Monday, May 14, 2007

Only Rp.99,999

The local advertising industry has been in the news recently. A new regulation has come into force stipulating that advertising agencies should only use domestic actors, actresses, locations, etc when making their commercials.

The Indonesian advertising industry is purported to be worth some 40 trillion rupiah per year and is also apparently dominated by foreign companies, so perhaps this is fair enough. If the country succeeds in developing a domestic advertising industry then I hope that's it will be goodbye to the children of mixed Western and Indonesian marriages who advertise skin whitening products under false and racially rather dodgy pretences.

The veracity of local adverts will not, however, ultimately be addressed by this regulation. One English friend of mine, for example, who once appeared in a miraculous hair dye advert in what I thought was a rather obvious wig will just as easily be replaced by the faux follicles of an Indonesian slap head. Foreign or local actors? What does it matter; there's still a lot of hokum and snake oil out there being bought.

Apparently though, established icons, such as the Marlboro cowboy, will be exempt from the new regulation on the grounds that, "no suitable cowboy in Indonesia could replace him." I'm not so sure about that myself; the builders who recently did some work on our house perhaps have the relevant cowboy credentials necessary (and they smoked a lot to) but I'm getting off the point.

The idea of icons in advertising is a fascinating one though. Adverts are pregnant with signs, symbols and connotations and resonate with all kinds of cultural meanings in their attempts to get consumers to identify with their products. Advertising agencies raid reference systems for visual and musical signifiers. Reference systems designate shared systems of knowledge, social stereotypes and widely recognized cultural symbols that all, consciously or unconsciously, connect with the viewer.

Famous dead gay French theorist (aren't they all), Roland Barthes, famously turned his theories of semiotics (the study of signs) away from literature and applied them to cultural artifacts and adverts in his book Mythologies. With fascinating and hilarious consequences he teased out the hidden subtexts and cultural assumptions that underlie the symbolic order of our commercial world.

In one example Barthes, being French, looked at the symbolic meanings attached to wine in his country. Wine, says Barthes, is not just one drink among others in France but a ' totem' drink, equivalent to the milk of the Dutch cow or the tea ceremoniously taken by the British royal family. Wine is thus not only a drink but the foundation of a collective morality. For the French, to believe in wine is a, “Coercive collective act," and drinking it is a ritual of social integration. Substitute the word wine with the rice and we have the Indonesian equivalent. In generating these mystical meanings, cultures seek to make their own socially constructed norms seem like facts of nature.

Indonesian advertisements are ripe with such symbolism and second order meaning. Watching the endless ads (which often seem to add up to as much total time as the programs themselves) on one morning last week, all the familiar cultural signifiers were paraded across the screen ready for deconstruction.

Firstly, I was presented with a chili sauce adverts that takes place in a traditional market over a stall selling real chilies. The Pasar (market) is a common motif in Indonesian commercials and seems to symbolically encapsulate the Pribumi ‘sons of the soil’ mindset. The image presented is one of nature's bounty; a place where all of Indonesia's great fertility is focused in a social arena of reverent nationality and celebration. In reality we all know that most markets are smelly, chaotic places full of thugs who extort the traders and steal people's wallets. However the advert seems to say, "Buy our chili and buy your own little piece of the Indonesian soil dream." The real chilies in the ad further serve to link the product with Indonesian fecundity, belying the fact that the stuff more closely resembles radioactive nuclear waste ground into an orange paste and is nothing like the real thing.

Then we had a couple of drug commercials representing the pharmacological free-for-all that is the Indonesian drug market. Diarrhea medicine was codified by a man walking through a field of green tea. This natural image connotes a holistic, homoeopathic approach to medicine and seems to suggest that one's bowels will be gently purged of toxins whilst health is restored to you, ready for your next fix of street gutter satay.

The ensuing paracetamol advert took the opposite tack however, by stressing the potency of the product. A woman is trapped in a vision of hell when her car breaks down in the Jakarta rush hour. The angry pain circles radiating out from her forehead can only be subdued by the tablets in question. Personally I reckon that nothing short of a morphine drip feed or sawing your head off would actually subdue such a Jakarta traffic headache but there you go. Dirty, smelly reality intrudes into this commercial but is soon tamed by the product under discussion. The seamless utopian dreams of the advertising paradigm are soon reinstated.

Milk formula ads are always rich in symbolism in this country too. The one I saw featured all the usual flying mini globes circling the screen with the names of chemical elements stamped on them. These molecular totems serve to lend the product the deep scientific legitimacy needed to persuade the parents of six-year-olds that formula milk is vital for their children's health, despite the fact that their kids have had teeth for four years and thus can actually chew on real food.

Oh my God. The commercials seemed to stretch on and on like some surreal deodorized hyper-world. I was also presented with dandruff the size of golf balls, sanitary towels as soft as a gossamer wings and ' typical' Indonesian families chugging down various breakfast cereals and rice dishes in houses the size of the presidential Palace.

Anyway, I must sign off now, I have a strange craving for some instant noodles.