Home / Articles / Volume 13 (2016) / Intertextuality and Authorized Transgression in Parodies of Online Consumer Reviews
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Abstract

Parody is a visible contemporary phenomenon associated with many types of digital media. While several discourse analytic studies have discussed multimodal parodies of YouTube videos, this article shifts the focus of analysis to parodies of a primarily text-based genre of digital communication: user-generated consumer reviews on the e-commerce site, Amazon. Examining 100 texts written about five popularly parodied products, I show how online review parodies are embedded within complex and layered intertextual chains that include other parody reviews and bona fide reviews, as well as other related texts found on the same site. I also suggest that by engaging in parodic discourse practices – which include intertextuality, narrativity, and double-voicing – authors of parody reviews participate in authorized transgression and create a sense of ambient affiliation.

Introduction

Although parody is an ancient form, it has also rapidly become a contemporary phenomenon associated with many types of digital media. The Internet has been described as a space brimming with ludic possibilities, where playfulness combines with “a particular focus on manipulating linguistic material for aesthetic and intellectual pleasure” (Deumert, 2014, p. 26). Twitter accounts, TED talks, and YouTube videos are just a few forms of digital media that have become vehicles for contemporary, user-generated parodies, which are often simultaneously comedic and critical. Online environments provide users with virtual spaces in which they can indulge in carnivalesque behavior, as they play within the constraints of various discourse genres and create parodies which are recognizable to others, resulting in types of sociality that are unique to social media – or what are sometimes described as “ambient affiliation” (Zappavigna, 2011) or “conviviality” (Varis & Blommaert, 2014). While discourse analytic studies focusing exclusively on online parodies are quite rare, some research has touched on the parodic dimensions of Youtube videos (e.g., Androutsopoulous, 2013; Chun & Walters, 2011; Leppänen & Häkkinen, 2012; Rymes, 2012). These studies have shown how, through processes such as entextualization and resemiotization, parodic texts found in online environments convey multiple layers of meaning. Intertextual references are often at the core of such processes.

In this article, I present an analysis of parodies of one primarily text-based genre of digital communication: user-generated online consumer reviews on the e-commerce site Amazon. Similar to other forms of parody, these texts can be considered heteroglossic (Bakhtin, 1981) in that their authors appropriate recognizable conventions of the reviewing genre, while at the same time adopting the voices of “imagined others” in their creation. The aim of this article is to demonstrate how online review parodies are embedded within complex and layered intertextual chains that include other parody reviews and bona fide1 reviewing practices, as well as other related texts found on the same site.

Background

While parodies of reviews may be identifiable by virtue of the exaggerated, playful and often carnivalesque (Bahktin, 1984) images they project, their reception as parodies ultimately lies “in the eye of the beholder” (Hutcheon, 2000, p. xvi). Consequently, they are perhaps best understood as intersubjective co-constructions that occur between writer and reader. Parodies of online consumer reviews represent a specific type of vernacular literacy practice (Barton & Lee, 2013), with its own processes of production, distribution, and consumption. Participation in the writing and reading of online review parodies can be viewed as a form of conviviality, or a “social-structuring level of engagement in loose, temporal and elastic collectives” (Varis & Blommaert, 2014, p. 1) that emerges within – and as a result of the affordances of – digital media. As explained by Drasovean and Tagg (2015), concepts such as “conviviality” and “ambient affiliation” provide useful alternatives to “virtual communities” for describing the more fleeting types of connections among individuals that occur in some online environments.

Parody Defined

Existing theorizations of parody have tended to focus exclusively on aesthetic texts. Some theorists trace parody’s existence back to ancient and medieval poetry and literature (e.g., Denith, 2000; Rose, 1993), while others concentrate on parodies of more recent forms of literary and cultural production (e.g., Hutcheon, 2000). Yet digital communication and associated forms of vernacular literacy invite parodies of emergent genres appearing in new media. This necessitates a shift from conceptualizing textual parody as a form of artistic production, to a broader consideration of how parody occurs in users’ everyday digital practices.

In parody, a specific genre becomes the object of representation. Some theorists emphasize the humorous dimensions of this mimesis (Rose, 1993), while others stress the social or cultural critique associated with parody, which tends to be expressed more implicitly (Denith, 2000). Parody is often multivalent: “[P]arody can obviously be a whole range of things. It can be a serious criticism, not necessarily of the codified text; it can be a playful, genial mockery of codifiable forms. Its range of intent is from respectful admiration to biting ridicule” (Hutcheon, 2000, pp. 15-16). Theorist Linda Hutcheon (2000) defines parody as “a form of repetition with ironic critical distance, marking difference rather than similarity” (p. xii); however, she also points out a central paradox of parody, which is that that even when parody appears to be transgressive, “its transgression is always authorized. In imitating, even with a critical difference, [parody] always reinforces” (p. 26). This paradox is due to the double-voicedness of parody (Bakhtin, 1981), which can be understood as projecting two stances at the same time, resulting in a clash of ideological positions (Allen, 2011). Hutcheon explains this duality in terms of opposing forces that are simultaneously conservative and revolutionary.

Drawing on notions of intertextuality as developed in the works of Bakhtin, Kristeva, and Genette, Hutcheon (2000) further points out that although parody is clearly a formal phenomenon (“a bitextual synthesis or a dialogic relation between texts,” p. xiii), its reception as such relies on the interpretive work carried out by its receivers: “[A]s readers or viewers or listeners who decode parodic structures, we also act as decoders of encoded intent” (23). The recognition of parody relies on the receiving audience to make inferences from the given text, yet parodic texts also provide signals which help guide those interpretations. Some of these signals include irony, hyperbole, ambivalence or ambiguity of meanings – as well as the presence of carnivalesque images. The carnivalesque, another relevant concept from Bakhtin (1984), refers to playful practices which subvert social norms, and which often include grotesque, vulgar, or taboo topics or language.

Intertextuality in Parodies of Commercial Texts

All parodies are necessarily intertextual. In order to be parodies, they must draw on recognizable features of the genre they are imitating. Yet in order to distinguish themselves as distinct from that which they are imitating, parodies often rely on exaggeration and distortion. As Jameson (1984) has pointed out, parody “capitalizes on the uniqueness of…styles and seizes on their eccentricities to produce an imitation that mocks the original” (cited in Rose, 1993, pp. 221-222).

Drawing on the work of both Bakhtin and Kristeva, Fairclough’s definition of intertextuality highlights the “ways in which texts […] are shaped by prior texts they are ‘responding’ to and subsequent texts that they ‘anticipate’’ (Fairclough, 1992, p. 269). This at once historical and prospective conceptualization of how texts relate to one another is especially germane to discussions of online texts (such as reviews posted on Amazon, both bona fide and parodic), which are produced at specific points in time, and which are often displayed in ways that suggest a linear relationship – but whose temporal relationship with one another may be more complicated than appears at first glance. In other words, the default display of texts in Amazon’s online review space is determined by an algorithmic calculation which weights various factors, including recency as well as number of helpfulness votes. Although all texts that appear in the review space on Amazon bear a time stamp, the temporal relationship between texts is not always straightforward. Where parody texts are concerned, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine who is responding to whom, or when and where a particular trope emerges – or the order in which it evolves. Put simply, while a reliance on intertextual practices is evident in parodies of reviews (as will be shown below), the exact relationships among texts remains indeterminate.

As a critical discourse analyst, Fairclough (1992) has concentrated on how processes of intertextuality are implicated in the “colonizing” encroachment of advertising and marketing discourse into other domains, arguing that “commodification, spreading consumerism and marketisation are having widespread effects upon orders of discourse” (p. 280). Viewing parodies of user-generated consumer reviews from this perspective provides an interesting inversion of this tendency: Parodies of reviews exist within a discursive space that is clearly dedicated to commodification and consumerism, yet these texts appear to offer counterdiscourses to the millions of legitimate reviews that appear on the same site and that offer more earnest appraisals of a given product. As Rymes (2012) has argued, “marketing of goods entails a communicative event in which an active consumer must enter into some kind of interaction with those products” (214). Rymes explains that these interactions can be varied, depending on the extent to which they are unexamined and “mindless,” or sharply critical, or even “ironic, playful, mocking, subverting” (2012, p. 214). Parodies of commercial products are often critical and playful at the same time, and thus may be ambivalent – or even polyvalent – in their meanings.

Parody in Digital Media

Discourse analytic scholarship addressing parodies found in online spaces has focused primarily on YouTube videos. For instance, both Androutsopoulos (2010, 2013) and Leppänen and her colleagues (Leppänen & Häkkinen, 2012; Leppänen et al., 2014) have analyzed user-generated videos that were appropriated from popular culture sources, such as music videos or film clips. By imitating mass media sources, these user-generated YouTube videos generate humor based on “misheard” lyrics, which exploit the near homophony between the language featured in the original video and the language of the target audience. These studies have pointed out how, through processes such as entextualization and resemiotization, multimodal parodic texts found in online environments can convey multiple layers of meanings, yielding both humorous and critical interpretations.

Other scholars of social media have touched on parodies of a more political nature. For instance, Georgakopoulou (2014) discussed various resemiotizations of a media spectacle in which a male politician threw water on, and physically attacked, two female politicians on Greek television. Analyzing several “spoof/fake videos and remixes” based on this spectacle and posted on YouTube, Georgakopoulou found that the more the original incident was creatively appropriated, the further removed it became from its original context, leading to the salience of increasingly de-politicized meanings. Thus, Georgakopoulou’s findings also speak to the ambivalence of meanings associated with parodies.

Digital parodies can draw not only on products and spectacles presented via mass media, but they can also be derived from original, user-generated content posted online, as Yamaguchi (2013) has illustrated. Yamaguchi analyzed the ways in which the gendered and racialized identities presented by one student’s original YouTube post (“Asians in the Library”) were reformulated by four other users’ YouTube parodies of the original video. Rather than critiquing the stereotypes portrayed in the original video, the parody videos simply reproduced the hegemonic discourses in the original text. This example offers yet another instance of the ambivalent meanings associated with parody and also points more specifically to how, in Hutcheon’s words, a parodic text that appears to be transgressive on the surface may simultaneously reinforce or reify an “authorized” discourse/discourses (2000, p. 26).

In their study of a bilingual stand-up comedian’s YouTube video, Chun and Walters (2011) address the topic of online parody in more theoretical terms. Echoing Hutcheon’s work, they too argue that parody is double-voiced, noting that parodists “enter a play frame (Goffman, 1974) in order to speak as if they owned the words they utter though still making clear a primary frame in which it is understood that they, in fact, do not own those words – or at least do not want to take full responsibility for them” (p. 255). They also point out that the ambivalence that results from this double-voicing in parody “is driven by a tension between ideological stances – at least a temporary ambiguity as to ‘whose side the parodist is really on’” (p. 269) – and that viewers “who are not aware of the tension because they lack necessary background knowledge or disapprove of the stances for ideological reasons likely miss the humor” (p. 268) in parodies. Chun and Walters’ observations usefully highlight the important role of shared background knowledge – and a shared perspective – in explaining variable audience receptions of, and reactions to, parodic texts.

Discourse analytic studies which have in some ways addressed online parodies have tended to focus primarily on multimodal data from YouTube videos. In order to expand current understandings of parodies in digital media, I shift attention in the present study to parodies of a primarily text-based internet phenomenon (i.e., Amazon reviews) and consider the characteristic discourse features of these parodies, focusing more specifically on some of the intertextual processes involved in their production.

Online Consumer Reviews

A relatively new digital phenomenon, the online consumer review has antecedents in earlier genres such as spoken word-of-mouth recommendations and specialist reviews written and published by expert reviewers. However, as the growing body of research about online review discourse has shown, this digital genre has become a distinctive one, owing to the ways in which authors of online reviews claim particular identities (Mackiewicz, 2010a, b), in the typical forms of evaluation they use (Skalicky, 2013; Taboada, 2011; Tian, 2013), in how they create and represent audience involvement (Vásquez, 2014, 2015a), and in their intertextual and narrative practices (Jurafsky et al., 2014; Vásquez, 2012, 2014, 2015b).

Because it is now possible to find online consumer reviews for nearly every type of product or service, and because such reviews are featured on many different sites, the textual realizations of reviews can be quite variable. Nevertheless, in earlier work (Vásquez, 2014), I identified several features shared by 1,000 online reviews sampled from various websites, including Amazon. Among these features were diverse forms of intertextuality, varying degrees of narrativity, and the discursive constructions of specific, context-relevant reviewer identities. I briefly discuss each of these and their relevance to the present study.

With respect to intertextuality, my previous analysis found that reviewers often made references to what prior reviewers had written about the same product (e.g., I agree with the reviews… , Contrary to other reviews…). References such as these indicate that, before posting their own contributions, many reviewers read what others have posted in the same review space. It is not unusual to observe reviewers contextualizing their own opinions in this fashion. This observation is relevant to the present discussion, because even though such references may not be explicitly stated, the presence of product-specific tropes that occur repeatedly in parody reviews for a given product – often in a “variations on a theme” fashion – suggest that similar intertextual processes may be at work.

Online consumer reviews are sometimes constructed as digital narratives of personal experience. While some product reviews are highly narrative and center around the consumer’s experience with the product, other reviews are not at all narrative and consist solely of evaluative and descriptive information about the product and its features. Still other reviews – and these are perhaps most typical of Amazon reviews – include some first-person narrative “bits” interwoven with discourse that is more evaluative and descriptive (Vásquez, 2014). In contrast, as will be shown in the analysis below, parodies of reviews are almost always highly narrative. Even when they occur as concise “small story” narratives (Georgakopoulou, 2007a, b), they include several first person pronouns and past-tense verbs, and their primary focus is inevitably on the narrator’s (imagined) experience with, or relationship to, the product, rather than on the product’s features.

Closely related to narratives of personal experience are the ways in which reviewers inscribe their social identities into their texts. Prior research on reviews has shown that many review writers claim situationally-relevant identities in order to establish their credibility and provide review readers with some context for interpreting the claims made within a review. For instance, occupational categories may be relevant in evaluating a particular product, as illustrated in the following review of a yoga mat on Amazon, where the author links her professional role as a yoga teacher with her expert position in relation to the product reviewed: Teaching brings a lot of students with a wide variety of yoga mats. Over the years I’ve tried them all… (in Vásquez, 2014). In a similar fashion, authors of review parodies provide various types of discursively constructed “personal” information. This performed self-disclosure serves two functions in parody texts: It mimics a discourse convention that appears in legitimate Amazon reviews, and it also functions as an anchoring device for the unusual or improbable events presented in the narratives that follow.

Parodies of Online Consumer Reviews

As online reviews have become established as a genre of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and have continued to grow in both number and influence, parodies of the genre have appeared on the same sites, alongside legitimate reviews. These texts pose a challenge for computing professionals, especially for those concerned with detecting parodies of reviews and filtering them from legitimate reviews (e.g., Reyes & Rosso, 2011). Parodies, which often rely on irony and sarcasm, are notoriously difficult to detect via automated means, because their embedded meanings often contradict their surface realizations. From this perspective, as a form of “noise in the system,” they are subversive texts, given the primary commercial aims of a site such as Amazon.2 Addressing the question of differences between parodic and non-parodic Amazon reviews, a recent corpus-based analysis (Skalicky & Crossley, 2015) compared a sample of 375 parody reviews with a similar sample of legitimate reviews. The analysis of lexical, grammatical, and semantic features found that the parodic texts were characterized by significantly higher frequencies of past tense words, as well as of word concreteness: Both features are strongly associated with narrativity. The present study builds on these initial findings by offering a discourse-level analysis of parodic texts and by considering the intertextual relationships among them.

One other recent study, by Ray (2016), has taken a corpus approach to examining parody reviews. Ray’s analysis centered on the notion of “stylization” and the gender stereotypes found in Amazon reviews of one popularly-parodied product: Bic Crystal for Her Pens. While scholars from other disciplines have begun to notice that “there is, in fact, a thriving and popular genre of humorous Amazon reviewing” (Kozinets, 2016, p. 836), Ray’s study represents a unique contribution, in that it moves beyond the humorous aspect of parody and recognizes its potential for social critique. Specifically, Ray considered the ways in which authors of parody reviews “reframed patriarchal discourses” about a “sexist product” (2016, p. 42). In terms of what makes these texts identifiable as parodies, Ray noted that they typically mention “an implausible or impossible event,” “unreasonable explanations […or] expectations,” or expressions of “emotional states that seemed unlikely” (2016, p. 63).

While academic scholarship on parodies of consumer reviews is still nascent, numerous forms of digital media – such as online newspapers, blogs, and content aggregator sites – have been showcasing these parodies (sometimes referred to as “ironic,” “spoof,” “sarcastic,” or “funny” reviews) since they first began appearing on Amazon, around the middle of the 2000s (e.g., Doward & Craig, 2012; Pogue, 2010). Building on existing corpus-based research about the language of Amazon review parodies (Ray, 2016; Skalicky & Crossley, 2015), I take a closer, qualitative, discourse analytic approach to identifying both similarity and variation in a sample of 100 parodies of five different products.

Methods

In order to compile a sample of the most popular, best-known, and most widely-circulated reviews of frequently parodied products, I conducted a Google search for “Amazon parody reviews.” This search yielded multiple entries for articles and blog posts written by different authors, dedicated to the illustration and discussion of parody reviews that have appeared on Amazon over the last decade. I downloaded posts from the 10 articles and blogs featured on the first page of results (listed in the Appendix); from there, I identified five frequently-parodied products, i.e., products that were showcased by two or more articles or blogs. My rationale was that products mentioned by several blogs or articles (especially those that appeared at the top of a search) would likely have a wider circulation than a product that was mentioned by only one blog or one article. Furthermore, all five of the selected products are also featured on a page dedicated to “fake customer reviews” on the website knowyourmeme.com, which establishes their status as memes and lends further support to the assumption that they are, in fact, well-known parodied products whose Amazon “reviews” have been circulated across various forms of social media (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/fake-customer-reviews/children).

The five products selected were: Mountain Three Wolf Moon Short Sleeve Tee, Tuscan Whole Milk, Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, BIC Cristal for Her Ball Pen, and AutoExec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Attachable Work Surface Tray. For each of these products, I downloaded the first 20 reviews automatically displayed by Amazon in the order of the site’s default “Top” setting and created a data set of 100 parody reviews.3 After downloading the 100 texts, I read each one and confirmed that it was a parody. My assessment was corroborated by the fact that many of the most highly rated reviews for these products are followed by reader comments orienting to the humorous nature of the texts – rather than to their utility in guiding consumer decision-making – as I discuss below.4

The frequency information provided in Table 1 illustrates just how popular these parodied products are. The second column of Table 1 lists the total number of reviews for each of the five products. As a point of contrast, in my analysis of 200+ bona fide Amazon reviews (Vásquez, 2014), the highest number of reviews associated with a single product was 262. Table 1 demonstrates that products which become popular targets of parodies on Amazon can have reviews numbering in the thousands – i.e., considerably more than ordinary, non-parodied products.

Product

Total # of Reviews

Highest # of Helpfulness

Votes for a Single Review

AutoExec Steering Wheel Work Tray

1,248

25,991

Tuscan Whole Milk

1,881

22,801

BIC Cristal for Her Ball Pen

2,202

41,192

Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt

3,117

40,642

Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer

5,574

55,681

Table 1. Number of reviews and helpfulness votes for five popularly parodied products

The third column in Table 1 shows the highest number of helpfulness votes for the top review listed for each product. It is worth noting that whereas votes of “helpful” for bona fide reviews normally have to do with readers’ assessment of how useful or informative a particular review is, helpfulness votes for parody reviews are most likely not analogous with “the review was helpful.” Instead, in these cases, helpfulness votes function more as a signal of readers’ appreciation. This phenomenon is similar to what has been discussed about the multiple meanings of the like function on Facebook, which extend beyond simply liking of the contents of a post (e.g., Fuchs, 2014; Lee, 2014; Varis & Blommaert, 2014). Such an interpretation is supported by typical user comments posted on Amazon in response to parody reviews, with contents such as “Hilarious, a brilliant review!” and “Sooo Funny. Thanks for the laugh. I'm posting this on FB!,” which orient to the humorous nature of the texts rather than to their usefulness in guiding consumer decision-making. Of course, there is no way of determining how many individuals in total have actually read a given review. Because it is unlikely that all people who read reviews actually rate them as “helpful” (or not), the frequencies in column 3 of Table 1 provide a very conservative estimate of the number of individuals who have read at least one parody review for each product – the actual number of readers is probably much higher. However, the frequency information in column 3 serves as a useful point of comparison: The highest number of helpfulness votes for a single Amazon review in my previous research (Vásquez, 2014) was 316. I have included these numbers to give a sense of how widely-circulated these particular texts are. As Varis and Blommaert point out, the social meanings communicated by “responsive uptake activities” online – in this particular case, giving a “helpfulness” vote in response to a parody review – typically have as much to do with the actual content of what is being liked or voted upon as they do with an individual signaling his or her membership in some group (often a loose collective), in other words, conveying a sense of “ambient affiliation” (Zappavigna, 2011, p. 801) with “like-minded people” (Varis & Blommaert, 2014, p. 7).

The analysis of these reviews consisted of multiple readings of each subset of parodies, followed by annotation and coding of the discourse features that emerged as specific to each product. Space restrictions prevent me from discussing all five products, so I focus here on the three which have the clearest examples of specific tropes associated with them: Steering Wheel Work Tray, Bic for Her Pens, and Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt.

Findings

The Discourse of Parody Reviews

Whether a particular text is identified as parodic or not depends on the subjective interpretation of the reader. Nevertheless, as shown in the examples below, parody reviews share characteristic features which serve as cues to the reader, including highly unlikely or improbable situations (Ray, 2016), exaggeration and hyperbole, and transgressive humor and carnivalesque images (often related to vulgar or taboo topics, such as violence, sex, and other bodily processes). Moreover, authors of parodies also frequently perform acts of self-disclosure as they construct personae that are somehow made relevant to the product being discussed. Further, the majority of parodies take the form of a mock narrative of personal experience. This common device is found in parodies of all the products. In fact, 95% of these parodies (95/100) appear as first-person narratives of experience. Often, parody authors assume the identity of a “confused consumer,” crafting small stories that involve absurd or unlikely events. These stories commonly center around themes of not understanding a product’s instructions, or of using the product for something other than which it was intended. For instance, authors of the Banana Slicer parodies performatively create humor by appearing confused about how to use the simple plastic kitchen gadget (e.g., Once I figured out I had to peel the banana before using - it works much better...). Authors writing about Tuscan Milk (one of the earliest targets of parody reviews)5 perform similar “complaints” about the product’s lack of instructions.

At the same time however, a more specific set of tropes, or themes, which are unique and specific to each product, can also be identified. As I will show below, once particular tropes become established, they are repeated and reworked by different users, in a “variations on a theme” fashion, often relying on intertextual processes similar to those utilized in the creation of other internet memes (Blommaert & Varis, 2014).

Product-Specific Tropes: AutoExec Steering Wheel Work Tray

The tendency of parody authors to create variations on a theme can be clearly observed in parodic reviews of the AutoExec Steering Wheel Work Tray. According to its Amazon description, the Work Tray is designed to be attached to a vehicle’s steering wheel “for the mobile worker on the road, needing support for their tablet or a great place to write.” Presumably, the Steering Wheel Work Tray is intended to be used while a vehicle is stationary; however, this is not indicated anywhere in its Amazon product description. Nearly all authors of parodies about this product seize on this oversight and create humor by describing their specific uses of the steering tray while driving. In fact, 19 of the 20 parody reviews of this product include the expression while driving or related variants, such as whilst driving on the freeway, while changing lanes, or while navigating the modern motorway. These examples represent a specific variation of the “using-the-product-for-some-use-other-than-that-for-which-it-was-intended” trope, which appears in parody reviews for other products as well.

One of the most salient features of parody reviews of the Steering Wheel Work Tray is the carnivalesque, frequently in the form of gallows humor. In parodies of this particular product, authors construct mock narratives which feature the narrators, while driving, engaging in clearly inappropriate and unsafe multi-tasking activities, such as reloading a handgun, mixing cocktails, reading Braille, ironing, playing guitar, and so on. On occasion, such humorous scenarios become even more transgressive when, as a consequence of these activities, narrators lose control of and crash their vehicle, are pulled over by police, or hit and kill pedestrians. In one characteristically transgressive text, the author refers to carrying out multiple inappropriate activities while driving: consuming alcohol, sleeping, and engaging in sexual acts. Example 1 shows an excerpt from this text.

Example 1

Wow is this thing great! I use it as a ‘mini-bar’ when the friends and I go out to the bars. I can quickly fix multiple shots of tequila for myself and the friends as we drive from one bar to the next. We also discovered that if you place a pillow on top of it and turn on the cruise control you can catch quick naps on the interstate. If you swerve to the left or right the rumble strips on the road wake you up in plenty of time before you get into trouble. I can now take longer trips without being tired! Also, i am now dating a midget and she fits nicely on the steering wheel desk which allows us to experiment sexually while driving… [Steering Tray, 9:10/26/2009]

Rather than projecting an identity of a confused consumer, in this instance the parody’s author enacts a nonchalant self, as he casually describes a series of illicit behaviors. He shifts between first and second person pronominal reference, as he alternates between describing his own (imagined) actions, and presenting possibilities for the product’s use to other consumers who may be reading the review. The implicit critiques in parodies of the Steering Wheel Work Tray target the widespread social phenomenon of multi-tasking, or maximizing time efficiency by engaging in two or more activities simultaneously – in this case, while operating a moving vehicle. More specifically, these parodies mock a product that could be interpreted as promoting such irresponsible and dangerous behaviors.

Example 2, another parody review of this product, describes the dangerous activity of placing a baby on the steering wheel tray while driving.

Example 2

I read some 4 and 5 star reviews by those who used this device successfully to change a baby while driving. On that basis, I bought one. I put my baby on it and drove for over an hour. It did not change. Same baby. I am glad it worked for some people but I will be returning mine. (The steering wheel desk.) [Steering Tray, 6: 11/22/2009]

In this highly heteroglossic example, the parody’s author plays with both the product-specific trope – i.e., not understanding that the Steering Wheel Tray should not be used while driving – and the idea of being “confused” (or not very clever) when it comes to matters of linguistic ambiguity. The author projects an identity of an irresponsible driver who has placed an infant on top of the steering tray for an hour while driving. Furthermore, by making an intertextual reference to having read other reviews (a characteristic of non-parodic reviews, as noted earlier), he exploits lexical ambiguity related to the word “change.” Acting as though he has not understood that previous reviewers’ references to “change a baby” meant “change a baby’s diaper,” he comically implies that he was waiting for the baby itself to “change,” in the sense of becoming transformed into a different baby. The author plays with linguistic ambiguity once more at the end of the text, where he makes reference to the possible anaphoric referents of mine – and clarifies that he meant the steering wheel desk, not the baby.

While nearly all authors of parodies about this product project identities of drivers who are highly irresponsible in one or more ways, a smaller set of authors construct even more specific narrative identities related to their (presumably imagined) occupational roles. For instance, the author of Example 3 claims to be an airplane pilot who uses the steering tray to hold a laptop in the cockpit, so that he can play the video game World of Warcraft while on the job.

Example 3

My copilot and I both used these during our ‘daily grind’ transcontinental flights from San Diego to Minneapolis. We had to modify them a bit to fit snug against the instrument panels (when we bought them we didn't realize the planes we fly don't have steering wheels!), but in the end it did the job. With our laptops firmly in place we were able to focus our attention on what really mattered, participating in raids with our WoW clan… [Steering Tray, 7:11/4/2009]

Similarly, in Example 4, the author claims to be a school bus driver, who uses the product to check email and social media while driving.

Example 4

Believe it or not, I'm typing this review on my laptop steering wheel desk! As a school bus driver I was never be able to check my email and update facebook while at work. Now I am networking more than ever! I am recommending this product to the school board later this month. [Steering Tray, 11: 11/11/2009]

The way in which many of these authors begin their reviews – with an explicit identity claim (e.g., As a school bus driver…, My co-pilot and I…) – is very similar to what occurs in many non-parodic reviews (not only on Amazon, but also on other sites) as review writers claim situationally-relevant identities in order to contextualize their evaluation of a given product or service (Vásquez, 2014). In doing so, authors of parodies demonstrate their knowledge of online reviewing conventions; it is also this crafting of a fictional identity which enables them to engage in double-voicing throughout the text (e.g., it seems highly unlikely that a professional bus driver or airplane pilot would put passengers’ lives in jeopardy by engaging in such behaviors – and even less likely that they would admit to doing so publicly).

Moreover, the near-identical content and structural presentation of Examples 3 and 4 – i.e., the mention of a specific occupational role (school bus driver, commercial pilot) followed by a description of engaging in specific online activities while on-the-job – suggests that parody authors are relying on intertextual processes in the discourse structuring of their texts. In these cases – and in others, as will be discussed in the next section – it is possible that one (or more) parody review(s) serves as a model for other parody reviews of the same product. When this happens, authors create a sense of ambient affiliation, not only by showing that they recognize what is humorous about these texts, but also that they are skilled enough to produce a variant of the dominant trope associated with a given product.

Product-Specific Tropes: BIC Cristal for Her Ball Pen

Some authors creatively recontextualize Amazon’s product descriptions in their parody reviews. This is often the case with another popularly-parodied product: the BIC Cristal for Her Ball Pen. Amazon’s description of this product – a package of several pastel-colored ball-point pens filled with black ink – appears as five bulleted points, two of which read “Elegant design - just for her!” and “Thin barrel to fit a woman's hand.” Several authors of parodies play with these descriptors, by crafting reviews in which they intertextually refer to their own hands as tiny, delicate, weak, or womanly, as well as by referencing other types of “for her” products (e.g., not-so-fresh-feeling, curvy and carefree, heavy flow days, with wings). Also included in this set of parodies are references to female body parts (e.g., having a sprained uterus, my lady parts).

Similar to the Steering Tray parody examples, the following Bic for Her examples show how once a norm becomes established, it is taken up and reworked by other authors writing parodies of the same product. The majority of parody reviews of the BIC for Her Pen adopt a first-person narrative perspective, most often formulated as a pithy “small story” of 2-3 sentences. Humor is typically created through exaggeration and the pushing of stereotypes to absurd extremes. As Ray (2016) pointed out in his corpus-based study, many Bic for Her parodies invoke traditional gender roles and stereotypes, expressed as references to sewing, cooking, baking, knitting, shopping, and being dependent on/at the service of men, as seen in Examples 5 and 6.

Example 5

I'd really like to buy a pack of these pens; but I probably need my father's or husband's permission first. Like I do with all my financial decisions. [Bic, 4: 11/28/2013]

Example 6

These pens do not sparkle enough. I would write more, but I need to go make my husband a sandwich. [Bic, 17: 4/12/2013]

Both of these examples are written from an implied female perspective. Both authors’ relational identities are created by their first-person references to my husband, in combination with one or more gender stereotypes (e.g., needing permission from one’s husband to make a purchase, liking objects that sparkle). In other instances, parody authors claim a gendered identity in even more explicit terms, as in Example 7.

Example 7

First of all I'm a male. I picked a pink one up by mistake to write a quick note... Next thing I know I'm sitting down to take a pee. Be careful. [Bic, 12: 8/27/2012]

Here, the author adopts the persona of a man, who accidentally uses this pink “female” product and consequently, engages in a behavior normally associated with women (i.e., sitting down to take a pee). This author follows his concise narrative with a warning to others. The humor here – and in other parodies similar to this one – is based on comically implying a causal relationship: using a “for her” product resulting in noticeable changes in one’s behavior and/or biology.

What all parodies of the BIC for Her Pen have in common is their orientation to gender politics, emphasizing the critical dimension of parody. Therefore, this particular set of parodies – most often, ironic imagined narratives, replete with gender stereotypes – can be viewed as public responses to marketers’ efforts intended to “gender” a gender-neutral product: in this case, a pen. Such an interpretation is supported by the commentary of other review texts that exist alongside these parodies, wherein authors voice their indignation in response to such marketing efforts in even more explicit ways, in comments such as: “A ten-pack of the same pen that's not marketed ‘for her’ is about half the price. Stop buying this kind of crap!” and “Really Bic? You actually manufacture this pen? You want to insult every woman on the planet? Well, you did it.” When parody reviews convey similar critiques to texts such as these, they are usually communicated more tacitly.6 However, in Example 8, the critique of the company’s marketing efforts is stated in explicit terms – yet this critique is also very clearly heteroglossic.

Example 8

I haven't bought these. I don't understand why the ink is black? I only write in pink, I'm a girl for God's sake BIC please think before marketing a product for women. So careless. [Bic, 16: 4/12/2013]

In this instance, the reviewer addresses her critique directly to the company: for God's sake BIC please think before marketing a product for women. However, rather than critiquing the company for its marketing of a pen to women in such an overtly gendered fashion, the author of the text instead adopts another voice, in which it appears like she is taking Bic to task for not delivering on their marketing promise: i.e., the pen’s ink is black, when it should be pink – the product is not “girly” enough! This text manifests the ideological clash associated with double-voicing, as the parodist performs critique explicitly, while at the same time subverting the audience’s expectations about what exactly the point of the critique is, or should be.

Gender-specific tropes are less common in parodies of the other products discussed here (with the exception of the Three Wolf Moon Shirt, where the dominant perspective is a male one – as shown in the next section). In contrast, in all of the Bic for Her parodies, gender is referenced either explicitly (e.g., as a full figured woman, for us ladies, I’m a girl, my tiny womanly hands) or implicitly, in relational terms (e.g., my husband, my wife). The repeated reworkings of this set of resources by different authors demonstrates their understanding of how parodies of this particular product operate. In other words, by deploying a set of recognizable gendered stereotypes in their own texts, authors of parodies of Bic for Her Pens demonstrate that they “get” the joke, and/or that they understand why the marketing of a normally gender neutral product to women is problematic. As other participants join in and post their own parodies, a shared perspective emerges, resulting in tropic constructions of ambient affiliation.

Product-Specific Tropes: Three Wolf Moon Shirt

The Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt, a garment featuring an image of three wolf heads howling at the moon, is one of the best-known parodied products available on Amazon. The first parody review of this product is reported to have been posted by a North American university student in 2008, who picked up on its “unfashionable, blue-collar appeal” (Appelbome, 2009). The product quickly became an internet meme, appearing in several other forms of digital and mass media, as documented on its Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Wolf_Moon). The dominant trope that appears in its Amazon parody reviews is that the garment is transformative, or “life-changing,” and that it endows the wearer (usually male) with enhanced sex appeal and virility, as well as miraculous powers such as superhuman strength. The references to the shirt’s magical properties and to making its wearer instantly appealing to women can be seen in the example below. Example 9 is an excerpt from the original parody review, which continues to appear as the top review for this product on Amazon.

Example 9

This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that's when the magic happened. After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on and was immediately approached by women. […]

Pros: Fits my girthy frame, has wolves on it, attracts women
Cons: Only 3 wolves (could probably use a few more on the ‘guns’), cannot see wolves when sitting with arms crossed, wolves would have been better if they glowed in the dark. [Three Wolves, 1: 11/10/2008]

Although this original parody was posted in 2008, the Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt remains the target of parody reviews to the present day, with parody authors continuing to rely on the same set of tropes (transformation, superhuman powers, sex appeal, etc.) in the construction of their texts.

References to the author’s trailer and to shopping at Walmart in Example 9 signal another product-specific trope, related to the product’s “blue-collar appeal.” Just as parodies of the BIC Pen for Her relied on stereotypes of gender to produce humor, parodies of the Three Wolf Moon Shirt often invoke stereotypes of class. In these instances, parodists exploit and reify class connotations for humorous effect, focusing on the poor taste of a class of people who would wear this type of garment. This is accomplished through the discursive construction of a low-class persona – wherein, the author, writing in a mock first person narrative style – makes reference to any number of items which index a person belonging to the lower classes in the U.S.. These include very specific references to types of employment (e.g., factory job, cashier), businesses frequented (e.g., Walmart, Sizzler, Waffle House), drinks consumed (e.g., Big Gulp, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Boone’s Farm wine), vehicles driven (e.g., Camaro, truck), or possessions owned (e.g., velvet paintings, waterbeds, guns, lottery tickets).

Top-ranked reviews are often followed by user comments; these are displayed on Amazon in chronological order. In the case of Example 9, the original parody review is followed by more than 300 comments, the first of which reads: “When I first saw this review I thought, ‘Why would anyone want to write three longish paragraphs about a wolf shirt??!?’ But then I read it. I won't be melodramatic and say my life has been changed, but I think it totally has been. I bought the shirt. Am now awaiting magic in mail.” [4/20/2009]. Comments such as these, which are also situated within the review space on Amazon, offer another kind of textual response to a parody review. Indeed, comments become part of the intertextual chains that occur in this particular ecology of texts (Heyd, 2016). Just as the authors of other Three Wolf Moon parodies do, the author of this comment intertextually references transformation (my life has been changed) and magic. Furthermore, this comment clearly illustrates how parodies can be simultaneously transgressive and authorized. While the author of the comment aligns with the parody’s author in what is clearly a playful frame (i.e., by repeating the same tropes), he simultaneously reinforces the commercial aims of the site by indicating that he has actually purchased the shirt. This example points to some of the complex imbrications of public participation in mediated commercial spaces.

Referring to Another Popularly-Parodied Product

Finally, some parody review authors create other kinds of layered intertextual relationships by mentioning a well-known parodied product in a text that appears in the review space dedicated to a different popularly-parodied product. An example of this can be seen in the text below, where the author of a parody review of the Three Wolf Moon Shirt makes only a vague mention of the T-shirt itself (i.e., this shirt) and instead names another frequently parodied product, Tuscan Whole Milk.

Example 10

I accidentally spilled a glass of Tuscan Whole Milk down the front of this shirt, and my soul was torn from my body and thrown into heaven by a jealous God. [Three Wolf, 6: 5/4/2009]

Besides constructing a first person narrative account of an unlikely event, the author creates an additional sense of playfulness by textually linking together in a single review space two different products that have nothing to do with one another – other than both being popular targets of parody. Similarly, the author of a parody review of the Steering Tray in Example 11 makes an intertextual reference to another frequently parodied product: the Banana Slicer.

Example 11

I am so glad this product has come along. Finally, I have a flat surface to use my Hutzler Banana Slicer while on the go. [Steering Tray, 14: 4/19/2013]

Other than relying on the main product-specific trope that appears in Steering Wheel Tray parodies (i.e., using the tray to multitask while driving), Example 11 is quite unremarkable as parodies go; it includes no exaggeration, hyperbole, or carnivalesque features. Indeed, with its primary focus (ostensibly) on product evaluation and description, this text actually looks the most like a legitimate Amazon product review, compared to the other examples discussed here. The only cue to its status as a parody is the reference to another popularly parodied product.

Examples 10 and 11 show their authors’ awareness that they are not only contributing to the ongoing stream of parody reviews written about one specific product, but that they are also participating in a larger internet phenomenon. These examples provide some indication of the complexity of relationships between users, practices, and resulting texts, revealing that some authors of parodies of online reviews are familiar not only with other parodies written about a specific product, but also with parodies written about other products which have become popular targets of numerous parodies on Amazon – and which have likely been circulated across other forms of media.

Conclusions

Although most discourse analytic research on online parodies has tended to focus on YouTube videos, a broad range of other vernacular forms of parody can also be found online today. This study has focused on a site that features textual parodies: the online review spaces built into the website of e-retailer Amazon. Not all products available on Amazon become the targets of parody reviews; however, when a particular product does become a popular object of parody, the resulting number of reviews can be impressive. As other users take notice, share, and circulate parody texts about a product, this leads to an increasing number of parodies posted by other users; sometimes these activities result in parody reviews for a single product numbering into the thousands – as well as “helpful” votes numbering in the tens of thousands. Some products become such well-established targets that they continue to serve as productive sources of parodies for many years, achieving the status of memes.

By taking a discourse analytic approach, this study has both built on and extended existing research on the language of parody reviews. In line with Skalicky and Crossley’s (2015) quantitative findings that parody reviews have more linguistic features associated with narrativity (e.g., past tense verbs, concrete nouns) than legitimate reviews do, my textual analysis has highlighted in addition that parody authors rely on narrative structures, regardless of the type of product being discussed. Furthermore, I have shown how authors of Amazon parody reviews engage in heteroglossic practices through which they discursively construct imagined identities and produce texts that rely on diverse forms of intertextuality. These practices enable authors of review parodies to participate in a particular type of sociality, which takes place in an online space that is otherwise dedicated to commodification and consumption. Thus in the review spaces of popularly parodied products, ambient affiliation emerges as a result of shared text construction practices, such as the reworking of recognizable tropes, and shared stances, such as the deployment of in-group humor.

Like Ray (2016), my analysis also revealed some of the more critical stances taken by authors of parodies. Furthermore, I have shown how critique is often accomplished though double voicing. Double voicing contributes to the ambivalence of meanings generally characteristic of parodic texts, leaving readers to wonder: To what extent is the author also reinforcing that which s/he appears to be mocking? As I have shown, parodic texts posted in online review spaces can subvert marketers’ messages about a particular product – or they can reinforce them. Owing largely to their semiotic indeterminacy, parodies of consumer reviews may, in some cases, be able to accomplish both goals simultaneously. As public participation in these discourse practices increases, greater visibility and consumer awareness may be brought to a particular product, which in turn may be associated with unpredictable or unintended economic outcomes. When viewed as a form of “authorized transgression,” review parodies can be understood as simultaneously subversive and complicit with the primary commercial aims of a site such as Amazon. The fact that they remain on Amazon’s site – rather than being deleted – even though they clearly violate Amazon’s “Community Guidelines” (i.e., “Content you submit should be relevant and based on your own honest opinions and experience.”) further confirms their status as “authorized transgressions.”

Parody reviews occur as part of a larger textual ecosystem (Heyd, 2016). Obviously, parodies of reviews exist alongside legitimate reviews (on which they are intertextually dependent). Beyond that, they also appear next to more explicit critiques of businesses (as, for instance, in the Bic for Her examples) and in user comments (as shown in the Three Wolf Moon example), which may themselves respond to and take up the narrative tropes established in a set of parodies. Parodies of online consumer reviews represent ludic digital practices that punctuate otherwise banal spaces dedicated to mass consumption. From this perspective, Amazon can be conceptualized as a twenty-first century agora, a virtual marketplace where legitimate consumer practices take place, as well as a sphere where individuals can exchange perspectives, air their political views, entertain one another, and affiliate with others who enjoy similar kinds of online practices.

Notes

  1. Throughout this article I contrast parody reviews with what I refer to variously as “bonafide” or “legitimate” reviews. This is my way of distinguishing between parodic and non-parodic reviews.

  2. Yet at the same time, Amazon itself has compiled a blog post with the “funniest”parody reviews from their own site (http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?docId=1001250201). This is another example of the dual nature of parody – and of parody as “authorized” (Hutcheon, 2000, p. 26).

  3. All data were collected in January 2015; however, the review display is dynamic. As new reviews are added, they potentially impact the display order for a given product as they interact with the site’s algorithm. Therefore the “Top” reviews at the time of data collection may or may not be the same as the “Top” reviews displayed today.

  4. Similarly, Ray found that nearly all of the reviews in his Bic of Her pen corpus were parodic: Only 12 of the 671 reviews (less than 2%) were non-parodic.

  5. According to a New York Times article, the earliest parodies of Tuscan Milk, which appeared in the summer of 2006, offer “a high-concept commentary on a bookseller’s corporate overreach” (Zeller, 2006). These were very likely among the earliest parodies of reviews to be posted on Amazon, and many of them seemed to address the absurdity of purchasing a perishable good, such as milk, from an online retailer. When Tuscan Milk first appeared on Amazon, its cost was listed at $3.99; today, the same gallon of milk is listed at $75.00. While the product itself is real, it is possible that the $75 version of it featured on Amazon is the result of either some kind of error or joke, since this is the only one of the five parodied products discussed here for which no “Verified Purchase” reviews can be found. (In contrast, each of the other parodied projects has at least some “Verified Purchase” reviews: Bic for Her Pens = 26; Steering Tray = 67; Three Wolves = 328; Banana Slicer = 535.) Although the majority of reviews that appear for these five products are parodies, Amazon’s “Verified Purchase” badge indicates that at least some review writers have actually purchased these products through the site. A review accompanied by a “Verified Purchase” does not necessarily indicate that it is not a parody review, however. Several of these products have become memes, and when they are purchased by some individuals, they may be used or displayed in an ironic way.

  6. This product is no longer available for purchase on Amazon. Curious to learn if this was at all related to the public’s critical response to the product on Amazon, I contacted Bic with my inquiry but so far have received no response.

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Biographical Note

Camilla Vásquez [cvasquez@usf.edu] is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of South Florida. She is the author of The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews (2014, Bloomsbury), and her research about online review language has appeared in Discourse Context & Media, Journal of Pragmatics, and Narrative Inquiry.


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