What is polysemy? What is its importance in the work of advertising agencies? Give examples to support your idea.
The theme: ‘What is polysemy? What is its importance in the work of advertising agencies? Give examples to support your idea.’; the subject: Advertising and Promotion. I’ve already written a little..but don’t think I’m on the right way. Also, I’ve copied all the information that I found about this question, so it may be useful.
By the way, this assignment should include sources to add credibility to arguments. Marking will be on the basis of research effort, content, argument effectiveness, critical evaluation and writing style. Bibliography is not necessary to include, but the sources must be listed in the text (author + year).
What is polysemy? What is its importance in the work of advertising agencies? Give examples to support your idea.
The topic of this essay is polysemy in advertising: the occurrence of multiple meanings for the same advertising message. Puntoni, Schroeder & Ritson (2010) define advertising polysemy as “the existence of at least two distinct interpretations for the same advertising message across audiences, or across time and situations.” Theoretically this implies that polysemous advertising can bear multiple meanings and can be interpreted in a variety of different ways, depending on the relevance of ads as well as consumers’ cultural identifications and collective conventions. Fiske (1986) advocates polysemy as a valuable and productive asset, and maintains that it is an inherent quality of media products. It is also argued that consumers construct their own meanings based on semiotic codes, which can be produced by fissures and excess in a text, allowing polysemic reading (Fiske, 1986).
In recent years, practitioners have emphasized the difficult nature of advertising interpretation (e.g., Hackley, 1999; Malefyt, 2003) and over the past few decades the trend in advertising copywriting has been towards an increase in the frequency and complexity of metaphors (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2002). Benetton’s creative director Oliviero Toscani, for example, has made explicit reference to his strategic attempts to imbue his work with polysemic possibilities. According to Toscani, “our advertising is a Rorschach test of what you bring to the image” (O’Sullivan, 2003). Similarly, Calvin Klein acknowledged that his advertising is replete with multiple meanings when he suggested that “people read things into my commercials that didn’t even exist” (Schroeder, 2000). Often discussed as a problem for advertisers, or a barrier to comprehension, polysemy can also be considered as a strategic resource.
Although in theory all ads are potentially polysemic, in practice one meaning is likely to dominate the interpretation in the marketplace of simple commercial messages, such as classified advertising. Nevertheless, contemporary ads often include complicated rhetorical devices and, as we will argue, with an in-depth understanding of polysemy all ads are “open” to different interpretations (e.g., Hirschman and Thompson, 1997; McQuarrie and Mick, 1999; Scott, 1994). Furthermore, some researchers argue that consumers’ “advertising literacy” has grown, producing active, creative consumers, eager to decode and deconstruct meanings they see in ads (Friestad and Wright, 1994; Mick and Buhl, 1992; Scott, 1994). The commercial importance of advertising polysemy has not gone unnoticed in the marketing research industry. For example, branding consultancy Millward Brown offers a service named Perceptual Focus Interviews™ that promises “a fuller understanding of the potentially idiosyncratic ways in which individuals process and interpret your advertising” (Millward Brown, 2002, p. 3). Despite these recent theoretical and managerial developments, no framework has been developed to explain the occurrence of multiple meanings in advertising interpretation. Research into advertising has conventionally focused on the internal content of advertisements, conceptualizing ad comprehension as “the grasping or extracting of pre-specifiable meanings from the message” (Mick, 1992). Within this paradigm, the researcher generally decides what the ad “means”—everything else is often labeled as “unintended consequences” (e.g., Pollay, 1986) or “miscomprehension” (e.g., Jacoby and Hoyer, 1982). The reasons for this approach to advertising meaning are various but mainly stem from a reliance on information processing models and metaphors (McCracken, 1987; Schroeder, 2002; Scott, 1994).
The present paper will illustrate..
From the core text book:
As it’s known, polysemy is not really compatible with the linear model of coomunication and its implied emphasis on a single, unequivocal message. The meaning of some ads is indeterminate: none of the meanings in a given ad is necessarily prior to, or stronger than, the others. There is an interpretive space through which consumers can engage creatively with the ad. This gives advertising a particular power. It is us, the audience for advertising, who impose particular meanings on a given ad, helped, of course, by the cues placed in the ad by the creative people. This freedom to interpret advertising and to use it creatively in our own lives gives advertising a dynamic character as communication. Advertising agencies, far from being limited by the complexity of advertising meaning, exploit the ambiguity of advertising (Pateman, 1983) to create an intimate and personal engagement with consumers. They create advertisements with many possible meanings, but the advertising design nevertheless does have a carefully considered strategy and the meanings are not entirely arbitrary. They are, rather, artfully designed so that the curiosity of a designated target group of consumers is excited.
Polysemy as a creative technique to encourage consumer engagement
Ads that are deliberately obscure can seem inaccessible to older consumers and, by implication, aimed at younger consumers. Ambiguity of meaning in ads can be used as a deliberate strategy to engage a target group by allowing them to feel part of an in-group who ‘get’ the ad. In addition, carefully coded ads can create a sense of conspiracy by communicating in a way that excludes non-targeted groups. One way of signalling the desired market segment in an ad is to be seen to be excluding other segments. A TV ad campaign for Frizzell insurance in the UK deliberately deployed a creative execution using intertextual references to 1960s television news footage that would mainly be of interest to older viewers. Frizzell wanted to signal implicitly that younger consumers were not the primary target audience, because the desired market segment was older consumers who are less price conscious and, from a car insurer’s point of view, carry a lower risk because they drive more safely than younger people.
In a more recent example, The Economist magazine was promoted in a series of advertisements created by the largest UK agency, AMV BBDO. One ad used an intertextual reference to a well-known phrase and then adapted it to make people who looked at the ads think about them. The other example was a simple and eye-catching visual and the bald statement ‘I never read The Economist’ attributed to a 42-year-old management trainee. The irony of this statement would be immediately obvious to the intelligent reader, so the ad spoke to its desired audience segment by implying that The Economist’s target readers are sophisticated enough to reject ingratiation but would appreciate irony.
Diesel Ads Exploit Polysemy
The Diesel brand has a long tradition of polysemic advertising, and it tends to show the same ads all over the world. Its website, www.diesel.com has, at the time of writing in early April 2009, no mention of clothing but a series of short movies, some featuring Pete the meat puppet. The movies are entertaining in an off-the-wall, genre-subversive way. The Diesel spring 2009 men’s print campaign continues the edgy, polysemic style begun in the 1990s which made use of both polysemy and intertextuality to try to draw the consumer into a deeper engagement, and at the same time to signal the quirky, witty, but irrelevant values of the brand. One ad (in the 1990s series) featured an enigmatic scene of bodybuilders wearing white sailor caps and bathing briefs. The scene included scientific equipment and puzzled spectators viewing from behind a red rope, as if they were at an exibition or performance. The only direct reference to the brand was a brand name logo in small type in the corner.
Such ads are visually intriguing because they challenge our preconceptions about images and visual context. The viewer wants to make connections between the images: humans actively try to make sense of data, even where there is little to be made. Perception is subject to a Gestalt impulse whereby humans try to complete visual cues to form a coherent whole. In polysemic ads that mix visual cues drawn from unconnected discourses, this impulse draws us into the ad as we try to make the visual cues into a story we understand.
A long series of similar Diesel print ads used bizarre visual intertextual references drawing on cultural texts as diverse as museum attendance, public health advertising, educational announcements, British seaside beauty contests, soccer reports, shoot-’em-up movies and news reportage of war zones. Short, inappropriate passages of copy were imprinted on the posters to make the scene even more puzzling. The effect was to provide an entertaining visual puzzle which consumers could try to figure out. Of course, there was no definitive answer to the meaning of these ads. The creative people at the agency were just having fun in the interests of the brand, playing with cultural meaning. Underlying the apparently incoherent images was a clear advertising strategy. Viewers were expected to infer that the Diesel brand, like the ads, challenged convention in a quirky, youthful and irreverent yet cool way.
Theorizing Meaning in Advertising
‘Ostensive’ and ‘Covert’ Communication
The presence of both explicit and implicit elements in advertising communication has complicated the task of theorizing advertising. Forceville (1996) refers to a distinction made by Tanaka (1994) between ‘ostensive’ and ‘covert’ communication in advertising. This distinction allows us to theorize what is implied in ads, as opposed to what is clearly and unambiguously claimed. The ostensive communicator makes the intention of the communication clear. The covert communicator does not. The Diesel advertisements mentioned above fall into the covert category. An example of ostensive communication might be, say, a typical McDonald’s advertisement. Many other ads combine ostensive (or explicit) and covert (or implicit) elements. Advertisements under industry regulation are strictly constrained form making claims that are untrue or preposterous. They get around this inconvenience by implying covertly those claims that could be seen as ridiculous or would open them up to criticism if they were made explicitly. For example, the Lynx campaigns make absurd claims about how men’s sexual attractiveness is increased by using the product, but this is implied in the narrative of the advertising, not stated explicitly as a feature of the product. In this particular case what is implied is clearly intended as a joke, although, as Tanaka (1994) notes, even if a claim made about a brand is absurd, the fact that it is understood makes it persuasive on some level.
Advertising cannot compel us to believe particular claims or to accept that certain values are embodied in a given brand. Rather, advertising suggests, implies and hints. It places images and words in a suggestive juxtaposition to imply that consuming a given brand will symbolically confer certain qualities and values. If you see a Gillette razor you are enjoying ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ (at least, according to the ads), and you might even acquire some of the characteristics and lifestyle of the actor in the ads. Driving a prestigious motorcar brand such as Toyota Avensis will (we are invited to infer form the TV ads), confer a symbolic social status on us that reflects our success and desire. The ads don’t actually say these things: they merely imply them, hoping that viewers will read the desired implication.
Ads frequently imply that consumers will be more sexually attractive, more powerful or will appear more materially successful if they consume a given brand. Much advertising acquires a persuasive force through its non-explicit suggestions, rather than just through its explicit claims. Where branded products are juxtaposed with images of attractive, happy and successful people, the link between the two is implied but not stated. Most importantly, it is not necessary for the advertising audience to believe these implied suggestions for the theory of covert communication to hold. It is only necessary that the audience can retrieve the meaning implied. We can see what ads are suggesting even where we neither trust the advertiser nor believe the covert implications. We know that a deodorant brand will not make us sexually attractive. We also know that the ads are implying that it will.
Visual Rhetoric and Metaphor in Advertising
Covert meaning is often conveyed in advertising though pictorial, auditory or linguistic metaphor. If a branded bottle of alcoholic drink is pictured juxtaposed with scenes of fit, young, affluent people, then the metaphoric link is clear. For example, Martini used to be advertised in the UK as a drink enjoyed by swimsuited young men and women diving from a yacht moored at a tropical island. The juxtaposition of a branded alcohol drink with apparent wealth, attractiveness and physical fitness is exactly the opposite of what one might reasonably expect, since alcohol drinking is quite likely to make exponents fat and unfit, and may also make them poor if they drink enough. The covert communication in this campaign was preposterous but was nevertheless clear. The Martini brand was used as a metaphor for sexual attractiveness and the good life. It matters little that the drink may often be consumed in social contexts that are, on the face of it, as far from the good life as one might wish to be.
*Guinness Advertising and Polysemy
Guinness advertisements are often media events in themselves. The brand has created a strong tradition of creatively flamboyant and often expensive advertising that does not carry a sales message as such. The famous ‘White Hourse’ ad produced by London agency, AMV BBDO, portrays a group of middle-aged beach bums on an exotic island waiting for and finding their perfect surfing wave. The creative strategy exploited the frustrating fact that ordering a pint of Guinness in a bar entails a fairly long wait while the beer settles. The voice-over states that ‘he waits, and he waits…’ until the perfect wave arrives. There is no explicit (or ostensive) marketing message, other than a brief shot of a pint of stout to help those completely in the dark about the identity of the manufacturer generously funding this lavish entertainment. Guinness is well aware that its famous stout is an unusual, acquired taste. They are, it seems, content that their legendary creative advertising tradition is polysemic in that it can often be interpreted in many ways, including the interpretation that it means nothing at all.
However, campaigns such as ‘surfers’ keep the brand in the public domain and lend it a mystique which, when you think about it, is quite an achievement considering the prosaic origins of the product they have to work with. A quirky local beverage with a history of being the tipple of choice of working-class Irishment does not, on the face of it, have great potential as a global brand. The prominence of the brand can be attributed in no small part to its tradition of creatively striking, intriguingly entertaining and confusingly polysemic advertising.
The Guinness advertising campaigns remind us that consumption is, significantly, not only a verbal phenomenon but also a visual one. We need a different theoretical scheme to conceptualize the visuals. For Schroeder (2002), there are powerful lessons from the discilines of art history and aesthetics which can help us understand the complex ways in which advertising communicates visually. Schroeder argues that we do not only consume the branded products and services that are advertised; we also ‘consume’ the visual images of advertising and promotion.
Cultural Understanding and Decoding Meanings in Advertising
In principle, any communication is open to varied interpretations since meaning itself is rooted in culturally-based forms of understanding. Once the incorrigibility of meaning is acknowledged, the complexity of the task facing marketing communications specialists can be understood. Creative professionals in advertising overcome the problem of the indeterminancy (or polysemy) of meaning in advertising by hinting through a suggestive juxtaposition that certain values are associated with certain brands, rather than by making claims which, if taken literally, would seem ridiculous. More importantly, advertising agencies put up claims that, if they were made explicit, would open them up to criticism or censure. It is a measure of a poor general understanding of communication when advertising regulation and legislation focus on the ostensive content of ads and largely ignore the implied or covert meanings that ads carry.
Polysemy of meaning creates the space for consumers of advertising to use some license in reinterpreting ads creatively according to their own cultural reference points and reflecting their own sense of identity. The text of advertising, its prima facie meaning, can sometimes be its least interesting aspect because consumers may reject marketing strategies that seem too contrived or obvious. They may, however, use advertising and the brands that are advertised in ways that subvert the marketing text but reflect the consumers’ own values and social strategies. For example, UK consumers once mocked ads for the Skoda car, inventing jokes at the brand’s expense. Skoda improved the quality of their products and then exploited the fact that their brand had become so well known by creating ads that referred to its poor public image with strap lines such as ‘It’s Skoda – honest’. Consumers knew that the brand was mocking their poor (and flawed) perception of it, but the manufacturer gambled that consumers would enjoy the joke at their expense and understand that there was a serious point: that Skoda cars were much improved.
A further important issue in the way that advertising meaning is interpreted is its context.
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