The Role Of Images In Advertising Cultural Studies Essay

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'Advertising often use targeted image manipulation to link their product with an enhanced version of reality. New, more seductive images continually replace those that are past their use-by-date, arguably with the primary aim of locking consumers into a cycle of spending and consumption.' (Ingenious, 2010)

American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1991), proposed a system of three categories when referring to images. The icon, the index and lastly the symbol. Iconic signs are characterised by some form of similarity or analogy between the sign and its object. Representational pictures that resemble some aspect of reality are particularly clear examples of iconic signs. For instance, a scale model of a building is an iconic representation of certain features of the real building; its shape, perhaps its colour but not its size. Indexical signs on the other hand are a complex category. A sign is indexical if it is actually caused by its object and serves as a physical trace pointing to the objects existence. Peirce illustrates this type of sign with the example of a bullet hole, which signifies that a shot was fired. Lastly, a symbol involves neither similarity nor physical causation but, instead an arbitrary convention on the part of the symbols users.

Damasio (1994) stresses the fact that 'real world vision is intimately connected with emotion, which, in turn, is tied to our functional needs as biological and social creatures.' Looking now at how advertising takes advantage of this we can distinguish two roles. The first is drawing attention to an advert, for example, in advertising images there is often someone looking directly at the spectator. This is a powerful tool that draws attention as it is a real life tendency to look back when we are looked at. The second role is eliciting a certain emotion on behalf of whatever the ad is selling. A well known example can be found in some politician images. On the assumption that looking up at someone can be associated with feelings of respect or awe, portrayals of politicians in ads or posters occasionally adopt a low angle view. This creates a certain feeling towards the person in the image; the use of low angles in this context can be considered an emotion-eliciting device. For an example of this please see Fig.1.

Looking at my first example, we have a poster campaign by the deciding vote (Fig.2), made to encourage more women to have their say and vote in elections. The first thing that hits the viewer's eye is the striking photograph that accompanies this text. We see a close up of a woman's face looking at us with troubled eyes. Her features are normal except for an obvious abnormality. Where her mouth should be there is no mouth, only a smooth, seamless continuation of the surface of her skin. This image is an excellent example of the critical role that iconicity plays in our response to pictures. Because of iconicity, we experience the image as a warp in reality, not just the manipulation of a symbol. It gives us a jolt and grabs our attention.

In my next example (Fig.3), we have an advertising campaign used to raise awareness about the practice of genital mutilation. The image is bold and effective using the flower as a powerful symbol to represent the female anatomy. The ad campaign uses the flower as an icon, sending out the message that by mutilating the flower, it is destroying something that is seen as beautiful and natural. The image can offend some viewers because of the over used negative symbolism of the reference to a flower in everyday society. However, a beautiful object or a functioning part of nature it is still seen as something that is valued.

According to Johnson (2008), 'Advertising as an enterprise is centred on establishing the commodity-as-sign. the verbal and visual images featured in advertising draw from a knowable world but then rework, magnify, simplify, contort or otherwise reshape and sharpen the salient signifiers.' In his book Reading ads socially, Goldman (1992) states; 'The commodity-as-sign operates when images are allied to particular products and product images are then deployed as signifiers of particular relations or experiences... The image is then arbitrarily attached to a product which has itself been detached from the customary relations of usage formerly associated with it. In this process, the product becomes equivalent to the discrete image... and begins to function as a sign of that image, so that when we think of the product we think of the image and when we think of the image we think of the product.'

For an explanation of how our brains deal with impossible figures, Shepards (1990) points out that the human perceptual system is finely tuned to pay special attention to unfamiliar objects when they are only slightly different from our expectations. 'An object that is novel and yet similar to an already significant object may especially warrant our close attention. We need to know how far something can depart from its usual or expected form and still have the consequences that we have found to follow from its natural kind.' (Shepard, 1990) As a result, to a degree strange shapes can cause us to pay closer attention.

Looking now at my own work, I have created a campaign poster aimed at helping young people. What we see is a silhouette of a figure facing a lit door through a dark corridor. Along the walls there is text which reads; 'When one door closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been open for us.' Looking at the image, I had used the idea of 'seeing the light' or 'finding the light' that is often associated with positive outcomes. The image signifies or perhaps represents the idea of hope and help being at hand. This image works well for the purpose of my campaign, campaigning to raise awareness that help is at hand for young people who are experiencing unhappiness for various reasons. People can relate to the poster if they feel as though they are in the dark place in their life and feel trapped. The light as opposed to darkness signifies happiness and self fulfilment.

Beyond attracting the viewer's attention, the images in an ad are typically meant to give rise to some emotional disposition toward the product, politician, social cause, or any other issue the advert deals with. The iconicity of visual images serves this process by making it possible for images to draw upon the rich variety of visual motivation and associated emotions, to which we are already familiar through our interactions with our social and natural environments; these are our facial expressions, gestures, postures, personal appearance and physical surroundings. Moreover, visual images are capable of simulating certain aspects of those interactions by means of the variables that control the viewer's perspective; these are degree of proximity, angle of view, presence or absence of subjective shots, morphing of two images and so on.

The images in my examples serve both the functions I discussed earlier. On the one hand they both violate reality to attract attention, and on the other the images metaphorical dimension gives rise to an emotional response. My examples have shown the resentment at the exclusion of women from politics and the harsh reality of human cruelity. 'In general, both surrealistic images and metaphorical violations of reality are particularly well-suited to the requirements of visual advertising precisely because of their ability to combine an eye catching first impression with a more substantive message.' (Messaris, 1997) The fact that images can reproduce the appearance of reality, or selected aspects of that appearance, also means they can call forth a variety of pre-programmed emotional responses.

According to Kraft (1987), 'The iconicity of visual images is not just a matter of content. whereas the appearance of the people or places in a picture may be its obvious iconic element, the pictures formal or stylistic features (e.g. whether it is a close up or a long shot) also may bare an iconic relationship to our real world visual experiences.' My first example shows a close up of a female, showing emotion, filling up the screen. The advert may not work as well if it was a long shot; as other elements around the image may distract the audience and not be as effective in sending out the intended message evoking the audiences' reaction.

By drawing on their understanding as well as a growing body of research concerning the relationship between vision and emotion, 'advertisers are able to elicit strong, sometimes primal reactions -desire for a particular type of sexy model; respect for a certain look that makes a politician appear dignified; pity for the pathetic appearance of a famine victim -that might not be as easily accessible through other non pictorial means.' (Messaris, 1997) playing on our fears and anxieties, the images in adverts attempt to manipulate our desires. Advertisements sell products or services through creating illusions of lifestyles and represent a way of thought. For example, if someone orders a brand of drink, whose advertising includes original works of art may be a way of signalling good taste and refinement. Adverts not only sell products but campaign to sell a way of thinking. The campaign adverts I have used in my examples, both re-represent a different reality, a reality that many people ignore or have ignored. They explicitly send out a message with minimal text surrounding the image. The role of images here is to us iconicity in order to shock the audience and provide an image that the audience remembers time and time again.