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Session 3: Decoding Advertising

Advertising and Myth

Advertisements have currency; they are of the now and are particular to time and place. They reflect the current political/social ideals and cultural trends. Adverts reinforce particular cultural 'myths' presented as natural but represent a cultural norm or ideology.

For example, adverts showing family units, such as the shown late 50s American advertisement, represent cultural norms and ways of behaviour; typical mother, father and kids living the American dream. Other ads might show a representation of gender, class and ethnicity and reinforce attitudes towards consumerism and status. Adverts reflect a target customer and aspire to plant the 'seed of need' without showing production or economic structure.

Magazine Advertisements

​The advertising business is highly professional and competitive; a lot of money is spent on advertising and constructing brand identities in the service sector. Those who work in the industry are usually very creative and well educated, and aware of current cultural trends as well as the use of semiotics to convey messages (there is even a British advertising agency called 'Semiotic Solutions').

Magazine adverts are relatively self contained and the product is differentiated for a target audience. The use of encoding presents a constructed message to the viewer and the meaning of ads are designed to shape our experience of reality.

Barthes argues that magazine ads are a mix of linguistic and image signs that form these messages, and close analysis reveals any myths contained. These linguistic and iconic signs at first sight indicate the things the image represents but these signs also have connotations that come from our culture.

In his book 'Image, Music, Text', Barthes analysis's the French magazine ad for 'Panzani'. The ad has non-coded linguistic messages such as the labels on the produce, 'Panzani', and the tagline below, 'the luxury of Italy') in the French language. These both have a connotation of 'Italianicity', giving the message that it is a French advert for an Italian food company. The word 'luxury' also suggests it is a high quality brand and a knowledge of the French language is needed suggesting the target audience is French middle class.

​The image in the advertisement denotes a photograph of an half-opened bag of produce spilling out, with red, green and white colours. The food stuff, such as the tomatoes, denotes a non coded, literal signification of a tomato; the signifier and signified is essentially the same. The half opened bag creates connotations of abundance and a 'return from the market'; this requires an understanding of what a shopping bag represents and 'local shopping culture'. The collection of objects suggests a total culinary service and creates a link between the factory produce and the organic/natural produce. Both the types of produce and colours used signifies 'Italianicity' as they represent the Italian flag, and the composed photograph is reminiscent of a still-life painting; a work of art.

​Overall the advertisement sends the coded message that Panzani provides fresh, homemade, authentic Italian meals with an image specific/dual message anchorage and presents the cultural myth of normalising a cultural stereotype.

Another advertisement that can be analysed is the advertisement for 'SK-II' which has non-coded linguistic messages such as the quote, tagline and information at the bottom as well as the emphasis on the name of the brand, mostly in a serif font.

​The quote, 'I prefer to reveal than conceal' from the face of the advert has the connotation that it is a skincare brand made to enhance natural beauty rather than cover up. The word 'essence', as apposed to 'abstract', has the connotation that it is a high luxury brand. The stylised typography gives off connotations of luxuriousness too as its a common style used for high end brands.

The images in the advertisement denote a black and white photograph of the celebrity, Cate Blanchett; white ethnicity, middle age, showing her head and shoulders. Image hierarchy draws you to her eyes at the top of the page, in a zig-zag motion to the quote, bottle, and more text below; it has dual message anchorage. The photograph seems to be studio lit and digitally enhanced, with the product bottle superimposed, which creates connotations that the scene is non-spontaneous. The lack of colour creates a clean look, suggesting a clean product and accents of red give impressions of a high end, professional brand as the colour is linked with power and confidence. Her posed body language and seductive gaze creates a code of intimacy and direct engagement with the viewer. The fact she is a well known celebrity creates connotations because it transfers her own qualities, such as health, polish and natural beauty, onto the product, signifying a myth of 'feminine beauty' over to the bottle.

Placing the sign of the woman and linguistic signs of the name of the product constructs a relationship between them, so to posses the product is to buy into the myth and possess some of its social value.



  • Image-Music-Text by Roland Barthes (pages 152-163)

  • Media Semiotics by Jonathan Bignell (pages 28-39)







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