Allstate Auto Insurrance is a company whose commercials have caught fire within the past few years, and virtually everyone knows about the character, Mayhem. When the commercials come on, viewers recognize Mayhem on a denotative level as the man in the suit with the exuberant laugh. The man known as Mayhem also usually has a fresh wound, suggesting that he has just arrived from another job. This is the first level of signification and gives the most literal meaning behind the commercial.
Mayhem is the signifier that is recognized in the ads, and when analyzing the ad on the connotative level, or on the second order of signification, the man clearly represents exactly what the commercial explicitly states, Mayhem. Mayhem is represented in multiple different ways. In total, Allstate shows Mayhem as signifying almost twenty different situations, including a teenage girl receiving an upsetting text which makes her crash, or a GPS which has not been updated recently and gives the driver last minute instructions, likewise resulting in airbags going off and the driver crashing his car.
In every commercial, Mayhem starts off by stating specifically what type of “mayhem” he is, and dresses appropriately or situates himself appropriately according to what the situation is. For example, in the Allstate commercial where Mayhem is signifying a GPS system that has not been recently updated and confuses the driver, Mayhem’s head is positioned at exactly the place in the car where a GPS system is commonly seen.
When discussing semiotic analysis, Barthes touches on identifying the syntagmatic and paradigmatic elements. A paradigm is described as a set of associated signifiers and signifieds which are all members of some defining category, but in which each is significantly different. Looking at the Allstate commercials, we can see that the defining category is some sort of automotive “mayhem,” yet each scenario is very different, ranging from storms knocking down branches, to deer standing in the headlights of the car. Syntagmatic elements, on the other hand, refer to sequential, spacial, or conceptual relationships, so in this case, the order that the commercials came on air can be identified as a syntagmatic element.
Ultimately, the goal of the Allstate commercials is to uphold certain cultural assumptions, and showing that when the unpredictable happens, you need to be ready. One cultural assumption a particular commercial makes is that teenage girls are drivers that are not paying close attention and are easily distracted by other things. “Mayhem,” in the form of a teenage girl receiving a text about a boy from her “BFF,” crashes into another car, blaming the accident on the girl being “emotionally compromised.” This commercial’s effectiveness depends on the cultural message that teenage girls are strongly and emotionally affected by silly things like text messages from friends or gossip about boys. In order for the humor in the commercial to work, Allstate has to rely on the viewers understanding this as a common ideology.
Likewise, another Allstate commercial depicts a teenage boy driving, and “Mayhem” representing a young woman jogging alongside the car. In this scene, Mayhem represents the woman jogging by wearing pink sweatbands on his head and wrists. The teenager is completely distracted when looking at the woman running alongside him and crashes right into a pole. This ad similarly has to rely on the cultural message that teenage boys are going to be distracted by a beautiful young woman (who in the commercial refers to herself as a “10”). In order for the commercial to make a lasting impression on the audience, humor is the key, and this can only be obtained if the producers use common ideologies such as this example. Overall, at the level of the “myth,” Allstate uses these common ideologies that are the same for many people, and because of this common ground, viewers are going to find it humorous, which is exactly what the commercial wants so that viewers will remember it and buy Allstate insurance. Despite these commonalities, it causes viewers to consider the actual cases of “Mayhem” that are being represented. Is the woman running the actual problem, and is the girl with the cellphone the actual mayhem, and if so, is there an issue with Allstate portraying these two examples as causes of mayhem?