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From Naturalisation to Sacralisation: Changing Paradigms for Analysing Visual Advertising
Unformatted Document Text:  4 4 “Decoding Advertisements” (1978) provided this movement with a theory and an analytical methodology to study advertising. Williamson shared with Berger a profound distrust of advertising as an instrument of an arbitrary and exploitative capitalism. Williamson was interested in explaining the mechanisms by which meaning is generated in ads In her own words, she studied “the process of turning signifieds into signifiers” (Williamson 1978:168). Following Saussure, she argued that the meaning of ads is constituted by the differences they establish. Advertising is a communication system in which difference is made by juxtaposing images from different contexts. Juxtaposing images allowed meaning to be transferred from one system of signification with which we are familiar (which she calls the referent system), to another, that of the product and the brand. .In a classic example, she took Channel advertisements that simply juxtaposed a photograph of Catherine Deneuve with a bottle of Channel No.5. The meaning of Catherine Deneuve was simply transferred on to Chanel No.5. In order to successfully understand the ad, the "informed" reader must recognize the fact that Catherine Deneuve is part of a system of signs, which marks her as different from other celebrities. The reader is then invited to make a connection between the signified of Deneuve (sophistication, elegance) and the signified of the perfume. The ad refers back to the system from which the sign (Catherine Deneuve's face) was lifted. It is only by referring back to this system of differences that the sign can function. Lancôme still produces such advertisements as those for perfumes: Miracle, juxtaposed with Uma Thurmen and the Tresor with Isabella Rossellini. Another example the perfume Champs Elysées” next to the face of Sophie Marceau. In these cases of “star endorsements “, the meaning of the signifier Catherine Deneuve, or Sophie Marceau becomes simply a signified for Chanel No.5 or Champs-elysées. However as Williamson pointed out Chanel No. 5’s meaning is not simply enhanced by the presence of the star. This juxtaposition distinguishes it from other brands. The difference between Chanel and Catherine Deneuve is enhanced by the difference between Chanel ads and other ads. Just as a language can be understood as an arbitrary set of differences, a perfume brand’s meaning is constituted in a system of differences between brands.. Williamson‘s critique of advertising is one that follows Roland Barthes’s notion that advertising makes an arbitrary system of differences appear natural. Williamson transfers this system of semiological differences into a system of social differences. The two are seen as equivalent. Indeed we could argue that social differences are the “real” or absolute signified for Williamson. To advance her case, she refers to Levi-Strauss’s idea of totemism. We differentiate ourselves from other people by what we buy and in the process, we become identified with the product that differentiates us; and this is a kind of totemism. Levi-Strauss describes totemism – the use of differences between natural objects to differentiate between human groups. (Williamson 46) This theory of totemism applied to consumerism is then mapped on to a theory of advertising’s relations with the subject. Although she does not refer to deixis and the linguistic theories of Benveniste, she does discuss the placement of the reading subject by the use of pronouns. Like Berger, she examines how advertisements place and form a reader but unlike him, she draws her theory explicitly from Althusser’s theory of interpolation. She

Authors: Doyle, Waddick.
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“Decoding Advertisements” (1978) provided this movement with a theory and an analytical
methodology to study advertising. Williamson shared with Berger a profound distrust of
advertising as an instrument of an arbitrary and exploitative capitalism. Williamson was
interested in explaining the mechanisms by which meaning is generated in ads In her own
words, she studied “the process of turning signifieds into signifiers” (Williamson 1978:168).
Following Saussure, she argued that the meaning of ads is constituted by the differences they
establish. Advertising is a communication system in which difference is made by juxtaposing
images from different contexts. Juxtaposing images allowed meaning to be transferred from
one system of signification with which we are familiar (which she calls the referent system),
to another, that of the product and the brand.

.In a classic example, she took Channel advertisements that simply juxtaposed a photograph
of Catherine Deneuve with a bottle of Channel No.5.
The meaning of Catherine Deneuve
was simply transferred on to Chanel No.5. In order to successfully understand the ad, the
"informed" reader must recognize the fact that Catherine Deneuve is part of a system of signs,
which marks her as different from other celebrities. The reader is then invited to make a
connection between the signified of Deneuve (sophistication, elegance) and the signified of
the perfume. The ad refers back to the system from which the sign (Catherine Deneuve's face)
was lifted. It is only by referring back to this system of differences that the sign can function.

Lancôme still produces such advertisements as those for perfumes: Miracle, juxtaposed with
Uma Thurmen and the Tresor with Isabella Rossellini. Another example the perfume Champs
Elysées”
next to the face of Sophie Marceau. In these cases of “star endorsements “, the
meaning of the signifier Catherine Deneuve, or Sophie Marceau becomes simply a signified
for Chanel No.5 or Champs-elysées. However as Williamson pointed out Chanel No. 5’s
meaning is not simply enhanced by the presence of the star. This juxtaposition distinguishes
it from other brands. The difference between Chanel and Catherine Deneuve is enhanced by
the difference between Chanel ads and other ads. Just as a language can be understood as an
arbitrary set of differences, a perfume brand’s meaning is constituted in a system of
differences between brands..

Williamson‘s critique of advertising is one that follows Roland Barthes’s notion that
advertising makes an arbitrary system of differences appear natural. Williamson transfers this
system of semiological differences into a system of social differences. The two are seen as
equivalent. Indeed we could argue that social differences are the “real” or absolute signified
for Williamson. To advance her case, she refers to Levi-Strauss’s idea of totemism.

We differentiate ourselves from other people by what we buy and in the process, we become
identified with the product that differentiates us; and this is a kind of totemism. Levi-Strauss
describes totemism – the use of differences between natural objects to differentiate between
human groups. (Williamson 46)
This theory of totemism applied to consumerism is then mapped on to a theory of
advertising’s relations with the subject. Although she does not refer to deixis and the
linguistic theories of Benveniste, she does discuss the placement of the reading subject by the
use of pronouns. Like Berger, she examines how advertisements place and form a reader but
unlike him, she draws her theory explicitly from Althusser’s theory of interpolation. She


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