Semiotics is the study of signs, sign processes and symbols used to communicate to us a specific meaning or message. This type of study can be applied to written word, print media, audio-visual media, body language; pretty much all forms of communication between humans. These signs often convey a message to us without us realizing it and as such are often used by the media to communicate specific messages, or ‘preferred meanings’ that they intend for us to decode.
“A sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie.” – Umberto Eco
As such, we use semiotics to analyze the use of signs in TV, radio, printed media such as posters and advertisements, street signs, music and online all content such as videos, images, articles and websites.
Here, we will analyze a contemporary advertisement print, going through different factors used in semiotic analysis:
- Denotation & Connotation
- Paradigmatic & Syntagmatic relationships
- Myths & Narrative
- Roles within advertising
Old Spice – “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” advertising campaign
Here we have a print media advertisement from Old Spice’s (Mens body spray product) popular Old Spice man on a horse campaign. In the wider product campaign, video advertisements and print posters present the Old Spice man carrying out and associating himself with a number of random objects and activities often associated with being masculine or ‘manly’, thus playing on and suggesting a number of things we can associate the product with. Here, however, a simplistic print version of the campaign is used of the Old Spice man on a horse, holding a bottle of Old Spice, on a tropical beach, with a slogan saying “Smell like a man, man – Old Spice”. Simple as it is, this version still retains much of the wider campaigns message, while keeping the popular advertisements comical randomness that made it so popular.
Denotation & Connotation
Denotation is an item, which when seen by us, we immediately interpret. This can be a piece of text (such as this blog post) or an image or sound. Connotation is the meaning to which we arrive at having seen or heard the item denoted. This could be an image of a flower, which suggests to us connotations of beauty, sunshine, pleasant scents, etc. A sound may also suggest to us a specific feeling or mental image depending on the sound heard. Often, these connotations may differ from person to person as someone may relate an image or denotation to a specific life experience or feeling, while another may not.
In the case of this Old Spice advertisement, we have many strong connotations present. The topless man, clearly very fit with muscles on show; suggest masculinity, health, fitness, and female desirability. The mans pose, with hand on hip; suggests confidence in self and social outwardness (confidence with desirable partners being the most prominent in body fragrance advertising). The shirt loosely draped around the mans neck and hanging down his back as though a cape of some sort; may suggest heroism or the protective man as we associate capes with the ‘superhero’. The horse suggests to us a wild, rugged, rustic masculinity. However, as it is a pristinely white horse; this would suggest a conflicting sense of beauty, purity, cleanliness, honesty and positivity. This pure white is repeated again on the mans white trousers; suggesting he too is like the horse. The background setting of the beach, sea and tropical tree; suggests to us warmth, sun, sea air, relaxing atmosphere, no worries, holidays away, tropical/ exotic locations. All of this is set around the product almost in the dead centre of the advertisement. This suggests to us that all of this can be gained through this product, and with the Old Spice man holding it up to us suggestively; we get a sense that he approves or recommends this product to us. Additionally, we see diamonds pouring from the mans hand beneath the Old Spice bottle. This in itself suggests wealth, fortune and expensive jewelry; pouring as if from the product itself.
Paradigmatic & Syntagmatic relationships
A paradigmatic relationship or paradigm, is a substitution of an image, piece of text or audio. For example in a previous blog post here, we spoke about the Marlboro Man used in an earlier Marlboro cigarettes advertising campaign. The Marlboro Man was an image used to substitute the preferred image or message intended to consumers of these cigarettes.
Syntagmatic relationships or syntagms, are the finished meaning we take from the paradigm. Again, in the case of the Marlboro Man paradigm, we take away a meaning from the image of a wild-west, rustic, masculine, hardworking, outdoors cowboy, out in vast landscapes with horses and cattle. Quite often without realizing it, we make these connections with these cultural meanings, thus playing on how we interpret the product being advertised and go on to associate with.
In the case of the Old Spice advertisement, we see the substitution of the paradigm of a topless man on a horse, on a beach. From this, we come to a finished meaning of a well-built, masculine, out-doors man. As he is on a horse, we connect it to a meaning of a rustic, cowboy type man; while the use of white again alters the finished meaning to something more pure, clean and honest. The mans clothes (or lack of there of) suggests a meaning of a stylish or contemporary man. The beach and tropical tree suggests a meaning of exotic and fresh scents, combined with a relaxed, warm and comfortable feeling. The diamonds pouring from the Old Spice mans hand/ the product itself suggest wealth or beautiful diamond jewelry (desired by women).
Myths & Narrative
It was French literary theorist, philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes, who developed the idea of the third level of signification; the myth. As we know with prior levels of signification; A signifier refers to any material thing that signifies, such as words on page, facial expressions, images, etc; while the signified is the concept any signifier refers to. Barthes’ third level, what he called ‘The Myth’, refers to our own individual life experiences, as well as societal and cultural values we have been taught; and thus, how we apply them to the signs we are presented with and decode. As each individual lives a uniquely different life to another, having experienced many different things that others have not, and having been brought up in a societal or cultural environment to other; Barthes suggests that each individual then applies these unique experiences and differences when decoding the information given, therefore suggesting that the resulting decoded meaning may be different to another individuals decoded meaning.
In the case of this Old Spice advertisement there are many elements used, which could be interpreted or decoded differently between two individuals. Taking the most obvious; the colour white used twice in the horse and in the mans trousers would suggest to many in western culture as meaning purity, peace, honesty or goodness (Often used in early western movies – the good guy would often wear a white hat, while the bad guy would wear a black hat). Through western media in films and television, as well as western literature; the colour white has become an automatic meaning for all things good and pure; cleverly used here to suggest to the targeted western audiences that the product is good, clean and pure. However, to an eastern audience, the colour white has a quite opposite meaning of coldness, death, misfortune or unhappiness in many eastern countries. Although clearly not intended for eastern audiences, this does show how its meaning could be decoded quite differently to an individual who has lived a different life experience or culture to another. In terms of individual experiences of individuals; the portrayal of a warm, sunny beach may nor appeal to someone who dislikes such an environment due to a bad experience or due to health reason such as allergies, travel sickness, etc. As such, while many may see the advertisement as an attractive and positive image of the ideal relaxing destination; another may see it as a negative location, due to to individually bad experiences associated with warm, sunny locations or coastal beaches.
In Katherine Frith‘s ‘Undressing The Ad‘ (1998), she states that there are 3 levels of meaning:
- Surface Meaning – What we first see at a glance ‘on the surface’. Here in the Old Spice advertisement we see a man on a horse with a beach and sea in the background.
- The advertisers intended meaning – In advertising, an image quite often is intended to do more than just show you something nice or entertain you, often they are intended to get a specific message across to you, or often ‘prove something to you’. This could mean anything from the product being of benefit to you, to you missing out on something. This Old Spice ad clearly has an intended meaning, intentionally made obvious so as to make it humorous (or a self parody of product advertisement such as this), therefore adding value to the product and making somewhat more popular for having done so. Here the intended message is that if you buy this, you will be confident, strong, handsome, more masculine like the Old Spice man in the image. The presence of the horse suggests that if you buy this, you will be wild and free. The tropical beach suggests that if you buy this product, you will be exotic, attractive, hot and relaxed. Combined, these intended meanings are intentionally obvious, bombarding the viewer, but once we get the humor suggested; we still come away from it with these same connotations.
- Cultural or Ideological meaning – This meaning relies on the knowledge or awareness of the viewer. Similar to Barthes ‘Myth’, this meaning can only be decoded by the individual with the compatible life experiences or lived culture. Having shared in the life experiences or the cultural experiences that the image suggests; the individual successfully decodes the intended meaning. The portrayal of the well-built, masculine Old Spice man seen here, to many would suggest a meaning to us of the ‘perfect man’ to aspire to, or a desirable partner, this is due to a common taught culture of what healthy, athletic and masculine should look like. However, another individual who, due to life experiences or personal preferences, may not see the same suggested meaning, thus coming away from the image with a confused or negative meaning (thus the meaning fails in its intention). It is because the image relies on the more common and culturally accepted representation of the ‘perfect man’ or ‘what a fit and healthy man looks like’, rather than the possible alternative of what that image may mean to another individual, that this image is used.
- Mothers – A role required of women.
- Strippers – A trope prevalent in pop culture, where the role of women as strippers for male entertainment is normalized.
- Dolls – Women objectified as a lifeless, controlled toy/object.
- Consumers – Inseparable from consumer goods and shopping. Feminism connected to consumerism.
- Naggers – The trope of a complaining, overly talkative need for attention where linguistic violence is common.
- Difficult – The weaker sex, controlled by men. Prone to personal, psychological or physical ailment.
- Stronger sex
- Cultured – Working or traveling outdoors.
- Heros – Protectors of women. Dependent – women dependent on men.
- Stupidity – Little emotion, simple ideas/knowledge, prone to stupid actions, does not think things through.
If you would like to know more about the wider Old Spice ‘man on a horse’ advertisement campaign, which uses the humor of the random objects and settings to more effect, while also playing up to the role of the man in the advertisements intended message, heres one of the more popular videos from the campaign available on YouTube (Its quite funny):