An Essay written for the BA Graphic Design Visual Culture at UWE Bristol, received Mentors honorable mention. It analyses how and on what level meaning are constructed in a 2010 Emporio Armani campaign.

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Advertising and meaning construction W


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Advertising and meaning contruction

The problem of the way meanings are constructed has been a challenging point for theorists and sociologists for a long time and is still a great source of confrontation. Everything that surrounds us establishes meaning relations with us, our culture and our prejudices , in a really complicated and intricate way. Everything can be read as a text that means more than the simple collection of elements of which it is composed, that change meaning and sense every time we approach to it, that can change us and our world perceptions. The “hermeneutic circle” (Gadamer, 1960) theory points out how much interpretation of meanings is an eternal “work in progress”, and how much our life is related to this kind of interpretation. Even the values construct meanings , and even the law has to be always interpreted by lawyers and judges matching the rule and the evidence with the landscape of the happening.
But another phenomenon is interesting from the “significance process” point of view, a phenomenon that is typical of the post-modern world, that everyday charges us with new senses and forces us to challenge ourselves in always new interpretations: the advertisement. Advertisement is in fact something that takes advantage of a lot of meanings in order to reach its aim: impress people to make them buy the product. Recently a particular ad campaign has been very popular and incredibly effective although its structure is really simple: the Emporio Armani Underwear Spring/Summer 2010 campaign, able to construct a lot of meaning using very few elements. It seems strange that with such an elements scarcity the advert can be so strong in communicating its message. I aim to discuss the “meaning construction” of these adverts: selecting two images of the whole campaign, we are going to analyze what these images means to us to be that effective.

The adverts are composed of a figure (the one that publicized female underwear has of course a women, while the male underwear uses a male figure), in black and white, on a dark background on which the logo and Emporio Armani Underwear payoff stand.
The female role is taken by Megan Fox, popular young actress, the male being Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most famous football players at the moment. The choice of such famous people, undoubtedly both very beautiful and appreciated, gives the first, important layer or step of significance. We can’t as a matter of fact believe that meanings, mostly in a contemporary society that is defined as “liquid” (Bauman, 2000), continuously changing and mutating, are constructed only in one passage, just in one single moment of significance which gives us instantaneously all the possible meaning of a given thing. Thus it has to be accepted (in accord with semiotic theories of relations bundles and interpretation i.e. Eco,1989) that the final meanings, the intellectual relations we get contacting something (a text), are (more than) the sum of its partial meanings, as the stairs are in a certain way the sum of their steps.
 The first production of meaning is that people can recognize the models of these Emporio Armani Underwear adverts as very popular people, and thus the adverts gives us the feeling that such famous models make the underwear itself something a lot more valuable than one wore by unknown people. So photographing Megan Fox and Cristiano Ronaldo gives a wider visibility to the products, and clearly makes use of these peoples’ popularity in order to give the adverts more impressive strength. The fact that the models are renowned for their beauty makes possible such an immediate power of the adverts.
 The second step of our analysis is focused on the image itself. Does the formal composition, the disposition of elements inside the adverts have importance in the significance processes? What do black and white photography, simplicity of graphic structure and dark background mean?
 First of all it can be found, inside the composition, the influence of established graphic rules. A certain modernist feel in the images is evident: the rigor, the formal and structural interest in the composition is strong and aims to focus our attention on the figures with a carefully balanced visual weight. It gives a sense of “eye satisfaction” watching the figures, without noticing anything else, meaning that the composition “constricts” the eye to focus on the bodies’ images.  Looking at these photographs it becomes clear that they are also using canons of figurations, because the poses and the lights of the images remind us of something already seen before. The Megan Fox picture can be easily compared to the Nadar portraits. The beauty of the subject, emphasized with the use of soft lights, the tonal difference between the dark background and the white, milky skin are peculiarities of the great artist style, which made him famous. If we compare the Nadar masterpiece portrait of Sarah Bernhardt 2 and the Megan Fox picture 1 , the use of a sort of canon of representation becomes clear, together with a strong reference with this artwork. The light emphasizes curves, shows the admirable details of skin, once more paints shapes, guides the harmony patterns of desire and contemplation inside the image.
At the same time also the Cristiano Ronaldo photograph 3 has strong references and canons. They are different, because they have to transmit a clear differentiation of the ideas of “perfect masculinity” and “perfect femininity”, and in order to do this the adverts and the images use different canons and references. As a matter of fact the Cristiano Ronaldo image does not give this softness feeling and delicate though irresistible sensuality of the previous images (curiously both of actresses but with more than a century of difference), but uses other ways to communicate other meanings. The pleasure of describing with light perfectly defined muscles, and playing with the reflexes of light on the masses of both body and skin, using the shade as a tool to highlight empty and full spaces of the male body comes from another great photographer’s works: the Mapplethorpe portrait style 4.

 So therefore the second step of significance is inside the composition and inside the canons and references (even if unconscious) , revealed by particular, intentional ways of representation. This means that studied effects and structures, taken from graphics and art, are used in order to give first of all a veiled sense, a vague feeling of timelessness and statuesque (through black and white, but also with a distant recall to classical Greek period sculptures and neoclassical statues, evident in the surprising resemblances between Prassitele’s Hermes 5 and Emporio Armani’s photographies of Cristiano Ronaldo), but most of all to reach our attention and have more visual impact, emphasizing the role of the perfect model’s bodies.
 We can further say in this analysis that the underwear pieces are not really important as objects in the figurative meaning process: from the moment the advert has been seen, the significance process develops with the recognizing of who the models are, then comes the admiration of their perfect shapes, and then the attention is guided to focus on the logo, without any interest for the real object that the advert is promoting. With a rapid reflection we can assume that the advert is not promoting objects at all but rather publicizes a way of being that is proper and clearly represented by the models chosen by the company (as shown by the careful semiotic analysis of adverts processes intended as promoting Narrative Programs - G. Marrone, 2007).
Giorgio Armani himself, the company founder, declared about the choice of Megan Fox:

“ Megan is young and sexy and has a lot of spirit. Emporio Armani Underwear and Armani Jeans are all about a youthful attitude making her the perfect choice for the collections”.
— Armani Press 12-01-2010

Such a care in the choice of the model confirm our suspicions: The Emporio Armani company is not promoting directly its underwear, but is promoting a young, sexy and “with lot of spirit” way of being, which is possible of course only by wearing Emporio Armani Underwear.  This is the core of the significance process: through the use of selected models, these particular compositions and these particular colours (black and white has always been related to timelessness and class), is transmitted a way of being, a modus vivendi, a way to act in life which, by following the accurately chosen models, is possible through a particular object ( the underwear).

Another key point of meaning can be discovered observing where these adverts are commonly placed. In fact Emporio Armani ads are shown on buses, in newspapers, on posters, obviously in all busy and frequented places. Thus there is not an elite significance, nor a restricted target. The meaning of using widely known people images in highly frequented places is: This underwear can be for everybody but nobody can gain from wearing them real class, power or even better living conditions, but rather can feel and be as young, as sexy, as with ‘youthful attitude’ as the popular actress and football player that promote the underwear.
But why is this meaning, so explicit and obvious, so efficient? Why, if we can easily understand that the advert is working as told, are we still fascinated and stricken by these advertisements?  Because these adverts are based on people experience, on normal peoples’ desires which are created by spectacle and television. The result of this process, governed by media, is the creation of vague dreams and whispering ghosts that become reflected inside the social relations. Most of the strength of these images is due to using in the real world the projections of the promises and mirages ( that are the dreams and the ghosts) of media’s fake, virtual world. What would be the point of using Megan Fox’s face and body if she was not famous and universally renowned as a sex-symbol?
Thus another mechanic inside the meaning process is shown: the self feeding circle between media and advertising creates and uses the same meanings (Cristiano Ronaldo VIP status is created by media and publicized by media itself) in constant, continuous meaning productions: in a newspaper where Cristiano Ronaldo is celebrated as a great football player, there would likely be some gossip concerning him, and also the advert in which Cristiano Ronaldo is used as a model to sell underwear.

It is becoming little by little more clear how complex and layered the meaning processes are inside this simple advert, but our analysis still lacks another important role. Who makes possible the circle of interpretation that creates the significance?
So who are the people on which the advert is thought and targeted? On what kind of people is the Emporio Armani publicity more effective and why?
As said before those images are displayed for everyone, without distinction of class, of social hierarchy or sex, but instead for people that have something in common, that is, the same up-to-date media-based culture. We must however highlight that it is always a western culture kind of view which is expressed by media, and the occidental credos is what produces the adverts, and at the same time this kind of culture is the one that consumes them. Thus we should distinguish between a widely spread culture, dominant in our social landscape (which seems to us normal and obvious) and a pretentious universality of these images. This distinguishing has to be absolutely applied also to the meaning and significance relationships the adverts create, because meanings are strictly related to the cultural and social context in which the text is, and the correct significance (if there is one) of a text so much knotted to its meaning context as advertisement can be rescued only inside the relations between the text and its proper, defined context, in the same way a word can be understood properly and caught with all its meanings and tones only inside its own language (this phenomenon has been called by linguistics and mostly by Saussure as the ‘langue’/ ‘parole’ system).
 Thus it means that if we export these Emporio Armani Underwear adverts, with all the beauty of Megan Fox and Cristiano Ronaldo in a completely different social and cultural landscape as, for example, a Middle East, fundamentalist country, the significance processes and the meanings we have found and that we believe exist within the images themselves will instantaneously decay, transforming in some completely different meaning process ( as a matter of fact credibly opposite).
 Returning to our Emporio Armani adverts, it becomes clear that they are created and consumed strictly by first an occidental, then a media-based cultured people. This is the dominant ideology or “jargon” which Roland Barthes calls “the shadow of the text” (Barthes 1973), that the text needs to explain itself:

“There are those who wants a text (…) without a shadow, without the “dominant ideology”; but this is to want a text without fecundity, a sterile text (…) The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subjects: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds...”
— R. Barthes, 1973, p.32

Thus the provocation: do these adverts have a universal and atemporal validity? The answer seems to be negative, it seems that these qualities are forbidden to adverts, because they are products of a precise, punctual society, in a certain period of time, with its models and values, produced by it and addressed to it, and most of all they take their meanings from the society.

So the targets are people that are part of western, media-based society, but also mainly young or middle age people. Why? What are the reasons to say this?
Because another important meaning constructed is promise.
Emporio Armani Underwear, through the lines, silently promises. This promise, which is the strongest significance of the whole advert, is future. The company shows us, through photographs and everything said before, the possibility to become famous, popular, tells us that we have every right to be as young, as bloody beautiful, as “with youthful attitude”, as the adverts’ models. That’s why the real targets are people that can define their future, are young people or individualities that are always searching for change, that feel this kind of promise, believe in and search for this possibility. This is the other, crucial step of our “meaning stairs”, a promise of future: “wear this particular underwear and you will be (or feel) like these models”.  It is a process that is less linear, less simple than it appears to be. The promise is generally the base of advertising, and again we all are conscious that it is a fake, it is not a true promise. It is clear that these processes are not working only on a rational level, but strike us in a deeper way, that is stronger than just emotion: This feeling is our social perception. The promise works because we need to stay socially, relationally awake by continuously consuming foggy promises, undefined possibilities to become and subtle fires of interests. Following the reading of modernity as liquid (Bauman 2000), continuously changing and reinventing itself, inside which nothing (even the state) is fixed and stable, even the relationships becomes floating and unstable. The social perception of our figure is one of the core centres of our social existence, as cleverly explicated by the novels and the theater plays of Pirandello, which points out the concept of acting, of wearing masks in society (Pirandello, 1926). What the adverts (and advert makers, even if - or mostly because - they are supine to this reality as well) understand is the need of people to figure out a new possibility, a new future in order to “wear a mask”, to act in society as they would desire to, giving to their own personality a touch of beauty, of class, of detachment, of “style” to feel more interesting or attractive maybe not even mainly for others, but first of all for their own perception as person. The promises of the Emporio Armani Underwear company in this way try to reach the inner, highly personal process of self definition and self awareness.

Now in our analyzing process, which has started from the particular, the images themselves, zooming out to wider landscapes (places where adverts are shown, targets, etc.) the meaning construction level has to be considered inside the society bases: what meanings are constructed inside society, -that is- inside taste? This is a fundamental step that can give us a more all-round view of the question.
 It has been said that these adverts are products of this particular society and only under its light can they produce their proper meaning, but what are the significance relationships with the society feeling, the taste?
Such a reflection is obliged to start with a kind of definition: first of all what is taste?
“the sense of taste , this most animal and most inward of our senses still contains the beginnings of the intellectual differentiation we make in judging things. Thus the sensory differentiation of taste which accepts or rejects in the most immediate way, is in fact not merely an instinct, but strikes a balance between sensory instinct and intellectual freedom”
— H.G. Gadamer 1960

Therefore taste is first of all sense, a necessary way to know the world and a primary phase of a thing’s qualities distinction. What else can be the stage of infantry in which babies puts in their mouths everything they can get if not the strong necessity of exploration and distinction of what surround us? -and why do even adults desire to taste what they care more of? What is the first meaning of the kiss?-
 The interesting parallel between the sensory, personal taste and the common, social one is valid because it can be considered as the choice of the dishes with which we feed our social image. Social, shared taste can be easily described as the innate sense (we all are provided with it) of our social identity definition (separate from the personal one). Taste (either social or personal) means choice.
 Thus choosing - most of all products –, in accord to social taste, gives the possibility to “productively determinate” (Gadamer 1960) the possibility to participate (through choice) and modify the social environment which seems to be completely out of our control.
 Taste causes to vary the broad relationships we have with our own environment and henceforth to perceive oneself as influential in society. Thus the Emporio Armani Underwear adverts find their strength here: they insert themselves (through promises) inside our social taste, until we feed our social image with this dish (the Emporio Armani products), that makes us to feel we are determining and changing the environment around us through wearing this particular underwear. It comes to light, however, that the adverts do not make their own proper change to taste, they are not proposing a different taste, or a change in taste, they propose a different, bright way of being and taste enters only in the choice of what we would like to be in front of and with others.  The point in the taste field is that Emporio Armani publicity does not construct its own meanings, it does not give new sense or new shining, intelligent, attractive or whatever else significance but it is using meanings that already exist inside the social taste, that is inside the western society, inside the people.
Again we dealt with the circularity of significance between adverts and targets, that exists only thanks to its medium: Medias.
 In conclusion it is clear that a simple (at first sight) advert campaign like this has a really complex and stratified meaning background. It has been shown how the images work, what kind of artistic “aura” they have , what their references are, the targets and their links with their social environment. Simple images have really broad relationships with the society, the taste and the people, they are meaningful and stratified. From here each Emporio Armani Underwear advertisement gains its sudden impact.
But why finally can such a complex hodgepodge of meaning elements be read so easily, so quickly from people (that is targets), if they see these adverts for few seconds without really paying attention to them?
At the end we have noticed that, even for the inner composition and structure of images, the advert does not create its own meanings, just exploits them. The Emporio Armani company uses even the celebrity of Cristiano Ronaldo and Megan Fox, does not create it. It’s the same for the photographs: the company uses the previously said canons and references only in order to make a stronger impact, not for quoting them, and because they have become a model to communicate precise feelings and emotions (and nobody obviously cares if there is or not a Nadar reference in the Megan Fox photography, because it simply achieves the effect the company needs). The promises of bright future secretly whispered by those posters pursue the ghosts and the imagination of people, without creating and moulding them.
 The inner, deep secret of these adverts is that they have not their own meanings, they use meanings that are inside society, which are spread by medias. The Emporio Armani Underwear adverts, in the end, have a strange role in the society: they are interpreters, readers - readers of the peoples’ needs (of future, of popularity, of beauty) through using already established meanings.
The evidence is that the meaning construction of these adverts is strictly dependent on the social culture ,from which it draws the content and significance.

Images, in order:
1 — Emporio Armani ad, Megan Fox, 2010
2 — Felix Nadar, Sarah Bernhardt, 1860
3 — Emporio Armani ad, Cristiano Ronaldo, 2010
4 — Robert Mapplethorpe, Black nude 1980ca
5 — Prassiteles, Hermes, 350 b.C ca

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