Spectatorship & Power Relations in Advertising

In this advertisement for Hallmark recordable storybooks, we see a boy with a book looking up at what we would assume to be a parent or close relative.  It appears that the subject has no idea that he is the object of the photograph that we are viewing simply by his body language.  In terms of his body itself, he is turned slightly askew from the camera (evident by his head and the slight angling of the book), signaling that his attention is clearly focused on something else that may not appear in the frame.  If he was aware of the camera, he would turn the book to face the camera directly rather than simply angling it down towards his chest.  Moving beyond his body language, the most defining characteristic that shows his lack of awareness of the camera is his gaze.  His eyes are clearly fixated on some object that lies outside of the frame of the photograph.  He shows no evidence of attempting to glance out of his peripherals; he is clearly engaged with someone else.  For the sake of the advertisement this is powerful because it encourages the reader to be drawn into the moment captured in the photograph and picture what/who the boy is looking at.  For the parental audience (the ad is out of Good Housekeeping, which is popular for mothers), the ability to connect to “bed time” and a potential story before bed can be powerful.  Having a photograph where the boy is looking at the camera would not be anywhere near as powerful because it removes that connection.  It would be a little boy, who is not your own son, looking at you and smiling.  Rather, by choosing to have the boy wrapped up in a moment, unaware of the camera, we as the viewer are drawn into the moment and can make a deeper connection.

Conversely, in this second advertisement for Coca Cola, which is also playing off of the idea of spending time with family, we see two subjects, one of whom is clearly aware of the camera.  In this photograph it appears that Ryan Secreast is potentially unaware of being the subject of the photograph (his body being square to the camera suggests he is aware, but his eyes are clearly focused on the boy), whereas the boy in the image is clearly aware that he is the subject of observation.  In this advertisement the boy is clearly in the position of power simply due to his gaze.  His gaze instantly demands attention as you begin to look at this ad.  Your eyes are instantly drawn to the boy because it appears that he is looking at you, and seems to know that you are looking back at him.  There is an instant connection, whereas Ryan Secreast simply appears.  Much like in Las Meninas, where the other people in the painting put the attention the princess through their gazes, Ryan Secreast puts more focus on the boy with his eyes.  By looking at the boy who is looking at us, it is simply unavoidable to lock onto the boy as the dominant person in the photograph.  Had these two people been looking at each other or their drinks, it would become a little more difficult to determine who the more powerful character in the ad is.  By choosing to have the boy clearly aware of the camera and having Ryan Secreast focus extra attention on the boy, the viewer is seemingly forced to make a connection with the young man.  Once again, for the intended parental audience (also out of Good Housekeeping), the focus on the boy (representing family) rather than Ryan Secreast (representing American Idol) sends the intended message that Coke and American Idol can help to bring the family together.

Both of these advertisements take different approaches in terms of awareness of being observed by their subjects, and yet both advertisements are communicating to similar audiences.  In the first photograph the young boy is laughing likely due to joy from his book, but that joy is directed to another person not in the frame.  In the second advertisement, the boy is clearly looking out and smiling as if to communicate to us as the viewer that Coke and American Idol are an enjoyable combination.  Despite their different approaches, both advertisements are attempting to communicate a similar message to the same audience.

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