Reflection: Advertising photography

I’ve had a few weeks off Gesture & Meaning while I caught up on Documentary, and came back to it a few days ago starting with some reading.

The course notes start this section with good and clear statement of intent (my emphasis):

“Part Four looks at how advertisers make use of photographic representations of the human form and condition to sell products.” (course notes: 120)

It’s good to be reminded that Gesture & Meaning is supposed to be about the representation of people in photography, as sometimes it seems that both the course notes and my own research and practice can drift away from that somewhat (case in point: the whole of my Assignment 2 had no people in…).

‘What does advertising do?’

I’m not going to write reams and reams for this project that opens the Advertising section, as it covers a lot of ground that is familiar to me already.

My first degree was in Business Studies, specialising in Marketing, and my first three post-graduate jobs were traditional marketing positions, so I am reasonably well-versed in the origins and objectives of advertising.

One line for my studies that always stuck with me is usually credited to Theodore Levitt, but he was actually quoting Leo McGinneva, about why people buy drill bits: “They don’t want quarter-inch bits. They want quarter-inch holes.”(Levitt 1983).

Similarly, in my first marketing job, for a furniture company, I was told to not sell the features (‘bi-fold reclining mechanism’) but the benefits (‘effortless relaxation’).

More recently, I really loved the quote from marketing website User Onboard:

“People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.” (User Onboard 2013).

The picture says it even more clearly:


That’s what advertising does!

How advertising does it

The how is the interesting part.

Decoding Advertisements (original: 1978) by Judith Williamson provides an excellent analysis of the processes behind advertising. I had previously read and enjoyed Williamson’s analyses of specific ads such as those in her column in Source magazine, but the book goes into great detail about the framework within which she is able to perform such analyses – it’s an initially complex yet ultimately comprehensible breakdown of the mental processes of both constructing and receiving visual advertising messages.

Reading this made me realise that advertising is probably the purest form of authorial photography – it is entirely based on constructing imagery to communicate a very specific message to the viewer. It is loaded with highly targeted visual cues that drive towards a very clear goal. An advertising image itself can be mysterious, even oblique, yet its intent is unambiguous: to make the viewer want to buy the product.

With this revelation in mind, I am slightly in awe of the power of truly great advertising imagery, and almost grudgingly respect the practitioners that are able to part consumers from their money with their subliminal messaging.

Williamson looks critically at advertising through the prism of ideology: the pre-existing systems of ideas – about life, society, relationships, nature, science, gender, success etc – that both form the context of receiving the advertising message and are in turn formed (reinforced) by advertising.

“Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves.” (Williamson 1983: 13)

She describes four kinds of processes that typify advertising and generate or reinforce ‘needs’ that can be met by the products/services being advertised. They are not mutually exclusive and can operate in combination in photographic advertising.

  • Currency of signs: viewer creates the meaning of the ad
    • Referent systems / linking signs / transfer of meaning
    • Semiotics: signifiers and signifieds, denotation and connotation
    • This is the most purely photographic of the processes, the others depend to varying degrees on copywriting
  • Interpellation: viewer is created by the ad
    • ‘Hey, you!’ – personally addressing the viewer so that that they see themselves in the ad
    • Paradoxically, addresses a mass group with similar characteristics but as an ‘individual’
  • Identification / mis-recognition: viewer creates themselves in the ad
    • Aspiration: the ‘better version of yourself’ concept
    • The ad constructs a ‘lack’, a ‘gap’ that owning the product will fill and complete the mirroring of viewer and ad-subject
  • Totemism / social differentiation: viewer takes meaning from the ad
    • Ads encourage formation of ‘tribes’ based on consumer behaviour
    • Alignment with similar people / distinction from dissimilar people
    • Used for products/services with limited real differentiation, where ‘difference’ needs to be constructed

Williamson’s ideologies (that advertising both feeds on and forms) could be viewed as a component part of Guy Debord’s ‘Spectacle’ – a false, constructed set of cultural systems that determine to a scary degree how the majority of the population lives their lives (Debord 1968). Decoding Advertisements has improved my understanding of The Society of the Spectacle, for which I am grateful!

I’ll stop there so this doesn’t turn into a précis of the entire book. Suffice to say it has opened my eyes as to the cognitive processes that underpin good advertising imagery. I may return to the book later in this section.


Levitt, T (1983) The Marketing Imagination. New York: The Free Press

Features vs Benefits (accessed 15/06/2016)

Williamson, J. (1983) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (4th ed). London: Marion Boyars.

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s