Postmodern Consumer Culture Reflected Through Financial Corporation Advertising
Posted On April 14, 2017
Critical analysis of visual material provides an excellent insight to the social and cultural formation of a particular period. By analyzing visual language, representations and signifiers, one can gain a comprehensive understanding of significant paradigms that dominate any given time. This essay will explore various examples of advertising strategies and corporate identity within the field of financial corporations, to illustrate how they reflect the style, philosophical tendencies and cultural formation within the context they are produced. Critical analysis of these visual examples will provide an analytical conclusion to theorise the notion of a significant shift from the postmodern consumer culture and will provide a platform with which to characterize the cultural formation of the contemporary period.
The postmodern period, from the end of World War Two to the mid 90s, was a period dominated by capitalist ideologies and permeated by the consumer culture. By the mid 80s, the western world in particular was at the height of an ???apocalyptic genre??? (Docker, p.104) of advanced consumer capitalism, and the likes of advertising and branding had infiltrated society to extensive lengths. Inevitably, advanced consumer capitalism resulted in a society that was somewhat dictated by mass corporations. This was an age where globalization was deemed paramount to an organizations success and the global reach of a corporation was a representation of power and accomplishment. Companies wanted to promote themselves as having global recognition in order to imply success and stability. This concept can be seen in figure 1, where Australian owned bank Westpac is aligning themselves with a globally recognized event, World Expo 88. This action in itself reiterates the notion that global recognition is a measure of success and is reflective of the overall attitude of corporations in the postmodern period. The headline, reading ???who can you bank on to serve the world??? provides further emphasis that corporations are answering to a consumer ideal when referring to their global positioning. Figure 2 further illustrates Westpac??™s global stance, with the logo??™s positioning line reading ???Australia??™s world bank???.
Figure 1 and figure 2 are excellent in reflecting the postmodern dominant cultural form that is consumer capitalism, and the idea of global dominance pertinent to this time. However, as we approached the mid 90s and postmodernism as a movement was gradually residing, there were numerous emergent groups coming together to challenge and oppose the rise of mass corporations. This became known as the anti-corporate movement, whose supporters viewed corporate globalization as ???one of the corporate oligarchy??™s most grievous sins (Osborne, 2007, p.125). Osborne also states, ???people are passive recipients of whatever toxic advertising and branding trickery corporations choose to pour into them??? (2007, p.17). The anti-corporate movement then was a reaction against the infiltration of advertising and such visual culture that had permeated postmodern society, and the multinational corporations behind them. The rise of such oppositional emergent forces demonstrates a significant shift from postmodernism as society becomes more suspicious of the visual material bombarding their everyday existence, concluding in Osborne??™s suggestion that ???the ideology has become something new, a belief that the corporate form in particular is disastrous for human society??? (2007, p.4). Yet the end of postmodernism and the rise of anti-corporate groups far from meant the demise of the corporation. If anything, the capitalist consumer based economy catapulted exponentially to new heights. As corporations were faced with opposition, it became increasingly aware of the need for brand identity to promote itself as understanding of the anti corporate movement and to capitalize on these emergent forces, ultimately leading to the co-optation of anti-corporate practices, thus becoming incorporated as part of the mainstream discourse, such as the blockbuster film An Inconvenient Truth.
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Figure 3 is an advert that overtly highlights the significant cultural shift from postmodernism to the contemporary period. When compared with figure 1 and figure 2, which both boldly align themselves with global dominance, figure 3 clearly illustrates almost a complete opposite approach. In this 2010 advertisement, Westpac Bank, who previously positioned itself as being Australia??™s World Bank (see fig.2), is now associating itself with an environmental local project. This considerable change of focus is highly expressive of the shift in philosophical thinking from postmodern to the ???now??™. This approach allows a mass corporation to attempt to be rid of the general associations that go hand in hand with banks, and now promote it??™s identity as being caring, local and promoting social responsibility.
Pine & Gilmore (1999) suggest that the postmodern period is a primarily service and image based economy, where brands offer no more than that. Consumers receive their service, and the economic transaction is complete. However, the contemporary period has dramatically shifted from this ???economic value??™ (Pine & Gilmore, 1999), as corporations aim to provide a much more tangible experience. Brands are attempting to provide the consumer with ???experience and transformational??™ offerings (Pine & Gilmore, 1999), a notion that did not exist in the postmodern cultural formation. Figure 4 is a perfect example with which to illustrate the solely service based offering that brands from the postmodern period offered. This 1982 advertisement for Bethpage Federal Credit Union offers only a service for the consumer, and tells them to ???take two aspirin and call your credit union???; it offers nothing that will enhance the user experience. Pine & Gilmore claim that ???goods and services are no longer enough, customers now want experiences??? (1999, p.163). This notion of the ???customer being the product??™ (Pine & Gilmore, 1999) reflects a highly significant shift in thinking from the postmodern period, and the contemporary cultural formation exhibits an entirely new paradigm based upon an experience and transformational brand offering economy.
Kiwibank, a New Zealand owned bank, illustrates this shift from a purely service based economy, to a brand that offers something more on an experience and transformational level. As shown in figure 5, Kiwibank have initiated a scheme on their website known as ???kiwi thinking??™. Kiwi thinking invites the viewer to submit their innovative ideas which will then be judged by an online panel, and promoted on Kiwibank??™s website. This concept is providing a tangible and physical experience for the consumer, allowing them to feel connected to the brand, and ultimately enhancing their overall brand experience. Pine & Gilmore state, ???by staging a series of experiences, companies are better able to achieve a lasting effect on the buyer??? (1999, p.165). The ???Kiwi thinking??™ scheme is then customised further to provide more of a transformational experience. An example is ???Sally??™s dinner angels??™ (see fig. 6). ???Sally??™s dinner angels??™ suggests ???volunteers deliver home-cooked hot dinners to people in need in their local area??? (www.kiwibank.co.nz). A personal gesture like this to be put into action, and one that has been initiated by a bank nonetheless, effectively illustrates the huge shift in the approach to branding that corporations have adopted since postmodern times. Dougherty (2008) suggests that ???we are moving from an era when consumers made purchasing decisions based primarily on price and performance to an era when consumers make values-based purchasing decisions??? (p.22), and as ???transformations are effectual??? (Pine & Gilmore, 1999, p.171), Kiwibank would no doubt be considered a more trustworthy bank in the mind of the consumer, primarily due to the relationship being established. Figure 7 depicts a similar transformational offering in which ASB bank supports a financial literacy programme known as GetWise. ASB??™s website invites users to register online, and following this, workshops are then presented in schools to promote ???financial literacy and cognitive development??? (www.getwise.co.nz). This scheme further reiterates Kiwibanks approach, highlighting the dramatic shift from a service based economy to that of brands offering transformational experiences.
Where postmodern advertising and brand visual identity promoted global success, the contemporary period adopted an opposite approach. As part of the notion that was enhancing the consumer??™s experience, the rhetoric of localness was a measure with which to further gain trust from the consumer. Osborne suggests, ???the idea of globalization has become a key theme of the anti-corporatist movement??? (2007, p.125). This idea prompted corporations in the contemporary period to attempt to co-opt oppositional and alternative emergent forces such as environmentally aware campaigns and to offer an implied locality rather than promote global expanse. This rhetoric of localness further reiterates similar philosophical underpinnings of the contemporary consumer capitalist period. Like the rhetoric of individual transformation, locality was a measure to ensure a trusting relationship between corporation and consumer. Many corporations in the postmodern period would pride themselves on global dominance, yet are now positioning themselves within a local proximity. This notion was applied to further support the idea of corporation and consumer relationship, through the means of garnering trust. Consumers naturally gravitate towards corporations and branding that imply ???localness??™ as they ultimately feel a sense of genuineness. In this contemporary consumer capitalist period, where offshore company ownership suggests lack of understanding of the identity of local consumers, locality or implied locality is central to a brands corporate identity. Beveland suggests ???the notion of putting down roots is central to our identity??? (2009, p.143).
Figure 8 and figure 9 show a direct comparison between the idea of globalization and locality. Figure 8 depicts an advertisement for American Express, teamed with Eastern Airlines. This in itself is significant of the philosophical tendencies of the postmodern period. A mass corporation is associating itself with an organization that is the epitome of global reach, in this case an airline. Figure 9 depicts a much different approach. It is a 2010 American Express advertisement promoting environmental responsibility through the suggestion of minimizing paper use. Where the postmodern example for American Express is associated with something that is about at least environmentally friendly as it gets ??“ an airline ??“ the contemporary example takes an almost opposite approach. Although the 2010 example depicts an image of the world, albeit constructed of discarded paper, a sense of localness is implied, as the advertisement suggests that ???you??™ can do something that will affect ???you??™ and ???your??™ surroundings. This ethical approach adopted by numerous corporations throughout the contemporary period demonstrates a significant shift in thinking from the postmodern period, and further enhances a brands value in the eye of the consumer. Melewar & Karaosmanogly state ???ethical behavior builds brand equity which in turn provides customer value??? (2008, p.6). Another example of large corporations aligning themselves with ethical behavior is BNZ??™s recent Plunket campaign (see fig. 10), where BNZ announces that if you open a term investment, they will give $10 to Plunket. If we analyse this campaign while understanding the philosophical tendencies of the contemporary period, we can conclude that it is no coincidence a financial corporation has chosen to associate with an organization that epitomizes well being and family life. Not only does this approach imply a sense of caring, but it is promoted within a local proximity, providing an enhanced user experience and strengthening brand values.
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There are other aspects to contemporary advertising and corporate identity strategies that promote the philosophical underpinnings of the contemporary period. This can be seen through the stylistic and aesthetic dimensions of the corporate identity. Throughout the postmodern period, financial corporations in particular were primarily about promoting stability and dependability. Olins notes that ???a bank should choose to look strong. It should also up to a point, look rich??? (1989, p.56). Olin??™s claim rings true for banking corporate identity throughout the postmodern period. Logos frequently consisted of very formal graphical elements, suggesting power and authority. However there has been a major shift over recent years in the stylistic tendencies of corporate identity, as brands further attempt to reflect the changing social and cultural zeitgeist. A notable example is BNZ??™s recent change in its logo. Up until 2008, BNZ??™s 150 year old logo was comprised of a stylization of the southern cross and a gold chevron (see fig. 11), and was clearly a visual signifier of a financial corporation. The typeface was a formal serif typeface and epitomized the stable and dependable image that a bank would want to portray. However, the end of 2008 brought about immense changes as the company rebranded its corporate identity to ???reflect the BNZ culture of today??? (www.nzherald.co.nz). Figure 12 shows the rebranded BNZ logo as it is today. Gone is the gold chevron so closely associated with heraldry, gone is the formal serif typeface, in fact, gone is the bank??™s name in its entirety. The new logo has been reduced down to the bare minimum, existing of only the banks initials, set in an informal lowercase, humanist typeface, and to reference the ???welcoming, warm and friendly organization we believe we are these days??? (Vernon, www.nzherald.co.nz). Olin??™s suggests that the ???whole of the company??™s personality, its identity, will become the most significant factor in making a choice between one company and its product and another??? (1989, p.9). ANZ have recently adopted a similar approach (see fig. 13) where the rebranded logo attempts to reflect a much warmer, approachable tone, reflective of how the company identifies itself.
Corporations all over the world are rebranding their identity to better suit the cultural zeitgeist of the contemporary period. The primary reason is to entice consumers into believing the honest and authentic identity organizations are selling themselves as. Branding in the contemporary consumer capitalist period is about storytelling ??“ providing something a consumer can identify with and relate to. Beveland suggests that ???stories are critical to brand communities and connecting with like-minded others??? (2009, p.59). Increasingly, companies are promoting experiences that invite the consumer to be part of a community, resulting in further enhancing the corporation-consumer relationship. Figure 14 shows some examples of the Citizen??™s National Bank website. It consistently uses words such as ???relationships??™ and ???community??™, which generate an implied caring and honest attitude. This rhetoric of a ???two-way??™ human dialogue reinforces the notion of the corporation being more than just a service based economic offering. The corporation is now promoting itself as offering a tangible experience, one where the consumer, along with the corporation at hand, can experience a transformation, suited to best fit the individual??™s aspirations and desires. Olin??™s claim that ???companies are concerned with (??¦) creating a common culture, shared values and a clear sense of direction??? (1989, p.28) reiterates the approach corporations are undertaking in this contemporary period in order to provide the consumer with a transformational experience.
A philosophical tendency that is seen presented by multinational companies throughout the contemporary period is that of ???authenticity??™. Corporations are increasingly realizing the need to portray themselves as genuine and honest in order to garner consumer??™s trust. Beveland states that ???in an age of increasing consumer cynicism toward brands, marketers are being urged to become more authentic??? (2009, p.1). The cultural formation of both the postmodern era and the contemporary period has resulted in a saturation of branding and advertising, with an excessive number of corporations fighting over market share. Therefore corporations within the contemporary period have needed to align themselves with consumer??™s needs and aspirations as much as possible. And in an age where consumers are wary of corporation expansion, the notion of being ???local??™ and ???authentic??™ is an excellent direction for corporations to build consumer relations. Beveland suggests that ???stories are part of the process of self-authentication and identity formation, and allow consumers to find authenticity in an age characterized by globalization, deterritorialization and hyperreality??? (2009, p.58). Figure 15 shows two advertisements from ANZ??™s recent advertising campaign. These advertisements project an image of honesty, genuineness and the rhetoric of authenticity, attempting to align itself with the consumer??™s needs and common concerns. In reality though, one can only assume to what extent a financial corporation actually cares if a consumer is ???stuck in traffic??™. This is an entirely different approach to the likes of a 1987 Citizen??™s National Bank advertisement (see fig.16) which overtly claims it??™s ???mission to be the Bank of Choice???, boldly promoting in an almost boastful sense as to what it can offer the consumer. Beveland notes that ???rather than overtly stating that your brand is authentic or real, brands gain authenticity through storytelling??? (2009, p.1).
As the contemporary period capitalizes on the idea of being authentic, the consumer will inevitably question what is actually genuine. Beveland suggests that ???the increased stylization of everyday life results in increased difficulties in telling real from fake??? (2009, p.23) and that ???authenticity involves the manifestation of the search for what is real??? (2009, p.27). Can we suggest then, that an aspect of the cultural formation of the contemporary period is an extension of the tendencies found within the postmodern period Baudrillard speaks of the ???hyperreal??™ (1988) and acknowledges that ???we are in a universe where there is more and more information and less and less meaning??? (1983, p.95). Baudrillard makes this claim in the height of postmodernism, however if we analyse his statement in the context of the contemporary period, it still, to some extent rings true. Consumers are consistently being fed more and more information through branding and advertising tactics, but is this information valid How do consumers differentiate between the ???hyperreal??™ and the ???authentic??™ Perhaps the increasing amount of two-way dialogue between brand and consumer that we have seen as prevalent throughout the contemporary period is a reaction to Baudrillards postmodern notion of ???hyperreality??™ (1988), allowing the consumer to experience an individual transformational brand offering, and ultimately conclude for themselves what they consider ???real??™.
Although contemporary examples of advertising and corporate identity are clearly reflective of the cultural zeitgeist, that isn??™t to say they are rid completely of any residual postmodern tendencies. Jencks argues that ???modernisms follow each other so quickly and relentlessly today??? (2007, p.229), therefore it is only inevitable that visual material emerging in the contemporary period displays traces of its preceding cultural and philosophical underpinnings. An obvious example of postmodern traces in a contemporary corporate advertisement is HSBC??™s 2008 advertising campaign (see fig.17). Although marketed under the concept of ???different values??™, this approach is extremely reminiscent of the philosophical tendency of the postmodern period characterized as relativity, where individuals construct their own meaning based around their individual context, and what is relevant to them. Relativity was prevalent in visual culture throughout the postmodern period, therefore seeing this approach adopted in a contemporary context further reiterates Jencks??™s suggestion that ???we are in a stage that looks back critically in order to go forward??? (2007, p.8).
Davidson suggests that ???if you wanted to know what really happened in the 80s, you watched the ads??? (1992, p.61). This not only applies for the 80s, but for any given time period. Critical analysis of visual material provides an exceptional insight to any cultural zeitgeist, and in this case, draws a clear comparison in the shift from the postmodern movement to the contemporary period. Where the postmodern period was a service based economy, the contemporary period has provided the consumer with a much more transformational relationship with brands. However, does this ultimately produce a society where skepticism becomes the forefront of our existence, as we question the authenticity of the uncontrived and honest facade multinational corporations are hiding behind And if so, what does this mean for the future Perhaps we are becoming a nation of post-consumerists, rising above the transformational tactics corporations are attempting to blindside us with. We can only make assumptions at this stage, and attempt to theorize with a critical and realistic view. Perhaps with inevitable technological advancements the consumer experience will be catapulted to new levels that are incomprehensible in this day and age. Surely those who were in the midst of postmodernism and even modernism would never have imagined the extent to which consumer capitalism has effected and enhanced the cultural formation of this contemporary period.
Fig.1) Westpac advertisement from postmodern period.
Fig.2) Westpac advertisement from postmodern period.
Fig.3) Westpac Bank advertisement, 2010.
Fig.4) Bethpage Federal Credit Union, 1982.
Fig.5) Kiwibanks??™s Kiwi Thinking website, 2010.
Fig.6) ???Kiwi Thinking??™ idea, 2010.
Fig.7) ASB??™s GetWise programme, 2010.
Fig.8) American Express and Eastern Airlines advertisement, 1986.
Fig.9) American Express advertisement, 2010.
Fig.10) BNZ advertisement, 2010.
Fig.11) BNZ logo, prior to 2008.
Fig.12) Re-branded BNZ logo, 2008.
Fig.13) ANZ??™s old and recently re-branded logo.
Fig.14) Citizen??™s National Bank Website, 2010.
Fig.15) ANZ advertising campaign, 2010.
Fig.16) Citizen??™s National Bank advertisement, 1987.
Fig.17) HSBC advertising campaign, 2008.