Media Power and Post Modernity

Analysis of print advertisements for similar products using semiotic methods

This is a semiotic analysis of two print advertisements whose similarity lies in the fact that all of them refer to fragrance, but of different sexes.

Semiotics study focuses on signs, sign systems, and their resultant meanings. People use this technique to decode images. The method has become popular in the advertisement industry with usages of images. Images or signs bring an idea or ideas to the audience mind. These combinations of ideas enable the audience to make sense of what is happening. These signs and their symbols give the advertiser opportunities to put their messages across to the audience (Hervey, 1982).

Signs exist in different types. There is an icon, which is like a photograph. It looks familiar to the viewer and brings another mental image. Another sign is an index. This enables viewers to see it and think of other things. Then there is a sign known as a symbol. This represents the same thing the sign symbolizes. Signs enable us to derive meanings when we put them in a logical sequence. The above types of signs enable people to understand written, technical, and narratives in an image.

We have noticed that advertisements have no physical representations of products. Instead, they offer an icon sign of what the product and the product itself represents. Therefore, any semiotic analysis of a print advertisement should focus on photographic imagery and how those images will give the viewers signified ideas. Thus, the representation of this manner enhances the real product’s image (Sless, 1986).

When we break an image into several parts, then we can decode the content and derive meanings. This enables the audience to understand the message in the image. People can read and interpret codes within a culture due to semiotics. Berger and Luckmann note that when we look at social, ideological, technical, and conventional views, we can develop a list and see how they can work in society (Berger and Luckmann, 1967).

According to Fiske, in the analysis of semiotics, there are mainly three areas of interest. These include the sign itself, the culture in which we find codes and signs, and finally, the codes or systems in which we organized these signs (Fiske, 1982).

We know that signs do not work in isolations, i.e., they involve their contexts. The meaning we derive from a sign does not come from within the sign itself. With references to meanings, Chandler notes, “the message is not the meaning” but occur in its interpretation and context (Chandler, 1998). In this interaction processes, we must look at semiotics as social interaction among people who give meanings to signs, and the sign itself as it gives many meanings.

This is why interpreters believe that signs are in forms of cultural codes. Therefore, in the interpretation of signs and their meanings, Saussure looks at syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures in signs. Syntagm is orderly arrangements and combinations of different but interacting signs to give meaningful whole.

On the other hand, paradigms are signs which belong to defining categories. Therefore, paradigms will give the viewer plurality in meanings as syntagm will narrow signs and their interpretations into contexts they occur (Thwaites, Lloyd and Mules, 1994).

We can also look at Stuart Hall theory on representation, particularly of women to understand semiotic analysis in the advertisements (Hall, 1980). For instance, the advertisement The Axe Effect (deodorant for women), we can derive several meanings from that advertisement or image.

When we probe and ask questions about an image, we can understand it and know what it represents. According to Hall, an image or its words may represent what is there or something else. Representation is just but to give the audience the meaning or meanings, and the way the audience will also give an image a meaning.

However, the new idea posits that Representation should only have one, but fixed meaning and this meaning should be what viewers make out of an image. In this context, viewers must realize representation within the context of an image or event, but not outside. The image must give us meaning from itself because of what it represents and what viewers depict from it. We refer to this as a conceptual map.

The conceptual map is the meaning or classification we give an image. Viewers learn to classify images in their contexts using their languages. Language is essential in classification because it allows the audience to give a meaning to an image and be able to analyze and describe it using that language. Thus, if there is no language, images would not have meanings.

Hall’s idea of representation works easily. We have the sign that we associate with an object. Advertisers use this idea to create images for selling their brands. We rely on signs we see and those not visible to us to make meaning out of an image. In this case, what we see or do not see lead us to make assumptions about an image and representation that we give the sign.

For instance, in The Axe Effect, we see white and black hands throwing up women’s bras of different colors with the message, LIBERATION! HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY, GUYS, the viewers will derive different meanings from this image based on what they see and cannot see. We may assume that these women are trying to appeal to the male viewers who may interpret bras as the source of the women’s predicaments in society. Once these women get rid of their bras, they feel free, naked, so to say. Could there be men somewhere watching them?

We must put an identity with a representation. If representation does not have an identity, then it would not represent any image. We must put it in its context to derive the meaning or meanings from the image. These advertisements will only have effects on the audience if they can identify with the representation of groups in them.

In the advertisement The Axe Effect, if women’s freedom or liberation is in the advertisement, they will see themselves as able to be like the women in the advertisement who feel liberated after using Axe. They are also aware that women liberation is long overdue, and it is what women long to achieve. Therefore, they must strive and feel like the group of women who have achieved liberation through the deodorant.

In the advertisement for women’s deodorant, The Axe Effect, essentially the striking advertisement colors are red, dark red and sky blue. Also, there are skin complexions of women from different races represented by hands. There is also a dark background so that the images standout.

These mixtures of colors, both in bras and skin complexions, are not coincidences. We can see how the use of colors is significant in women’s advertisement. Colors, in this context, are elements that both the viewers and advertisers understand their integral parts in the advertisement. Colour is a sign of aesthetic code that both the advertiser and viewer understand their shared values in the given cultural contexts.

The advertisement Old Spice strongly uses photographic images to get the viewer to create meaning out of it. The advertiser uses many signifiers to establish the identity of the deodorant. This is an image that reflects the ideas of the texts beneath it. The male model, posing as a doctor, represents the youthful generation who are active in their late 20s. Behind the doctor, there is a patient who could be the source of chronic body odor the doctor is referring to in his message.

Beneath the model is an iconic image of the Old Spice, which is close to the message it represents, PROS STRENGTH. These different elements of the advertisement create a clear and whole message with a single meaning. At a glance, we must notice the difference between the youthful model and the sick, old patient.

The youthful image adds glamour to the message. This serves to enhance both the product image and its textual elements. The image of the patient represents the generation that produces chronic body odor that the doctor needs protection from during his job.

The striking feature of the semiotic elements of this advertisement is within its idea of body odor protection, which is the reason for the images in the advertisement. The young model, a doctor, looks at ease, not knowing where the stethoscope lies on the patient’s body. The doctor seems not to be under any restriction about the professional code of conduct.

He has no necktie, looks in the opposite direction and with the left hand in the pocket. The doctor enjoys immense freedom by his loose dust coat, and a relaxed gaze, as the patient reacts with a surprised feeling. The advertisement freedom in a hospital setting, which is usually a place of intense activities, cannot get better than this (Ryan and Schwartz, 1956).

We must note that in most advertisements, the image alone cannot achieve the advertiser’s desires. Therefore, advertisers must include messages alongside their images to enable viewers to form the concept or representation behind the image. The messages we have in these advertisements include PROS, STRENGTH, and LIBERATION! HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY, GUYS.

These messages enable viewers to generate concepts to signify images and messages. Thus, the relationships establish the products’ codes, which both the advertisers and the audience can relate and understand their meanings. Codes will enable the audience to get the basic ideas advertisers have in mind when creating such adverts. The use of both the language (the words) and iconic images allow viewers to get the messages of the advertisements (Holdcroft, 1991).

Similarities and differences

Semiotic similarities and differences exist in these adverts. For instance, let us look at how women and men express their sense of freedom. Women’s representation of freedom relates to their bodily features; thus, the use of bras in the image. These are undergarments, which hold their private body parts. Therefore, throwing them in the sky means liberation to them. Advertisers know that adverts with minimal sex appeal rarely attract attention, particularly with body products.

On the other hand, a man can simply achieve a sense of freedom by adopting a relaxed gaze (Kennedy, 1974). Men do not have to throw their undergarments to achieve freedom. Though, the deodorants enable both sexes to achieve freedom, but somehow, in different ways.

The women’s advert may appear simple, but its representation allows viewers to generate different meanings from it. Viewers can give it a pragmatic interpretation based on what it signifies with the relevancy of the advertisement context. The essential elements viewers can use in this advert are the colors, hands, and bras.

Unlike the colors in the women’s advert, the male advert has no mixtures of colors. It consists of a single striking color of the background where the message lies.

The rest of the setting takes the form of a natural environment. The striking white texts from a dark red background are signifiers, which work to give the advert a masculine appeal predominant in the message. Therefore, colors have significant functions in both advertisements. They serve both the cultural codes in terms of interpretations and aesthetic codes with a reference to appeals.

We can notice the semiotic significance of human images in the advertisements. We have women’s hand with the rest of their bodies not visible. On the other hand, we can see the man as a whole except for his legs. There are also iconic representations of products in the advertisements. The iconic similarities in the products only serve illustrative purposes. Otherwise, the messages come from the human subjects involved.

Unlike in the male advert, where we a full representation of the figure, this is lacking in the women’s advert. However, the advert has strong signifiers to give the product a tangible representation. The choices of words, such as LIBERATION! HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY, GUYS, clearly demonstrate the advertiser’s message and the intended audience. This signifies the products message of liberation across the races. Thus, the product is suitable for women of different races (Lechte, 1994).

These advertisements have signifiers which reinforce the advertisers’ intended meanings. They make the viewers think that they will achieve liberation and stay fresh during their working hours. The adverts achieve this sense of liberation by the bras flying in the sky and a relaxed doctor attending a patient. However, the women’s advert attracts viewers’ existing knowledge by observing the photographic images of hands and bras. These images show that the real products are refreshing and give people chances of having fulfilling experiences.

Mythical meanings

Stuart Hall notes that images do not have any fixed meanings. However, they have preferred meanings as attributed by the audience. People use their existing knowledge and the power they have to give advertisements meanings. Advertisers use their creative power to influence advertisement messages. They can manipulate images as much as they want to give them the desired meaning. Some cultures may ignore these ideological representations in advertisement images.

However, advertisers combine these images with their power to represent both women and men in certain ways to enable them to market their products. Such appeals may have what Barthes refers to as myth. Here, myths represent the dominant ideologies of the contemporary world regarding advertisements. Further, Barthes argues, “myth has a double function. It points out, and it notifies, it makes us understand something, and it imposes it on us” (Barthes, 1967).

When we look at these advertisements, we do not easily connect them to the reality of the world, except for images of the products we may be familiar with from previous experiences. Their narrative messages look like fantasy. The images we have in both adverts do not occur in daily, normal life.

Therefore, representations do not lie within the cultural codes of everyday life. These conditions appear to be fictional. However, the context relies on concepts which point towards reality, such as a sick man in a hospital, but women throwing their bras in mass are out of context in any culture.

There is a certain meaning we give images. These meanings relate to the way societies and cultures value and use images. In some traditions, a woman’s bra remains a private part of her clothing. However, the advertisement world has exceptions here. Still, it relates such undergarments to women. This means that the advertisement industry is still a male-dominated field where women can only get representation in terms of their sexuality or through their undergarments.

On the other hand, the male model only reflects a prosperous person who works hard and excels in society Deodorants give people a fresh smell, and the majority believe in them to fight body odor; thus it can make their smell. This is necessary to make the target audience consider these images seriously.

Advertisements work by adopting common norms and conventions which a given society shares. For instance, we believe that deodorants work to keep us fresh. Therefore, manufacturers have developed different products to suit different sexes. Consequently, advertisers have developed adverts to appeal to different consumers using different techniques to appeal to societies which share common conventions.


Reference List

Barthes, R 1967, Elements of Semiology, Jonathan Cape, London.

Berger, P and Luckmann, T 1967, The Social Construction of Reality, Anchor/Doubleday, New York.

Chandler, D 1998, Semiotics for Beginners, Abya-Yala, Quito, Ecuador.

Fiske, J 1982, Introduction to Communication Studies, Routledge, London.

Hall, S 1980, ‘Encoding/decoding’, Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, vol.79, pp. 128-38.

Hervey, S 1982, Semiotic Perspectives, George Allen & Unwin, London.

Holdcroft, D 1991, Saussure: Signs, Systems and Arbitrariness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kennedy, J 1974, A Psychology of Picture Perception, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Lechte, J 1994, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity, Routledge, London.

Ryan, T and Schwartz, B 1956, ‘Speed of Perception as a Function of Mode of Representation’, American Journal of Psychology, vol. 96, pp. 66-69.

Sless, D 1986 In Search of Semiotics, Croom Helm, London.

Thwaites, T, Lloyd, D and Mules, W 1994, Tools for Cultural Studies: An Introduction, Macmillan, South Melbourne.

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