Exercise: What are they selling?

Brief

Take a range of advertisements from magazines or billboards and see if you can attach them to any of the above groups. You may find that some of the images you’ve chosen fall into two or more of Packard’s categories.

  • What are they selling?
  • Who are they selling it to?
  • How are they selling it?
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?

Write no more than 250 words for each advertisement.

Response

I tend to pick ads from my wife’s magazines for these kind of exercises, as I’m not a big magazine buyer myself. So for this I made an effort to research beyond the usual and I bought a copy of GQ for the first time in many, many years. My goodness, what a load of alpha male nonsense that magazine is! Anyway, a few ads caught my eye for different reasons.

GoPro

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GoPro
  • What are they selling?
    • Ego gratification: viewer as extreme sports dude
    • Creative outlets: viewer as cameraman
    • Sense of power: viewer as winner
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Men up to and including middle-aged (mid-life crisis)
    • Competitive ‘extreme sports’ fans (whether they participate in such sports or not)
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’ (per Williamson 1978)
    • Placing viewer in position of powerful, masculine, winning sports hero
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • Angle = edgy
    • Vantage point = I am leader, they are followers
    • Crowd = I am popular
    • Shadow bottom right = viewer as rider
    • Studium: the sense of excitement and danger
    • My punctum: the shadow that places the photographer into the shot

The graphical use of typography is interesting: the slogan ‘Capture Different‘ (which is ungrammatical and most likely a clumsy ripoff of Apple’s old ‘Think Different‘ line) is contrived to be ‘behind’ the foreground tyre, which slightly overlaps it. This has the visual effect of delineating the foreground rider (/viewer) from the background subject – further emphasising the ‘winner / hero’ impression. It also serves to identify the foreground character as a ‘creator’ and the background riders as their ‘subjects’.

The vantage point, added to the visual delineation described above, allows the viewer to effectively see themselves in two positions at once in this ad: this is both a photo of the second rider (who the viewer can identify with) and a photo of the first rider filming the second (who the viewer can now imagine as themselves, resembling the second rider but – crucially – being in front of them).

Hive Home Automation

IMG_3483.JPG
Hive Home Automation
  • What are they selling?
    • Emotional security: look after the home even when you’re not there
    • Reassurance of worth: luxury item / early adopter
    • Immortality (metaphorically): look after the home even when you’re not there
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Male homeowners
    • Gadget geeks / early adopters
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’ (per Williamson 1978)
    • Idealised, minimalist – almost-blank canvas to allow viewer to project themselves onto the ad
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • White elements = purity, goodness
    • Orange elements = positivity, extroversion, energy, taste
    • Hair straighteners = homeowner has a partner
    • Guitar = homeowner is creative / artistic / cool
    • Shoes = viewer, put yourself in my shoes
    • Studium: how much of your house you can control with Hive
    • My punctum: the cat climbing the curtain (probably the intended punctum)

The overall visual style is a little 2001: A Space Odyssey I think, quite retro-futuristic. This harks back to old 50s/60s depictions of ‘the home of the future’ so I think they may have been aiming to evoke this particular trope.

It also references the automation that 2001 introduced into popular culture with HAL the ship’s computer; the irony however is that HAL turned on its humans (“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.“), so it may turn out to be an unfortunate allusion. I think I’ve found an example of a negotiated reading!

Dolce & Gabbana

IMG_3477.JPG
Dolce & Gabbana
  • What are they selling?
    • Reassurance of worth: via tribalism
    • Ego gratification: via a sense of superiority
    • A sense of power: via a sense of superiority
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Young, affluent, fashion-conscious males
  • How are they selling it?
    • Totemism / social differentiation: ‘viewer takes meaning from the ad’
    • Interpellation: ‘viewer is created by the ad’ (use of ‘U’ on shirt, signifying ‘you’)
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • Street photography style = ‘keeping it real’
    • Gang youths = the in-crowd
    • Man at back looking on admiringly = reinforcing how ‘cool’ these lads are
    • Nun = authority figure
    • Nun’s white wimple = goodness, purity
    • Youths’ black clothes = bad boys
    • Bowing youth = pretending to respect her (it’s a very mocking gesture)
    • Height of youth to far left = emphasising superiority over nun
    • Shopping bag from ‘trendy’ store = nun is trying to be fashionable
    • Old photo next to nun’s head = she’s comparing these youths to real gentlemen
    • Studium: a bunch of pretentious dicks mocking a nun
    • My punctum: the man at the back, most ridiculously dressed of them all

Unusually for a fashion advert, this uses a street photography (or maybe snapshot) aesthetic: blown highlights, cropped body parts, uneven focus. It is however clearly staged. Not unusually at all for a fashion advert, the main figure is very skinny – emphasised by the pole next to his identically-proportioned legs.

Of all the ads I looked at, I found this the most distasteful. It’s very sneery and superior, and borderline menacing. It says ‘be in the in crowd, take the piss out of old people’. The way they are surrounding her is vaguely threatening. The way the man at the back looks on, smirking, making him complicit.

So for me this becomes an example of oppositional reading – to me it comes across as if it were designed for me to think badly of the brand. If I had ever been inclined to buy Dolce & Gabbana, this ad would put me off.

Philipp Plein

IMG_3479.JPG
Philipp Plein
  • What are they selling?
    • Ego gratification: appealing to aggressive masculinity
    • A sense of power: via weapon imagery
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Young, affluent, fashion-conscious males with low self-esteem
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • Tattoos = hard man
    • Smoking = hard man
    • Gun = gangster
    • Smoke, juxtaposed wth gun = he’s just shot someone
    • Halo = good guy (contradicts rest of imagery)
    • Shooting being acted out behind him = a memory of a real shooting
    • Women acting out shooting = male fantasy
    • Studium: alpha male oozing power
    • My punctum: the halo, only because it’s so laughably incongruous

This is the most hilariously over-the-top ad I found, to the point where I wondered if it’s deliberately parodic (it’s so hard to tell sometimes). It comes across like they got a randy undergraduate to direct the campaign.

The signifiers of ‘bad boy’ are highly stereotypical – young black male, tattoos, smoking, gun. The juxtaposition of the smoke and the gun in particular seem to signify that he has just shot someone, and the scene being played out behind him implies that this is what he is thinking about. Given that the advertiser couldn’t show this in a realist setting, the stylised, sci-fi setting and retro ‘laser guns’ are clearly standing in for the real thing.

The halo is what made me laugh – it’s almost as though they got as far as the finished ad and thought ‘Hang on, we haven’t made this guy look too sympathetic, have we? What can we do to say that he is really a good bloke?‘.

So the whole thing is saying: ‘Wear Philipp Plein and you too will be a gangster! A nice one though‘. Hilarious.

Moncler

IMG_3478.JPG

  • What are they selling?
    • Tricky one, this! Emotional security? Reassurance of worth?
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Fashion-conscious, affluent outdoorsy types, male and female
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’ (per Williamson 1978)
    • Via surreal, evocative imagery
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • [Left hand ad first]
    • Red = danger
    • Blanket = Moncler clothing (= warm, protective)
    • Snow = outdoors
    • Cage = protection
    • Tree in torso cage = ‘I have tamed nature’ (or ‘I am at one with nature’?)
    • [Right hand ad]
    • Tree = umbrella (= protection)
    • Dress = Moncler clothing (= warm, protective)
    • Rock = alone in vast wilderness
    • Pale skin = coldness
    • Studium: Nordic fairytale
    • My punctum: the face I can see in the left hand pic

This double page ad really jumped out at me. Compared to the rest of the ads in the magazine, it’s so surreal and ambiguous. No copy, just the logo and URL. It intrigued me. I searched online and discovered that the campaign was photographed by Annie Leibowitz.

The combination of the snowy landscape and the surrealism evokes an overall feeling something like a Nordic fairytale. The left hand image in particular is striking: the red blanket partly resembles a hood, making the body resemble a face. Once you start seeing it like this, the snow separated by the cage bars starts to resemble gritted teeth. It reminded me a lot of Charles Fréger’s project Wilder Mann (2011).

This was the hardest to analyse using the Packard categories and the Williamson list of techniques. Maybe the world of advertising has become more sophisticated in the last few decades, and the list of ‘selling’ approaches can be expanded to include more ambiguous, conceptual executions.

Sources

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Packard, V. (1981) The Hidden Persuaders. London: Pelican

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

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