Assignment 3: Decoding Advertisements

Choose a current advertisement or advertising campaign, and, drawing on the work of Barthes and others analyse it to show how it derives and conveys its meaning to its intended audience.

In his essay, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes chooses an advertisement for pasta sauce to analyse because, “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible.” (Evans and Hall: 33) Although twenty-first century advertising is on the surface more sophisticated and diverse than Barthes would have recognised, I believe this remains as true now as it was in the 1960s. The simple truth remains: adverts exist solely to sell things. To illustrate this, I have chosen to study the Christmas advertising campaigns of the department store chain John Lewis which have somehow become as much of an indicator of the Christmas season as selection boxes being on sale in the supermarket.

Until 2007, John Lewis did not advertise at all on television, and although the Christmas advert that they put out that year displayed some of the signatures that subsequent campaigns would become known for, it is a pretty conventional piece. The following Christmas however, they began developing tropes that would become their signature style: high production values, a narrative arc strong in seasonal sentimentality, a quirky, stripped down cover version of a familiar song. With the 2011 campaign, ‘The Long Wait’, the adverts had become embedded in the national consciousness and became to be seen as an annual event. (Stone, 2013) With this in mind this is the advert I have chosen to study in depth as it also represents the year that John Lewis stopped directly promoting specific products, or even their own stores and as a tangible shopping experience and instead began tapping into our cultural knowledge and aspirations and linking this with the brand. Despite this seemingly bold move, subsequent Christmas ads have continued in this vein and are credited as making a significant impact to John Lewis sales over the critical seasonal period which is so key to retailers.

The synopsis of ‘The Long Wait’ is as follows: a young boy is impatiently waiting for Christmas to arrive. The passage of time is shown through the use of quick cuts of similar scenes unified by our protagonists frustrated facial expression. We know it is the lead up to Christmas because we see the boy eating chocolate from his advent calendar, looking out of a window with a Christmas tree behind him, and, at one point he is dressed in a Shepherds’ costume apparently having starred in a school nativity play. The imminent arrival of the big day is signified by a family meal during which the boy hurriedly eats before jumping from the table and rushing to his room and climbing into bed, pulling the covers tight up to his neck and squeezing his eyes shut. We see the child waking the next morning, his eyes open and he realises it is the day he has been waiting for – Christmas. He jumps out of bed, but instead of rushing to the stocking that is at the bottom he goes to his cupboard and brings out a present. The wrapping is poor in comparison to the presents at the bottom of his bed – the suggestion being he has wrapped this himself. The camera cuts to the parents’ bedroom, seemingly alerted to the boy’s presence the adults wake bleary eyed – from their point of view we see the boy holding a present in his hands with a broad smile on his face and the caption: “For gifts you can’t wait to give. John Lewis. Instore, online, mobile.”

This reading of the scene is possible through our ability to decode a number of signs in quick succession and relies greatly on our cultural knowledge as well as our understanding of cinematic conventions such as rapid editing and showing the passage of time through subtle changes such as changes in clothing and weather conditions. There is no dialogue with the only soundtrack being a cover version of The Smiths “Please, please, please, let me get what I want”, a song with a melancholy air and a sentiment that leads us to the false belief that the child is driven purely by impatient selfishness about the gifts he will receive. The success of the ad is that our reading turns out to be incorrect – the boy is not selfish at all; in fact, his impatience is based on wanting to give his parents a gift – the gifts he receives himself are secondary to this. This confounding of our expectations not only make the advert memorable but is shamelessly designed to appeal to the viewer – specifically the parents of young children. More importantly however, multiple audiences would be able to identify with the narrative because of the sense of realism that is portrayed and that despite the specifics of the people featured in the advert it is sufficiently general to allow us to recognise the family depicted have a lifestyle that is desirable and values we share.

In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes described three messages contained within a text: linguistic, coded iconic and non-coded iconic. The linguistic message is easy to decipher from the text, as it is here in the John Lewis advert, the timing and choice of words are interesting in this instance however. By placing the caption at the end of the advertisement we are more likely to remember that this is an ad for John Lewis, if we have enjoyed the narrative we have been shown then it could be argued we share the ideology being presented and are interpellated by the assertion that giving gifts at Christmas is a way to show our love to those close to us. The non-coded and coded iconic messages are difficult to separate. The non-coded iconic message works on the level of denotation and is partly shown in the synopsis I have given above while the coded iconic message works on the level of connotation and is essential to our ability to understand what is happening. For example, we can learn a great deal about the people being depicted in the advert, and can therefore deduce who the target audience are, by analysing the denoted and connoted signs that are presented. Everything in the advert is carefully chosen to be ‘average’ and ‘normal’ so the viewer can identify with what they are watching: a suburban semi-detached house with a small garden; a nuclear family consisting of a man, woman and two children, all of white race; parents who seem neither too young or old – all indicators of an nice, average, middle class, conventional family. While many adverts appeal through the presentation of aspirational lifestyles, glamorous people, celebrities and exotic locations, the success of ‘The Long Wait’ relies on our ability to identify with what we are seeing as a representation of our own lives.

If we consider ‘The Long Wait’ to be a successful advert then we must also recognise this is because it succeeds on an ideological level, our understanding relying on what Barthes referred to as what “goes without saying” in his essay ‘Myth Today’ (Evans and Hall, 1999: 58) The normalcy of the family unit and the way they celebrate Christmas through the exchange of gifts works on the level of myth: if something goes without saying suggests bourgeois assumptions and the product of history rather than nature. (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 125) The characters in the advert, particularly the boy, are empty vessels, robbed of their individuality and history: “A signifier is an empty vessel until it is filled with meaning in order to signify. The less specific we are about the signifier therefore, the greater its potential to signify exactly as we wish.” (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 129) With this in mind what is the message contained within ‘The Long Wait’? I would argue there are multiple readings: John Lewis can be trusted to provide the gifts that your family will love at Christmas and lead to domestic bliss; John Lewis will help transform your selfish brats to loving children who will show their love through the giving of gifts; the way to happiness is through gaining commodities; John Lewis shares your family values and is not interested in the sole, crass pursuit of profit. Another reading of course would be that the advert is nothing more than a ‘spectacle’ as described by Debord, a metaphor for society through which we no longer live life directly and where living has become representation: “The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.'” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 96) Read through the prism of Debord, ‘The Long Wait’ represents a reified vision of the world with capitalism subsuming us through the fetishisation of commodities. I suspect Barthes too would have much to say against the glorification of capitalism that the advertisement represents, but once a Marxist reading is undertaken this can cloud judgement as strongly as the ideology it purports to be against – maybe it is nothing more than an advert to promote a department store which happens to do this in an entertaining and way while making the viewer remember what is good about Christmas. What is so wrong with that?

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