Advertisements are used by marketing teams to promote their products and increase sales, but there is a tendency to use stereotyping. We see individuals classed together in groups according to their gender, race and age. Gender stereotyping has been extensively used to portray women as dependent on a man for his protection and provision, (Eisend, Dens & De 2019), shows that this gender stereotyping makes for successful advertising campaign, but does have a negative effect on society. This semiotic analysis will have a look at the denotation, connotation, main signs as well as the semiology of the colours used in the “Anyway, you didn’t burn the Schlitz” advert.
According to Seiler (2005), we discern the principles at work in the media text through a semiological analysis. However, in order to discuss the semiology, we first need to explain the advertisement denotatively. The first thing that one notices in the advertisement is that there is a man and a woman in the middle of the scene. She is crying, holding a handkerchief to her eyes, and he is comforting her. She is wearing a grey dress with a red and white striped apron and he is wearing a suit. There are yellow frilly curtains around the window. The window blinds are closed. There is a yellow table cloth on the table and it is set for two peoples, with cutlery for a two-course meal – a starter and a main. There are red napkins, and a round red tray that holds two bottles of Schlitz beer. There is a beer glasses at each setting. Behind the couple we can see a stove. There is a pot on the stove, with a red spiral stove plate that is still on, we can see that some food has spilt onto the hot plate and stove. The man is holding a frying pan that has smoke coming off of it. The copy of the advert is “There’s hope for any young bride who knows her man well enough to serve him Schlitz beer. For what man (or woman) can resist the taste of Schlitz Beer…a taste millions prefer to the taste of any other beer. No, we’re not just saying that. Here’s the simple proof: Schlitz tastes so good to so many people, it’s first in sales in the U.S.A.” Then there is a with a Schlitz logo and header that says “The Beer that made Milwaukee Famous”. Now that the reader has a picture in their mind of what the advertisement looks like, we can move on to having a look at the connotation of the piece.
According to Barthes (1964, as cited in Serban, 2002), at the first level of semiological analysis is the dissection. In this case, we are looking at the connotation. The advertising industry has long portrayed men and women in traditional roles, especially in the case of women who were depicted as lowly and substandard, with lower-ranking abilities and aspirations (Grau & Zotos, 2016), and completely reliant upon a man for protection (Zotos & Tsichla, 2014). Judging by the paper tear on the left-hand side of the image, this appears to be an advertisement from a woman’s magazine, as opposed to an advert from a newspaper, which confirms that the promoters designed the advert with the intention of persuading women that beer will make men happy. At the time when the advert was set, the 1950s, as the homemaker the women were the decision makers in the home with regards to groceries and perishable home provisions. We get the impression that she is a young newlywed who isn’t confident in her cooking skills, or in her role as a wife; and that her sole aim in life is to look after her husband. The woman, clearly upset, is holding a handkerchief up to her eyes in a manner that gives the impression that she is weak because she can’t control her emotions, especially in such a trivial matter as a burned dinner in the bigger picture of things. A burned dinner is generally not something to be so distressed about; unless one is afraid of the consequences. In other words, either they are poverty stricken, or the husband has a dangerous temper. The mise-en-scene of the advert does not imply either of these scenarios. She is looking up at him adoringly, in a posture that gives the impression of submission. The man is smiling as he waves his hand dismissively over the dinner table and on to the bottles of beer. His attitude implies that all it takes is a beer to keep a man in a good mood. It is made clear to us that even though his wife has spoiled dinner, the beer is immune to her lack of culinary expertise.
Semiotic signs are made up of a signifier and the signified, however the relationship between the two is based on an individual’s personal judgement and associations (Seiler, 2005). An example of signs in the advert is that the woman is wearing a red and white striped apron (the signifier), and her husband is wearing a suit (the signifier) which shows that he is the breadwinner (the signified), while she is the homemaker (the signified). The smoking pan (the signifier) reveals that the dinner is burnt (the signified). Depicted in this way, the advert gives the message that a lot of women were having trouble with burning the dinner, or even managing their homemaker duties. She has let her husband down. Does this devalue her? How is she going to become a mother and care for her family if she can’t successfully prepare a dinner for two?
At this point of the analysis we start the second operation of articulation (Barthes 1964, as cited in Serban, 2002) and examine the signs at a deeper level. Signs, in the context of semiology, can be in the form of an image, a word, an expression on a face, or even in portrayed in a colour. We see that yellow and red are the predominant colours in the advert. The colours used in this Schlitz advert are notable, and have been used for a reason. The effect and reactions that colours will tend to incite on the human subconscious can be powerful indeed, and can also predict the buying behaviour of a consumer (Aslam, 2006). People associate colours with pre-defined meanings (Kauppinen-Räisänen & Jauffret, 2018). For example, we tend to accept that yellow is cheery, frivolous and carefree. It is also the colour most usually associated with sunshine. Does this symbolise the honeymoon phase of a marriage? Is everything sunny and cheerful, but beneath the surface, issues are brewing as shown in the colour red, and smoking pan? Red is used symbolically to signify love, to get attention and signify danger, and red, used in the advert certainly seems to do all three. Also, worth noting, is that the round, red tray holding the beer looks just like a dinner plate. This is interesting because, due to the dinner being burned, the beer now replaces the meal, while the actual dinner plates that were going to be used for the meal, are a dull grey, the same grey as her dress and the chairs. This implies that the plates are not important because they will not be used. The white handkerchief is an interesting addition. A bride is often given a white handkerchief for her wedding day and a white lace or cotton handkerchief also signifies femininity. Not to be dismissed is the ideology in William Shakespeare’s Othello, where the handkerchief as a symbol of love and fidelity, was ultimately the cause of a tragedy (Tao, 2014). A white handkerchief or flag is also used as a universal signal to convey surrender. The use of colour by marketers is becoming an important semiotic sign, one that is worth making note of.
In conclusion, the semiology in the Schlitz advertisement confirms that in middle of the 20th century, gender stereotypes were used to sell products, and successfully as well. Although a text or a media piece will have different meanings, and each meaning is understood and interpreted differently by each individual according to their own life experiences (Barthes, 1964), the advertisement utilizes blatant examples of sexism that doesn’t take much effort at all to notice. This was quite obvious in what was observed of the connotations, signs and colour semiology in the advert. A modern-day glance at the Schlitz advertisement shrieks of gender inequality, and many people today will be astounded that it went to print. However, the lifestyle of the era that the advert was set in, demanded that women were the homemaker and were financially, socially and emotionally dependant on her husband. Women accepted that being a homemaker was their role in life, that their aspirations and dreams were to be sacrificed for the good of the family. They may even have been to classes, or read books on how to be the perfect housewife. Women thus, would probably have been amused by the advert, and perhaps even identified with it.