Greg Levine, finding himself distracted by celebrity Pepsi billboards displayed in public spaces, suggests an alignment with propaganda posters of the Chinese Communist Party. Although ideologically antithetical, both use public images as role-modeling, to promote particular values.
Driving west along Parramatta Road from the Sydney CBD, as you maneuver up the small rise passing Norton Street, a tall, bulky building looms up on your left-hand side. It may be the fact that it is orange that makes it seem out of place, or it may be that it appears to have no windows. Either way, it rears up out of the ground as though it was the result of massive tectonic upheaval.
Despite the odd appearance of this structure, the determined driver looks only forward rather than up and to the left, concentrating hard on navigating the traffic and its traffic lights (which appear every hundred metres or so). That is, at least until they can’ t help but notice the massive billboard which covers the city side of the building with Guy Sebastian’ s smiling visage as he triumphantly wields a Pepsi bottle, the caption blaring Thirsty?’ and then lower down, dare for more’.
The dynamically beaming, heavily airbrushed portrait of Guy Sebastian and the sparse yet imperative text, combine to give the impression of a simple message filled with naturalistic wisdom. It is the style of the poster that gives this impression; a style that a large percentage of the population of the world would be familiar with. This paper will explore the similarities between these Pepsi billboards and the propaganda posters of the Chinese Communist Party.
The billboards are part of Pepsi’ s three-month $5 million outdoor advertising blitz which initially featured ex-soap star/sexy pop star Holly Valance, Socceroo Harry Kewell, model/TV personality Chloe Maxwell and, as mentioned, the winner of the latest TV craze, Australian Idol Guy Sebastian. This blitz consisted of posters and billboards which were thoughtfully positioned around Australia over the summer months to get the most out of what is usually seen as a secondary advertising medium, the perception being that most successful outdoor campaigns are follow-ups to a TV campaign (Catalano 2003b). This time they allowed the outdoor ads to go it alone.
Pepsi say the 77 billboards and 4900 smaller outdoor posters had been strategically placed ‘to be out there where teens are and where teens drink Pepsi’ (Catalano 2003b). In other words, they hope the teens don’ t stay at home when the weather gets hot. Investing that much money on a secondary medium is risky but it’ s a risk that increasing numbers of advertisers seem to be inclined to take, perhaps in an effort to escape the clutter and jangle of TV and radio. The Outdoor Advertising Association of Australia has reported a 14% growth in the billboard market, outstripping the general growth in all advertising media since the second Iraq war (Catalano 2003a).
Once the less focused driver has noticed the billboard which covers the eastern side of the Parramatta Road building, he or she may pause to consider its actual appearance. Unlike many billboards which depict real people, it doesn’ t look like a photograph; or, at least, it looks like a photograph which has been heavily air brushed. As with all the other Pepsi billboards – whether it’ s Harry Kewell lying on his left side, Holly Valance lying on her right side or Chloe Maxwell’ s beam – Guy’ s picture looks like it’ s been painted in a very similar style to Bollywood film posters, or billboards from Saddam Hussein’ s heyday or, even more, like Chinese propaganda posters from the 1970s and 80s.
The choice of this style of image may simply be some form of postmodern appropriation. A brightly painted image of an archetypal character combined with a simple but commanding slogan may have caused a fizz at the advertising firm that came up with the ad. The marketing gurus at Pepsi say that the ads exude sizzling sex appeal, athletic attitude and seductive style’ (Van Aken 2003), words which don’ t really evoke the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party to the Western mind. Like most appropriations of this type, it is purely the superficial imagery which is being borrowed and recontextualised – there seem to be few parallels between the socio-cultural objectives of the CCP and Pepsi Australia.
Having said that, the basic intention behind the use of these posters is the same. They’ re trying to modify the audience’ s social behaviour to certain ends. Pepsi are trying to make the viewer drink Pepsi and the CCP is trying to promote approved social and political values amongst the Chinese populace.
In China there is a long history of using posters to propagate social behaviour through role-modeling. The pre-modern state used forms of propaganda which were influenced by Confucius’ belief that persuasion and education would be more effective than the use of force or punishments in achieving a state of social harmony’ (Landsberger 1998: 18). In other words, this implies that when confronted with an image of someone with impeccable moral qualities, a human being will modify their behaviour to comply with the moral message. In his teachings, Confucius used previous leaders who had reputations for being virtuous as examples to teach his various patrons how to rule in a just and moral way. He used figures with a public reputation as teaching aids, effectively making them the concrete embodiment of abstract moral principles’ (Landsberger 1998: 19).
It can be reasonably assumed that this is the aim of most advertising campaigns in the modern, industrialized Western world. They use role-models (celebrities) to educate people. Through advertising, a company tries to modify people’ s behaviour to the extent that the viewer will become their customer and buy their product. Through media saturation Guy Sebastian becomes a public figure and then Pepsi uses his popular and easily identifiable image to persuade people to buy Pepsi. As with Confucius’ use of the past’ s virtuous rulers, they are not just embodying their message in the celebrity’ s likeness but also in all the associations that go along with it. As Confucius imbued his own ideas with the virtue of historical figures, Pepsi becomes imbued with Holly Valance’ s sexiness, Harry Kewell’ s sportiness, Chloe Maxwell’ s seductiveness’ and Guy Sebastian’ s sort of moral-Christian-but-hip-ness (even though becoming the Australian Idol is a clear breach of commandment number two).
The pre-modern Chinese state based its legitimacy on educating the population in these Confucian methods of moral reinforcement (Landsberger 1998: 19). State supported formal education was for members of the upper classes only and you could only maintain your position in the ruling class if you passed an examination on knowledge of the Confucian classics. The process of socialization was intimately linked with literacy’ (Landsberger 1998: 19).
This was taken further during the Ming dynasty when formal state education was extended to include lectures to the vast rural population. Members of the cultural elite traveled the country teaching the illiterate villagers and farmers the state approved version of Confucianism. This served, along with legends, drama and folk songs which had been created for the masses by the educated classes, to indoctrinate the ordinary people into the culture of the state.
A further precursor to the modern Chinese propaganda poster was the protest print which began to appear during the 16 th century and mainly expressed anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiments’ (Landsberger 1998: 22). These were produced by members of the elite to create a hostile spirit in the populace. These prints used a visual style that was widely recognized by the masses and very popular. Their meanings were easy to understand by everyone from the government elites to the illiterate masses (Landsberger 1998: 22).
The protest prints were extremely popular in the late 1800s. So were illustrated journals and magazines which used the same visual idiom. Both these forms of communication were instrumental in the creation of a mass culture’ (Landsberger 1998: 22). Around the same time the nation’ was becoming a political force in Europe. Theorists such as Otto Bauer, and more recently Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, believe the nation and nationalism came about as a result of print media spreading amongst a populace a sense of culture and unity, previously the sole possession of the ruling class.
Most people would probably not immediately associate the Pepsi Guy Sebastian with indoctrination into a national culture but, in Australia, this is probably about all this ad can do. The idea of using a celebrity in an advertisement is to bring a sense of recognition and belonging to as many people as possible. Any engagement with active audience theories would suggest that viewing the ad does not directly lead to the urge to buy Pepsi  . However, it does serve as a way of making its target audience aware of their role within national culture; that is, consumers. This suggests a more complicated process between advertisement and consumer. Rather than simply, cool Pepsi ad, it has Guy on it, I think I’ ll buy some’ , it seems more likely the train of thought would go, cool Pepsi ad, I like Guy, I think the majority of other people in my demographic would agree with me because the media keeps telling me that, the ad must be there for a reason, they’ re trying to sell stuff, the majority of other people in my demographic probably buy this sort of stuff, maybe I should too?’ Of course, the latter model allows for I don’ t actually like Pepsi, I’ ll spend my money on Coke instead’ or even an outright rejection of the entire process.
The value of using a celebrity image as the focus of an advertisement is in its cross-class appeal. Not all people may recognize the celebrity but they will recognize the convention of celebrity status. It is part of a mass literacy that goes beyond the written word. It is this literacy that draws communities together, a fact clearly perceived by Mao Zedong and other leaders of the CCP. While they rejected many of the Confucian ideals which had been instilled in them by the process of socialization, they maintained a belief in the perfectibility of the people.
They embraced role-modeling and the propaganda poster and tried to propagate the idea of a people with good communist moral values, spread throughout the vastness of China; that is, a nation. Mao also believed that leading the people should be a constant struggle, a permanent revolution… of ceaseless change’ in which revolutionary principles needed constant reaffirmation (Wang 2002: 48). This also mirrors the purpose of the Pepsi posters. The profit motive needs constant reaffirmation; people need to be regularly reminded to buy.
The CCP were influenced in their beliefs and methods by Lenin but had to fill in the blanks left by Marx and Engels. For most of the Socialist Left the nation was a historical divergence. Marx wrote of the nation as though it was one of the solids ‘that melts into air’; as though it was one of the traditional, universal bases for society like family or religion and, as such, need not be questioned because it would inevitably fail (Marx and Engels 1995: 181). Like the other universal truths, the nation was being destroyed by the bourgeoisie and Marx believed the proletariat could use that to their advantage. He believed that the bourgeois creation of a world market ‘had drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed’ (Marx and Engels 1995: 181).
Marx saw the nation as something that was swiftly being made irrelevant by free market trade between countries. Nations were no longer self-sufficient in any sense. The intellectual production of individual nations had become common property and national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible. The development of the bourgeois world market was doing away with cultural difference and even antagonism between nations (Marx and Engels 1995: 181).
This is where the CCP had to step in and use propaganda posters and role-modeling. They realized the power in making the people believe they existed within a strong national framework. Yet they did this while maintaining clear-cut occupational divides. Through posters, people from different parts of the population were kept aware of the existence of other sections of the society without ever being told the truth of their existence. Urban factory workers never knew what it was like for farmers working in rural areas but were shown an idealized vision of their toil through posters. Through strict control of the media and the moral messages of the propaganda posters, society was both segmented and united at the same time.
Again, there are parallels between this use of propaganda posters and the Pepsi billboards. Obviously, we are not being shown the celebrities as they really are. What we see is a hyperreal vision of them, an image based on an image. This idealization is a key element of celebrity. It is an attempt to fool the public into believing that the celebrity exists in another strata of society, more special or important than our own. For role-modeling to be in any way effective, this illusion has to occur, even if only in a limited sense. However, once role-modeling is effective the illusion is no longer illusion and becomes reality.
While socialists saw the transcendence of the nation as a condition for the emancipation of the proletariat, the CCP propaganda posters ensured it wouldn’ t happen. National differences did not fade away, the workers did not rise to assume political supremacy and an international proletariat was not created.
During the twentieth century cultural difference and antagonism caused enormous brutality and death and, as Anderson noted, even began to take over from Marxist doctrine in Communist states (2000: 2). Most dogmatic Marxists saw this as an accidental departure from what should have happened’ , as though something had gone wrong along the way and led to an upsurge in nationalism when it was supposed to be dying its painful death. They tended to believe that people would, some day soon, get over nationalism and finally behave as Marx predicted the world market would make them behave.
Writers such as Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and Benedict Anderson saw that large groups of people could be drawn together in solidarity behind ideals if they shared the bond of a common literacy. Both the propaganda posters and the Pepsi ads demonstrate this concept perfectly. Mass literacy has a culture-building power.
Being able to recognize the billboard celebrities’ status brings the realization that, in your isolated state, you are sharing the same information as a large number of other people who you will never meet or see. You know that you have, in understanding the idea of celebrity, something in common with this large number of (not known to you but not anonymous) people. This is not just an ability to read a certain language or decode a certain class of sign, but also a realization that you are presently in a culture which shares ideas on cultural norms, practices and values. This realization comes whether you position yourself inside or outside that culture. Individuals are then able to imagine a mass and assign it political power.
As print media has grown since the invention of the printing press, national movements (or nationalisms) were able to express themselves using whatever happened to be the most popular language at the time in a particular geographical zone. As Deleuze and Guattari wrote in Thousand Plateaus (2002), there is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity’ . In other words, a political design gives birth to an imagined community, which gains concrete expression and narrative in mass media.
These are not the concerns of Pepsi or other outdoor advertising clients. Their biggest problem in using this type of advertising is the fact that there is no standardized measurement system. TV and radio have ratings and print media counts circulation while outdoor advertising has nothing to measure its effectiveness. It is this sort of measurement which media outlets depend upon to sell advertising space.
One interesting potential solution to this problem has been put together by a consortium of thirteen companies and is called ROAM (Research on Outdoor Audience Measurement) (Gotting 2003). This system uses a wide range of statistics to put together figures on who travels where and in what areas for what purpose. It uses data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to separate markets into travel zones. This includes demographic breakdowns of land use (residential, schools by type, parks, shops etc.), employment levels by type and transport availability.
Surveys are used to determine the travel behaviour of those within a particular travel zone. How many trips people make in a day, where they go, for what purpose. They combine this data with detailed traffic modeling on a road network which separates main, secondary and tertiary volume roads and links between significant sections of road and important intersections. They use this to work out what sort of person travels within visual range of a certain site, when, why and how.
At the moment ROAM seems to be the most effective form of audience measurement available to the outdoor advertising industry. Like ratings and circulation, there is no way of measuring whether an advertisement’ s message actually reaches the desired audience let alone penetrates their consciousness and sways their consumer habits. No matter how detailed the statistical information on who travels past which billboard, there is no guarantee the traveler will look up and suddenly want a Pepsi, or even feel the warm glow of an increase in brand awareness.
Similar uncertainty can be traced in the CCP’ s use of the propaganda poster. While still placing faith in them as a method of behaviour modification, the imagery of the posters clearly changed as the party maintained their power during the transition from revolutionary struggle to economic struggle. As the economy shifted focus, the party’ s ideology changed and the figures in the posters began to wear brighter clothing. Pot plants, previously a symbol of the bourgeoisie, appeared in the background and emphasis was placed on depicting urban utopias rather than hard rural work. The propaganda changed as the nature of productive power shifted from country to city.
So, it could be more helpful to focus on the process of this kind of media rather than its content. This process involves a mass literacy which simultaneously unites and divides. Our less focused driver looks up at the strange orange building and sees an ad. Even if they’ ve never seen Australian Idol and never tasted Pespi, they are able to comprehend and interpret an advertisement, its associations with consumer culture and their place within it. At the same time, the success of the ad can only be measured by the degree to which statistics can isolate this driver from the rest of the community.
Companies like Pepsi use celebrities in advertisements because they imagine some direct benefit to their sales. They want their market to see Guy’ s smiling face or Chloe’ s rakish grin and think if they drink Pepsi, maybe I should too’ . What seems to be actually happening is that the celebrity becomes part of a mass literacy which serves to separate people into psychographics, demographics and markets. It doesn’ t matter if people are differentiated by whether they recognize the celebrity, or their preferred mode of transport, or the type of work they do, the overall effect is not a direct boost in the sales of Pepsi; it is the reinforcement of a consumer ethic in a divided society, which amounts to the same thing anyway.
The same process is at work in the CCP propaganda poster despite the immense difference in the ultimate intention. While Pepsi and the Chinese Communist Party are at either ends of an ideological scale, their common use of role-modeling could tell us more about the role of the media in an industrialized, media literate society. Mao believed in renewing the revolution – capitalism requires constant market growth; both are industrialized societies and that is the only type of society ever to live by and rely on sustained and perpetual growth, on an expected and continuous improvement’ (Gellner 2001: 21). Perhaps the process of the media transcends politics and acts as an agent for this constant change and reaffirmation.
Anderson, B. (2000) Imagined Communities, Verso: London
Ang, I. (1991) Desperately Seeking the Audience, Routledge: London
Bauer, O. (1999) The Nation’ in Balakrishnan, G. (ed) Mapping the Nation, Verso: London
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Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2002) A Thousand Plateaus, Athlone Press: London
Gellner, E. (2001) Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell Publishers: Oxford
Gotting, P. (2003) Search for a way to count how many see the big pictures’ , smh.com.au, Jul. 3, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/07/02/1056825456320.html
Innis, H. (1972) Empires and Communications, University of Toronto Press: Toronto
Landsberger, S. (1998) Chinese Propaganda Posters: from revolution to modernization, The Pepin Press: Amsterdam
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: the extensions of man, Routledge: London
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1995) ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’ in Dahbour, O. & Ishay, M. (eds) The Nationalism Reader, The Humanities Press: New Jersey
Morley, D. (1992) Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies, Routledge: London
Van Aken, M. (2003) ‘ Harry stars in Australia’ s largest out-door campaign’ , Sports Australia, Oct. 16, http://sportsaustralia.com/articles/oct03/artid292.html accessed 1/6/04
Wang, J. (2002) Contemporary Chinese Politics, An Introduction, Prentice Hall: New Jersey
 Ang (1991) and Morley (1992) contain useful discussions of active audience theory. Briefly, this theory gives the audience a primary role in negotiating the meaning of a text.
Greg Levine is currently in the second year of his PhD in media studies at Macquarie University where he is also an associate lecturer. His research examines the relationship between television audiences, nationalism and community identity. He can be contacted at email@example.com