Layers of Meaning: The Use of Symbolism in Advertising
The purpose of this thesis is to explore the depths of symbolic advertising and how we react to it. Symbolism is an amazing phenomenon that possesses the ability to appeal to us at an unconscious level and can inspire within us emotion, ideas and contemplation. However, with such positive traits come also many flaws. It is debatable whether or not a particular symbol will convey the same meaning to everybody, or even to two people. In this thesis, I will look at both sides of the argument in detail, using visual examples.
Chapter 1: Symbols – What are they ?
The first chapter will deal with the complicated phenomenon of symbols. Definitions, in conjunction with theories will be presented in an attempt to clarify the nature of the symbol for the lay-person. Several visual examples will be analysed and their symbolic value demonstrated. The origins of visual symbols will be discussed with reference to the earliest historic examples we have on record, and comparisons will be drawn between them and their modern day equivalents. The area of personal, cultural and universal interpretation will also be introduced.
Chapter 2: Symbolism in Advertising – An Analysis of Symbolic Ads
The second chapter will analyse examples of deeply layered advertising and will show how symbols are used in conjunction with one another to create these layers of meaning. I will consider how the various layers impact on us, from our first immediate reaction right down to our subconscious interpretations. I will present a guide to deconstruction, which breaks the layers of meaning of a piece into five distinct sections. The intention of the designer will be compared to the interpreted meaning of the ad and it will be shown why some symbolic ads are successful, and others are not. I will take a brief look at the ethics of the advertising industry today and what motivates the production of symbolic advertising.
Chapter 3: Public Perception and the Effectiveness of Symbols in Advertising
The final chapter will place an emphasis on public perception. Based on the research of Dr. Richard Taflinger, I will explain how symbolic advertising appeals to our unconscious human desires by using psychological appeals. The effects of such blatant manipulation will be discussed and judged. A small-scale test will be conducted to ascertain whether or not certain symbols are universally understood. Six ads will be shown to eight people of various cultural backgrounds and their interpretations recorded and analysed. The benefits and drawbacks of using symbols to convey meaning in advertising will be examined and consideration will be given to its effectiveness at both national and international levels.
Should symbols be used in advertising? The answer, like most things in life, is neither black nor white. I personally feel that symbols should be used, but they should be used carefully. Certain symbols do possess universally understood meanings, and so these can be used for time immemorial. However, the vast majority of symbols are transient. Their meanings change as society changes and time goes on. Designers using symbols in advertising need to have their finger firmly on the pulse and be aware of changing trends. For me, symbolic advertising is the ultimate form of visual communication, and the best way to convey meaning to humanity.
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine an image of a bird with its wings spread, flying high in the sky. What does this image mean to you ? What did it make you think of ? The answer, for most inhabitants of the Western world, is ‘freedom.’ The image of a carefree bird soaring high above all earthly problems has come to symbolise freedom in Western culture. But would that same image have the same meaning to someone raised in China ? In this Thesis, I intend to show how practical it is to use Symbolism in advertising. What is the function of advertising ? The sole function, in my opinion, is persuasion. Advertising exists primarily to persuade and entice people to buy a particular product over another or behave in a certain way. And how do advertisers achieve this ? I think it depends greatly on the target market they are aiming to affect. They could use humour, or the straight-talking informative approach. Or, they can try to be clever – to make the viewer stop and think for a minute. The latter usually involves the use of symbolism in one form or another.
But, what is symbolism ? Chambers’ dictionary describes it as “the use of symbols to express ideas.” So, what is a symbol ? Well, opinion varies on this point, but it is generally agreed that a symbol, in visual terms, is an image that has layers of meaning or implied connotations above and beyond its surface value. For example, an image of a red rose is a picture of a flower that most of us would recognise, but it is also a symbol of love and romance. We do not need to be told that the rose represents romance because we have learned to associate it with this meaning through repetition and time. But how do certain objects come to symbolise particular meanings ? This can happen in many ways. Some cultures will reenact an activity that has occurred out of respect and through time it will become a tradition, and so, certain objects will come to be associated with this activity, and will become symbols of it. For example, a decorated pine tree has become a symbol of Christmas. Due to globalisation, the world has become a smaller place, in advertising terms. Because of this, symbols have become more important in the industry in the latter half of the 20th Century and beyond, than ever before.
The greatest flaw when dealing with symbols is that it is an impossibility for every human being to attach the same meaning to a particular object. Many factors influence this, such as geography, culture, class or personal experiences. On the other hand, within certain cultures where particular symbols are widely understood, they can be used in extremely clever and original ways and can make people stop and think. In this Thesis, I will analyse this phenomenon to the best of my abilitites and demonstrate the practicality of using symbolism in advertising.
Symbols represent an idea or concept. For example, the heart symbol represents love, something that is ethereal; we cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell it. It is an ideogram symbol because it does not physically resemble what it denotes.What is a symbol ? To answer this question, I must first give a description of Semiology – the study of signs. Semiology is most often associated with linguistics, but it extends far beyond this to focus on all modes of signifying systems, for example, music, hairstyles, kitchen recipes and of course, graphic images. To understand fully exactly what a symbol is, we must first answer the fundamental question: what is a sign ? A sign is anything that possesses meaning. It is made up of two parts – the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. In simple terms, the ‘signifier’ is the physical representation of the sign, for example, the image itself, and the ‘signified’ is what this image refers to, that is, its meaning. The signifier is empty, that is, it cannot work on its own, because if the signified was not understood, the signifier would be completely devoid of meaning. Now that we appreciate what a sign is, we can delve a little deeper.
There are three fundamental classes of signs – the icon, the index and the symbol. An icon is a literal representation of something, as we see it, translated into a two-dimensional drawing. The relation between the signifier and the signified is based on physical resemblance. If the icon is poorly represented because of inept draughtsmanship or rendering, then recognition fails. An index is a sign where there is an anticipated follow-on event or activity, which we are aware of because of past experience. For example, smoke is an index of fire; a knock on the door is an index of someone’s presence; rain is an index of wetness. The relationship between signifier and signified is sequential and causal. Finally, a symbol is a representation of an idea that acquires a widely agreed upon meaning through common usage. It is a visible way to represent the invisible. A symbol implies an emotion or thought in addition to its obvious and immediate significance when placed before a particular audience. The relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary and conventional, that is, the meaning is dependent on learning the relationship. A symbol stands for something. For example, roses symbolise passion; a closed fist stands for defiance or aggression. A symbol is visually precise; it attempts to get at the essence of an idea through visual metaphor. A symbol can give an identity to a subject and, by repeated use, can come to equal it. No matter how simplified the visual representation, if it is used in the appropriate context, the meaning will be understood. Whether rendered in simple black lines or lavishly illustrated and painstakingly painted, if the symbol is universally recognised then so will be its meaning understood.
Symbols represent an idea or concept. For example, the heart symbol represents love, something that is ethereal; we cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell it. It is an ideogram symbol because it does not physically resemble what it denotes.
However, it does bear a resemblance to the human heart, an easily recognised icon, but its additional meanings transcend it into the realm of the symbol. If a symbol bears no resemblance to any easily recognised object, it is called non-pictorial. The following examples fall into this category.
The Yin-Yang is an old Chinese symbol that represents the universe and has become integrated in Western ideography. It illustrates the two opposing dimensions that give the universe its dynamics – Yang and Yin – positive and negative. Yang represents the energy, activity, warmth and spirit elements and Yin represents the passive, receiving, recipient, malleable and matter elements.
There exists nothing that is totally Yin or all Yang. Nothing in life is black and white. This fact is symbolised by the presence of the small white circle in the black yin field and the small black circle in the white Yang field.
Today the X symbol is used in a variety of contexts, all with negative connotations. For example, it can mean annulment, confrontation, cancellation, obstruction, unknown, undecided or unsettled. It is an extremely old symbol having been found on the walls of prehistoric caves in Europe, however we cannot be certain that the symbol held the same meaning for Prehistoric man.
The cross is basically the same as the previous symbol but viewed at a 45 degrees angle, however it holds very different meanings. The cross, with arms of equal length is one of the oldest known symbols, also found in prehistoric caves. It was used in most cultures. In Chinese culture it represented perfection. In pre-Columbian America it was associated with the four points of a compass.
The Alchemists used it to represent the four elements, with the point of intersection being the fifth, ethereal element. As a universal symbol, the cross represents the balance between the spiritual and the physical worlds. The vertical beam stands for the heavenly or spiritual while the horizontal represents the material plane of existence.
These examples are symbols in their most basic visual form. They exist solely to communicate a meaning to people. This meaning can be the same whether the image is made up of a few black lines on a piece of paper or a 20 ft tall 3Dimensional metallic structure. In the same way, photographs are often used to convey the meanings of symbols in advertising. For example, an image of a jacket, shirt and tie is a symbol of a formal occasion. This symbol sustains its meaning whether the image is a photograph or hand drawn. So, the medium used to communicate a symbol’s connotations can enhance the image aesthetically, but if the symbol is quite widely understood, the medium becomes relatively unimportant.
As far back as 25000 BC, humans have been using visual symbols to represent ideas. In the prehistoric cave paintings found in Lescaux, Southern France and Altamira in Northern Spain, we find representations of animals and people with highly symbolic significance. We cannot know for sure if our analysis of these symbols is accurate because we know very little of the lifestyle of these cave dwellers. After all, they lived before the advent of the written word. The examples in these caves date from about 25000 BC to approximately 4000 BC and depict Bison, horses and humans with animal like heads as well as unexplainable abstract graphic designs.
One of the bison is painted 18 ft long and other are painted in innumerable groups, in comparison to the pictures of humans, which are painted much smaller, less detailed and in fewer numbers. It could be suggested that the bison was one of the cave-dwellers’ most respected and feared adversaries at the time and so they were painted so large to symbolise their power over the humans. Today the meaning would have changed. No human would want to have to face off to a bison, but we now know that we have ways to control them, to keep them caged up, and we have weapons to defend ourselves, so we no longer fear or respect them.
As times change, so too will the ways in which symbols are represented. A symbol acquires its meaning as a result of a feeling, thought or event experienced by a person or people, and its meaning is sustained through common reference to the meaning when the visual representation is seen. Some symbols have universal meaning. For example, a mother and child image will always symbolise safety, love and protection to the vast majority of people.
The heart symbol will always represent love because we can all agree that this emotion is felt through our heart. An image of two holding hands universally represents solidarity, togetherness, respect, love. Such symbols will always have the same meaning because they are instinctive human activities that are experienced by all. Symbols can also be created intentionally. In the world of Graphic Design, many advertisements use established symbols to convey their meaning. Most logos, however are not symbols. They merely trigger a memory of what their company wants you to think of them, a reminder of what has been drummed into the minds of the public through wave after wave of advertising campaign. However, some logos are symbols. These are ones that have a deeper meaning or connotation in addition to their obvious and immediate significance. The following example falls into this category.
This logo is quite obviously a graphic of a cinema ticket and so we presume it has something to do with films. What nudges the image into the class of being a symbol, are the layers of meaning within it. In addition to its obvious reference to the world of acting, upon closer inspection, we see that the tear in the ticket is in the shape of two human faces, one black, one white.
This humanises the symbol and leads to suggestions that the organisation is one where all kinds of people are welcome. Finally, the word ‘PASS’, written on the ticket, in addition to its obvious meaning, doubles up to abbreviate the name of the organisation – ‘Performing Arts ServiceS.’ An ingenious visual symbol.
Symbols can have three kinds of association and often have all three.
Personal : We all have associations with things in our own experience. One person may have strong affection for dogs while another may fear them intensely because of some experience in their past.
Cultural : Different symbols may have quite different meanings in different cultures. A lion can represent Christ in Christian culture; in Sumerian culture, the god Marduck, is symbolised by the sun; in Egypt the sun represents the god, Ra. In Chinese culture, dogs represent devotion, loyalty and faithfulness; in Islamic culture they represent impurity.
Universal : Jungian psychology, along with other theories argues that some symbols have universal meaning to all human beings. This, of course, is impossible to prove. An example that could be used is that of a lion, which suggests deity in a variety of very different cultures.
Symbols represent ideas. To ‘represent’ means to bring before us something that is not there – the memory of that something. In the experiments of Pavlov, a dog was trained to expect dinner after a bell was rung. The dog would begin to drool when he heard the bell. For this dog, the bell became a symbol of dinner. Once a symbol has been learned, the memories that we associate with it take on special importance – they are the meaning of the symbol. Once we’ve learned a symbol, we can use it to receive and transmit its symbolic meaning, assuming that the people on the other end associate similar memories for the symbol. This is a big assumption. Each of us acquires a unique inner universe, a kind of frame of reference, which encompasses both the symbols we’ve learned, and their associated meanings and memories. It includes everything we know about the world, our memories, emotional life, and the way we think, learn, play and react. It includes the symbols we know, their meanings and the way we communicate them. For symbolic communication to work, the symbols used and their associated meanings have to reside in the frame of reference of both sender and receiver of the communication.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case and can lead to a conflict of interpretation. Several factors can influence this, from culture and tradition to geography and class. There are two main problems facing someone wishing to use symbols. The first is whether or not the intended audience can recognise the symbols in terms of legibility and familiarity. A white dress in Europe and America is a symbol of a bride on her wedding day but in Asia a white dress is worn to someone’s funeral. Quite a conflict of interpretation there. Secondly, assuming your audience does recognise the symbol, will they connect it with the correct memories or meanings as the designer intended? The meanings of the designer must match the audience’s meanings for a symbol to be successful.
The design of a symbol is extremely important in terms of audience recognition. An image can only be distorted so far before it becomes unrecognisable and the design fails. Here are two visual symbols representing tennis, one of which is successful and one which is not.
In the first image, we easily recognise the tennis ball and subsequently associate the criss-cross design with a tennis racket and so conclude that the symbol represents tennis. In the second symbol, it is not immediately obvious that this is a tennis ball, even though it is exactly the same shape as the tennis ball in the first image. The colours have been reversed and as a result, we do not immediately associate the image with tennis, as we are not accustomed to seeing black tennis balls. The symbol fails because of poor design.
Here are two symbols that could be perceived as having quite similar meanings but which are, in fact logos for two very different businesses. The first is a logo for the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center. It quite simply and efficiently refers to the two sides of a person’s personality. The forehead of both faces is quite prominent, signifying the association of the image to mental health. The second image also portrays two sides of the personality, but is here, more specific. It denotes happy and sad in positive and negative colours. The logo is for the British National Theatre, adopting an original slant on the well-known theatrical symbol of the two masks, comedy and tragedy. In my opinion, both symbols are well designed and although their meanings are similar, the subtle differences in the design efficiently distinguish them.
As we can see from my analysis, symbols are far from being a simple concept to understand. By their very nature, in theory, their meaning could be changing all the time, and they may mean something completely different to a variety of people simultaneously. I feel that symbols possess an ethereal quality that is beyond human comprehension – an almost magical quality. I have attempted to put them into human terms, terms we can understand, for the purposes of this thesis, and in the following chapter I will show how they are used effectively and not so effectively in advertising.
All works of art, including advertisements, contain levels of meaning above and beyond their surface content. To interpret an ad on multiple levels, we must first understand how ‘form’ and ‘content’ work together. The ‘form’ of a piece includes its medium and physical structure as well as its design while the ‘content’ is the subject matter, that is, what is actually shown in the ad. The following is a simple breakdown of the levels of meaning of an ad that can be applied to any work of art.
Firstly, we will deal with the cultural/contextual level, that is, the background information of the piece. We must ask ourselves what we know about the artist/designer and the social/cultural/historic/economic context in which the work was produced. Secondly, we should examine the surface/concrete and thematic level. What is the plot of the ad? What is actually happening in the scene? Are there any formal motifs, for example, unusual language or extremely recognisable symbols? What is the theme of the ad? What does it mean? What immediate message is it trying to convey? The next level of meaning is the imaginative or metaphorical level. Does the plot or thematic idea represent anything that isn’t directly named in the work? Often in symbolic ads, visual metaphor is employed, that is, an object is placed in a situation in which it would not normally be found, and we are asked to make a connection between it and the object we expect to see. The fourth level of meaning is the visionary level. Does the work convey any philosophical, mythical or universal meaning? The fifth, and final level, for the purposes of this thesis, is the symptomatic level. What does the ad reveal about the society or time period in which it was made, or about the person who made it? So the five levels of meaning are :
Cultural / Contextual[ Reference – article on ‘Layers of Meaning: Levels of Interpretation’ by Heather Horn. www.writing.ucsb.edu ]Surface / Thematic
MetaphoricalVisionarySymptomaticIn the following ads, I will identify the symbols and how they are used to convey the ad message, and analyse each piece with reference to its layers of meaning.
This is an awareness ad for a charity hill cycle to raise money for AIDS research. Visually, it is quite simple with one object and a few lines of text. The object is a rusting bicycle chain twisted into the shape of the internationally recognised symbol of the AIDS ribbon. Obviously, the chain is appropriate as the ad is for a hill cycle ride. This ad effectively demonstrates the power of the symbol. Here, visual metaphor is put to good use and we practically know what the ad is about before we read the caption. Communicating a message through imagery is so much more immediate than through written language. A further level of meaning in this ad is the use of a rusting chain as opposed to a well-oiled new one. The designer is drawing a parallel with what happens to AIDS sufferers. Their bodies decay and degenerate. Using the rusting chain to reinforce this idea leaves us with a very striking, harsh, extremely effective image.
This ad for Austin’s Gym employs the technique of visual metaphor to put across its meaning. Here, the pear is a symbol for healthiness. We all know that eating fruit is associated with being healthy and so, using the pear effectively reinforces the idea that going to the gym is a way to be more healthy. A further layer of meaning is attached to the piece with the ‘before’ pear symbolising an unhealthy, fat person with all their weight in the wrong places. The ‘after’ pear, however, demonstrates the benefits of attending ‘Austin’s Gym’, symbolising a muscular, toned physique and all-round healthiness. This ad works because the symbols are easily recognisable, and it is clever because its full meaning may not be instantly obvious, but when the penny drops it is very satisfying for the viewer.
This is an ad for I Nuovi Cosmetic’s Autumn collection of lipstick. It is a relatively straightforward piece, but potently clever in its directness. The symbol here is the red leaf, which, for all, is synonymous with Autumn-time. The message they are trying to convey here is that their Autumn collection is so intertwined with Autumn itself that it would be unimaginable to experience this season without wearing I Nuovi lipstick. In the ad, a pair of luscious lips have been superimposed onto the image of the leaf so that, depending on which way you look at it, you see either one or the other. It is a double meaning image similar to those of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. Another suggestion made by the ad is that your lips will be the most noticeable aspect of your features, if you use their product.
This suggestion is made by the empty space surrounding the leaf-lips. On a universal level, the ad is making a psychological appeal to the subconscious human need for self-esteem. That is, our desire to be seen as beautiful. The ad is offering beauty, if you use the advertised product. On a symptomatic level, what does this ad say about society? Perhaps it is putting society in a pretty grim light of petty self-indulgence, vanity and shallowness. If one finds it necessary to have a certain type of lipstick to correspond to the current season, does it not also suggest a degree of gullibility?
When an Art Director comes up with a concept for an ad, she has many things to consider. The eventual outcome should result in an ad that communicates the message intended by the designer in an efficient way. The viewer should come away from a piece enlightened as to what the Designer wanted them to know. And, of course, one of the most powerful tools of advertising, is the power of suggestion. Advertisers appeal to our subconscious, psychological desires, which are shared by all human beings and will be discussed further in chapter 3. Always, there must be, however, a margin for error. An ad is a piece of art as much as a poem or a painting and so, it is open to individual interpretation. This is something a designer has little control over. On top of this allowance for interpretation, add another level of difficulty for the designer – if symbols are used in an ad, there is a risk that their meaning will escape the viewer. It takes a brave Art Director to use symbols in an ad, as they are putting themselves and their client on the line, and it could go either way. If the symbols are not understood, the ad is a failure, but if they are comprehended, then they will be more memorable to the viewer than any other type of ad could be, as people feel that they have been touched on a personal level; that someone else associates the same meaning with a particular object as they do. I do not believe there is a more effective way to help someone to remember an ad. The following ads contain several layers of meaning and rely on symbols to convey these messages to us. I feel the symbols in these ads are quite effective, but still leave a certain amount of room for misinterpretation.
Here we have an ad for an American law firm, Womble & Carlyle. The first impression gained from this piece is a comedic one. It seems an amusing image to see a bulldog strapped to a parachute. The bulldog itself is the symbol here representing viciousness, strength, aggressiveness and tenacity. The firm wish to be associated with these traits. Dogs are also reknowned for loyalty, flexibility, obedience, gentleness and being man’s best friend. Womble & Carlyle want to have their cake and eat it with this ad. They are hoping that all the positive traits of the bulldog will come to be associated with them. The connotations of the symbol of a bulldog mentioned above are all quite widely recognised and understood so, in this way, the ad could be a success.
However, they are forgetting that dogs are also known as basically dirty creatures and bulldogs are regarded as being overly violent, both of which would not be beneficial traits for any law firm to be associated with. Also, I can’t help but feel that the idea of the bulldog being aggressive is somewhat muted by the fact that he is shown here in a comic light, helplessly suspended from a set of strings. Despite these drawbacks, I still feel the ad is successful.
17.There are several layers of meaning in operation in this awareness ad for safe sex. Perhaps some of the meanings were unintentional, as they do not seem to aid the cause in any way. First of all, we are dealing with a visual metaphor here; the sock is in place of a condom. The first message given from this concealing of the condom image, is that sex is a taboo and should be hidden. Perhaps an unintentional message? Secondly, replacing a condom with a sock hardly does any favours for the cause of promoting the use of condoms. Already, it is widely agreed that sex with condoms is at least slightly more unpleasant than sex without them and I feel that associating condoms with smelly feet will not convince many more people to use them.
Socks are worn to protect our feet and make us more comfortable and so, here, these traits are transferred to a condom. The third message is very effective. We see a single sock. We can’t help but wonder who it belongs to. Perhaps an AIDS victim who has died… When viewed in this light, the ad portrays a stark, sobering message about the importance of using protection. The single, discarded sock becomes a symbol for somebody who has lost the battle against AIDS through their own carelessness. However, the ad is wide open for misinterpretation.
All of these ads and advertising itself, exist for only one reason: to influence people. As it is the human mind that advertising is dealing with, its only scientific basis is psychology. When advertising began, it was widely believed and accepted that consumers were rational creatures and that, given information about the product and reasons why it should be purchased, they would respond appropriately. Of course, today we know this not to be true. Walter Dill Scott, a respected theorist and writer, was one of the first to realise this, and certainly the most influential person in changing the industry to appeal less to people’s understanding and more to their wishes and desire.
According to an article by Robert Wozniak, Scott believed that every normal person was subject to the influence of suggestion, and that suggestion, not reason was the primary determinant of human action. The idea was to maximise the power of suggestion in advertising and minimise the possibility of raising interfering thoughts within the viewer. Psychological functions such as memory, feeling, sympathy, instinctive action, volition, habit and attention were the main targets for manipulation. To make an advert memorable, there are four very important principles that must be employed: Repetition, intensity, association value and ingenuity. With regard to feeling, it was discovered that if we are made to feel uncomfortable, we become defensive, refuse to receive suggestion, are not easily influenced and are in a suspicious attitude towards everything that is proposed. So, to be successful, an ad must elicit pleasure in the reader. If there is a high degree of perceived similarity between those pictured in an ad and the reader, sympathy will be felt and there will be a higher likelihood that the ad will influence the reader through the power of suggestion.
When advertising a product, the most fundamental aim is to induce the public to get into the habit of using this particular product over another, and to keep them using it. “To establish a habit, advertising must be extensive; to maintain the habit, it must be continued.” Basically, advertising is a tool to influence people into doing something that they probably would not have done on their own. Is this ethical? The consumer still retains the right to make a final decision by themselves, so I believe there is nothing ethically wrong with the advertising industry. People influence us all the time in our daily lives. It is up to us to make the final choice. Advertising can be a form of peer pressure but everyone has the ability to stand up for themselves. If we do not have the courage to stand up for our opinions and make our own decisions, we do not deserve to have the final choice. Luckily for the advertising industry, the world is full of people who want others to make up their minds for them. And so, the industry flourishes.
Following are two symbolic ads that I feel are outstanding in their use of symbols to put across their message. Each ad contains several layers of meaning.
This is an ad for Settebetto Indian style Italian food. They produce pasta, spaghetti etc. with Indian style flavourings, sauces and spices. The first impression one might take from this image is that it seems like a hallucination or a dream-vision; certainly not something we would be accustomed to seeing in every day life. This gives the product an air of mystery; a feeling that it is something a little different. The spaghetti string is the symbol here. It represents Italy and Italian food and doubles up as an image of an Indian snake-charmer’s snake, rising from the pot. The snake symbol has a further level of meaning in that it is suggesting that the spaghetti is so good for you, the consumer will be charmed by its quality. Also, snakes are reknowned for their bite, so the suggestion is made that this food has more ‘bite’ than other similar foods. The symbol’s success, however, is reliant on the assumption that the viewer is familiar with the image of an Indian snake charmer.
This is an ad for the Young Master’s Golf Cup 2000 which was sponsored by McDonalds. We see a golf ball, which has been dissected into three sections. It is placed on a green background, obviously representing the grass of the golf green. The golf ball itself is a symbol for the Golf tournament, but in its divided form, it is obviously a reference to a McDonalds hamburger. This image is so rooted in Western culture that even in a distorted form, it is immediately recognisable. Certain other icons possess this ability, such as Mickey Mouse or the Coca-Cola bottle. I find the ad displays a certain arrogance on the part of McDonalds; they know that the hamburger is so recognisable that they can distort it and still convey their message successfully.
In this chapter, I have shown how symbolic ads put across their meaning to us, and why sometimes using particular symbols in certain contexts can be ineffective. The final chapter will delve deeper into why some symbols elicit certain feelings within us, due to our inherent human desires, and it will be demonstrated whether or not certain symbols convey the same meanings to a group of people from different cultural backgrounds.
Public Perception and the Effectiveness of Using Symbols in AdvertisingWhy use symbols in an ad when you could communicate your message just fine without them? Why beat around the bush and use tricks and gimmicks when the direct approach will get the job done? After all, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Well, it may be the quickest way, but in the case of advertising, it is certainly not the most effective. A linear approach will register immediately with the viewer, but it will be forgotten just as quickly. It leaves no lingering memories and does not stir up any emotion, or satisfy any desires within them. That’s where symbols come in. As I mentioned in the last chapter, symbolic advertising is perhaps the most effective type of advertising, in my opinion, because a connection is made on a personal level with the viewer, as the symbol stirs up personal memories for each individual and so leaves a lasting impression. Each human being is born with certain predetermined desires built into our psyches. We all share these traits and advertisers know this and so they design accordingly to psychologically manipulate us. The problem with using symbols to trigger these desires is that not all people share the same interpretation of a particular symbol. The main cause for this is different cultural backgrounds. This would not be an issue in an ideal world because all it would mean would be to refrain from using ads with cultural references from one country in any other countries. For example, a Chinese ad with references to Chinese culture would be unlikely to be correctly understood in Ireland, or vice-versa. So, the obvious answer – don’t use Chinese ads in Ireland. But what about all the Chinese people who live in Ireland? Do they fully understand the ads they are exposed to on a daily basis? I would suggest that they do not. And therein lies the problem. In today’s Cosmopolitan world where many cultures and nationalities reside in one place, there has never been a time when symbolic advertising was more open to misinterpretation. Dr. Richard Taflinger, author of ‘Psychology of Consumer Behaviour’ has done extensive studies into the reasons why people are influenced by certain imagery in a particular context. He puts it down to ten basic traits inherent to all human beings. Advertisers use psychological appeals to motivate people to buy products. The appeals are: Self-Preservation, Sex, Acquisition of property, Self-Esteem, Personal Enjoyment, Constructiveness, Destructiveness, Curiosity, Imitation and Altruism. A psychological appeal is a visual or aural influence on your subconscious mind and emotions. It does this by implying that by doing what the ad suggests, for example, buying a product, you will satisfy one of your subconscious desires. It is not a subliminal message, which is an element of a visual presentation that is not consciously perceived but influences your behaviour. If a psychological appeal was not perceived, it would have no effect at all. Most people are not aware of the existence of such appeals, or have given no thought to the matter, but once you are aware of them, they become blatantly obvious in advertising. In addition to our genetic predispositions to regard certain stimuli in a certain way, we also have an additional factor that influences us far more than any other organism on earth. We have the most complex social structure on the planet and this influences every aspect of our lives. Who we are, what we do and how we do it is constantly being decided by our societies and cultures. Dr. Taflinger gives the following example to demonstrate cultural difference.“How do you feel about a snack of nice, fresh maggots?”Your response was probably some measure of disgust. This reaction was determined by the society you live in. For some cultures, particularly in the tropics, maggots are considered a wonderful treat. Cannibalism is another example. In some cultures, it is the greatest honour you can have to eat the entrée – if you eat Grandpa, then he, quite literally becomes a part of you, and when you die, you become a part of the living body of your descendants, taking a part of grandpa with you, and so on. So, why don’t we here in Ireland think of things in this way? Our society says we don’t eat maggots and frowns on cannibalism and has taught us that they are wrong. However, when biological forces, like starvation, come into play, such social lessons we have learned lose their power and our basic human desires take over. For example, a group of 19th century settlers got snow-bound in the Sierra Nevada mountains with no food. After a while their only source of food, and thus survival, came from those who were still alive eating those who had died. The basic biological imperative of staying alive took precedence over social proscriptions against cannibalism. The same is true for all of the ten appeals. Everyone wants to stay alive, to reproduce, to have more than they have, to have fun, to be happy. Society has only existed for a few thousand years, whereas we have had biological urges for millions of years, and it is these urges that advertising tries to take advantage of when using psychological appeals. These urges transcend all cultural differences and are shared by all human beings. With symbolism, there are several layers of meaning to be understood, at least some of which will inevitably present problems of interpretation when put before an audience of mixed cultural backgrounds. For the purposes of this essay, I conducted a series of small-scale tests to determine how different people interpret the same symbolic imagery. I used three of the ads analysed in chapter 2 and three others, accompanied by a series of questions of my own invention, designed to demonstrate the difference between people’s personal frame of reference.
When I first began to think about this thesis, I wanted to write about something I was genuinely interested in and hopefully delve a little deeper into the subject and learn something along the way. I feel I have achieved these goals. I have always been aware of, and interested in the symbolic side of life and so, for this thesis, I applied my interest to design, and advertising in particular. A symbol’s success in advertising relies on all the people who see it having the same meaning for it, but a symbol gains its ethereal qualities as a result of different people not sharing the same interpretation. I discovered a great disparity in the interpretations of people from different backgrounds. The core theme of this thesis has been the effectiveness of advertising that uses symbolism to put across its ad message. I wanted to show that there are positive, but also negative connotations attached to this kind of advertising that I find so interesting. It is eternally debatable which are the best ads, but the ones whose intended meaning were most clearly communicated were those that employed very easily recognised symbols. More obscure symbols are not as easily understood. Also, the more symbols used in one piece, the more time it takes to understand and so, it would seem that, as with most aspects of design, the simple, more direct approach is often the best one. On the other hand, more complicated ads take longer to understand, but are, ultimately, more satisfying than simple ones. I suppose this is a matter of personal preference.
A designer has no control over how a person will see a particular symbol. So, assumptions have to be made and risks taken, just as with everything in life, and hopefully the ad will be a success. There are no guarantees. There are certain benefits of using symbols in advertising, but there are as many drawbacks. On the positive side, symbolic advertising encourages people to think. We are requested to make a connection that may not be absolutely obvious at first glance. And when a connection is made, we feel as though we have achieved something. We also feel that we have been touched on a personal level, that somehow the designer of the ad has pierced our steely exterior and made a connection with us, in much the same way as poetry, art and music can affect us. In comparison to ads that use no symbolic imagery, for example, a straightforward, informative poster for an event of some kind, we can see the benefits. Such linear ads leave no lasting impression on us whatsoever. We can tell that no magic has gone into its creation. It will never be more than what it is, a piece of paper that tells us when and where this event is going to take place. Symbolic ads are more than what they are. They mean different things to different people across the world, and through time, their meanings and associations may also change.
Of course, the drawbacks are quite serious too, in terms of functionality. The basic aim of an ad is to persuade someone to do something, but when symbols are used, this function is at risk of becoming redundant and the ad may be a complete failure. As I have discussed and demonstrated, if the symbol is used in an inappropriate context, it runs the risk of being misinterpreted by the consumer, and so they will be less likely to be affected by the ad in the intended way. At the end of the day, this means that they will have no particular inclination to buy the advertised product and so, the ad is a failure. But when a designer gets it right, it is about as powerful a tool as can be used to induce a reaction in the viewer and no other method of advertising can be as memorable as the Symbolic. It is a risky business, but I feel it is well worth the risk for the potential benefits that can be gained. Despite the drawbacks, I strongly feel that Symbolic advertising is the ultimate form of Visual Communication.
(Excerpts from a piece I wrote in 2003 as part of a Diploma in Graphic Design)