Visual Rhetoric: So you can
Barthes’ rhetorical analysis of image of a pasta advertisement naturally got me thinking about other advertisements. I have recently had the curse (on my sanity) and boon (for this application) of seeing a handful of the same commercials multiple times and in rapid succession. Because we’re cordcutters, my wife and I watch 99% of the TV we consume through streaming options like Netflix and Hulu Plus. As we are doing at the moment, we occasionally tear through a TV series in rapid fire (in this case, reminding ourselves of Community’s better seasons before the plummet of season 4).
If you’re familiar with Hulu Plus, then my plight is clear: I’ve had the joy of seeing a specific credit card commercial dozens of times in the past few weeks, and had already noticed some of Barthes’ visual critique.
Much of what Barthes notes in a pasta ad is relevant here. The BBQ restaurant Chef Nobu visits is awash in images that denote the immediacy of his experience: the restaurant is crowded, so we know he’s gone someplace popular; numerous large cuts of meat are roasting in converted steel oil drums, so we know it’s authentic; Nobu is invited back to see the grills with the chef, so we know he’s connected with people. It is implied that he is connecting with his peer, but an interesting image precedes this: Nobu’s hand laying down his Chase Sapphire card. The very next image is the chef’s invitation for Nobu to join him, so the message is clear: this credit card gets you access. This theme of access and enablement is referenced throughout the voiceover of the commercial, the narrator beginning many statements with “so you can.” This implication of access is tied directly to the credit card, connoting that adventures await you when you wield this little piece of plastic.
We can also see textual signing in this ad. A literal sign is visible after Nobu has left the restaurant to stand outside with the jovial proprietor: never fully visible behind the other man in the restaurant’s window is a sign that can be assumed to read “sold out.” The textual denotation is literally that the restaurant has sold through its stores for the day. The textual connotation is, when joined with the image of Nobu laughing outside this door with the chef, that the credit card prevented him from missing out on something great. Finally, the credit card’s mantra of “so you can” closes the advertisement, and the narrative is complete. Use the Chase Sapphire card so you can go on adventures and get to see things you otherwise couldn’t.
As Barthes reminds us, these scenes are manufactured, not captured as they happen organically. The base premise, that an internationally renowned chef who owns a chain of exclusive restaurants needs this credit card to have this experience, is of course preposterous. He has the means, with or without this card. The imagery and textual cues brute force the discordant message into the viewer’s mind, glossing over reality. Taken for its rhetorical choices, you can admire the advertisement for somewhat subtly crafting its message.
If only the season 4 writers of Community had maintained a grasp on such subtlety, Chase would have a score or more chances to sell me on this amazing piece of exploration-enabling plastic.