CI5472 Teaching Film, Television, and Media

 Module 6: Studying Advertising

Module 6

Application of Semiotic Analysis to Ads

Contemporary advertising depends primarily on assumed meanings of images and signs. Semiotic analysis focuses on the meaning of these images or signs in advertising based on a code system of consumption. Robert Goldman (1992) notes that:

Modern advertising thus teaches us to consume, not the product, but its sign. What the product stands for is more important than what it is. A commodity-sign is complete when we take the sign for what it signifies. For example, “diamonds may be marketed by likening of them to eternal love, creating a symbolism where the mineral means something not in its own terms, as a rock, but in human terms, as a sign” (Williamson, 1978, 12). The diamond is on longer a means of securing eternal love, it has become eternal love. Conversely, eternal love assumes diamond-like qualities. (p. 19).

Advertising therefore constructs the meaning of sign values associating with constructing identities. Goldman cites the example of perfumes:

Purchasing the right perfume means that a woman will not only acquire a particular odor at a particular price but “a gorgeous, sexy, young, fragrance.” A customer will, in consuming the product, acquire the qualities of being gorgeous, sexy, and young? No, she acquires a sign of being gorgeous, sexy, young. It is the look we have come to desire; and the look we desire is the object of desire. People thus become a kind of tabula rasa, a slate filled with desired attributes by the objects they consumer; the object becomes an active agent capable of going all the things that a gorgeous, sexy and young person can do. (p. 24).

Click here for a semiotic analysis of magazine ads for men’s fragrances by Alexander Clare.

PBS: Food Advertising Tricks

This suggests the need to analyze how brands acquire certain meanings, how Cadillac or Christian Dior acquire meanings associated with those brands through advertising and marketing. Describe the meanings you associate with the following popular brand names and how your acquired these meanings:

Apple Computer
Johnny Walker

Greg Myers (1999) identifies four systems or “p’s” of marketing that serve to constitute the meanings associated with these brands: product, placement, promotion, and price.

Product. The nature of the product, as well as the packaging and presentation of the product — for example, ads may describe the unique ways in which a beer is brewed.

Placement. How products are placed and displayed in a store in order to make certain brand names prominent in a store.

Promotion. How brands are promoted through various advertising techniques.

Price. How brands are promoted in terms of being a “good value,” or, in terms of customers willingness to pay a premium price.

Myers also describes four more “p’s” associated with the promotion of brands: past, position, practices, and paradigms.

Past. Brand names are associated with a certain tradition or “heritage” in terms of meanings based on how advertisers create a record over time.

Position. Advertisements attempt to place brands in competitive relationships with other brands to mark those brands as superior or unique — the fact that Hertz is #1 or Avis “tries harder” (in the number two spot).

Practices. Customers’ actual uses of products, practices associated with the meaning of brands — the fact that Starbucks coffee is associated with a yuppie practice of consuming coffee and/or meeting with others at a coffee shop. As Myers notes, practices may change — for example, how Levi’s jeans shifted from being work clothes to more fashionable social markers.

Paradigms. Larger cultural frameworks or discourses shaping the meanings of brands, for example, how the meaning of smoking in the 1950s compares with contemporary meanings given shifts in larger paradigms related to perceptions of smoking.

Go back and review the meanings associated with the brand names listed above in terms of Myers’s eight “p’s.” What advertising images do you associate with your meanings of the different brands? What intertextual experiences or code systems are you applying to construct the meanings of these brands?

The meanings of these brand names are constituted by larger public relations campaigns involved in creating positive images for products, companies, industries, or organizations. This includes creating logos that are readily identifiable and that evoke a positive image. If a logo is perceived to evoke an outdated, out-of-touch image, that logo will then be revised.

Click here for examples of logos.

Which of these logos are effective and which are not?

Have students create their own logos, using the following features:

A good logo often has one or more of the following attributes:

  • Simplicity

  • Appealing colors

  • Legibility

  • A relevant graphic

The big question is, how does one judge whether these attributes are present since each is very subjective? If you have an opportunity, “test” your logo by allowing customers or potential customers to see it. But the truth is, in the final analysis the logo must please you.

Look at the National Honey Board’s logo for an example:

Take a look at the National Honey Board’s logo. Judge it according to the attributes mentioned above:

The logo is simple.
It has the word “Honey” and a bear eating from a honey jar.

The logo is legible.
Even though “Honey” is in a script style, one can easily read it.

The colors are appealing.
Though it’s not visible here, the logo is often shown in black and white with a striking gold highlight.

The logo features a relevant graphic.
The illustration of a bear eating honey implies the wide appeal of honey, the product’s old-fashioned innocence, and its natural purity.

However, in some cases, there are problems with the argument that brand names carry a lot of power. Wolfgang Grassl argues that this concept of “brand idealism” fails to consider the differences between brands and products, when they are often quite different. For example, consumers of products such as break or milk may not consider brand names in making such choices. Or, in some cases, imitation products without the same brand name, for example Rolex watches without the Rolex name, may retain their same value. And, certain products cannot always be successfully sold through marketing their brand name.

In her book on branding, No Logo, Naomi Klein (2000) argues that branding is part of a larger multi-international corporate attempt to assume power and control within the context of economic globalization. She is critical of the emphasis on public relations campaigns designed to sell positive images for companies who are either selling undesirable products or who are violating worker rights or anti-pollution laws.

Education Media Foundation video with Naomi Klein: No Logo: Brands, Globalization & Resistance

Part of this branding process, marketing people attempt to determine how adolescents construct their identities through wearing or using products based on these products’ “coolness” or brand names. Both the PBS Frontline documentary, Merchants of Cool (entire documentary online) and Alissa Quart (2003) document the ways in which marketers hire consulting firms and trend-spotters to acquire information about adolescents’ perceptions of what particular brands, fashions, music, and other products are perceived of as trendy or “cool” (See also Module 8 on media ethnography). They also encourage adolescents to engage in word-of-mouth promotions of certain products with their peers.

Use of color in ads


For further reading on the semiotics of advertising:

Forceville, C. (1998). Pictorial metaphor in advertising. New York: Routledge.

Williamson, J. (1994). Decoding advertisements: Ideology and meaning in advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

A Broader Definition of Advertising Instruction

Advertising Drives Content

Why Study Ads?

Application of Semiotic Analysis to Ads

Rhetorical/Audience Analysis of Ads

Critical Discourse Analysis of Ads

Advertising as Propaganda: Public Relations Ads

Advertising and Idealized Gender Images

Advertising and Alcohol/Tobacco

Advertising and the Pharmaceutical Industry

Advertising on the Web

Marketing in Schools

Political Advertising

Product Placements

Creating or Parodying Ads


Teaching Activities

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