Exercise: Targeting an audience, pt 2


Investigate a major company and the style of photography they’ve used to market a particular product. Use any product that you find interesting as long as it’s been around for a while.

Analyse the imagery that was used in the past and its message or intent. Has the way the company delivers its message changed? Why do you think that is? Has the target audience changed?

Show examples and annotate the images with the main points that you think make them work – or not.

Reflect on this, using illustrated notes, in your learning log or blog.


I chose Apple as the company and the Mac computer as the specific product (for the purpose of clarity: I am excluding laptop variants).

I’ll attempt as far as possible to focus on the imagery rather than digging too deep into copywriting.


The Mac was introduced in 1984, and while the one-off pre-launch TV advert was a high-concept take on Orwell’s 1984 with a call to reject conformity, the press advertising that accompanied the actual product release were disappointingly traditional. They mostly depicted the various software and hardware features (not the benefits) of the product, or honed in on a particular aspect of the augmented product offer (such as a free trial).

There were however a few notable exceptions that foreshadowed the more personal appeals that later Mac ads showed.


Having the handwritten word ‘hello’ on the screen helps to personalise the computer, up until now seen as a ‘scary’ business tool. Similarly, one of the smaller screens shows a smiley face. A clear attempt was being made to give the Mac a friendly personality, and by extension implying that you (buyer) will ‘get on with it’. It’s reassurance via anthropomorphism.

One suspects that different ads ran in different media, and while the first three above may have been in computer enthusiast magazines, the ‘personality’ ad would have been in more mainstream press. Apple demonstrated an ability to target distinct audiences early on.


For Apple, the 1990s was a decade of two uneven parts, both from a product and an advertising point of view – first the wilderness years after Steve Jobs’ 1985 sacking and then the new era when he returned to save the company in 1997.

Until Jobs’ return, Apple had been focusing on professional buyers, specifically in the creative industries. The ‘staples’ execution is clever in a meta way, in as much as it admits its own existence as an advertisement, and allows the viewer to project themselves into the making of the ad itself.

The ‘in your head’ execution tries to depict the creative mind but falls far short in my opinion; the imagery seems to hark back to the breakthrough ‘1984’ ad for no particular reason.

On Jobs’ return the product set was slashed and a renewed focus on the mass market began with the iMac.

Apple’s stroke of genius with this product relaunch was to unashamedly market the iMac as a lifestyle product. Cutting edge design and candy-bright colours differentiated the product from its beige PC rivals and – crucially from an advertising and branding point of view – lent themselves to highly visual advertising.

In terms of target audience, the iMac market is a million miles away from the ‘industry’ market of the preceding decade. The iMac ads from this era are virtually text-free zones. The look of the iMac is its number one selling point, and the advertising is as simple as it needs to be. The intended implication is that this thing looks so damn cool that you are totally going to want one. There is no attempt to depict the iMac in use, or even in a real-life environment – it just floats in white space (the pervasive Apple aesthetic ever since). You don’t even get to see a screen. It’s marketing a personal computer as a fun fashion accessory. Pure aspirational advertising: ‘you wanna be cool? get one of these!‘.

Yet at the same time Apple realised that it could not alienate its core market of graphic designers etc. The professional standard product, the Power Mac G3, was given an iMac-like design overhaul, but its advertising style was quite different: showing the internals of the machine, appealing to the more rational, technical side of the buyer, whilst still enjoying the halo effect of the hugely popular baby brother.



While the core iMac product underwent a couple of redesigns in the 2000s, its advertising aesthetic didn’t change too much. The exception came in a campaign that ran from 2006-2009 that focused on pitting the Mac against its rival, the Windows PC.


In a major departure, the ads featured no hardware or software, just two actors playing personifications of the Mac and its rival the PC. It circles back to the 1984 launch ad ‘Mackintosh’s Personality’ (even down to the use of ‘hello’) but gets its message across in a much slicker, more contemporary way, and in an aesthetic reminiscent of Apple’s iconic product ads.

The campaign uses a combination of sign currency and social differentiation tactics. The personalities (in the UK version anyway) are recognisable as characters (in this case from Peep Show, the sitcom) as well as actors, so the viewer brings preconceptions to the imagery: PC is staid, stuffy, uptight, corporate, while Mac is cool, trendy, easy-going and all about fun. It’s clear who we are supposed to identify with. The social differentiation goes further than most similar messages: it’s not “Hello, I’m a Mac user“, it’s “Hello, I’m a Mac“.

Again, this is evidence of Apple noting the shifts (or rather, as they hope – expansions) in its target audience. In simplified phases: Apple had sewn up first the graphic professional market, then the ‘cool’ end of the mass market – and now wanted to make headway in the more mainstream markets, both business and personal. For the first time in a long time, Apple needed to explain its product appeal in comparison to something else.


As a mature product, the Mac generally gets little by way of advertising support compared to the likes of the iPhone. It seems to now be enough to just remind people what the iMac looks like. In a sense it’s a return to the original aspirational iMac ad format – ‘just look at that cool design‘ – without the shock of the new.


One major difference is that the screen is often to the fore now – one of its major USPs is its display quality, so contemporary iMac ads often feature a photograph within a photograph.

There was one recent ad I found that at first glance seemed to be a little insular or self-congratulatory: it simply depicted the design evolution of the iMac since launch.


The more I thought about it though, the more I realised it was another example of very clever targeting. This ad isn’t aimed at new customers, it’s for existing Mac owners. Existing owners can look at a ‘regular’ iMac ad and think, ‘yeah, I already got one of those…‘ (validation), but this ad is really making you say ‘isn’t it about time I got a new one?‘ (aspiration).


Apple has used various styles and techniques over the years but has largely settled on an identifiable aesthetic – white, minimalist, photographic, product design-led, simple text. With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, it becomes more evident how they have refined their visual style and messaging in order to appeal to different markets – graphics professionals, hipsters, mass market, corporate, repeat buyers…

I think however one thing to point out, given the wording of the question set in the brief, is that Apple seems to change its message or imagery not so much to keep up with changes in target market behaviour or tastes, but rather to drive these behaviour or tastes – to expand its target markets. From a marketing point of view Apple likes to position itself as a leader rather than a follower.


Exercise: Targeting an audience, pt 1


(the two parts of this exercise are sufficiently unrelated that I am splitting them into two posts)

Try the Who-What-How approach for yourself by analysing at least three contemporary photographic advertising images. Choose any images you like – they don’t have to have a human subject as long as they reveal something about the human condition.

  • Who is the intended market for the product?
  • What are they selling?
  • How are they selling it to the customer?


BMW 7 Series


  • Who:
    • Men
    • Extremely high income: the 1% – those who don’t drive a car but are chauffeur-driven around (and: those who aspire to this)
    • Status-conscious
  • What:
    • Status, superiority, validation (ego-stroking)
    • Luxury, relaxation (you’re a stressed exec!)
    • Reassurance (award winning)
  • How:
    • Appellation (use of ‘you’ in headline) – you are ‘invited’ into the open car door
    • Association: nice expensive car, nice expensive house
    • Social differentiation (“you’re a BMW driver”)

Sofa Workshop


  • Who:
    • Women (more likely to be decision-makers)
    • Homemakers with more disposable income than average – less price conscious (price not mentioned, though the summer sale is)
  • What:
    • A lifestyle – stylish, tasteful, classic (e.g. stripped floorboards, retro phone)
  • How:
    • Appellation (use of ‘your’ in headline)
    • Social differentiation (pseudo-individualism)
    • Signifiers: retro phone = classic; photobook = arty etc

Bol Foods


  • Who:
    • Middle class females, higher than average income
    • Interested in self-improvement (health and fitness) but not necessarily cooking
  • What:
    • A ‘better version of yourself’
    • Idealised – healthy, fit, organised, tidy etc
  • How:
    • Identification / mis-recognition (“that could be me”)
    • Aspiration, but a more achievable kind than many ads: a tidy, airy, stylish kitchen, a nice view
    • Signifiers: staircase outside window resembles an upwards graph (= self-improvement); lots of houseplants = natural, healthy; yoga = balanced
    • Association: yoga is healthy, therefore this food is healthy
    • Practical: product packaging is more prominent than finished meal – and it even tells you where to look for it in the supermarket

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 http://www.useronboard.com/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