Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University
Here are two more superficially simple ads which use odd and complex appeals.
The first picture is a Kodak camera ad from 1920. It's stark and simple at first glance, but less straightforward on a close reading. Is this figure male or female?
The hat, the largish nose, and the lack of clearly defined skirt suggest a male figure, as does the fact that he is using a camera, a fairly complex machine in an age when machinery was mostly men's domain.
But the figure also has surprisingly small hands and a delicate, small mouth. Boyish, or girlish? The collar suggests a woman's coat, and so does the way it flares out in the back to accommodate a skirt. She could be wearing a skirt, or wearing pants. In silhouette, it's just hard to be sure of the figure's sex.
Then look at the captions above and below the image. "If it isn't an Eastman, it isn't a Kodak." That's a complicated way to say that only Eastman makes Kodak cameras. By including two negatives, the phrase seems to cancel itself out. Two "is notes" in one sentence underscore the ambiguity of the figure, which "is not" clearly either male or female. So does the idea that the camera can be both an Eastman and a Kodak at the same time. Is it an accident that this caption appears over an image which is both male and female at the same time? It seems to be suggesting "If it isn't a man, it isn't a woman."
The second caption, "Anywhere—everywhere," does similar work. The words mean nearly the same thing, and suggest an opposition that doesn't hold up—just like the categories male and female don't hold up for the figure in the ad.
The second image is another Kodak ad, first published in 1922. It's even simpler at first glance. It seems a woman is coming back from a shopping trip, with wrapped packages and a camera. "Her Christmas Kodak" is the caption.
But as in the shampoo ad, it's very hard to figure out what's actually going on in the picture. Is the Kodak a gift to her—her Kodak, which she got for Christmas? If so, why has she unwrapped it at the front door? Is it, improbably, a camera she only uses at Christmas?
It's possible the phrase "Her Christmas Kodak" refers not to the camera, but to the picture itself. In those days, it was not uncommon to refer to a photograph as a "Kodak," since the Kodak brand dominated the home photography market. In that sense, "her Christmas Kodak" would mean "a photo (a 'Kodak') of her at Christmas." Is the ad selling the possibility of the woman taking pictures, or the possibility of taking pictures of the woman? Is it selling the idea of giving her a camera, or the idea of getting your own camera to take pictures like this?
The answer is probably "both," but again, the ambiguity is
important to the ad's appeal. There's actually quite a bit of ambiguity
in the ad. Has she returned from a shopping trip to her own house, or
is she visiting someone else and bringing presents? What is she looking
at? Not us, the viewers--or maybe, not quite us. She is not looking at
the camera, but she's looking near it. So it's not clear what or who or
even where we (the viewers) are in this picture.
Of course, most people do not read ads very closely—they glance at them and move on. But it seems odd that both these ads have such ambiguous content. Advertisers have known for a very long time that people will perceive things unconsciously, without actually being aware of it. Unresolvable questions, like the ones these two ads raised, will linger in the reader's mind.
In the 1920s, Kodak was trying to sell more cameras to women, and to get away from the idea that home photography was a hobby just for men. It most likely wanted to present cameras as something a woman could own, without presenting cameras as a woman's domain. It wanted to gain a new set of buyers (women) without alienating its core buyers (men).
Updated | April 2004