Exclusive Preview: ‘Whose Game They’re Playing’: Nation and Emotion in Canadian TV Advertising during the 2010 Winter Olympics

Continuing with our focus on nationalism, ethnicity and sport, SEN Journal: Online Exclusives is very pleased to present an exclusive preview of Steven Mock’s article ‘‘Whose Game They’re Playing’: Nation and Emotion in Canadian TV Advertising during the 2010 Winter Olympics’, which was published in a recent edition of our journal. 

Photo credit: Michael Francis McCarthy, Flickr

Abstract

Through the examination of four commercials advertising products by transnational corporations broadcast to Canadian audiences during coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, this article explores how certain images, particularly those related to hockey, appeal to emotion through the conduit of national identity. Drawing out recurring symbols and themes, I demonstrate that it is not one’s love of hockey in itself, or the excitement one feels watching hockey to which these commercials appeal. Rather, hockey serves in these commercials as a national ‘totem’, an empty signifier like a flag whose primary meaning lies in its status as emblem of the group, recognised in common by members of the group as encapsulating and organising the otherwise heterogeneous assortment of myths, symbols, and values that constitute group identity. What these commercials do, intentionally or not, is re-enact a ritual of almost religious function in which the national group reaffirms its agreement to be a group by unanimously experiencing the same emotion over the same object. The success of the advertisement rests in the ability of the advertiser to incorporate the product as a participant in the ritual; as a vital ingredient to the successful completion of the ritual, if not as an honorary non-human member of the group itself.

I have to confess to being a Canadian who doesn’t like hockey. Not that I have anything against it. I’ve just never played it, never had any desire to play it; I don’t follow any local or national teams, and wouldn’t go out of my way to even watch a game. Even during the 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver, while I found it was very important to me that the Canadian hockey teams won their matches, I couldn’t keep my attention on a televised game for more than about five minutes without getting bored. I just don’t like hockey.

This is why it became important to me to explain why I had an emotional reaction every time I saw the ‘He Shoots, He Scores’ Coca-Cola commercial broadcast during coverage of the 2010 Winter Games.1 And I do mean every time. The effect is not lessened by repetition, nor demystified by analytical deconstruction. Even now, reviewing the video repeatedly in the course of my research, I find myself briefly choked up with each replay. I doubt that someone who actually liked hockey, but who wasn’t Canadian would experience it in quite the same way. This, to me, was the first indication of a ritual basis to the emotions generated. These sounds and images were not just pleasing to me on an aesthetic level, offering a stimulation to which I would gradually become accustomed. They satisfied a need that was constant, and as such had to be constantly sated, and therefore did not diminish with time and familiarity.

My goal is to explain how and why certain images depicted in commercials broadcast to Canadian audiences during CTV’s coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics appeal to emotion through the conduit of national identity. To narrow the focus, I have chosen four commercials broadcast frequently during this period that most explicitly reference hockey while advertising the products of transnational corporations. The status of hockey as a unifying national symbol is widely acknowledged, described by Martin Laba (1992:343) as a ‘virtual creation tale’ of Canadian identity:

A romance that has regarded and rendered the game as a natural outgrowth of the daunting challenges of Canadian geography and climate, as organically rooted as snow, ice, forest, prairie, rock shield, and the myriad of the country’s other geographic and climactic facts. ‘Naturally’ then, and demonstrated in the historical development of the game, Canada has claimed both ownership of, and supremacy in hockey.

However, I submit that it is not one’s love of hockey in itself, or the excitement one feels watching hockey to which these commercials ultimately appeal. If this were so, they would have no effect on me, who feels no such love, experiences no such excitement. Hockey, rather, takes on the role of a national totem, which as such is void of any intrinsic content. It is an empty signifier akin to a national flag, an otherwise random assortment of shapes and colours whose only meaning lies in its status as emblem of the group, recognised in common by members of the group as encapsulating and organising the otherwise heterogeneous assortment of myths, symbols, and values that constitute group identity. I do not have to like hockey as a sport, so long as I am willing to point to it simultaneously with my co-nationals as a common symbol of national belonging. Its emotional power to me lies not in its content but in the status it has acquired as emblem of the group…

The imagery of the commercials I examine here contains nothing overly surprising or disquieting. It is the very fact that they conform to our expectations that allows us to turn and critically assess those expectations themselves. They do not aim to change anyone’s mind about the nature and character of the national group, but rather to associate what is already assumed about that nature and character with the products advertised. Thus an occasion such as an Olympic Games held on national territory, during which patriotic sentiments would be expected to find more overt expression than usual and advertisers might seek to address and invoke the nation as a whole rather than a more circumscribed market segment (Schudson 1984:219), provides an opportunity to examine the symbolic-emotional construction of Canadian national identity in this moment. More tentatively, it may, by extension, provide insight into the construction and expression of civic-multicultural forms of nationalism in general. For although the particular symbolic content of these commercials is designed to be distinctly and recognisably Canadian, their form is not, and one could imagine a similar emotional reaction evoked by similar commercials aimed at any nation, if hockey were replaced by that nation’s iconic sport (for example, football in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Latin America or rugby in New Zealand or South Africa), the backdrop replaced by quotidian images already associated with that nation’s natural and human environment, and the words and actions of the characters depicted evoking stereotypes already associated with that nation’s collective self-image. In other words, my purpose is to take advantage of a non-conflict situation in which the ‘banal’ nationalism3 of everyday discourse was brought to the surface through the benign arousal of national sentiment engendered by the Olympics, in order to examine the structure of the discourse revealed using these commercials as representative texts.

What these commercials do – intentionally or not – is re-enact a ritual of almost religious function: a reaffirmation of the national group’s agreement to be a group. The success of the advertisement rests on the ability of the advertiser to incorporate the product as a participant in the ritual; as a vital ingredient to the successful completion of the ritual, if not as an honorary non-human member of the group itself. The ritual bears many of the traits that sociologists and anthropologists observe as characteristic of ‘primitive’ religion, including: 1) centrality of the theme of sacrifice – the ways, both extraordinary and mundane, that members of the group are expected to surrender their individual drives to the group; 2) the importance of unanimity, of the simultaneous performance of the same action, especially acts normally considered outside the boundaries of ordinary behaviour; and 3) the projection of exclusivity, assertion that the symbol belongs to the group and holds meaning only to members of the group, rather than containing any ambition toward reflecting a universal value.4

Steven J. Mock, Balsillie School of International Affairs

This article was originally published in Volume 12, Issue 1 of Studies in Ethnicity and nationalism. Click here to view the full journal article.

1 Comment

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