Signs consist (according to Saussure) of two elements, a signifier and a signified, and only gain meaning when "it has

someone to mean to" (Williamson 1978, p40). The reader is therefore very important and will bring his/her own interpretations to the texts by drawing on their own cultural values and perceptual codes. As the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and meaning is fixed in cultural values according to most of post modernist theory, we can argue that the potential interpretations of any given text are therefore endless. But that does not mean that nothing means anything anymore. This essay will take on a semiotic approach to show how meaning can be created in an audience, and will illustrate this by doing a semiotic analysis of two magazine-advertisements and then discussing how codes and context are central in “anchoring” meaning. Roland Barthes introduced the concept of anchorage (Barthes 1977, p38ff). Linguistic elements can help “anchor” (or constrain) the preferred readings of an image: “to fix the floating chain of signifieds” (ibid, p39). The ads chosen are from two very different magazines, one from a design \ architecture \ fashion magazine (Wallpaper) and the other from a Snowboard magazine (Snowboarder) and are chosen specifically to illustrate how codes and context within social relations, groups, classes, institutions, structures and things (Thwaites, Davis and Mules 2002, p2) play a fundamental purpose in creating meaning. Advertising theory has changed together with other theories, and the essay will finally discuss is how meanings help reinforce social structures. Much of what we 'know' about the world is derived from what we have read in books, newspapers and magazines, from what we have seen in the cinema and on television and from what we have heard on the radio. Daniel Chandler concludes “Life is thus lived through texts and framed by texts to a greater extent than we are normally aware of (Chandler’s web source on semiotics).” This means that ads do not

only refer to concepts in “the real world” that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, but that they also refer to other texts, and that the degree of this “intertextuality (Fiske 1987)” is what enforces social beliefs in the culture or context we choose to live in. This degree can be found using semiotic analysis, but as the essay will show, the meaning depends on how “open” the ad is, and who it is meant for.

The ad from Wallpaper is for the Swedish car company VOLVO (see ad 1) Key signifiers: Colour photo of large, white, designer house in background. In front of the house from left are: a young, attractive woman with a beige winter coat with a furcollar and confident “power”-stance. Next to her young man, dressed in a brown, plaid tweed suit, his stance is boyish and passive. To his left a sitting dog. Next to these three is the car, a Volvo station wagon. The left front car-door is open, and in the opening stands another young male, visible waist up in a dark brown cardigan and also a sixpence. Directly beneath everything, the written text. Possible signifieds: Fur is expensive, tweed suits are old fashioned (even “daggy?”), dogs represent family and hunting, Volvos are the safest cars in the world (also expensive) and sixpences represent working men. Connotations: The couple and the key signifiers connotate aristocracy. The passive stance of the husband and the fact that it is the servant standing on the driver side of the open car, can direct connotation to the generalisations of the decadence of aristocracy; it’s a love-triangle cliché; somewhat resembling “Lady Chatterley’s lover.” The form of the written text, in that it resembles the writing style of ads from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s seems to underline this. Naturalised meaning: the love-triangle theme also brings an ironic element into the ad. The ad is complex and witty in the way that it spoofs the notion of Scandinavian aristocracy, but also that it juxtaposes Volvo as a sophisticated car. As a result of this

the meaning can be “although we’re making fun of ourselves as Swedes, the car is still sophisticated, beautiful and exclusive to those who can afford it.” This effect, the way the ad can make fun of aristocracy without removing the essence of style and glamour from the car, is elaborate, and the important issue of why the creators of the ad have chosen to do this, can be seen in relation to the audience it is targeted against. William Leiss and his colleagues has in their study of advertising seen that “at the core of advertising’s purposes now is not the message itself as a communicator of meaning, but rather its relationship to the audience (Leiss et al. 1990, 214).” With the development of the theory of market segmentation, the logical step is therefore to conclude that creators of ads don’t focus on the product, but the universe of codes and signs that connotate certain positive meanings that are related to a certain lifestyle in a certain social group or culture. It is a common generalisation that the middleclass and other social groups in a (capitalist) society strive to become wealthy and lead a lifestyle that is sophisticated, much like the one presented in the Volvo ad. The fact that the ad is ironic, and that the irony is separated from the product, is ultimately what makes it open.

The ad from Snowboarder magazine is for CLAE footwear (see ad 2). Key signifiers: BW partial photo of a big snow plougher in action, through a large mass of snow on its left side. In the snow shooting out are the names of three guys in large, yellow type. In the right hand corner, the logo and web-address. Possible signifieds: Snow is (obviously) an important element for a snowboarder. The snow ploughing machine can be perceived as big, clunky and menacing. Connotations: Given that the photo is BW, the plougher and the snow dissolves, in fact, if it wasn’t for the plougher, it would be difficult to understand that the substance is snow, and not e.g. gravel or dirt.

These elements can connotate “the mindless” being spewed out by “the system” whereas the names placed in the same position as the snow being churned out can connotate uniqueness and innovation but also exclusiveness. Naturalised meaning: The interesting detail is the element of exclusion. The skill of the ad lies in the aspect that if you don’t know who these people are, you’re not likely to know what sort of product this is (snowboarding shoes? Normal shoes? Athletic shoes?), and why they are special. So the meaning can be: “In the grey, boring world of snowboarding corporations, these guys (who you know are among the best) are doing something different.” Accordingly, even if producers try to put across certain meanings, audiences may or may not assign the same meanings (Littlejohn 1996, p328). As noted in the first ad, the ad is open to other audiences, but the Clae ad is very much closed. The Volvo ad targeted a much wider audience, basically a “if you can afford it, you’re in” type of audience. It’s up to the reader to decide wether he\she belongs to the context or not. On a basic level, signs are combined into texts, but a text has no meaning on its own (Smagorinsky 2001). It draws value from surrounding elements and from reader association, but also from what it is not (Littlejohn 1998, p332). The combination of these creates the context in which the text operates. In other words, if you’re not a snowboarder, you won’t have a single clue to what this ad is about. This is why context is important. Thwaites and colleagues mention that “the social situations in which a sign is used may determine the appropriate content, type of sign and coding. A sign’s contextual functions indicate the context in which it operates (Thwaites, Davis and Mules 2002, p19). Chandler explains that Stuart Hall pointed to the role of social positioning in the interpretation of mass media texts by different social groups (Chandler’s web source on semiotics). Hall also suggested three hypothetical models of interpretative codes or positions for the reader of a text (Hall

1980, p136-8). But what Hall and also Chandler miss, is what happens when you don’t understand an ad at all? Because, as Griffin quite eloquently says: “like chameleons that take on the coloration of their environment, words take on their meaning of the context in which they are used (Griffin 2000, p40).”

The opinion that the usefulness of semiotics decreases and is above all dependent on the skill of the interpreter is not new. Leiss and his colleagues (Leiss et al. 1990, p214) argue that a key drawback of semiotics is that “it is heavily dependent upon the skill of the individual analyst”. Less skilful practitioners “can do little more than state the obvious in a complex and often pretentious manner.” Subsequently, to apply this to the ads examined, by making use of exclusion and irony, the producer of the ad can ensure (to a certain degree) that only a certain part of an audience will understand its core meaning, since there are certain codes in the ad that exclusively connotates to a particular context that will pass others by. Donald and Virginia Fry’s third postulate is that “meanings of a message are affected by events outside the message itself (Littlejohn 1996 p329).” Therefore, a way of producing a meaning stable enough to communicate must depend on two variables: (1) the maker must understand the kinds of content that will convey certain meanings in an audience (codes) and (2) that the actual text lays emphasis on certain meanings over others (context). In this perspective, the kind of magazine reflects how meanings are emphasized. Bignell even argues that: “as well as being a collection of signs, the magazine is a sign in itself (Bignell 1997, p66). Wallpaper is appealing to anyone who likes architecture, design and fashion. But, Snowboarder is appealing only to snowboarders, and contains codes, values and perceptions of that specific culture. Umberto Eco uses the term “aberrant decoding” to refer to a text which has been decoded by way of a

different code from that used to encode it (Eco 1965). Eco describes as “closed” those texts which show a strong tendency to promote a particular interpretation - in contrast to more “open” texts (Eco 1981). Chandler builds on Bignell’s notion and notes that the signs (or codes) within a text "do not just 'convey' meanings, but constitute a medium in which meanings are constructed" (Chandler’s web source on semiotics). Through reading a magazine aimed at a demographic group, we can learn what society expects from that group. The magazine is therefore a "powerful ideological force" in society (McRobbie 2000, p69).

To summarise, even though some post modernists say that texts are endlessly polysemic (Barthes 1977, Fiske 1987), meanings can still be communicated. The ads chosen utilise the element of exclusion with an ironic twist and suggest an intelligent audience with the necessary knowledge needed to recognize when the message is directed to them. The two ads are very different however. Leiss and colleagues argue that “For advertising to create meaning, the reader or viewer must do some “work” Because the meaning is not lying there on the page, one has to make an effort to grasp it (Leiss et al. 1990, p200). In the case of both ads this is very accurate. The creators of the ads have given the readers a and c, but the reader must fill in b. Leiss also sites Williamson in that she notes that the peculiar thing about advertising is that we are inclined to fill in this gap. The way advertising has developed together with theories such as market segmentation seems to underline the argument. The Volvo ad is “open” in the way that appeals to a wide, but also an exclusive audience. The Clae ad is just exclusive, it has a narrow audience, and the ad is therefore closed. Placing the Clae ad in Wallpaper would most likely create a negotiated reading (Thwaites, Davis and Mules, 2002, p92). Consequently, the context in which the ads appear is essential

for their meaning. The type of magazine and also the intertextuality within the ads add to the complexity of the concept, but the role of codes and connotation is very important in anchoring the meaning, which in itself also can be complex. As Chandler and Bignell suggest, signs and codes can be a medium in itself, and described by Leiss and colleagues: “An ad is a mediator between creator and reader, standing at the confluence of the double symbolic process in the marketplace, where producers of goods try to attempt to construct one set of meanings, and where consumers use these meanings (along with meanings drawn from other sources) in the construction of their own lifestyles (Leiss et al. 1990, p201-203).” This is why semiotics is important. On a basic level, it can show us how meanings construct, maintain and negotiate certain social beliefs and attitudes in a culture. On a more multifaceted level, the concept of intertextuality is very interesting and should be studied more widely as it can uncover the many complex ways in which contexts migrate from one another and show the ambiguity of meaning in a world which is literally teaming with it.

Bibliography
Barthes, Roland (1977), Image-Music-Text, London: Fontana Bignell, Jonathan (1997), Media Semiotics: An Introduction, Manchester: Manchester University Press Chandler, Daniel (2001), “Semiotics, the basics,” http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/the_book.html - accessed 30. Aug – 4. Sep 2002 Culler, Jonathan (1985), Saussure, London: Fontana Eco, Umberto (1965), Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message, In Corner & Hawthorn (Eds.) (1980), pp131-50 Eco, Umberto (1981), The Role of the Reader, Hutchinson, London Fiske, J. (1987), “Intertextuality” in Fiske, J, Television culture, Methuen, pp.108127. Griffin, Em (2000), Communication; a first look at communication theory, McGraw-Hill, US Hall, Stuart ([1973] 1980): Encoding/decoding, In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.): Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 London: Hutchinson, pp128-38 Harvey, M. and Evans, M. (2001), Decoding competitive propositions: A semiotic alternative to traditional advertising research, International Journal of Market Research, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 171-187. [Online]. Available: Proquest Academic Research Library database. [Accessed 1 Sep. 2002]. Leiss, William, Stephen Kline & Sut Jhally (1990), Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products and Images of Well-Being (2nd Edn.). London: Routledge Littlejohn, Stephen W. (1996), Theories of Human Communication (5th Edn), Wadsworth McRobbie, Angela (1995), Feminism and Youth Culture (2nd edition), Macmillan Press, London Smagorinsky, P. (2001), If meaning is constructed, what is it made from? Toward a cultural theory of reading, Review of Educational Research, vol. 71, pp. 133-169. [Online]. Available: Proquest Academic Research Library database. [Accessed 1 Sep. 2002]. Thwaites, Tony, Lloyd Davis, Warwick Mules (2002), Introducing Cultural and Media Studies; a semiotic approach, Palgrave, New York Williamson, Judith (1978), Decoding Advertisements; Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London, Marion Boyars Wallpaper Magazine March 2002, published by Wallpaper magazines Snowboarder Magazine July 2002, published by Prime Media USA

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful