The myth of beauty and happiness versus clever identification – new research drills into advertising

Marketing surrounds us. Adverts and selling texts, pictures and film clips follow us around whether we move in the physical or digital world. But what sort of creative processes that advertisers follow when designing the messages is something many of us are less aware of. Stuart Foster, Halmstad University, shows in his thesis that knowledge on meaning and context would benefit the advertisers job.

Most companies and advertising agencies rely on years of practical experience rather than theory in their advertising. Stuart Foster has in his doctoral thesis in English, specifically looked into how knowledge in semiotics and not least linguistic pragmatics* contributes to advertising. An ad that relies on a semiotic approach is likely to tap into so called cultural myths.

*Theoretical background: What is semiotics versus pragmatics?

Semiotics is the study of meaning-making, the study of signs and their relation to other signs, and the role of signs in communication processes and meaningful communication.

Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics about the ways in which context contributes to meaning. Unlike semantics, which examines meaning that is conventional or "coded" in a given language, pragmatics studies how the transmission of meaning depends on both the speaker and listener, and also the context of the utterance – any pre-existing knowledge about those involved, the inferred intent of the speaker, and other factors.

In this respect, pragmatics explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity, since meaning relies on the manner, place, time etc. of an utterance.

”As an example: the ad may depict a famous person who has beauty, wealth, a glamorous lifestyle and celebrity friends – the suggestion being that you, the consumer can have a bit of that by buying the product. It is a myth because how the person really lives may not be as it is suggested”, says Stuart Foster.

Sympathetic and personal

An ad that relies on the pragmatic approach uses more clever means.

”By this you, the viewer, will calculate some relevance of the product to your own situation or lifestyle. It may show empathy – it understands your problem. It may seek to be intimate with you, using personal pronouns like ’you’. It may depict representatives, for example a person with a flat tyre on the motorway – that's you and your car and your flat tyre!”

The pragmatic approach is difficult, as it requires a lot of words. Instead advertisers use a combination of words and images and make the reader figure out the real meaning through implications, whereby the viewer mentally "enriches" an image or words to create a fuller meaning.

”When you do manage to work out the riddle, you get a small reward in the form of self-satisfaction”, says Stuart Foster.

Black and white photo of some pencils lying on a book.

As people get wise to how ads work, the semiotic approach becomes less effective:

”No matter how much Bulgari perfume I use I can never look like Kate Moss, or have her wealth. However, if you can make an ad relevant to me by using pragmatics, that will always succeed, according to my research”, says Stuart Foster.

Lack of courses

He points out that in the training to work with marketing the courses in semiotics are either few or not very relevant. The courses don’t directly teach students how to construct their own ads – they simply look at what other practitioners have done in the past. And there aren’t any courses at all that teach any aspects of pragmatics.

”While there are many studies that have deconstructed existing advertisements, my study is unique in this respect, as I have interviewed practitioners, copywriters and so on as to their creative processes and sources of inspiration”, says Stuart Foster.

Since advertisers rely on practical experience rather than theory, their use of signification and context often comes from intuition and job experience.

”If they don't have the experience of their own, books written by successful advertisers will guide them. It's not very scientific, but they are often afraid to spend huge sums of money on advertising campaigns designed by theorists and which may not work.”

It appears to be the same for other English-speaking countries including the US, as the texts used apply across the English-speaking world, according to Stuart Foster.

Old habits

To Stuart Foster’s surprise he discovered in his study that the ones interested in this deeper, more theoretical knowledge is not the management of marketing companies – but the practitioners, the producers of adverts, themselves.

”Semiotics based ads have been around for a long time. Persuading advertisers that these are becoming less effective is likely to meet some resistance”, says Stuart Foster.

”Also, while we can see the benefits of using pragmatics, my work is very new and I have yet to develop it in such a way that I could, for example, suggest some kind of working manual for applying pragmatic principles in advertising design.”

Text: Kristina Rörström

Examples of myths in the semiotic approach

A myth might tap into a stereotype, for example showing a Scotsman in a kilt in an ancient castle to advertise Scotch whisky. The sight of the Scotsman instantly tells a story. It suggests the whisky is authentic, traditional and it is what real Scotsmen drink.

The same is done when advertising jars of pasta sauce. The product often has an Italian name with packaging that exploits the colours green and red, both the colours of the vegetables in the pasta but also those of the Italian flag. When you buy the pasta sauce you are supposed to feel that you are buying a little bit of Italy.

More about the thesis

Stuart Foster is a lecturer at the School of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, Halmstad University. His doctoral thesis is called ”Encounters between Theory and Practice: Semiotic and Pragmatic Principles in Advertising”. His research was carried out at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, supported by Halmstad University.

His study contains for instance insights from six different practitioners in Great Britain who work in companies of different sizes, ranging from a one-man copywriting firm to the founder of a large commercial firm. Some of them work with B2B-advertising, for example in shipping and inspection companies. One person was a commercial semiotican, who specialises in the study of signs and what they mean. This person worked more on a strategic level with branding of products.