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Signs consist (according to Saussure) of two elements, a signifier and a signified, and

only gain meaning when "it has someone to mean to" (Williamson 1978, p40). The

reader is therefore very important and will bring his/her own interpretations to the

texts by drawing on their own cultural values and perceptual codes. As the

relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and meaning is fixed in

cultural values according to most of post modernist theory, we can argue that the

potential interpretations of any given text are therefore endless. But that does not

mean that nothing means anything anymore. This essay will take on a semiotic

approach to show how meaning can be created in an audience, and will illustrate this

by doing a semiotic analysis of two magazine-advertisements and then discussing

how codes and context are central in “anchoring” meaning. Roland Barthes

introduced the concept of anchorage (Barthes 1977, p38ff). Linguistic elements can

help “anchor” (or constrain) the preferred readings of an image: “to fix the floating

chain of signifieds” (ibid, p39). The ads chosen are from two very different

magazines, one from a design \ architecture \ fashion magazine (Wallpaper) and the

other from a Snowboard magazine (Snowboarder) and are chosen specifically to

illustrate how codes and context within social relations, groups, classes, institutions,

structures and things (Thwaites, Davis and Mules 2002, p2) play a fundamental

purpose in creating meaning. Advertising theory has changed together with other

theories, and the essay will finally discuss is how meanings help reinforce social

structures. Much of what we 'know' about the world is derived from what we have

read in books, newspapers and magazines, from what we have seen in the cinema and

on television and from what we have heard on the radio. Daniel Chandler concludes

“Life is thus lived through texts and framed by texts to a greater extent than we are

normally aware of (Chandler’s web source on semiotics).” This means that ads do not
only refer to concepts in “the real world” that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, but

that they also refer to other texts, and that the degree of this “intertextuality (Fiske

1987)” is what enforces social beliefs in the culture or context we choose to live in.

This degree can be found using semiotic analysis, but as the essay will show, the

meaning depends on how “open” the ad is, and who it is meant for.

The ad from Wallpaper is for the Swedish car company VOLVO (see ad 1) Key

signifiers: Colour photo of large, white, designer house in background. In front of the

house from left are: a young, attractive woman with a beige winter coat with a fur-

collar and confident “power”-stance. Next to her young man, dressed in a brown,

plaid tweed suit, his stance is boyish and passive. To his left a sitting dog. Next to

these three is the car, a Volvo station wagon. The left front car-door is open, and in

the opening stands another young male, visible waist up in a dark brown cardigan and

also a sixpence. Directly beneath everything, the written text. Possible signifieds: Fur

is expensive, tweed suits are old fashioned (even “daggy?”), dogs represent family

and hunting, Volvos are the safest cars in the world (also expensive) and sixpences

represent working men. Connotations: The couple and the key signifiers connotate

aristocracy. The passive stance of the husband and the fact that it is the servant

standing on the driver side of the open car, can direct connotation to the

generalisations of the decadence of aristocracy; it’s a love-triangle cliché; somewhat

resembling “Lady Chatterley’s lover.” The form of the written text, in that it

resembles the writing style of ads from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s seems to underline this.

Naturalised meaning: the love-triangle theme also brings an ironic element into the

ad. The ad is complex and witty in the way that it spoofs the notion of Scandinavian

aristocracy, but also that it juxtaposes Volvo as a sophisticated car. As a result of this
the meaning can be “although we’re making fun of ourselves as Swedes, the car is

still sophisticated, beautiful and exclusive to those who can afford it.” This effect, the

way the ad can make fun of aristocracy without removing the essence of style and

glamour from the car, is elaborate, and the important issue of why the creators of the

ad have chosen to do this, can be seen in relation to the audience it is targeted against.

William Leiss and his colleagues has in their study of advertising seen that “at the

core of advertising’s purposes now is not the message itself as a communicator of

meaning, but rather its relationship to the audience (Leiss et al. 1990, 214).” With the

development of the theory of market segmentation, the logical step is therefore to

conclude that creators of ads don’t focus on the product, but the universe of codes and

signs that connotate certain positive meanings that are related to a certain lifestyle in a

certain social group or culture. It is a common generalisation that the middleclass and

other social groups in a (capitalist) society strive to become wealthy and lead a

lifestyle that is sophisticated, much like the one presented in the Volvo ad. The fact

that the ad is ironic, and that the irony is separated from the product, is ultimately

what makes it open.

The ad from Snowboarder magazine is for CLAE footwear (see ad 2). Key signifiers:

BW partial photo of a big snow plougher in action, through a large mass of snow on

its left side. In the snow shooting out are the names of three guys in large, yellow

type. In the right hand corner, the logo and web-address. Possible signifieds: Snow is

(obviously) an important element for a snowboarder. The snow ploughing machine

can be perceived as big, clunky and menacing. Connotations: Given that the photo is

BW, the plougher and the snow dissolves, in fact, if it wasn’t for the plougher, it

would be difficult to understand that the substance is snow, and not e.g. gravel or dirt.
These elements can connotate “the mindless” being spewed out by “the system”

whereas the names placed in the same position as the snow being churned out can

connotate uniqueness and innovation but also exclusiveness. Naturalised meaning:

The interesting detail is the element of exclusion. The skill of the ad lies in the aspect

that if you don’t know who these people are, you’re not likely to know what sort of

product this is (snowboarding shoes? Normal shoes? Athletic shoes?), and why they

are special. So the meaning can be: “In the grey, boring world of snowboarding

corporations, these guys (who you know are among the best) are doing something

different.” Accordingly, even if producers try to put across certain meanings,

audiences may or may not assign the same meanings (Littlejohn 1996, p328). As

noted in the first ad, the ad is open to other audiences, but the Clae ad is very much

closed. The Volvo ad targeted a much wider audience, basically a “if you can afford

it, you’re in” type of audience. It’s up to the reader to decide wether he\she belongs to

the context or not. On a basic level, signs are combined into texts, but a text has no

meaning on its own (Smagorinsky 2001). It draws value from surrounding elements

and from reader association, but also from what it is not (Littlejohn 1998, p332). The

combination of these creates the context in which the text operates. In other words, if

you’re not a snowboarder, you won’t have a single clue to what this ad is about. This

is why context is important. Thwaites and colleagues mention that “the social

situations in which a sign is used may determine the appropriate content, type of sign

and coding. A sign’s contextual functions indicate the context in which it operates

(Thwaites, Davis and Mules 2002, p19). Chandler explains that Stuart Hall pointed to

the role of social positioning in the interpretation of mass media texts by different

social groups (Chandler’s web source on semiotics). Hall also suggested three

hypothetical models of interpretative codes or positions for the reader of a text (Hall
1980, p136-8). But what Hall and also Chandler miss, is what happens when you

don’t understand an ad at all? Because, as Griffin quite eloquently says: “like

chameleons that take on the coloration of their environment, words take on their

meaning of the context in which they are used (Griffin 2000, p40).”

The opinion that the usefulness of semiotics decreases and is above all dependent on

the skill of the interpreter is not new. Leiss and his colleagues (Leiss et al. 1990,

p214) argue that a key drawback of semiotics is that “it is heavily dependent upon the

skill of the individual analyst”. Less skilful practitioners “can do little more than state

the obvious in a complex and often pretentious manner.” Subsequently, to apply this

to the ads examined, by making use of exclusion and irony, the producer of the ad can

ensure (to a certain degree) that only a certain part of an audience will understand its

core meaning, since there are certain codes in the ad that exclusively connotates to a

particular context that will pass others by. Donald and Virginia Fry’s third postulate is

that “meanings of a message are affected by events outside the message itself

(Littlejohn 1996 p329).” Therefore, a way of producing a meaning stable enough to

communicate must depend on two variables: (1) the maker must understand the kinds

of content that will convey certain meanings in an audience (codes) and (2) that the

actual text lays emphasis on certain meanings over others (context). In this

perspective, the kind of magazine reflects how meanings are emphasized. Bignell

even argues that: “as well as being a collection of signs, the magazine is a sign in

itself (Bignell 1997, p66). Wallpaper is appealing to anyone who likes architecture,

design and fashion. But, Snowboarder is appealing only to snowboarders, and

contains codes, values and perceptions of that specific culture. Umberto Eco uses the

term “aberrant decoding” to refer to a text which has been decoded by way of a
different code from that used to encode it (Eco 1965). Eco describes as “closed” those

texts which show a strong tendency to promote a particular interpretation - in contrast

to more “open” texts (Eco 1981). Chandler builds on Bignell’s notion and notes that

the signs (or codes) within a text "do not just 'convey' meanings, but constitute a

medium in which meanings are constructed" (Chandler’s web source on semiotics).

Through reading a magazine aimed at a demographic group, we can learn what

society expects from that group. The magazine is therefore a "powerful ideological

force" in society (McRobbie 2000, p69).

To summarise, even though some post modernists say that texts are endlessly

polysemic (Barthes 1977, Fiske 1987), meanings can still be communicated. The ads

chosen utilise the element of exclusion with an ironic twist and suggest an intelligent

audience with the necessary knowledge needed to recognize when the message is

directed to them. The two ads are very different however. Leiss and colleagues argue

that “For advertising to create meaning, the reader or viewer must do some “work”

Because the meaning is not lying there on the page, one has to make an effort to grasp

it (Leiss et al. 1990, p200). In the case of both ads this is very accurate. The creators

of the ads have given the readers a and c, but the reader must fill in b. Leiss also sites

Williamson in that she notes that the peculiar thing about advertising is that we are

inclined to fill in this gap. The way advertising has developed together with theories

such as market segmentation seems to underline the argument. The Volvo ad is

“open” in the way that appeals to a wide, but also an exclusive audience. The Clae ad

is just exclusive, it has a narrow audience, and the ad is therefore closed. Placing the

Clae ad in Wallpaper would most likely create a negotiated reading (Thwaites, Davis

and Mules, 2002, p92). Consequently, the context in which the ads appear is essential
for their meaning. The type of magazine and also the intertextuality within the ads add

to the complexity of the concept, but the role of codes and connotation is very

important in anchoring the meaning, which in itself also can be complex. As Chandler

and Bignell suggest, signs and codes can be a medium in itself, and described by

Leiss and colleagues: “An ad is a mediator between creator and reader, standing at the

confluence of the double symbolic process in the marketplace, where producers of

goods try to attempt to construct one set of meanings, and where consumers use these

meanings (along with meanings drawn from other sources) in the construction of their

own lifestyles (Leiss et al. 1990, p201-203).” This is why semiotics is important. On a

basic level, it can show us how meanings construct, maintain and negotiate certain

social beliefs and attitudes in a culture. On a more multifaceted level, the concept of

intertextuality is very interesting and should be studied more widely as it can uncover

the many complex ways in which contexts migrate from one another and show the

ambiguity of meaning in a world which is literally teaming with it.


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Wallpaper Magazine March 2002, published by Wallpaper magazines

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