Project 3, Exercise 2: Join the Navy

Denotation: Richard Babcock's wartime recruitment poster features a male sailor riding a moving torpedo. Aside from the splashing of the torpedo's wake, there is very little other detail in the image. The legend under the image appears to be hand-painted in bold capitals, in red and blue lettering. There are two wavy lines under the word "the" and the text is underlined by a solid gold or yellow line, roughly the same colour as the torpedo. 

Richard Fayerweather Babcock,  Join the Navy , c. 1917

Richard Fayerweather Babcock, Join the Navy, c. 1917

Blue, gold and watery green are the most common colours in the painting, so the red text reading "Join the Navy" stands out. The simple graphic and bold capitals of the message mean that the poster would likely be easily read and from some distance.

Connotation: The sailor's position and the placement of his hands and legs suggest that he is riding a bucking horse in a rodeo, a scene that would be played out many years later by a character in the movie Dr. Strangelove.

Actor Slim Pickens in a still from  Dr. Strangelove . Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Actor Slim Pickens in a still from Dr. Strangelove. Columbia Pictures, 1964.

The message of the poster seems to be that life in the navy is a great adventure for "fighting men." Unlike some other recruitment posters, there is no mention of duty to king, country or family—the only motivation appealed to is a desire for action. There is no reference to the flag, although the red and blue primary colours might help to recall the Stars and Stripes. Overall, the poster played to ideals of masculinity and the sporting life at the time.

It's possible that the torpedo served as a phallic symbol, but other examples of Babcock's posters that I have been able to find do not seem to draw on sexual overtones. At the same time, sexual symbolism and innuendo are not recent arrivals in the visual arts and there is no way to know what connotations the artist may have had in his mind.

What is more striking to me is that the poster represents a naive—and blatantly misleading—American outlook. By 1917, European armies had been in the trenches of WWI for three years and would no longer see enlistment as a call to action and adventure. While British posters insisted on duty, a cowboy riding live ordnance was designed for young men who did not know what was waiting for them.

Another example: The Big Whopper

Burger King advertisement, 1960s.

Burger King advertisement, 1960s.

I chose this second example because of the simplicity of its design. 

Denotation: The poster is a painting with a relatively limited colour palette, bearing the image on a white background of a young girl holding a hamburger and looking at it with excitement (mouth open and eyes wide). The image contains the legend "A Meal in Itself" and the lower quarter of the poster is a red rectangle with the words "The Famous Burger King Whopper" in all-caps. The painting looks as though it has been executed quickly (the fingers on the hamburger bun look somewhat clumsy) and there is more attention to detail in the hamburger ingredients than there is in the girl's face.

Connotation: The style of the poster might have been meant to appear unsophisticated and winsome. Although it evokes the excitement of a child, the image's tagline "A Meal in Itself" was probably aimed at parents and perhaps, more specifically, mothers. Children don't normally think of fast food in those terms, and the attention given to the hamburger ingredients (a fresh bun, well-cooked meat, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers) is designed to show that the little girl is indeed about to eat a complete and nutritious meal. The poster is presented in a deceptively simple style (reduced palette, unsophisticated art and limited text), but it is communicating visual messages that show the food both as desirable or exciting for children and reassuring for parents.

As a parent and now grandparent, I understand wanting to make sure that one's family has nutritious meals and I also understand that busy families sometimes opt for fast food. It is natural to want to be reassured that a "fast" option doesn't mean that I am feeding children something unhealthy. The poster might have been effective in its day, but its artwork is now dated, the figure of the little girl unappealing and we know much more about what goes into the meals prepared in fast food restaurants. The hamburger might be "a meal in itself," but I would be less confident that it is a good meal. To suggest that this was a nutritious choice for a child might have been the biggest "whopper" in the poster.

Another person I showed this image to remarked immediately on the size of the hamburger relative to the girl's head: she is dominated by the product in front of her. The portrayal of the product is more important than that of the child; the hamburger is truly the subject of the art. The same individual also mentioned that the apparent era of the poster reminded her of a particular episode of Mad Men (a television series centred on the advertising industry of the 1960s) when fast food was taking on a larger role in the lives of families. The fast food restaurant was supplanting the family table and began to market itself in this way to draw customers by easing their guilt over not cooking at home.

Project 2, Exercise 3: Film posters

Sing Street poster, 2016.

I have chosen to discuss the poster for the 2016 film Sing Street because it is a relatively recent movie and because of the stylized artwork.

The film is a coming-of-age story set in Dublin of the 1980s. The protagonist has a crush on a young woman and decides that being in a band is the best way to get her attention. As a result, a lot of the movie is taken up with those two themes: the development of the relationship and the influence of the popular music of the time.

The poster captures both themes well. The two main characters dominate the artwork and their fashion sense and hairstyles recall the 1980s. They are clearly young—both from the way they are dressed and the pinkness of their skin and lips. The lead is playing a guitar and singing, although the young woman is looking off somewhere else—the future? perhaps she has ambitions—and is dressed much like Madonna in the 1985 film, Desperately Seeking Susan.

Madonna in a production still image from  Desperately Seeking Susan , 1985. Orion Pictures.

Madonna in a production still image from Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985. Orion Pictures.

The image is not straight photography but has been posterized, with reduced tones, heightened contrast and saturated colours. In this way it references the look, colour palette and blocks of colour of the music imagery of the same period, as can be seen in the picture of The Cure, below. The type and typefaces are simple and bold, and are also in keeping with poster art from the 1980s.

The Cure

The Cure

Taken as a whole, the different elements of this poster for Sing Street combine to make an effective visual communication. They telegraph the major themes of the movie while evoking the spirit of the period in which it is set.