Absorption in fashion ads

In recent years, and perhaps a result of an oversaturated media environment, the notion of consumer engagement has become increasingly important when evaluating brand communications. Calder and Malthouse (2008) define engagement in terms of an embodied sense of involvement and highlight the concept of ‘transportation’ as integral to a meaningful experience for the  consumer. They describe transportation experiences in terms of the consumer becoming so absorbed in the communication media’s narrative that they are effectively transported into it.

Phillips and McQuarrie (2010) investigated this premise in the case of contemporary luxury print fashion advertisements. They confirmed through consumer interviews that presentation of visual narratives within fashion ads led to transportation experiences and a mode where consumers “engage the ad at length and deepen [their] experience of the brand” (p.388). The caveat to this claim, according to the authors, is that the narrative must include grotesque elements, exemplified by one of their experimental stimuli – a Dolce & Gabbana ad that depicts a woman seemingly on the verge of stabbing another in the neck.

I argue that despite their important contribution, Phillips and McQuarrie misidentified ‘the grotesque’ as the aesthetic feature responsible for narrative transportation in their selection of fashion advertisements. Instead, I suggest art theorist Michael Fried’s (1981) writings on seventeenth century French painting, and more recently about contemporary fine art photography, provide a better aesthetic framework through which to explain the original author’s findings. Fried has identified what he calls an ‘absorptive’ mode of address in pictures that he argues leads to deeper engagement by the viewer. This mode of address is typified by figures deep in thought or dramatic action, which I believe applies directly to the advertisements in question.

Paper in progress.