Functional Cultural Illiteracy

So this is the advertisement that I asked students of English, English Literature and Culture and American Studies at a large university in Germany to analyse in the final exam on a Cultural Studies lecture:

The task was to apply the categories used by Roland Barthes in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image”, which we had discussed at some length during the semester (I’m off the theory these days, but still partial to early Barthesian semiotics, which can provide a helpful framework for the systematic interpretation of all kinds of artefacts, especially advertisements).

While on the whole students handled the task quite well, many of their responses confirmed my long-standing disaffection with my discipline and the humanities at large (which I know I share with some of my colleagues and many more interested outsiders). Of the 50 students who took the exam only two noted the double Biblical reference (visual and verbal) in the advertisement (although a few more realised that there was something special about the phrase “your daily bread”, but couldn’t place it). In case you’re wondering: most of the students were white, Western (in fact, probably from our mainly Catholic area) and therefore likely to have grown up in a Christian context (Lord’s Prayer and all).

By contrast, seven students read the image as an illustration of toxic masculinity, with bread a symbol of “masculine superiority over women” and the charming old bloke in James Harriot get-up an incarnation of “raw” patriarchal power.

Roughly the same number of students came up with a crypto-Marxist commentary about the ad’s complicity with the exploitation of the industrial (sic) working class, whom it urges to consume bread of the brand to maintain constant availability to the forces of capitalism. Not a single student seemed to know that a person who works with wood is called a carpenter and that this particular carpenter is working in his own workshop (another unfamiliar term), not a factory.

All this spouted with knee-jerk automaticity, as if imbibed already in the nursery.

What saddens me most, however, is the deadly seriousness of it all. No real appreciation of this punchy piece of advertising genius, so little sense of humour – only a dire and dour moralising. Being twenty-something these days must be a god awful experience.