The mode of address refers to the tone and style a media text uses to communicate with the audience. You would expect a newsreader on television to use formal language to report the headlines whereas a presenter on a children’s YouTube channel will be more informal when they address their younger target audience.
Advertisements might speak directly to the consumer to emphasise an important connection between the product and the individual, point-of-view shots (POV) position the audience to identify with character’s perspective in a film, and gossip magazines tend to splash vibrant colours on their front covers because it helps encode the lively and scandalous nature of the content.
Analysing the mode of address can help us understand how media producers construct meanings to engage the audience.
Novelists use first-person perspectives to keep the reader focused on the thoughts and emotions of the protagonists, so we get an immediate and intimate sense of their unique experiences. Of course, this narrative voice might be biased and offer a distorted view of the world.
Opinion pieces in newspapers and online publications are also written from an individual’s perspective. Drawing on expertise or personal insights, these articles offer a subjective interpretation of current events and trends.
Stories written in the third person tend to have a more objective tone compared to a first-person narrative. The writer can shift between characters and settings to give the reader a broader view of the events. Journalists like to use this voice because it helps encode impartiality.
We can also define visual storytelling in terms of narrative voice.
Filmmakers rely on the third-person perspective to construct their narratives with the audience observing the action through a combination of wide shots and close ups. A typical sequence in the sitcom “Friends” might begin with an establishing shot outside the Central Perk and then cut to an interior shot of the café with the characters sitting on the sofa discussing their lives and loves.
Although we are immersed in their stories, that distance between audience and the characters is always maintained throughout the programme. By contrast, directors can use POV shots to encourage the viewer to see the world from the character’s perspective because the camera represents exactly what they are seeing.
Think about any horror film where the protagonist walks down a dimly lit corridor towards some sort of supernatural threat. A long shot will convey their vulnerability in that dark space. We might see close ups of the character’s anxious face and their bare feet on the creaky floorboards. Cutting to a POV shot positions the audience in that moment, unable to see what is beyond the half-opened door, so we become actively engaged in scanning the room looking for what’s lurking in the shadows.
Limiting the audience to what the character sees can make us feel uncomfortable and increase the impact of the scary reveal. Have a look at how the director, James Wan, handles the tension in “Insidious” (2010):
Did you feel a sense of dread as the mother walked through the house? Did you try to spot the dancing boy?
“Lady in the Lake” (1947) used point-of-view cinematography throughout the whole film to position the audience in the shoes of the hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, as he solves the disturbing murder. Watch the trailer to get a sense of the innovative narrative voice:
Filmmakers can blend the different modes of address by including a voice over with the characters reflecting on their experiences. A good example is Henry Hill in “Goodfellas” (1990) providing insights into the world of organised crime: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”. A terrible example is the noir-style narration in the original 1982 release of “Blade Runner” which was universally derided and removed from later versions of the film.
The following advertisement uses the first-person perspective effectively to create desire for a holiday by letting the consumer imagine they are on their way to the check-in desk at the airport:
It is also worth considering the narrative modes of images posted on social media channels. When you are in a restaurant and point the camera lens towards your dinner on the table, you are positioning the user to see the world from your individual perspective. However, if you snap a selfie of yourself posing with the food, you are constructing a third-person point of view. Will the images be decoded differently by the audience?
The direct mode of address refers to the use of signifiers that acknowledge the audience. Advertisers are probably the most consistent users of this mode because they are eager to develop a personal connection between the consumer and the brand or product they are promoting.
Second-person pronouns vie for your attention on billboards, television commercials, between audio streams, and on most website ads: RedBull “gives you wiings”, and Burger King has been promising you can “have it your way” at their fast-food restaurants since 1974.
Imperatives are another device that directly address the audience: “Have a break… Have a Kit Kat” and Nike’s “Just Do It” are two good examples. You will often see this trick in calls to action (CTA) to create a sense of urgency and prompt the audience to make a decision: “Buy Now” and “Call Today”.
Some advertisements ask the audience a question, such as the 1990s tagline for Microsoft: “Where do you want to go today?” This playful tone was a great way to build engagement because it inspired consumers to think about how they could benefit from buying a personal computer.
This iconic recruitment poster from 1914 used a direct mode of address to urge the British audience to enlist in the army during World War I. In terms of language, the second-person pronouns develop a strong sense of personal responsibility and the imperative “join” is an effective call to action because it connotes unity and friendship without drawing attention to the harsh reality of going to the front lines.
Perhaps the most obvious example of direct address in the poster is Lord Kitchener staring at the viewer with his intense and imperious eyes. His forefinger points directly at the public to signify our duty to serve our country and provoke feelings of guilt if we don’t enlist. It is a compelling image.
The direct gaze is commonly used by politicians posing for their campaign leaflets and hoardings because they want to appear confident and trustworthy. Celebrities and models stare out from magazine covers to grab our attention, the autocue is positioned in front of the camera so the newsreaders and presenters can talk directly to the audience at home, and vloggers are always asking the viewer to smash that subscribe button on YouTube.
The next time you are scrolling through your social media channels, evaluate how featured posts try to get you to stop flicking by using a direct mode of address.
Direct address is often used for comic effect in cinema. “Deadpool” (2016) contains lots of moments when the superhero turns to the camera to make a vulgar joke to the audience and the protagonist in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) even tries to hide from the viewer when he is in the shower. You can read our analysis of Matthew Broderick breaking the fourth wall in our guide to the characteristics of postmodernism.
The following screenshot is from “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010) when the actor, Craig Robinson, says “it must be some kinda hot tub time machine” and then turns directly to the camera to acknowledge the ridiculous premise and title of the film:
We have already mentioned Ray Liotta’s voice over in “Goodfellas” (1990), but the actor also breaks the fourth wall towards the end of the film. During his testimony to the court, he turns to camera and describes his mundane life as an informant. It is also worth looking at how “The Big Short” (2015) uses direct address to explain complex financial terminology, including Margot Robbie in a bathtub educating the audience on how banks repackaged risky mortgage bonds.
At the start of the pre-match build up or the pitch-side analysis of a football match, the presenter will directly address the audience by introducing the segment and signify their authority. However, pay close attention to the pundits taking an indirect mode of address by not acknowledging our presence.
Indirect address is the principal mode in conventional narratives in film and television. Successful storytelling relies on our ability to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in these fictional worlds, so the producers do not want to draw attention to the fact we are watching a construct by having actors interacting with the audience.
News articles in both print and digital formats use an indirect mode of address because the writers want to encode a sense of objectivity and trust. Most of the textbooks you used in school adopt this formal mode to sound authoritative as well.
In his discussion of cinema, Steve Neale (1980) suggested genre films have their own “distinct modes of address”. For example, detective films rely on suspense with the protagonist and the audience trying to make sense of the clues and events. The story unfolds and the mystery is finally solved.
Thrillers also use enigma codes by withholding information from the audience until a dramatic reveal whereas gangster films use action codes to build anticipation for the heists, betrayals, and violent showdowns.
The “mode of affect is laughter” in comedies, melodramas engage the audience with “tension of desire”, and musicals are a balance of “narrative and spectacle”. War films “tend to be judged according to strict canons of realism”, but fantasy films also follow a “mode of authenticity” with fans of genre demanding “rigorous” and convincing worldbuilding.
We can also analyse the mode of address in music videos genres. The performance mode is characterised by direct address with the singers and musicians performing to cameras. By contrast, music videos which use narrative or abstract concepts are more likely to have an indirect mode of address.
How many songs use second-person pronouns in their lyrics regardless of genre? Perhaps it’s the direct address makes them so appealing.
Directors can influence how we perceive and connect with the narrative, characters, and themes of a film by making deliberate choices about framing, angles, movement, and editing. This also impacts the relationship between the story and the audience – the mode of address. For example, close ups of characters enable the audience to see their facial expressions and reactions in detail, so the mode of address is personal and intimate. Long shots are more impersonal, but they can help establish the context of the scene.
Low angle shots make the subject look more powerful and position the audience as weaker. High angle shots place the audience in a position of power.
The pace of editing, the use of cuts, and the sequencing of shots dictate the rhythm and flow of the narrative. Quick cuts may create a sense of urgency or excitement, while longer takes can develop a more contemplative or immersive mode of address.
Ferdinand de Saussure explored the idea that language is a system of signs, He also described how signs derived their meaning from syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships rather than a connection to the objects they represent. Some critics argue we should focus on the broader social and cultural factors that shape communication.
We should study the mode of address because each media form has its own set of rules and expectations which could influence how view the world, especially the way content creators position themselves and their messages in relation to the audience. We learn to interpret these conventions, but should we simply accept the sense of impartiality encoded in the indirect voice the next time we read an article on current events? Do we need to be more critical of the urgency created by advertisers and their use of direct address? Are we being manipulated by close ups and colour codes?
We need to evaluate both the signs and the discourse.