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Semiotics In Marketing And Communication

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Communication is a vital aspect of human interaction and is observed in all features of daily life from language, culture and signs (Fiske 2010, p. 2). So crucial is communication that its absence would mean the destruction of all human cultures (Fiske 2010, p. 2). John Fiske (2010) broadly defines communication as “social interaction through messages”. In particular, communication is central in advertisements, where brands use communication to promote and market their products to an audience. Two examples of this are the NARS 2019 ‘Morocco’ lipstick advertisement and Fenty Beauty’s 2019 ‘Gloss Bomb’ advertisement. These two make-up advertisements sought to sell a lip product in a video format shared via online social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter to their followers.

Both brands use communication to advertise two similar products to the viewer, but with a varying degree of success. NARS, well-renowned French cosmetics company famous for its sex explicit branding, displays the lipstick morphing like skin into a penis-like shape before resulting in a lipstick mould with the brand name imprinted in its advertisement. In contrast, Fenty Beauty’s branding focuses on diversity and inclusivity of all peoples. Their advertisement showcases the lip product on several models including the creator and celebrity, Rihanna with a narration of the lip gloss description. Each brand seeks to communicate its new line of lip products via differing themes and semiotics, to their already established fanbase and to seek a new audience. However, NARS fails to communicate its new lip product due to the sexual nature of the advertisement, where broader society still considers the subject taboo. In contrast, Fenty Beauty, with its use of diverse models and its inclusion of its creator and celebrity, Rihanna offers a new creative way to express and promote their lip gloss product to a new audience, which was received positively in the context of a white-Eurocentric dominated industry.

One of the features of NARS advertisement is its focus on sex, a discourse still largely considered taboo, which the brand underestimated in its advertisement. Established in 1994, NARS Cosmetics is a brand founded by Francois Nars, which sells both cosmetics and skincare (NARS Cosmetics 2020). NARS Cosmetics (2020) is known for its ‘Orgasm Collection’, which is heavily featured in their lip, facial and nail products. As such, the discourse surrounding the subject of sex has a degree of emphasis on their branding and image. NARS (2020) has used words that involve sex as part of naming the colours of their palettes and products for example, ‘Deepthroat’, ‘Sex Appeal’ and ‘Aroused’, as a way to differentiate themselves from other cosmetic brands. However, sex and anything related to the subject has been largely prohibited by society and labelled as ‘taboo’ (Mills 2003, p. 58). NARS’ unique embracement of a taboo subject such as sex has given them both attention and an appeal by the public as a way of differentiation from other brands. This was argued by Michael Foucault, who stated that discourse can be used as both to oppress and resist (Mills 2003, p. 55). As such, NARS has used its discourse surrounding sex to resist its taboo nature and instead, make it more acceptable and appealing to an audience. But despite this, sex has still largely been shrouded in censorship by the wider community.

This was seen in the 2019 video advertisement of the brand’s ‘Morocco’ lipstick which was launched on several social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. The video depicts their ‘Morocco’ lip product as a penis-like shape before it morphs into a standard lipstick mould with the word NARS imprinted on it (Instagram 2019). The brand’s advertisement focuses entirely on its visual aspects of the lip product with no narration or audio. NARS used the communication aspect of semiotics in their advertisement to promote their lip product. Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had argued that “language is a system of signs”, aimed to communicate ideas and meaning (Berger 2013, p. 22). Another linguist, C.S. Peirce established three kinds of signs: symbols, icons and indexes. The focus on applied semiotics will be on the iconic, it resembles the subject and the symbolic, which the viewer needs to have knowledge of the subject in order to understand (Berger 2013, p. 23). The advertisement relied entirely on visual signs, or semiotics in order to communicate their product to the viewer. In this case, it used both iconic and symbolic signs. At the beginning of the video, the brown shape slowly was morphed into a phallic-like object before it turned to a lipstick, both instances of iconic signs, as the subject resembled a human penis and a lipstick. However, symbolic signs were also used as prior knowledge in the male anatomy and lipstick would be needed in order to understand the meaning of the advertisement, for example, children would most likely be unable to identify the phallic-like mould but would recognise the end lipstick image. A cultural context of lipstick would also be essential in the comprehension of the advertisement’s message. Therefore, the viewer would need to have some form of sexual education and knowledge in women’s’ cosmetics in order to fully comprehend the message from NARS. Hence, it can be broadly assumed that NARS used semiotics in order to communicate the maintenance of the brand’s image of sex positivity, whilst simultaneously produce a provocative advertisement to the viewers.

NARS, by its use of semiotics, correctly identified that viewers of the video would connect the brand’s image to a penis. Both the target audience and non-followers linked NARS’ infamous branding of sex with the lip product as the male sexual anatomy, and instead solely focused on that. The general public quickly criticised the video’s inappropriateness.

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In contrast, Fenty Beauty relied on its inclusivity theme to creatively promote their new product. Launched in 2017 by creator and singer Rihanna, Fenty Beauty is an American cosmetics well known for its inclusivity of all skin tones and colours, which offers to accommodate all lovers of make-up (Fenty Beauty 2020). As such, Fenty Beauty differentiates itself from other renowned brands by the inclusion of all skin colours into its cosmetics range to target and engage all audiences. In September 2017, Fenty Beauty launched its new lip gloss, the ‘Gloss Bomb’ onto the brand’s various social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube, including Rihanna’s own personal social media accounts (Sciarretto 2017). The video advertisement featured the creator, Rihanna as well as several of Fenty Beauty’s models all with various skin colours, with the emphasis on the product’s ‘universal’ rose shade (Youtube 2017). The ‘universal’ was highlighted several times throughout the video both by its audio and the appearance of the diverse models, where the lip gloss was created and promoted to “look good on everyone”, in line with the brand’s diversity image. In this case, Fenty Beauty used both visual and audio aspects to communicate its lip product to the viewer. Semiotics was used to communicate part of the brand’s messaging, by its use of iconic signs. In this instance, various models of ethnic backgrounds were used to resemble the diversity of women. Simultaneously, these models represent the various ethnic backgrounds of the audience and thus maintain Fenty Beauty’s message of “universal”.

The video communicates a message of inclusivity, in line with Fenty Beauty’s inclusivity and diversity discourse. One of the defining features that differ Fenty Beauty from other cosmetics brands is its emphasis on these two themes. The cosmetics industry has created beauty standards that have been mainly Eurocentric, and the assumption in beauty journalism that readers and users are predominantly white (Fetto 2019). This is also contributed and observed in runway shows where over 80% of models were white in comparison to Asians, Latinx and Africans (Johnson 2016). Despite the beauty industry’s ability to set new trends and new discourse, it can be viewed that it has used its discourse to oppress people of colour in the make-up industry. Fenty Beauty’s discourse has been in opposition to this and resisted this exclusion, which has appealed to women of colour who have long felt that the industry has left them out. For several years, women of colour, in particular women with darker skin shades had criticised the lack of shades and that the make-up industry only focuses on “white or light colours” despite women of colour spending more money on cosmetics (Fetto 2019). In particular, African-Americans have a total of $1 trillion buying power and spend more than 80% than their ethnic counterparts (Nelsen 2013). Annually they spend an estimated 7.5 billion on cosmetics (Nelsen 2013). However, big cosmetics brands such as L’oreal and Estee Lauder continue to accommodate Eurocentric beauty standards and Caucasian models. This debate has arisen with the advent of social media, where women of colour frequently complain to brands directly for their lack of shades and diversity of models (Flemming 2019). Often associated with this is the power relations between the make-up industry and white women, deemed the target market as opposed to women of colour. As such, famous make-up brands such as Chanel, M.A.C and NARS have an image of prioritising their white customers over others and being known as ‘exclusive’. With the creation of Fenty Beauty, the audience sees its discourse over inclusivity as eliminating this inequality gap and more egalitarian.

Between the two advertisements, NARS fails to communicate their product by its underestimation of the taboo nature of sex, in comparison to FENTY BEAUTY which promotes ethnic diversity in their lip gloss. Although NARS has been prominent in its inclusion of sexual terms in its product, its approach to a greater acceptance of sex, society still largely prohibits public discussion of the topic. Its use of iconic and symbolic signs to reference a penis-like object would have been widely accepted and normalised by fans of NARS and followers of make-up who had a cultural understanding of the sexual branding of NARS. However, at its very core, advertisements are created to communicate a product, by its promotion through visual and/or audio means to an audience, and as such the video was created not only to its followers but to engage the greater public. The NARS advertisement was published on several social media platforms, and its ‘scandalous’ nature caused the video to become viral online, being reposted, shared and discussed on other websites. Those that had no contextual understanding of the NARS brand criticised the inappropriateness and sexual nature of the video. Instead of the focus being on the ‘Morocco’ lipstick which was being promoted, viewers instead drew attention to the phallic-like object in the video. Debates and comments online such as Twitter and Facebook condemned the video with users commenting “gross” or calling for the PR Department to be “fired” ( 2019). Though there were some users who came to the defence of NARS, they were quickly overwhelmed by anti-fans of the advertisement. NARS failed to communicate their lipstick through the video to the audience, and instead let viewers focus on the sexual nature of the advertisement instead. Viewers disregarded the main focus which was originally intended to be the new NARS lipstick and instead only saw the sexual tones of the video.

In contrast, Fenty Beauty had a positive reaction by the audience through its use of diverse models and inclusivity to promote their lip gloss. Unlike NARS, Fenty Beauty utilised a diversity discourse in order to differentiate the brand and the lip product from others in the market. Prior to the video advertisement, Fenty Beauty had gained attention for its wide range of foundation colours (40 at its release date), especially for its colour range for darker skin tones, which was absent from other cosmetic brands (Brinkhurst-Cuff 2017). The advertisement carried on this emphasis on inclusivity visually, with models of different ethnic backgrounds and by audio with its repetition of “universal rose colour” of the lip gloss, which tied the two aspects together. The video focused on this aspect of the lip gloss whilst simultaneously highlighting its diversity streak of the brand. This simple message was communicated through the video with further visuals of the models shown with the lip gloss product applied on their lips. With this, Fenty Beauty has communicated that their lip gloss product can be worn not only by Caucasian or by those with light skin tones, but by all women of colour represented by the various ethnic models. The fact that the creator Rihanna herself is included as one of the several models can also be seen as not only an authority figure but as someone who is honest and sincere with her own product. The simplicity of the message was received by the viewers of the video, and as a result, the lip gloss became heavily sought out. Throughout the product’s launch in September, the lip gloss was sold every 3 minutes (Brinkhurst-Cuff 2017). Overall, Fenty Beauty succeeded in the promotion of the lip gloss product.

Communication is integral to all aspects of human life, from signs, culture and language. Without communication, humanity would cease to exist. One way of communication is through advertisements, with the aim to promote a particular product or service. Two examples of this are the NARS 2019 ‘Morocco’ lipstick and the 2017 Fenty Beauty ‘Gloss Bomb’ lip gloss video advertisements. These two lip products were promoted online, through social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube. Using semiotics and signs in their videos, these two cosmetic brands had an opposite success rate of communicating their lip products. NARS used sexual themes to promote their new lipstick as a penis-like object, in line with their brand’s famous embracement of sex-positivity. However, they underestimated the discourse which has surrounded the taboo subject throughout society and received criticism over the provocative nature of the video. Instead of the lipstick at the centre of attention, viewers focused on the phallic object. In contrast, Fenty Beauty employed their brand of inclusivity and diversity with their lip gloss. Their video featured a variety of diverse models wearing their “universal” lip gloss including the creator, Rihanna. Viewers were drawn to the lip gloss shade and different ethnic models and praised Rihanna for its inclusive shade range. Unlike NARS, people solely focused on the lip gloss and its features. Fenty Beauty’s subsequent sales of the lipgloss displayed the positive effect of the advertisement. Fenty Beauty’s themes of inclusivity were in line with the current context of the make-up industry, which has been plagued with diversity issues. Additionally, its themes are not taboo in nature, and instead focused on uplifting Black and other people of colour to be accommodated alongside Caucasians. As such, Fenty Beauty effectively used these themes to communicate their lip gloss to much success.


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  2. Fetto, F 29 September 2019, The beauty industry is still failing black women, viewed 20 May 2020,
  3. Flemming, M 9 May 2019, Missed opportunity: Why is the beauty industry still failing women of colour?, viewed 25 May 2020,
  4. Fiske, J 2010, Introduction to communication studies, Routledge, Florence.
  5. Instagram, 2019, Mills, S 2003, Michel foucault, Routledge, London.
  6. NARS Cosmetics, 2020, Blush, viewed 1 May 2020,
  7. NARS COSMETICS, 2020, Francois Nars, viewed 1 May 2020,
  8. Nielsen, 2013, Resilient, Receptive and Relevant, viewed 1 May 2020,
  9., 2019, Nars Drops New Phallic Lipstick Ad That Angers Many on the Internet — Except for Chrissy Teigen, viewed 29 April 2020,
  10. Scarietto, A 11 September 2017, Is Fenty Beauty Gloss Bomb Worth it? It’s Rihanna’s Only Lip Product, viewed 2 May 2020,
  11. Youtube, 2017, GLOSS BOMB UNIVERSAL LIP LUMINIZER | FENTY BEAUTY, viewed 20 May 2020,

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Semiotics In Marketing And Communication. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
“Semiotics In Marketing And Communication.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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