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Looking at adverts: 1 - The Open College of the Arts
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Looking at adverts: 1 thumb

Looking at adverts: 1

Many people are unaware of it but whenever we look at an image we interpret it’s meaning by identifying the things that are depicted and deciphering what they mean. When I take photographs I think carefully about the objects I am including in the frame and the ones I leave out. Each object adds information and shapes the way a viewer will interpret it. When taking documentary style photographs you might not have time to make these decisions – you have to use your intuition and decipher its message later on. In advertising imagery each object is there for a reason – to give the image a specific message designed to encourage you to buy.
There are different levels of meaning – there is the literal level (called the denoted meaning in semiotics) that tells us what is in the image. In this case there is a building, a tree, people, a table, food, flowers, flags and aircraft. The second level of meaning refers to what is implied by these objects. The understanding of the objects at this level can vary depending on the existing knowledge you have and your cultural background. This is called connotation.
I have chosen to discuss this advert because I find its connoted meaning interesting. For example, the aircraft depicted have a very specific message. They are not jumbo-jets (which might connote holidays, emigrating, sunshine and beaches) or police helicopters (suggesting crime, surveillance and state authority). They are a type of military aircraft but they do not imply war or danger. They are culturally coded for people in Britain to interpret them as the Red Arrows, an entertaining air display team associated with summer air shows and national celebrations. Ordinarily the red arrows would have red, blue and white smoke plumes – the colours of the union jack – but in this image they have been changed to refer to the brand colours of the product being advertised. This directly links Silvikrin to ideas of Britishness in a clever way. Other elements of the advert reinforce the message of Britishness and patriotism – there are Union Jack flags and characteristically British foods such as strawberries (to make us think of Wimbledon?), cucumber sandwiches, scones and tea. The food table is in a terraced street decorated with bunting, suggesting a street party. British people would probably be reminded of similar public events taking place during the coronation celebrations in 2013.
Would this advert be interpreted in the same way in Europe or the Middle East? Are these sign of Britishness universal or culturally specific?
When we interpret images of people we ‘read’ the gestures and facial expressions. In this image the people in the background are watching or photographing the air display. But in the foreground three women hold items of food and drink, and smile. What is the message indicated by their gestures and expressions? Are they going to serve the food to other people or eat it themselves? Why are they looking towards the camera instead of the aircraft?
I have cropped this advert to exclude the product because I like to ‘decode’ an image before I look to see what is being promoted. Sometimes it is quite obvious what the product is, but other times the advert is ambiguous and I have to revise my interpretation. This one is quite surprising so I will be interested to see if anyone can guess what type of product is being advertised.
This is the first in a series of posts on decoding advertising by photography tutor Dawn Woolley

Posted by author: Dawn Woolley

34 thoughts on “Looking at adverts: 1

  • This is interesting stuff and a great introduction to how loaded seemingly neutral (or at least ‘simple’) images can be.
    The effect of the last paragraph is lost a bit as the image above the article gives the game away somewhat.

  • The Middle East reference is interesting, green and white being the colours of the Saudi Arabia flag, the country that has paid billions of pounds for the Hawk aircraft used by the Red Arrows (and a few billion more for Eurofighter and other bits and pieces)…
    The predominance of women in the frame, maybe a male or two in the background (a young male is there though distracted) suggests who this advert is directed at. It could also suggest the effects of war, men being away whilst the aircraft patrol the skies protecting the contented, though somewhat wind-blown women with jingoist paraphernalia at the side. Wouldn’t they would all look so much better without a hair out of place? 🙂
    So, yes cultural references make a huge difference.

    • great observation! I think the use of the Red Arrows was purposefully intended to divert viewers thoughts from war to leisure and celebration, but because we bring our own associations to the images we view meaning isn’t totally fixed and stable. I plan to talk about post-modernism and cultural relativism in future posts…it probably says something about me that my attention was drawn to the food rather than the wind-swept hair!

      • It is a very gendered advert, the foregrounding of happy women with connotations of family and community; the male presence is subjunctive. You were supposed to be drawn to the table and all it denotes?

      • You too can have a 1940’s style hair, but with the light composed and newly brushed look even in a gale with jets flying over. The glamorous have made the right choice since 1924, the other ladies….well they weren’t wearing…..the jets make the celebrations contemporary. 2014 is commemorating 1914 and the wave of patriotism that lead to the loss of 20million people in the name of nationalism. On a personal level the advert is vulgar. But that is because I consider nationalism vulgar. Indoctrination, brutality and the herding instinct exploited to sell a hair product. It is this instinct that all advertisers exploit. The need to conform, belong and be seduced by the notion of being the most attractive, most fitting example of, and the prettiest in the herd. Women especially feel the need to conform, even in not conforming. Regimented rebellion. e.g Greenham Common, CND.
        Men similarly with sport. Fat old or infirm, they go to watch their team, which may have no player from their town, county or country playing for them, but in the terraces or the pub, they belong.
        The tribal need dictates behaviour, the visual elements confirm it, and the sense of self, of individuality of the viewer is to excel and that requires purchase of the product.
        One comment suggested Saudi Arabia and use of the red arrows, I think this may be over reading the intension of the advertiser, currently the news is full of the spread of Ebola, in one of Nigeria’s neighbours, their flag is green and white stripes, Irelands flag contains orange. There is always a danger when reading an image that we will step a little too far in our interpretation. The first instinct and subliminal message will almost always be on the money, as this is as far as an advertiser needs to influence the audience. Fluff and nonsence and impulse purchase, or reinforcing a message that similar products aimed at the same demographic identify with. Group assault. Buy this or you are somehow letting down the side.

        • I missed one section in my answer. It is aimed at a certain demographic in a certain timeframe, because at the moment the nation is particularly sensitive to nationalistic influence. War, and the Scottish referendum, the sense of being threatened by immigrants and isolation from the views of Europe. Inclusion of the union jack and the part use of the Irish flag may be to balance the fact that not all users of the product identify with the Union. Northern Ireland the Pakistani community (2.8%)…who would both respond positively to Green and white, with or without the orange or the star and crescent. And the terraced streets. The dark haired Gentleman with the camera? Minority inclusion? It hasn’t been ruled out.

    • Yes, the gender roles in this advert are clearly defined – the man and boy are actively engaging in the entertainment while the women in the foreground seem to be preparing to serve food to others. On a positive note – the women active and not simply displayed as objects to attract the viewers attention to the product.

  • I am not very good at adverts because I detest them. However, my first thought was ‘Something for women’. The ‘Red Arrows’ do not really look red to me but the green trails made me think of Ireland and then a ‘green’ product. In some ways the image made me think of army recruiting images from WWII, maybe the colours but there is nothing rational about this connection. Finally, I recalled the name Silvikrin but did not get the product quite right.

    • I didn’t think of the colour connotations of naturalness and by extension ‘green’ environmentally friendly things of the branding. Making an association that a hairspray is somehow natural works on a few levels – it can give the impression that it won’t harm the environment but also suggests that your hairstyle will be (or appear to be) natural too!

  • The name Silvikrin rang a vague bell in my memory and I had to look it up before the penny dropped. I used to see this shampoo on the shelves in South Africa, but haven’t seen it in Canada yet. I also thought the ad had something to do with a coronation at first, but then once you look and see the green and white smoke trails, green and white bunting and cast your eye down the table, the logo is presented and positioned as if it was the star dish on the table. Notice how the logo is flanked on both sides by the colour red (the woman’s slacks and the strawberries).

  • This is one of a series currently in women’ s magazines and on TV advertising this product. I find it interesting that it uses a whole raft of stereotypes to ram home the message ( men photographing aeroplanes, a very British streetscape, women with beautiful hair etc). It is also particularly interesting for the context, which ties in neatly with the current focus on the World War remembrances and indeed the Scottish referendum (not a Scottish stereotype in sight!)

  • I resisted so far “google’ing’ it 🙂
    I found the women to be the focus and center of the advert and they seem to have diverse roles – the one in the front is just enjoying it by herself and not engaging with the others , while the two in the back while interacting with each other have different purposes – one engaged in preparing and serving food while the other is “tasting” and engaged in active conversation with her. They are also dressed differently, as if to highlight their specific purpose in the ad.
    The rest just seems to set the background – the planes, the boy, the photographer, the building, the table – as you said, to ensure that the product being advertised is seen as something really ‘british’.

  • I think it rather stylishly references the brand’s heritage in a relocated knowing pastiche of mid 20th century illustration style and iconography.

  • I think I could write an entire blog on the significance of the clothing in this advert! One of the women in the foreground is wearing a plastic pinny – a sign that she is serving the food – and working (maybe a volunteer) rather than at her leisure at the street party. The man in the middle distance is wearing a tweed style jacket – another signifier of britishness, and perhaps also of leisure. The woman in the foreground contrasts with the others – her dress seems a bit smarter, more formal and more feminine than the other female characters attire. I guess we are supposed to attribute these characteristics to the product – or at least the hairstyle created with its assistance!

  • This makes me think of the Queen’s Jubilee or something similar. The dress and hairstyle of the woman in the front could be those of one well known newish member of the royal family. She represents continuing traditions as do some other elements in the picture. The houses are from the past too but still used. The message appears to be that traditional and British is good and positive and still relevant.

  • I’d heard of Silvikrin (must be my age) and wondered if the jet streams were meant to signify the spray and being green indicate they weren’t going to melt the polar ice cap if they used the product? The whole green thing is interesting as Dawn said there is the environment angle the connotation of a “green and pleasant land” and also its a fairly non confrontational colour.
    As to the three woman, there is a definite superiority (possibly class) thing going on here. on the one hand here’s an immaculate turned out woman dressed a tad more formally in a dress complete with strawberries compared to the windswept duo (note duo – so that indicates how separate the single woman is) with their rolls, slacks and plastic pinny.
    One other point is that a policeman or guard in the background under the central Union Jack? It looks to me that this may be a composite picture and I’m wondering if it is whether it was done in the UK or overseas.

    • I checked the original image and the figure under the union jack is a small girl sitting on a wall! I think the image above is too small and compressed to make the details out clearly. Although I agree with Peter’s comments below about meaning changing over time, I do think the spray from the red arrows is supposed to be linked the hairspray ‘spray’ at least subconsciously! Good association!

  • I think the green is being over analysed. It is the Silvikrin house colour and figures prominently in most of their advertising and as I recall, goes back long before ‘green’ issues became major.
    However, the way the colour is being discussed here just goes to show how the meanings of images change over time and in response to individual experience. Writers and thinkers like Berger, Barthes, Foucault et al have explored this in developing the theories behind the current thinking on authorship and context (See Barthes’ The Death of the |Author; Foucault’s, What is and Author?, Berger’s Ways of Seeing and subsequent commentaries on these)

    • Great texts! My next blog (due to be published on Monday) begins to discuss the role of the audience in the creation of meaning – I will be interested to hear what you think!

  • The comments regarding the ‘Englishness’, or perhaps ‘Britishness’ are interesting. Proctor and Gamble are American, their (UK part of their) agency will have had a clear brief on whom to target – perhaps that might have been a question Dawn?
    I’m reminded of Joan Fontcuberta’s recollection about his time at his father’s advertising agency ‘it taught me how to lie’, study visit here: http://weareoca.com/photography/stranger-than-fictionfontcuberta/, is there any truth in the poster/advert?
    By the way, P&G spent $3.2bn in the USA alone last year on media and is regularly its largest spender, to which I conclude that every last millilitre of space on the image above will have been carefully selected, crafted and scrutinised to deliver it’s contemporary fictive message.

    • In Key Concepts of Photography, David Bate has written an interesting chapter on still life photography and the development of the genre in advertising – his discussion on the role of empty space is really interesting – he posits that there is sometimes a need for blank or blurred space in the image so the viewer can ‘fill it’ with their own lives or fantasies, but there is also a danger that empty space will make the product seem equally empty!

  • I happen to know a former brand manager at P&G who chose the colours for the packaging for a well known shampoo brand because they were the colors of the football team he supports …this was some years ago, but both the shampoo and football team are still using the same colors!

    • I am a huge fan of Judith Williamson’s writing – I re-read Decoding Advertisements recently – which inspired me to start this blog! Has she spotted anything significant in the advert that we haven’t?

      • I’m not sure that she spots anything not discussed so far. I rather doubt her assertion that ‘The obvious reference for the image is a street party celebrating victory and the end of the war.’
        As you and RB have spotted, the ‘not really Kate’ in the foreground makes me think that the scene is more likely reference a celebration of a Royal Wedding or Anniversary. Also as you suggest the fly-past is likely to be read as entertainment.
        The advertisement does raise the question of why we see military displays as entertainment, something Melanie Friend has explored in her work Home Front

        • I have to confess that the whole idea of street parties has the same sort of reference for me as for Williamson especially this year when we cannot escape the WWI anniversary…maybe it is a generational thing. On the other hand I think the not-really-Kate reference does point us in the Royalist direction. As Barthes has pointed out, “all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others” (Roland Barthes. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 p37) or to put it rather simplistically, every image contains many meanings simultaneously.

  • I guess the ad is promoting Shampoo, Conditioner or something like that. Women hair is very important in this picture. The first clue I picked was the blond woman with the hair covering her face. Then I saw the main character and how the hair was treated, and I realise it was as relevant as the face.
    I also noticed that there are different women representations at play in this ad: mother, friends, single. The boy and his father in the background are clues to the idea of family. I have seen that families are usually represented with to kids (a boy and a girl), so I guess that UK families might be getting smaller. I have found this 2012 report on UK family size (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/family-demography/family-size/2012/family-size-rpt.html):
    “It appears that families are getting smaller as the percentage of families who have one dependent child has increased by five percentage points, from 42% in 1996 to 47% in 2012. Meanwhile the percentage of families with three or more has decreased by three percentage points to 14%.”
    I also liked a lot the questions DW is asking:
    “Would this advert be interpreted in the same way in Europe or the Middle East? Are these sign of Britishness universal or culturally specific?”
    I am not European so there are a lot of clues that refers to Britishness that I wasn’t able to perceive.
    The question placed reminded me of the concept of Value in Saussure. It goes something like this: “Conceptually, linguistic meanings do not exist in a vacuum; they are not independent. Rather, they are dependent on other linguistic signs within their language system to determine what they are. Therefore, the actual idea or concept that the sign expresses can be understood by what it is not – by its differences to other linguistic signs.”
    The idea here is that the meaning of a word (or any other sign) is defined against all the other words I know. In this sense, the connotation of an ad should be very cultural specific . I guess that the relation between Strawberries (sign) and Wimbledon (meaning) might be unknown for some British citizens. For me, it was completely unknown until today.
    The same happened to me with the planes. Since my country has suffered from military governments, it is very unlikely for me to relate combat jets with summer. At first the ad made no sense with those planes.
    One other thing it came to my attention is the copy (I am not sure how you call it in english) “Style worth celebrating”. The women seems to be celebrating in contrast with everyone else. I think its clever. It is like saying “it is for you, just for you to enjoy it”. It is something personal and to feel good with yourself. And if this is an ad promoting a personal care product, it makes total sense.

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