Research: the Grammar of the Ad

The course notes ask us to read and comment on ‘The Grammar of the Ad’ by Anandi Ramamurthy in Wells (2009: 221–236), in particular its analysis of the transfer/attachment of meaning and the commodification of the body.

After giving us an example semiotic analysis of a telecoms ad, the essay gets more interesting when it discusses the ‘transfer of meaning’. I was reminded of a similar explanation and several examples in Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements (1983: 20-39) that helped to illustrate how advertisers perform this ‘correlation’, such as colours, shapes, gestures and even simple juxtaposition – just placing a perfume bottle alongside a celebrity will suggest that the perfume shares characteristics with the person, although the arbitrary nature of the connection is apparent under any remotely questioning analysis.

‘Transfer’ is an interesting and highly appropriate word, as there is a movement of ‘meaning’ from encoder to decoder, and sometimes the intended meaning can get lost in translation.

Ramamurthy’s essay quotes from Stuart Hall’s ‘Encoding/Decoding’ essay of 1993, which posits three potential readings of an image (Hall 1993):

  • Dominant (or preferred, or hegemonic): read as intended and ‘encoded’ by the creator
  • Negotiated: read partly as intended but with some slippage/contradictions, often down to cultural context and norms
  • Oppositional: in total conflict with the intended meaning

As Hall puts it in his original essay (my emphasis):

“It was argued earlier that since there is no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding, the former can attempt to ‘prefer’ but cannot prescribe or guarantee the latter, which has its own conditions of existence. Unless they are wildly aberrant, encoding will have the effect of constructing some of the limits and parameters within which decodings will operate. If there were no limits, audiences could simply read whatever they liked into any message.” (Hall 1993)

What I took from this is that the tricky task of the advertiser is to make the correlation between the elements of the advertisement sufficiently clear, without being too overt. The ‘rails’ on which the message needs to run must be consensually understood by the audience.

Examples of negotiated and oppositional readings often occur when an advertiser misjudges the prevailing norms and inadvertently offends a portion of the audience – which sometimes happens when global campaigns are insufficiently localised, but also can happen simply due to the cultural ‘blindness’ on the part of the ad producers. Who, with an ounce of diversity awareness, could have approved the UNICEF ‘blackface’ and the Nivea ‘afro’ executions below?

In other instances, events overtake the production of the ad and new connotations arise that are contrary to the original intention, such as the Dior ‘Sauvage’ ad above produced before but viewed after Johnny Depp was accused of domestic abuse.

Ramamurthy notes that commodity culture imagery exacerbates the voyeuristic gaze by objectifying women, including a highly interesting analysis of the trend in advertising over the decades to objectify parts of the female body, in a way that further depersonalises the subject.

In these ads, women aren’t ‘people’ but collections of bottoms, legs and breasts.

Linking the concepts of body fragmentation and meaning transfer gives us some great examples of where the cultural norms of the (predominantly male) image producer are completely misaligned to a significant portion of the viewing population. The ad producers may argue that the legitimately offended female viewers are ‘not the target market’ but that stance is disingenuous in an environment where ads are viewable by a wide demographic.

Body fragmentation has quite rightly led to something of an oppositional backlash, as collected in the graffiti photographs of Jill Posener in Spray it Loud (1982).

Born Kicking, 1982 by Jill Posener

To summarise: what reading this chapter has brought home to me is the polysemic nature of advertising imagery, and the accompanying care that advertisers must take to ensure that the message they have encoded is appropriately decoded by the recipients. It has shone a light on the underlying cognitive processes that lead to what the digital age calls ‘advertising fails’.

Sources

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Hall, S (1993) ‘Encoding/Decoding’ in The Cultural Studies Reader (ed: During, S). London: Routledge

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