Decoding Advertisements

[Cross posted at]

Judith Williamson’s ‘Decoding Advertisements’ is a classic look at the semiotics of advertising – about how adverts construct and promolgate meaning, necessarily involving the customer in a system of signs and symbols, as a token in that system. It’s a great book and, in some sense, a forerunner of Naomi Klein’s book on Brands, No Logo

I’m going to talk about it because it is exactly not what I am interested in in terms of advertising and psychology.

The first advert discussed in the book (shown below, p18 in the book) is an advert for car tyres. The advert shows a car stopped just before the end of a jetty; the text reports how they drove the car 36,000 miles and then did an emergency stop to test the quality of the tyres. They stopped fine – in other words, ‘these are good tyres’. But – aha! – says Judith Williamson – that is just the overt message of the advert. The covert message of the advert is captured in the image


The outside of the jetty resembles the outside of a tyre and the curve is suggestive of its shape: the whole jetty is one big tyre…The jetty is tough and strong, it withstands water and erosion and does not wear down: because of the visual resemblance we assume that this is true of the tyre as well. In the picture the jetty actually encloses the car, protectively surrounding it with solidity in the middle of dangerous water: similarly, the whole safety of the car and driver is wrapped up in the tyre, which stands up to the elements and supports the car. Thus what seemed to be merely a part of the apparatus for conveying a message about braking speed, turns out to be a message in itself, one that works not on the overt but almost on the unconscious level; and one which involves a connection being made, a correlation between two objects (tyre and jetty) not on a rational basis but by a leap made on the basis of appearance, juxtaposition and connotation.

Is this true? Do the qualities of the jetty occur to us and transfer to the tyres? Does this happen covertly, on an ‘almost unconscious level’. Does this magic bypass the normal rational monitoring of our thoughts? Well, it could be true, maybe. But also, something like it could be true – maybe the image really plays the role of a phallic symbol and suggest to the viewer thoughts of masculine strength and durability. Or maybe something contradictory but similar in style is true – does the image suggest danger, when the tyres are meant to make you feel safe, so that really it is a bad advert. Or maybe people just like to look at a nice picture of a jetty in the sea. Or maybe they like the curves of the jetty, and this makes them feel positive about the thing they see at the same time (the logo of the tyre manufacturer). All of these things could be true – I don’t believe Judith Williamson has any more idea than us which are true, and this is why I’m not interested in the semiotics of advertising at the moment.

The argument advanced in ‘Decoding Advertisements’ misses a critical step. Can it be shown that covert visual imagery affects consumer’s buying behaviour? I don’t doubt that covert visual imagery exists, nor even that in some circumstances has an effect, but does it have an effect in adverts? Till the whole class of influences talked about is demonstrated to be in operation, why should I believe these analyses of adverts are any more than psychoanalytic-spook stories?

So, while I’m alive to the use of decoding adverts using semiotics, the first stops on my investigation into adverts will be

  • the experimental evidence which shows that adverts do have an effect

  • and

  • the experimental evidence on what sorts of things affect behaviours

  • By ‘sorts of things’ I mean general categories like ‘new information’, ‘social influence’, ‘status’, ‘sex appeal’, ‘positive emotions’ – all things that at first glance seem more likely to be factors in adverts’ success. I’ll leave the fine, critical-theory, detail for later, and until I can be persuaded that, in an advert, a jetty is more than just a jetty.


    Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars. You can get a flavour for the book from this discussion, which includes examples. Judith Williamson is a flag on the fantastic semiotics black run.

    One reply on “Decoding Advertisements”

    i love all that analysis stuff! you read it, you look at the picture, you understand… a bit like understanding a new language.
    but the advert does not come with analysis, you have to do that for yourself (or not do it), and of course everyone is going to do it differently. the process reminds me a bit of those ink blot tests, where you can see almost anything in them, and what you see can say more about you, and what you might expect to see, than the thing you are actually seeing. so if a ‘let’s deconstruct adverts, as they are sure to be sneakily telling us stuff’ attitude is applied to adverts, you are more likely to find these ‘subliminal’ things as your expectation is making you find them.
    Also i am reminded of a friend of a friend whose poems were on the GCSE exam set text list for a bit. He got to see some of the essays about his work, and was amazed by some of the things the students said about it – they were interpreting things into his words that not only did he not intend to be there, but had never thought about at all! so you can read stuff into these ads, but that is no indication that that is what the advertisers intended.
    better i think (from the advertisers point of view) to have an arresting image, one that you notice *at all*, then the brand is in your mind, and becomes familiar – and hopefully comfortable.

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