Native advertising: the semiotic case of Turkish Airlines/Batman

This Turkish Airlines advert, screened during the SuperBowl 2016, is a game changer. I suppose the youngsters today would say “shots fired” to the advertising industry. It’s native advertising on steroids. Semiotically, it is the most interesting type of advertising I’ve seen, and it reminds of the Lost Alternative Reality fan universe. This isn’t the first time this kind of native advertising has been done (see the 2015 Ant-Man advertising, a history of product placement in Hollywood, and a how-to for using native advertising) but I would posit that it’s probably the most successful, semiotically. It’s seamless. These other people have mentioned the advert too, primarily as a marketing analysis. In this post, I’ll discuss why this advert heralds a new era of native advertising and how this 49 seconds advert works, using semiotics.

Fly to Gotham City with Turkish Airlines – the airline is proud to announce a new destination, “a city that’s risen above its past to become a thriving urban center”. This advert seamlessly blends reality (the airline) with the unreal (the film and graphic novel enterprise of Batman) while maintaining the suspension of disbelief through recognisable symbols (Ben Affleck as actor, crane shots through unbelievable angles, and of course the Bat-Signal in the night sky). This advert, in 49 seconds, successfully creates a mimetic combination of tourism documentaries, airline adverts, and film trailers.

Point by point analysis

The advert starts with a “fly by” of a large sprawling city. The focus is, as is usual in airline adverts, on the Turkish Airlines airplane. The branding is clear and stands out against the background of the city. The shot then changes to a close up of a gargoyle on the side of a building, with the rest of the sprawling city visible in the background. As the shot changes, the voiceover announces the name of the city: Gotham. The subject matter of the mimetic “advert” is contested at this point: it is unclear whether the city or the airline is at stake in this film.

We then see a well-dressed man walk towards his very flashy car, with direct address to the camera. He speaks confidently about “his company, Wayne Enterprises” as saving the city from disrepair and “restoring it to its former glory”. The direct address to camera hails the audience: we must respect this man (the angle is slightly low, the flashy car is foregrounded, the direct address and his posture demands our attention, and his walk is confident and controlling), we must believe that his generosity and philanthropy has saved this large sprawling “new tourist destination”. This powerful philanthropist is what’s at stake, currently, and he is tagged as “Bruce Wayne, CEO of Wayne Enterprises”.

The short film then takes the audience through traditional “tourist spots” – the Opera House, the nightlife (complete with DJs and sparking lights), the glittering inhabitants of a city that “never sleeps”. The advert no longer appears to be selling the airline, but rather the destination and the investor who rules the city. Up until now, if the audience does not recognise the signposts of the “Batman” franchise – Gotham, Wayne Enterprises, and Bruce Wayne – the advert then gives a further clue in the form of an indexical/arbitrary sign (the sign type is up for debate, I feel). The Bat-Signal is not clearly visible as the traditionally flat Marvel sign, but looks almost realistic – a light and mask thrown onto clouds, shimmering and moving, difficult to decipher. While the Bat-Signal seen here might not be instantaneously recognisable by those who are not innately familiar with the Batman franchise, the symbol would be a clear indicator to fans. The lack of precision of this Bat-Signal further blurs the line between reality and entertainment (as does the new Batman Vs Superman film), and heightens the mimetic quality of the advert.

Visual evolution of the Batman symbol

We then see Bruce Wayne in a business class seat onboard a Boeing 777, served by a neat flight attendant. The anchorage “Turkish Airlines” is visible behind him. Turkish Airlines, in symbol and in discourse, is only seen/heard five times throughout the 49 second advert. Conversely, “the city”, and “Gotham” is seen/heard 17 times. The main focus of this advert is not actually Turkish Airlines, but the supposed tourist destination of the city – Gotham. Turkish Airlines is simply the conduit to get you to this now-desirable place.

Thematic analysis

This advert successfully blurs the line between reality (Turkish Airlines) and the unreal (the Marvel / DC film franchises). Ultimately, the mimesis relies on viability of intertextuality between the film/graphic novel universe and airline branding and advertising techniques, as well as the successful decoding of a variety of signs from an audience who suspends their disbelief. To understand how this advert works and why it is successful in the mimesis, we need to understand a few things first: what is Turkish Airlines, what is Gotham, and what is at stake in the sponsorship of films in general?

What does Turkish Airlines stand for? Turkish Airlines, the world’s fourth largest carrier and based in Turkey, has sponsored various large sporting events in recent years (1). The company is known for using sporting celebrities in their story-format adverts (see the Drogba / Messi viral videos), and the addition of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne is no exception. Affleck/Wayne sits in the Airline’s business class with other passengers. The fullness of the cabin and the neatness of the flight attendant showcases Turkish Airlines’ business model of apparent high class yet affordable travel to global destinations. Using Affleck/Wayne seems arbitrary – the scene needs the narrative of Gotham as a newly-found destination to make sense.

What is Gotham? The city advertised is actually at stake in this advert, the airline is simply a conduit. The city has “risen from its past” (what constitutes that past is unclear from this advert, and the narrative relies on prior knowledge of the Marvel universe), thanks to a philanthropic donation from Bruce Wayne. It has high class culture (the Opera House), interesting architecture that combines the ancient with the modern, and has round-the-clock nightlife and entertainment. The apparent recent discovery of this destination mimics the global tourist desire for up and coming locations and newness, as well as the popular narrative of discovering diamonds in the rough and injections of capital reclaiming disadvantaged locations (AKA money solves everything).

What is at stake in the film/sponsorship amalgamation? This type of native advertising is a way to work the sponsor’s product into the film trailer. The two are completely unrelated, and this kind of sponsorship didn’t work so well with previous versions of native advertising – look at the Jurassic World product placement fails. The obviousness of product placement or native advertising tends to turn audiences off. It stops the suspension of disbelief and ruins the enjoyment of the narrative. However, this is only really true of Westernised film-watchers. In Korean dramas, product placement is normalised and expected (23), and does not significantly stop the suspension of disbelief. In the Westernised film industry, however, this is not normal. Wayne’s World gives a classic example of the strangeness of seeing brands and sponsor products placed in unsubtle positions.

This unsubtle type of “native advertising” – actually product placement / sponsorship – is problematic because it draws attention away from mimesis. The product has nothing to do with the narrative, the characters interact with the product in a way that is unnatural, and the product is unsubtly placed on screen. A good mimesis relies on subtlety. Product placement can either make or break a brand, depending on how it’s used.

As seen in Matt Damon’s “Under Armour” teaser for The Martian, films/characters can successfully blur the line between entertainment and advertising. The company director of Droga5 argues that treading on both sides of the line adds credibility to both the film and entertainment product as well as the brand:

“Featuring the astronauts in an Under Armour campaign was a great way for both sides to achieve their goals,” says Phelps. “Under Armour isn’t an interruption into the movie’s fictional world, it’s realistic and actually adds credibility. The brand helps make their future world seem real, and of course that’s what the movie makers want. For the movie and the brand it is a win-win.”4


So, while this type of product placement is nothing new – films have been sponsored by unrelated brands for many decades – the style of mimetic advertising that blurs the lines between the real and the unreal is far more subtle now than ever before. The Turkish Airlines brand has, basically, nothing to do with the Batman Vs Superman film, but the advertiser has successfully integrated the two narratives to create a clever and subtle joining of brand and film franchise. It is successful because of the subtlety: the advert looks like a tourist spot (the CG is seamless, the angles are subtle, the lighting is natural), it sounds like a travel film (the voiceover is upbeat and natural, non-diegetic sound is minimal or subtle), it even feels like it’s been created by Turkish Airlines (their branding is clear and focused, and the story-format is similar to their other adverts). There’s no anchorage telling us otherwise, no “sponsored advert” tag or “film released July 2016”. The only way we know it’s an film teaser is at 49 seconds, where the actual film trailer starts. The blurring between the real and unreal results in a mimetic advert that realistically inserts the Turkish Airlines brand into the Marvel universe, and Batman/Wayne into our real universe.

The problems with native advertising are far ranging, from the ethics of potentially deceiving consumers, the clumsiness of marketers marketing marketing, and of course the resultant trustworthiness of the product brand and advertiser. When films integrate sponsorship in this way, it’s less problematic than when a news site does it, for instance. Convergence journalism is the way the world is moving, and as newsrooms are systematically underfunded, juniorised, and understaffed, grant-capture and audience-capture often leads gatekeepers to use this kind of native advertising (see the case of Andrew Phelps, the Innovation Report, and Journalism Next at the Menell Media Exchange in Johannesburg, 2015). Blurring the line between the real and the unreal in film may be clever and interesting, but when the same happens in a media genre we expect to be real and impartial (such as news), ethical issues arise and should be considered.


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