Of Puppies and Paradoxes

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In my last blog I discussed the difference between a formalist semiotic analysis and cultural one.  In this blog I would like to make that discussion more concrete by looking at one of the most popular ads broadcast during Super Bowl XLVIII.  Yup, “Puppy Love.” Let’s begin with the formal semiotics.  This is an ad with a narrative, but the narrative is conducted via visual images and a popular song voice over rather than through a verbal text.  The images are formal signs that tell us a story about a working horse ranch that is also a permanent source of puppies up for adoption—as signified by the carved sign permanently placed in front of a ranch house reading “Warm Springs Puppy Adoption.”  It is also important to note that while the ad could be denoting a dog rescue operation, the fact that we see a pen full of nothing but Golden Retriever puppies who are all of the same age suggests that it is more likely that the young couple who run the ranch and the puppy adoption facility are Golden Retriever breeders.  We’ll get back to this shortly. The visual narrative informs us, quite clearly, that one of the puppies is close friends with one of the Clydesdale horses on the ranch, and that he is unhappy when he (or she, of course) is adopted and taken away from the ranch.  We see a series of images of the puppy escaping from his (or her) new home by digging under fences and such and returning to the ranch.  After one such escape, the Clydesdales themselves band together to prevent the return of the puppy back to his adoptive home, and the final images show the puppy triumphantly restored to his rightful place with his friend on the ranch. It’s a heartwarming ad with a happy ending that is intended to pull at our heartstrings.  And that leads us to our first, and most obvious, cultural semiotic interpretation of the ad.  The ad assumes (and this is a good thing) a tender heartedness in its audience/market towards animals—especially puppies and horses.  It assumes that the audience will be saddened by the puppy’s unhappiness in being separated from his Clydesdale buddy, and will be elated when the puppy, together with Clydesdale assistance, is permanently reunited with his friend.  Of course, audience association of this elation with a group of Clydesdales (Budweiser’s most enduring animal mascot) will lead (the ad’s sponsors hope) to the consumption of Budweiser products. So, what’s not to like?  The first level of cultural semiotic interpretation here reveals that America is a land where it can be assumed that there are enough animal lovers that a sentimental mass market commercial designed for America’s largest mass media audience of the year will be successful.  Heck, (to reverse the old W.C. Fields quip) any country that likes puppies and horses can’t be all bad. But there is more to it than that.  As I watch this ad I cannot help but associate it with a movie that was made in 2009 called Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.  The movie was directed by an internationally famous director (Lasse Hallstrom) and starred actors no less than Richard Gere and Joan Allen (with a sort of cameo played by Jason Alexander).  And it was never released to U.S. theaters. Yes, that’s right.  While Hachi: A Dog’s Tale was released internationally, received decent reviews, and even made a respectable amount of money, this Richard Gere movie has only been accessible to American audiences through DVD sales.  With talent like that at the top of the bill, what happened?  Why wasn't it released to the theaters? Well, you see, the movie is based on a true story that unfolded in Japan before the Second World War.  It is the story of an Akita whose master died one day while lecturing at his university post and so never returned to the train station where the Akita had always greeted him upon returning home.  The dog continued to return to the train station most (if not every) evening for about ten years, sometimes escaping from his new owners in order to do so.  He finally was found dead in the streets. Hachiko, the original name of the dog, is a culture hero in Japan, and there is a statue of him at the train station where he kept vigil for ten years.  A movie about him was made in Japan in 1987, and while the U.S. version is Americanized, it is pretty faithful to the original story and to the Japanese film. Which probably explains while it never was released for U.S. theatrical distribution.  I mean, the thing is absolutely heartbreaking.  Have a look at the comments sections following the YouTube clips of the movie, or the Amazon reviews of the DVD: almost everyone says the same thing: how they weep uncontrollably whenever they watch the thing.  It is significant that the DVD cover for the movie makes it look like a warm and fuzzy “man’s best friend” flick that children and Richard Gere fans alike can love.  Yes, it's a rather good movie (the music is extraordinary), but warm and fuzzy it ain't. And this takes us to the next level of interpretation of “Puppy Love.”  Like Hachi, the puppy in the ad doesn’t want to be separated from someone he loves.  But unlike Hachi, the puppy is happily reunited with his friend in the end.  His tale is a happy one—and an unrealistic one.  It is a wrenching experience for all puppies to be adopted away from their families (which are their initial packs), but they don’t tend to be allowed to go back.  And animals are permanently separated from the people whom they love (and who loved them) all the time due to various circumstances which can never be explained to them.  This is what makes Hachi: A Dog’s Tale so heartrending: it reveals a reality that it is not comfortable to think about:  evidently this was too much reality for theatrical release. So “Puppy Love” distracts us from some uncomfortable realities, including the fact that puppies are bred all the time as commodities who will be separated from their original homes (that’s why the fact that the “Puppy Adoption” sign in the ad seems to indicate a breeding operation is significant) and have their hearts broken.  The ad makes us feel otherwise: that everything is OK.  This is what entertainment does, and that is what is meant by saying that entertainment is “distracting.”  But feeling good about puppy mills isn’t good for puppies.  And feeling good about the many hard realities of life can lessen audience desire to do something about those realities. And that takes us to a broader cultural-semiotic interpretation:  as Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno suggested over half a century ago, the American entertainment industry has been working for many years to distract its audience from the unpleasant realities of their lives, thus conditioning them to accept those realities.  Horkheimer and Adorno have gone out of fashion in recent years, but I still think that they have a lot to tell us about just why Americans continue to accept a status quo that is anything but heart warming.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.