In this paper I intend to conduct a semiotic analysis of a series of adverts for men’s anti-wrinkle cream produced by Nivea. Semiotics is concerned with the study of ‘communication as the generation of meaning.’ (Fiske, 2011) The adverts, as shown below, are entitled ‘Because life makes wrinkles,’ and each one depicts the furrowed brow of a middle-aged male. Each of the images portrays a different aspect of conventional life, including a child, a house and a car, which for most tends to be part of the natural progression of life, (in-keeping with societal norms) or what might be stereotypically considered the most stressful aspects of life. The images imply that with each step along the way, as the man ages, the wrinkles become increasingly worse. This is where the product placement is important as it is suggested that the Nivea cream (the product being sold) is able to combat the effects of ageing.
In this piece of work, I will analyse the sequence of images in order to deduce the message that they intend to convey, applying different linguistic tools to each. I have not considered all three images when applying theory as they portray similar messages. In order to conduct my analysis, I will be focusing on the different aspects of sign theory, looking closely at Ferdinand de Saussure, and Roland Barthes, also incorporating a variety of other scholars and sources. I will also touch on intertextuality and metonymy (synecdoche).
The term sign is used to refer to something that stands for something other than itself. Linguists argue that signs have no intrinsic meaning and only become signs when meaning is invested into them. [image: ]Leading linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed a model which suggested that a sign is a dyadic model consisting of two interrelated units; the signifier and the signified. (Chandler, 2002) (See model) Signifier equates to something physical, such as a sound or letter and signified connotes the mental concept or image to which the signifier is referring. He referred to the relationship between the two as ‘signification’ (as indicated by the arrows in the image.) (Sebeok, 1994) Saussure also insinuated that the relationship between signifier and signified and thus the linguistic sign is arbitrary, implying that the meaning given to the sign is a social construct made up of human experiences and societal context; the relationship between the ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’ is simply one of convention. (Saussure, 1983)
The application of this equation (using figure 1 as an example) according to Daniel Chandler would be as follows: signifier+signified= sign
- Signifier= A middle aged man with lines on his forehead and a young girl hanging from them.
- Signified= Mental concept connotes that the stress of children can give you wrinkles.
In addition to this Saussure emphasised that ‘meaning arises from the differences between signifiers; these differences are of two kinds: syntagmatic (concerning positioning) and paradigmatic (concerning substitution).’ (Saussure, 1983) Syntagms and paradigms provide a structural context within which signs make sense. (Chandler, 2002) In this way a syntagmatic relationship is created through the sequence of images as each figure depicts signs of progressive ageing. The signs operate together to create meaning. From figure 1 through to figure 3 the hair becomes greyer and the wrinkles become deeper. The ‘plane of sytagm’ (Chandler, 2002) suggests that the combination of each of these factors equates to the final image/ concept, which is that of ageing. Saussure stressed that ‘the whole depends on the parts, and the parts depend on the whole’. (Chandler, 2002) In each of the images the addressee has chosen these particular factors associated with old age to portray the ageing process. Similarly, it could be said that there is a syntagmatic relationship between the child, house and car as each is used to allude to the ‘bigger picture’ of life.
Order of Signification
Roland Barthes built on the Sausserean model to explain that a sign operates at two levels of signification: denotation and connotation. He explicates these in terms of ‘order of signification’. (Barthes, 1972 ) Barthes suggested that there is a dual message within any singular sign: the aesthetic aspect, or the literal meaning (denotation) and also the hidden ideological meaning that reinforces the historical significance of that sign in relation to the dominant socio-political and economic structure-(connotation) (Moriarty, 1991).
The first order of signification in the anti-ageing cream adverts denotes the forehead of a male with a furrowed brow. The first (Figure 1) shows a male with dark hair frowning and a young girl pictured below the wrinkles on his forehead. The second (Figure 2) denotes a male with slightly greying hair with deeper wrinkles than the first, above which sits a house that appears to be under-construction. The final picture (Figure 3) denotes a male with almost fully grey hair and a car which looks to be driving across his forehead. From figure 1 through to figure 3 we can also see that the hair turns grey and the wrinkles deepen. This is the literal interpretation of the advertisements, but advertising generally requires a shift from the field of denotation to connotation as this alludes to a different perception from the target audience.
The second order of signification, considering the three advertisements as a sequence, connotes the gradual ageing of the man. This is portrayed through the greying of the hair from figure 1 through to figure 3. Furthermore, the lines/ wrinkles in the forehead deepen, which is another feature attributed to ageing. The line reads ‘Because life makes wrinkles’, the slogan is portrayed in each of the images as they show a child, a house and a car, all of which are generally assessed as being the main stresses of life. The connotation suggests that these aspects of life cause stress which in turn causes ageing, this is important as the selling point of the product is its ability to combat ageing. The second order is essential as it encourages the audience to construct meaning and ‘read between the lines’ of the advert.
In accordance with the aforementioned ‘order of signification’, Roland Barthes suggested that myths exist as an extension of the second order. (connotation) He suggested that they are the ‘dominant ideologies of our time.’ (Chandler, 2002) Lakoff and Johnson, who published extensive work on conceptual metaphors in their book, Metaphors We Live By, suggest that myths can be compared to metaphors in the way that they ‘help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture’ (Lakoff, 1980) Myths make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely natural, normal, common-sense. The Barthesian myth present in this anti-wrinkle cream advert is the notion that the process of ageing is something negative and to be avoided or postponed. Over time, society has idealised the prospect of remaining youthful in appearance and has constructed the idea that ageing is something that needs to be avoided, I would add that the media has been a driving force in reinforcing this ideology. The advert uses this ‘myth,’ instilled into the target audience by society, as a selling point for the anti-wrinkle cream. It does so by displaying the progressive effects of ageing, picturing grey hair and wrinkles with the knowledge that they have negative connotations for most, and that this will impact the addressees, in turn encouraging them to buy their product. I would suggest that marketing strategies in recent times are able to incorporate the notion of Barthes’ ‘mythologies’ in order to create a selling point for products as society has created unattainable beauty ideals or ‘myths’ that nowadays seem ‘entirely normal or natural’.
Intertextuality, as explained by a number of renowned linguists, alludes to the interconnection between texts that influence the audience’s interpretation. Bakhtin theorised the idea that each text proposes a continual dialogue with other texts. (Matheson, 2005) He explained that ‘no text is original and is always half someone else’s. It becomes one’s own only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions.’ (Bakhtin, 1981) Intertextuality is an important tool in this advertising sequence. The ads alone each make similar points and it is possible to understand one without the other, but when they are brought together as a sequence the target audience is able to see the message and the intention of the addresser more clearly. Danesi explains that intertextuality is present when a ‘text alludes to another text,’ (Danesi, 1994) and when considering the three images it becomes apparent to the addressee that each picture builds on the one before it subsequently creating a bigger picture, which shows progressive ageing. This is an example of intra-generic intertextuality, as explained by Cook (Cook, 2001) as it makes reference to other examples in the same genre. In this advertising sequence the effect of this is to create a stronger selling point for the product as it pledges to stop or slow-down the gradual ageing depicted in the three images.
Metonymy has been explained as the ‘use of one entity or thing to indicate, or to stand for another.’ (Lakoff, 1980) Elaborating on this idea Kövecses elucidates that, ‘the main function of a metonymic expression is to activate one cognitive category by referring to another category within the same domain.’ (Kövecses, 2002) The term ‘synecdoche’ exists within the field of metonymy and this is when a part refers to a whole and vice versa. I have considered this metonymic expression in my analysis of the above advertising sequence (figures 1-3) and I would suggest that each of the images could be interpreted as a synecdochic expression. Considering figure 3 as an example along with the slogan, ‘because life makes wrinkles’ the addresser utilises the image of a car crash to evoke the idea of life and in this way the car is the ‘part of the whole’ to which the term synecdoche refers. The car is representative of life and thus is the thing causing the wrinkles. The utilisation is similar for each of the figures, with the child, the house and the car as they all equate to a part of ‘life’ making each of them a part of the whole. The same could be said when considering the slogan without each of the images but in reverse. If synecdoche can also be considered as a whole referring to parts ‘Life’ is used to refer to each of these individual aspects.
Through my analysis of this advertising sequence by Nivea, I would suggest that in accordance with theory proposed by Saussure, developed by Barthes, context and mental concepts are imperative to the sense making of the message projected by the addressee. It is necessary for the receiving audience to construct meaning when looking at each of the images, as if they were to consider only the denotative aspect of the sign (the literal meaning) it would defeat the whole object of the advert. The 2nd order of signification enables the audience to construct meaning by applying contextual knowledge. In this way it is possible to deduce that the advert insinuates that ‘because life gives wrinkles’ has been portrayed through the imagery used. The child, house and car (life) all cause stress, which in turn causes wrinkles. In addition to this, the Barthesian myth which suggests that we should seek to obtain a ‘forever youthful look’ works to create a selling point of the product (the anti-wrinkle cream will stop/ slow-down this ageing process). I would also say that intra-generic intertextuality works to create a sequence that displays the effects of ageing which, together with the other linguistic tools that I have identified work together to create desire for the product. Although the adverts are very simple, I would suggest that it is relatable for the audience. I would also reiterate that it relies heavily on the notion that society collectively has a negative view on ageing. All of the tools aforesaid work in junction to create a strong selling point for the product being sold.
- Allen, G. (2000). Intertextuality. Routledge.
- Bakhtin. (1981).
- Barthes, R. (1972 ). Mythologies. Les Lettres Nouvelles.
- Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics: The Basics. London: Psychology Press.
- Cook, G. (2001). The Discourse of Advertising.
- Danesi, M. (1994). Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics. Canadian Scholar’s Press.
- Fiske, J. I. (2011). Introduction to communication studies. Taylor and Francis .
- Kövecses, Z. (n.d.). Metaphor: A Practical Introduction.
- Lakoff, G. &. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
- Matheson, D. (n.d.). Media Discourses.
- Moriarty, M. (1991). Roland Barthes. Stanford University Press.
- Saussure, F. D. (1983). Course in General Linguistics. Duckworth.
- Sebeok, T. A. (1994). Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics.
- Taylor, S. Y. (2001). Discourse Theory and Practise.