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14 Advertising and Semiotics

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Mia Jankowicz

on 22 May 2015

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Transcript of 14 Advertising and Semiotics

ARTV/FILM/DSGN 2113 - Intro to Visual Cultures
Key terms:
Use value/exchange value
Presumption of relevance
Relationship of equivalence
Commodity sign

Commodity self
Commodity fetishism
Subject position

Reading &

Signification in
advertising tactics

Coca-cola advert, Egypt 1947
What are you being sold?
Let's return to this term in relation to semiotics.
Signifier: anything that stands in for the real thing. ('C-A-T' or a picture of a cat)

Signified: the idea of the thing (the thought you have when you see C-A-T)

Sign: The signifier 'filled' with signification; the two in combination.

Referent: The
actual real life thing
being referred to.
You can have C-A-T (signifier) and the thought of the cat (signified), but the
is the actual real-life cat.
In the early days of advertising, the emphasis was on the actual use of the product.
Print ad for Aphrodyl Pills for men, Al-Nahar 85 (November 1933)
Print ads in
Shi’r magazine, Lebanon
Advertisement in Lebanese
magazine, 1974
What shift do you begin to see in the advertising tactic here?
A: Here, the product itself is
secondary to the connotations about lifestyle, i.e. the implied promise that the product will make you a more glamorous person

The first 'Marlboro man' advert, 1954

Sales went from 18 million Marlboros sold in 1954, to 6.4 billion in 1955
After the 1970s,
almost all advertising works by enacting the transfer of signified meaning from one signifier to another.

The transfer is often achieved merely by proximity.
Image &
name of
What is equivalent to what here?
In an advertisement,
there is a
of relevance
that is not
otherwise found in
daily life.

This allows for advertisers to establish
relationships of equivalence
between existing cultural signs (cowboy)
and the advertised product (Marlboro)
In other circumstances, what would you think about the combining of unrelated signs?
OR: Referent: the thing that tries to sit on your laptop when you're planning a semiotics lecture
This kind of strangeness was explored in the early 20th Century radical art movement of Dadaism.
In advertising, however, it is very common to operate on a presumption of relevance between one sign and another.

Unlike with Dadaism, this intentionally appears rational.
Meret Oppenheim,
(1936) teacup covered in gazelle fur. Collection MoMA New York
Relationship of equivalence
The means by which a signifier is related to a signified.

Advertising often works to make two unrelated things take on a relationship of equivalence. Ie that just by pure proximity, one can associate two otherwise unrelated ideas.
Here, this
relationship is established simply by making the different
signifiers take the same shape.
Here. the relationship of equivalence is
established by means of simple edits that connect images of different items into a single whole.
Indian TV commercial
for Liril soap (1985)
Presumption of relevance
In the internal world of the ad, inflated connections can be made with particular urgency. This depends on our presumption of relevance that underpins the connections used.
Now that we have the basics down, we need to acquire more vocabulary to help us talk about advertising with detail and precision.

As we said, advertising is the key to selling products that are otherwise very similar. Advertising can associate a random product with a desirable lifestyle. It is the primary way to give a commodity qualities to that it does not have innately.
A raw material or product that is bought and sold in a social system of exchange.

Commodity self
A term from media studies, it refers to the idea that we construct our subjectivities (our personal understandings of self) through our consumption and use of commodities. Advertising encourages this; it prompts consumers to think of commodities as a primary means to express their personalities. For example, through our shoes.
Commodity sign
So, what are you buying when you buy these shoes?
The commodity sign is what purchasers purchase and consume as a result of advertising. In the logic of the commodity sign, consumers purchase both the thing
all its intangible, signified promises and qualities.
Commodity fetishism
The process by which mass-produced goods
are emptied of the meaning of their production and then filled with new, mystified meanings.
When an abstract idea becomes understood as real and concrete.

The reification process usually culminates at the point of purchase, when someone exchanges money for the idea.

For example, in the Liril advert, objects and images were presented as signifiers of a desirable image or feeling, such as freshness. A relationship of equivalence was established between the product signifier (Liril) and the first objects.
happens once consumers actually purchase Liril in the supermarket.

At that moment, the abstract idea of “freshness” has acquired an exchange-value.
In order to affect exchange value, advertising for inessential products must establish distinction between one brand from another in the same category. A different kind of woman is promised in the ad on the left and the ad on the right.
and you

Use value
vs exchange value
In a capitalist society:
Use value = the actual practical use a commodity has. With this kind of value, what the commodity is 'worth' is inseparable from its practical capabilities.

Exchange value = the amount of money/compensation a commodity can be considered equivalent to. This is independent of use value. Advertisers cannot affect the use value of a commodity, so they seek to affect the exchange value.
Advertising also tries to make you feel as if you have a unique relationship to this commodity. There are various ways to do this.
When an advertisement calls out to the viewer. As a result of the viewer’s encounter with the ad, he/she is invited to see the world in a particular way, through a specific social position. “Ads speak to us through particular modes of address, and ask us to see ourselves within them.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 203).

It constitutes you as part of a group
while still addressing you as an individual (which is necessary for you to believe that the product will express your personality)
Subject position
By means of appellation, we are put into
a subject position – position in society offered to a viewer of the advertisement.

Subject = a “conscious self.” In the context of the audience for visual culture, subjectivity is the conscious awareness of the self in interaction with but distinction from other elements in the world. By interacting with external phenomena (such as images), we become aware of ourselves…we become subjects.

Advert for Saturn cars, 1992
The false sense that the product has a unique relationship to an individual when in fact it is a homogenized product sold to many consumers
- “Commodity culture and commodity fetishism” in Practices of
Looking by Sturken and Cartwright, 198-209.

- Mohamed Abdullatif (interview), “Tomorrow Only Started with a Thought,” Bidoun 25 (Summer 2011), 67-68. Available for download
on our course Blackboard.

We looked at media in relation to the development of modernity in history.
What sort of ways does the medium affect our viewing experience? What might that do to the way we absorb the message itself?
What happened to cause all these shifts?

Relation of equivalence
This effect is so strong, it can backfire completely.
Advertising: creating a need
2) Every new medium introduces a change of scale, pace, or pattern into our bodies and society. Here we can see the TV has created a specific social structure.
1) A medium already dictates our expectations of the content. If we see a placard, we expect a message of political urgency; if we see a billboard, we expect some advertising, etc.
Low use value products have to work to persuade you to part with your money, so often are associated with the luxury market.
High use value products are often in a crowded marketplace, and have to work to differentiate their product from the rest.
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