TRACKING THE REFERENT
John Berger, writing in Appearances, reminds us that there is an "abyss" -- a chasm -- between the moment photographed and the moment of its reception on television, in a magazine, on the news, etc. The image is transportable from one location to another, where it's meaning is redirected -- however subtly, or extreme.
Advertising is a volatile system of dislocating meanings, and reassigning them meaning in accordance with the interests of those promoting their brands. In advertising this often leads to the following ambiguity of referent encountered in ads. What is the referent here? Well, it is a picture of a car in flames. My immediate guess was a terrorist car-bombing -- after all I have seen scenes just like this any number of times in the commercial news media. Ah, it hits me that I could just as easily infer that the referent is the news media itself and its portrayal of car bombings. The problem of figuring out the referent, much less its meaning, is compounded when we recognize that the scene is tagged with a "United Colors of Benetton" logo. What do this scene and Benetton have in common? Why would Benetton make a puzzle out of the referent? Maybe this ad is about how Benetton has a different way of looking at the world -- at least different from other clothing companies.