Roland Barthes, when he discussed semiotics (or “semiology,” to be faithful to his use of the term), expanded the traditional notion of Ferdinand de Saussure’s sign into two levels: denotation and connotation. At the level of denotation, there is just the arbitrary and conventional relationship between the signifier and the signified. At the level of connotation, there is the concretized and contrived relationship between the signifier and the signified: Barthes calls this “myth.”
Advertisements are classic examples of “myth,” in that “subliminal messages” become part of the package, the marketing machine. Think “Josie and the Pussycats.” But to me, all this talk about “hidden messages” and “semiotics” surrounding certain aspects of a commercial is misguided analysis. A class I took in my sophomore year comes to mind: a student said that there was a “sexist message” in advertisements for wristwatches, where the minute- and hour-hands of the watch’s face “represented the legs of a woman,” and the second-hand “represented the penetration of the penis.”
But is it? If my watch reads 10:10.01, should I then assume that the watch company has intended to do this to sell sex to me? Obviously not.
Marshall McLuhan comes to mind: the effect of media is not the content, but the medium itself. McLuhan is often quoted and invoked for the phrase, “The medium is the message.” There is no “pro-gay” message in rainbow-colored lights: the light bulb’s message is the expansion and the extension of waking, working, and leisure hours. The medium that is the advertisement has served the purpose of extending “social realities,” but in truth, it doesn’t.
In selling papaya-based skin whiteners, do I disregard a preference for the morena? In advertising milk, am I in effect a racist because there’s no such thing as “black” milk? Do I discriminate against curly-haired people by selling shampoo?
If there is a “subliminal message” to any advertisement, it is that there is a different reading of truth, or a different truth altogether. Advertisements “mythologize” truth: shampoo alone will not give you extremely smooth, straight and shiny hair. Ice cream will not result in perfect scoops that won’t melt. Washing clothes with a particular brand of soap will not result in a really old shirt looking brand-spanking new. Herbal remedies are not substitutes to clean living and exercise, and there is no substitute to exercise.
As such, all advertisements function at the level of connotation: not just soap, but this brand of soap. Not just shampoo, but this brand of shampoo. Not just a TV show, but this particular TV show. There are no implicit messages about anything, but just an explicit message of the denial of choice, of signifying the signifier.