The Grammar Of The Ad

19th January 2015

All societies since the beginning of time, and particularly pre-industrial ones, have employed visual language as the conveyor of information and ideas.  One only has to look at the cave paintings of early man and the rock-wall drawings of Australian Aborigines to see that this is a fact of the human condition.  The degree of sophistication of the messages carried by images appears to have a direct correlation to the sophistication of the society construct, so for instance, early Neolithic man-made rock paintings of animals and stick-like humans, whereas later Egyptian and Aztec societies used far more complicated images to transfer thoughts and ideas.  Today the written language has developed such sophistication that it is the predominant method of idea and thought transference within differing societies, however, images are still required to transfer complex constructs and sophisticated, subliminal ideas.

Todays advertising is by far and away the most sophisticated form of transferring meaning and attachment to mass audiences in a very sophisticated and yet simple way, enabling complex meanings to be understood and quickly assimilated by the advertisers target market.  Early forms of visual marketing had to rely upon line drawings, printed in black-and-white, which whilst they conveyed the physical description of the product visually, it was hard for them to be seen as realistic.  With the advent of photographic plates in books, magazines and newspapers, the reality of the object became tangible to the viewer and enabled the advertiser to engender a want and desire within their targeted audience.  As this method of creating sales drive became more mature it became necessary to develop an understanding of how the images were working on a potential purchaser so that the images could become more convincing and thereby make the product much more appealing and more likely to be purchased.  The development of semiotics enabled the scientific understanding of how images create the desired result with its own lexicon to describe the signs and symbols within images, it allows us to deconstruct the image and describe things in the written language.

For my simplistic purposes there are two ideas within Semiotics that are used to dissect the image.  The Saussurean descriptors of Signifier, Signified and Sign and the Barthesian descriptors Denotation and Connotation.  I personally find the Barthesian ideas easier to understand although without the Saussurean to provide the basis of the signs within image, the Barthesian wouldn’t make the same degree of sense.

Panzani Advertisement

Barthes used the advertisement above to demonstrate his ideas in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image”, it therefore seems appropriate to use this same advertisement to expound my understanding of both Saussurean and Barthesian ideas.

Saussure’s model states that the Signifier + Signified = Sign.  Signifier is the form the sign takes and the signified is the understanding of the signifiers meaning, no sign can have just one or the other, it must consist of both.  So, a light switch shows a red dot on the top side of the rocker switch when the light is on, the signifier.  The signified meaning of this is that the light switch is now live, the light will be on and there will be danger behind the light switch for anyone who messes about with the internal workings of the switch.  A lot of words to convey an idea that a simple sign can do with apparent ease and simplicity.

In the image above the bag being open with items spilling out (the signifier) has a signified meaning that someone has returned from shopping and the bag is being unpacked, together they form the sign we understand from this sight.  One can go on with many other aspects of the image and produce all sorts of other sign interpretations.

The Barthesian model now takes this image and breaks it into two parts, the denoted and the connoted.  The denoted is the actual physical appearance of what is there; a bag partly open, fresh produce, dried and packeted spaghetti, a tin and a packet of other foodstuffs. The connoted message, or connotations, of what all these items symbolise is that someone is going to make and eat an Italianate meal.  There is a further level to this symbology, by transference/attachment, that the Panzani processed goods in the bag are imbued with the implied goodness of the fresh produce alongside the processed goods thereby implying a quality that they wouldn’t necessarily have if they were by themselves.

It’s easy to see from the example above that the coding of messages can be manipulated to help deliver the message that a manufacturer wants.  What is perhaps less easy to discern is the way in which social distinctions can be perpetuated, and possibly created.  Advertising photography does not push the boundaries of any genre, it rather appropriates and makes use of what has already been created and become accepted, that way it cannot be seen as attempting to subvert the society it is aimed at.  Sexism and racism are two of the most contentious issues facing modern society and the stereotypes can, and are, perpetuated and manipulated by advertising.

One only has to watch television commercials to see these stereotypes in use, and whilst TV is not still photography that we’re really discussing the analogy is easier to see.  The current advert for Davidoff Cool Water Night Dive is blatantly sexist ( and helps perpetuate the idea that a womans body  is to gazed upon and the man is the controlling element for the two people as the woman comes to him, as they do in most adverts of this nature.  Further the human body in advertising has transformed from the use of whole body images to partial body using only the part needed to show the product effect, shampoo, body wash, hand cream, lipstick, tights etc and by so doing has made the body itself into a commodity to be chopped and changed, arranged for purchase as it were and displayed for consumption.


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