Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Contemporary Mythologies: a Christly Image in Advertising
Abstract: This study is based on a commercial add that (de)mythicized the Christic figure and also used it in a subversive and manipulatory way for promoting and selling a product. The visual images, either static or dynamic, are read from the perspective of prototypical social codes and the dominant ideology.
Keywords: Visual Culture; Mythicising of Biblical Figures; Advertising; Media.
According to visual culture research, the problem of the image is not only a superficial element, optional to the study of the imaginary. In the preface of the volume Concepte și metode în cercetarea imaginarului, Corin Braga argues that as the imagination’s unit of meaning, the image, brings us closer to the outside world, because through images, thinking makes use of sensations and our sense organs, and thus of our sensory representations. In other words, “we perceive the world and relate to it firstly through images, in all its nuances, sensations and emotions that accompany them, and only afterwards through ideas and reasoning.” The visual culture is fascinating from at least two different standpoints. First of all, by analysing the images which circle around within a community / which depict ways of organisation / of interrelating etc. of its members, we can catch glimpses of its prototypical social codes in accordance to which the given society functions. The studies which focus on the way in which the collective psyche can be influenced through certain images, as well as the ways in which certain ideologies and social symbols can be broken down in their component visual elements, are both exciting and illustrative for the understanding of a society. The manifestation of the visual culture must be handled differently within the current context, than within the previous literary tradition due to the fact that “the image and the imaginary have acquired social functions”. Secondly, the whole current economical system is supported by the visual image. Advertising has gained more ground, being the one that legitimises every product. In other words, its role is not limited to making the public aware of a certain product, but also to offer / manufacture / create value to the advertised product. As it was earlier stated, the entire commercial industry is based on the distribution of images which have nonetheless an economic role (more precisely – the role of supporting capitalism). When a product is offered for sale, its image is the one being constructed and promoted. Advertising operates primarily with a set of visual constructs which are then launched onto the market, thereby creating a space for promoting and displaying / disclosing / presenting which determines the viewer to buy a certain product. In such a context, the study of the ways and strategies through which the product is transposed in an advertising image for the porpoise of convincing the implicit viewer to acquire the given product becomes absolutely necessary.
In the following study, I will discuss a commercial built around a series of mythologised biblical images and their mythical load. I consider the studies of two researches of Asian descent to be relevant in the understanding of the mythicising process. Their perspective, which is totally independent from the European cultural code or from a Christian religious culture, belongs to the exterior viewer. The biblical characters and events are analysed from the standpoint of researchers who seek the scientific truth, identifiable exclusively within the narrow limits of what is real and tangible. According to T. C. Chao  și Simon Shui-Man Kwan the mythicising of biblical figures is achieved once the Christly figure is identified with that of divinity. Thus, the idea of God’s son and divinity in itself overlaps the historically verifiable identity of a man with extraordinary qualities who is willing make the world in which he lives a better place and help his fellow men.
According to the above-mentioned researchers the idea of Jesus as son of God, as well as that of a man performing healings or miraculous deeds is just an outside mythologisation, resulted from the interpretations and mystifications of commentators.
“At the beginning, we only have a historical Jesus, who is clearly a man who is amazingly powerful, is devoted to saving the world, and is a man of fin character. But the Jesus now upheld by many people very much deviates from this picture. Jesus now has to be the first of all a God incarnate. After thousands of years of the Christianizing movement, the Jesus now worshipped by common Christians is no longer Jesus but the Christ; a synthesis of the two-Jesus Christ.”
Or, in other words,
“Because Jesus is a human being, all miraculous events associated with him have to be rejected as superstitions. This is demanded by any scientific understanding of the world.”
This first level of mythicising the Christly figure (perceived as being mythicised by the researchers belonging to a space outside the Christian cultural code) may be accepted or rejected by Christians. A discussion regarding the divine character and substance in the form of a human instance would involve theological studies and discussions which will not be found in the pages of the present study. Therefore, the reference involving the two Asian researchers was made in order to identify a first level of mythicising the Christly figure, followed by the identification of a second level, this time, constructed by the consumerist society. The Christly figure is made up not only from the concept of divine incarnation, but also from narrative layers of mythical load. Thus, in order to paraphrase Strauss, there is a latent mythical dimension in each individual, the myth being the world’s image inscribed in the spirit’s archetype, and, while living the myths, we step outside the profane, chronological time and enter a qualitatively different time, sacred, both primordial, as well as indefinitely recoverable. The Christly figure thus functions as a mythos and, furthermore, steps within the sphere of a typically postmodern symbolic mythology. The biblical characters appear as prototypical structures, recognised and embedded within the collective imaginary. On this symbolic mythology inscribed in the collective imaginary lies the postmodern usage of biblical figures. Rewriting the great narratives of the world in postmodern terms legitimises secondary narratives which base themselves and feed on the former. This is the case of the commercial discussed here. Methods used in analysing the visual images:
- Compositional interpretation:
As a method, I opted for compositional interpretation due to the fact that it “offers ways of describing the content, colour, spatial organization, light and expressive content of a still image, and the mise-en-scene, montage, sound and narrative structure of a moving image”. As Rose argues, it is a very efficient way of bringing closer to one’s self the image and to follow what it brings new, as well as to see its possible impact upon the implicit spectator.
This part of the analysis is aimed at observing the way in which the advertisement is configured in terms of space and time, only to be then followed by a discussion regarding the meanings and prototypical social codes depicted in the video. I will make use of the main concepts which Monacoregards as essential in image analysis, and applying them to “Marketing divin” commercial produced by “1one Production and lg2”. I will first analyse the elements regarding the spatial organisation of the video, the techniques used in framing and making the images, and then follow the temporal layout of images as well as the narrative which doubles them.
I have to mention that in what compositional analysis (involving montage strategies, directing techniques and technical ways of constructing images), I will make use of Gillian Rose’s book which provides a comprehensive radiography regarding the means of analysing an image or, in the words of the author herself, of how to look at a picture, either static or dynamic. Rose quotes Monacofor all technical notions related to the construction of dynamic images. According to Monaco, in the case of a moving image analysis, there are two fundamental perspectives which must be taken into account: spatial organisation of a film (mise-en-scène) and the temporal organization (montage). According to him, while mise-en-scène “is a result of decisions about what to shoot and how to shoot it”, “montage is how the shots are presented”. I will therefore make reference to notions such as screen frame, screen planes, shots, focal distance, angle, point of view. All these directing elements will be accompanied by reflections upon the narrative thread.
The video which will be discussed in the following pages is an advertisement for a marketing company. The narrative is centred on a biblical scene “The Last Supper”. The long table where Jesus and his disciples are placed in the biblical or classical representations is replaced by an oval table that rather conveys the feeling of a corporate meeting. The “screen frame” oscillates, dominating however the spatial enclosure. The main scene which embodies the action (namely a postmodern representation of The Last Supper) within an enclosed space is preceded by a wide open scene which presents a desert landscape, in faded colours; this gives way to the context in which the action takes place. I will stop for a brief overview of some of the building blocks of these initial pictures. Regarding the frame plane (“frame plane is how forms are distributed across the screen”) – the video begins with an extremely narrow frame that captures the desert sand upon which the biblical character’s shadow gradually appears, in a slow motion effect intended to create suspense; this is followed by a frame that captures the actual stepping and then a sudden depiction of the Christly image, seated somehow central (as the only dynamic figure) in the static landscape. The entering of Jesus is thus achieved by means of two key images, which are cut, meaning there is no continuity between them: there is first the scene of the stepping, with very narrow frames, within which the attention is directed towards the rhythm and the heaviness of the steps. Their slow pace and rhythm, as well as the background music, emit a state of “tension associated with the beginning of the world”. The images are corporal, even the scenery is rendered in 3D, the stones give the illusion of field depth while the sand’s texture suggests almost in a sensorial manner the idea of touch. The colours are faded, with predominant tones of grey and beige, while the lighting is moderate with emphasis on the shadow play. The image of the steps is doubled by that of the shadow, a moment when the cutting of the frames takes place and the second key image of the video’s introductory part appears, depicting a Christly image, within a depth plane (“depth plane is how the apparent depth of the images is perceived”) that includes the entire desert space. The only figure sufficiently illumintated in this first part of the video is that of Jesus. He occupies a central position within a wide frame, marked by a deep focus in which “the foreground, middle ground and background of a shot – all of the frame’s geographical plane – are in focus”. This deep focus between frames and placement of the Christly figure in the foreground generates a feeling of domination over the entire existing reality by the central element (in this case the Christly figure). In this scene, Jesus is the only moving element. The cuts between shots are unmarked; where an image ends another one immediately follows. We are therefore dealing with an accumulation of cuts between frames which leads to tension building up.
There are no directing strategies such as frame dissolution or extension of one image with another; only cutting is obvious. The frame which marks the entry of Jesus into the cave has the role of spatially reducing the image to fit between some boundaries easily captured by our eyes. However, this abrupt cutting of images and their subsequent alignment within the logic of the narrative allows a balanced achievement of spatiality. The narrative flow, as well as spatial coherence are maintained, creating the impression of a realistic representation.
Thus, the second part of the commercial is carried out within this enclosed space, with dim light (light is scattered, penetrating more clearly only the window located just behind Jesus). From a geographical point of view the landscape seems to open itself because of this small window placed behind the central figure which allows a couple of rays of light to pass through. The first word used in the dialogue between the biblical figures, when Jesus stepped inside the cave is “marketing”, used repeatedly. It creates the feeling that this term functions as a greeting or an announcement of the discussion topic at the same time.
In this second part of the video I chose to focus on three scenes: second 26 – which depicts Jesus and his disciples standing around a table within a wide frame; the point from which the scene is shot represents the angle of an isosceles triangle, with Jesus standing in the middle of one of its sides, in the only bright spot within that space. Some of the disciples are depicted from behind in the form of shapes, static figures, which become part of the dialogue only later. The second scene is the one between second 30 and 41- narrow frame – just Jesus and two of his disciples (Peter), an image without depth, where the bodies are captured only from one central angle and the corporality is reduced to a one-dimensional perspective. The third scene (frames minute 2,40) depicts 14 people (Jesus, the disciples and a representative of the company 1one Production). The disciples appearance, an element which will be subject for analysis in the second part of the study, is diverse: from the image of the old bearded man (image similar with the painted representations of Leonardo) and the Jew (his physiognomy, posture and attitude are similar to modern conceptions about Jewish typology), to that of fully effeminate version of two of the disciples. The 14th person present, the representative of the company 1one Production, makes his way within the biblical scene alongside a number of capitalist elements (firstly his image is that of, what contemporaries call, a metrosexual; secondly he is dressed and pampered just like a corporate artist, probably responsible for the creation department and, last but not least, he is depicted holding an iPhone).
The discourse is focused, as I already stated, on marketing: from reviewing miraculous deeds and their impact on the image capital of Jesus, to strategies on how to promote the Christly image or means of increasing its capacity of persuading and manipulating the implicit viewer. The impact of these Christly miracles (turning water into wine, the healing of the blind, the multiplying of the fish) is quantified under the form of positivist graphics scribbled on a piece of papyrus characteristic of that time.
I believe semiology is the best suited method of looking at the implications contained by the advertisement “semiology offers a very full box of analytical tools for taking an image apart and tracing how it works in relation to broader systems of meaning. As a method, semiology draws upon the work of several major theorists”. This method encourages the reading of a visual image, either static or dynamic, from the perspective of prototypical social codes and the dominant ideology. The method is fully applicable to the chosen video because “Williamson argues that one of the most influential ideological forms in contemporary capitalist societies is advertising.”
The video produced by 1one Production and lg2 reuses the biblical theme of The Last Supper as a pretext. Apart from the characters of Leonardo DaVinci’s painting with the same name (I believe that this painting is the fundamental depiction of The Last Supper and can thus be used as a landmark), this biblical scene adaptation brings together a series of figures that, in terms of imagery, set contemporary clichés upon certain human typologies. The Jew, the effeminates (the disciples placed on the left and right of Jesus have feminine features and attitudes), the metrosexual are all figures gathered around the table of The Last Supper. The characters’ identities overlap the images of the biblical figures or Leonardo’s interpretation, bringing along a dose of postmodern relaxation and irony. Therefore, from an ideological standpoint, the advertisement seems to suggest an apparent harmony of capitalism where diversity and freedom of any kind are assimilated and used for subversive and manipulative purposes. The ad implicitly brings forth the concept of political correctness. The sitting at the same table and within the same mythicised scene of the Christly figure, a Jew (whose figure brings together most of the typology’s clichés), two effeminate characters and a metrosexual (who is holding and iPhone and seems to have his chest hair shaved underneath the corporate suit) follows the logic of an ideology which preaches absolute tolerance, a tolerance much desired, cried for and proclaimed by contemporary policies. Therefore, this political correctness can be understood as “political movements of virtually any kind, whether identity-, gender-, sex-, race- or ecology-based.”
Beyond these tolerant policies, there are other prototypical social codes, characteristic of the different historical periods. The conflict with the Romans (“even if you can get me walking on water, […] the Romans would never let us do that”), the union problem (Jesus: “What about the unions”, the disciple: “They don’t exist yet.”), re-discussing in terms of irony the resurrection of Christ (Jesus: “All right then. But if I die doing this, you better bring me back to life.” [Laughter] the disciple: “Actually we can do that.”), the corporate philosophy are all elements which appear as social codes within this advertisement.
The marketing company which owns professional stunt actors and which dealt with all the stunts involved in the Christly miracles (“They’ve handled all our stunts”) represents the absolute expression of capitalism. The pro-capitalist policies are the ones that ideologically support the video. The impact of capitalism and the impact of promoting the product are even greater when they are based on mythologised images which possess a mystical load (the company which constructs the divine image and that can achieve anything that seems impossible). These mythologised images are reinterpreted in a postmodern manner, thus resulting into a second level of demythicising the Christly figure. Therefore, the placing of biblical miracles under the umbrella of capitalist productions (the narrative is typical for the consumerist society: a marketing company with professional stunt actors, and image impact studies, constructs the image of Jesus, quantifying as well its success on the market) fits within the (de)mythicising process of the Christly figure.
Finally, I will summarise the endeavour which represents the basis of my study and its main earnings. I discussed about an advertisement carried out in order to promote an advertising company, built on the foundation of biblical mythologised images and their mythical load. I chose to carry out my research by using the following methods: composition interpretation (which allowed an analysis from the perspective of the actual composition of images) and semiology (by following the prototypical social codes depicted in this advertisement). The discussion regarding the process through which the biblical images are mythologised, as well as demythicised (by also presenting the perspective drawn from the European cultural code or from a Christian religious culture belonging to two scholars of Asian descent) was followed by the actual analysis of the advertising video from the standpoint of the above-mentioned methods. I was able to observe that the advertisement theorises a principle, much appreciated by the contemporary policies, namely that of “political correctness”, bringing together at the table of The Last Supper or of a corporate meeting (the two perspectives overlap) characters of an overwhelming diversity (Jesus, the Jew, the effeminates, the metrosexual). The pro-capitalist policies, which ideologically support this video, succeed in de-legitimising and de-mythicising the strong figures of modernism, resulting in what I have called the second level of (de)mythicising of the Christly figure.
***Concepte și metode în cercetarea imaginarului. Dezbaterile Phantasma, coord. Corin Braga, ed. Polirom, Iași, 2007;
Roland Barthes, Mythologies-Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972
John Berger-Ways of Seeing, Series-Penguin (Non-Classics), 1990
Paul Bowman, Post-Marxism Versus Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics and Intervention – fundamental solidarity, Edinburgh University Press, 2007
Mircea Eliade, Aspecte ale mitului, trad.Paul G. Dinopol, pref. Vasile Nicolescu, ed. Univers, București, 1978
Cl. Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques IV: lʼHomme nu, Paris, 1971
Simon Shui-Man Kwan, Postcolonial Resistance and Asian Theology, Routledge, 2014
Shane Phelan, Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community,TempleUniversity Press, 1991
Gilian Rose, Visual Methodologies, Sage Publication, London, 2001
Theo Sandfort, Lesbian and gay studies: an introductory, interdisciplinary approach, SAGE, 2000.
http://www.iqads.ro/articol/31615/marketing-divin, date of access 10.02.2015
 http://www.iqads.ro/articol/31615/marketing-divin, date of access 10.02.2015
 J. Monaco, How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, Multimedia, 3rd edition, London, Oxford University Press, 2000, 186-7, 192 apud. Gilian Rose, Visual Methodologies, Sage Publication,London, 2001, 49.
 Paul Bowman, Post-Marxism Versus Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics and Intervention – fundamental solidarity, p. 146; for a more complex understanding of the concept political correctness I recommend two relevant studies within this field: Theo Sandfort, Lesbian and gay studies: an introductory, interdisciplinary approach, SAGE, 2000. Shane Phelan, Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community,TempleUniversity Press, 1991.