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Post-modern media advertising theory and scholarship has tended towards a focus on the use of surrealistic images

in ads, exploring all of cause, effect and underlying purpose. Seminal works in this area are Judith Williamson’s (1978) Decoding Advertising and Jean Baudrillard’s (1994) Simulacra and Stimulation. Following a review of both of these works, wherein each author’s proposed theoretical assumption shall be clarified, the literature review section shall conclude with a review of an alternate theory, posed by Luis Althusser (1998). In 1978, Judith Williamson proposed that surrealism in advertising, while often lending to bizarre images and juxtapositions, affected receivers in a highly subjective and personal manner, thereby endowing profundity on the ad message. 1 To the extent that surrealism is ultimately based upon a puzzling merger of diverse, seemingly unrelated objects and images, it possesses unique attractive powers and elicits both emotional and cognitive responses from receivers. Indeed, through the interplay of cognition and emotion, the ad challenges receivers to uncover its message and investigate the linkage between the diverse images projected. To do so, the receiver becomes personally engaged in the ad and as he/she puzzles out its underlying meaning(s), more often than not, subjectively meaningful meaning is imposed upon the ad in question. 2 The theoretical implication here is that the use of surrealism in advertising is effective, in the sense that it incites the purchase instinct, primarily because it ultimately sells us ourselves. Through the application of the theoretical framework of semiology, Williamson proceeds to explicate the ideological structure of advertisements, further clarifying the way in which such ads sells us ourselves. As Williamson argues, ads present us with images, the majority of which act upon our subconscious as manifest
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Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisement, pp. 131-132. Williamson, pp. 76-77 and p. 13.

latent influences. Ads present receivers with images which they proceed to interpreted on a subconscious, subjective manner, imposing meaning from within their own selves upon the ad. 3 For example, an advertisement featuring an automobile may denote prestige for some but for others it may address their subconscious need for escape from the structures of their daily lives. The ad, the featured image within it, comes to represent a solution to their ever-increasing and oppressive burden of responsibilities; the car becomes `escape,’ and `freedom.’ Therefore, as Williamson suggests, ads function to create images which take us on a journey within our own selves, at the conclusion of which we arrive at a set of meanings which we subsequently impose upon the ad and the image(s) represented within. 4 This process, as Williamson contends, is a concealed ideological one. 5 To a large degree, Jean Baudrillard (1994) agrees with Williamson’s theory regarding the effect of images on receivers. However, whereas Williamson’s work simply tried to explain the effect which media ad images had on receivers and theorise the process through which receivers imposed subjective and personal meanings upon ads, Baudrillard explains how this entire process leads to the loss of reality. Furthermore, while Williamson simply tried to explain a phenomenon, Baudrillard uses this phenomenon to critique and attack post-modern culture. In his Stimulation Theory, he examines the concept media images in order to demonstrate the extent to which post-modernism has drained meaning from our lives and replaced reality with hyper-reality and, ultimately, with simulacrum. Attacking the media as irresponsible “stimulators” 6 Baudrillard’s Simulation Theory outlines the process by which the media perverts and, ultimately, obliterates

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Williamson, p. 103 and p. 120. Williamson, p. 41 and 103. 5 Williamson, pp. 131-132. 6 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Stimulation, p. 4

reality. 7 Basic reality, the “profound” reality, according to Baudrillard, refers to the virtues upon which human culture is fundamentally founded upon. 8 These virtues, which include family, communal life and societal responsibility and fulfilment, must be protected from corruption at all costs. Indeed, Baudrillard argues that humans are motivated by a basic instinct to protect culture and basic reality from corruption. 9 The media, however, is a corrupting influence and, from Baudrillard’s viewpoint, a definite threat to reality. 10 As Baudrillard argues through his Simulation Theory, the media is an immediate threat to “profound reality.” 11 Constantly engaged in the creation and publication of images which are nothing more than very poor copies of reality, little other than impoverished copies of reality, the media’s publication of these images ultimately leads to the distortion of reality and the replacement of basic reality with the media’s perverted representation of it. Consequently, the media’s distorted copies of reality eventual mask basic reality, leading to the creation of a parallel world of hyperreality. Receivers are then trapped in this hyperreality. Defining hyperreality as a “generation by models of a real without origin or reality,” Baudrillard argues that as postmodernism develops, hyperreality grows stronger and stronger. In fact, it reaches the point where it suffocates reality and condemns people to a live of illusion and delusion. 12 At this point, postmodern culture reaches simulacrum. Proceeding from the above stated, Baudrillard outlines the following as the four stages of stimulation:

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Baudrillard, p. 4 Baudrillard, p. 6. 9 Baudrillard, pp. 4-5. 10 Baudrillard, p. 8. 11 Baudrillard, p. 6. 12 Baudrillard, p. 1.

1. Images are initially reflective of basic, or real reality; 13 2. Images progress to the pint where they function to distort basic reality; 14 3. Images conceal “the absence of a profound reality” and
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4. An images “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.” 16 Accordingly, while there is a correlation between Williamson’s theory regarding the structure of meaning which receivers subjectively impose upon images and Baudrillard’s Stimulation Theory, the intentions and motivations of both theorists are different. The former seeks the clarification of the ideological process by which ads attract receivers whereas the latter clarifies the process of image distortion. Differing from both Williamson and Baudrillard, Althusser a structural Marxist, presents a theoretical understanding of the human tendency to be ideologically subjugated by ads. According to Althusser the media acts as a tool for the spread of ideology and, ultimately, for the creation and imposition of hegemony. 17 It acculturates the masses into the hegemonic ideology and makes it a part of them, while it allows them the illusion that they are free subjects, independent thinkers. As Baudrillard argues, the result is that ad images appear before receivers as if they were a part of their own consciousness. 18 To an extent the are but only because the media has successfully imposed the hegemonic ideology upon the masses and, in this way, controls their thoughts and perceptions. In other words, arguing that nothing occurs and no thoughts are born “except by and in an ideology,” ad images do not attract receivers, as Williamson claims because ads are open to personal interpretations but,

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Baudrillard, p. 6. Baudrillard, p. 6. 15 Baudrillard, p. 6. 16 Baudrillard, p. 6. 17 Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” p. 298-299. 18 Althusser, p. 299.

both because the images in question and the receiver are products of the same hegemonic ideology. 19 As such, there is a connection between receiver and image. Similarly, and contrary to Baudrillard’s theoretical proposition, ads/images are not distortions of an existent reality but are, like the receivers themselves, a reflection of ideological cultural reality. Further explaining his argument, Althusser (1998) states that were a receiver to respond to a textual or pictorial call (ad blurb or image), he/she responds because he has been called out. The ad called out to the receiver and he/she has heard the call only because it speaks to ideological ideals and ideas already within him. 20 From this viewpoint, receivers only respond to an ad if it speaks to ideas already within them and calls upon them to “act according to their ideas.” 21 Consequently, a message is heard only if it is consistent with the receiver’s ideological culture. As is clear from the three works which were reviewed, the ideological dimension and underlying meaning of advertising messages, is a very rich area of study, theory and research. While, however, there is a general sense of agreement regarding the ideological dimension of ads, the dynamics of the receiver and message relationship remain a topic of debate.

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Althusser, p. 299. Althusser, pp. 296-297. 21 Althusser, p. 297.

References Althusser, L. [1998] "Ideology and ideological state apparatuses." Eds. J. Rivkin & M. Ryan. Literary theory: Anthology. Blackwell Publishers, Malden. pp. 294304. Baudrillard, J. [1994] Simulacra and Stimulation. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbour. Williamson, J. [1978] Decoding Advertisements. Marion Boyars, London.