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Consuming Signs Lecture 3 Design as Commodity Andrea Peach.

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1 Consuming Signs Lecture 3 Design as Commodity Andrea Peach

2 The Culture Industry Culture is no longer appreciated for its USE value, but for its EXCHANGE value We encounter consumer products in a huge variety of forms everyday. Some of them we are aware of, others we hardly notice. Think about walking down the street and the variety of media that confronts our senses. What does it all mean? How do we place value on these objects? In the first lecture, we looked at Theodor Adorno, who talked about the Culture Industry, where culture is no longer appreciated for its USE value, but for its EXCHANGE value (these are ideas that were originally voiced by Marx) Consumer products are valued solely in themselves - valued not for their usefulness but for what they symbolise (a DKNY coat isn’t for keeping you warm, but for showing off) Adorno argued that the Culture Industry creates the false need for products and satisfies it by providing a never-ending sources of goods.

3 People recognise themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split level home - social control is anchored in the new needs which [the consumer society] has produced. Herbert Marcuse 1964 This way of looking at consumption and culture is Marxist, and was explored by a number of theorists in the mid-1960s (ie: Herbert Marcuse) Mid 1960s - uncomfortable debate about our relationship with possession. This set up a critical dynamic explored by artists, such as Victor Burgin. Burgin was looking for ways of converting these theories of consumption into practice and make an impact on the public consciousness at large. Made a poster for a group exhibition in Newcastle upon Tyne. Intended to be formally indistinguishable from hundreds of other posters pasted on walls and billboards of city. Image is actually from an advertising picture library. Quote 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth from the Economist. Figure is lower now! Victor Burgin - Possession

4 The consumer’s genuine needs are disguised by false needs for … this year’s model, the ‘unmissable’ film, the ‘must have’ handbag… So how is it that commodities become so closely associated with our own sense of identity? How are our ‘needs’ for products generated? How do we differentiate false needs from real needs? USE value from EXCHANGE value? One way of understanding how commodities acquire meaning and communicate on different levels is to look at theories of SEMIOTICS. Semiotic analysis can be applied to fashion, theatre, literature, architecture, etc. We will specifically at consumer products, and how they are represented through the vehicles of advertising and branding.

5 Semiotics / Semiology Refers to the study of how signs communicate meaning in society (can be language based, or image based) Semeion Greek = sign Comes from linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure 19th century

6 There are 2 components to every sign:
Signifier the ‘thing’ that expresses the sign (ie: sound that makes up the word; mark on the paper which we read) Signified the ‘concept’ which the signifier suggests when you see it (ie’ the letters C A T are a signifier for furry animal) Sausurre believed that there were 2 components of every sign - think of it as 2 sides to a coin SIGN = is the unity of signifier and signified (since you cannot have one without the other)

7 French critic Roland Barthes
Signs and ‘Myths’ French critic Roland Barthes Semiotic analysis of contemporary culture Denotation and Connotation: Linguistic sign Rolls Royce (signifier) denotes a kind of car (signified) Roland Barthes - French critic. Took Sausurre’s ideas to another level by looking at non-linguistic (visual) signs and applying them to contemporary culture. Theories of DENNOTATION and CONNOTATION Rolls Royce = sign = car Rolls Royce = sign = luxury But because a Rolls Royce is also expensive and luxurious it can be used to connote wealth and luxury

8 In the same way - we can look at the brand ‘BMW’ the symbol ‘denotes’ the letters BMW and a blue and white checked pattern. We also recognise this as a brand associated with a car = sign. But the sign also has connotations of: solid German engineering, speed, wealth, etc.

9 Advertising and branding of products:
Linguistic and visual signs are not simply used to denote something but also trigger a range of connotations attached to the sign Barthes calls the bringing together of signs and their connotations ‘myth’ Barthes calls the bringing together of signs and their connotations ‘myth’. Not in the sense of traditional stories, but as a way of thinking about people, products, places or ideas that send messages to the reader or viewer of the text. Myth - something that may or may not be true, but over time is accepted as truth

10 Roland Barthes Mythologies 1957
Myth, as Barthes uses the term, means things used as signs to communicate a social and political message about the world. The message always involves the distortion or forgetting of alternative messages, so that myth appears to be simple true, rather than one of a number of different possible meanings. Jonathan Bignell - Media Semiotics Barthes explored these ideas in a series of essays written for a newspaper, later published in a book called Mythologies in He dealt with a wide variety of cultural phenomenon, from wrestling matches to Greta Garbo. Sought to look beyond the surface appearance of the object or practice and to decode the real significance as a bearer of particular meaning. Barthes read social life, with the same attention and critical force that had previously only been given to ‘high art’ or ‘culture’. This is interesting in the context of Adorno, who refused to engage critically with The Culture Industry or popular culture.

11 Myth and Ideology Viewed semiotically, the signifiers in this image DENOTE a black soldier saluting the French flag. But Barthes argues that the image has greater signification. Its CONNOTATIONS are that France is a great empire, without colour discrimination, where people serve faithfully under her flag. This image contradicts the detractors of colonialism, by showing a black man zealously saluting. For Barthes the function of myth is to make particular ideas, like France’s colonial rule, seem natural. If ideas seem natural and acceptable as ‘the truth’ they will not be resisted or fought against. Barthes argues that it is in the interests of the bourgeoisie to maintain the stability of society, in order that their ownership, power and control can remain unchallenged and unchanged. This can be done by force, but is more effective and convenient if done by eliminating oppositional and alternative ways of thinking. The way to do this is to make the current system of beliefs about society, the dominant ideology, seem natural, common sense and necessary.

12 Advertising and Myth In advertisements, consumption is ‘naturalised’, in order to do this, advertisers make use of myth, attempting to attach mythical significations to products by using signs that have meaning to the consumer. In the same way, it can be argued that advertisements are highly ideological, since ‘by nature’ they are encouraging their readers to consumer products, and consumption is one of the fundamental principles of contemporary capitalist culture - in other words, it is part of our dominant ideology. (Jonathan Bignell p. 26) Concept of deodorant - something with seems perfectly natural and imperative to us - can’t go without it - but this is a 20th century idea - largely put in our heads by advertisers Semiotic analysis can be used for critiquing ads, but also is used by advertisers to made them more effective. So - to critique and analyse ‘myth’ in adverts, you must try to remove the impression of ‘naturalness’ by showing how the myth is constructed, and showing that it promotes one way of thinking while seeking to eliminate all the alternative ways of thinking. (Bignell p 23) We will do this by looking at some actual case studies of contemporary adverts.

13 Decoding Advertisements - Ideology and Meaning in Advertising 1978
Advertising and Myth Advertising has a function, which I believe in many ways replaces that traditionally fulfilled by art and religion, it creates meaning. Judith Williamson Decoding Advertisements - Ideology and Meaning in Advertising 1978 We will use the methodology of Judith Williamson, author of seminal text, ‘Decoding Advertisements - Ideology and Meaning in Advertising’. Williams argues that advertising is one of the most important cultural factors molding and reflecting our life today. She argues that ads have a function (to sell) but that they also create MEANING ( in the way that art and religion might have traditionally done) As well as asking us to buy something, ads ask us to participate in ideological ways of seeing ourselves and the world. Ads attempt to ‘normalise’ this ideology - make it acceptable and commonplace (parallels with Barthes)

14 When analysing ads in semiotic terms - need to separate them from the environment in which they exist, where they otherwise pass unnoticed. Ads very rarely just denote something - they very often have connotations as well. Some of these connotations are immediately recognisable, but others are only unconsciously recognised.

15 This involves giving a product’s use value a human exchange value
Ads have to translate meaning from the world of things into a form that means something to people This involves giving a product’s use value a human exchange value How do ads work? Advertising does more than make connections between certain kinds of people and certain kinds of product - it also creates symbols of exchange (associating a product with another idea = in this case ‘cool’ - colours are not cool so inference is that it means cool as in hip, trendy, etc.) Example of beautiful woman advertising perfume. Ad is not simply a sign denoting a particular person who has been photographed. Picture is also a sign which has connotations: youth, beauty, coolness, etc. Because the sign has these positive connotations, it can work as the signifier for the myth ‘feminine beauty’ - part of society’s stock of positive myths about sexually desirable women. Ralph - ‘Cool’

16 ‘Golden, Sexy. Night-Bright’
‘First stroke on the new scent by Jennifer Lopez then wrap on the Miami chic charm bracelet’ Miami Glow - Jlo There are literally hundreds of perfumes on the market, so one key function of ads is to differentiate more or less similar products from each other and give them different social meanings and identity. This is done by creating an ‘image’ - in this case feminine beauty, associations with celebrity, and literally ‘glowing’. These are concepts which Barthes would describe as ‘mythic’. These mythic meanings are transferred to the product being advertised. By buying the product for ourselves, we can share in its meaning of feminine beauty and celebrity for herself. Will make use glow too! Jlo = Glow By wearing the bracelet you become physically connected to the product itself - further strengthening the relationship between consumer and product

17 ‘Share my secret’ This ad relies on some very stock devices - linking colour in the ad with the colouring of the product. You probably wouldn’t notice this unless you were looking directly, but Williamson argues that it helps to visually link the product with the person (Kate Moss) Share my secret - signifies that you are being let into a secret (with Kate Moss) about this perfume. Because of our obsession with celebrity, we would like to be in this position. The idea of Anais being a secret, is contradictory, because if it was a secret, no one would know about it and no one would be able to buy it! Makes the product seem exclusive to YOU, as if you alone are discovering the secret - with Kate Moss of course!

18 The technique of advertising is to correlate feelings, moods, or attributes to intangible objects, linking possible unattainable things with those that are attainable, and thus reassuring us that the former are within our reach. Judith Williamson Decoding Advertisements Clinique Happy To possess the product is to ‘buy into’ the myth and to possess some of its social value for ourselves. In this case beauty but also HAPPINESS By placing the photographed woman (iconic sign) next to the name of the perfume (linguistic sign) the ad constructs a relationship between one sign and another. Again colour is used here, by linking the warm skin colour of the perfume to the woman’s skin. The ad is constructed to make this shared meaning (happiness/ beauty) appear automatic and unsurprising - whereas it exists only by virtue of the ad’s structure. Ads cannot literally announce that the perfume will make you beautiful or happy, but instead the message is communicated by way of signs which we are asked to decode. In this ad, happiness is the connotation. There is a sense of the exotic, carnival and exuberance. The liquid in the bottle appears to be literally bubbling with happiness. Clinique - ‘Happy’

19 This is an ad from a men’s magazine and makes use of colour coding
This is an ad from a men’s magazine and makes use of colour coding. Blue is associated with ‘true blue’, but also conservativeness, blue blood, blue stocking etc. The white shirt implies cleanliness, purity, youth, virginity perhaps. Think how different the ad would be if his shirt was a different colour? The ad is also about youth and perpetuating the cult of youth and good breeding. The boy is very young, so it is unlikely that he would be the kind of consumer being targeted. This is about wealth that one is born into, rather than acquire - old money rather than new. It is interesting in its depiction of class. Polo is a game that is out of limit for all those but the very rich. In case we are in any doubt about the association of the brand with the boy, his polo shirt has the logo. Marx - real structure of society based on production: who owns the means of production and who sells their their labour and earn wages in return. However instead of making real structure of society apparent, ads contribute to myth that our identity is determined not by our production but by our consumption. Ads make us believe that our consuming will grant us membership to lifestyle groups when really all there are doing is serving the interests of those who own and control industries of consumer culture. Advertising is critiqued for normalising dominant ideologies in our culture - ideas which perpetuate class difference or oppress women.

20 Ads and Ideology Ads endow products with a certain social significance so they can function in our real social world as indexical signs connoting the buyer’s good taste, trendiness, or some other ideologically valued quality. Jonathan Bignell In this ad, there are strong associations with Britishness and tradition - portrait of Queen with her corgi, gunmaker’s shop, old wooden floor, china dog, British flag on chair, coat on chair with words: charity, peace, hope, love - All symbols which evoke: tradition, noble aims, integrity, bygone era. There is also some irony here, because this is an ad for contemporary clothing, but it also plays on signs of quality, wealth, solidity, class and eccentricity - the MYTH of Britishness.

21 ‘The only anti-wrinkle cream with BOSWELOX’
Advertising is about creating needs but also about making sure those needs are never fulfilled, in order to guarantee continued and escalating consumption. This ad also plays to our notion of the feminine ideal (Claudia Schiffer being the ‘face’ of the product) Claudia is young and beautiful and clearly not in need of wrinkle cream, but maybe she is that way because she uses the cream? The ad also plays on women’s fear of the aging process. Featured in a magazine targeted at young (not old) women, makes us think that the aging process is just around the corner. The ad blinds us with scientific jargon (which women are stereotypically not meant to understand) and spurious ingredients. Boswelox, no one has heard of, but sounds a bit like Botox, which everyone has heard of. The ‘science bit’ - makes the product seem serious and trustworthy. The graphics are reminiscent of medical charts/graphs, and the spatula has a clinical look (like a scalpel). The ‘let surgery wait’ will instill fear into women, by making this seem an inevitability ‘Let surgery wait!’ ‘The only anti-wrinkle cream with BOSWELOX’

22 ‘For the body that bounces in all the right places’
‘Don’t let things droop’ ‘So now you can have the body you’ve always wanted’ This ad is about BODY IMAGE - and the ideal body This ad is ostensibly about hair gel that will give your hair more body. But the text in the ad is a play on words with hair body and your actual body. (For body that bounces in the right places). It is drawing a parallel with a firm but round body (that bounces in the right places) and desirability and femininity. It also contains the line ‘don’t let things droop’ again reinforcing the ideal body and playing on women’s insecurities about their bodies. The ad plays games with us, by concealing the woman’s body - so we have to imagine that it is as bouncy as her hair. ‘So now you can have the body you’ve always wanted’ says the ad- this is typical of ads making promises that the product can never fulfill. Making us want something that we will never be able to have.

23 Ads are also highly sexual, and project idealised, stereotypical, images of femininity, masculinity and of having sex. They often tell ‘stories’ and let the reader decode the story, in order to enter into the fantasy that the brand is trying to create. Shapely woman who is assuming a dominant position. Man’s face is not depicted. Gives impression that the woman is in charge. Grass on back implies that they have been rolling around. Masculine man (motorbike in background). Rough, raw, wild. Motorcycle tells a story about how they arrived where they are. This ad invites us to take part in what could be a soft-porn narrative - far from just an ad for jeans! Shot in ‘art’ tasteful black and white. Gives air of ‘class’ to the ad and product.

24 This ad (from FHM) is both highly gendered and sexualised
This ad (from FHM) is both highly gendered and sexualised. This is the kind of ad that Williamson would argue we would miss when not looking critically. Becomes normalised. But when you look carefully it arguably has some very interesting coding. Has very gendered colour coding - red = female; black = male. The woman is in a position of openness = arms open suggesting invitation. The dress has tassels marking out her nipples - tassels are black which could link / attract the man to this part of her body. Skirt flipping up. The staircase is also highly coded (Williamson would argue). It carries the black and red coding of the product, but also has shiny, almost wet-looking walls with black stairs going up, and leading to a dark ‘secret’ unknown place. If you think the red signifies female, and the black male, is it about the man entering the female? Is it about orifices/ or perfume?

25 ‘In case of hair emergencies’
Male fantasy ad for hair gel. This would be a man’s dream - to be marooned on an island with endless quantities of beautiful girls lining up to great him. Look on his face is of knowing collusion with the viewer (‘someone’s gotta do it’) Smoke signals of hearts give an idea of what kind of welcome he is about to get. But what if he doesn’t have his hair gel with him? Will he still be as attractive? Will he still get the girls? It could be a hair emergency! The gel capsules are laid our on the raft separately. Do they look like condoms? (which would also be useful in an emergency situation). He is sitting on an oar in an open, receptive position. Is the oar a phallic symbol? There is even a volcano erupting in the background, which has obvious links with passion erupting, orgasm, ejaculation. Sex is never far away in ads!

26 ‘Indulge your cat this Valentine’s day’
‘Limited edition’ ‘Indulge your cat this Valentine’s day’ ‘Tender Turkey Wild Rice’ ‘Share the Experience’ Ads as fantasy It is difficult to make products like cat food exciting. This ad appeals to the buyer’s desire to want to give their cat the best - luxury and exclusivity, by marketing the food as ‘limited edition’ (we know that it can’t really be limited, because it needs to sell in sufficient quantities) There is a fantasy element : woman lying down on a bed, fairy tale quality. It is clearly not a real room - flowers are fake. The cat could be a substitute for a man, or be playing the role of an absent prince charming. Proto-feminist in that women no longer need men for their pleasure or satisfaction - or for company on Valentine’s day! Cat could be a metaphor for a man - wild animal in your bed. Woman is giving the cat a knowing glance. Share the experience - single women with cats normally have quite a sad image - this makes it feel like the product can be shared with your partner (in this case the cat) Tender and Wild - adjectives that could be applied to human relationships - romance, sex.

27 ‘Act on Impulse’ Some ads assume a degree of sophistication about consumers. This ad assumes that the reader is wise to the ways of advertising and marketing (active consumer). This ad gets the viewer to think that she is colluding with the product. She is impulsive and likes trying on expensive things - but she is not going to be sucked into the consumption ‘game’ by actually buying them. (tried on expensive things - but was able to resist the temptation to buy them). This purports to be an anti-consumption ad, which is actually about consuming. Pretending it is about not buying when it really is. Is this an example of active or passive consuming?

28 Ads get us to see our consumption positively, as an activity which grants us membership to lifestyle groups. But what ads are really doing is serving the interests of those who own and control the industries of consumer culture. Jonathan Bignell The perfectly balanced range No product is featured. Just the association of a beautiful, serene woman, practicing tai chi or Yoga in a very calm, zen-like setting. This image could not be further from shopping - or the reality of being in a supermarket, but it conveys a lifestyle image that is very ‘now’ - anti-consumer, calm, devoid of possessions, balanced, centred - the kind of things which people aspire to being today. There is an irony, because being Zen is about not wanting things - but this is an ad for a supermarket. The kind of life we aspire to, but will never have if we are constantly striving for possessions. ‘The perfectly balanced range’

29 Increasingly brands have become a target for subversive campaigners
Antipathy towards advertising is a natural position for the political left who have a mistrust of capitalism Adbusters - global organisation, produce quarterly magazine with goal of raising awareness of commercial excess. Target things like Camel cigarettes and Calvin Klein underwear. Adbusters 1993

30 Subvertisers - critics of advertising who take on the advertisers at their own game, by defacing and spoofing real advertisements. Billboard utilising graffitists against unhealthy promotions (BUGA UP) Australian movement founded in 1979 by surgeon, targeting tobacco industry. Clearly associates advertising with interests of capitalism, rather than society. BUGA UP 1980 (billboard utilising graffitists against unhealthy promotion)

31 And that man comes on to tell me
When I’m watchin’ my TV And that man comes on to tell me How white my shirts can be Well he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke The same cigarettes as me Rolling Stones I can’t get no Satisfaction Advertisements are selling something else besides consumer goods; in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves. Instead of being identified by what they produce, people are made to identify themselves with what they consumer.

32 FOR THE LAST SEMINAR: Bring examples of advertisements which use text and image to generate ‘myth’ What are the denotations and connations contained within the ad? Analyse how the advertiser uses ‘myth’ to make meaning for the consumer Conclude by considering if we are really active or passive consumers

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