Decoding Visual Texts:
The process of decoding visual texts is, like language, learnt in early life, an immediate, cognitive, system of perception,
which establishes our place in the surrounding world. However, as John Berger argues, seeing has never been ‘a question
of mechanically reacting to stimuli.’ Determining what an image ‘means’ or what it is ‘about’
involves more than one level of understanding, as we perceive what is literally denoted while, often simultaneously, accessing
cultural codes to interpret what this may connote.
Simplicity and Transparency:
In his essay, Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes attempts to ‘submit…the image to a spectral analysis of the messages
it may contain’ using the advertising image, which he argues is ‘formed with a view to the optimum reading’
and thus perhaps more explicit in the information it conveys than other images, often on the surface appearing to be transparent
in its production of signification.
This quality of ‘simplicity’ is clear in the fact that advertisers, as Trevor Pateman has noted, don’t
have to do much to compel us to recognize something as an advertisement. Advertising has ‘entered the mainstream of
life’,i Berger's words, forming a vast superstructure to which we have become so accustomed that we rarely question
or notice the extent of it’s impact.
In societies with such a density of visual messages advertisements are rarely identified in isolation and retrospection,
but rather in a context where they have been anticipated, in a projective activity, as provided by Schank & Abelson’s
theory of script-based understanding, where a script is ‘a pre-determined, stereotyped sequence of events that defines
a well-known situation.’
Although we are in theory the active agents in this system, publicity images surround us in a way similar to language;
inescapable, not limited to one medium but existing in all, giving them, as Williamson argues, an ‘independent reality’
as they ‘constitute a world constantly experiences as real’, and giving us the impression that we are static,
they are dynamic reinforced by the fact that they ‘belong to the moment’, and are constantly altered and renewed.
The American Market Association defines advertising as ‘any paid form of non-personal presentation and promotion
of ideas, good or services…to inform and persuade the selected market.’ This presentation or promotion inevitably
addresses all readers/viewers as potential consumers, showing them sights of what they may possess.
Seeing and Possessing:
This analogy between possessing and ways of seeing is not restricted to publicity images. All images, to some extent, depict
‘things’ which in reality are buyable. Images necessarily and automatically reduce everything to the equality
Levi-Strauss argues that ‘For Renaissance artists, painting was…an instrument of possession…the pictures
represented a microcosm in which the proprietor…had created within easy reach and in as real a form as possible, all
those features of the world to which he was attached.’ Levi Strauss further argues that ‘this avid and ambitious
desire to take possession of the object for the benefit of the owner or…spectator…constitute[s] one of the outstandingly
original features of the art of Western civilization.’
Freedom of Choice:
However, advertising might be, and often is, construed as being closely related to freedom, offering a choice, offering
the customer the freedom to choose between one product and the next.
This seems obvious to the extent that freedom of enterprise for the manufacturer does mean that one brand will compete
with another, and it is the customer who, as the ‘active agent’ has to make a personal choice.
However,arguing against the idea of consumer freedom, Berger maintains that ‘every publicity image confirms and enhances
every other.’ Rather than being ‘merely an assembly of competing messages’ offering the customer the freedom
to choose, publicity is ‘a language’ always being used to make a single general proposal.
Advertisements persuade us to transform ourselves, and by extension, transform our lives, by buying something ‘more’
that will make us richer, even as it, monetarily, makes us poorer.
The result is what Kellner calls a ‘commodity self, which sees buying and consumption as a solution to problems and
consumerism as a way of life: the ‘good life’ in contemporary capitalism.’
Implicit within this ‘single purpose’ are the mechanisms that enable it to function.
Clearly, the only way for advertisements to motivate us to transform is to suggest, implicitly, that we need transformation:
that we are less than perfect.
Thus, in its promise of transformation, the advertisement must, to some extent, engender a feeling of dissatisfaction in the
customer, a feeling of being less than she/he could be. This dissatisfaction lends power to the advertisement’s offer
of an improved alternative.
Power to Acquire:
This idea of buying an improvement works on two levels. On one level it promises that costumers’ previous dissatisfaction
will disappear as soon as they buy the product, on another level it flatters the customer by suggesting that having the power
to spend money on this product, they are worthy of being transformed, and through the product, will become worthy in their
Driving these forces of motivation is the negative space of anxiety. Berger expresses this as ‘the fear that having
nothing you will be nothing.’ In suggesting that the power to spend money will carry the customer through to the promised
transformation, advertisements simultaneously work on the anxiety of being no one, of being, in Berger’s words, ‘literally
Not having the power to buy the product that will transform you, make you stand out, make your life perfect, and erase
all dissatisfaction, you become invisible.
And since advertisements work on the idea that to live is to attract attention, to be visible, to be seen living, the power
to spend becomes the power to live, and to have the power to spend is to have the power to become desirable.
At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the reality of class bias is obscured in advertisements, because, as Williamson
argues, they persuade us to feel ‘that we can rise or fall in society’ precisely according to our ability to buy
a particular product, which will increase our social status automatically, ‘replacing class with the distinction made
by the consumption of particular goods.’
The idea of money is sublimated into an image or lifestyle, which the advert implies we can ‘buy’ using the product
itself so that the object is a currency or a bridge to reach a better world.
An Improved Mirror:
Advertisements work on persuasion rather than declaration. Potential costumers are persuaded of the value and power of
the product by being shown people who have apparently been transformed. These people are visible as a result of their transformation:
shown to be desirable and enviable, they are the improved alternative to themselves customers are looking for.
Glamour is proved and constituted by the status of being envied. The power of glamour resides in the supposed completeness
which those who are glamorous experience.
And of course, since they are complete, they no longer need recognition or reassurance. After all, as Berger points out, to
be envied depends precisely on ‘not sharing your experience with those who envy you.’
To be glamorous is to be different, because better, than others, to be perfect and complete. The glamorous, again in Berger’s
words ‘look over the looks of envy which sustain them.’
They are to be observed with interest (and envy) but can never be seen to observe others with interest, since this suggests
they are less enviable, that they can envy others, that they still have dissatisfactions despite buying the miracle product.
Thus, the more distant the glamorous are from the consumer, the greater the illusion of their power, and of the power of the
product, which extends this promise of glamour, encapsulated by the enviable, to all potential customers.
Having the power to buy the products which will erase any dissatisfactions, and thus having the reassurance of the ability
of possessing, the ability to no longer be ‘faceless’, customers are encouraged to imagine themselves as becoming
They are encouraged to imagine themselves-as-they-will-become, having brought the product, which will transform them into
objects of envy for others, and will justify their being satisfied with themselves.
Berger maintains that in encouraging the customer to feel dissatisfaction, and then to feel the need to become enviable,
the advertisement steals a person’s love for themselves-as-they-are, and then offers it back ‘for the price of
More than simply employing subtle techniques to persuade the consumer to buy a product, advertisements exploit real anxieties,
fears, desires, and hopes. Glamour, Berger argues, ‘cannot exist without personal social envy being a wide spread and
common emotion.’ Advertisements are only powerful and effective because they use reality, because, Berger says, they
feed upon the real.
Needs and Gaps:
At the most basic level, advertisement works on natural needs and a natural appetite for pleasure, showing the products
they promote as actual objects, capable of improving your life in themselves and to be enjoyed in themselves. However, advertisements
have never been ‘just’ transmitters of functional product information. Rather, they are transmitters of social
symbolic information that contributes to the shaping of cultural tendencies within society.
As Williamson notes, advertising ‘feeds of a genuine use-value’. However, at the same time they exploit the customers
‘need for a social being…and human meaning.’
Advertisers generate systems of meaning, prestige and identity by associating their products with certain lifestyles and
values so that commodities become important adjuncts to interpersonal relations, in their communicating of social information
Williamson argues that attaching meaning to products is in fact the adverts essential role, saying that ‘ads have to
translate statements from the world of things…into a form that means something in terms of people.’
A Currency of Signs:
Advertisements are not simply transparent vehicles carrying a message, and it is ‘too simple to say that ads reduce
people to the status of things.’ Rather, they ‘set up connections’ creating or making use of ‘systems
of exchange’ which can then be used as given, and once a connection is made it can be translated the other way, and
in fact, becomes self-evident.
By providing the product with an image drawn from the outside world, an advert creates a difference between the product
it promotes and others in the same category.
In order to do this, the advert must appropriate a relationship that already exists in a culture, and use it to give social
meaning to it’s product, which initially has no meaning, and as Williamson points out ‘must be given a value
by something which already has value to us’ something which ‘already means’ and as a ‘known correlative’
is ‘our stepping stone’ to believing in the value of the product.
The advert can do this in two ways.
On the one hand, it can juxtapose the product with a given social signifier so that the customer is forced to assume some
sort of equality between the two.
Alternatively, it can portray an image of novelty that is attached to the product. However, this has value only in contrast
to the more typical style.
Thus, in both cases, adverts rely on pre-existing systems of signification, using distinctions that exist in society in reality
to create distinctions between the products they promote.
In some cases, the product can become so linked with it’s image that it not only becomes inseparable from it, it
also takes over the reality on which it at first depended on for it’s meaning, as the product becomes the sign of itself.
e.g. Beanz Meanz Heinz, the product is used to ‘explain’ the original.
As the object and its image are shown connected, so they become connected in the consumer’s mind, even when they are
in no way alike, we find an underlying equivalence in the systems of significance used. Non-sense, Williamson shows, ‘becomes
invisible’; while the product and its image are connected ‘the process of linking is unconscious.’
At this point, Trevor Pateman argues that ‘the semantic or formalist fallacy which thinks that all meaning is ‘in’
the text/ image bedevils semiology’ in it’s assumption that a system of meaning must already exist for the advert
to refer to it. He sees this as incompatible with the idea of novel connotations that ‘do not…have a place in
some pre-existing Dictionary of Connotations’. Instead, he suggests that the spectator uses an ‘inferential approach’
interpreting ‘by working out what connotation is appropriate.’
However, it is clear that axiomatically, we always assume some relevance, as Sperber and Wilson’s re-evaluation of Grice’s
maxims shows. (Theory of Relevance) Although the image is what gives the product it’s meaning, since we are supposed
to see that meaning as already there, any incongruity is by-passed in our perception.
Advertisements use knowledge, which is, according to Williamson, ‘always produced from something already known’,
which then becomes the guarantee for the truth of the ad’s claims. Williamson argues that ideas that in reality are
connected to ideology are ‘used and referred to because they ‘already’ exist in society and come to exist
in society because they are used and referred to.’
Ultimately, a product is ‘placed within a hollowed out knowledge and draws its significance from that.’
Advertisements use the image that supports its product to stimulate the imagination, using either memory or expectation to
evoke emotions. This technique correlates what is non-material, such as moods, status, and attributes, to what is material,
the product, the tangible object itself.
This means that the advert often links what we may see as unattainable, non-material needs we may have with an object which
is attainable (with the power to acquire).
In suggesting that the non-material, unattainable need is linked with the product, the advert reassures or suggests to us
that the former is within reach. What is unattainable is made attainable through the tangible object we buy.
In representing a feeling that is already there, already desired and usually difficult to attain, a product promises that
it can create the feeling it represents.
If you are happy, you buy some chocolate.
If you buy some chocolate, you will become happy.
As the two things are made equivalent they are also made exchangeable, and so the product may be used as ‘currency’,
as it represents access to the non-material signified, it also becomes the means or currency for obtaining a desired abstract.
While the ‘purpose’ of buying the product is supposedly for it’s own sake, it’s real ‘use-value’,
it is simultaneously promoted on the basis of an ‘exchange-value’, it’s ability to buy us something intangible,
something desired but hard to attain.
Thus products are portrayed as being able to buy for the consumer what she/he cannot buy.
A product becomes, to quote Marx ‘a natural product on one side, an exchange value on the other.’
Giving the material products they sell a non-material, desired social meaning increases their effectiveness since ‘two
needs are crossed’, yet, as Williamson emphasizes, ‘neither is adequately fulfilled.’
More than a mirror of consumer needs and aspirations, advertisers are also generators of what are very often unnecessary
ideals. Commodities, as Kellner points out, have come to function as ‘communicators and satisfiers’ informing
and mediating social relations, setting themselves up as knowing what an individual needs to become popular or successful,
at the same time inducing them to buy particular products to achieve these goals. In creating these structures of meaning
and differentiation, Williamson sees publicity as replacing functions ‘traditionally fulfilled by art or religion.’
Leiss, Kline and Jhally take this point further as they emphasize the way consumerism has come to serve as a ‘projective
medium into which we transfer the intricate webs of personal and social interactions’, leading to a world where, as
Williamson says, ‘relations between people increasingly take the form of relations between things’ and where people
are identified not with what they produce as workers, but what they consume as buyers.
Thus, all adverts encourage customers to create their identity through consumer goods.
Expressing this, Williamson argues that as consumers we are forced to ‘relate to one another through the language of
We become what we consume, and in setting up a structure in which people and products are interchangeable, Williamson seeing
adverts as ‘selling us ourselves.’
This is reinforced by the fact that an advertisement has no subject. The people it shows us are only there to validate the
claims made about the product, as proof that transformation is possible. This leaves a gap, a space that draws in the spectator,
who becomes, according to Williamson ‘both…subject and object.’
For advertisements to succeed in making products into signifiers of a ‘higher ideal’ rather than simply signifieds,
they must work through receivers ‘for whom and in whose system of beliefs they have a meaning’ and who as a result
of this perceived meaning, complete the circuit of relevance. A subject becomes ‘not a simple receiver but a creator
of meaning’ as the advertisement requires them to be so, because in order to make sense, they must work through the
To put it another way, an advertisement makes meaning for the receiver, and through the receiver. One the one hand we automatically
decode its address to us ‘it means to us’, while simultaneously, being cast in the role of it’s creators,
since ‘it assumes that it means to us’ therefore it must mean. ‘We give meaning to ads and they give meaning
Williamson argues that the subject is locked into this process that is ‘devoid of meaning… except in so far as
meaning is always assumed through…it’s perpetual translation.’ So that, in the same way as the component
values of ideology can function only in their being assumed as already existing, the subject functions as an object in being
addressed as already an object.
The subject operates in the space or ‘field of transaction’ which the advert has drawn them into, requiring them
to link between the signifier and the signified, a link which is not there in the ad, but is implicit in it’s construction.
This places us in the space of the signified.
Once products are signified as different from other products, they then become signifiers of difference. This transaction
of meaning leads on to signifying our difference, as we differentiate ourselves from others according to what we consume,
leading to human symbolism, as people are described by what they mean rather than what they are.
The object is seen as differentiating between ‘totemic groups’. Although these objects are neither natural nor
naturally different, they are given the ‘natural’ status, so that it seems impossible not to see them as a means
of signifying our difference. We must feel that we already belong to a certain group, and this recognition motivates us to
buy the product, as we see ourselves as the kind of people who would use this brand.
The regrouping of society in terms of consumerism takes place at the expense of both the recognition of the real issues of
class difference, and at the expense of the idea of individual human difference.
At the same time however, an ad must speak to the subject as uniquely individual. Paradoxically, the adverts must appeal to
the subject’s uniqueness, while at the same time submerging that individuality into the idea of a totemic group of same-brand
users. As Williamson puts it:‘In constituting you as part of a group, ads must nevertheless address you as an individual.’
Adverts make certain assumption about their receivers that cannot be questioned by us since we are trapped in an illusion
of choice, as adverts ‘invite us ‘freely’ to create ourselves in accordance with the way they had already
This means that subjects have to exchange themselves for the subject the ad creates for itself – the imaginary assumed
spectator spoken to. We are addressed as a certain kind of person, who is already connected with the product. In this way,
adverts ‘create an ‘alreadyness’ of facts about us.’
This means that ultimately there is only ever one receiver in the advert, and this ad-created receiver applies to all of us
and to none of us, as every subject becomes the subject ‘you’ already in the address, already existing in a totemic
group centered on the product.
Every receiver must step into the space the ad creates and must become the ‘totemic identity which the product must
be endowed with in order to mean.’
We can only transfer meaning in the ad at the price of being appellated by it as a certain kind of subject who can transfer
the meaning because they are part of the products totemic group. In this process we feel as if we are active since we translate
the meaning, but in being appellated as the imaginary ad-created receiver, we are passive objects, rather than subjects acting
out freely the dictation of a coherent ego.
Our creation of meaning as ‘active’ receivers, and the adverts appellation of us as passive objects happen simultaneously.
As we are portrayed as part of a totemic group, we are given the attributes connected with it, we are given a totemic identity,
and thus we are projected as buyers precisely because since we have the ‘given’ beliefs implied in the totemic
group, we must act in accordance to those beliefs and buy our totem.
Simultaneously, ads speak to us in terms of our individual identity which must recognize as linked with the product, while
at the same time performing this same function for everyone who comes within it’s reach. There is only one unique identity
that we must step into and assume. While it reassures us of our uniqueness, it places us in a group, and it reaches out to
every potential customer with the same message.
The advert thus assumes both a coherent ego in position to compare itself to others, and, because there are ‘others’
it suggests an implicit difference – people who are not like you, not part of this totemic group.
The adverts address of different people as imaginary subjects means that the subject can’t identify with other spectators,
since the precondition of being appellated as unique means that the subject is the single unique individual addressed. Any
person in the advert, is portrayed as part of ‘our’ totemic group, and so is ‘inevitably made part of us,
a sort of alter ego.’
As it has become more difficult for the advert to simply claim that a subject is ‘like this’ it implies instead
that the subject has many sides to their personality. This is positive, but at the same time it exploits the illusion of a
fragmented ego, unified and united, made coherent, by the product, which claims to represent all our different personalities,
the elements that in their totality create us.
Publicity sets itself up as presenting us with the object of desire. But in trapping us within it’s created implied
subject, the one subject possible, it is exploiting the subject’s need for meaning and coherence, and presenting us
with this coherence. The object of desire is actually the self.
Re-unifying Self with Image:
The advertisement makes use of the subjects desire to become re-united with itself, with it’s mirror image, once
it has entered the symbolic realm, constantly seeking to return to the imaginary, coherent sameness of being at one with the
world around it.
This is impossible since the subject, in its self-appellation, perceives itself as different. We can recognize that the mirror
image is meant to symbolically signify us, but for it to signify us it inevitably can never be us.
It is distant precisely because it is portrayed as a reflection of us, something which is intended to mean us. Since it means
us, it is clear that it can never be us.
We are kept in the trap of gazing at the mirror image which because it symbolizes us, can never be us, because we cannot step
outside the space the ad has created, in constructing it’s one receiver.
Lacan: the ego is constituted…when the subject fastens himself to an image which alienated him from himself, so the
ego is forever irreducible to lived identity.
Adverts ‘offer us an image of ourselves which we can aspire to but never achieve.’
Thus, what an advert does is to show us the fictional creation of an impossibly unified self as a symbol of ourselves, as
an image meant to attract our desire for coherence and meaning, suggesting that we can become the person portrayed.
But, at the same time as we step into this space and identify with ‘our’ improved image, we are aware that merging
with this objectified image is impossible, because it is set up as an image of ourselves. It suggests it is the same as us,
while being undeniably and inevitable separate and different from us. ‘An ad dangles before us an image of the Other
but invites us to become the Same.’
The subject is placed in the impossible position of blindly striving after what is unattainable, and so the desire is ‘constantly
replenished because never fulfilled. We want to merge with, be a part of, something which only signifies to us when separate
‘The lack is what it wishes to fill and at the same time it is always careful to leave gapping in order to survive as
desire.’ Christian Metz
We pursue imaginary, lost objects.
The advert implies that we can recreate ourselves. Using these imaginary lost objects we can re-unite ourselves with our appropriated
image. ‘Our face is always other in the mirror, yet it is ours, so why shouldn’t these faces become ours?’
Things belonging to the subject –skin, hair, face, or even lifestyle, kitchen, wallpaper – have been appropriated
by the advert, which presents an improved, different, therefore separate, reflection of these things and suggests that ‘in
order to get back these lost objects, you must buy them and recreate yourself’ as your appropriated image in the ad.
(So you don’t buy soap, you buy back your healthy skin.)
In buying products with certain desired images we are recreating and rebuilding ourselves, and our lives. ‘We are both
product and consumer’ in that while we consume the product we are the product. We are sold ourselves.
‘Our lives become our creations through buying, an identikit of different images of ourselves created by different products.’
Desires and Deferred Fulfilment:
Berger makes the point that advertisements ‘can never…afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing
to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it.’
For this reason, ads are never about the present. They are never ‘a celebration of a pleasure in itself’, because
that will only isolate the spectator-buyer whom it inevitably excludes. Instead, they offer us the future, an image of improvement,
making consumers envious of themselves as they might be.
However, while advertisements speak in the future tense, the actual achievement of this future is always deferred.
This leads Berger to conclude that publicity is not in fact about objects which we can posses. Rather, it is about social
relations, offering, not pleasure (because the object itself is absent) but the happiness of being judged enviable by others.
Williamson makes the same point is seeing consumers as poised between a desire for glamour and the knowledge that they can
never achieve it, ‘that it is a myth.’
Thus, advertisements create a ‘real’ need, in that it makes spectator-buyers desire something, but it is a need
that is ‘falsely fulfilled, in fact, sustained by its perpetual unfulfillment.’
Berger argues the same point from a slightly different angle, maintaining that publicity remains ‘credible enough to
exert the influence it does’ because it is not judged by the real fulfillment of it’s promises but ‘by the
relevance of it’s fantasies to those of the spectator-buyer.’ In this context, the gaps between what advertisements
offer in reality, and the (always deferred) future it promises ‘corresponds with the gap between what the spectator
buyer feels himself to be and what he would like to be.’
According to Berger, this leads to the individual feeling powerless, and forces us to live in the contradiction between what
we are and what we would like to be. Publicity encourages and exploits this contradiction, and so it’s ‘essential
applicability is not to reality but to day-dreams.’
Yet, to repeat an earlier point, publicity feeds upon the real. It does not create these daydreams; rather it exploits them
in suggesting to potential costumers that although they are not enviable yet, they could be, if only they buy this particular
Discussing the credibility and influence of publicity, Jack Solomon puts it succinctly when he says that ‘advertising
campaigns are exercises in behaviour modification.’
Publicity presents itself as placing the subject in a situation of freedom, giving us the impression that we are free to
produce meaning for ourselves, in an active participation in transference of meaning.
But, this implied freedom is still a position which is given to us by the advert, and the hermeneutic process through which
we channel meaning are provided by the advert for it’s own decipherment.
The subject is only a part or link in the exchange system. Although we are constituted as the free and active creators
of meaning, we are only discoverers of a meaning already pre-given by the ad. The missing piece in the jigsaw can only possibly,
logically, have one shape. We do not deicide what the ad means, freely and actively, but we are given the pretence of active
involvement which obscures the unchosen and passive involvement. We are merely filling it’s absences with the pre-determined
meaning: both within the ad, by stepping into the one subject role which makes sense in terms of the ad’s construction,
and in relation to the ad, by decoding it’s one message which cannot be changed.
The ideological illusion of our freedom is the idea that the ad allows interpreatation, that it invites, in fact, demands
the spectator’s active involvement in order to produce meaning. The subject is cast in the role of the apparent producer/
creator. Yet we do not produce anything. Rather, we consume a solution pre-determined, and pre-constructed by the advert itself.
Our freedom to create or find meaning is non-existent within this frame, since the meaning is bounded and restricted to the
meaning the advert demands for itself.
Adverts conceal aspects of their lack of multiplicity, of their pre-given meaning, by diverting our attention to the message,
which is often made to seem ‘hidden’. Adverts function most effectively not by allowing meaning to be immediately
and easily apparent, but by implying that we have to hunt for it, thus implying that we are acting as free and active agents.
The message is seen as the prize of our solving the puzzle that is the advert, and this obscures the fact that there is only
ever one message which has been constructed by the advert and that we only step into the absence of the receiver to make a
link pre-made for us. The ‘absences anticipate the receiving subject’ so that the content or meaning can only
be interpreted within ‘the promotional set-up.’
Often, an advertisement has no subject, no focal person who represents the improved version of the subject. In these cases,
the advert extends ‘an invitation to reverse the mirror relationship…to become the figure who by their absence
has ‘become’ us.’
The subject enters into a narrative which appears open and free, without an image which is different from us and yet set
up as us, however this apparent freedom is in fact closed, because it demands that the subject step into the role of the absent
presence in the ad.
Sometimes a product is not even portrayed in the advert. Instead, there is a replacement, where something is used to signify
the product, and this signifier is in fact itself an attribute that has been given to the product, and thus a signified of
it. The product is given a value that it does not have in reality, and can never adequately represent.
Williamson:‘Women in media are entirely constituted by the gaze of the man.’
Erving Goffman: Most of the advertisements presenting men and women refer more of less openly to the traditional division
and hierarchy between the sexes.’
Even when the man does not appear in the image, he is conspicuous by his absence, as the clues in the advert signify him,
and often the woman is just another of these clues.
Even in images of women that portray the female identity/ideal as free and powerful, the absence of the man defines and mediates
the image, and allows it to exist.
The man’s presence expresses his attitude to the outside reality he exists in, and to his situation in relation to
this exterior reality. The man’s presence is thus ‘dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies’,
which allows him to be in control of his environment, and is exercised on others ‘what he is capable of doing to you
or for you.’
In contrast, a woman’s presence, as Berger shows, ‘expresses her own attitude to herself and defines what can
and cannot be done to her.’ A woman’s presence is seen as enclosed within the confined and confining sphere of
self-scrutiny and inviting scrutiny. Being placed within this confined space comes ‘at the cost of a woman’s self
being split into two.’
Williamson sees the man in the image as ‘a persuasive presence defining everything and in whose terms the woman must
define herself.’ In part, a woman must see herself through a man’s eyes, as Berger maintains ‘she is almost
continually accompanied by an image of herself’ so that her self is divided between being the surveyor of herself, being
at one with herself, and as the surveyed object of the male gaze, ‘the sense of being appreciated by another’.
Expressing this, Berger says: ‘men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.’
Laura Mulrey in her analysis of the cinema’s system of representation sees it as offering men the position of the
dominant spectator, the implied viewer who is seen as the ‘bearer of the look’ while women are enclosed within
their sphere, as they are given the position of identifying with passive and objectified images of themselves.
Women appear, while men act.
Annemarie Dardigna makes this point as well. ‘It is ‘the order of thing’ created by men, in which the man
acts and the woman just is.’
A woman thus is seen as not expecting anything. Her only desire is to stay the way she is, and this refusal of change is,
according to Mireille Dottin-Orsini, linked with stereotypes of femme fatales and the eternal feminine, ‘rooted in the
eternal, being in this way actually fatale…asserting the woman’s eternity certainly increases her standing but
it is also a way of saying that she remains there, that she does not move.’
This further reinforces the objectification of women and the idea of women’s link to nature, unmoving and eternal ‘mother
nature’. Dardigna says that ‘the essential feature of women is to be a ‘natural’ object…in the
hierarchy established by men, she is a medium between them and nature.
A woman’s presence cannot contain any suggestion of the power of breaking out of this enclosed sphere. It must always
be mediated so that the spectator is made to feel that it is actually the man who still holds control over power and presence.
According to Berger, they are there ‘to feed an appetite not to have any of their own.’
Women are depicted in a fundamentally different way from men, because the ‘ideal’ implied spectator is always
assumed to be male, and the image of the objectified, passive woman is designed with this in mind ‘to flatter him.’
The female is shown as tying to reduce the distance between herself and the spectator, while being locked within her own self-
scrutiny she is at the same time allowing or encouraging the spectator’s scrutiny, and so displaying a relational dependence.
Claude Herne argues that ‘in the advertising image, in order to make women feel inferior, signs multiply and underline
the weakness, the lack of self confidence, fragility, hesitation, dissimulation, submission and infantilization.’
The masculine is privileged as the norm, the knowable, the light, while the feminine, presupposed by that privileging is constituted
as the other, negative, the unknown, dark.
Marc Préjean: "The code that governs relations between the sexes gives the man …these ‘masculine’ properties...linked
to the head," while women are seen as ‘rooted in the flesh and in nature’. Men having claimed the attributes and
merits of culture, learning, and rationality, women are ‘confined to the animal and its attributes."
Interpreting The World:
It is clear that advertising has meaning beyond its one purpose. Or as Leiss, Kline, and Jhally put it, ‘advertising
is not just a business expenditure undertaken in the hope of moving merchandise off the store shelves but it is rather an
integral part of modern culture.’ How far this goes, however, is arguable.
Berger, pointing out that everything adverts show is there, awaiting acquisition, argues that ‘publicity turns consumption
into a substitute for democracy’ as the choice of the products we buy takes the place of significant political choice.
Whether or not we agree with this, we are forced to recognize that advertising does to some extent have the power to shape
our lives, and that this power is impossible to avoid.
Paradoxically, even as we explain it, we are taking part in the puzzle it offers us, we are playing our part as the ever-present
potential consumer. We need a way of looking at ourselves, and ads give us this, we need to make sense of the world, and ads
make us feel we are doing in making sense of them. Thus, publicity appropriate real needs in people which are given a false
fulfillment. This is precisely why Berger sees as a kind of philosophical system, explaining everything in its own terms,
and at the same time, allowing us to feel that we are explaining it.
‘It interprets the world (as) the entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise
of the good life…”