Volume 96, Issue 94
Thursday, March 27, 2003

Search the Archives:



The ABCs of understanding advertisements

By Dan Perry and Lorraine Forster
Gazette Staff

Advertising has no effect on us. Right? Wrong.

In Ferdinand de Saussure's 1916 Cours de Linguistique Générale, Saussure deconstructed the building blocks of language into two pieces: signifier and signified. He concluded by writing, "It is therefore possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as a part of social life... we shall call it semiology."

Semiology is now interchangeable with semiotics, and for the most part, the discipline has taken the shape Saussure envisioned.

Graduates educated in semiotics aren't pursuing their originally chosen fields; in fact, many are finding careers in advertising. With the amount of advertising in our society, there is an incredible emphasis placed on what each ad signifies.

The Gazette
asked some of Western's very own experts to explain what some unusual ads are signifying (pictured above).

June Cotte, a Richard Ivey School of Business professor of marketing; Jeff Hopkins, the geography department's specialist in tourism advertising; Patty Pakvis, a sociology professor at Brescia University College who teaches advertising and society; and Daniel Robinson, a media, information and technoculture professor, all gave us their two cents.

What about the police car is effective, and how do cultural signifiers operate in the advertisement?

Cotte: You're going to think it's a cop with a radar, so you're likely to slow down. I guess their thinking is if you slow down, you'll turn in. It's an attention-getting device – this to me is very akin to a billboard.

In your mind's eye, you see "police car," but it's not. The origin of mass marketing has its roots in military propaganda [used] in World War I to mobilize the military to war, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Pakvis: For many people, I feel a police car would at least trigger a mild anxiety and advertising tries to offer a solution: that savings [are] like a balm for being broke.

[Drivers] slow down, and initially feel like something is wrong. From a marketing standpoint, this is problematic [because of a] negative association. On one hand it subverts authority, on the other hand it can potentially perform authority.

Considering that fear is such a major part of the first ad's appeal, how does the shoplifting deterrent's appeal relate?

Cotte: If I were a retailer, I would not want [the cutout] in my store; it intimidates the consumer, and sends a message that "this store [has] shoplifters."

It's more personable than a cold video camera – a more human, personable approach. [The two ads] draw on the same narrative, but in different ways. [The car] is a witty twist, and the other is darker.

Robinson: The [cutout] commands a much greater presence. It's an icon of law and order, really of social control.

What can you say about the cultural significance of McDonald's, for example, and their use of signs in advertising?

Cotte: It's a symbol – it's hand in glove with the United States. They don't call it the "McDonaldization" of culture for no reason. In fact, for a long time, economic indicators in a lot of countries included whether or not there was a McDonald's.

Hopkins: Is there a more widely known icon in North American consumer culture? You immediately recognize the golden arches, this notion of "fast." It's very powerful, that "M," and because it's empty, you could fill it in with whatever you want.

Pakvis: We see McDonald's as being family-oriented, value for your money and fast, so there's a lot of meaning attached to this commodity sign [of the "M"]. They've also put the maple leaf on the golden arch – we have a sort of melding of two cultural signs. The more [we see it], the more we're going to associate McDonald's with all the meanings attached to the Canadian flag.

With this said about the associations with McDonald's' signifiers in advertising, what can you say about the cover of Fast Food Nation?

Cotte: The book is in fact using the [original fry package image] to its advantage, using it to get [a positive] response [from consumers].

Pakvis: Using that symbol on the book cover would create a feeling of familiarity. Publishers have a marketing and advertising department, and it's big business. They're not putting this out to educate, they're putting it out to make money. The subtitle is going to pique people's interests – they're going to think there's a conspiracy going on and, nowadays, people love a conspiracy. I think it's a clever cover.

Robinson: It's a '50s iconography – this was the birth phase of fast food, when it was convenient, modern and helpful. [The cover] evokes that kind of nostalgia for a culture in the 1950s. The text is different – it's a corrective. It's meant to de-mystify that and to shake you up and say "this is an exposé."

What do we make of the Randy River ad, where the message becomes, essentially, the medium?

Cotte: It's a typical commercialization of what's supposed to be a rebellious, subversive image. It's basically everything that everybody hates about marketing.

Hopkins: That is a pop icon for rebellion. A lot of people don't know who Che Guevara was or what he did. He's [become] a free-floating signifier, much like Marilyn Monroe – they're appropriated by all kinds of marketing ventures because they're widely known. I wonder how happy [Guevara] would be knowing that his face had been commodified.

Pakvis: I think what they're doing is appealing to a teenage need to perceive themselves as independent [and] autonomous from authority.

Robinson: It's part of a trend called "hip consumerism," appropriating the historically rooted, genuine presence of Che's image and appropriating that for a consumerist stance. The irony is that lots of people are trying to do this with Che, which is not truly independent.


Contact The Campus and Culture Department