Representing Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home The semiotics of advertising

The intent of advertising is to associate desire with commodities and services, and to cement feelings of positive affect to brands.

To achieve this, advertisers must construct texts that are recognizable to viewers as ads; moreover, they must produce texts that are sufficiently compelling that viewers are motivated to decipher them. Still, the ads cannot mean anything on their own. Ads require viewers to complete their meaning, to make the necessary turns of meaning that premise giving value to a brand or a logo.

No matter how much they strive to make the decoding process an identical, but inverse, replica of the encoding process, advertisers can never achieve an absolute equivalence between the encoding and the decoding processes. Nevertheless, the encoding side of the coin does establish the interpretive parameters and guidelines for making sense of the ad. Both advertisers and the viewers apply a social grammar -- a shared set of propositions about how commercials are structured and how the narrative of a commercial will unfold. Since most Americans have been watching commercials since they were 2 years old, recognizing and making sense of ad messages usually takes place at a non-reflexive level. The grammar of the ad remains unspoken -- though not necessarily out of mind, it is out of sight.

Commercials employ a shorthand of signification. Advertising agencies raid referent systems for visual and musical signifiers and then compress and sequence them together in a recognizable structure. Referent systems designate widely shared systems of knowledge and clusters of meaning. For the ad to work the viewer most validate the sign -- attaching a signified to the signifier. Supported by narration, music, the relationship of each image to others in the commercial, and the viewer's own knowledge of the referent system from which the signifier is drawn, the viewer is guided through this validation process.

Certain clusters of signifiers recur again and again. Often drawn from image banks and rooted in stereotypical ways of seeing they serve as markers to facilitate making sense of the commercial text. There are commercials in our database that are composed of over one hundred disparate shorts that flow at a staccato pace. In spite of this, viewers are able to easily decipher and interpret the intent of such commercials and associate both affect and a signified to a brand. Viewers well-versed in the necessary social grammar can effortlessly interpret the visual shorthand. Whether they accept the ad's intended conclusion is another matter. Jaded viewers frequently become resistant to deciphering ads because they variously perceive that ads are stupid, manipulative, consumerist, fill in your balk. The continuous tug of war between advertisers and audiences plays itself out this way, back and forth between them.

The matter of quick viewer recognition can boomerang. Semiotic reductionism and compression do seem to stimulate higher levels of viewer recognition of a logo and a corporate brand, but they do so at a price to the advertiser. The same viewers become better educated in the language and grammar of advertising, so that highly recognizable brand icons can go sour very rapidly in the wake of bad news.

The following sections look at the agenda of commercials (the branding process); at the shorthand of visual signification (reoccurring signify clusters); and at the underlying grammar of commercials (narrative structures) used in this genre of corporate advertising. These sections focus on the process of advertising itself in relation to representation of the role of the corporation in the global economy.

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Sign formulas & branding
Signifying Clusters
Structural Frames

© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey