Research notes – Judith Williamson

The following notes are made after reading Judith Williamson “Advertisement” article, a found in the OCA website (www.oca-student.com/content/her). All quotes in inverted commas below have been taken from that article.

In this short article, Williamson discusses a photograph used by electronics firm Apple for one of its advertisement campaigns, which run in 2013 (link to image (1)).  The article is short, just over one page long, and Williamson dedicates an important portion of that, probably over 50% of the text, to discuss her views on the caption accompanying the picture. In general, I have the following observations in connection with Williamson style of writing and the analysis she has done:

  • Although her description of the photograph is primarily limited to the first two paragraphs, she manages to convey the main ideas and her views on the connotations of the image very effectively. One point that she did not touch upon which I believe was perhaps worth exploring was how artificial the image looks like. The kid is holding the tablet right above her head, with the arms almost fully extended, which is quite an uncomfortable position to read. I remember discussing this with my partner and the only plausible explanation we could think of was that the kid was trying to take a picture of herself, but the position of her thumb, right on top of the screen as if just supporting it, does not seem to be congruent with this (unless she was trying to focus the picture in that particular area). All in all, my overriding feeling is that the image does not look natural and that it has been done like that, on purpose, because it takes you straight to the main connotation noted by Williamson in her article (“…being touched by some kind of pure heavenly power”). Many people will just jump into that conclusion directly but others, including myself in this case, may find it slightly disturbing, which could have the effect of ruining the message that the advertisers wanted to convey.
  • Williamson write up in connection with the caption is what I have most issues with. My overall feeling is that the arguments here are made to fit a narrative that the author already had before embarking into her analysis (namely that Apple allows poor working practices to subsist at their manufacturing contractors in China). She makes several assertions where there are no references, particularly in the comments made about Foxconn (the only reference included is in connection with a China Labour Watch report quoted in The Guardian in 2013 in connection with Pegatron’s working practices). I found that some of her conclusions in connection with elements of the text were perhaps too speculative and also likely to be the result of limited research into the corporate philosophy of Apple. I found particularly disconcerting that she immediately jumped to the conclusion that the phrase “Does it deserve to exist?”, in the context of whether a product is useful or not, must be interpreted as adding “moral life” to an object. This assertion is solely sustained in her view that “…inanimate objects cannot be deserving or undeserving”, which seems to obviate the point that deserving in this case is made in reference not on the object intrinsic value, but on its usefulness in use for human beings (we could, in the same vein, make the argument that the Amazon rainforest deserves to be saved, because of its usefulness in purifying the air we breathe, and that would not be equivalent to be giving any moral life to the trees there). Another point which I felt went too far was her conclusion that in the phrase “if you are busy making everything / How can you perfect anything” from the caption, “…the tone of superiority and disdain is explicitly directed at makers, however one chooses to interpret that”. Had she had made some basic research on the corporate philosophy of Apple around that time, she would have realised that the emphasis of this point was not on “makers”, but on “making everything”. Apple has a long tradition of not making products to fill all segments of the market, but to focus on certain segments (particularly at the upper end) where they would produce a limited number of “quality” products (2). Apple is indeed making a point here about makers, but a specific subset of them (namely those rivals that try to cover all segments of the market), and so, rather than the act of making being the target of their scorn, it is the quality of being “a jack of all trades” that Apple does not believe in.

To be fair to Williamson’s assessment, Apple does make a disturbing distinction between two parts of their business (ie the design and the manufacturing side) and that is clearly highlighted in this advertisement, actually even proudly displayed. It is the fact that they have decided to highlight that their products are “Designed by Apple in California”, the central point of the caption accompanying the image, and not even mention anywhere that they are made in China. Williamson does highlight this towards the end of her write up, but I cannot stop thinking that had she started from here, and built from what is clearly a problematic message, it would have made for a more compelling piece.

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  1. Apple Print Advert By TBWA: Our Signature, 4 | Ads of the World™. 2018. Apple Print Advert By TBWA: Our Signature, 4 | Ads of the World™. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/print/apple_our_signature_4. [Accessed 19 April 2018].
  2. See for example: CNET. 2018. Rivals can imitate Apple’s product strategy, but not gold fever – CNET. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.cnet.com/news/rivals-can-imitate-apples-product-strategy-but-not-gold-fever/. [Accessed 19 April 2018]. This is from around the time of the advertisement campaign discussed by Williamson.
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