"Advertisements are a form of communication, not mere manipulation: they help make sense of the world making claims and constructing images." As stated in the New York Times (2003)1, advertisements are a key form of communication, manipulating consumers to buy idealized products as well as shape social ideologies. Through semiotic and discourse analysis we can examine how the construction of Maybelline's current cosmetic advertisement uses signs alongside context to market its new brand of mascara, and more significantly depict cultural ideologies of female appearance and beauty.
The composition of signs in the advertisement creates meaning individually and as a unified narrative to sell mascara. The dominant iconic sign is a woman's face in close-up, posing confidently at an angle, denoting a youthful Caucasian woman. Her nude, flawless complexion accentuates her striking eyes, groomed with thick, black lashes. The blue rectangular box framing her gaze further directs attention to her eyes but also disconnects them from the rest of her face. The separate "eyes" become an indexical sign that signifies the commodity of mascara (Rayner et al: 18), but also suggests eyes are the most important feature of a woman's face, as they connote to female gender and sexuality.
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It reasserts that amplified eyes make women more alluring and seductive, and assumes that their natural eyes are bland and masculinizing, drawing attention to the product's ability to feminize ordinary women. The pink mascara tube connotes femininity and its enlargement in the advertisement symbolizes how mascara can 'magnify' a woman's feminine appeal by magnifying their eyes, tempting to women to buy Maybelline mascara.
Behind the model's face, commercial buildings saturated in a vibrant blue signify a dynamic city hub at night. It is half blocked by the model's wrist, adorned with a glistening pink and purple jewel-studded bracelet that connotes urban and sophisticated female glamour. Both sign's placement above the cosmetically perfected eyes of the model implies that they emit the vibrant atmosphere, full of city charm and chic glamour that both the night-life in the city and jewellery connote, further stressing the allure and enhanced desirability of woman from wearing Maybelline's new mascara. It stresses the myth that all city women are glamorous and sophisticated, and the mascara, much like the dressage purpose of jewellery, is an accessory to "glam" up the drab features of women.
The written signs in the advertisement help 'anchor' this dominant reading (O'Shaughnessy et al: 33), and are also symbolic signs that connote to ideologies about female appearance. The text, "False Lash Glam" anchors the prestige and illustrious sexual transformation from using Maybelline's new "Falsies Volum'Express Mascara". But the words "False" and "Falsies" adds the idea that the product is only producing a false illusion of glamorous eyes, signifying the thick eyelashes of the model are honed and fake, but simultaneously appear natural and effortless. Thereby the slogan, "It's not a mascara, it's false lash glam in a tube, instantly!" denies Maybelline mascara as a customary cosmetic that covers imperfections, but distinguishes it as a unique 'instant' accessory to accentuate natural femininity. It reiterates the tagline, "Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline", conveying that a women's 'Maybelline' enhanced lashes still appear genuine. Semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure proposed that language as a structure, constructs meaning that could shape people's view of society (Jutel: 3).The text in the advertisement re-accents 'makeup' as natural beauty, constructing the ideology that 'fake' beauty is genuine 'true' beauty, that cosmetic products are necessary to bring out a woman's true femininity.
The signs in the advertisement combine to construct an ideal image that women desire to have. These signs represent "a future image that is attainable" for all women (Rayner et al: 24), if they use Maybelline's product, echoing society's expectation for women to maintain a quality image and be concerned about their physical appearance, suggesting that women are only worth their looks.
Through discourse analysis we can examine how the context supports and contradicts these central meanings produced by the advertisement. The vibrant city life signified in the metropolitan background is supported by the advertisement's placement within a city milieu, at a bus stop shelter, alongside paved roads, signposts, cars and people in high-street fashion that connote to urban life. People, especially females passing the bus shelter or waiting for the bus (as shown in the image) would see the advertisement and absorb it consciously or subconsciously, coveting to have the more feminine and glamorous façade Maybelline mascara supposedly creates. However, the context contradicts the advertisement's myth that glamour is an essential trend for city women. The environmental context illustrates young city females who do not exhibit runway models or appear glitzy and fashion-crazed. The framing of the ad in this particular context is to show mediated images of female beauty and appearance from reality. Media images of females conveying a certain look, such as the desirability of large eyes and thick lashes expressed in the Maybelline advertisement, can "effectively organise the world and dispose people to see things and act in certain ways" (Schirato, Buettner, Jutel and Stahl: 38). Many girls viewing the advertisement will believe that women must always look presentably stylish if not glamorous and striking. They easily read the connotative values in the advertisement of glamour and prestige as denotative facts of how they are required to look (Rayner et al: 15). It depicts how mediated images of women can be "naturalised or universalised" (Schirato et al: 38), becoming a normal conception for women to look desirable and classy as they believe it credits their femininity.
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Discursive knowledge is significant in understanding what the advertisement is conveying and helps identify the familiar manipulation of signs by commercial companies. Viewers need to be literate in English to recognize the written text in relation to the product and to know that mascara is a cosmetic commonly used by women to enhance their lashes. More so they need to recognize "Maybelline" as an established cosmetic brand. This discursive knowledge is mostly comprehended by women who use makeup, thus the advertisement would not make sense to those who do not share the same cultural literacy in the field of cosmetics, such as men who may immediately disregard the advertisement as it is selling something unfamiliar and unwanted. Intertextual knowledge on similar cosmetic advertisements such as L'Oreal or Revlon, where similar images of smooth-skinned women flaunting their beauty by cosmetic products, may also cause people to disregard the advertisement and not be swayed by the manipulation of signs, as they are derivative and exercised by countless similar cosmetic advertising.
The visual and written signs in Maybelline's advertisement are manipulated to target women with the dominant conception that Maybelline's new mascara can feminize a woman's appeal by enlarging their eyes, idealizing the desirability of purchasing Maybelline's product. We see how context both support and contradict the meanings of the advertisement. More importantly we see how images are mediated constructions of reality that can have a "'powerful ideological force' in society" (Rayner et al: 26), in this case, creating certain cultural ideologies about female appearance.