Shop Notes: Language Masks Materiality

Thinking about the ways in which advertising communicates the value of a drawing tablet is…complicated. There are a number of reasons for this, reasons that range from personal to immediate social context and then out towards the art industry. First and foremost, I personally never saw an official drawing tablet advert until I went looking and decided I wanted to put one on my wish-list. Instead, the advertisement I received was through countless years of seeing digital art and fan art in the internet spaces I inhabited. Over the course of about eight years, I was exposed to digital art made by drawing tablets far more than I was exposed to any sort of official advertisement campaigns, and this form of exposure created a nebula of value around digital art (most digital artists were popular, received more likes on their work, and were considered ‘better’ artists) which, in turn, gave value to drawing tablets.

In my immediate social context, the extent of tablet adverts was to exchange information about which tablet someone had previously or at the time. Few, if any of us, had seen or taken stock in adverts about drawing tablets. Mostly, we asked people who made art we liked which tablet they used, or looked at social media posts in our art circles about good tablets. Informal advertising ruled (and still does rule) the day in my immediate social circle, generating the same sort of value around drawing tablets as discussed above.

But this post is supposed to be about the third kind of advertising, the one I’ve experienced the least of: official, industry adverts, meant for a wide audience and meant to sell the product that is the drawing tablet. When scrolling through advertisements, I ended up seeing countless adverts I’d never seen before (when researching which tablet to buy, I looked at rankings and blog posts and talked to friends rather than consulting ads). But the advert that caught my eye and my attention this time was for a tablet that I didn’t buy, the Wacom Bamboo.

There are a number of things going on here, as we can see, and we’ll go through them in a relatively quick summary of Barthes’ image coding strategies: linguistic, denoted, and connoted. Beginning with linguistic coding, we have a lot to work with. With the tagline ‘freedom is a pen,’ this advert proclaims that ‘Bamboo Pen is a smart solution for anyone who strives for clear visual communication. Write with digital ink, mark up documents and presentations with your own handwriting, draw quick sketches, and explore your creative side.’ We are being told, first of all, that the Bamboo pen tablet gives the user the freedom to do what they want. Freedom is advertised generally. Then, in the finer print, we are told how the user can achieve that freedom: through a number of uses, including writing, marking up documents, drawing, and creating in other modes. Freedom is the ability to use the tablet both for work and productivity purposes as well as for the self and creative purposes. In terms of the linguistics of this advert, we are being shown an object that is versatile, and, therefore, worth owning.

The denotation of the image contains both the tablet itself and its possible design uses. The advert collapses the object and what it can produce into one item, and this, in turn, moves us into the connotations contained within the image. The tablet is a sort of doorway (the pen is, after all, freedom) into the creative realm. The implicit message of the advert is that you, too, can do whatever you want with this tablet, and all you need is this tablet! Creativity flows from the screen even without a person present–what will it be like when you impart your creative energy into it?

In the interest of time, and also not boring anyone, I’ll try to wrap up here. The multiple meanings imparted by this advert both outright state, and more quietly imply, the creative powers of the tablet. While the tablet allows the user to unleash their creative skills, it can also make a creator out of anyone, and is therefore for anyone and everyone. This is markedly different from my tablet, which is specifically for art and design, but the message of unleashed creativity is one that rings true, even in non-official advertising such as grassroots sharing of products.

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