Semiotic Analysis And Comparison Of Advertisements Cultural Studies Essay

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Advertisements are a common topic for semiotic analysis due to their tendency to be "interpretable at two levels - a 'surface' level and an 'underlying' one" (Beasley and Danesi 20) - that is, a denotative level, and a connotative one. A collection of signs are used to create a personality for the product on the surface, and through intertextuality - that is, the interrelationship between texts - meanings are constructed at an underlying level. These meanings usually draw on mythic or archetypal ideas that are meant to work psychologically at a subconscious level and trigger innate responses related to some common desire or need. This paper will analyze two different print advertisements for a similar product, from ads that utilize very different sets of signs and codes to promote their product. The advertisements will first be briefly analyzed individually, and then compared and contrasted to demonstrate the way the signs which construct an ad are used to promote completely different ideologies and thus evoke different responses from the audience, even if the products which they are representing are very similar.

The first of the two advertisements is a 2008 Spanish advertisement for Pantene with Pro Vitamins shampoo (see Figure 1, attached). The term "signifiers" is used to refer to the form a sign takes, and "denotation" refers to looking at a sign without any cultural interpretation. A denotative description of the observable signifiers in this advertisement would be that the image is of a Caucasian, blonde woman with sharp eyebrows, blue eyes, and a slightly-opened, slightly-smiling mouth. Her hair is thick and wavy and flying backward, as though it was being blown in the wind, and she is wearing medium-sized silver earrings. She is wearing a magenta top, resembling the top portion of a dress, with a silky texture, and a broad V-shaped neck that shows off her cleavage. Her breasts are large enough to take up most of the space in the bottom half of the page, and her bra pushes them together tightly. The light source appears to be in front of the model, and casts a slight shine on her cleavage. There is a picture of Pantene bottles at the bottom-right corner of the image, beside the text "Pantene con pro vitaminas" which translates to "Pantene with pro vitamins", and there is a small outlined circle beside the model's face with text which says "Garanta que el cabello sea la segunda cosa que el va a reparar en usted" which translates to "Make sure your hair is the second thing he notices about you".

A connotative analysis shows that the purpose of this advertisement was to firstly, attract attention to the ad through the use of sexuality, and arouse feelings of desires related to sex within the viewer. Secondly, the creator of this ad most likely wished the viewer would subconsciously form an association between being sexual feelings and the product being advertised. This ad is targeted toward adult women who are familiar with the social codes necessary to interpret "large breasts" as a sign of attractiveness, and thus be able to decode the message within the advertisement as its creator had planned. Codes form a "network of interconnected meanings" called a signifying order (Danesi 27). The culture this ad is targeted toward is a Western signifying order where characteristics such as fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde, thick wavy hair are all considered to be signs of attractiveness, and large breasts are considered sexually desirable.

The second advertisement is for Unilever's Dove shampoo (see Figure 2, attached) and a denotative description of this ad would be that it consists of twelve squares each with head shots of different women, all of them smiling. There are Caucasian, African-American, Latino and Asian women, and they all have different hair types and styles. Most of them are adults, and one of them is elderly. The colours in the image are mostly light colours - such as light grey, blue, and white - as well as black. The text in the middle of the image states, "None of these women are hair models. After all, neither are you." Connotatively, this ad uses models that are diverse in terms of ethnicity, age, and hair type, in order to reach a wide range of audience -- though it is still narrowed to women, and mostly adults. The fact that each of these women are either laughing or smiling is meant to lead the viewer into creating a subconscious association between happiness and confidence and the product being advertised. The purpose of this ad is to distinguish Dove's advertising campaign from other products geared toward women by presenting a sense of realness and diversity, which the average woman can relate better to than they can to the 'glamorous' models usually seen in ads.

The products advertised in these two advertisements are both hair products, targeted toward the Western adult female market, and they both deal with the myth of feminine beauty. A myth, as defined by Barthes ("Mythologies" 123), is formed by the dominant ideologies of our time, and helps us make sense of our experiences within a culture. Despite the similarities between the products and the targeted audience for each of the ads, the signs used within the ads are very different denotatively, connotatively, and mythically -- which are the three orders of signification of a sign (Chandler).

Connotatively, the first advertisement uses signifiers which are often associated with the concept of 'glamour' and 'sex', such as dark, rich colours like magenta, silky textures, jewelry and make-up, and the noticeably large breasts. The second advertisement instead uses signifiers such as light colours, and sans-serif fonts to represent simplicity, and images meant to connotate the concept of 'everyday life', 'confidence', and 'realness'.

The method of anchorage - a term coined by Barthes ("Rhetoric of the Image" 274) to describe the use of linguistic elements to 'anchor' (or constrain) the way an image should preferably be read, is evident in both the advertisements. The text in the second advertisement lets the viewer know the purpose of the creation of this ad by making the claim that the representation of women by Unilever's Dove ad shows a more accurate representation of 'reality' than the one usually seen in hair ads by hair models. In the Pantene ad, the small text in the circle promotes the idea that a woman's breasts are always the first thing men look at and also makes a reality claim by not mentioning anything about the disproportionate breasts being fake. Without this anchorage, one possible interpretation of this advertisement could have been that it represented "Real hair in a fake world", similar to the tag line "Real fries in a fake world" used for a 2008 New York Fries ad which also made use of disproportionately large breasts (New York Fries). However, the text constrains the interpretation of the image as one that promotes the dominant ideology that equates feminine beauty with large breasts. This supports Barthes' ("Rhetoric of the Image" 275) argument that the principle function of anchorage is ideological.

The mediated mythic meaning of feminine beauty tends to center around the idea of representing slim, big-breasted, suggestively dressed, and usually Caucasian, women as an "ideal" which a woman needs to reach in order to be considered attractive. This is a representation of the dominant ideological view of what makes a woman sexually appealing in Western societies. Thus, even though both ads deal with the myth of feminine beauty, it is evident that they take a completely different approach in constructing the mythic meaning of beauty that is promoted. The reactions from the general audience for each of these ads were thus very different. "Sexuality, sexual desire, sexual lust ... are fairly ubiquitous in contemporary advertising" (Berger 75) and the Pantene ad is a typical example of the use of explicit sexual imagery being used to promote a product that it has little relevance to. Psychological studies show that though sexual images do tend to successfully catch our attention, if the viewer makes an effort to think about the ad more carefully, their response is usually negative (Hawes). Danesi and Beasley also echoed this point with their statement that when people become aware of the underlying message within advertisements, they are usually "alarmed and repulsed by the 'hidden' message" (Beasley and Danesi 21).

Dove's ad on the other hand, was a successful campaign that impressed many consumers. The campaign was described as "a bold step to challenge societal views on age, body shape and race" (Prior). Millard's interview of women for their reaction to the campaign found that many of them appreciated the naturalistic modality - that is, authenticity - that was applied in the ads (159). Millard also interviewed Dove's manager and decided their commitment to this new way of advertising supporting no use of digital alterations, set the brand apart from other competitors who appeared "willing to say (and sell) anything for the bottom line" (160).

These reactions show that the signs and semiotic methods used within the construction of an advertisement goes beyond the visual look of the ad. It draws upon mythic themes and promotes certain ideologies and messages to its audience, which can effect not only the way an audience interprets the advertisement itself, but also the way the audience judges the product and the brand being advertised. Semiotic analysis of the advertisements can thus show why advertisements for very similar products can have such different reactions from viewers, because of the signs used to represent it.

Figure 1 | Pantene with Pro Vitamins Advertisement

Figure 2 |

Dove Shampoo/Conditioner Advertisement

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