This essay aims to view the semiotic analysis in advertisements and critically analyze its impact. We will be critiquing two ads of Old Spice’s ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ campaign using semiotic analysis and then measuring the efficacy of the analysis. Through this exercise, we will see a semiotic analysis in action and recognize the drawbacks in utilizing the same as method of examining advertisements
The representation of masculinity has come a long way from its rigid structures and is now considered to be comparatively fluid. Advertisements tap on to features we as a society unconsciously crave to emulate. Advertisements also have the potential to shape and alter the ways gender is perceived among the collective. Thus the features of gender that advertisements choose to emphasize on and their eventual success or failure rate depends on the codes they utilize in their narrative.
Beginning with an introduction to the application of semiotics in real life and advertisements, we will hope to recognize certain elements crucial to the workings of a semiotic analysis as well as comment on the disadvantages that accompany a semiotic analysis.
We live in a commercialized world where our choice of products actively defines us. When you pick one product over the other, you are basically picking one or two qualities over the other. The twenty first century product is not merely defined by its utility but also by what it can offer to you as an individual, and what it can offer to your identity, your image in a world saturated by images. Our choices are largely influenced by advertisements. Goldman observes:
Advertisements saturate our social lives… Our ability to recognize and decipher the advertising images that confront us depends on our photographic literacy and our familiarity with the social logic of advertising and consumerism. Yet, because ads are so pervasive and our reading of them so routine, we tend to take for granted the deep social assumptions embedded in advertisements. We do not ordinarily recognize advertising as a sphere of ideology. (Goldman 1992, 2)
Reading advertisements thus gives us information of the social positions that are constructed, the relations that arise and the underlying hegemony that operates, all of which in turn resonate with the viewer.
In order to delve into semiotic analysis, we need to know what constitutes a sign. The idea of sign and the theory attached to it was developed in great length by Ferdinand de Saussure. According to Saussure, a sign constituted a signifier and a signified. The signifier would be the object or concept whereas the signified would be the image or sound attached to it. (Noth 1995)
Gillian Rose in her book Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (2001) discusses Williamson’s project in which two perfume advertisements are analyzed. Both targeting women, uses different qualities to lure in the viewer. Chanel’s advertisement consists of a close up of the actress Catherine Denevue aligned with the bottle, bringing in ideas of elegance, feminine grace and sophistication. Babe, on the other hand, portrays Margaux Hemmingway in a dynamic leaping stance, signaling youth. The actresses are specifically mentioned as the personal attributes or the general perception of these actresses adds to the larger narrative. Consequently, one can also view this polarity as capitalizing on different aspects of femininity. This difference is essential as the product is ultimately the same.
As she points out, actually there’s very little difference between the products that advertisers aim to sell, so advertisers have to create difference. Thus two bottles of perfume are sold not only in terms of what they apparently are (sophisticated or youthful) but also in terms of what they apparently are not (youthful or sophisticated). (Rose 2001, 87)
In this paper, we will attempt something of a similar nature as we analyze advertisements for Old Spice’s male grooming products, how their narrative plays on the idea of the perfect man and ‘achieving’ perfection through their products.
Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
Old Spice’s ‘The Man your Man could Smell Like’ advertising campaign was a successful strategy that capitalized on the very difference mentioned above. We will be discussing two advertisements under the campaign including the introductory ad ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ and ‘Questions’, both lasting thirty three seconds. Unlike other advertisements that choose to portray a ‘realistic’ narrative, these advertisements act as an open text: ripe for interpretation and filled with signs.
Both ads are compact with the narrative becoming more and more fantastical and absurd as it progresses. The monologue is structured to recall a response from the audience and is directly targeting the audience as well. The man in question is Isaiah Mustafa, a former football player with a toned physique. The camera moves along with him, acting as our eyes into his world. The audience’s familiarity with the actor is crucial as it is through this connection that the audience gets lured into the world of signs. He is a signifier for the numerous qualities Old Spice wishes to endorse. The desirable qualities of Mustafa are transferred to Old Spice products and women, the target audience wishes for the transfer of the same to their male partners.
The introductory advertisement ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ begins with Isaiah Mustafa looking straight into the camera, shirtless and in a bathroom with only a towel on, showing his muscular body, maintaining eye contact throughout. Starting with ‘Hello Ladies’, he moves on to a series of short quips that serve as orders rather than comments: ‘Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me’. These are followed by comparisons: the audience’s supposed partners who don’t measure up to him as well as their products(ladies scented bodywash) which don’t measure up to Old Spice. This is continued by more commands that constantly demand your attention. These commands are meant to be fast paced and disorienting coupled with constantly changing scenery. This in turn forces the viewer to turn to the visuals for respite. The images seem absurd and unconnected but are strategically planned. The setting, the increasing close-up and his half-nakedness make the atmosphere seem intimate, an idea which is extended to his relationship with the viewer. He seems unfazed by the changing scenery in the background, giving off an air of confidence and ownership. It is when he brings to focus, the bottle of Old Spice body wash that the scenery changes. His appearance too changes as he dons a blue scarf and white cargoes, walking on a yacht. The costume and yacht are signifiers of wealth, usually attributed to the rich white male. The scenery change with the introduction of Old Spice indicates that the consumer’s life too would change with the same.
The bottle of body wash in his hand gets replaced by ‘an oyster with two tickets to the thing you love’ which then becomes diamonds. This scene achieves two objectives: denoting that the Old Spice man is well aware of what a woman desires, albeit stereotypical, as well as showing that he’s capable of fulfilling her needs. The ad ends with full shot of him riding a horse, yet again a symbol of wealth and virility.
The second ad ‘Questions’ is a follow up both literally and chronologically as it opens where it left. Mustafa stands in a tropical setting, a shower next to him, reinforcing the product in hand. The monologue follows a similar pattern as the one before varying slowly. His gaze is fixated on the camera, symbolizing confidence, trustworthiness and a personal connection with the audience. The scene then shifts to an exotic setting with a waterfall in the background. His words serve as anchorage, connecting the experience of using Old Spice to exoticism, adventure and nature. The rawness of the woods can be connected to the untamed masculine aura that he exudes and which the audience would like to emulate. After a series of unbelievable events, the ad ends with Mustafa in a Jacuzzi that breaks to reveal him sitting on a motorcycle, wearing jeans. The jeans and the motorcycle together symbolize passion and desire.
Conclusion: The danger of signs
The Old Spice ads were part of marketing campaign to revive Old Spice’s authority in the male grooming products market. Overshadowed by brands like Axe which lured their consumers with provocative women, rugged men and the promise of ‘getting laid’, Old Spice lost out on the younger audience. (Khan n.d.) Entrusted with revamping the image of Old Spice, Weiden and Kennedy, an ad agency did its research. They realized that much of male grooming products were largely bought by women who shopped for their men, and finalized on their target audience. Secondly, they created an advertisement that was as ridiculous and as symbolic as possible to distinguish themselves from the stream of narrative based advertisements flooding the market then.
Old Spice’s ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ campaign is an active acknowledgment as well embrace of the semiotics that goes behind creating an advertisement. However it can also be the perfect campaign to display the negatives of using semiotic analysis to both create an advertisement as well as to critique the end result.
The Old Spice ads choose to highlight the qualities over the actual product itself. While the campaign ended in better sales, it is a gamble and could have remained an artistic endeavor, not entirely connecting with the audience. They have pitted ladies scented body wash against Old Spice while appealing to a female audience. A feminist critique, especially of much of their print ads will reveal the display of power imbalances.
The critique of semiotic analysis here largely lies in the samples chosen for the analysis. As compared to other modes of critique, the pattern of choosing comes off as random. The samples chosen are chosen in such a way that they support the argument and do not leave room for failure. This can come off as biased. Even I chose these two ads knowing they could be interpreted better semiotically as compared to other ads of the same product.
Saussurean semiotics while stating the arbitrary relation between the signifier and signified, does not help in an analysis where there are too many meanings to pick from. The multitude of meanings does require a certain level of expertise to know which to pick. As a result, semiotic analysis not only relies on the individual’s interpretive capabilities but can also come off as intellectually elitist. (Sturrock 1986) Also, visual and iconic semiotics has not received the same amount of in-depth research as linguistic semiotics. Berger comments:
…in its concern for the relationship of elements and production of meaning in a text, it ignores the quality of the work itself. That is, semiotics is not really concerned with art, but rather with meaning and modes of cognition. (Berger 2011, 37)
Finally, semiotic analysis focuses purely on the signs and not on the institutions that produce them. While we can argue that the success of certain signs over others inform us of the dominant codes that exist within the society and the hegemonic relations they possess, there is no acknowledgement of the power structures that help produce meaning. The usage of Isaiah Mustafa could be argued as a fetishization and objectification of the fit, African American physique for commercial purposes through psychoanalysis.
Semiology with its extensive vocabulary, lack of a definitive framework, obscuration of concepts and distancing of the analysis from ‘reality’ makes it a difficult and unreliable field to work in. The unreliability could be attributed to the instability of the signs themselves. Thus semiotic analysis alone could pose its interpreter certain negatives despite the wealth of ‘hidden’ knowledge it offers.
- Berger, Arthur Asa. 2011. Media Analysis Techniques. Washington DC: SAGE Publications.
- Goldman, Robert. 1992. Reading Ads Socially. London: Routledge.
- Khan, Rohaid. http://www.scribd.com/doc/15308205/Old-Spice-History-by-rohaid-khan.
- Noth, Winfried. 1995. Handbook of Semiotics. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
- Old Spice. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”. YouTube video, 0:32. February 5, 2010. https://youtu.be/uLTIowBF0kE
- Old Spice. “Questions”. YouTube video, 0:32. June 30, 2010. https://youtu.be/owGykVbfgUE
- Rose, Gillian. 2001. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd.
- Sturrock, John. 1986. Structuralism. London: Palladin.