Myth analysis is one of the most important methods that can be implemented when analyzing advertisements and marketing campaigns. This is not, however, referring mythology and folklore—at least not in most cases. Rather, myth analysis refers to “a strategy for critiquing advertising that provides insights into how ads work on a cultural level; according to this strategy, ads are narratives with stories to tell and social conflicts to resolve.” (Campbell, Martin, and Fabos, 2017, p. G-7). Essentially, myth analysis is the process by which one analyzes the various narratives presented in advertisements.
These myths/narratives can take on a number of different forms. The most common form of myth in advertisements consists of simple conflicts that usually involve individual characters facing explicit challenges. Sometimes these challenges are other characters, but more often they are inherent obstacles associated with life. These conflicts are then solved by the end of the advertisement, through the use of the product being marketed. Other, more developed advertisements (generally in the form of a marketing campaign, rather than single ads) make use of mini-stories, complete with characters, settings, plots, and everything else one would expect from a narrative arc.
To the right, you can see a map of how plots typically progress. Working in such a limited space—most ads being 30 to 60 seconds—there is not usually time for this entire arc to be covered. As a result, most ads skip exposition entirely, moving straight to conflict. From there they reach the narrative with little development and then a resolution is proposed—on which most time is spent, as the resolution is generally the thing being advertised.
A great example of both common myth and expert analysis comes in “Consumer Myths: Frye’s Taxonomy and the Structural Analysis of Consumption Text” written by Barbara B. Stern. Stern analyzes advertising around Thanksgiving and one of its most commonly replicated myths, a myth referred to as the “dropped turkey.” Essentially, just before Thanksgiving dinner is fully prepared, the turkey is dropped and suddenly dinner won’t be ready in time. It is important to note that it is not always the turkey—or anything at all—that gets dropped, the myth is more broadly referring to the difficulty of preparing a large meal and the need for easily-made foods.
Examples of simple print advertisements from Pillsbury are provided from the mid-1990s. The ads make proclamations such as “Everything falls into place with the Thanksgiving experts.” (Stern, 1995, p. 169). By promising a perfect dinner with relative ease, Pillsbury is playing on the common myth, and presenting themselves as the solution to that conflict. Even without most consumers realizing it, many of us have been exposed to this myth so many times that the advertisement functions properly and is understood by most who view it.
While older and commonly replicated myths can be very effective, a myth does not have to be well known to be effective, nor does something have to be replicated to be a myth. For example, take a look at this ad for Veet. The video is only 30 seconds, yet manages to present the viewer with a small bit of exposition, a conflict, and a fully-effective solution. In this case, the “myth” being presented is that the partner of the man in bed is so “prickly” after only shaving that he mistakes her for a man. Almost immediately, the product, Veet, is introduced. Following this introduction his partner appears both female and feminine. Thus, the conflict is resolved.
What can be defined as a myth in advertising is a very wide selection. So long as it follows some altered form of a narrative arc and presents the viewer with a resolution, almost anything can be myth. Not every myth is effective, and not every myth is as thoroughly developed as another. However, due to the powerful effect they can have, it is important to be aware of various myths as they are presented in advertising and begin to analyze what they may be trying to achieve.
Campbell, R., Martin, C. R., & Fabos, B (2017). Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age 11th Edition. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Stern, B. B. (1995). Consumer Myths: Frye’s Taxonomy and the Structural Analysis of Consumption Text. Journal of Consumer Research, 22(2), 165-185.
Image Attribution: Image #1 is licensed under CC0 and does not require attribution, it was edited by Justin Nash. Image #2 was created by Justin Nash. Video #1 was released under a CC attribution license on YouTube and was uploaded to the channel “Commercials.”
Written by Justin Nash, 2018