This is an assignment on the topic of semiotics, study of signs, which I completed during my MA in Women And Gender Studies. I have briefly mentioned Ferdinand De Saussure’s work on semiotics, followed by feminist analysis and interpretation of the print advertisement by the brand brand ‘Trussardi My Name – The new fragrance for women’ in light of Roland Barthes work on semiotics.

Assignment:

Find any image based perfume/cologne advertisement in any magazine or newspaper. Provide a photocopy of the advertisement along with the source as part of your assignment response. With the help of your understanding of semiotics provided in Block 1 of the course, critically analyze aspects of the advertisement from a feminist semiotic perspective.

Feminist interpretation of print advertisement (ad) by the brand ‘Trussardi My Name – The new fragrance for women’ published in Outlook Splurge, December 2015.

The ad covers a full page featuring the face of a female model. The bottle of the perfume is placed on the right side of the model with captions ‘Trussardi My Name’ written in bold stylish fonts on top of it and the sub-title ‘The New Fragrance for Women’ written at the bottom in light fonts.

It is said that the purpose of consumerism and advertisement is to make you wish to buy things you don’t need. The purpose of the present ad is to give a message to the readers, potential female consumers which would compel to buy the perfume or at least aspire for it. The cost of the perfume as per online retail websites is around INR 5000. How could a simple photo of a woman’s face convey such complex message that the target audience would be ready to shell out a large amount of money over a perfume?

The answer lies in semiotics or the study of signs. Semiotics is defined as the branch of communication theory that studies the various signs used by human to communicate. Ferdinand De Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce are the two major proponents of Semiotics. Their work was followed by Structuralism scholars like Roman Jakobson, Levis Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva all of whom used semiotics and linguistics to analyse and understand various fields of study, interpret cultural data, gender and sexuality and so on.

I personally find Roland Barthes and John Berger’s work the most useful in understanding the common tropes and motifs in the advertising world through feminist lens. Before analysing the ad in light of Barthes’ work, I would briefly mention Saussure’s work on semiotics.

Signifier + Signified – Sign

According to Saussure words and symbols have no meaning on their own and they only make sense within a system or convention. He argued that sings consist of two parts, signifier and signified. The signifier is the material aspect the particular sound or word we create and the signified is the image that builds up in our mind when we hear that word. For e.g. when we say the word ‘Cat’ the image of an animal we know as cats comes to our mind, here Cat is the signifier and the creature is the signified.

Saussure observed that there is no real and direct connection between the signifier and the signified and the relation between the two is arbitrary. The word Tree for example doesn’t carry any direct reference to the physical appearance or existence of tree. We could call the Tree a Table. Similarly, we could call the cat as pen. But it is through convention of a collective system, that we accept the meaning of the words ‘tree’ or ‘cat’.

Further the relation between signifier and signified is that of differential. Which means every sign derives its meaning by virtue of being different. The signifier Cat refers to the creature cat because it does not refer to a dog or anything else.  Thus, we understand words and signs in this relational and differential system, and they do not correspond to any meaning outside the system.

Saussure’s theory added nuance to the linear idea that symbols = Signs. Rather, he noted that sign = signifier / signified. Saussure made a relation between language (langue) and speech (parole) and proposed that when we speak, we do not use language, we use speech. He emphasized that speech makes sense because of an underlying system of the language which is one of the most supreme system or code.

Charles Sanders Pierce is the other major proponent of semiotics and is the person who actually used the word semiotics while Saussure used the word ‘semiology’. Pierce’s work adds a third dimension to the theory of signs, that is the interpretation of the signifier and signified. Pierce observed signs have three aspects 1) the signifier or Representatum 2) the object or signified in Saussure’s words referent 3) Interpretent or thesystem in which we understand the sign (Read more here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce-semiotics/#Int).

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) took the study of Semiotics to a larger audience by applying the principles of semiotics and linguistics by Saussure and Pierce to interpret cultural values and norms. In “Structural Study of Myths” (1955) he studied American mythology to and stated that myths across several culture have a commonality because they are located in a shared structure. This can then be applied to all other aspects of human existence from culture, sexual relations, taboos, marriage and kinship, social hierarchies, legal systems, art, architecture, fashion, societal values, morality, ethics, and so on. Semiotics can be used to understand almost every aspect of human anthropology.

French philosophers Roland Barthes carried forward Strauss’s work to advertising industry. In his work Mythologies (1957) Barthes analysed several images and motifs from popular culture and advertising industry and deconstructed them to find underlying meanings. According to Barthes there is an underlying cultural meaning or a mythological meaning to the ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’. These mythical meanings are used to create myth which are usually the dominant ideologies of the dominant class. Certain images or words or symbols may seem simple and innocent but when socio political or historical contexts are added to the symbol the resulting meaning becomes a myth, a way to reinforce a dominant idea.

Roland Barthes, Metalanguage in Indian advertising industry

Applying Roland Barthes’ theory in the Indian advertisement industry we’d would observe several such myths. Cosmetics companies manufacturing Fairness creams over the years have crated the myth that in order to be successful and happy women must be fair.

Barthes concept of ‘Metalanguage’, a language which is used to manipulate everyday language, maybe used to understand the perfume ad we are presently concerned with. According to Barthes in everyday language the signifier is the meaning, but in metalanguage it becomes the form.

In the present image the face of the woman is the signifier and the signified is the product the ‘perfume’ the relation between the two being ‘a product for women’. But applying the metalanguage at the level of myth we can find underlying meaning to the image, which has now become a form, leading to questions like what kind of women, what is her identity, social status, what the perfume does for her?

The model is looking directly at the camera with her head slightly tilted forward while a sharp eye contact is maintained with the viewer. The face is shown in close up, so her body is not visible except a little bit portion of her neck. She is wearing a beige colour shirt with collars. She has very messy hair, which are also blowing in the air, giving her a careless and carefree look. She is not wearing any jewellery and not carrying any other accessories like purse, scarf, sunglasses etc. Her make up is subtle and her lips are slightly parted. Nothing much is visible in the background, but from the lights, it may be assumed that the photo is taken outdoors.

The Trussardi Ad is a positive departure from usual perfume ads:

  • The model is not shown to be naked (Obsession, Calvin Klien, Gucci Guilty) or scantily clothed (Armani, Code). As a matter of fact, her body is completely out of the scene and the focus is entirely on her face with her eyes and lips being the most attractive feature.
  • Unlike other brands the name of the product does not have sexual connotations like Obsession, Guilty, Seduction etc.
  • The woman is alone in the photo, and she is looking at the viewer. Since the ad is targeted at female audience the image is a woman to woman communication.
  • She is neither in a man’s arm nor does she appear to be concerned about ‘keeping a man’ as theorised by John Berger in his work ‘Ways of Seeing (2008)’.
  • The calmness in her posture even as a gush of wind blows towards her making the hair messy conveys that she is not concerned about surveying herself to maintain her beauty.
  • Unlike most ads, the lighting is not too dark overtly implying a bedroom set up rather it seems she is outdoor under the sun. This breaks the public private space segregation, and signifies a woman on the move, perhaps a traveller, who always smells great.
  • The forward tilt of her head while maintaining eye contact and slightly parted lips make her appear strong, confident, unabashed and flirtatious which is reminiscence of one of America’s most popular male TV icon Dr Gregory House. This sort of mix of confidence, sexuality and unapologetic attitude are mostly attributed to men while women in perfume ads are shown as sex objects in man’s control.                          

The above significant departure from usual perfume ads is a symbol or signifier which signifies the new age perfume by the brand ‘My Name’ for modern women. The model is the signifier, and the identity of a strong, confident, independent sexually empowered woman is signified.

On the apparent side there seems a positive change in the way women are depicted in perfume ads. However, one must be cautious of being too positive about the consumerism culture and its chief weapon advertising. According to John Berger we see sings before we read words, and how we see things is determined by our existing knowledge and pre-conceived notions. Perhaps I have seen this ad in much positive light because of my own position of privilege and because I know a lot of women who are strong and independent. But as Berger illustrated through study of European oil paintings of female nudes that women are always taught to survey themselves to be appreciated by men, so in the painting they are seen looking at themselves at mirror or looking at an observer looking at them. Interpreting in that light, this present image might signify a woman of the selfie generation highly conscious of her appearance and the direct eye contact with the camera might be a way of looking at her own-image through the smart phone’s front camera. Her unkempt hair may signify wild sex appeal and the perfume eventually is a ploy to attract man’s attention.  

As it would seem an image would remain open to multiple interpretations all very different from each other and thus it is reaffirmed that words and symbols do not have inherent meaning and their meaning is understood in the convention or culture.