In 2004, former Playboy centerfold and American reality television character Anna Nicole Smith starred in a 30-second television commercial for Trimspa’s diet product X-32. The principal had recently lost a significant amount of excess body weight after having appeared throughout an American reality series that seemed to capitalize on the shock value of her metamorphosis from a Playboy centerfold and fashion model to obesity in the years preceding her re-emergence as a sex symbol, presumably as a result of her use of the advertiser’s diet products.
The dominant elements of the advertisement consisted of Smith attired in flamboyant gowns and posed provocatively in various postures and in conjunction with textual images superimposed over the visual images. A seductive female voice also emphasized the words displayed in the text. The textual component of the advertisement consisted of the words sexy, powerful, and attitude in connection with “SPA” portion of the manufacturer’s name suggesting a pneumonic connotation. The only other textual component appears in the form of the phrase “Be Envied” in the last frame of the commercial. A male voice is also heard saying “Cutie; won’t you come inside?”
A semiotic analysis of the commercial would focus on the psychological and social relevance of the sexual imagery and the connotations to gender roles, sexual desirability, and also to suggestions of wealth and privilege. More specifically, the advertisement highlights the reliance on gender roles and gender-based expectations in relation to independence and power, social class, and (especially) pop culture-based recognition and the influence of the link between celebrity, notoriety, and positive product association.
Key Visual and Textual Elements of the Commercial and their Connotations
The primary visual content of the commercial presents Anna Nicole Smith dressed and coiffed in a style that is apparently intended to draw connections (whether conscious or unconscious) to mid-20th century American film icon Marilyn Monroe, to whom Smith already bears a general likeness. From a semiotics perspective, the visual component of the commercial incorporates at least three distinct aspects of social codes (bodily, commodity, and behavioural codes); two aspects of representational or textual codes (genre and mass media codes); as well as both main aspects of interpretive codes (perceptual and ideological codes).
More specifically, the commercial emphasises bodily codes (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2003, p.266) associated with sexuality, sexual aggressiveness, and sexual availability as Smith engages in exaggerated sexually provocative postures, gestures, and facial expressions. It also relies heavily on commodity codes (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2003, p.266) represented by the high-fashion gown worn by Smith and on behavioural codes (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2003, p.266) such as the dynamic between photographer and high-fashion model and the focus of attention on her. In that regard, the behavioural code consists of the portrayal of the respective roles of the photographer engaged in capturing images of the model on a set designed to suggest high-fashion and social privilege.
To a certain degree, the use of social codes merges with textual codes, illustrating the basis of the traditional argument in favour of a broader interpretation of all semiotic codes as social codes (Hawkes, 1977, p.104). In that respect, the commercial exploits the perspective of both genre (in the apparent connection to Marilyn Monroe) and in its closely related reliance on Smith’s notoriety from her (then) recent television series and her high-profile will contest proceedings over the estate of her deceased former husband, oil and business magnate J. Howard Marshall that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court a decade after his death in 1996 at the age of 90 (Newman, 2007). It was Smith’s controversial marriage to Marshall barely a year before his death and the decade-long media coverage of her claim to his entire estate and the probate contest it precipitated that apparently catapulted Smith to infamy more than anything else (Newman, 2007). Although the case was ultimately decided against her in 2006, her claim to the fortune likely generated the popular perception that Anna Nicole Smith represented fabulous wealth and privilege. That image, or more precisely, the consumption of that image by the American public as a function of perpetual tabloid coverage, provided the social framework for the connotations intended for exploitation by the advertiser.
Finally, with respect to semiotic coding, the commercial images rely on interpretative coding in the form of both perceptual codes and ideological codes. More specifically, the body postures and facial expressions adopted by Smith throughout the commercial trigger hard-wired psychological responses in the areas of sexual signaling and sexual arousal (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008, p.276). The obvious intent is to establish a deeper association in that regard than merely conscious absorption of the explicit messages in the commercial. Moreover, ideological coding is used to convey one of the most important “take-aways” intended by the advertiser to appeal to a hegemonic female audience: namely, through the notion that the product is associated with a departure from traditional ideological views and expectations of females as passive and dependent on males, particularly for their sexual identity and power. This use of both perceptual and ideological coding (specifically in relation to human sexuality) is one of the most powerful and common themes in product advertising; it has been since the dawn of the modern advertising age (Kahle & Lynn, 2006, p. 27; Ogilvy, 1982, p.26).
Thematic Interaction of Commercial Elements to Convey Meaning
The commercial includes superimposed text in the form of three words (“sexy,” “powerful,” and “attitude”) in conjunction with the individual letters in the “SPA” portion of the manufacturer’s product. While the relevance of the word “sexy” is literal, the words “powerful” and “attitude” both rely heavily on the discursive concepts originally introduced in the context of semiotics by Michel Foucault (Harvey & Evans, 2001). According to that analysis, the choice of language in the commercial fits within a discourse, or representational system that is a function on socially relevant codes and an interpretive repertoire of concepts, values, and myths that give them meaning (Harvey & Evans, 2001). The notion of power is clearly meant to appeal to women primed to value or strive for the sexual autonomy of a feminist perspective. Likewise, the notion of attitude also represents an expectation or a right to have things as they wish rather than as they may be expected by society.
The only other words that are audible besides those spoken by the female narrator who breathlessly repeats “sexy, powerful, attitude” are delivered by a male voice who says “Cutie, won’t you come inside?” The relevance of that phrase is also a function of Foucault’s discourse concept (Harvey & Evans, 2001): it is likely meant to suggest a connection to an invitation (such as from a doorman) to enter an exclusive social club or other opportunity that is only an option for beautiful members of the privileged class. Given the other elements of the commercial and their relation to the discourse pertaining to female sexual independence, it may also be meant to suggest a much more sexually explicit concept as well.
The last textual image of the commercial consists of the superimposition of the phrase “Be Envied” in the last frames. No formal analysis is necessary to identify the discourse upon the strategic purpose of that phrase relies. Specifically, envy is a natural human response with direct connections to perceptual codes as well as to commodity codes (Hawkes, 1977, p.107). In that respect, the impulse of envy is closely connected to the related desire to inspire envy in others (Ogilvy, 1982, p. 119) and, like sexuality, it is a very common (if not universal) discursive feature in modern advertising and product marketing (Ogilvy, 1982, p. 120). The contextual relevance of the phrase is simply that users of the Trimspa product will lose weight and become more beautiful, more sexually desirable, more sexually powerful, and more envied by others in society.
The 2004 Trimspa “X-32” commercial features an extremely recognisable American cultural icon believed to embody beauty, sexuality, wealth, and privilege. The fact that she happened to lose a substantial amount of weight (whether or not with the help of cosmetic surgery as had been rumoured) fit perfectly within the scope of the advertisement. The commercial emphasizes a wide range of semiotic social codes, representational or textual codes, and interpretive codes. It exploits a connection to a another former American film icon as well as several different discursive elements in relation to the modern rejection of traditional roles of and social constraints imposed on women in patriarchal societies. Those semiotic elements merge with explicit connotations associated with promises of enviable beauty and sexual desirability as well as with the exploitation of the human failing represented by the natural impulse to envy others and to inspire theirs.
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