The caption says one word: underwear. The text itself is located across the pants and not placed over the underwear itself. Of course, this is only meant to call attention to the fact that the ad is about underwear and not pants. It is even hard to tell whether the person is taking the pants off or putting them on. The word “Tommy” stands in for the head of the person while “Hilfiger” rests at his feet. The viewer’s gaze is directed from the underwear to the pants, to the feet, and then back to the underwear again. The tranquil river flowing behind suggests the beauty of time’s progression, linking the past to the joy of the moment and to a promising future. The underwear seems to almost bridge the river, implying a sense of timelessness and stability to Tommy Hilfiger’s underwear. This underwear is fashion, not a passing fad. This timeless quality is only possible because of the design of the underwear: it is patterned after (or maybe even from) the stars and stripes of the American flag.
The stars and stripes, the red white and blue, Old Glory; these are words that seem to embody the very destiny of America. The very material of the flag is threaded through American history. Whether carried as a standard into battle, hoisted at half-mast for a dignitary’s death, waiving from a state capital, or standing still behind glass in a museum, the flag signifies America’s presence. More than a sign, it is a symbol, since it neither resembles nor has the form of that for which what it stands. For Americans, it often stands for one thing: patriotism.
We Americans like to wear our patriotism on our sleeves. From kindergarten through high school we pledge allegiance to our flag. We fly it from our porches on veteran’s day, salute it at baseball games, and sing of its indestructible glory in our national anthem. We pin it on our clothes at rallies, attach it to our bumpers, and paint it on our business signs. An American can always tell a person’s patriotic fever by his reverence for the flag. Indeed, to question someone’s respect for the flag is to accuse him of being unpatriotic. The neighbor who doesn’t display the flag on July 4th, the student who silently refuses to say the pledge during homeroom, the baseball player who leaves his cap on during the ball park national anthem all manifest their unpatriotic natures in their contempt for the flag.
Some zealous politicians have called for protecting the flag, especially from burning during political protests. To burn the flag, they say, is to set America itself to flames. The fire consumes the symbol, exchanging America’s timelessness for cinders and ash. Some have even called for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.
But what would it mean to constitutionally protect the flag as a symbol? It must of course mean regulating it throughout its various appearances, but it can’t be a matter of its materiality. It is not offensive to anyone to burn cotton, wool, or any synthetic fiber from which a flag is fashioned. So it is not the material the government would seek to control, but the form.
But a symbol is only an idea, and therefore any attempt to regulate the flag in this way amounts to thought control. The flag might be a material signifier, an object sold as a consumer item more often than not made in China, but what it signifies transcends the notion of ownership. You can own the flag, but not the myriad of ideas it produces; and as Saussure reminds us, the relationship between a signifier and signified is always arbitrary and conventional.
We can only imagine the consequences of such legislation. It would suddenly be illegal to display the flag in a vulgar manner, which would necessarily have a vague definition. Flag bumper stickers, if still allowed, would have to be shown the same ritualistic respect as the flag flying over a military cemetery. Earrings and other jewelry bearing the symbol of the flag would be deemed offensive even on someone under the vain pretense of wearing their patriotism. Even photographs of the flag would have to fall under the same jurisdiction as the flag itself, subject to the same rules of display and proper disposal.
These circumstances would leave our Tommy Hilfiger ad at a complete disadvantage. Advertising, in principle, demands a prior referent system in order to exchange signs for meaning. Advertising symbolizes both production and consumption, each governed by manufactured desires. As production, it envelops us in a world in which objects are taken out of their material, utilitarian context to become signs of desire. As consumption, advertising creates a space in the imagination where these signs can be decoded back into objects to be freely (perhaps illusorily) consumed. The underwear ad demands from the consumer a prior referent system to patriotism that can be worn on your sleeve, or, in this case, under your pants (patriotism as under armor, America as the last defense before your unprotected and vulnerable nakedness in the face of a harsh world). But if it is meant as a direct exchange, a transfer, of the producer’s patriotism for the consumer’s, then the ad would already be governed by the under-handedness of the flag as symbol. This patriotism cannot be worn, because such a display would already be unpatriotic.
Luckily, the incendiary debates amongst politicians about the flag have cooled somewhat over the past few months. Cooler heads know that the flag as symbol cannot be regulated. The flag does not simply signify patriotism; one is free to project his desires of patriotism on the flag, or not. The flag, as an object, signifies at the least individuals, and at most categories of people, each consuming a different meaning. Every person must symbolically recognize his own (changing) self in the flag. Patriotism is not something that is passively consumed, but is instead exchanged by every individual for his or her own freedoms concealed like underwear in their minds and hearts.