Breaking the Fourth Wall. An op-Ed by Kshitija Mruthyunjaya
The French philosopher Denis Diderot defined the ‘fourth wall’ as an imaginary barrier that divides an audience from the world in a theatrical play. This barrier forms a setting to transport the audience into an imaginary world, away from the real world. Diderot’s concept of a ‘fourth wall’ can be used as a metaphor for the role of advertising in present-day economic system of production, distribution and consumption. There is an enormous disconnect between what Barthes calls real garment (produced) and used garment (consumed) as the represented garment (advertised/distributed) fails to mediate the truth between the producer and the consumer.
In a social setting interactions reveal information about an individual but also conceal it making them hard to read. Most relationships are built on faith. This faith in turn is built upon the balance in what one says (verbal) and how (non-verbal) one says it. And according to philosopher Erving Goffman when they are both consistent there is symmetry. This symmetry can sometimes be forced and manipulated to align the verbal and non verbal. Applying this theory of social interaction to current day advertising one can argue that it is asymmetric as crucial information is hidden in the represented garment (advertised/distributed) with little or no relevance to the real garment (produced) leaving consumers in the infinite game of false revelation and discovery of information.
Historically, the represented garment/item and the real garment had close connections in most cases if not all. In the Middle Ages Street callers together with signs related to the production were used as advertisements and there was consistency in verbal and non-verbal communication. With the introduction of first newspaper in the 17th century rose the method of line advertisements. The purpose of these adverts was predominantly informative (printed word and the general format was the list, enumerating the items on offer and how much they cost) rather than persuasive. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries new modes of advertising sprung up where illustrations were merged with captions and editorials, which had a clear purpose just, like their predecessors. Many of them were wood-engraved illustrations of women-and men-wearing the garments alongside text that related to production method, cost and location of purchase. They were not known merely through their visuals but revealed intricacies through its level of production.
With the advent of mass production markets grew further away, bigger in size and the personal connection between maker and buyer became slimmer and competition between makers grew larger. The advancement of advertising grew in the late nineteenth century with advertising agencies being developed and with the rise of ready-to-wear garments in early twentieth century greater production grew great distribution (and vice versa), and greater distribution depended on greater consumption (and vice versa). A qualitative and quantitative growth took place with professionalism of advertising sector where market segmentation, avant-garde designers, talented photographers took it to new heights. Although the creative side of it is highly commendable and has influenced current day advancements in advertising, the drawbacks due to its persuasive nature cannot be ignored.
In late twentieth century one advertisement (intended to sell Scott Paper’s throwaway tableware range, created dresses made with same material for promotion) went so viral that paper dresses, became a frivolous fashion craze. With cheap production in bold prints, designed to be worn only once or twice were distributed with persuasive representations like "Won't last forever…who cares? Wear it for kicks—then give it the air” rejecting the ‘make, do and mend’ attitude of previous generation. Scott Paper’s advertisement with an initial intention to sell throwaway tableware quickly became a movement that produced heaps of waste ending up in landfill as a result of manipulation and playing with people’s insecurities rather than needs. The represented garments instilled temporary faith in citizens who believed this was a long-term solution to quench their thirst for ‘new’. Not until after 2 years it lost its popularity due to its durability issues and gave rise to the current day high-street who produced relatively long lasting clothing for cheap. It can be said that with disposable clothing came disposable representations of the same with sustained success coming with aesthetic endurance.
This is visible even today, in advertising strategies of direct to consumer brands for instance. Although it is advantageous for brands to reach out to a global audience, understand and develop personal relationship with customers in a creative manner, there are various instances where this super fast fashion has had major drawbacks from production/supply chain level to distribution level. One recent example is where customers of an online platform were mislead to buying real fur despite being advertised as ‘fake fur.’ Advanced technology like AI is being introduced in some brands to create smart supply chains to curb instances like these, reduce waste and for stock allocation. But this is all happening at production level. If implemented in advertising level, AI amongst other advanced techniques is being used to analyse consumer behaviour to guide publishers and brands to decide where and when to place their adverts to successfully grab customer’s attention. For instance through customer data analysis there has been a recent inclusion of luxury fashion brand adverts in magazines that fall under “thought leadership” category, that focus on science, politics, economy etc. Audience are bombarded with images (and other forms of representations) online and offline with solely a profit driven perspective bearing little or no relevance to where the garment was made, its process, who made it, etc. Although a highly powerful discourse, adverts have become highly persuasive transporting consumers away from reality where they are often unable ‘to decide rationally what exactly their real needs are or how best to satisfy them’.
In order to break the fourth wall, advertisements must communicate truth to the audience and use it an educational tool rather than presenting barrage of images in the name of ‘thats what seems to be selling.’ One great example of genuine communication motivated by truth was role of Gandhi during Swadeshi movement in India in the early twentieth century. He was a symbol of symmetry where what he said met with how he said it. The movement created a sartorial revolution in India that portrayed humanity, economic freedom and equality. Here sociology of real clothing (production) met with semiotics of represented clothing (distribution). Advertising in the current day must become this genuine communicator and a mediator of truth between the producer and consumer by harnessing its creative power and making effective use of technology to lead societies to a more authentic and need based one.