by Stephen Papson
Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 66-72
In 1981, IBM hired the advertising agency, Lord, Geller, Federico, and Einstein, to construct a campaign to market its microcomputer. The agency chose Charles Chaplin's tramp as spokesperson. IBM bought the rights to the tramp from Bubbles, the Chaplin family organization. The agency hired Bill Scudder, a mime, to imitate Chaplin's tramp. In November, 1981, the agency released its first commercial entitled "The House." In it, a tramp confronts a large foreboding white box. A door appears but then snaps shut. As the narrator talks about the history of the computer, the box shrinks in size. The tramp takes out the IBM personal computer, scans a manual, and begins to work on the computer.
This commercial was a success. Not only did it win numerous advertising awards, but also it made the desired impact on the public. IBM decided to continue with the Chaplin mime campaign. The agency created both a series of commercials and print ads not only using the tramp but also numerous references from Chaplin films. The campaign was organized around the theme "Keeping up with Modern Times."
Advertising Age noted that "in developing an advertising strategy, IBM knew it wanted to break down widespread public fear of the computer, demonstrate its essential simplicity of operation and popularize its many applications."
Tom Mabley, senior vice-president and creative director of the agency, stated,
But what does Chaplin's tramp have to do with a computer? What meanings arise when a tramp, a computer, and a multinational corporation share the same space in a commercial? And what happens when the tramp is taken out of Chaplin's narrative and placed into IBM's narrative?
It is the contention of this essay that IBM's recontextualization of Chaplin's character not only exemplifies Marcuse's notion of one dimensionality in which the critical elements of artistic production are flattened; but it also represents the transformation of culture from a form of collective memory — which serves as a backdrop or anchor to everyday life, Walter Benjamin's Erfahrung — to a form of spectacle or simulacrum in which elements in culture are no longer rooted in events and in which meanings are constantly shifting.
FROM CHAPLIN'S TRAMP TO IBM'S MIME
Chaplin's work spanned 50 years. His characterizations ranged from his work in the violent Sennet slapstick comedies to his creation of the desperate Monsieur Verdoux. Likewise, as Lord noted, his relationship with the public was even more volatile. And yet, it is his characterization of a tramp that overwhelms his other work, his social philosophy, and his personal life which was transformed by a sensational press into public controversy.
While Lord discusses the negatives associated with Chaplin's off-screen life and his fear that these negatives might become associated with IBM, it is the critical elements of Chaplin's comedy which has the potential to upset the image which IBM wishes to project about itself. The tramp is a critical character laden with oppositions and contradictions. He is a poor man dressed up in the custom of a rich man — a custom which does not quite fit. He is a member of the urban ghetto who often finds himself in upper class social settings.
Most important, he is a creation of the social disruptions which Chaplin personally experienced. The disruptions themselves were the consequence of the expansion of industrial capitalism. And yet, Chaplin's tramp is not remembered as a representative of a particular period of U.S. history but as an "Everyman." And as an "Everyman," the tramp expresses affect through gesture, but without a sociohistorical context. The character of the tramp existing in a specific socio-historical reality is denied, and replaced by a character expressing universal human qualities. The reduction of Chaplin's tramp to a universal character who exists outside of history is a form of bourgeois myth-making.
As Barthes noted, myth transforms history into nature.
The transformation of Chaplin's tramp into an Everyman takes place through a series of separations. The characterization of the tramp is separated from Chaplin's personal life, from his social philosophy, from the narratives in which the character acted meaningfully, and from the historical period to which those narratives refer. The consequence is the depoliticization of the tramp's actions.
Because images and reproductions are continually reexperienced in alien contexts, IBM is also able to recontextualize the character for its purposes. IBM's mime uses the gestures, expressions, costuming, and props — all the signifiers of the tramp — but leaves behind the reference system in which signification took place. By recontextualizing the tramp in its own narrative which supports computer technology and itself, IBM leaves the negative elements behind. Ironically, IBM not only chose Chaplin's tramp but uses references from Chaplin's most critical films MODERN TIMES and THE KID.
FROM CHAOS TO ORDER
"The Bakery" and "The Hats" commercial place the IBM's PC in a small business context. These two commercials are organized around the phrase "Keeping Up with Modern Times." They are structurally and thematically similar.
"The Bakery" is a 30-second commercial in which the tramp is working on a conveyor belt. He is putting icing on cakes, and the cakes into boxes. The conveyor speeds up and the cakes no longer fit into the boxes causing cakes to begin crashing on the floor. A circular wipe ends the scene. In the following scene, the tramp is in an office reading a manual, and running IBM's PC. He puts his feet up on the desk. Order is restored. In the final scene of the narrative, he is in the bakery receiving a kiss from a female customer as he gives her a cake with a rose on it. There is also an employee in the background. The final shot of the commercial is a five-second shot of IBM's PC.
The narration is provided by a friendly male voice. He states:
The pleasure of watching the commercial comes from the interplay of the narrator's words and the mime's gestures. Phrases such as, "Profits can get squeezed," "More time to make dough," "And the cost? That's the icing on the cake," are matched with the appropriate images. The mime thus acts out IBM's text.
The commercial appears to be based on two Chaplin films: DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (1914) and MODERN TIMES (1936). In DOUGH AND DYNAMITE, the tramp works in a bakery. The comedy is slapstick.
The reference to MODERN TIMES is specifically to the assembly line sequence which speeds up to the point that the workers can no longer keep up with it. One difference is that the assembly line in MODERN TIMES is controlled by the whim of the President of the company. The workers are powerless in this particular setting. In the commercial, it is the small businessman's inability to control production which causes the breakdown. Social criticism is muted.
This commercial uses the codes of early U.S. comedy to create an atmosphere of nostalgia. The commercial was shot at 15 frames per second rather than the standard 24 fps. Silent film was actually shot at 18 fps. It also uses radical editing devices such as irises and circular wipes associated with this period.
The background musical score is paced to the movement of the assembly line. It quickens to a frantic pace as the whole scene breaks down. When the computer appears and order is restored, it breaks into a waltz. This rhythm is reinforced by the camera's movements.
"The Hats" commercial uses the same format. The tramp picks up a newspaper, walks into his house, turns over a sign which states, "Hat of the Month Club." But then as he enters the house, he steps into a box, a desk drawer shoots out, he crashes into a shelf of hats, and he drops a stack of hats. A mailman enters giving him IBM material picturing the PC.
In the next scene, he is working on the computer and order is restored. The screen shows a graph while the narrator comments, "Use the IBM computer to forecast growth." The tramp now surveys a line of workers carrying hats. The mailman appears delivering more orders. He nods approvingly. The tramp holds and pets a dog who is wearing a feathered headpiece.
Like "The Bakery," the music builds to a frantic pace, and then changes to a waltz when the computer appears. Also, the shots in the first half of the commercial are one-half as long as those in the second half. The commercial is shot at 15 fps and also uses an iris and circular wipe.
Both commercials present a scenario in which business growth leads to chaos. This is signified by both the content of the narrative and the commercial's rhythm (internal movement, montage, background music score). The world of chaos is separated from the world of order by the purchase of a PC and a radical editing device. The computer both restores order and leads to continued, controlled growth. Also, personal prestige is gained by making the decision to buy IBM's PC.
These commercials suggest that computer technology can control those economic forces which disrupt business. They also suggest that if your life is in a state of disorder or at least is experienced as such, a computer can restore normalcy. This theme of restoring order to a chaotic world is central to the campaign and appears in "The Roller Skates" PC commercial and "The Ducks" software commercial.
RECONTEXTUALIZATION FROM CRITICISM TO AFFIRMATION
There are 13 shots in the 60 second "Roller Skates" commercial. In it, the tramp is manager of a roller skate warehouse, Distribution Branch #27. He enters the warehouse, checks the workers, blows a whistle, and movement begins. The tramp receives a phone call from his boss who appears in a circular mortisse. He apparently wants the work speeded up. The workers are skating frantically, just missing each other. The tramp steps down from his office and is swept into the chaos. He falls onto a conveyor belt, which carries him into a delivery truck, and he is hauled away. The truck is irised out. The male narrator states,
The second half of the commercial opens with the tramp in his office typing at the PC's keyboard. As the workers now skate in choreographed harmony to a waltz, the camera dollies back showing the warehouse operating smoothly. Again, the tramp's boss appears but now is nodding approvingly.
The next scene takes place in front of the warehouse. The tramp receives an award from his boss while a female worker looks on. In the last shot, the tramp skates in slow motion through the misty atmosphere of the warehouse with IBM's PC in the foreground. During the second half of the commercial the narrator states,
This commercial not only uses the tramp but makes numerous direct references to MODERN TIMES. But the references are inverted. Criticism is either muted or transformed to affirmation.
MODERN TIMES is a critical piece. When it opened in New York, it was met by protests. It speaks to "man's inhumanity to man." It is a reminder of the pain and suffering caused by the dislocations of modernization. It is a critique of the assembly line, of mechanized work and of the institutions which support it. And it serves as a record of the hostility and resistance of those overwhelmed by industrialization as they chose among mechanized work, theft, hunger, and protest.
In MODERN TIMES the factory is a dehumanized place in which workers are but extensions of the assembly line. The boss of the factory gives commands through a video screen. He continually speeds up the line. In order to increase productivity, the boss even tries an experiment with a feeding machine, an attempt to see if the workers can eat and work simultaneously. Chaplin is used as the test subject. The machine, however, speeds up and goes out of control, stuffing bolts and nuts, as well as food into Chaplin's mouth. Despite the consequences to workers, the workplace is continually rationalized.
The warehouse in the commercial is designed with gears and mechanical structures to resemble the film And like MODERN TIMES, the workplace is to be rationalized. The implementation of the computer into the warehouse is used to coordinate the movements of the workers.
The theme of this commercial is constructed around roller skates. Not only is the warehouse a distribution center for roller skates, but the workers wear roller skates. This prop is taken from the department store scene of MODERN TIMES in which Chaplin works as a night watchman. In the film, he not only skates along a precipice creating a visual joke (he does fine until the blindfold is removed) but also throughout the store in a celebration of the good life offered by material objects which have been denied to him and the gamin.
Like the film, the use of roller skating as movement not only generates visual interest but also signifies freedom, the freedom of skating, of gliding. What disappears from view is a conception of the loss of autonomy that coordination (control) means. The mime is the centerpiece, not the workers who are mere background. The coordination of the workers serve as evidence to his success.
Relationships in the workplace are also recontextualized. In the film, the president of the company is doing a puzzle, reading comics, and taking pills. When Chaplin takes a cigarette break in the men's room, the president appears on the video screen, and orders him back to work. On the line, there is conflict between workers because they are unable to keep up with the belt, which is directly linked to the president's commands. In the commercial, the workers are referred to as a "loyal staff." The president becomes "headquarters." The conflict on the line, the adversary relationship between employer and workers, has become an organizational problem which can be solved by a computer.
In the film, the tramp is a worker. His loyalties lie with those persons in and out of work, just trying to survive the Depression. When human dignity requires it, he battles with the police and is jailed on several occasions.
In the IBM commercial, the mime no longer represents human dignity. He is IBM's yes man, upwardly mobile with aspirations to be a "big wheel in the company." His goal is personal success which can be achieved by "greater productivity" of his "staff." IBM has transformed Chaplin's tramp into a yuppie.
Advertising uses antagonistic elements by placing them into a different context, narrative, and/or referent system. The new preferred interpretation eliminates negativity. IBM's reference to MODERN TIMES denies it as an historical piece and as an art piece. It denies the conflict which it reflected, the artist's presentation of that conflict, and the other dimension to which that conflict continues to speak. As Marcuse noted, when the critical intentions of the artist are reworked to affirm that which was criticized, the transcendent power of art is annihilated.
ENTERING THE FAMILY: INTRODUCING PC JR
In February, 1984, IBM entered the home computer market. Due to the success of its Chaplin mime campaign. In two years, IBM went from zero to an over 40% of the personal computer market. IBM decided to use the Chaplin mime as spokesperson for PCjr. The agency created two commercials for PCjr. before IBM discontinued production in 1985.
In the introductory commercial for PCjr., the Chaplin mime pulls a cord and unveils a baby carriage in front of the IBM logo. The tramp rolls the baby carriage into the living room, takes PCjr. Out of the carriage, demonstrates it, and wheels the carriage back in front of the IBM logo which grows larger. The female narrator states,
The decor of the living room might be called 1920s traditional minimalism. It consists of a rug, two chairs, a table, a lamp, IBM's rose in a vase, and a television set. The background to this set is white. IBM created an image of the U.S. living room which is cold and barren, organized around the television set, in order to maximize the visual impact of the graphics which appear on the television monitor.
By using the baby carriage, phrases such as "a bright little addition to the family," and "Junior can grow up real fast," and by naming the product "PCjr.," IBM positions PCjr. as a member of the family. In its print ads for PCjr., IBM uses similar phrasing such as, "Bringing Home Baby," "Growing Up With Junior," "See Junior Run," etc.
Is the computer object or subject, personal or impersonal, affective or rational? In The Second Self, Sherry Turkle notes that these questions span the range of users from pre schoolers to Artificial Intelligence Researchers. Since PCjr. was designed for the home, IBM's advertising emphasized the subjective "friendly" side.
Ironically, this commercial was a failure. First, by depicting the computer as a new infant and by using a baby carriage and a female narrator's voice, the commercial made the computer appear to be a toy to potential consumers. And with its approximately $1,000 price, it was too expensive a toy. Secondly, Apple continued with a campaign which depicted PCjr. as an inferior to the Apple IIc Apple's commercial which used a bowler hat and cane stressed that the Apple IIc could run a greater amount of software while the PCjr. could not.
This commercial makes references to two Chaplin films CITY LIGHTS (1931) and THE KID (1923). The reference to CITY LIGHTS is specific. The unveiling device used to introduce PCjr. is the same device used to open CITY LIGHTS. In the film, a dedication to two veiled statues, Peace and Prosperity, is taking place. The dedicators are the elite of the community, but they are speaking jibberish in the microphone.
When the statues are unveiled, the crowd is horrified to discover a tramp asleep on one of the statues. As the crowd expresses outrage, the tramp climbs down but inadvertently gets stuck on the sword of the other statue. After he disengages himself from the sword, he continues to find himself in compromising positions. Finally, he gets away.
The scene is not just humorous but embedded with social criticism. The statues are entitled Peace and Prosperity, and yet Peace has a sword and Prosperity has a tramp asleep on it. The aristocratic audience is outraged at the tramp who had sought shelter under the veil. The tramp through his gestures continues to anger them. The social comedy created by Chaplin becomes a mere introductory device in the commercial. In the commercial the IBM logo is unveiled in order to initiate the narrative.
The reference to THE KID is more general. In the film the tramp finds an abandoned infant whom he also attempts to abandon. Each attempt, however, fails and he finally raises the child himself. The film jumps five years ahead and depicts the relationship between the tramp and the boy through a number of comic sequences. For example, in a money-making scheme, the kid throws rocks through windows. Chaplin shows up moments later and just happens to have a pane of glass. In another sequence, the kid is being picked on by a bully. The two fight. The neighborhood gathers and cheers the boys on. Chaplin arrives and attempts to split them up but then realizes that the kid is winning and joins with the crowd. Then the bully's older brother shows up and tells Chaplin that if the kid beats his brother he's going to beat him.
The most dramatic sequence of the film is an attempt by the county orphanage to take the kid away from the tramp. As the boy is tearfully hauled off in the back of a truck, the tramp battles a policeman, climbs over rooftops, and finally rescues the boy. In the final sequence, the boy's natural mother who had been searching for the child that she had abandoned and who now is a famous actress discovers that the kid is her son. She gets the child back. The tramp who has been looking for the kid is brought to her, and the film ends ambivalently.
This film like much of Chaplin's work is a mixture of pathos and comedy. It is set in an urban slum. The tramp and the kid live in a state of poverty. The neighborhood is violent. The police are defined as a threat to be avoided.
The Introductory PCjr. commercial uses the baby carriage and gestures which refer to the first part of the film. In a second commercial, "The Demonstration," PCjr. is no longer a baby. A boy character modelled after the role played by Jackie Coogan in THE KID is introduced. He becomes the mime's assistant and helps demonstrate the computer.
In the "PCjr. Demonstration" commercial, IBM takes the tramp and the kid out of the urban ghetto and places them in a new context, a 1920s suburban home. The tramp and the kid invite the community into the home for a demonstration of PCjr. The audience is integrated (sex, age, race) but middle class. Through the male narrator's voice, a member of the audience asks, "But what can you do with PCjr.?" The narrator answers the rhetorical question while the tramp and kid demonstrate PCjr.
The audience applauds approvingly. The narrator's voice has the intonation of circus announcer. The background score is parade music. Using the tramp, the community setting, and the parade music, IBM attaches itself and its computer to the traditional American values — country, community, and family. The purchase of this totem allows one to enter this nostalgic mythical U.S. community. The commercial, however, both denies the urban industrial past depicted in Chaplin's film THE KID, and the technological future and the restructuring of social institutions, such as the family.
Recontextualization of an art object breaks the natural relationship between existence and artistic production. Chaplin's work is an extension of his life experiences. IBM, however, uses the signifiers, custom, gestures, comic devices and settings but leaves behind artistic intention.
The separation of art from its lived context, the everyday life of the artist can be seen in these two examples. First, as noted, the central sequence to THE KID is an attempt by the director of the County Orphan Asylum to take the kid from the tramp. The intense emotion displayed in this sequence has a direct relationship to Chaplin's life. He and his brother were placed in a workhouse and then in an orphanage. Chaplin writes of this experience,
The kid in the IBM commercial has no history. He occupies neither space nor time. He is a reference to a Chaplin film which few people in the United States have seen. The reference system to which THE KID belonged was anchored in Chaplin's history, to the social conditions of his past and of the 1920s. In the commercial he is only a prop, a floating signifier, to be given new significance by the audience of the commercial but the connection to the artist's existence is broken.
A second example is the use of the rose. In each commercial and print ad, a rose is placed next to the computer. What does this rose signify? From where (whom), does it attain its significance? According to Tom Mabley, creative director of the agency, the rose signifies "individuality and creativity." But why does a rose signify "individuality and creativity"? Because Tom Mabley says so? Is he the reference system? Does the commercial give the rose meaning?
Not really! The narrative of the commercials has no place for the rose. It has nothing to do with the plot, nor with the ensemble of objects which make up the decor. It just exists next to the computer. Does the computer give it significance?
But what is the relationship of a computer and a rose? The significance of the rose flows towards the computer. The significance of the computer does not flow towards the rose. The significance of the rose floats. The reference system through which it is interpreted is dispersed through the audience. While it is encoded to mean "individuality and creativity," it can be decoded any way.
In Chaplin's films, flowers are often used. But unlike the rose in the IBM commercial, they are given significance by the narrative. The significance is further rooted in Chaplin's everyday life. CITY LIGHTS provides the most notable use of flowers. In it, Chaplin falls in love with a blind girl who sells flowers. Flowers are a vehicle through which Chaplin expresses attraction, affection, and concern. They take on meaning in the narrative context.
Also, Chaplin speaks of flowers in his autobiography on two occasions. First, he sold flowers as a way of earning money while living in poverty.
Second, Chaplin remembers his mother buying flowers.
The same transformation is at work here. IBM's use of flowers is a reference to Chaplin's use but without Chaplin's intention. It is an empty reference to be filled in. While the preferred reading is "individuality and creativity," it lends itself to numerous other readings.
Debord and Baudrillard suggest that images and signs form an elaborate network in which meaning is produced everywhere. Significance is decentered and dispersed throughout the network. For Debord, once the natural relation between sign and referent is broken it moves into the realm of spectacle. He notes,
Baudrillard extends the analysis further,
The images in IBM's commercials are weightless. They have no gravity. Their relationship with other images or to the reality to which they refer is arbitrary. There is Chaplin's life, Chaplin's work, IBM's mime, Apple's use of the hat and cane to refer to IBM. From life to art to spectacle to simulacrum. As Baudrilard suggests elements of this system refer only to other elements in the system. The reality that gave the original images life have slipped into a past which is being rewritten to legitimate a technological future.
In his discussion of the recontextualization of art objects, Berger asks, "To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong?" Because of its economic power, IBM is able to appropriate Chaplin's film character not just as a computer salesman but as a spokesperson for IBM. The tramp "stands for" the corporation giving it a positive image to the consumer and differentiating IBM from its competitors who were already established in the market. There is a double irony here: that a tramp can stand for a multinational corporation ranking sixth on The Fortune 500 List; and that our most gestural actor can sell a product that eliminates gesture from communication.
But more important, when the past is rewritten to legitimate a technological future, meaning becomes located within the closed boundaries of the system. While the IBM mime uses the gestures, expressions, costume, and props, these stylistic elements are separated from Chaplin's social philosophy, his artistic intentions.
This reconstructed version of the tramp has all the signifiers, but lacks the gestalt, the aura, and Chaplin's presence which was conveyed in the narratives. These were created by Chaplin himself.
The IBM character has no reason for being. Its existence reflects the intent of its new creator, IBM via Lord, Geller. It serves the interests of corporate profit. It is but an image which justifies an advancing technological society. It serves to alleviate the anxieties with the perceived social dislocations such as shifts in power, wealth, and prestige which this technology may cause. By embedding a technology into an ensemble of secure, non-threatening signs such as Chaplin's tramp reconstructed as an Everyman, the perceived social dislocations disappear from view.
1. Marcuse, Herbert, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 64.
2. Burstein, Daniel, "Using Yesterday To Sell Tomorrow," Advertising Age, 54, (April 11, 1983), p. M-4.
3. Ibid., p. M-4.
4. Reeves Communications, "Marketing High-Tech," Ad Video Journal, No. 5, 1984 (video).
5. David Robinson, Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1984.
6. For example, the New York Times writes in Chaplin's obituary, "His harassed but gallant Everyman was a little tramp, part clown, part social outcast, part philosopher."
7. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (NY: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 142.
8. Albert Camus argued, "Rebellion, though apparently negative, since it creates nothing, is profoundly positive in that it reveals the part of man which must always be defended." The Rebel (NY: Random House, 1954), p.19.
9. Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), pp. 45-50.
10. Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984).
11. Advertising creates totemic groups. The computer acts as a totem which allows differentiation. IBM's group is middle-class, integrated, traditional. Apple's group is individualistic, creative, Californian. Williamson notes, "We differentiate ourselves from other people by what we buy…In this process we become identified with the product that differentiates us; and this is a kind of totemism." (op. cit., p. 46)
12. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (NY: Pocketbooks, 1966), p. 20.
13. Advertising Age, op. cit., p. M-4.
14. Stuart Hall, "Encoding/Decoding" in Culture, Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hubson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis (London: Hutchinson, 1980).
15. Ibid., p. 83.
16. While the preferred decoding of the rose may be "individuality and creativity," I've yet to find anyone who interpreted the meaning of the rose that way.
17. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1977), p.2.
18. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (NY: Semiotext, 1983), pp. 1011.
19. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (NY: Viking, 1977), p. 32.