Sociological Propaganda: A Burkean and Girardian Analysis of Twentieth-Century American Advertising

Kathleen M. Vandenberg

Abstract: Advertisements provide constant opportunities for rhetorical analysis. As the twentieth century progressed, advertisements—which had previously resembled more traditional rhetorical texts—became far more propagandistic in nature. This essay asserts that the most appropriate way to approach these more recent advertisements is through the hybridization of a Burkean perspective with a Girardian approach. Doing so allows the critic to analyze the ways in which consumers and advertisers collaborate in the creation of advertising. Three advertisements are analyzed to highlight the ways in which such a hybridization is both necessary and desirable for a more comprehensive understanding of modern advertising.

The field of rhetorical studies is no stranger to advertising analysis; one of the most prevalent and obvious forms of rhetorical expression in the last one hundred years, advertisements provide constant opportunities for examination and explication. However, although there has been much written in rhetoric on the subject of American advertising, most of this work has been concerned with either the methods and techniques of such rhetoric (whether overt persuasive techniques or so-called subliminal manipulations) or its effect or impact on audiences. [1] Such an approach, this essay argues, is usually far more suited to the study of advertisements from the 1800s and early 1900s; in other words, it is more relevant to the examination of advertisements of the past, which, by and large, focused on the attributes of the product for sale. Many of these earlier advertisements more closely resembled traditional rhetorical appeals in that they were primarily textual, they were more or less equally dependent on the proofs of ethos, pathos, and logos; they were contextualized, and they spoke primarily to what people might actually need (or “merely” want) in terms of material goods, rather than appealing to abstract desires that might help them achieve a type of “spiritual” transcendence. As the twentieth century progressed, however, there were significant shifts in both American culture and in American advertising; advertisements, as has been widely noted in media studies, became far more propagandistic in nature—that is, they relied more heavily on images, emotions, and appeals to desires rather than reason. [2]

Such advertisements are evidence of a collaborative effort between advertisers and consumers; each is more than just a message sent from sender to receiver. As Twitchell notes of the relationship between advertisers and modern consumers: “The audience is never ‘over there,’ just out of sight. Rather, as in all lasting institutions, it actively anticipates and creates its own interactions” (51). Accounting for the rhetoric employed in these increasingly emotionally-infused and visual advertisements requires one to examine the complex societal relationships at work in their creation and propagation, and to accept contemporary advertising as sociological propaganda.

This essay asserts that the most appropriate way to approach these more recent advertisements, these manifestations of sociological propaganda, is through the hybridization of a Burkean perspective—based as it is in issues of motivation, identification, and symbol use—with a Girardian approach. As such, three advertisements—a 1947 Lifebuoy advertisement which exhibits characteristics of both much earlier and more modern advertising, a 1997 Calvin Klein advertisement which relies almost entirely on images and emotional appeals, and a 2002 Gap television advertisement which typifies much of contemporary advertising—are analyzed to highlight the ways in which such a hybridization is both necessary and desirable for a more comprehensive understanding of modern advertising.

Burke, in turning his attention to human motives and symbolic action, broadened the scope of rhetoric and opened the door to the type of criticism necessary to analyzing sociological propaganda. The most suitable way to build on and broaden his approach, this essay proposes, is through the methodology of a critical theory which focuses on the concept of mediated desire as does René Girard’s mimetic theory, or theory of triangulated desire. Most often used to account for and understand violence and desire in primitive societies, myths, and literatures, Girard’s mimetic theory, in illuminating the metaphysical and mimetic nature of human desire, can provide rhetoric with an invaluable perspective from which to further examine and understand the ways in which humans act rhetorically on one another. Mimetic theory is based on a communications triangle; however, it is a triangle notably different from the familiar classical model in that persuasion is both bi-directional and intrinsically connected to desire and imitation (Girard, Reader 33-44). Messages are passed not only from “model” to “imitator,” but also from “imitator” to “model,” as each shifts the relationship to what is desired. The mechanisms of mimetic desire work in the following way: a model (A) desires an object or individual (C) and, in doing so, signals to others the desirability of that object or individual. The imitator (B) copies this desire, believing his own desire to be spontaneous and automatic rather than mediated. In other words, imitator B wants C because model A wants C. [3]

Girard's theory of triangulated desire is, in fact, very similar to Burke's understanding of the basic nature of human symbol use or rhetoric. As is well known, Burke’s replaced “persuasion” as the key word in rhetoric with “identification,” identification occurring when individuals attempt to make shared beliefs, values, attitudes, or desires salient through consubstantiation, or the "sharing of substances."

Complete identification is, as Burke recognized, impossible; as humans we will always be separated from one another (and, as a result of the Fall, from God). It is, as Burke explains, this separation, this division between humans that makes persuasion perpetually possible, for if there were no division, there would be no need for identification, and thus no need for communication or rhetoric.

Girard also proposes that humans are inherently divided from one another and working towards union, but he believes that humans do not merely desire to share substances, they wish to become one another; their desire is metaphysical. While Burkean theory would suggest that a woman might buy a Chanel bag in order to identify with or be like her favorite Chanel-toting actress, Girard’s theory would suggest that woman does not actually desire to be like that actress; rather, she desires to be the actress and mistakenly believes that possession of said-purse will effect this transformation. The impossibility of ever actually being the “other” existing simultaneously with the metaphysical desire to be the "other" creates what he calls a “Double Bind”—it is the combination of invitation and repulsion: “Be like me; Do not become me.”[4] It ensures that division remains and, thus, persuasion is perpetuated (Things 291).

Such a double bind is frequently found in contemporary advertising, advertising which this essay argues is more accurately defined as propaganda than as classical rhetoric, for it exhibits many of the characteristics of propaganda; chief among these characteristics is a speaker’s reliance on self-interest (rather than the good of the audience), anonymity (or the suppression of ethos), the use of saturation or repetition of messages (rather than the delivery of formal speeches), and the employment of emotional appeals (rather than logical ones). Advertising meets these criteria insofar as it is, in the words of Twitchell, “ubiquitous, anonymous, syncretic, symbiotic, profane, and, especially, magical” (16)

To begin with the most obvious characteristic of propaganda, advertising is most frequently employed, of course, in order to produce profits for both the seller and the advertisers.[5] While many advertisements certainly claim to care about, among other things, readers’ smelly feet, bad breath, or frizzy hair, it is hardly likely that any consumer labors under the delusion that those producing the advertisement actually create the product or the advertisement out of any concern for the consumer’s well-being; rather, they understand that producers and advertisers are concerned with the bottom line.

It is impossible to know, in any case, what any particular manufacturer or advertisers “really” thinks about anything; however, because most advertising is anonymous insofar as the average consumer does not have any knowledge of which individual or individuals have actually created a product or an advertisement (not to mention the fact that texts do not embody intentions). At the very most, some consumers will have a sense of a corporate ethos, which is really the only kind of ethos one ever has access to through propaganda, suppression of ethos and reliance on anonymity or institutional ethos being one of the hallmarks of propaganda campaigns. This element of advertising alone makes it difficult to approach advertisements from a neo-classical perspective, insofar as such a perspective frequently depends on analysis of the role of the “speaker” and his or her construction of ethos. Or, as Twitchell points out, this anonymity is “the most distressing for academic types who need an author-text-audience paradigm in order to do their work,” which the neo-classical perspective certainly demands (18). However, although the critic does not have access, in most cases, to an analyzable ethos, he or she does have—in this age of mass production and mass media—hundreds, thousands, or even millions of pieces of “text”—evidence of the propagation of materials, one of the hallmarks, obviously, of propaganda.

These advertising “texts” became, over the course of the twentieth century, increasingly composed of images rather than words. Their appeals, therefore, were gradually directed primarily to the emotions rather than the intellect or logic, for it is impossible for an image to make a propositional claim.[6] An image, especially through its juxtaposition with other images, may suggest or imply a relationship, but its meaning will always be more vague or ambiguous than that of a textual proposition, though not necessarily less effective. As Neil Postman points out, this use of images to appeal to emotions was quite a change from the nineteenth century when it was understood that advertising’s purpose “was to convey information and make claims in propositional form,” and, in so doing, was “intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions” (60). In evolving into an image-based “vocabulary” and appealing to the emotions, the majority of twentieth century advertising evolved from what could be understood as “traditional” rhetoric to what is defined as propaganda.

Self-interested, anonymous, ubiquitous, emotional, and “truthful,” advertising in the twentieth century can be quite clearly categorized as propaganda, yet it is also quite clearly not propaganda in the sense that propaganda is usually understood; that is to say, it is clearly not political propaganda.[7] It is primarily sociological insofar as it represents rhetorical expression that is, in the words of Jacques Ellul, author of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, “essentially diffuse [and] gets to man through his customs, through his most unconscious habits. It creates new habits in him; it is a sort of persuasion from within” (64). Ellul defines sociological propaganda as “the group of manifestations by which any society seeks to integrate the maximum number of individuals into itself, to unify its members’ behavior according to a pattern, to spread its style of life abroad, and thus to impose itself on other groups.” In labeling such propaganda “sociological,” he hopes to demonstrate “that the entire group, consciously or not, expresses itself in this fashion; and to indicate, secondly, that its influence aims much more at an entire style of life than at opinions or even one particular course of behavior” (62-63). Rhetorical agency, therefore, is diffused among the masses, with no one rhetor responsible for the movement of others, no one rhetor in sole possession of the faculty or power to act. The societal interactions producing sociological propaganda are necessarily collaborative. That is, this propaganda is created due to labors of both “producers” and “consumers.” As McLuhan observes: “[t]he continuous pressure is to create advertisements more and more in the image of audience motives and desires. The product matters less as the audience participation increases” (Understanding 226). In other words, the audience works, McLuhan suggests, in the consumption of the advertising. Perceiving advertising in this way is, for most, and especially for those in rhetorical studies, counter-intuitive, primarily because it refuses to assert the primacy of a given rhetor as “message-creator” and “message-sender.” It rejects, in other words, the “transmission” view of rhetoric and instead conceives of advertising as a “ritual” of sorts, one in which every consumer is simultaneously audience and participant (rather than either just sender or receiver). Unwillingness to accept a ritual view of the communication of advertising or understand the rhetoric of advertising as a collaborative effort has been common throughout the twentieth century. In fact, nothing, Daniel Boorstin argues, has been “more widely misunderstood” than advertising. As the images of advertising proliferated and rumors of manipulation, subliminal and otherwise, swirled in their midst, consumers became, in effect, conspiracy theorists. As Boorstin describes it, Americans reached a point at which they essentially looked for a scapegoat, and:

Daring not to admit we may be our own deceivers, we anxiously seek someone to accuse of deceiving us. “Madison Avenue,” “Public Relations,” “Organization Men,” and similar epithets have given us our whipping boys. We refuse to believe that advertising men are at most our collaborators, helping us make illusions for ourselves. (205; emphasis mine)

This hypothetical deception necessarily depends on a conception of oneself as a passive audience, acted on by aggressive, self-serving, manipulative rhetoricians who fool one with their clever images, and, in so doing, coax money from one, only to deliver to him or her meaningless objects that bring no permanent pleasure. If this were the case, however, why would Americans continue to be “tricked?” Once “educated” by the proliferation of studies (starting as early as the 1950s) on advertising detailing the many supposedly deceptive practices of advertisers, why would Americans continue to be motivated to consume, and, in fact, increase their consumption? The answer lies in collaboration and in the nature of desire. As Twitchell argues:

We were not suddenly transformed from customers to consumers by wily manufacturers eager to unload a surplus of crappy products. We have created a surfeit of things because we enjoy the process of getting and spending. The consumption ethic may have started in the early 1900s, but the desire is ancient. Kings and princes once thought they could solve problems by amassing things; we now join them. (11)

That is to say, while advertisers may work with consumers’ desires—they may direct them—they do not invent or create these desires. Their primary role in the collaborative effort of sociological propaganda is the creation of images, images that simultaneously acknowledge existing hierarchies and issue invitations to transcend those same hierarchies through the consumption of goods. Their role, in other words, is to create rhetoric or, as Burke sees it, make our unmet needs salient for us (Hart 275). The more goods that became available through consumption (due to the wonders of mass production) and the more opportunities to bring people in contact with these goods (borne of the advances in mass media), the more advertising could hold before consumers’ eyes a vision of what is and what they could be.

Approaching advertisements as evidence of sociological propaganda allows the critic to analyze the ways in which consumers and advertisers collaborate—with and through the mass media—in the creation of advertising through relationships of identification, imitation, concealment, and desire. Therefore, rather than examine these advertisements in an attempt to determine either their rhetorical effectiveness (something which, increasingly, ad agencies fear is all but impossible anyway) or in an attempt to account for the methods which enable or disable this effectiveness, this analysis views the existence and propagation of these advertisements as proof of their effectiveness insofar as their very existence is evidence of a (successful) collaboration. To account for this rhetoric, then, requires one to approach these advertisements from multiple angles, exploring the causes that invite their creation and sustain their propagation.

The advertisements selected for analysis in this essay are not examined from a neo-classical perspective—that is, they are not read as texts created by individual authors for the purposes of moving audiences. Instead, they are approached as the result of a collaboration between the “creators” and the “audiences,” and as evidence of certain interactions at play between consumers and those who create advertisements. Such an approach is in line with McLuhan’s belief that “[t]here is really nothing in…advertisements which has not been deeply wished by the population for a long time” (“American” 441). The first advertisement to be read exhibits characteristics of both earlier American advertisements, with their employment of textual and rational arguments and focus on product, and elements of more recent advertising, with its dependence on emotional appeals, use of images, and focus on social and spiritual transformation and transcendence. The reading—in revealing the means by which this advertisement emphasizes hierarchies while simultaneously issuing invitations to identification and transcendence—offers an example of the way in which hybridizing the work of Burke and Girard can illuminate some of the rhetorical dynamics at work in twentieth-century American advertising.

Ad for Lifebuoy Soap

In 1947 the ad to the right for “Lifebuoy” health soap appeared in Life magazine at a time when advertisers had discovered the profitability of both naming the effects of the many germs offensively invading the human skin and offering products to mask these effects. The terms “Halitosis” and “B.O.” were introduced into the vocabularies of the everyday consumer, and with these frightening terms came a slew of products to fend off these “new” threats. Advertisements for soaps, deodorants, mouthwashes, cosmetics and hair tonics flooded the market. Often these advertisements, in implying that what were formerly simple social imperfections should be understood as diseases, in employing pseudoscientific claims to boost the validity of their products, and in expressing these claims in sterile, clinical terms attempted to appeal to the rational nature of their consumers.

However, while the following advertisement does these things, the most striking difference between it and advertisements from the 1800s and early 1900s is the increase in space dedicated to images. Although this advertisement contains so much text as to offer a small but coherent narrative detailing the “heroine’s” “hygiene” issues, this text takes up little more than quarter of the whole advertising space. The first image—an artists’ sketch of an unnamed woman anxiously facing the audience as she carries a tea tray away from (but within hearing range of) the malicious whispers of her friends Helen and Grace—dominates the top third of the advertisement. Immediately below it readers learn—from a thickly bolded two-line quote— that she is anxious because of “that little whisper [that] left me worried sick.” Underneath these two lines, and constituting the bottom two-thirds of the advertisement, a series of five images interspersed with text and laid out in a two-column format (a format intentionally reminiscent of print-comics) dominate the text and offer portraits of the heroine first shocked, then concerned, then pleased, and, finally, positively ecstatic. These portraits and their accompanying captions are formatted in comic book style, and thus force readers to jump from column to column (as opposed to down, as in a newspaper article) until, with the last image of the Lifebuoy soap itself, the narrative ends.

The narrative can be paraphrased as follows: Unnamed woman is cleaning her house when her two friends, Helen (representative of “earthly beauty”) and Grace (“heavenly beauty”), unexpectedly drop by. As she leaves the room she overhears them deciding to leave due to the offensive nature of her body odor. While a male authority (in the form of her doctor) is happy to assure her that it is “normal and healthy to perspire,” he also advises her that there is simply “no excuse for having B.O.” After immersing herself in a bathtub foamy with Lifebuoy lather, she emerges the “same sweet and dainty girl” her husband once married.

Obviously, and significantly, this advertisement functions by playing on consumers’ anxieties, for anxieties, twentieth-century advertisers had realized, were the “American consumer’s Achilles’ heel” (Bryson 239). An understanding of how appeals to anxiety function can be most clearly illuminated by a Burkean perspective, and specifically by a reading informed by Burke’s concept of identification. Identification is necessary insofar as there is division; looking at the ad from a Burkean perspective thus requires the critic to not only point out the ways in which it invites consumers to share its values, attitudes, and belief systems, but also to recognize the hierarchies established implicitly by the ad—hierarchies which make salient the differences which invite the identification in the first place. This critic must understand, as Kirk explains, that identification is not only the means by which separated individuals invite cooperation; it is the structure that orders rhetoric, the “hierarchical structure in which the entire process of rhetorical conflict is organized” (414). The exact nature and dynamic of this structuring will be discussed when this essay turns to a consideration of the ways in which a Burkean perspective invites further Girardian analysis.

First, however, consider the social hierarchy implicit in the rhetoric of this ad—begin by noting the placement of the main “character.” In addition to being unnamed, unadorned, smelly, insecure, bound for the day to her housework and acting as food server to her unexpected visitors, she is placed outside the intimate circle of her friends who are named, free to socialize for the day, elegantly dressed, and whispering conspiratorially from their privileged seated and served position. She is, in other words, clearly at the bottom of this particular social hierarchy. It is also suggested that she places quite low in larger societal hierarchies, among them the one that includes the bespectacled family doctor, who, due to the prestige and power of his position is to be taken quite seriously when he asserts that “B.O.” is unacceptable. Alone in her position in this hierarchy for the majority of the ad space, she is finally permitted to transcend her place through the power of the “rich and refreshing” lather of Lifebuoy. That she has transcended is made evident in the willingness of husband (who bears a strange resemblance to her doctor) to embrace her closely and cease lying to her, as portrayed in the next to last image. It is clearly implied that Lifebuoy has literally “saved” this woman from, among other things, the toils and demeaning position imposed by patriarchy. Emerging from her “baptismal” dip in the tub of Lifebuoy suds, she even figuratively recovers her virginity, returning to an originary moment.

Were bad hygiene and social inferiority only the problems of this one unknown woman, little soap would be sold. Thus, it is crucial that consumers are invited to identify with this woman, place themselves in her lower and undesirable hierarchical position, and feel the need for the means of transcendence. In (“scandalously”) legitimizing the conspiracy of the other woman, the ad clearly situates the users of its product at the top of a social hierarchy; from this exalted position, invitations to identification are extended in several ways, all of them implicit. First, there is the positioning of the woman’s face. In four out of the five pictures, she is facing the consumer at eye-level. The implication is, of course, that she, though unable to converse with her superior guests, can still communicate with readers. They are her confidantes, with whom she is willing to reveal the most personal of hygiene problems and share her doctor’s advice. Her willingness to do so implies that they might be in need of this information—that they, unbeknownst to themselves, might also smell in offensive ways. The intimate nature of their relationship with her is furthered when they are invited into her bathtub; here she sits naked, covered only by a protective shield of Lifebuoy bubbles, and only a few feet from readers. Readers are, however, abruptly left behind after this bath, her gaze sealed off from them as she turns her clean, fresh face towards the loving look of her handsome, well-appointed husband and pulls her arm up to encircle him (and keep readers out). Situated at the bottom of the social hierarchy, abandoned by their transcending model, readers are, nonetheless, left with two things: one, a paragraph that, for the first time, addresses them directly and informs them that they “can build up increasingly better protection against ‘B.O’,” and two, a rather large picture of a box of Lifebuoy soap captioned with a command to “use it daily.” Here, in other words, readers are offered the means to overcoming the hierarchical differences (the ad has implied) they face.

The product in this ad is not pitched to readers as a physical end in itself; rather, it is portrayed as a physical means to a “spiritual” end. In Burkean terms, the soap provides a means of “ritual purification.” When humans are confronted with hierarchies, Burke says, they can acquire a feeling of guilt if they fail to maintain an acceptable place in the presented social order. In order to deal with the guilt engendered by this failure, they attempt to purify themselves, either through mortification or scapegoating. As a result of either a personal sacrifice (mortification) or transference of guilt to an “outsider” (scapegoating), individuals are “purified” and able to achieve redemption. This process repeats itself endlessly, for social dramas ensure the continual evolution, dissimilation, and re-establishment of hierarchies (Burke, Religion 5).[8]

Thus, this ad does not appeal to material desires—readers are not to be satisfied with the soap itself—but to metaphysical desires, or what the soap can do to transform them socially. While a Burkean reading reveals this ad’s suggestion that the use of Lifebuoy can effect a social transformation—a transcendence of hierarchies imposed by a society goaded by order and “rotten with perfection”—such a reading also invites further speculation into the motivation for such a transformation. A Girardian perspective assumes that consumers do not spontaneously and autonomously desire such things as transformation, cleanliness, “virginity,” and marriage, and questions how readers are persuaded to find these things desirable; it asks what effects their persuasion and to what final end their desire is directed. A Girardian reading provides the answer in that it emphasizes the presence of a model and the existence of metaphysical desire. This ad creates a model for emulation, and subsequent consumer emulation of this model—presumably undertaken through purchase of Lifebuoy—is, a Girardian reading suggests, motivated not by a desire to be like the model but by a desire to actually become her.

The advertisers construct this mimetic appeal by inserting a mediator/model between the consumers and the object for sale, creating a triangular relationship between the model, product, and consumer. In so doing, the ad focuses the audience’s attention less on the physical attributes of the soap for sale and more on the relationships between both the mediator/model and the soap, and the mediator/model and the consumers. It constructs, in other words, the mimetic triangle theorized by Girard in order to motivate consumption; it depends on rhetoric communicated through the mediation of another.

Hierarchies such as the one explored in the previous advertisement are reflected or established, repeated and spread through the proliferation of images. The advertisement just analyzed was created and consumed in a time when, while real advances and astounding growth were occurring in the technologies of mass media, television had not yet begun its steady march into the homes of American consumers. Certainly, as both Postman and Boorstin have argued, the “word” had begun to be superceded by the “image” at this point—billboards, posters, news magazines (e.g. Life and Look) and print advertisements had increasingly become the media of exposition consumed by the American people, but, as is evidenced by the previous analysis, textual arguments still had a significant place in advertising (Postman 74).

However, all this began to change in the 1940s, and, more dramatically, in the 1950s. At this time, as Bryson describes it:

American TV at last was unleashed. By 1947, the number of television sets in American homes had soared to 170,000 … As late as 1949, radio was still turning over profits of over $50 million, while TV was losing $25 million. But as the1950s opened, television became a kind of national mania. As early as 1951, advertisers were rushing to cash in on the craze.… By 1952, the number of sets had soared to eighteen million, 105 times as many as there had been just five years earlier. (230)

At least two things resulted from this explosion—first, there was a dramatic acceleration in the American evolution into an “image-culture,” with all the consequences such a shift entails. Second, and most significant for the purposes of this essay, although mimetic desire had always been in operation in advertising, advertisers seemed to become increasingly aware of its power to motivate the purchasing behavior of consumers.

As many media scholars such as Jamieson, Postman, Ewan, and Twitchell have argued, the first of these two shifts resulted in a society that thinks in images, speaks in sound bites, and pays attention only as long as it is entertained. In other words, what resulted was a public uniquely acculturated to the language of propaganda. Furthermore, they point out, concurrent with this evolution in thinking was an astounding expansion in advertising and public relations producing this “language.” However, this evolution does not suggest that the relationship between advertisers and consumers, as pointed out previously, should be understood to be a manipulative one, with the advertisers inventing and twisting the consumers’ desires. Neither, as Boorstin is quick to point out, should a reliance on images or pseudo-events be understood as an interest in superficiality or materialism. On the contrary, he says, they reflect a growing attraction to “shadow” over “substance,” and those who pitch these shadows to us do so, not to deceive us, but because they are “simply acolytes of the image” (204). Their focus on the images thus comes about because consumers have made it clear that what they are interested in buying is the image (204). Evidence of this became increasingly obvious as advertisements evolved over the last half of the century.

To understand this second characteristic of the television revolution, to understand why or how people would be interested in buying the image requires the perspectives offered by Burke and Girard. An inquiry into the ways in which a Burkean approach invites extension through a Girardian perspective can be found in Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives. In this work, Burke turns his attention to this question of motivation by acknowledging the need for a “meta-rhetorical” explanation that would clarify why there exists a “frenzied human cult of advantage,” which he defines as “the quest of many things that cannot bring real advantage yet are obtainable” (274). He believes that, while “institutional factors would account for its intensity” only a meta-rhetorical explanation could account for the origins of this seemingly mad desire (274). In other words, while the proliferation of images and advertisements may account for the spread of this feeding frenzy, it cannot and does not account for the original existence of the desire in the first place. Explaining this desire requires Girard’s mimetic theory, which proposes that the common belief that desire is spontaneous and object-oriented is an illusion, and that human desires are, at their root, mimetic (Things 295-297). Contrary to the concept of “romantic” desire, mimetic desire, Andrew McKenna explains, “is not ruled, governed, or mastered in any way by a value emanating from the object, the commodity, but controlled only by another desire” (Violence 106). Revealing the mimetic desire at work in advertising becomes, in one sense, easier as advertising shifts from “information” to “entertainment” (or from traditional rhetoric to propaganda) because such a shift entails a simplification in the invitation to imitation, thereby making the presence of mimetic desire more obvious. Consumers are no longer distracted by complex, logical arguments that try to reason with them by detailing the positive qualities inherent in a certain product; instead, the images employed simply evoke emotional reactions by associating the product with something the consumer believes is a positive quality potentially inherent in him or herself if only he or she had the means to become someone else.

At the same time that advertisements were evolving into sometimes witty and entertaining appeals to transcendence, they exerted a greater effort to conceal the presence of invitations to identifications behind this transcendence. These efforts were stimulated by a cultural reaction against 1950’s trends and advertisements, which were distinctly known for their appeals to conformity and conventionality. As Thomas Frank explains:

Conformity may have been a bulwark of the mass society, but in the 1960s it was usurped by difference, by an endless succession of appeals to defy conformity, to rebel, to stand out, to be one’s self. Advertising in the 1960s taught that the advertising of the 1950s had been terribly mistaken, that people should not consume in order to maximize their efficiency or fit in or impress their neighbors. Instead, consuming was to derive its validity from the impulse to be oneself, to do one’s own thing. (136)

This new consumer imperative was both deceptive and paradoxical—it implied that one should purchase to prove one’s individuality, yet one should only do so by purchasing the same goods everyone else was purchasing. As Burke explains, if we wish to influence an individual’s response, “we emphasize factors which he had understressed or neglected [the importance of “being himself”], and minimize factors which he had laid great weight upon [“fitting in”]” (Grammar 220). In explicitly espousing individuality while masking invitations to conformity, a person in effect redefines the situation itself, and thus alters another’s motives. Such redefinitions are examined in the analysis of a Calvin Klein advertisement to follow.

First, however, it is important to note that, as Twitchell correctly points out, “advertising does not invent or satisfy desires. It expresses desire with the hope of exploiting it. Over and over and over” (14). If it were truly dependent on the actual needs of an audience or if audiences were actually satisfied by material goods, advertising would falter in the twentieth century, for surely today’s most ardent consumers have more goods and fewer needs than ever before. Yet the reverse is true. Advertising remains a global, multi-billion dollar industry. As McChesney points out, “Advertising is conducted disproportionately by the largest firms in the world.… The top ten global advertisers alone accounted for some 75 percent of the $36 billion spent by the one hundred largest global marketers in 1997” (84).

What motivates consumers to consume? What motivates their desire for more images and thus more advertising? The answer, this essay argues, lies in Girard’s mimetic theory, and, significantly, the call for such a theory can be found in a rhetorical text, Burke’s own Rhetoric of Motives. In the third part of this work, Burke addresses the basic nature of communication, proposing:

In its essence communication involves the use of verbal symbols for purposes of appeal. Thus, it splits formally in the three elements of speaker, speech, and spoken-to, with the speaker so shaping his speech as to “commune with” the spoken-to. This purely technical pattern is the precondition of all appeal. (271)

What Burke describes here is, of course, the basic communications triangle, the metaphor that has structured the transmission view of communication from Aristotle to Jowett and O’Donnell. But Burke does not stop here; instead, he argues “the indication of pure persuasion in any activity is in an element of ‘standoffishness,’ or perhaps better, self-interference” (Rhetoric 269; emphasis original). It is this element, he asserts, that is responsible for the maintenance of any appeal. For, in the form of the triangle, the flow of persuasive messages could be maintained, “insofar as the plea remained unanswered” (274). Obviously if the plea is answered, “you have gone from persuasion to something else” (274). There is no need for further appeal if unity has been achieved; standoffishness is necessary because if man were completely unified with all other men there would be absolutely no incentive for appeal, no rhetorical exigency, or, as Burke puts it: “Rhetorically, there can be courtship only insofar as there is division” (271). If, therefore, persuasion is to be perpetuated (as it obviously is in advertising, which, since its inceptions, has only grown with each passing day), there must exist “something” which creates the exigency for its existence. This “something,” Burke calls “interference,” and he suggests that only “through interference could one court continually, thereby perpetuating genuine ‘freedom of rhetoric’” (271). This aspect of persuasion is particularly relevant when it comes to the pursuit of objects, the attraction to things. Burke explains:

We would only say that…implicit in the perpetuating of persuasion (in persuasion made universal, pure, hence paradigmatic or formal) there is the need of “interference.” For a persuasion that succeeds, dies. To go on eternally (as a form does) it could not be directed merely towards attainable advantages. And insofar as the advantages are obtainable, that particular object of persuasion could be maintained as such only by interference. (275; emphasis original)

Either the object must remain perpetually unobtainable or, if obtainable, obstacles must be placed in the way of the one hoping to obtain it. Internalized societal, cultural, and even religious obstacles or boundaries to desire have increasingly fallen as Western culture’s attitude towards consuming and upward mobility have shifted. Burke proposes, however, that interference must be supplied if the persuasion is to continue. It stands to reason, therefore, that with the lessening of internal interferences to desires (people no longer feel the need to keep their desires in check), individuals have the need for more external interferences—quite a paradox in this age of plenty. Resolving this paradox, however, is relatively simple. As Burke explains, “men can still get the result [of perpetual persuasion] by a cult of ‘new needs’ (with the continual shifting of objectives to which men are goaded by the nature of our economic system). By such temporizings, the form of persuasion is permanently maintained” (275). That is, as soon as any individual gets close to obtaining or actually obtains the “desired” object (thus eliminating the need for the persuasive appeal), he or she simply turns to other objects for “satisfaction.” In this way, the “constant shifting of purposes in effect supplies (as it seems, ‘from without’) the principle of self-interference which the perpetuating of the persuasive act demands” (275).

What Burke is describing, in effect, is the double bind as theorized by Girard. The simultaneous, mutually dependent yet contradictory movements inviting imitation and maintaining differences described by Burke are embodied in the dynamics of mimetic desire. The perpetuation of these movements, and thus the perpetuation of persuasion, is necessarily dependent on the transformation of the desired object insofar as it must continually appear to be both obtainable and unobtainable; it must, in other words, take on the appearance of the sacred. This transformation is equally dependent on the desires of consumers and the powers of advertising. Consumers sustain the persuasion because all humans, Girard asserts, are driven by a metaphysical desire to be the Other, and advertising seems to supply the objects by which this transfiguration may be effected. Advertising sustains the persuasion insofar as it provides a ready supply of images of the Other embodied in hierarchical relationships which invite and prevent imitation and identification and thus sustain desire by mediating it.

The following Calvin Klein advertisement—offered as an example of typical late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century advertising—exhibits the paradoxical consumer imperative mentioned previously and mediates desire by appearing to explicitly dismiss attempts at imitation while implicitly inviting such attempts through an artful juxtaposition of images and vague commands.

Ad for Calvin Klein perfume

One in a series of advertisements photographed by celebrity photographer Richard Avedon and featuring everyday “real” people plucked from the street by talent scouts and posed alongside professional models, this advertisement was published both on billboards and in magazines in 1997 to promote Calvin Klein’s newest perfume, “Be.” Featuring well-known waif Kate Moss and introducing two unknown models, this perfume ad is arresting both in its apparent simplicity and its confounding ambiguity. With no product immediately in sight, the consumer is faced with three consecutive black and white snapshots of sullen, underdressed models, under whose artfully posed torsos is found the following command in white letters, centered and superimposed on the black frame:

“be hot. be cool. just be.”

Although such a statement seems to coolly reject conformity and offers the impression of indifference—the impression of aloof disregard for the standards of others—this impression is quickly undermined by its exhortative nature. Its implied audience is consumers in a society thoroughly acculturated to the images of beauty, glamour, thinness, and superiority regularly associated with Calvin Klein. Often naked, perfectly sculpted, thoroughly absorbed in something unseen, Calvin Klein models of the 1990s can be found—frozen in classic black and white images—swinging in Edenic gardens, submerged in serene pools, or draped across elegant couches (they are thus bohemian and atypical). Products with such transcendent names as “Eternity,” “One,” and “Obsession,” usually hover in the corner of these photos, unnaturally juxtaposed against a bit of naked torso, exposed breast, or curved buttock. The messages of all these campaigns are clear—“Be like me” (by buying this product), but also, “You cannot possibly be me,” as the turned back or insolent gaze of the models indicates; thus, Burkean invitations to identification are issued while "standoffishness" is maintained. Hence, the Girardian double bind is established.

The command, “just be,” is neither possible nor desirable—the consumer’s metaphysical desire to perpetually be the Girardian “other” and the advertiser’s need to sell a product ensure that the contentment implied by such a statement is unattainable. In fact, it is the very impossibility of this contentment that makes “just be”-ing so desirable and ensures that Burkean "pure persuasion" remains in play. In the face of this, there is no need for Calvin Klein to even initially mention a product much less offer an argument in support of its desirability (though this particular series of magazine ads includes images of the product on the flip side, often with a scent envelope). In the end, both CK and consumers know that it matters little what the product is or how it fits or smells, and so this advertisement reveals as much about consumers and the nature of their desire as it does about advertisers and the nature of their rhetoric. It is the case as Twitchell asserts that “[a]dvertising is neither chicken nor egg…it’s both. It is language not just about objects to be consumed but about the consumers of objects. It is threads of a web linking us to objects and to each other” (13). This web is triangular; it is mimetic or metaphysical desire, “the source of fascination, hypnosis, idolatry, the ‘double,’ and possession” (Williams 290). It moves consumers; it motivates consumption through the endless interplay of Burke’s “standoffishness” and “identification,” the two marking the presence of perpetual or pure persuasion.

What the theories of both Burke and Girard suggest, therefore, is that human desire is not materialistic, that though people appear to continually desire new things, this appearance is deceptive. Desire for objects does not, therefore, precede desire to be otherwise (a desire that can never be sated and is thus responsible for the perpetuation of rhetoric); desire for objects is merely the way in which individuals can simultaneously sustain and conceal their other-directed desire, their desire to transcend metaphysical hierarchies. Humans are, in this way, intensely (and perhaps ironically) spiritual. In a culture that has become, in many ways, increasingly secular, they have, therefore, turned towards the act of purchasing in order to find redemption or salvation. Twitchell is one of the few media scholars to have noted this aspect of advertising. Employing the Burkean strategy of “perspective by incongruity” he points out what most individuals, in their trained incapacity as consumers, miss; he argues that while:

Mid-twentieth-century American culture is often criticized for being too materialistic…we are not too materialistic. We are not materialistic enough. If we craved objects and knew what they meant, there would be no need to add meaning through advertising … What is clear is that most things in and of themselves do not mean enough. In fact, what we crave may not be objects at all but their meaning. For whatever else advertising does, one thing is certain: by adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects, by branding things, advertising performs a role historically associated with religion. The Great Chain of Being, which for centuries located value above the horizon in the World Beyond, has been reforged to settle value on the objects of the here and now. (12)

Advertising performs its most important religious role, as Twitchell says, by “adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects,” and it does this, this essay argues, through the construction of a mimetic triangle.[9] Advertising presents models for consumers’ desires; each object towards which these models direct their attention and interest is transformed by their gaze. This dynamic is at work in most modern advertising and is especially obvious in the glut of recent advertisements employing celebrities. A recent television advertisement for Gap demonstrates, in a simple and straightforward manner, the power of the mediated gaze.

Shot in 2002 and directed by the well-regarded Coen brothers, this thirty-second commercial features movie actor Dennis Hopper and movie actress Christina Ricci clad in khakis and crisp white button-down shirts. Free of any dialogue, this "mini-movie" unfolds to the sound of the Beach Boy's "Hang on to Your Ego" and begins with a title in white font, "Two White Shirts," set against a black background. As the black disappears, the first scene appears, and the audience sees a black and white close-up of Hopper adjusting his sunglasses. The camera pulls back as a female hand bearing an iced beverage (lemonade, according to the producers) enters to the right of Hopper's face. The camera continues to pull back until the scene is complete: two lounge chairs, Hopper occupying the one to the viewer's right and facing the camera, are positioned in front of a beautiful swimming pool, which in turn sits beneath a clear open sky and in front of a large, well-manicured lawn. Set between the chairs is a small table with chessboard, over which the twenty-something Ricci, after handing the drink to Hopper, hovers, body oriented towards the camera, as she appears to ponder her next chess move. She then makes the move, settles into the lounge chair to the viewer's left, draws on her sunglasses, and poses coolly. The scene ends with Hopper, arms crossed, looking down at the chessboard.[10] Gradually this scene dissolves into a white background, and the familiar blue and white Gap logo appears in its center.

Entirely free of spoken arguments (if one ignores the soundtrack) and almost entirely dependent on visuals, this commercial is most productively approached through the hybridized Burkean-Girardian perspective proposed by this essay. It is clear that the makers of this advertisement are counting on their audience's collaborative efforts, their receptiveness to invitations to identification, and their desire to be something other than what they are, to make this commercial work. Employing no spoken or written claims, offering no evidence or supporting arguments, and making no attempts to persuade the consumer that their white shirt is in any way inherently better than any other white shirt on the market, the Gap relies entirely on the power of mimetic desire to move its audience towards purchase.

Dennis Hopper, a popular actor for years, who is known for being enigmatically "cool," indicates his superiority to the audience by ignoring them completely, the opening touch of his shades a reminder that they are "beyond" his gaze and attention. He does not "pitch" the product or otherwise ask for the attention of consumers. At the same time as his reputation and body language imply his superiority to his audience, his top position in the social hierarchy; however, his donning of the Gap's most popular (and common) products, khakis and a white shirt, invite both identification and imitation. These invitations are intensified by the presence of Ms. Ricci, an "indie" actress known for being hip, cutting-edge, somewhat quirky and independent. Completely absorbed in a leisurely game of chess with a man more than twice her age, she appears totally unaware of the presence of the camera or viewing consumers. As she glides smoothly through the pristine black and white beauty of this thirty-second scenario, her body language suggests familiarity and ease with the wealth and glamour of her settings and chess partner. Her beauty and ease endow her simple white shirt with magic, implying, as ludicrous as it seems, that her success and celebrity is partially a product of her apparel. These "Two White Shirts," it is suggested by the mise-en-scene, have the magical power to transform the lives of those who wear them. When consumers do the work of this commercial, respond to this suggestion and purchase the shirt, their disappointment at its failure to transform them will merely be transformed into desire for yet other objects.

The more objects people obtain, the more it became necessary to sacralize the objects; the sacred, as Andrew McKenna explains, “always being what must both attract and repel desires” (“Cool” para 6). Their desire is not for things, for, as Burke argues:

The principle of wanting is never satisfied with getting, since by its very nature as a principle it transcends all mere material things, even while being encouraged to think that material things are what it wants. So, no matter how much it gets, it will in the end be frustrated because it cannot get still more. (Religion 234)

As regards hierarchy or “the motive of the sociopolitical order,” Burke queries:

If, to seek its level

Water can all the time


What God or Devil

Makes men climb

No end? (Religion 42)

The answer, implied by Burke and supplied by Girard, is, of course, the metaphysical desire to be the Other—an end that is, as Burke suggests, “No end,” at all, and thus advertisements lead men to climb without end. This end sends consumers on a perpetual search for the material objects that will deliver transcendence and fuels advertising campaigns that are increasingly aware of the power of this search.


This essay comes out of the author’s dissertation, directed by Dr. Stephen J. McKenna at The Catholic University of America.

[1] In the field of rhetorical studies see, for example, Stephen McKenna’s “Advertising as Epideictic Rhetoric,” which examines contemporary forms of rhetoric against traditional ones and encourages further study of the intersections between advertising and culture in contemporary times; Richardson’s “Pulp Politics: Popular Culture and Political Advertising,” which explores the verbal, visual, and auditory rhetoric of televised political advertisements and argues for the use of genre analysis as a means of understanding their effectiveness; D’Angelo’s “Subliminal Seduction: An Essay on the Rhetoric of the Unconscious,” which surveys the history of subliminal advertising and applies a Freudian and tropological reading to two advertisements; and Kehl’s “The Electric Carrot: The Rhetoric of Advertisement,” which proposes analyzing advertisements in composition classes as a means to help students think critically and learn about rhetorical strategies. In the field of communication or media studies, see, for example, the following works which address the deceptive practices of advertisers: Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders; Preston’s The Tangled Web They Weave: Truth, Falsity, and Advertisers; Kilbourne’s Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising; and Key’s Subliminal Seductions and “Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America’s Obsession.” With the exception of Packard and Key, these media studies works primarily address such concerns as subtle misrepresentations, the exploitation of gullibility, and the employment of legal falsities rather than focusing on more blatant deceptions like subliminal advertising (Packard) or embeds (Key).

[2] Although throughout the twentieth century there was a general trajectory from text-based to image-based advertising, as best described by Boorstin and Postman, it must also be noted that this trajectory was, at times, considerably more complex and recursive than either scholar suggests. For example, as Sivulka points out, during hard times, like those of the depression years, advertisers had to become more cost-conscious and cut down on use of color and illustrations. These advertisers also had to depend more heavily on the “hard sell,” employing pseudoscientific arguments and emotional appeals to persuade consumers who were struggling financially and were thus less likely to buy impulsively (199). Similarly, in the mid-1970s, advertising agencies increasingly employed textual arguments in attempts to combat growing consumer skepticism (339).

[3] Girard does not suggest that the model himself exhibits autonomous unmediated desire; on the contrary, he proposes that most models are also imitators in an endless chain of mimetic desire.

[4] It should be noted that Girard’s “other” is not the same as the “Other” theorized by such thinkers as de Beauvoir or Lacan. For Girard, the “other” is simply any other person whom one finds worthy as a model; for de Beauvoir the “Other” is women, whose existence is foreign, negative and marginalized. For Lacan, the term has many different meanings but is “basically a locus of forces which enables the emergence of the subject but, at the same time, leaves the subject permanently fragmented and in perpetual slavery to desire” (“Self/Other” 620).

[5] As this paper deals with consumerism’s relationship to advertising, such non-profit oriented advertising such as PSAs, service advertisements or political campaigns will not be treated.

[6] As Postman argues, “The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (73).

[7] I put “truthful” in quotations to emphasize its deviation from a conventional understanding of “truth.” Advertisements, as will be discussed shortly, generally became less and less propositional over the course of the twentieth century; therefore, they cannot be precisely labeled “truthful” or “untruthful” in any exact sense.

[8] Burke summarizes this entire process with a poem describing these “Terms for Order”:

Here are the steps
In the Iron Law of History
That welds Order and Sacrifice:

Order leads to Guilt
(for who can keep commandments!)
Guilt needs Redemption
(for who would not be cleansed!)
Redemption needs Redeemer
(which is to say, a Victim!)

Through Guilt
To Victimage
(hence: Cult of the Kill). . . . (Religion 5).

[9] In some ways this process wherein a commodity becomes imbued with a metaphysical value is very similar to what Marx called “commodity fetishism,” whereby a product of labor, as soon as “it steps forth as a commodity,” is changed into something transcendent and its value is consequently found in its place in a network of social relations rather than any inherent physical characteristic (Marx 82-83). See also Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (138-151) for an extensive analysis of how advertising is both a “magical” process and an area of transformation, “a kind of pivot around which misrepresentations may be produced” (140). Arguing that “all consumer products offer magic, and all advertisements are spells” (141), Williamson analyzes advertisements to show how “images of nature…and of magic [in advertisements] do not ‘represent’ nature and magic but use these systems of reference to mis-represent our relation to the world around us and the society we live in” (144; emphasis original).

[10] At this time, this commercial can only be viewed by subscribing to


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