Select a full page advertisement from either a newspaper of a magazine and do a semiotic analysis of how the representation
‘works’. To whom is the advertisement addressing, and the whom is the message directed?
Advertisements are a rich source for semiotic analysis. The term semiotics derives from the Greek word semeion meaning ‘sign’. The birth of the science of semiotics can be attributed mainly to the work of two men, the American philosopher Charles Peirce, and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The meaning of a sign is not contained within itself, or as Daniel Chandler says, ‘the message is not the meaning’ but arises in its interpretation and context (Chandler, 1998: WWW). Semiotics therefore refers to a kind of social interaction between the individual as a meaning maker and the sign offering different interpretations. The semiotic analysis of advertising believes that meanings of adverts are to move out from the page, to lend significance to our experience of reality. We are encouraged to experience the advertised, in terms of the mythic meanings on which adverts draw (Bignell, 1997: 33).
Successful advertisements commonly combine textual and visual images to produce a maximum effect of persuasion on the directed audience. However, these effects will predominantly materialize with individuals who identify with and share the same cultural knowledge. Nonetheless, cultural knowledge is more than simply comprehending what the codes signify; it is developing and maintaining an awareness of the things that might be suggested by the code through systems of difference, denotations and connotations (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 1998: 82). What follows is a semiological analysis of a Clarins advertisement for a fragrance in women’s magazine, Harper’s Bazzaar, Australia. This Clarins advertisement reveals values and standards, as well as ideological attitudes present amongst women in contemporary Australia.
Language is linear; we select from groups of similar terms (paradigms) and chain the selection together in an ordered sequence (syntagm). In the Clarins ad, the paradigm for the word ‘tranquillity’ may include; silence, unconsciousness, coolness, composure or even the after effects of drugs. However, the connotations of ‘tranquillity’ are associated with peacefulness, freshness, serenity, contentment, harmony, soothing; words which create and establish pleasant feelings. Saussure suggests that each instant of communication (parole) is drawn from a total system (langue) which must exist for possible performance. Hence, in order to communicate, we must be competent in the general language system to associate signs to meanings. Furthermore, colour signs contribute to effective communication. The Clarins ad is composed largely of light blue, selected from a paradigm of colours. Like all signs, these colour signs work at two different levels: denotations and connotations. The ad denotes a rounded bottle sitting on a water surface, whilst the light blue affect emphasizes the theme of ‘tranquillity’. Research reveals that colours have subconscious psychological significance, accordingly “Dark Blue represents ‘Depth of Feeling’ and it has emotional correspondence with tranquillity, calmness, recharging, contentment, tenderness, unification, sensitivity, love and affection” (Chandler, 1998: WWW). Consequently, the Clarins advertisement is a form of propaganda designed to appeal to the audience by means of establishing a sense of pleasure. The colour red is used effectively to pursue its purpose. Blood red is associated with vibrancy, rage, passion, stimulation, excitement, desire and liveliness. The contrast of the red against the light blue disrupts viewers from the position and ambience created by the blue. The red connotes the trendiness of the fragrance, as well as promoting the make ‘ Clarins. Viewers’ acknowledge that although the fragrance is ‘cool’, the product is ‘hot and in’.
Furthermore, the demeanour of the fragrance can be semiotically analysed. The bottle appears to be floating on blue surface, connoting water. It is lying back in a relaxed motion. This suggests the ease and freedom of the fragrance. Signs communicate through a system of difference, for example, if the bottle of perfume was presented lying flat down onto a brown surface, the entire meaning would change. Instead of tranquillity and cleanliness, the perfume would look dirty and unattractive. Hence, text, colour and demeanour are all carefully selected and combined. These paradigmatic and syntagmatic dimensions of language are crucial operations of communication, in that they structure its possibilities.
Subsequently, the signifier and the signified are culturally shared and arbitrary; they depend on cultural knowledge. Further research shows that this knowledge is influenced by all sorts of social forces such as traditions, fads, politics, cultural norms and so forth. As aforementioned, the colour blue in the Clarins advertisement connotes water. However, the audience are not told that the blue surface is water. An interpretation of it as water is dependant on the context. The audience are not consciously aware of this ‘natural’ association. Roland Barthes refers to this naturalised cultural knowledge as a myth (Barthes, 1977: 32). According to Barthes, myths are powerful messages circulating in society. They appear to be natural, inevitable and normal when they are particular beliefs that circulate as a type of social maintenance. Myths work with pre-existing denotative language, distorting and stressing certain language and beliefs (Barthes, 1977: 32). In exemplification of this, in the Clarins ad, the perfume denotes a certain fragrance in a rounded blue bottle, while its connotations are of beauty, remembrance, freshness, pleasant aroma, identity and stylishness. Hence, the sign ‘perfume’ is also part of an older set of myths which might include class, status, courtships, gender relationships, identity and remembrance. “The basic denoted meaning is greatly embellished and interrelated with other social value systems…A mythic method is superimposed on the ordinary meaning” (Chandler, 1998: WWW).
Each image contains an implied view of society, of the world and our roles in it. These images reveal sets of values, beliefs and feelings that together offer an ideological view of the world (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, p.96). Ads often present ‘ideal’ situations to create pleasure. The Clarins ad offers us an image of a stylish yet relaxed fragrance. These feel-good feelings present the ideology of happiness and contentment. This image is conveyed through the signs and signifiers whose connotations are discussed earlier.
Each instance (parole) of communication shows us parts of the implied whole. This is described as metonymy in semiology (O’Sullivan, 1994). “Metonyms are signs in which one part or element stands for something larger”. For example, the physical bottle of perfume in the Clarins ad can be interpreted as metonym for a woman. The implied narrative is: any woman using the perfume will feel a sense of contentment, balance, tranquillity and in essence, beauty. The bottle is lying back connoting any freedom and relaxation. The shade of the lid is cream, which may connote the woman’s facial skin colour. Hence, women viewers will spontaneously identify and empathize with the fragrant bottle.
Due to the reason that the advertisement is located in the social context is of a leading woman’s magazine, relaxation and personal pampering proves to be a winner. Also, Clarins is a French brand and the French are world leaders in fashion. The ad connects to ideologies of happiness and ideologies of being a successful and modern (‘new’) woman. The ad connects to contemporary values through its use of signs and how their paradigmatic meanings are multiplied up syntagmatically through the selection and combination of those signs and codes.
Finally, the Clarins ad proves to be successful because the signifier is effectively signified. The context of a women’s magazine is suitable in organizing what the ad ‘implies’ to its most predominantly female audience. Viewers spontaneously decode the ad because the signs used are culturally recognized which incorporate social influences such as tradition, fashion, economics and what the advertisement perceives and strives to persuade us as the audience to perceive as cultural norms.
• Bignell, Jonathan (1997): Media Semiotics: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Barthes, Roland (1977): “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang
• Chandler, Daniel (1998): Semiotics for Beginners URL – http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem07/ (Accessed 3rd September, 2004)
• O’Shaughnessy, Michael (1999): “Semiology”, “Reading Images.” Media and Society: and Introduction 2nd Edition. Melbourne: Oxford University Press