Anne Frances Wysocki (awysocki) wrote,
Anne Frances Wysocki

discussing Decoding Advertisements

We started with a little background in structuralism, as a way into understanding where semiotics comes from and the matters it considers important: structures. Yes, well.

And then we looked at how Williamson introduces semiotic terminology bit by bit, building a complex system of relations among the terms but also then, necessarily, building more and more complex systems for analysis -- which leads into the question of how much the system itself calls into play the dense ideological structures Williamson says we can never escape.

But that may be moving too quickly to the end of our discussion.

From the beginning, we all could see that the Williamson book does build, does have its own structure: Williams starts from the notion of difference as the base semiotic notion -- that we have language only because we define terms by considering something in its differences from other things -- to the notion of sign, to sign as signifier and signified, to the idea that a signifier-signified pair can itself be a signifier for another signified, to the idea that such layering become referent systems, all of which only point within or to each other. And so what is denoted is never "natural" or "real," but only ever, finally, the product being sold. We are caught up, then, in formal structures that only ever point at, circle about and within, other structures.

As we talked, we came to see and understand that Williamson's initial set of example ads depend completely on a particular type of ad, one in which there are two objects, with the qualities of one object transferring to another. In questioning how Williamson's structural analyses might work on more recent advertising (Alexa brought up the ongoing Absolut series of ads, for example, which depend on audience knowledge of the series) we talked about how Williamson's system of 1978 relied on then-available ads -- but Williamson would be ready with reply to newer ads: she could extend aspects of the structure she builds (such as the notion of how hermeneutics works in advertising ["by being given something to decipher, our comprehension is channeled in one direction only" 78], as well as her understanding of the purposes of advertising to build always internally-facing referent systems, to speak of the referent system of Absolut ads as building off audience desire to be in the know -- but the know is not something outside the system, and instead is completely inside the system, completely self-referential. Williamson would probably have a field day.

But it was questioning like that that led us to name a concern with Williamson's approach. Williamson acknowledges the powers of advertising because of these self-referential systems she describes, these systems that hold us within them so that there seems to be no outside, such that we "become signified by, and then summarized by, things": we become -- we are -- the "sum of [our] consumer goods" (179). Williamson also acknowledges the "danger in structural analysis, because of its introversion and lack of context" (178). That is, structural analysis (as Williamson presents it) is just as circular, system-building, and therefore all-inclusive of itself, as advertising: which begets the other?

There is a sense of defeat about the book, a pessimistic giving-in to the all inclusiveness of the system: Williamson ends by saying that the value of learning to decode isn't learning the code but learning to change the system. How is that ever possible if the system is -- by its very definition -- all-encompassing? But Alexa's question also led us to question how changes in ads come about, how changes in -- for example -- conceptions of male and female come about (because the first perfume ad we could find was for man scents), or changes in technological systems that shift what is advertised and how. The system of advertising is *not* cut off from other systems -- technological, cultural, geographic, gender, ethnicities -- and so ought not be discussed outside those other systems. What sort of semiotic analyses would help us with such extensions? (And would they only build bigger and even more inescapable structures?)

Other questions that appeared as we discussed, and to which we ought to return:

  • How would you use a semiotic visual methodology in teaching undergraduate courses like Revisions or Tech Comm? What use would there be for people in your classes in such teaching? What would you emphasize? What cautions would you give?

  • Semiotic analysis (as Williamson presents it) is a form of compositional analysis, by definition: it focuses on how ads are composed. Whereas Bang, Dondis, or Arnheim appeal to (an ideology of) the universal body as the explanation of why visual compositions work, Williamson appeals to ideology itself. How is Williamson's approach NOT an example of teaching people to have a "good eye" (to follow Rose's critique) -- with the "good eye" here being one that judges visuals not in terms of beauty but rather in terms of late twentieth century academic critiques of bad consciousness?

  • Given that Williamson's system depends on transfer of meaning among different signifier/signified pairs, how applicable is such a system to other kinds of visual genres (film, plays, TV shows) where there rarely are -- as in advertising -- present at the same time such sr-sd pairs? Or do we need to shift what we consider to be the sr-sd pairs?

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