Resignification and Cultural Re/Production in Japanese Television Commercials

"And then…" Marilyn Monroe hawked a red car, while a cranky sarariman debated Bill Clinton, to the tune of "All You Need is Love":


What do Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Salvador Dali, Bill Clinton and The Beatles have in common? That's simple… the same thing as Mikael Gorbachev, Sadaharu Oh, Charlie Chaplin, the Mona Lisa and Peter Rabbit.


Well, then it probably won't help to learn that Lady Di, Elvis Presley, the Berlin Wall, Natsume Soseki and The Addams Family are all in the mix, as well.

Still stumped?

Don't forget Ernest Hemingway and Scottie Pippin.

Brain frappéd?

Albert Einstein. Bewitched—

…Uh, that's a 1970s American sitcom not your present state of mind.

All sharing time with mermaids, cowboys, Clark Kent, Batman and those mythical river imps called "kappa".

The list is virtually endless. But the answer to the riddle is quite simple: they all made appearances in Japanese television commercials in 1999. 1

Of course, these actors, actresses, writers, politicians, athletes, television and cartoon characters, paintings, and world events, weren't all conjured to stand by themselves. Most often they were juxtaposed with Japanese actors, inserted into Japanese settings, or brought into contact with products for sale. In a large number of cases they were not only intermingled, but mutated. Most importantly, though, the appropriation, alteration and blending generally had less to do with commercial than cultural communication. For, in Japan, where advertising as a genre is increasingly characterized by diminishing attention to product,2 ads now tend to adopt the role of cultural historian as much as that of commodity hawker; they more frequently now serve as social commentator rather than simply popular entertainer. And the insertion of such exo-cultural elements into ad text assists the performance of these new-age functions.

Indeed, the endless stream of Greek myths, Hollywood movies, historical events, popular songs, scientists, athletes and novelists now embedded in audio-visual space constitutes a phenomenon. Such content is part and parcel of an on-going process of cultural enfolding in which elements from beyond the spatial, temporal and/or ideational bounds of contemporary Japan are loaded into 15 second commercial communication for immediate, local consumption. It is my contention that this mode of discourse amounts to a strategy for interpreting contemporary experience. Importantly, it is neither a passive nor benign form. As this paper seeks to show, such cultural enfolding has important consequences and far-reaching implications for Japanese society.

The intentional intermingling of previously unrelated symbolic content from alien spatio-temporal contexts is a communication act I call "resignification".

Resignification Explained

As its name implies, resignification is a semiotic process—meaning that it involves the creation of meaning from signs. However, resignification is a particular kind of semiosis: one where new sign elements (signifiers, signifieds, signs, significations) are lifted from their original contexts and inserted into other semiotic sequences, though not always (indeed seldom) in the position they occupied in their prior incarnation.


Two aspects are most salient about resignification: first, strung together in unrelenting sequence, such recycling amounts to a phenomenon of sociological import. Most especially, because, procedurally, resignification both reflects and assists cultural mutation.

Restated, the repeated insertion into ad text of exo-spatial, exo-temporal cultural images and ideas is so pervasive in Japan today that it must qualify as a major mode of communication—a way in which one of the major institutions in contemporary Japanese society (advertising) chooses to interpret and process human experience. Further, because two kinds of cases can be found—those in which resignification seeks to reflect prevailing social reality, and those in which it appears to redefine it--we can here aver that resignification is socially re/productive.

In other work, 3 I have detailed the technical dimensions of resignification—the seven ways inductive treatment of Japanese ads has suggested that resignification is effected. In the space that remains here I would like to focus on exposition: introducing a number of examples of resignification in Japanese advertising today. From that empirical base I will draw some inferences about the nature of Japanese society, then close by speculating about the possible cultural consequences of this phenomenon.

Evidence of Resignification: 10 Recent Examples

  1. An ad for an icy-spray features Leslie Nielson, star of the "Naked Gun" film series. Here though, Nielson plays a marshal in the wild west, rather than a modern day, big city detective. Nonetheless, Nielson imports his cinematic persona as a bumbling, dim-witted defender of justice into the ad. His sheriff is a burlesque, sexist and socially inappropriate hero. Thus, as three villains seek to bait him by restraining an attractive barmaid, Neilson calmly strolls over and shoots the cool spray into the helpless woman's cleavage. Predictable for this genre, the damsel offers up an orgasmic coo of pleasure.

  2. A pert, blond-haired woman coiffed and clothed in the style of an American homemaker, circa 1970, stands in the driveway outside her sprawling suburban home. All at once she drops into a crouch and extends her arms toward her Honda compact. Jets of pixie dust emanate from her fingertips. Cut to a close-up of her behind the wheel. She wiggles her nose and wriggles her ears and suddenly babies in strollers and spotted dogs begin to talk. For the pop-culturally literate, these are references to products from Hollywood's recent past: television's "Bewitched", cinema's "Look Who Talking", "Look Who's Talking, Too" and "101 Dalmatians".

  3. A mustachioed man clad in early-twentieth century attire strikes a thoughtful pose. Cut from the table upon which his elbow rests to an exterior, where he is now contemplating a luxury car. A lined paper with the Japanese script "sore kare" ("and then") flashes on the screen. At this juncture in a second version a cat scampers beneath the car and the man stoops to coax it out. Both paper and cat are references—signifiers from deep cultural text—employed to assist ad readers in decoding the man's identity. He is Soseki Natsume, arguably Japan's most esteemed novelist. We know this not only from the opening pose—which comes from a famous photograph—but also from the cues "And Then…" and "I am a Cat", two of his published titles.

  4. A mid-twenties, shaggy-haired, waif-like man slurps instant ramen alongside: (a) former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as he delivers his 1985 "perestroika" speech to the Politburo; (b) home-run king Sadaharu Oh, as he swats his world record-breaking 756th home run; and (c) a group of revelers atop the Berlin Wall during its festive destruction. In the most recent version---through the wonders of robotics and tape wizardry—the young man exchanges his cup of broth for Elvis Presley's guitar. Like Woody Allen's Zelig, or Winston Groom's "Forrest Gump", this CupNoodles campaign amends history by inserting a fictional protagonist into actual events.

  5. To promote its system of integrated photocopying, Canon emphasizes the ability to print realistic, high quality computer-generated and Fax-transmitted images. As proof they offer a medium-tight shot of a Japanese model with bare shoulders and unadorned hair. A background is etched in, followed by a quick flash of light. Suddenly the model is transformed into the likeness of the Mona Lisa. Cut back to the original, bare shouldered shot, again a flash of light, and the woman is transformed into a famous Japanese portrait. Finally, as the commercial comes to a close, the model is shown on glossy paper, unspooling from the copier. She is reclining in a costume and pose identical to that in Goya's "The Maja Clothed".

  6. The car named "Rosso" ("red" in Italian, "aka" in Japanese) and the model, Umemiya Anna, are displayed with the anchored script: "Anna Aka Rosso". Anna is tinted red from head to toe. Red, of course, being the universal signifier for passion and desire. 4 Not a trivial point, as the sight of the red Anna is enough to cause the blood of a male on-looker to boil. Steam gushes from his ears—a geyser which proves of sufficient force to propel Anna's skirt skyward. During the course of the windy interlude, Anna struggles to restrain the hem of her rising garment. The situation, as well as her gesture, is an unmistakable imitation of Marilyn Monroe's turn on the subway grate in "The Seven Year Itch". 5

  7. In an ad for hair replacement, a man is assaulted by gale-force winds. He ends up being blown down the dusty street on his back, tossed like a rag doll until he manages to latch onto a tree. Clearly, the situation helps convey that this company's product works, but why is it an exemplar of resignification? Close scrutiny of these comparative photos suggests that the images from the ad (lower right) are painstaking reproductions of a sequence from a Buster Keaton movie (upper left). These are not merely images inspired by, nor even modeled after an earlier cultural product (as in the Anna-Monroe case above); these are frame for frame reproductions with a Japanese actor standing in for Keaton.

  8. In 1998, after years of trying, Japan's national soccer team finally qualified for the World Cup. The goal that booked their passage was dramatically struck in overtime by a substitute player. Okano, the scruffy, shaggy-haired striker, became a national hero, his triumphant moment replayed endlessly on Japanese television and rehashed in the press. Shortly thereafter, Acom, a money-lending institution, appropriated the final sequence—the lunging goalie, the rebound trickling off his hands, the sliding striker, Okano's disbelieving run toward his frenzied teammates—as the next installment in its long-running ad campaign. Because Acom's series was set in outer space, the World Cup was refashioned as a qualifier for the "Galaxy Cup", and the striker was a green alien (rather than a Japanese hippy). However, just as with the Keaton ad, in every other particular the key images were painstakingly reproduced, then inscribed with new significatory value when set into the new ideational context.

  9. A fleet of VWs rolls onto a dock. The camera pans skyward where the American space shuttle idles. Inside mission control a television is tuned to a public celebration. The camera zooms in on the screen--in time to capture a red Golf pulling to a halt outside the gates of an enormous cathedral. Walking down the long red carpet toward the car are a bride and groom. Cut to a close-up of the couple: Princess Diana holding a bouquet, grinning broadly, on the arm of Prince Charles in formal military dress. The VW stops in front of the pair and they appear to get in. The car darts off, zig-zagging around a line of protestors. Cut to a chaotic scene, soon recognizable as the frenzied destruction of the Berlin Wall. 6 As a section of the wall is yanked from its moorings, a group of fast-moving revelers stream forward to command the previously blockaded square. The red Golf zips in front of the celebrants and quickly enters what was formerly East Germany. Cut to written text (in Japanese), situated above the "VW Golf" logo. "The revolution is not over" it intones.

  10. 3 salarymen sit in a smoky bar after a long day of work. One man, wiping his hands and face with a moist towelette, rants: 'All this talk about globalization, etcetera… but Japan is made a fool of by the world… Once and for all we have to speak out gatsun.' 7

He pushes his glasses atop his head. 'If it were me, I would say it!' He wipes his face vigorously with the towelette. 'I'd say it, gatsun.' Superimposed over his image is his personal data in white letters: 'Itoh Masayuki, 37 years, corporate man.' The frame fades to black and white, freezes. Action resumes with Itoh throwing his towel down in disgust and declaring: 'Because I'm that type!

Cut to an extreme close-up of the towelette—now lying on someone's knee. As the camera pans back, we find the knee belongs to Bill Clinton—or, at least, an actor of amazing likeness. He is seated opposite Itoh-san in a room that looks very much like the Oval Office. Surrounding the two are translators, advisors and secret service agents. The presidential look-alike flicks the towel off his leg with disdain and says in Clinton's distinctive drawl: "So! I'd like to hear your honest opinions…'' To the swell of mariachi music Itoh gulps hard, stares vacantly at the President, and tries to muster that suddenly elusive "gatsun".

Analysis: Making Sense of the Pell-mell Mix

As conceived by Barthes 8 the project of semiology was to observe signs within the social setting and, by fitting them into "chains of signification", reveal the underlying nature of society. Signification, though, is only the final step in a long procession, and along the way it is relatively easy for the analyst to become waylaid by the arcana of signs--which color is a signifier, which past movie scene a signified, which compendium of events a signification. It is challenging and oft-times fun, but inordinate attention to these mechanics threatens to derail the larger objective: understanding advertising in cultural context; seeing resignification as a process that has meanings and implications in the larger social world.

Attention to this latter aim leads us in two distinct directions. The first is denotative: the surface meaning of resignification. Here the concern is with the place or function of the phenomenon within society, as well as its uses and tangible impacts. The second thread is connotative: centering on the deeper, significatory meaning of resignification. The repetitious appropriation of cultural text from other spaces, times, ideational systems and media and its robust inclusion in the focal, contemporary (in this case, Japanese) television context, has much to tell us about the development of society.

Denotation: Resignification as Socio-Cultural Phenomenon

Barthes model of signification is two-tiered. It holds that the first sign serves as the basis for a signification relative to that sign, but that it also serves as the first component in a second, more deeply-ensconced sign sequence. In this way an ad/sign tells the analyst not only about the datum immediately in front of her, but also about the existence of a deeper, societal-wide process. This process, In turn, either accounts for (i.e. re/produces) or else is given impetus to (i.e. is re/produced) by the ad/sign/signification being observed. By joining the resulting significations of this second chain with numerous significations of similar ilk, the ontology of the larger society from which the sign originates can come into focus. In a word, the second order sign helps elucidate society.

In this way, we can see that references in Japanese ads to Hollywood movies, Japanese cartoon characters, Greek myths, sports' stars (American, European and, increasingly, Japanese), popular songs, and television and stage scenarios, are not simply singular, isolated instances of cultural reference. They are more than simple evidence of cultural reproduction. For, when joined, they serve as a comment on the nature of contemporary Japanese society: a society of pell-mell combination, of promiscuous, incessant mix.

But what, specifically, do references to Samantha Stevens of American TV's "Bewitched", Princess Diana's wedding to Prince Charles, the Beatle's "Abbey Road", the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a gesture by Marilyn Monroe, (etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…) tell us?

Standing back and looking at these signs as a related set of significations, it tells us, most obviously, about the import of foreign content in Japanese ads. As obvious as this may be, it is not a trivial observation. In other countries—for instance Malaysia and the United States—foreign content in ads can be decidedly scant.9 Both of these countries are quite insular in their commercial world views. Their mediations are aimed at reproducing indigenous culture. By extension, and consequently, the warehouse of exogenous images and ideas can be quite empty. Contrast this with Japan's ad world: the people, places and practices from outside contemporary Japan are incredibly rich and wide-ranging. Certainly, this world is fuller when compared to its own communication environment from only a few years back; back when Japan was a physically isolated, ideationally exclusionary country.

Such significations do more than merely mix, though. They inform viewers that history—selective though it may be--is important; that elites and high achievers—stars of film, television, recording studio, court and turf, and political office—are important; that media, itself, is important. The recurrent appearance of resignified signs tells Japanese that theirs is a society in large part attuned to and driven by media and its many products.

Under conditions of resignification, Japanese ads also tell recipients of the importance of indigenous myths, of past cultural practices and beliefs. Thus, kappa make periodic appearances, as do kimono, enka, sumo, geisha, the Edo era, samurai, and a strict ordering based on manners, age, and gender.


At the same time, cultural products from the west are just as pervasive and salient: above all movies, television programs, and pop music from the '60s and '70s. 10 Increasingly, ads introduce "alien" ideas—practices and beliefs once perceived as antithetical to the context. For instance, current ads depict such antipodal acts as:

  • a young woman spreading her arms wide on a jetty and screaming to the ocean in English: "I wish I were a bird";
  • a father doting on his family with the superscript beseeching: "find time for the family";
  • college kids hanging out in an internet cafe with the advisory: "make time for yourself";
  • popular stars driving the back roads of America telling one another "the truth is out there";
  • an endless parade of kisses, clutches and fondles between aggressive young heterosexual couples.

For a society that was insular for hundreds of years and still retains a considerable isolationist mentality--due to language, geography, psychology, rituals, beliefs and political history—the new mix of exo-cultural content with everyday Japanese life is far from a trivial development.

First-Order Connotation: Semiotic Literacy and the Ad Audience

Even more important than content, though, is what that content communicates about the audience: about their intellectual capacity, their likes, interests and practices. For, this constant emphasis on resignification underscores a presumption about audience competence. Ads chock full of exogenous signs demand a fairly high level of semiotic literacy. Without that literacy, the signifiers would be undecodable; the signifieds formed would stray far from advertiser intention. And, if that were the case, the ads would amount to nothing more than glossy in-jokes; incredibly expensive productions which, save for their possible entertainment value, would stand as hollow enterprises whose primary meanings would be lost on their recipients. 11

But for audience members with a baseline level of semiotic literacy, who are also reading (i.e. actively processing) advertising text, the proximate effect of resignification is to add to what Berger and Luckmann have called societal members' "stock of knowledge".12 The consequence of the pell-mell explosion of signs within Japan's simulation/strip-universe is that the viewer's symbolic universe 13 has expanded beyond measure. Suddenly Greek gods, Hollywood icons, current Japanese singers, international sports stars, foreign politicians and key historical events are woven into a singular ideational cloth. These signs are often mixed and matched—either within individual ads or in contiguous context. For instance, in the case of intra-ad melding, renowned Japanese cinematic tough guy, Takakura Ken lies on a tatami mat dressed in Japanese yutaka, the drone of a street matsuri outside his window. He guzzles Kirin beer to the backing of the theme from "A Chorus Line". In the case of inter-ad mixing, Ken's ad may be followed by one for instant noodles in which the famous—though ancient and by now quite obscure--Japanese myth "Sayuuki" is refashioned for a contemporary audience.

The significance of resignification, then, is this: the advertising public is brought into continual encounter with signs that have been lifted out of one spatio/temporal/ideational context and/or appropriated from other media forms. The constant communication of this content has the ability to stimulate users, possessive of a high level of semiotic literacy, to "see" their ideational universe in an array of differing, but specifiable, ways. Above all, ad readers are prodded to perceive their world as more global, trans-historical, synthetic, poly-ideational, and multi-cultural. This, by virtue of the fact that a considerable number of the signs the viewer now encounters emanate from spaces, epochs and media forms beyond the local/present mediation. In essence, under the repetitive pulse of advertising, strong pressures are exerted on Japanese ad readers to develop a more extensive world literature. The result is an accruing library, chock full of (generally popular) cultural, exo-contextual text. 14

Conclusion: Resignification and MediaCulture

I have reserved second-order connotation—the question of societal ontology--for the close. Japan's current configuration could be called "MediaCulture"---a "total environment" in which an enormous portion of the socio-cultural, political-economic, historico-mythic content under-girding society circulates through media. 15 Through a confluence of media forms, such ideational content serves to frame, inform, prod, guide--even influence—human organization and behavior.

In MediaCulture, advertising is, at once, a great communicator of cultural content, as well as one of the greatest consolidators of the sectors its content refers to. With its energy, sheer speed, licentious blending of forms and collision of ideas, advertising compels sectoral union—for instance, the economic with the cultural, the cultural with the political, the economic with the political. This may not always lead to felicitous results.

Thus, for instance, in the Bill Clinton ad, described earlier, the line between polity and economy becomes easily blurred. There is a product for sale, but the ad text downplays the drink and, instead, highlights the debate between a typical sarariman and an American president. Putting aside the question of whether a meeting between those of differing linguistic, occupational, status and national ranks could be possible, 16 the advertisement set up commercialized discourse under the auspices of the political.

Similarly, consider the following ad for the orange drink, Nachan. In this offering the ad audience watches a twenty-something woman supping the beverage for sale as she watches a television drama broadcast in her floating (i.e. simulation/strip) world. Her drama, also called Nachan, features a heroine strikingly similar to the star of an actual television drama—the renowned story on NHK called Nonchan. In the real-world serial, Nonchan is a courageous woman living in posbellum Japan who must go out into the world of work, provide for her family and keep their fraying unity intact. The protagonist in the floating world scene (who also happens to be known in real life as Na-chan!) stares raptly at her TV screen as the Nachan on TV takes a strong moral stand in front of her family and co-workers. To the saccharine swell of violins signaling the end of today's installment, the ad's protagonist (Na-chan) utters: "how strong that Nachan is!" She punctuates her commentary by quickly quaffing her canned drink (Nachan). The commercial closes by panning back from her apartment window. From a vantage point across the street the ad audience spies into the young woman's spare, television-centered existence.

At one level it may all just be a pleasure--a thrill, a joke, a tease for the memory--as some popular culture studies have characterized "the popular". 17 At another level, though, by assisting in the development of simulation/strips that play on pre-existing cultural themes, yet also work to combine and consolidate our perception and experience of actual societal sectors, resignification serves as a powerful re/productive force. In its licentious blending of the cultural, economic, the moral and social, resignification trivializes--even debases--the values at the heart of at least one (if not all) of the engaged sectors. The original cultural text (for instance, U.S./Japan relations or Nonchan) is co-opted and rendered more obscure by the commercial text (cranky sarariman, noble Nachan). But even more egregiously, "reality" is refashioned in a form that makes current existence (the real-world salaried worker's grueling existence; the spare, media-centered existence of Nachan's fan) seem more palatable.

This is certainly the case in the Clinton ad. The sarariman suddenly gets his say, his chance to cease being a mere economic drone. As for the Nachan offering, it is more the case that wrapping the "real fiction" within the "fictitious fiction" possesses the potential of: (a) reifying the virtuous heroine of the former as well as all she signifies (i.e. her travail, the original production's nationalist message); or else (b) devaluing women's struggle (which was a major message of Nonchan) by associating it with the product for sale.

Whatever the case, examples of sectoral absorption in advertising are extensive under conditions of MediaCulture. And, as the following panel implies, often such absorption is the result of resignification.


The brilliant provacateur, Baudrillard, once averred: "today we are experiencing… the absorption of all virtual modes of communication into that of advertising". 18 However, in witnessing the extensive use of cultural enfolding in Japanese advertising, one might fairly begin to wonder whether we aren't on the road toward the absorption of advertising into the communication mode of resignification.