Modknight’s Quicktakes: Encoding/Decoding Theory and Pepsi

Born in Jamaica in 1932, sociologist Stuart Hall would grow up to become a defining figure in British Cultural studies, a school of thought which ushered in a new post-modern slant to multimedia scholarship. Of particular interest to communications scholars and media critics alike was Hall’s encoding/decoding theory, a system of analysis which revolutionized the way people thought about audience reception.

Boring intro aside, Hall’s work offers some of fundamental insights into how to do multi-media analysis. For this reason, it is one of the most widely taught theories in undergraduate communications courses. In this quick take, we take the time to learn the ins and out of encoding/decoding in the hopes of giving you Vaulters insight into how to better break down and analyse the media artefacts present in the world around you.

Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model was part of a revolutionary change in perspectives on audience power. Prior to his publication in 1980, audiences were often conceptualized by scholars as weak, or struggling against a totally powerful media complex. The encoding/decoding model, however, begins with the argument that media are polysemic. This suggests that the creation of meaning in a text is a task shared by both the producer and the consumer, which can often result in multiple interpretations.

The model embodies a simple theoretical trajectory. According to it, messages are ‘encoded’ into texts by producers of content and subsequently ‘decoded’ by the audience. Encoders are people who make messages, the producers, editors, writers, and compilers that shape media from a scattered, disorganised pile into a recognisable form– like a movie for example. Decoders, in simple terms, are everyone else. You and I, anyone who engages with the media is implied in the sense-making process. With access to these messages from our own respective contexts, decoders attempt to discern meaning from the messages they receive.

However, these messages are not necessarily passively understood. Hall posits that a viewer can embody one of three decoding positions. One might occupy a dominant code, agreeing with and internalizing the messages put forth by the text. Alternatively, the audience may take an oppositional stance, rejecting the message. Finally, viewers can embody a negotiated code, acknowledging certain aspects that they agree with while also holding criticisms.

Of course, its all just theory until we take the time to apply it. For this, let’s turn to an easy source of encoding/decoding analysis, terrible advertisements!

From an encoding/decoding perspective, the basic encoded message of an ad is always relatively simple to understand. Companies wish to sell products, and therefore use advertisements to convey that basic message: “buy our shit.” However, to do this, advertisers can choose a variety of strategies to make the encoding more palatable for audiences.

In 2017, Pepsi decided that a new strategy could be used to convince their audience to buy more product, social activism. In what some would later call a ‘stunning’ commercial, with hit pop cultural icon Kylie Jenner giving a can of pop to riot police, Pepsi embraced a script about being “bold” and celebrating diversity . The ad, broadcast via TV and internet, made a variety of interesting, if questionable, coding choices throughout. There were ethnic dancers, there were signs saying “#join the conversation”, there was even a dude playing cello. Overall, clearly a fun and positive summation of the political climate, right?

How Pepsi thought they looked

Wrong. Sometimes, despite the aid of a hundred focus groups, coders have trouble making the messages they’re peddling really work. While Pepsi may have been expecting their audience to accept a dominant decoding position, that is, one where the viewers shared Pepsi’s ‘eagerness’ for political change, and hence their appetite for carbonated sugar-water, this was hardly the case.

By contrast, nearly all audiences from a variety of varying contexts raised questions about the nature and authenticity of the message. Conservative watchers on the right called out Pepsi for bowing to PC culture once more. On the other hand, left-wingers, minorities, and others purportedly ‘represented’ by the commercial pointed out that the encoding was merely using their real political grievances as a prop to sell a soft drink. In essence, the writers had managed to pull off a rare feat in communications case studies. They created an audience that had a totally oppositional reading to what was intended, resulting not only in a loss of popularity, but active boycotts in some cases.

How they actually looked

As for the middle path, a negotiated reading of the ad, considering the truly controversial nature of many of the writing choices, it can seem difficult to pull out a reading that wouldn’t skew towards oppositional. Nevertheless, while the actual themes conveyed by Pepsi may have been dubious at best, there are still elements of productions which might lend a negotiated reading credence. For example, the framing, quality of camerawork, and other aesthetic elements of the coding could be seen as tasteful, even effective at certain junctures. And, while the attempt at social activism could be read as skeevy consumerism, we can appreciate that Pepsi at least tried to make some sort of peace with the political climate. These tiny non-problems go to show that even the worst messages can have their silver linings. In a less controversial setting, many would probably occupy negotiated positions.

Of course, this is just one ad, in one extreme context. Hall’s theory may not be perfect, but it points us as media scholars towards an important truth in critical studies. As audiences, we need to be cognisant of both our reactions to the content, and the original intentions of the writers. It’s only through this process that we can begin to grasp some of the nuances of design that elude us. Close reading, while difficult, is achievable if we approach it with the right mindset, and understanding the perspectives of others can be key to playing this role.

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