Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Advertising the Concept of British Empire

It would seem sensible to propose that, once the British Empire had allegedly lost its status as a globally recognised political, economic, and cultural hegemony, the advertising of the concept of British Empire as it used to be promoted by the Empire Cinema productions should have also eventually diminished to a halt. The concept of British Empire as an imperial product should have then gradually become obsolete, unmarketable, and so suitably and firmly disappear from subsequent post-colonial visual discourses. Instead, it thrived through advertising campaigns.

It continued to prosper across persuasive albeit subtle ideological strategies and self-explanatory influential visual narratives that continue even today to be produced, reinterpreted, accepted, and promoted by Britain and its former colonies and dominions. In today’s post-colonial, racial, national, and gender political correctness, the concept of British Empire is a prohibited, unsalable, inappropriate, and culturally prejudiced product. However, this concept has always had a unique selling proposition or selling point (USP)—to use the advertising and marketing term that summarized in just a few words the key differentiating feature of a product.

The USP of the concept of British Empire continues to function today as a central defining socio-political entity, a powerful albeit concealed ideological canon: the ubiquitous British imperial identity. This USP has survived the imperial credos and is now percolating through modern, post-colonial, neo-imperial, and British multicultural ideologies and art forms. The USP of the concept of British Empire continues to shape, influence, and challenge current interpretations of global visual forms through metonymic advertising strategies. Hence, the promotion of this prohibited concept-product has been readjusted through an on-going campaign of subliminal advertising in which the imperial identity represents as well as continues to endorse the original product—the concept of British Empire itself. Subliminal advertising and marketing campaigns are well documented as well as strongly criticized for delivering USPs in allegedly unethical persuasive processes that impact on and impair the consumers’/ viewers’ affective and analytic-cognitive abilities (Chaudhuri and Buck 1995; Tañski 2004). Such promotional strategies rely on the process of visual priming, i.e. repetitive exposure to particular visual stimuli creates a unified emotional (ideological) response (Bargh and Chartrand 1999, 2000; Dillard and Peck 2000),20 and, to some extent, controls the consumer’s creativity and reception by providing him/her with a viewing instructions set embedded in his/her affective response to imageryevoking strategies (Miller and Marks 1997). In light of this, it could be argued that the surviving British imperial identities, albeit with a post-colonial/post-independence aura, act in today’s visual culture within a metonymical framework similar to that of, for want of a better example, the Marlboro cigarette campaign from the 1990s and 1990s—they are all selling the characteristics of the original, and now prohibited product, be it Empire and its subjects or cigarettes (see Figure 6.8 and Figure 6.9).21

The reception and consumption of Empire Cinema productions has always been defined by the ways in which filmic discoursers have colonized public perceptions with direct or subliminal, prescribed or accidental symbols of the concept of British Empire—in other words, by the ways in which images have rhetorically and persuasively acted upon the viewers’ imagination. Whether addressing commercial, educational, instructional, propagandistic, or Empire-romanticizing themes across Empire Cinema films, it is useful to assess the process by which the concept of


Figure 6.8 ‘Marlboro. The world’s best-selling cigarette’. 1985.

Benson & Hedges ‘Wild Free’ cigarette campaign, c. mid-1990s

Figure 6.9 Benson & Hedges ‘Wild Free’ cigarette campaign, c. mid-1990s.

British Empire was visually defined as well as commodified across a variety of film genres.

While concepts, feelings, ideatic relationships, and emotional dialectics have been extensively and successfully discussed in relation to imperial film culture (McClintock 1995; McClintock et al. 1997; Auerbach 2002; Ciarlo 2011, Ramamurthy 2003; Ryan 1997; Shohat and Stam 1994), the concept of British Empire—as a signifier rather than a signified—has not apparently been tested by visual, economic, or political scholarship. With the risk of reinventing the critical analysis wheel of applying basic semiotic principles to the understanding of Empire Cinema in general, and of Empire Cinema productions in particular, it is proposed here that, if the concept of British Empire is the signifier, then the imperial identity is the signified and, as a result, the sign—the association between the signifier and signified—becomes the British imperial cinematic culture per se (Saussure 1974). From this theoretical standpoint it can be claimed that colonial films (and neo-imperial films) have always represented and promoted the concept of British Empire through the signification of imperial identity across distinct visual constructs and discourses.

In other words, Empire Cinema productions have promoted the concept of British Empire by visually exploring and defining particular instances and qualities of British imperial identity, be it that of colonizers or of colonized people. Although this study aims to present mostly a theoretical rather than a historical analysis centred on a detailed comparison of several examples of Empire Cinema productions, it would suffice perhaps to indicate as a possible comparative framework the selection of titles such as St. Joseph’s Missionary Society Film Collection (1920s-1930s), Black Narcissus (dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1947), Kim (dir. Victor Saville, USA, 1950), Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, UK/ USA, 1962), and Three Kings (dir. David O. Russell, USA, 1999—a neo-imperial ‘adventure film’ in the tradition of The Four Feathers; versions directed by René Plaissetty, UK, 1921; Zoltán Korda, UK, 1939; Don Sharp, USA (TV), 1978; and Shekhar Kapur, USA/UK, 2002). By comparing such films, and several others selected from the vast number of Empire Cinema productions, Auerbach’s hypothesis that the ‘commodification of empire’ is a constant ideological feature of early (German) colonial films can then be applied and developed into that of the commodification of the concept of British Empire. Moreover, the process of commodification allowed the concept of British Empire to be a signifier as well as the main product advertised by British popular visual culture.

It was in this context that Empire Cinema subscribed by default to constructs and representations of imperial ideologies and fantasies and so confirmed their unique, intrinsic purpose to promote the concept of British Empire across narratives of imperial identity. In the same way in which colonial photographs, illustrations, and even maps combined and advertised topographical information with representations of colonial stereotypes,22 Empire Cinema productions fuelled the imperial imaginative landscapes by applying the blueprint narrative of imperial ideology—the certainty of Britain’s empire and the enthusiasm for unfalteringly promoting this certainty (Ryan 1997, 19). So, the comparison between Empire Cinema films and advertising films often highlights that they share the same ‘syntax [. . .] of certainty’ and a common ‘register of

Selling British ‘Empire-Consciousness’ 89 enthusiasm’, that of a patriotic, imperial pathos (Auerbach 2002,315). In the context of British imperial visual culture, there is a thin line between fictional propaganda films and advertising, with the latter having been ‘a manifestation of imperialist culture’ able to illustrate essential features of capitalist and imperial identities (Ramamurthy 2003, 13-14).

It was in this particular context that Empire Cinema functioned as advertising films of the concept of British Empire. Moreover, the advertising of this concept (signifier) across colonial films took place within a solipsistic product-placement strategy in which the signifier and the signified (British imperial identity) exchanged roles in a continuum representation and assimilation of imperial visual culture. For instance, the act of viewing Empire Cinema productions, and implicitly that of culturally and ideologically ‘ingesting’ advertisements of the concept of British Empireproduct, became the staple of the British audiences’ commodification of their own imperial identities.

This cultural and ideological commodification appeared natural and entertaining even when the films were the result of official imperial propaganda—a genre somewhat more freely accepted by British audiences (Mackenzie 1996, 1997, 1999). This process of commodifying the concept of British Empire into a ubiquitous and supreme imperial product validated the common imperial narrative across all Empire Cinema productions, from feature films to documentaries, from newsreels to missionary, amateur, or instructional films—all functioning within the thematic and ideological framework of the ‘British being the greatest race in the world’ (Richards 2001, 14).

This visual and ideological framework remained equally valid for those Empire Cinema films that did not cover a wider imperial audience but a specific and well-targeted one such as educational or instructional films made exclusively for colonial audiences (Windel 2011; Maingard 2011). In adopting and advancing the argument proposed by historians such as John Mackenzie and James R. Ryan, who have compellingly defined British imperialism in terms of its cultural patterns, influences, and philosophies, it is then possible to argue that imperial audiences have equally advertised the concept of British Empire by rc-projecting imperial credos through their understanding and reception of popular colonial visual records (Mackenzie 1996, 1999; Ryan 1997). As a result, producers and consumers of Empire Cinema productions have simultaneously experienced and advertised the inherent British imperial identity as part of the production and reception momentum intrinsic to any advertising campaign. As ‘imperial persuaders’, to borrow Anandi Ramamurthy’s term, colonial producers and audiences of Empire Cinema productions have ideologically marked and certified such films with imperial significance. Through this idea tic and visual exchange between colonial films and their audiences, the ideological foundation of the British Empire was both confirmed and marketed across specific imperial identity differentiations and through the on-going advertising of the concept of British Empire. This visual trade between producers and consumers of Empire Cinema productions defined the core structure of imperial advertising which, while embodying the ‘poetry of imperialism’ (Ramamurthy 2003, 219), negotiated imperial tensions defining modern colonial history.

Several key historians and visual theorists (Marx and Engels 2004; Jhally 1987; Ciarlo 2011; Auerbach 2002; McClintock et al. 1997), inspired by Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, have moved swiftly, and perhaps too quickly, from discussing issues of commodifying imperial practices to proposing discourses on colonial, racial, and sexist iconographies. For instance, by assuming that ‘a decidedly fetishist faith in the magical powers of the commodity underpinned much of the colonial civilizing mission’, Anne McClinotck developed an authoritative study of British imperialism across several gender, racial, postcolonial, and social theories (McClintock 1995, 227). She proposed the thesis that colonial cleaning products, leisure activities, racial stereotypes, domesticity, and even national icons such as John Bull or the Union Jack were by default imperial commodity fetishes as well as agents of history (McClintock 1995). As a corollary to McClintock’s argument, this study suggests that the ultimate commodity fetish embraced, assimilated, and advertised by British imperial visual culture, and by Empire Cinema productions in particular, was the concept of British Empire—the ultimate imperial product capable of advertising all other sub-categories of imperial commodity fetishes from exotic products and exoticized identities to civilizing ideologies and educational, medical, and missionary projects.

Film producers contributing to the development of Empire Cinema genre, whether as wholeheartedly ‘empire builders’ like the Korda brothers or contemptuously honouring paid contracts like Basil Wright, shared with colonial advertisers what McClintock defines as ‘the responsibility of the historic imperial mission’ (McClintock 1995, 211). Empire Cinema productions brought together cross-European and non-European audiences while granting them a sense of imperial oneness which, in turn, facilitated solidarity across expansionist, racist, and civilising projects and fostered an alleged empathy towards and affiliation with colonized peoples (Shohat and Stam 1994, 102). Borrowing Johannes Fabian’s assessment of the imperial project as an inventory of ‘repeated acts of oppression’ it can be argued that this visually driven relationship between imperial Britain and the Other—the colonized cultures and peoples—was structured on prescribed and firmly recurring visual narratives that confirmed imperial stereotypification of racial, gender, cultural hierarchies and of the non-European Other (Fabian 2002, 149; Bogain and Potot 2008). In this context, Empire Cinema productions, while operating within the imperial visual culture’s established oppressive cultural control, have illustrated, represented, evoked (through metonymical icons and advertisements), re-created, imagined, recorded, civilised, educated, projected, disseminated, signified, encouraged melancholic nostalgia

Selling British ‘Empire-Consciousness’ 91 (Shohat and Siam 1994), fashioned and, most importantly, advertised the concept of British Empire to both colonizing and colonized audiences. Moreover, the production, distribution, and reception of Empire Cinema productions as successful advertisements of the concept of British Empire were intrinsically governed by the coexistent ‘poetry of imperialism’ of advertising campaigns and by the fact that ‘being imperial [was] a desired quality’ in early and mid-twentieth century (Ramamurthy 2003, 219,215).

The overall aim of this chapter has been to propose and hopefully demonstrate a corollary to historian John MacKenzie’s thesis that ‘fantasies of empire live on, not least because they were deeply embedded in British popular consciousness’ (MacKenzie 2011,26). After having surveyed the poetics and policies of Empire Cinema productions, it could be claimed that the concept of British Empire—the signifier of British imperial ideology and culture—lives on and imperializes the current British multicultural and multi-ethnic visual forms, not least because as the ultimate colonial product it has been systematically advertised and sold by Empire Cinema productions and popular visual culture.

This concept’s ubiquitous presence across post-colonial/(neo-)imperial visual forms, remarkets colonial imagery by simultaneously perpetuating its monopoly over representations of stereotypified racial, gender, and nationalistic characteristics. Key component of the commodity culture of capitalism, British popular cinema continues to have its thematic and aesthetic canons most often governed by subliminal advertising strategies, including the process of visual priming already mentioned, that ‘corrupt’ the spectators’ ‘imagination by relieving [them] of all effort’ (Richards 1991; Mackinder in Ryan 1997,213). The educationalist Halford Mackinder’s opinion from 1911 was echoed in 1990 by the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard when noting that ‘advertising relieves people of the responsibility of having to choose, which is perfectly human and perfectly horrible’ (Baudrillard 1993, 114). Understood from these perspectives, Empire Cinema productions can then be defined as proficient cultural vectors that advertised the concept of British Empire and of imperial identity as the essentially differentiating features of British imperial hegemony. Moreover, such films marketed the British imperial identity as the signified of British (visual) culture across all its variants of supremacy, subalterneity, and gendered and racial representations. Hierarchies and dynamics that endorsed British political discourses continue to inform British post-colonial cultures, and so does British imperial identity in contemporary representations of its core characteristics.

This comprehensive and more recently subliminal advertising of the concept of British Empire is clearly identifiable even within the new global Empire defined by historians Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as a fluid, frontier-free, and sovereign territorial, capitalist imperialism void of the traditional and ‘intrinsically evil’, imperial apparatus (Hardt and Negri 2001; Muldoon 1999, 139). The link between colonial representations and today’s post-colonial visual discourses is validated by the British imperial iconography of national supremacy, race, gender, Empire, and imperial identity—all represented today as multicultural commodities. Normal Earl’s essay for the Royal Commonwealth Society competition highlighted the inter-war common understanding of the Empire and its Commonwealth through tropes of racial, geographical, and expansionist discourse. His essay also indicated the imperative need to advertise these tropes by ways of Empire Cinema productions, which were commonly recognized as a crucial educational tool. Earl’s understanding of how Empire-consciousness can be stimulated with Empire Cinema films proved prophetic. The British pathos for discovery, expansionist and settlement hegemony, and tropes of cultural supremacy over non-British (non-Western) cultures are still found across the production and critique of contemporary visual records. Anandi Ramamurthy presents in Imperial Persuaders a non-negotiable verdict when claiming that ‘[i]mages are historical documents’ (Ramamurthy 2003, 1). While historians are gradually accepting such claims as a valid theoretical currency, the interpretation of images as historical documents remains problematic. This is the case with a recent example of contemporary visual rhetoric advertising British imperial ethos.23 On 2 May 2012, the Argentinian government broadcast an advert showing Argentine hockey captain Fernando Zylberberg training in Port Stanley, the Falkland Islands’ capital. He is shown running past several British symbols such as the Union Jack and a red telephone box, and training in front of the Globe Tavern on Crozier Place, and of the Penguin News Offices. A brief scene also shows the landscape from inside a house, thus reinforcing the implicit logic of home and settlement. The British national indexicality of these images indicates that Zylberberg was training across a British landscape. To a less informed British audience this advertisement should have posed little ideological or patriotic issues.24 However, the superimposed intertitle commentary at the end of the advert—‘Para competir en suelo ingles, entrenamos en suelo argentino’25—provoked a British imperialistic uproar (see Figure 6.10 and Figure 6.11).

As if ignoring completely that the images themselves, as historic, visual documents showed indisputable British iconography of national identity and cultural emblems, President Cristina Fernandez de Kerchner used this advert to reaffirm Argentine’s territorial claims over the Falkland Islands.

Britain’s official response echoed imperial attitudes and highlighted a sense of absolute sovereignty over a far-flung territory while also borrowing from the lexicon of former colonized nations. For instance, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron declared with an unwittingly self-defeating imperialist tone that ‘[tjhis is not some game of global monopoly—with nations passing a territory between them’. At the same time, the legislative assembly of the Falkland Island Government announced that ‘to put the country under Argentinian rule would “colonise” the people

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics