Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures

Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures
Bo Florin, Patrick Vonderau, Yvonne Zimmermann

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2021

Film Culture in Transition series

338 pp. Paper, € 57,95

ISBN: 9789462989153.

Open Access:

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
November 2021

Advertisement may be the thing we like to hate, but it remains an ideal tool to question ideas and beliefs we too easily take for granted or that we simply forget to think about. This neglect starts of course with advertisement itself, both the object (the item that is meant to sell something else, but that can be quite self-reflexive and self-promoting as well) and the process (the set of social and economic actions and mechanisms that eventually has the advertisement product as its output)–a distinction that is the starting point of this book. As any other cultural product and process, advertisement is at the same culture––and medium-sensitive (and thus determined by a countless constraints) and permanently changing (and thus no less permanently transgressing, that is transforming these constraints).

Co-written by three researchers from Sweden and Switzerland, two of them based in Germany, one of them in Sweden––an interesting constellation that opens the door to examples, case studies, and theoretical references that are different from those generally studies in “global” advertisement scholarship––Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures offers an excellent overview of what this type of study can mean to a specific field, that of screen advertisement. The study includes a wide range of technologies, venues, rules, strategies, devices, user behaviors in film, television, mobile devices, networked terminals, outdoor projections, personal computers, etc., but it also showcases interactions with other, non-screen media (the book insists for instance on the lasting hegemony of advertisements in the sphere of magazine and print culture), while illustrating their importance and connections with the help of case studies often introducing completely new material from less-known archives.

The book goes back and forth between two types of research and analysis. On the one hand, readers will find large-scale but never dry or abstract discussions of broad questions and concepts aiming to define as precisely as possible, not advertisement as such, but the many forms, meanings, and stakes of screen advertisements. This part of the book’s intellectual endeavor is done at two main levels or layers. First, the very general level of conceptual analysis. In each of the chapters (all individually signed but very well homogenized by a strong common editorial hand), Florin, Vonderau, and Zimmermann take advantage of their study to further examine some key concepts of screen studies, such as “’system”, “dispositif” or “institution”, which are generally exclusively framed by the perspective of film studies and the supposed universality of a single screen practice, namely the projection of moving images as seen as experienced by individual viewers in a darkened movie theatre. Second, at a more object-related level, the authors also establish many new and useful distinctions in the forms and practices of screen advertisement itself, with for instance excellent observations on the place of advertisement in early cinema and the way in which pre-narrative and pre-feature cinema blurred the boundaries between documentary and advertisement (like in the “process film”, a subgenre documenting industrial production techniques in more didactic settings), but also between advertisement and fiction (as shown in early examples of product placement).

On the other hand, Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures systematically expands on these more general, that is conceptual as well as historical and cultural, reflections by focusing on several unknown and definitely under-researched archives. The most spectacular case is here the work by Charles Wilp in the period 1950-1970, at the crossroads of television and other media, advertisement and art, commerce and pop culture, national production and international tendencies, individual and collective creation. Brilliantly supported by a set of revealing illustrations, this layer of the research demonstrates the need of careful contextualization and the necessity of abandoning all kind of grand narratives in the field of screen advertisement. True, there are general mechanisms at play, such as the tension between explicit and implicit advertisement or the impossibility to escape some of the time-based constraints of the medium (screen advertisements are almost never free to decide which will be their final length), but virtually all examples of the book underline the profit of precise and detailed contextualization.

Advertising and the Transformation of Screen Cultures is a project that on top of its inspiring close-readings helps rethink many aspects of advertisement but also of screen culture in general. More precisely, it stresses the mutual relationships of advertisement, screen, and culture. From this point of view, it should be stressed that the book pays a great tribute to the work of Raymond Williams, more particularly his study Television: Technology and Cultural Form (first published in 1974), a book that may be somewhat less read today but whose analysis of the notion of “flow” continues to prove absolutely key to any good understanding of what screen advertisement means. The authors also rightly emphasize the importance of change, both at the fine-grained level of specific examples and at that of more abstract questions like “system”, “institution”, and “dispositif”. By doing so, they not only highlight but even enhance the complexity of products and processes that deserve the attention of all cultural historians and moving image scholars.