The Approaches Used By Sociologists To Decode Advertisements In Modern Day And Age
The presence of advertising within our every day lives is paramount whether we are actively aware of it or not, now more so than ever with the introduction of new digital media, known by sociologists as the age of Web 2. 0. As we enter an age where globalisation forms the basis for many of our communications, contemporary media branches start to form and sociologists now aim to examine why advertisements have such a large effect on social groups by applying Michel Foucault’s theory of critical discourse analysis, implementing coding techniques and the practice of semiotics to the current media landscape. The purpose of this essay is to successfully illustrate how sociologists might decode advertisements in a day and age where media is present in every facet of life. For the purpose of this essay advertisements within the branches of television and radio will be the focal topics.
When visualising the term 'media', what first comes to mind is news broadcasters, columns in magazines, reporters, journalists. Not incorrect by any means, however, the social institution which Geoffrey Craig eloquently described, includes a broad range of companies and outlets such as transnational corporations, gossip columns, music radio, blockbuster movies, advertisements, and many additional genres all relevant within our current society. Advertisements are an extremely prevalent form of media within our society and are quickly becoming the perfect vessel for both individuals and companies alike to broadcast a variety of agendas they may have, from political alignments to where they stand on global warming. They motivate consumers to purchase goods or services, change their thinking habits, or create excitement. Both media and advertisements are topics of interests to sociologists as they provide a way to accurately examine the power dynamic between advertisers and the viewers.
As society has evolved over time, media and advertising have transformed, transitioning into more than just an attempt to sell a product. Sociologists use Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse analysis to focus on decoding all types of advertisements, allowing them to take a closer look at the power dynamic between advertisers, known as the encoders, and us, the decoders. When using discourse analysis as a decoding tool, what must be taken into account is the discourse that is being represented and whose interest is being served. Take Australia’s anti-smoking campaign in 2010 as an example. The dominant discourse being featured is that smoking is bad for our health, that it has transitioned from a personal trouble to a public issue. However, the time of release for this advertisement must be taken into context to give an accurate analysis. Jager & Maier (2009) state that, “if the discourse changes, the object does not only change its meaning, it turns into a different object. It loses its previous identity. ”
In Australia during the 1950s and 1960s, cigarettes were actively advertised on television and radio, and it wasn’t until 1976 that advertising tobacco was banned. When aired by the Australian Government in 2010, the interest being served was that of the people, targeting society at large. By viewing language not as just words in use but rather as larger social processes that include nonlinguistic and nonspecific instances of language, sociologists are able to critically analyse discourses and decode media. Every single advertisement we view on our televisions, scroll past on our phones, or tune into on the radio has been subtly coded by advertisers. This technique is called encoding and is done by companies all over the world as a way to influence our desires for certain products or to change our views. By quietly inputting their values and ideas into an advertisement that is then being consumed by hundreds of thousands of people, media outlets are able to influence society, therefore having the power to sway more than just our buying decisions. The 'Encoding/Decoding' model was formed by Stuart Hall to explain how advertisers communicate. Prior to Hall, many argued that the media was linear: going from the sender, through the message to the receiver. This model of linear media can be demonstrated through examples like a powerpoint presentation or factual youtube videos. These media varieties need the viewer's devout attention when watching and can, for the most part, not be misconstrued. However, Hall’s rebuttal to the linear media theory applied the thought that the viewer's agency allowed for decoding of media that was not passive and that it is influenced by various personal outcomes, such as their gender, economic and social status, culture, and personal history. This was vital to Hall's theory as it allowed him to solidify the idea that signs, also known as signifiers, took priority over language. The application of breaking down the meanings of these signs is known as semiotics and is applied by sociologists all over the world to help gain knowledge on how large a role signs play in our decoding of media messages. Semiotics is the study of analysing signs which are portrayed in media to further understand what they signify.
Daniel Chandler (2007) suggests that, “anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing for something other than itself”. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that a sign can be broken down into two components: the signifier and the signified. For instance, consider roses. On their own they have little to no meaning, but when accompanied by meaning they become a portrayal of love, romanticism, and passion. This theory is greatly reliant on the cultural language of the viewer as many signs could be easily misinterpreted by people from varying ethnic, social, or economic backgrounds. Acknowledgement of our world as a capitalist, consumer society allowed Jean Baudrillard to expand on Saussure's original theory, arguing that all consumer items sit on a hierarchy. He stated that items fall into four categories of values: functional, exchange, symbolic, and sign. By assigning one or more of these values to a consumer item, we can determine how the buyer views themselves, how they want to communicate themselves to society, whilst also acknowledging that companies have marketed their items a certain way to influence this purchase. Use of signs in advertising is no different. Brands will use certain signs within their advertisement to convey a message, as seen in the study of a tobacco company concluded by Anderson, Dewhurst, and Ling (2006). As a society, we are continually influenced by advertising.
Modern sociologists use several techniques when addressing advertising as a way to gain greater understanding in the way humans process them, taking into account their agency or lack thereof. The examples shown in this essay are conclusive of the theories mentioned. By using approaches such as coding, critical discourse analysis, and semiotics to interpret advertising, sociologists now have a greater understanding of media as a whole. However, as society progresses and globalisation of media continues, the application of new theories may allow further insight into a growing industry.