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Fonctions du Cliché : du Banal à la Violence

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

Clichés in the Psychology of Advertising

Rachel Bowlby

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1"Rien de nouveau sous le soleil." What could be a more redundant way to begin a talk? Unless, perhaps, the context of your utterance was a conference on the cliché — and they must exist, after all, the sun has seen it all. In that case, you could let yourself off the hook by saying that "nothing new under the sun" was a mere example, a citation of an anonymous citation, whatever — there are many tricks of that kind to be used on such occasions, or so I understand. And you could go on, I suppose, to discuss what a very odd cliché this is, how in a sense it is the cliché of clichés, the one that says there never was anything new in the first place or the first time, that it has always been cliché and nothing but cliché. Surely, you would say, with just the right hint of distancing irony, this must be the oldest cliché in the world, the very fons et origo of cliché itself, if they had anything original about them. So yes, if you began with this phrase at a conference on clichés, you could doubtless find quite enough to keep things going.

2Thankfully, however, my own usage of the expression has no such pretensions or potential embarrassments — it is simply a direct quotation. "Rien de nouveau sous le soleil" begins the chapter on slogans in Pierre Herbin's Manuel pratique de publicité, a guide to advertising for advertisers published just after the war. Herbin's deployment of the expression might seem in some ways an unexpected one. This is how he proceeds:

Rien de nouveau sous le soleil, rien, pas même en publicité l'usage des devises, que les Américains croient avoir découvertes parce qu'ils les ont appelées slogans. J'attends avec impatience la thèse de doctorat qu'un savant chartiste ne manquera pas de nous sortir un jour sur "la devise publicitaire au temps des Pharaons". (Herbin, 1949, 15)

3You might have thought that slogans were something new, but in actual fact, no: and Herbin goes on half playfully to cite a few "ancêtres du slogan", beginning — where else? — with Homeric epithets. Thus, "Achille 'aux pieds légers' et Andromache 'aux bras blancs' sont entrés dans l'histoire, et dans la mémoire des hommes" (15). Skipping on through heraldic inscriptions and the popular, childlike associations he attributes to various forms of the pre-slogan, Herbin takes only a page or so before returning to complete his circle: "En vérité, rien de nouveau sous le soleil! Après une telle preuve par l'usage et le consentement universel, est-il besoin de démontrer plus amplement l'importance, l'utilité, la nécessité des slogans?" (16).

4Herbin's suggestion that advertising's practices have a history as old as literature is meant, I take it, to strike the reader as something new. This is not the normal way of looking at things, whether for advertisers or for literary people. According to the usual view, where literature is old and advertising is not, the two of them appear in mutually defining complicities and antagonisms of various kinds. In the more negative representations, literature is the place of value and authenticity, but advertising has come on the scene as an imitative, superficial double to haunt and taunt it with its crude simulation of literary techniques. Advertising is cliché as anti-literature par excellence, quite simply the worst that has been thought and said in the world. Or, in another version, which posits literature as invention rather than tradition, post-Romantic literature seeks originality, but advertising mocks and disrupts that by its loud promotion of a manufactured novelty, a pseudo-newness inseparable from its second-rate quality and its deceptive aims. This global perspective that defines the two together does not alter when the causal sequence is turned around by rotating the two positions and letting the sun shine first on the antipodes of advertising. In this regard, it is the world of technical reproductions, the world of the copy, including advertising "copy", which pushes literature into its newfound modern quest for the originality of new words.

5From the point of view of advertising, on the other hand, there is no such opposition; indeed novelty is often claimed as its own hallmark — novelty as modernity, progress, innovation. But this does not imply a pejorative attitude to literature anything like the frequently pejorative attitude of literary culture to advertising. On the contrary — and this is where Herbin joins a tradition of thinking about advertising — literature tends to be regarded by advertising writers as a fund of usable primary material. What else do advertising writers call themselves, after all, than "copywriters"? At the same time, advertising manuals of the first half of this century — the golden age of such texts — regularly liken the copywriter's activity to that of the creative writer, often insisting that the copywriter is just as "creative" as the literary writer. Book after book takes the student through all the intricacies and possibilities of rhetorical and poetic terms, book after book advises and advertises the pleasures and profits of immersion in great literature as the necessary foundation for the writing of advertising, and more often than not claims that advertising is at least equal in creativity to literary writing of the conventional or time-honoured sort.

6In this connection, advertising seems to be indistinguishable in its aims from literature, each of them seeking at all costs, economic or otherwise, to make their marks by original expression. If literature got there first, it is often only because literature has managed to anticipate something that is also a perfect device for advertising. Such devices include, for both, the necessity of avoiding cliché in order to maintain the power of making an impact. Thus, in an earlier book of 1938, Herbin describes the origins of the use of negative superlatives like insondable, ineffable or impérissable in the efforts of literary writers to avoid the repetition of over-used, overblown rhetoric, in other words of clichés:

En littérature, pourtant... tous ces oripeaux étaient déjà bien usés. C'est alors que pour aviver leur style de couleurs voyantes, les auteurs renouvelèrent ces adjectifs à détermination négative... pour en tirer des effets d'une violence verbale inouïe, d'une outrance insurpassée. (Herbin, 1938, 212)

7The last clauses, by the use of inouïe and insurpassée, exemplify the very effects they name. These are strong words for strong words; we shall return to the implications of this violence verbale.

8Slogans — or devises, as Herbin insists that they be called, against the Anglo-Saxon locution — take on the flagship or campaign-cry role of representing the verbal wit and inventiveness that advertising is deemed to be just as capable of producing as literature. But slogans are subject to precarious conditions of existence. They are devised to be striking, fresh, original, hitting hard to mark off this brand from all its competitors in the minds of potential buyers, in which minds — so the psychology goes — at the point of purchase, the slogan will magically and mechanically resurface, rise up into consciousness, as a stimulus to the appropriate choice. But their very success, described in these terms, depends on their becoming the stuff of everyday language and thinking, dwindling inevitably from their first fine force of novelty to the banality of the commonplace and ultimately the rubbish-heap of the cliché, when the slogan is no longer regarded as effective at all and has to be replaced by a newer coinage. (There may now be a further possible stage in this development, namely the retro-slogan: a year or two ago, Esso petrol was readvertised in Britain with the once-renowned "Put a Tiger in your Tank", the slogan now rising again from its generation-long slumber invested with a new capacity to represent the very essence or essence of sixties nostalgia.)

9Slogans present to advertisers a whole complex of questions about the mutability of linguistic expressions from invention to cliché. The prohibition of cliché in advertising language, as in literary language, is itself a commonplace. In Herbin's pre-war book, for example, he is quite explicit:

Car il ne faut pas s'y tromper. Ce ne sont pas les adjectifs vieillis, les formules stéréotypées, les métaphores éculées, les clichés usés qui nous garderont le contact avec notre public....

[La publicité] ne saurait s'accommoder de cette pensée toute faite, sclérosée, durcie en formules stéréotypées. Il lui faut le jaillissement d'une inspiration fraîche et la nouveauté d'un vocabulaire rajeuni. (Herbin, 1938, 216, 219)

10Such a statement, in its cliché'd repudiation of clichés in favour of an equally cliché'd evocation of originality, might just as well be talking about literature as advertising.

11Advertising writers wax lyrical and wane prosaical on these issues of the life and death of slogans. They may be treated as the key to success, a kind of magic "Open Sesame" to consumers' minds. In this instance, they are usually defined in opposition to cliché. This passage is from a French book of 1930 by Louis Angé:

Il ne faut rien de banal ni d'usé. Ce doit être quelque chose d'aussi concentré et d'aussi condensé qu'un élixir — un élixir de publicité.
L'importance de la devise de publicité ne saurait être surestimée. En effet, une devise de ce genre est ce qui se grave le mieux dans la mémoire, et, par conséquent, lorsque nous pensons à faire un achat, elle présentera à notre esprit, au moment utile, le nom de la marchandise ou de la firme à laquelle elle s'applique. (Angé, 1930, 232)

12"Rien de banal et d'usé" — in order for it to make its impression it must not be a cliché; but in making that impression, engraving itself in more and more minds, the slogan will in the end presumably become both commonplace and worn, to set or settle in its turn as the cliché from which it is initially distinguished.

13At the other extreme is the debunking of slogans as mistakenly thought to hold magical powers. Here, for instance, is the forthright American duo of Brewster and Palmer, cutting out the bullshit back in 1931:

There has existed in the past a popular idea that if an advertising man could think out the right combination of words, it would mean instant success for the product he was advertising. In order to disillusion those who still have that belief, we shall make two statements:
1. If it were possible to invent a better slogan than any one has ever invented, the slogan would be of little value until many hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in advertising it to the public to make it valuable.
2. A large percentage of the slogans in use today have no particular effect except as any selling phrase has an effect in an advertisement. (Brewster and Palmer, 1931, 136)

14For these two, the effectiveness that slogans do have depends not on an intrinsic verbal brilliance that could assure "instant success", but on a slow, costly gravitation over a period of years until it "sinks into the public consciousness" (137). Banalisation is the condition of success, not the end of it.

15So cliché does not always figure as the bogey of successful advertising. There is a quite opposite tendency which emphasises not the deadness and ineffectiveness of cliché, but its usefulness. For from this point of view, at its mildest, anything wholly new will scare potential consumers away; familiarity has its functions, and they are not to be despised. Clichés are not often named as such in this regard, though I have come across one British text of the late 1920s by J. C. Toohill, which has a short paragraph on the subject as part of a guide to rhetorical and literary terms and their importance in advertising:

Cliché is a stock phrase which has been used so often that it is a bit threadbare at the knees and elbows. Literary highbrows, who try to make every sentence an epigram, avoid it like a plague; but this is no reason why it should be shunned by the copy writer. An amiable cliché will pay a higher dividend than the most laboured gaucherie. Though useless for portraying the important qualities of a product, the cliché is a kind of literary shorthand; the reader, having seen it so often, unconsciously takes in the meaning with his eye. It can therefore be used to help the reader and thus keep his attention until the main point has been reached. (Toohill, 60)

16This personification of the cliché as a comfortable old suit of clothes plays friendliness and familiarity against the studied poses of literature. In reality, Toohill's scene is a chummy version of an idea common at the time that it is of no use to seize hold of readers' attention with something that disturbs the balance of their existing thoughts, usually conceptualised as a stock of separate articles "stored" in the memory as in a tidy shop. What is taken in — understood and received into the mind — will be what seems to fit with what is already there, what appears to be nothing radically new.

17American advertising psychology between the wars is much occupied by the question of what determines belief in what an advertisement proposes. Put more forcefully, Toohill's position approaches the more exclusive theory that familiarity, and familiarity alone, breeds belief; no other mental operation comes into play than a form of unthinking recognition such that nothing new is ever taken in. In an influential article, A. T. Poffenberger puts it like this:

If belief in an advertisement does not depend upon the truth of the statements made and does not depend upon the reasoning of the reader, on what does it depend? To state the matter simply, we may say that ideas which are present in the mind and are not interfered with by any opposing ideas will be believed. (Poffenberger, 1923, 4)

18Nothing new is the psychological desideratum. If people seem to accept the most unlikely claims, that is not because they are perversely or stupidly amenable to the counter-factual, but because their belief has nothing to do with the validity in objective terms of the advertisement's claims, or with any attempt at evaluating those claims. Only grasp the "ideas which are present in the mind" of the reader, and you will then be in a position to offer ideas designed not to oppose them:

It is not enough to say that the American people like to be fooled and that there is no scheme too wild to arouse the confidence of a large proportion of them. The advertiser should know that action is dependent upon belief and that belief in advertising depends upon conditions, some of which at least are under his control. (1)

19In place of the rejected hypothesis, that it is a question of wild appeals to wild minds, Poffenberger presents advertising technique as a matter of calculated appeals to fit in with known mental conditions, reasoned approaches to unreasoning minds.

20It was this kind of view of the psychological power of advertising which itself turned out to shock, by its own suggestion of advertising's potential to insert itself into the minds of buyers, against — or rather in the absence of — their judgement. Claims of this kind on advertising's own part go back a long way — as it happens, the earliest example I've found is from a book published in Tours in 1914, Sa Majesté la publicité, in which the author refers to an American definition of advertising:

Un écrivain américain a dit que la publicité était la force qui permettait de pénétrer la foule d'une idée... Si nous la considérons comme une science, nous pouvons dire qu'elle nous enseigne les meilleurs moyens de faire penser et agir d'une certaine manière une collectivité. (Arren, 1914, 16)

21The unselfconsciousness of the declaration of manipulative intent is striking here, at a time when advertising does not usually represent itself as dealing with collective rather than individual minds. Later — from the 1930s — advertising in Britain and France started to adopt a defensive tone in an attempt to distinguish its own practices from unacceptable forms of Nazi propaganda. And it was in the cold war period above all that the powers of advertising came to be imagined as a dark, inexorable conspiracy to make all minds the same. In the popular denunciations of the 50s and early 60s — Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (La Persuasion clandestine) was a best-seller — American advertising, far from promoting a freedom denied to those oppressed by Communist regimes, is seen as an inhuman application of mechanical techniques whose mindlessness matches the mindlessness thereby produced in the mentalities who are their target. In the new language of the time, consumers are "manipulated" and even "brainwashed" into robot-like responses; the image that rises up spontaneously, if not naturally, in everyone's memories of this kind of critique is that of the housewife shopping in one of the garish new supermarkets, dumbly picking up just the packet of washing powder the experiments predicted that she would.

22The remarkable feature of such critiques is the way that they adopt the very assumptions about the applications of collective psychology that they denounce. Mental responses are predictable and modifiable; it is simply immoral to take advantage of the knowledge of them. There are some unlikely examples of this. In his essay "Rhétorique de l'image", first published in 1964, Barthes analysed a humble magazine advertisement for an Italian brand of pasta and readyprepared pasta sauce, Panzani. The essay was not ostensibly about advertising or psychology, let alone about clichés, but about images. In order to say something about how photographic images mean, Barthes chooses to analyse an advertising image because, he says, it makes the job easier:

On se donnera au départ une facilité — considérable: on n'étudiera que l'image publicitaire. Pourquoi? Parce qu'en publicité, la signification de l'image est assurément intentionnelle: ce sont certains attributs du produit qui forment a priori les signifiés du message publicitaire et ces signifiés doivent être transmis aussi clairement que possible; si l'image contient des signes, on est donc certain qu'en publicité ces signes sont pleins, formés en vue de la meilleure lecture: l'image publicitaire est franche, ou du moins emphatique. (Barthes, 1964, 40)

23Loud and clear — in the advertising image, we know they know what they are doing, the thing is easy to read because it is made to be easy to read. No advertiser could have put it more confidently. Barthes then proceeds to a tour de force application of Mythologies method to the unpretentious little photograph of the fishnet shopping bag with its mixture of Panzani products and fresh vegetables. Under the semiotic regard, it is miraculously made into a paradigmatic illustration of how the supposed innocence of the photographic image, the image without a code, functions to naturalise the signs of culture. The bare identifiability of the objects in the photo, so that we know where we are and what this is, makes way for the slipping in, "subrepticement" (47), of all the cultural connotations which, rather than the things themselves, are realty what make the product attractive — in this case, such features as its likeness to still life paintings, its touristic appeal to French consumers as an image of "italianité", its suggestion, even while it is advertising convenience foods, of fresh products and home preparation. To understand this, Barthes says, "il suffit d'un savoir en quelque sorte implanté dans les usages d'une civilisation très large, où'faire soi-même son marché's'oppose à l'approvisionnement expéditif (conserves, frigidaires) d'une civilisation plus'mécanique'" (41).

24Readers' responses to advertisements are not all the same, for people vary in the number of these chunks of ideology that they have taken in. But it is assumed that if the appropriate bit is there — Barthes calls them lexiques — then the signifying of it in the image will have its effect, automatically:

Il y a une pluralité et une coexistence des lexiques dans un même homme; le nombre et l'identité de ces lexiques forment en quelque sorte l'idiolecte de chacun. L'image, dans sa connotation, serait ainsi constituée par une architecture de signes tirés d'une profondeur variable de lexiques (d'idiolectes), chaque lexique, si "profond" soit-il, restant codé, si, comme on le pense maintenant, la psyché elle-même est articulée comme un langage; mieux encore: plus on "descend" dans la profondeur psychique d'un individu, plus les signes se raréfient et deviennent classables: quoi de plus systématique que les lectures du Rorschach ? (48)

25Here, at the bottom of the mind, where all soundbites are equal, the sun never shines, and all parrots are grey, Lacan meets behaviourism with no unhappy consequences. Every one of Barthes's connoted meanings for the pasta advertisment — the tourist stereotype, the high-art reference, the evocation of a home-grown culture — boils down to ideology's disingenuous refusal of the "more 'mechanical' civilisation" of function and derivative copy that it actually is and promotes. Yet the underlying psychology here accords perfectly with the mechanical mode of the civilisation whose surface values disavow it, as the mind consists of little cliché-deposits only awaiting their appropriate trigger from the outside.

26In Les Discours du cliché, Ruth Amossy and Elisheva Rosen (1982, 148 and passim) speak of what they call the "hantise du psittacisme" which gives the cliché its bad name in our post-Romantic culture of standardised, "mass" communications. This parrotinghaunting seizes on the cliché as the antithesis of a desired but impossible self-expression: in the worst scenario, the cliché-scenario, we are condemned to repeat, mechanically, the phrases and thoughts of a world that comes to us ready-made — ready-to-consume, ready-to-eat, ready-to-repeat. It is perhaps not surprising to find this cliché-world dawning bright in the fantasies of some of those who take it as their business to seek to control the minds of their buyers, to know those minds as minds whose reactions can be known in advance. But when this parrot-psychology appears in the critiques of such practices as well, then it does begin to seem as if there might be no escape from the cage or cave — no air or sun to be sought at all.

27Barthes, of course, went on to reject the instant semiotic recipe — denotation underneath, connotation on top, flip the whole thing over and you have a perfect ideology-critique — which by the early 1970s had been tried and tested so thoroughly and frequently that it had itself become a kind of cliché. In laying more emphasis on the distinctions to be made between different kinds of writing, though, he did not cease to make use of advertising or consumption to stand for a mechanical, functioning foil to the complexities of literary and other texts. In this brief sampling I have tried to show that there may be more to the discourses of advertising than meets the eye — and by more, I do not necessarily mean the complexity of literature (though this is often to be found), but something else: a continual reflection on how minds respond to what they take in as old or new ideas, old and new forms of words. It is a question as old as the study of rhetoric, and I think it has been given a few new spins in the light of advertising.



Amossy, Ruth and Elisheva Rosen, 1982. Les Discours du cliché. Paris: CDU-SEDES.

Angé, Louis, 1930. Pour bien faire sa publicité. Paris: Editions J. Oliver.

Arren, J., 1914. Sa Majesté la publicité. Tours: Maison Alfred Mame et fils.

Barthes, Roland, 1964. "Rhétorique de l'image", Communications, 4.

Brewster, Arthur Judson and Herbert Hall Palmer, 1931. Introduction to Advertising. 2nd ed. New York: Mc Graw-Hill Book Company Inc.

Herbin, Pierre, 1949. Manuel pratique de publicité. La Chapelle-Montligeon: Les Editions de Montligeon.

—, 1938. Comment concevoir et rédiger votre publicité. Paris: Editions de la revue La Publicité.

Packard, Vance, 1957. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: David McKay.

Poffenberger, A. T., 1923. "The Conditions of Belief in Advertising." Journal of Applied Psychology, 7, n ° l.

Toohill, J. C., n. d. The Art of Advertisement Copy Writing. London: John Bale, Sons & Davidsson Ltd.


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© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1997

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