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Television commercials have become an important part of mass culture. Along with technological development, their societal functions have increased greatly and include shaping of perspectives, stereotypes and images that influence society’s perceptions.
As a genre of advertisement, commercials are almost synonymous with glamour, beauty and luxury. Cars, people, food, houses that appear on the screen should not mechanically represent the reality. On the contrary, they function as a promise, a reflection of the desired future that awaits the customer as soon as the latter buys the product.
However, some companies decide to go beyond this basic rule of television commercials. They try to experiment, to persuade the viewer in a way that is more sophisticated than just praising their products, and sometimes they try to offer something that differs from audience’s expectations. The “Planter’s Peanuts” commercial may serve as an example of this approach.
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The “Planter’s Peanuts” video, this paper is referring to, was aired for the first time in Canada in 2008, during the Super Bowl match. The commercial lasts for 30 seconds and features a unibrowed girl who attracts a lot of male attention as she walks on the street, enters the elevator and travels in a bus. All these actions are accompanied with a romantic song. The last seconds of the commercial reveal the secret of the girl’s popularity: she used a cashew nut instead of a perfume. In the end, two words appear on the screen: “Instinctively Good”.
This short description shows that “Planter’s Peanuts” commercial reverses prevailing concepts of beauty and objectification of female body. The argument of this advertisement is based on a comic disruptance between societal expectations and the actual appearance, behavior and reactions of the commercial’s characters. The efficiency of such advertising technique has to be considered further, though.
Unlike the written texts, television commercials are characterized by the feature which is referred to as “multimodality”. Contemporary mass-media discourse scholars van Leeuwen and Kress (2008) defined multimodality as the mode of representation that results from complex interaction of oral, verbal and visual modes of representation, all coexisting within the boundaries of a single document (p. 101). According to Theo van Leeuwen, in advertisements the visual part is responsible for evocation of emotions, e.g. the dreams of
glamour or fulfillment, whereas words provide the audience with information itself, such as product’s specifications, the addresses where one can buy it, the price, etc (2008, p. 136).
Therefore, most persuasive techniques in TV commercials do not correspond to the Classical Argument and its ideal of perfect balance between ethos, pathos and logos. In spite of this fact, combination of different means of expression allow for high efficiency of persuasive arguments that can be used in a commercial. The aim of this essay is to discuss the distinct features of “Planter’s Peanuts” commercial in order to clarify strong and weak points of different persuasive techniques used in it.
Rhetorical situations are judged on the merits of and created with consideration for three main elements: logos, pathos and ethos. In order to be listened to, heard and trusted, a person who delivers a speech has to prove that he or she has the expertise needed to make certain statements and conclusions.
In television commercials, ethos can be established directly as well as in a more discreet manner. One of the most straightforward modes to appeal to credibility is to demonstrate an expert who recommends the product. For example, the addressees of the “Doctor’s Toothpaste” commercial are supposed to trust a man in a surgical coat because he is a “dental surgeon” and, therefore, has necessary qualification to make such recommendations.
Moreover, in commercials and in multimodal compositions in general, appeals to credibility include not only the establishing of ethos of the product’s producer, but also competence and trustworthiness of anyone speaking or acting in the commercial (McComiskey 2004).
The authors of “Planter’s Peanuts” chose to establish credibility by showing consequences of the use of their product. The actress demonstrates that fragrance of a cashew peanut can easily replace a perfume and increase her attraction. The efficiency of this appeal should be considered as rather vague, though. Apart from lack of evidence that her experience and her example can be trusted, there is no sign that this peanut brand is better than, or is different from, the others. The cashew nut does not have any unique feature that distinguishes it. If the purpose of this commercial is to advertise a specific brand rather than the use of cashew nuts instead of cosmetics, the appeal to credibility should have been stated in a more precise manner.
Much like in speeches and essays, the aim of logos in the multimodal projects is to create cogent arguments where conclusions are both sound and valid in terms of the information that brought the author to them. When using multiple modes and mediums, though, one needs to make sure that the elements (video, sounds, scenery, actors and plot) used are appropriate for the claims.
In “Planter’s Peanuts”, the properties of the advertised product (cashew nut) are used in an unexpected way. According to Jeffrey Schrank, this type of logical fallacy is called “false analogy” – a claim that a peanut has the same properties as perfume, whereas in reality it is not true. What is more, this fallacy leads to a chain of irrational consequences (a man falls down at the sight of girl’s beauty, although the reasonable distance from which he could have seen or smelt her should be shorter). Thus, the main idea of the commercial became blurred, and lack of logical interconnection between the form and content of the advertisement will help to remember the commercial itself rather than sell nuts.
It has to be admitted that the only words used in this commercial are “Instinctively Good”. Therefore, the logical argument is once more replaced with an appeal to viewer’s emotions and feelings.
However, the logical fallacies can be regarded as a technique which is applied in order to create comic disruptance, a gap between what is expected and what the viewer actually gets. From this point of view, “Planter’s Peanuts” commercial has succeeded in overcoming stereotypical use of female images.
As for pathos, it is primarily associated with senses, e.g. seeing, hearing, smelling and touch. In many contexts of communication, the division of labor between word and image is more or less as follows: the words provide facts, explanations, things that “need to be said in so many words”; images provide interpretations by appealing to suggestions, connotations, associations, etc. (Abernethy 2011, p. 6). Due to this, television commercials can take advantage of many tools that help to convey various emotions. In case of “Planter’s Peanuts”, one of the most important elements of the overall impression is the soundtrack. The song called “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is a romantic classic, and its melody and lyrics intensify the joyous, light and comic mood of the commercial, which contributes to its main purpose. However, the most important distinct feature of the video is the main heroine. Besides the appeal for viewer’s sympathy, her specific appearance plays one more role in the commercial’s pathos: it reverses the existing schemes and models of advertising. Contrary to the exaggerated beauty and stylishness of the women who usually appear in television commercials (“Miss Universe – Avon commercial” is an example of this advertisement style), the girl from “Planter’s Peanuts” has a grotesquely exaggerated facial feature, around which evolves the whole situation depicted in this commercial.
The audience’s reaction to this advertisement, as can be observed from the commentaries on YouTube and in blogs, varies greatly. In “Madvertisements” blog post, Paul White wonders, who is supposed to be the target audience of this commercial, because, in his opinion, “considering that this commercial first aired during the Super Bowl, I’m thinking it wasn’t women that Planter’s was targeting. I think they were hoping the tens of millions of men who watch the Super Bowl would get the urge to buy peanuts after watching a peanut-smelling woman with a hairy mole and a unibrow…” Some viewers also admit that “Planter’s Peanuts” commercial is “strange”, “unclear” and “it’s impossible to understand what they are actually advertising”. These controversies support the fact that, unlike ethos and logos, pathos relies on personal perceptions that differ from one individual to another, and the authors cannot always control the reaction their commercial will receive. Differences in perceptions are also the reason why marketologists try to adjust the advertisements to countries and regions of the world: commercials that are appropriate to one culture may look offensive, shocking or repulsive to another (Brown 2009).
Taking everything into consideration, “Planter’s Peanuts” differs significantly from the Classical Argument format. This commercial’s appeal relies mostly on pathos and evocation of rather ambiguous emotions that can vary from surprise and astonishment to irritation and even disgust. The absurdity of male reaction on the commercial’s heroine who used cashew nuts as a perfume highlights the main idea of this advertisement – “Instinctively Good”.
Lack of logical connection between actions and their consequences leads to the conclusion that one can hardly apply the framework of rationally justified decisions to the situation depicted in this commercial. Instead of reinforcing traditional images and stereotypes, the authors of “Planter’s Peanuts” decided to reverse them and oppose the notion of beautiful female body as the “engine of commerce” with a non-typical female image. Finally, the establishment of credibility is derived from this very “logic of absurd”: the audience sees that even smell of cashew nuts is so attractive that one can hardly resist it. All in all, the “Planter’s Peanuts” commercial reaches its main goal – it is memorable, original and leaves an emotional impact on its audience.
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