Selling Us Ourselves

© Brett Dorron 2000

It is my intention through this analysis, to show through semiology, or the science of signs (O’Shaughnessy, 1999, p64), how advertisements do much more than just sell us products. They help create and shape structures of meaning for individuals and societies and can attach these meanings to products and thus add an exchange value to the existing value of the real or natural product. (Williamson, 1978, p11-12).

For this purpose I have chosen two advertising texts, for comparison and contrast, and will highlight some significant signs and signifiers from each, to explore connotations, codes, conventions, and some possible ideological meanings that can be associated with products and brands within these particular texts. The first, I’ll explore in detail to show the process and terminology; the second, in summary.

But let me first establish meaning. Advertising/advertisements, whose primary function is to announce, offer or promote, do much more than just offer goods and services for sale, or for a price. Much more than describe or represent an item’s material function and value. Advertisements are also used to promote; people, ideas, beliefs, and ideologies, (eg. political) and within an advertisement, or a campaign, products or goods are linked or associated with popular people, popular needs, desires, ideologies, myths and cultures. If this linking is accepted by society, or groups, or individuals within society, then meaning is created, and the product has a meaning, a social meaning, and value, beyond the meaning of its material functionality.

Williamson said, of advertising:

(that advertising) “…speaks to us in …a voice we can never identify.” “…‘we’ are drawn to fill in that gap, so that we become both listener and speaker…” “Advertising gives those (material) goods a social meaning so that two needs are crossed, and neither are adequately fulfilled. Material things that we need are made to represent other non-material things we need; the point of exchange between the two is where meaning is created”. (1978, p14)

And this ‘social meaning’ is what Fiske called “cultural function” (1989, p11), and products and brands are linked or imbued with these meanings until they become one and the same, indistinguishable. Fiske also said, “All commodities can be used by the consumer to construct meanings of self, of social identity and social relations.” (1989, p11)

Two Ads
Consider: Ad (a):


– a two-page colour spread sets a silver BMW Z3 convertible against a golden red sunset. The photographic representation is rendered ‘wide format’ by a white band containing text, top and bottom of the page. It appeared in the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated magazine (Australia) 1998.[1]

And: Ad (b):


– another two-page spread, this time, from SHE Australia magazine, April 2000. Ad (b) promotes a Toyota Camry Wagon to predominantly female Australian readers.[2]

Advertisement  (a)
Within Ad (a), the blur of the car serves a double purpose. Motion, speed and movement are central to the preferred reading of this text, and gives deeper meanings or connotations to other signs and combinations, to offer pleasures associated with traditional masculinity. In this text, motion is signified through the established codes and conventions of still or photographic images, by the blurring of parts of the car. But many parts are left sharp and ‘stationary’, which allows a second purpose. Because ‘blur’ is often hard or uncomfortable to focus on, it serves to draw attention to other specific areas or shapes of the vehicle, chosen or highlighted by camera angle – predominantly the very curvy, shapely, feminine rear end.

The curved white road markings serve several purposes as signifiers. They aid, along with camera angle and the left front wheel, in signifying ‘direction’ of movement and thus meaning, and implied story or narrative. They are the only elements in the image to mimic the curves in the car and thus help signify balance, order, and harmony. But they also have visual weight and draw your eye down and across the car, then redirect your gaze back across to keep it circulating, or maintain your interest in the pleasures signified in this image.

The diagonal line created by the horizon of the road surface signifies – through conventions of visual dynamics – imbalance and tension, and coupled with the motion and direction of the car – signify negative camber, danger and ‘excitement on the edge’, and thus control through the stability of the car, and the pleasure of the surroundings.

The background sunset and its colours, as signs or signifiers, carry many connotations central to a preferred reading, but note the lighter yellows on the left and the deeper darker reds on the right. The sunset here signifies peace, relaxation, tranquillity, the end of the day, and with the colours of yellows, reds and oranges connote warmth, romance and pleasure. The car through its signified motion, and its direction, has connotations of movement away from the viewer but also, away from the gloom on the right and ‘into the light’ on the left.

The words or written signs within this advertising text seem hardly necessary, as anchorage, as they closely mimic the story of the visual signs. The sentence top left says “The driver has taken a back seat long enough” and signifies, with the image, its time to move forward and take control, dominate your environment, be more important and move up the social ladder. You’ll be noticed and gain more attention. Even the registration plate has the words “ON THE MOVE”.[3]  And with the words across the bottom “Lots of sunshine and a little enlightenment have finally banished the dark ages. It’s OK again to admit to being a driver. And how should you refine your skills and rediscover the thrills? The BMW Z3….”, suggests or signifies that you can leave or escape the dark ages, or the burdens of; your existing life, family, business or social situations, move on and reach enlightenment, sunshine, and pleasures. It’s ‘now’ OK to be a man and admit or flaunt your masculinity, take control of your life, your dreams, your destiny. And how do you take control and experience these thrills? How can you have this dream? You can Buy It! You can buy it ‘packaged with’ the BMW Z3…!

The badge or brand name, BMW, has come to signify, through positioning in cultural knowledge and histories, wealth, affluence, power, status, success, class, prestige, quality, reliability, handling, comfort, and pleasure. This highlights the importance of cultural knowledge and history, for without prior exposure, the BMW brand name and logo would mean little or nothing, and would not impact on the preferred reading.

Also, with a sense of urgency, this car and its occupants, through its signified movement, will ‘not’ be watched driving off into the sunset, as is a common scenario, but signifies a fleeting quality, a sense that this car is on the move, and in a moment will be over the crest and gone, out of sight. To where? Anywhere the individual reader might imagine, but into the light, the moment, the pleasure. We can not see the road or the future in this image which, with motion, signifies thrill; anticipation; the unknown; a leaving behind of troubles and burdens… and the viewer. The car and its occupants will be gone, while we are left with the fading light and impending darkness. It’s calling on the ‘decision makers’ to act now, ‘keep up’, or this could be the one that got away.

This text also has significant sexual connotations through the car (convertible), its shapes (feminine), the brand status (wealth and success, thus desire and envy), the sunset (romance), and the dynamics of tension and motion (thrill, excitement, danger and control).

Who can have this dream? The driver is intentionally anonymous, with few signs of class or race/nationality; quite possibly young, because young ‘is’ more attractive, but no specific age; most likely male as signified by hairstyle and sideburns but with no idea of handicap or ability. It discounts no one, and offers the dream to all. The ad appeared in an Australian publication purchased and read predominantly by males, so I suggest that any male in Australia who can, afford, or aspire to afford, and who aspire to this dream and its pleasures are the inscribed or intended reader. Note also, this anonymous male driver shows no signs/signifiers of expression or emotion, and that we do not ‘need’ to see his expression to feel his pleasure.

And, the illusory quality of the implied passenger? I suggest that this is a very clever sign. Is there a passenger, or is there not? If there is, is it male or female, young or old? It invites the reader to project their individual readings or meanings upon this sign, dependant on their current relational situations or fantasies. It discounts no one. It could be a wife, a child, a son or daughter, a lover, male or female; any one you might wish to share this pleasure with. This highlights the major flaw of semiotics/semiology, the polysemic nature of signs or their ability to signify many things or have many connotations. But in this situation, I will suggest that, through the anchorage of; Australian audience, predominantly male readership, and heterosexual ideologies, the preferred or dominant reading of the passenger sign would be; a female, a wife or sexual partner.

Advertisement  (b)
Ad (b) employs an interesting production technique at the pre-press and printing stage and, while appearing black and white, is four-colour or process colour printed; allowing colour connotations, through two distinct colour casts, to impact on the inherent connotations of the otherwise monotone image.

This text has ‘drama’ in that the entire image outside and beyond the car, is surreal, haunting, forbidding, old fashioned, reminiscent of early black and white films and images, especially the horror/thriller genres. The streets are deserted; no friends; no ‘safety in numbers’, the buildings and brooding afternoon sky are dark and imposing, encroaching, hostile. This is helped with a slight red cast (Check the screened dots on the page with a loupe.),[4] with connotations of danger and unease through associations with stoplights, emergency areas, sirens, blood, fire, and explosions.

The car in this image, the Toyota Camry Wagon, is the escape, the salvation, ‘the closure’; it entices with its cool, smooth, blue, freshness. Signified are safety, security, peace, relief, and comfort, as in the blue skies and oceans of our leisure. The woman; dressed smartly, business to upper class; protectively carries her family values close to her and is, visibly, very happy in the caring role as she leaves the hostile city scape and seeks refuge in her car; there she can lock out the real or perceived world for a minute. Note the car is pointing out of frame, away from the gloom of the city and, to a brighter place, as signified by the lighter front and bonnet. Inside is a different world. She is no longer alone in the world; the car is her friend. And a car gives a certain anonymity, where she is free to be herself, express herself, get upset, laugh and cry, shout and beep the horn, wave a fist or a finger, all in relative safety.

The words, bottom left, “At 4.30 everyday, I’m reminded what life is all about”, can be read as almost a summation of the connotations of the image and its signs, and again point to closure, or return to normality.

There are other significant and relevant signs and meanings in the text, Ad (b), especially to do with family values and ideologies, which I have not explored here in detail due to space. There is anchorage in the written text on the right with a reference to ‘safety’ and an allusion to ‘heterosexual family’ through the sentence “Maybe that’s why he says ‘Can we go in mummy’s car?’.”.

Comparison and Contrast
Both texts offer pleasures to their readers, and thus attach meaning to their products. But each is in contrast through their use of opposing ideologies. Ad (b), in particular, ‘contains’ (and actually attributes meaning to its product through) contrasting feelings and ideologies. These texts invite their readers to find hopes and pleasures through, and have elements of: (as follows)

Ad (a)Masculine Ad (b)Feminine

Freedom                                    Relief  (from oppression)

Control and interaction              Escape  (from domination)

Environment                              Protection  (from society)

Sex                                            Family, coupling and love

Excitement                                Safety and security

Independence                            To be valued or needed

Adventure                                  Domesticity

Western and road movie            Drama and film noire

Suspense                                   Closure

Ad (b) draws heavily from, and supports, western ideologies of class, race, gender difference, capitalism and family, and places this white upper class woman as the caregiver, nurturer and supporter of the family, and of man/masculinity through the male child, while dominated by her hostile environment… a mans world. Her pleasure and her value are in the caring role, and a good ‘safe’ car has great value or meaning to this role. It’s a traditional role in western societies to which women have been expected to aspire. This text is selling to women on a human need to be safe, equal, important, independent, and in control, but still embraces masculine and patriarchal ideologies of female subservience, weakness and inequality, of needing help to achieve what should rightfully be hers.

This text does not point to true or meaningful solutions to inequities that women suffer in our western society, but holds this particular ‘car’ aloft as part of the answer. Women in our society, or readers of this text, who identify with the feelings and emotions signified are likely to want this product for the social meanings attached, for the positive feelings and emotions this text signifies.

In comparison, Ad (a) is selling ‘the idea’ of a car to males, not for protection from environment but for interaction with it, and mastery over it. Selling masculine ideologies of power and control; it’s a fun car, a toy for pleasure, while still embracing western and capitalist ideologies of class and status through wealth and conquest; it’s a showpiece, with all the connotations attached. Again, traditional roles, for us to aspire.


In conclusion, I have demonstrated the value of semiotics in the study of signs and their connotations within media texts, and through analysis of signs and signifiers within two advertisements, how (through feelings, needs and emotions) social and ideological meanings of products are created. And as we all have social needs and desires; when goods are given social meanings through advertising/advertisements, we come to identify our selves within society through what we consume, possess and own, through goods. Through this, advertisements (in fact, all media texts) can perpetuate, naturalise and validate certain (usually popular) ideological beliefs and stereotypes. And as Williamson said, “Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves.” (1978, p13)

End Notes

[1] : Sports Illustrated (Circulation: 80,000 copies. Readership: 75% male. Information supplied by Peter Angilatis of Sports Illustrated, 2000).

[2] : She (Circulation: 82,200 copies. Readership: 210,000 / 83.3% women. Information supplied by SHE Australia, 2000)

[3] : Another sign of mention, which I did not investigate, is the letters “OGV” on the registration plate. I suggest it is a likely sign to be read by the advertising industry, who would have their own culture, knowledge and awareness, that this advertisement and the BMW advertising account are those of Ogilvy and Mather (Advertising Agencies). A world agency likely to have prestigious clients like BMW.

[4] : Predominance of; magenta and yellow equal red, in background; cyan and magenta equal blue, in car.


Fiske, J. (1989). Understanding Popular Culture. Sydney: Unwin Hyman.

O’Shaughnessy, M. (1999). Media and Society. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Williamson, J. (1978). Decoding Advertisements. London: Marion Boyars.

(1998). Sports Illustrated. Milsons Point: Time Inc.

(2000). She Australia. Sydney: Hearst/ACP.