically tells them: “You are free to distinguish yourself and excel and become whoever you want to be. You will meet with great opposition and go through an ordeal. Finally, however, you will be rewarded”.
Whether this narrative promise is an illusion or a reality of culture, is, in this context, beside the point. With narrative it is always a question of credibility and belief. As a narrative message however it is a very powerful one because it addresses, acknowledges and rewards a universal human need for individual recognition and thus sets him free.
At the least, it did wonders for the image of 7 Up.
As I said in the beginning and hope to have demonstrated in the course of the analysis, this 30 second commercial contains a rich abundance of values and meaning and exemplifies “Americanicity”.
We saw how the narrative function of 7Up evolved from an identity attribute to the Most Valuable Possession and became the Hero’s Final Reward. 7Up thus became more than just a soft drink; it became a mark of distinction and the Elixir of Life. This was achieved, not through persuasive communication, employing causal logic, but through narrative communication employing associative logic. 7Up was closely associated with Fido Dido which wouldn’t have meant much if Fido had been a Tragic Hero or a Villain. This lead to a discussion of the establishment of Fido Dido as the Victorious Hero through his defense of what is dear to him, taking decisive action and crossing the threshold of safety.
Through its depiction of an identity crisis, on a deeper level (the intermediate layer), this particular narrative reflected on the times we live in now. On the deepest level (deep structure) the narrative of “Black Belt” derives from and exemplifies the American Dream as 20th century mythology. It was on this level of communication that I situated the influence of American Mass culture in Europe.
With American Mass culture so dominant and pervasive, and its influence so overwhelming, we had to construe “Americanicity”. In that light, it became clear that “Americanicity, as exemplified by the narrative we discussed, is the discourse of “Individuation” and deals with Crisis from the point of view of the Individual.
The influence of American Mass Culture in Europe would then entail the rise of Individualism.
This seems to be a universal trend and an obvious one for that matter. As Naisbitt says:
“The great unifying theme at the conclusion of the 20th century is the triumph of the individual. Threatened by totalitarianism for much of this century, individuals are meeting the millennium more powerful than ever before.” (20)
Is this the result of the Poetics or the Politics of Americanicity? And is there a difference, for that matter, between the Poetics and the Politics of Americanicity?
If you hear Paul Simon singing “these are the days of miracle and wonder” one moment, and, the next moment, you hear President Bush saying exactly the same in the State of the Union address; if an actor can become the President of the United States, it would seem that, at the least, there is a common thread between American Poetics and Politics. By now I hope to have made clear what that is.
Having spent so much time analyzing one 30 second television commercial, one question remains: what’s the use?
In a time where the dominant mode of communication is changing from the written word to the transmitted image; in a time where Hollywood represents our collective imagination and CNN our collective knowledge; in a time where politicians running for the presidency of a nation that is the only world power, using 30 second commercials to bring across their ideas, I find it very important to know how the medium works. For if an animated cartoon character can be established as a Victorious Hero within 30 seconds, can you imagine what the same (narrative) technique can do with a politician?
1. G. Geursen, Emoties en Reclame, De rol van emoties bij reclameplanning, Stenfert Kroese, Leiden, 1988
G. Franzen, Mensen, Produkten en Reclame, Samsom Uitgeverij, Alphen aan den Rijn, 1990
E. Clark, The Want Makers, Inside the world of Advertising, Penguin Books, 1988
P. Kotler, Marketing Management: analysis, planning and controle, Prentice Hall Int. Inc, London, 1984
2. cf. “One characteristic that makes humans unique among living creatures is our ability to examine ourselves, to find ourselves lacking, and to attempt self – betterment. This sense of incompleteness drives us not merely to create, but also to self-create, and we consume goods and services in the process. This study was undertaken as a way to gain insight into the role of symbolic consumer behaviors in the maintenance or reconstruction of self-concept, an area of recently emerging importance in the field of consumer behavior.”
J. W. Schouten, Selves in Transition: Symbolic Consumption in Personal Rites of Passage and Identity Reconstruction, in Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 17, March 1991, pp 412 – 425.
3. Coca Cola found out the hard way what symbolical consumption is all about when in 1985 they tried to change the taste of Coca Cola and met with great public opposition. In attempts to find the right taste for Diet Coke researchers found a formula that the experts at the Coke company liked better than the 99 year old original formula. The new taste was tested in 13 states on 190.000 Americans between 13 and 59 years old. These tests showed that the new taste enjoyed general preference. So in may 1985 Coca Cola changed the taste of Coca Cola and introduced New Coke. No one had expected that the public would protest so long, so loud and so clear. Under heavy public pressure management changed its mind and brought back the old taste under the name “Classic Coke” (Coca Cola Classic) in July 1985. This episode in the history of Coca Cola was called the biggest marketing blunder of the century. It demonstrated, however, that the public does not only consume the liquid but especially the message in the bottle. Read all about it in: The Real Coke, The Real Story; Thomas Oliver, Random House, New York, 1986
4. Goud voor Fido Dido, Textilia Modenieuws 15-8-1991, p. 10
It’s cool to be Fido Dido, Haagse Post, 27-1-1990, pp 27 -29.
5. The previous campaign, featuring a macho type in a hot and dry desert cooling down with 7Up, communicated on the level of generic product performance: “refreshing” and “thirst-quenching”. This campaign failed for that reason.
6. R. Barthes, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, in, A Barthes Reader, ed. S. Sontag, Hill and Wang, New York, 1982
M. Bal, De theorie van vertellen en verhalen, inleiding in de narratologie, Muiderberg, 1980
7. A. Ramzy, De logika van het Scenario, een filmtheoretisch onderzoek naar de dramatische structuur en de mythologie van de Hollywoodfilm”, (The Logic of the Scenario, a filmtheoretical study of the dramatic structure and mythology of the Hollywoodfilm) Extended Master’s thesis, unpublished, Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 1988.
8. W. Martin, Recent theories of Narrative, Cornell University Press, 1986, p. 7-8
9. Northrop Frye, Spiritus Mundi, Essays on literature, myth and society, Bloomington London, 1976, p. 19
10 This also applies in “real” life. For example, The Thomas Hearings, as reported by CNN, presented two compelling stories, one by Anita Hill, the other by Clarence Thomas. More than once it was said that “it was a question of credibility”.
I also refer to Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema, the imaginary signifyer, tr. C. Britton, et al. The Macmillan Press ltd. London, 1982
11. N. Frye, The Great Code, The Bible and Literature, Ark Paperbacks, London, 1983, p. xvi
12. S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Basic Writings of Freud, tr. ed. Dr. A.A. Brill, The Modern Library, New York, 1966, p. 308
Classical mythology dominated at least until the beginning of this century and has survived in the form of Freudian psychoanalysis. According to Levi Strauss “: (…) a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such. (…) Therefore, not only Sophocles, but Freud himself should be included among the recorded versions of the Oedipus myth on a par with earlier or seemingly more ‘authentic’ versions.” The structural study of Myth, in Structural Anthropology, Vol 1, Allen Lane, London, 1969, p. 135
I therefore regard the psychoanalytical approach to American Massculture, as the superimposition of one mythology over another.
13. S. Freud, ibid.
14 Definitions form the OED.
The latest Levi’s commercial, shot in Technicolor, showing a young man swimming his way across several gardens, where he meets his mate with whom he dives of a diving board in tremendously clear water is in more than one way the expression and visualization of the concept “clean”.
15. R. Bly, Iron John, A book about Men, Addisson-Wesley, 1990. This book deals with the issue of the synthesis of the antithetical male role models savage vs. soft.
16. cf.: “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will occur not because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human”. J. Naisbitt P. Aburdene, Megatrends 2000, Pan Books, London, 1990, p. 6
And also: “The upheavals we are experiencing may perhaps be of a nature that is different from a simple evolution – or even revolution – of life style. The change of model does not merely call our behaviors and values into question; it touches on our innermost being: our identity, our nature as a man or a woman.”
E. Badinter, “The unopposite sex; the end of the gender battle, Harper Row, New York, 1989, p. xii
17. Aristotle, The Rhetorics The Poetics, tr. I. Bywater, Random House, New York, 1954, p.239
18. As such the tragedy reflects a society in crisis resorting to the scapegoat mechanism and blaming its victim. cf. R. Girard, La route antique des hommes pervers, Grasset et Fasquelle, Paris, 1985, and:
Le bouc emissaire, Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1982
Freudian psychoanalysis, as a mode of understanding of the human psyche, derivative of Greek Tragedy, does the same:”By blaming the victim, Freud, was able to unburden the society of any need for reform or deep reflection”. J.M. Masson, Final Analysis, the making and unmaking of a psychoanalyst, Addisson- Wesley, 1990, p.208
19. This decisive action can also be taken as Fido’s resolution of Hamlet’s dilemma, who, according to Freud “is rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex”.
Op cit, p. 309
20. Naisbitt, op cit. p. 276. I would add that “Totalitarianism” is that when it is felt like that. Even in a free country like the Netherlands, the public broadcasting system, controlled ultimately by the government is increasingly perceived as a totalitarian control over the mass media. Regional public broadcasters, as well as commercial broadcasters are engaged in a battle with both Hilversum (the seat of TV) and The Hague (the seat of government) for the right to broadcast.