In the following essay, I look at two advertisements in Gentleman’s Quarterly and unpack them for the ideologies that they promote or reject by analyzing and unpacking the elements that make the advertisements what they are. To do this, I use the arguments of Karl Marx translated from his criticism of capitalism and into the realm of visual communication. Finally, I evaluate the advertisements’ place in our society.
The first advertisement is a 2-page spread that is a product of Bacardi rum’s 150th anniversary placed in Gentleman’s Quarterly.
It features 21 people (not counting those whose faces cannot be seen) and a 3×3 matrix of placement based on vertical positioning and location within the field of depth. Given the palm trees and summer styles, the party looks as if it is either in a tropical place or based on the fixings of a tropical place—I posit Havana, Cuba based on Bacardi’s origin. The party takes place inside, and given the clothing, I further posit that it is taking place in the evening, especially considering Western social habits concerning gatherings. The scene is awash in golden tones with prominent accents of red-variant hues and black and white tertiary colors.
The action that takes place in the still advertisement follows a timeless tradition of multiple people doing various things in smaller circles within the larger group. The people on the lowest level of the 3×3 matrix I mentioned earlier (3 women on the lower left to middle closest to the camera toward the middle of the field of depth) face three different directions: off to the left (viewer’s POV) with a camera, upward and toward the center (eyes closed), and straight at the camera. The people on the mid-level of the matrix (13 people of mixed gender across the span of the photograph) are split into attention groups, or groups based on the object of their attention. Two women and a man are enthused at something off-screen, a heterosexual couple smile and look up at a woman on the uppermost level who is only on that level because of a mid-level man holding her up. Between the couple and further back are four people (two men and two women) who are interacting with each other, though the second man is attending to the woman on the lower level staring at the camera. The last three people on the mid-level are at the furthest right: One woman holds a tray of two mojitos and a rum-and-coke while a woman is behind her looking at an unspecified person or object. We only see her eye. The woman holding the tray stares with a pleased face to the left and the man (of whom we only see his face from the jaw forward) is staring at the alcohol on her tray or the woman herself. There are five people on the upper level: a man and a woman in close proximity whose gaze is straight at the camera, and a man and a woman all the way in the back near the bongo drum and microphone (the woman holding a maraca). The fifth woman is alone and smiling at the couple near the music. There is an individual blond woman held up by a man in the mid level who appears on the upper level with sunglasses staring at the camera and holding up her hand with red nails.
The title of the image sits in the upper left corner and reads: ‘The Party. Circa 1957’in a stylized serif font face in white. At the lower right corer in a rectangular black box is the logo of Bacardi (the 150th anniversary edition) over the words ‘HISTORY’S SUPPOSED TO BE BORING. NOBODY TOLD US.’ in white and san-serif text. Beneath that is a serif text in red italics that reads: This year, we celebrate Bacardi’s 150th anniversary.’ At the bottom third of the box is a block of text that in white serif text: ‘When your story begins with the creation of the world’s smoothest rum, it’s not long before you’re rubbing elbows with rebels and royalty, introducing rum to cola, and partying through Prohibition. It’s not your average story, because we’re not your average rum. Let’s raise a glass to the next 150 and keep the party going.’
In the Bacardi advertisement, power is accumulated through the economic framework of attention garnered. As far as the context of the image is concerned, the unseen object off-screen has the most attention, as five people are giving it their attention favorably. The runner up is the blond woman being hoisted up by the man, as two people (possibly three) are watching her. As it stands, no one is looking at each other, effectively cutting out all meaningful human communication between the people in the party. This makes the currency of gaze much more powerful, as a subject of a gaze has to have something worth getting that gaze. The woman being hoisted up is selfish with her gaze, wearing sunglasses to obscure the direction of her eyes while simultaneously courting the gaze of everyone around her, including the reader. It also stands to say that she might be courting the gazes in a subtle manner, using her semi-exposed cleavage in order to court the ideological male gaze. It is worth mentioning that her breast is almost in the center of the image, subtly selling sex without having to utilize some kitch or other tasteless and gaudy display to make herself seem more attractive.
The advertisement also relies on a racial hegemony, which is unsettlingly time-period appropriate. There are four or five people of color depending on whether or not the woman at the far right (pun: Far East) is Asian, as we can only see her eye makeup). The other four are of African descent, and are scattered around the edge of the image: One woman at the lower left, a man at the middle left, and a man and woman at the top level just at the left of the center. Of the 21 people present, they comprise of just under 20% of the people. Also, they are privileged based on their skin color. The closest figure, the lower left woman, is also the lightest-skinned with very straight hair. She is holding a camera and looking favorably off-screen. The next is the man who has a medium-brown complexion and is surrounded by two white woman, also looking off screen. The final two are in the back, stationed near bongo drums and a microphone, their gaze fixed on the camera. The woman is holding a maraca and the man is in front of the microphone holding his hand up. The final two mentioned are in a situation that harkens back to a time in which people of African descent were only allowed in clubs if they were the help, or if they were the musicians. The implied gradient is unsettling, though it is not unexpected by people who live in the United States. No one is looking at anyone for the most part, but when they are positioned close to the woman who garners the most attention, it is interesting to note that they are not even in the running to be seen by anyone, as they are in the back and everyone is facing away from them.
Ideologically speaking, this image promotes the dominant ideology of White American desire at the center of attention and everything else as Other. It depicts White people having fun at an exotic location, minorities with the right phenotypes rubbing elbows with the privileged, and the White elite idea’s of inclusion, as they are socializing to music put on by people with heart and soul who are closer to nature with their rhythmic bongo drums and maracas. Historically speaking, Cuba was subject to Spain’s power until America intervened and subsequently used it in the same way that Spain did: As a playground for their own country’s wealthy captains of industry—especially during the time of Prohibition. It promotes the hegemony of race classes during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras by putting at the foreground the most desirable non-white to a heterosexual white man (a light-skinned female) followed by a brown-skinned man, and finally two people with skin dark enough as to be associated with the plantation. Finally, the only people who seem to not be socializing among the privileged are the same people who are at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy. The dark couple farthest away from the camera is also the ones playing music and singing. Especially because the instruments used are percussion, the image encourages the idea of a close-to-nature/nature-vs-civilization that places civilization (equated with Whiteness) at the top and burdened with the task of including those at the bottom of the ethnic framework in some way that does not threaten the dominant class of the hegemony. Service is the best way to do this.
Next, we have NBA star Ricky Rubio.
In this image, Ricky Rubio is depicted in a white muscle shirt with gray baggy slacks. He is smiling at the camera with the top row of his teeth exposed and a basketball with the NBA logo balanced on his right hand level with his head. His skin is tanned and he is slightly scruffy beneath the chin. He has a simple black band on his right wrist. His left arm is down by his side. At the left in slab serif font colored black, reads: “¡Finalmente, Ricky!” In white sans serif text beneath that, it reads: ‘For years, we’ve been eagerly awaiting Ricky Rubio, a Spanish Steve Nash with the unlimited energy (and floppy bangs) of Pistol Pete. At long last, the prodigy has arrived”. Beneath that is the article that gives Ricky’s backstory concerning the basketball player and his relations with the NBA.
In the Ricky Rubio advertisement, Ricky is alone and at the center of the page, smiling and looking at the reader. He has a nice set of even teeth that do not vary from the color of his white shirt or eyes. He is smiling for the camera and definitely aware that he is the subject, as the ad is in the form of a story advertising his transit from Spain to Minnesota for the National Basketball Association. This particular advertisement does not have much to unpack, save for the fact that Ricky, who might pass as a European-American white man (read: non-Iberian peninsula descended) is ‘Spanified’ by the upside down exclamation mark and the Spanish phrase Finalmente, as well as the Spanish littered throughout the article. It serves as a way to exotify him and therefore make him more interesting, though unthreatening, by placing him outside of the assumed center of what Americans understand as whiteness.
Evaluating these two advertisements, I argue that they merely add to the dominant ideologies of American taste, not fighting the white-as-center perspective, but promoting it by picking out and exoticizing the elements of culture that do not run parallel to it. The Bacardi advertisement promotes nostalgia by bringing back a color caste and patriarchal gaze, whereas the Finalmente advertisement attempts to excite readers for the arrival of the white-but-not-our-kind-of-white-and-therefore-exotic basketball player. Are they right? Are they wrong? Ethics be damned, do they sell, is the main question for advertisers!