Ideology In Advertising


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Ideology In Advertising

  1. 1. Seeing Ourselves: An Analysis of Ideology and Fantasy in Popular Advertising by Cassandra Ross Queen's University Film Studies. Copyright © 2000 In the arena of advertising in modern Western society, the consumer can become numb from over- saturation. Advertising stretches over all forms of media, with independence that critic Judith Williamson says intentionally reflects our own human reality (Lord, 263). Advertising becomes a natural presence for consumers; it overwhelms us until we stop trying to understand and decode the images and slogans presented to us. In "The Rhetoric of the Image", critic Roland Barthes uses particular advertising images as dissection models to systematically extract the meaning of cultural codes. In her essay "Decoding Advertisements", Judith Williamson discusses the self-reflective advertising system that assigns human values to products to promote the purchasing of these products to satisfy a non-material need. Advertising, in effect, sells us ourselves, or at least what we would like ourselves to be (264). The combined theories of Barthes and Williamson are a solid springboard in discussing two advertisements: one in print and one in the medium of television. The print advertisement is for a men's cologne called "Romance". The magazine ad features a black and white photo of a man holding a woman as she bends backwards, careening almost to the point of falling off of a tire swing. The second ad is a thirty second "spot" depicting three young teenage girls who flirtatiously use their Coca Cola cards to get "free stuff" from a surprised (albeit pleased) male clerk. In both ads, beyond the surface of the initial message there resides a somewhat disturbing subtext of sexism, male dominance, and male fantasy. In order to sell their products, Ralph Lauren and Coca Cola have chosen to use images that are fawning to engrained ideas and desires in our traditionally male-dominated society. If advertising does in fact "sell us ourselves", then it is important to detect and scrutinize the messages that reflect our perceived desires, and not simply accept these messages as "given" and representative of us. In "The Rhetoric of the Image" Roland Barthes begins his analysis of the advertisement by identifying the linguistic message. The linguistic message has two functions within the ad that Barthes' terms as "anchorage" and "relay" (175). The anchorage function acts as an anchor between the possible signifieds, or meanings, and the meanings the advertisement wishes you to identify. In other words, the anchor helps you choose "the correct level of perception"(175). The "relay system" works in a complimentary relationship between text and image, where text (such as a cartoon speech balloon), explains the image (176). Linguistic meaning has the most significance in the cologne print ad, as the television ad relies almost exclusively on images. One page of the two-page magazine ad is dedicated to an image of the cologne bottle with the words "Ralph Lauren Romance", and in smaller letters, "men". The prominence of the manufacturing label in the ad is the first linguistic anchor for the consumer. The text quickly identifies that the product is from Ralph Lauren, a designer name that may connote (to the average male consumer) a high degree of class and social good standing. Williamson argues that products provide a structure of meaning that may be taken as "given" with time, such as Ralph Lauren being associated with good taste (264). Simply the name "Ralph Lauren", therefore, promotes a desire in the consumer for more than simply a bottle of fragrance, but a desire for definite human attributes. It is indeed only on the bottom of the page where the caption "The men's fragrance by Ralph Lauren" identifies that the bottle in the image contains cologne. Perhaps of greater interest is that with so few words, the caption "Romance" is the solitary explanation for the accompanying image. The anchorage of the caption acts as a kind of vice now to hold this meaning of "romance" in place and constrict the reader from attempting other (less flattering) perceptions (175). In fact, it is this vague concept of "romance" that allows for less flattering readings, especially when close inspection reveals a subtext of male dominance and fantasy. The linguistic message of advertisements, as stated before, does not easily relate to the television advertisement. In the Coke ad, the only text comes at the very end of the spot, when the caption "Show your card / Buy a Coke / Get a deal" comes onscreen as a means to simply explain the actions of the commercial's characters. The relay system of meaning is most important in film and 1/4
  2. 2. television dialogue, but the Coke ad is void of dialogue and relies solely on the images. Therefore, using the images in the ads exclusively, we can divide the meanings into what Roland Barthes coined the denotative (or perceptual iconic) meaning and the connotative (or cultural iconic) meaning. The denotative meaning is the simple perceptions of the ad that is left when we strip the message of eviction; it is an "Edenic" state, radically objective and innocent (177). We can assume a certain denotative meaning in the print ad, since a photograph itself has mythic "naturalness" due to the mechanical act of the camera guaranteeing objectivity (178). Of course, the framing, subject choice and positioning of the photograph are all connotative, but the photograph itself is a denotative representation of reality. The denotative meaning of the print ad is solely what we perceive: a large bottle of cologne on one page, and a black and white image of a couple on a tire swing on the other page. In the Coke ad we can perceive the jingly light music and the actions as three girls enter a convenience store, interact briefly with two males and the clerk and obtain a mixed amount of goods including popcorn and CDs. The detonated meaning is difficult to pinpoint, as our minds always work to derive meaning (as in symbolic meaning) from what we see. The connotative or cultural iconic meaning is the meat on the bones of denotative structure, and the heart of extracting social meaning from advertising. In her article, Judith Williamson was most concerned with decoding the connotative meaning of advertisements. The connotative meaning takes the consumer beyond the deceptively simple initial message of the ad, which is purely promoting a product (266). Advertisements do much more than promote one product, they promote lifestyles, values, and they frequently emphasize the product as a way of fitting into a social place (265). While promoting common desires, the readings of an advertisement depend upon the individual situations of the reader. For instance, the "Romance" cologne ad appeared in a Details magazine earlier this year. Details is labelled clearly on the front cover as being a magazine "for men". Details is an upscale magazine, containing humour, fashion, finance, and relationship (predominately heterosexual) advice. The values promoted in Details supposedly mirrors that of its readers: namely the values of a young, single heterosexual male with a decent job who wants to better himself financially and emotionally. The placement of the ad here informs the reader that the ad will attempt to relate to this type of man. 2/4
  3. 3. Alternatively, the Coke ad still in heavy rotation on television is most often shown when youth orientated programming, such as after-school talk shows, are airing. The ad attempts to relate to its young audience through the age of the characters, the youthful fun music, the bright colour scheme, and the trendy clothes. It is good business to place ads where the intended audience will have access, but the context of the ads placement also adds new connotative meanings to the images. Both advertisements belong in the realms of masculinity and youth ideology as well as in the realm of commercial gain. Now that we understand the context of the "Romance" ad's placement, we can begin to understand its meanings. The image in the ad (the photograph of the couple) is composed of rhetorical images that, as Barthes states, work to signify an underline ideology (180). Initially we see a man holding a woman on a tire swing as she leans back, allowing her dark gown to sway dramatically behind her. Closer reading identifies all the elements of an underline male-dominated fantasy ideology. First we have the euphoric values of fantasy in the image, initially expressed through the black and white photography. Black and white colours remind the viewer of the past, and therefore this representation of "romance" will connote a historical and "lost" time when romance perhaps had different (male-dominated) values. Now we have the representation of the male subject. The man is dressed in formal attire, but his clothes are slack and practical. The tie is loosened and the top button of his shirt undone, a simple gesture which expresses to the male reader that the man in the ad, like most men, hates to wear a tie. He is placed comfortably and securely on the tire, supported by the tire ropes but in no danger of falling. The man, in short, is in complete control and composure. The man in the ad relates to the male consumer reading the ad, through his ease and apparent dominance of the scene. The reader is invited by the ad to become both observer and subject (265). The reader wants to be the male subject of the ad because he has a desire for dominance, especially over the female figure. In comparison to the man, the woman is in a complete state of dependence and vulnerability. Her dress looks fairly restricting and uncomfortable. The black and white contrast extenuates her small waist and long blond hair. Simply the slim body and blond hair identifies the woman as the western ideal of femininity, and her placement in the image further exaggerates her fantasy quality. The woman's body is flung back and she depends entirely on the male to support her. If he lets go, she will fall. Finally, of greatest significance, is the expression on the faces of our two subjects. The man has a stern look of composure as he gazes down at the woman. His face is in clear focus and is quite centrally located in the image's composition. The woman has a face that lacks definition. She appears to be smiling, but her eyes are closed. It would be difficult simply by their faces alone not to immediately relate to the man. The outstretched curve of the woman's neck is very prominent and important. In classical imagery, the neck is a symbol of vulnerability and helplessness. The man in the ad gazes at her neck, symbolically dominating her. The ad as a whole, with all these connotations included, becomes a sign for the signified meaning of "romance". "Romance" is equated with domination, control, and composure for the man, and submissive vulnerability for the woman. The cologne ad sells more than fragrance; it sells to the Details reader the kind of romance he may wish to experience, based on popular male fantasy. Finally, we have the similar cultural iconography of the television Coca Cola ad. The ad is a strange mix of "girl-power" and engrained male domination fantasies. The three female subjects of the Coke ad are young, around fifteen, and begin the spot by happily and aggressively pushing their way into a convenience store. The store is inhabited by three males, apparently older by a few years, who act as voyeurs to the action. When the girls open the door to the store, it is clear that they are entering a male-dominated realm because they remain monitored by the masculine gaze. The two boy customers (the only other customers in the store) are positioned directly in front of the Coke products. The males are aligned by their position with the product being sold, and therefore represent the dominant viewpoint and ideology for the entire commercial. When the dominant girl moves between the boys to grab three Cokes, she shares a brief glance with one of the males watching her through the cooler's glass. The male raises his eyebrows at the girl, a symbolic gesture that will be repeated throughout the ad. While one connotative meaning of the raised eyebrow could be read as masculine surprise at aggressive female gestures, it could also be read 3/4
  4. 4. as a pleasurable half-acceptance to the "feisty female" who is there to entertain the male ego, as indeed the girls do not fail to entertain male sexual fantasy. The key sequence in the ad occurs when the girls approach the counter and enact what could be considered liberated girlish fun, or sexual fantasy. We see the females from behind because the sequence is shot from the boy customer's point of view. The two males watch from classic voyeur positioning in the sequence's dominant foreground. In effect, we can only see the females at this point through or in front of the dominant males. The females lean over the counter and appear to be pulling their shirts down, or their skirt and pant legs up, to the male clerk. Meanwhile, the boy customers acknowledge their pleasure from the girl's "show" by looking at each other and again raising their eyebrows. The clerk looks at girls, raises his eyebrows as well and leaves the frame. The only communication we witness between the girls at this point is a brief wink and smile between two of them, a gesture that is meant to give the message of girlish fun. It is the only brief second where a female audience member may be able to directly identify with the characters. The clerk returns with an indiscriminate pile of stuff for the girls, and we finally see that the females were not (simply) showing off some skin for the clerk, but were showing him their Coke cards which had been strategically placed in a bra, shoe and up a thigh. At the end of the ad, the girls could be seen as victors of male dominance, except that the very last scene gives the credits in front of a blurry image of one of the males drinking a Coke with his arm around two of the girls. The girls are now admiringly looking up at him. Although the males in the ad were no more than voyeurs to the female action, they nonetheless have been given dominance and pleasure in what Williamson calls "the imaginary social structure" of the Coke ad (264). The ad sways between feminist independence and male fantasy, particularly fantasy concerning young teenage girls as sex objects. The intended audience for the spot is youth and easily able to place themselves in the character's roles. Girls are meant to believe the female characters are really harmless fun, while boys can dream that they too will be in the situation to see a free and unexpected strip tease. The television ad is more insidious than the print ad because it is meant to appeal to both genders, although it obviously promotes a more male dominated fantasy where women exist to please and titillate. The old expression is "sex sells" but what really sells is male dominated sexual fantasy. This is not to say that all advertisements are sexist, or sexist against only women, but it is to say that in many ads what may seem like a simple image of "romance" or a fun trip to the store is really an entire structure of meaning. Roland Barthes and Judith Williamson employ almost scientific methods to extract rhetoric from advertising images but even their methods are not foolproof. The structure of meaning in an advertisement will vary upon the person perceiving it. The important thing is to recognize common dominant ideologies in ads, and the values that advertisements want us to desire and attain through their product. If we must buy into ourselves, we should at least make an informed decision before we accept and pay for ideology which is not our own. 4/4