I’ve found Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements incredibly useful for introducing students to semiotics, ideology and subjectivity, as well as the critical study of advertising. I usually use Chapters One and Two. Students find the reading to be challenging, but I help them out a bit with this handout, which is my breakdown of her key points about advertising, subjects, and ideology.
How Advertising/Ideology Works/Means through Subjects:
Four processes discussed by Judith Williamson
We create the meaning of the ad/ Currency of Signs: Our unconscious linking of products, images, and emotions produces the meaning of the ad. The currency of signs does not exist without our active and desiring minds that complete transactions, transfer meanings and values between signs. The ad draws on existing referent systems— shared cultural codes, sign systems, and conceptual maps—to construct its meaning, and we in turn draw on these referents system to interpret and create the ad’s meaning. In order to expose the ideological work of an ad, you must be able to make conscious the unconscious links the ad asks us to make; in other words, you must be able to analyze the specific currency of signs and the particular transfers of meaning that subjects must enact in order for the ad to successfully complete its ideological work.
We are created by the ad/ Interpellation: The ad interpellates us; it “hails” us into its meaningful world by offering a subject position within the ideological system of the ad. When we are interpellated, we exchange our self with the subject position created by the ad. The paradox of the interpellation performed by advertisements is that it attempts to turn a mass of concrete individuals into ideological subjects of the ad by addressing them as unique and individual agents who freely choose.
We create ourselves in the ad/ Identification and Misrecognition: The ad offers the subject a mirror image with which to identify that is constructed out of various signifiers. This image becomes a symbol through which the subject can experience an imaginary, illusionary feeling (a misrecognition) of self-sameness, of unity. We desire to be this image, to complete and create ourselves through the image, because we lack something that it proclaims to have. Ads actively construct lack; they produce the space for our desire and simultaneously promise its fulfillment.
We take meaning from the ad/ Totemism and Social differentiation: Once we have created the meaning, we take this meaning with us; it sets our relationships to other people and/or groups of people. Just as ads create differentiation between their product and others like it, they create social differentiation between groups of people. Ads encourage us align ourselves with—and differentiate ourselves from— others based on our what we buy. Ads ask us to think about our social world—our relationship to it and to others—in terms of individual consumption and not in relation to the social processes of production (who made it and under what conditions,etc.).
I ask students to use Williamson to conduct their own critical reading of an advertisement in the form of an oral, in-class presentation. Here are the guidelines:
(10 points total)
Your presentation should be exactly 8 minutes. I am very serious about this requirement and will deduct points from your final score if you are significantly (more than 30 seconds) over or under time. Therefore, you should rehearse several times before presenting to the class.
You must bring your advertisement to class. Make copies (black and white) for your classmates if you feel it will enhance your presentation. Throughout your presentation, you should refer directly to the text in order to help your classmates follow your argument. You may want to have another classmate hold the advertisement and assist in pointing out relevant aspects of the text during your presentation. However, any collaboration of this nature should be rehearsed and well planned.
Your presentation should be formal and expository. You may read directly from a prepared manuscript.
You must actively and effectively engage with the theoretical concepts discussed in our course readings. Most important here are those concepts discussed by Williamson: ideology, subjects, interpellation, identification/desire, and signification (signifiers/signifieds/referent systems).
Your oral presentation counts 10 points towards your final score. I will grade your presentation according to the following criteria:
Presentation (2 points): your delivery and overall performance (time, clarity, eye contact, organization, etc.)
Analysis (4 points): your reading of specific elements of the advertisement
Theory (4 points): your engagement with and demonstrated understanding of our theoretical concepts from Williamson