A Semiotic Analysis of the Representation of
‘The Family’ in Children’s Commercials

Justin Watson

Advertisements are designed to show a mythic representation of our own reality, including products and services.  Certain ideologies are supported through advertising, and by this are considered ‘the norm’ by society (Bignall, 1997).  Some advertisers attempt to disrupt this norm, with surreal and unreal representations of reality, most of which we immediately become aware.  Adverts with a surreal element have become the norm in breaking down the barriers of ‘passivity’ (as expressed by Fiske, 1987), especially in relation to television advertising, where it is suggested we tend to ‘switch off’.

Other adverts, however, support our views of reality, and by doing so relax and comfort our views of our existence and experiences.  Challenging reality seems suitable for adverts for alcohol, for instance, but not for soap powder.  The same can be said for advertisements for children’s toys, they either break reality and go into an adventure in a mythic world (e.g. Lego’s ‘Jack Steel’), or remain tightly with our within our own representations of reality, and support our own feelings of ‘normal’.

The more sophisticated advertisements aim to confuse or question us at times, rather than give us a classic ‘hard sell’ (Bignall, 1997).  This is not often the case within adverts for children’s toys, however, and specifically adverts for girl’s dolls or boy’s cars, where imagination and ideology, as well as the supporting of stereotypes at once disrupt reality.  Reality could be said to disrupted, but also supported by the relationship between the toys and ‘reality’ itself.  A boy may be encouraged to pretend to be a racing driver, or a truck driver, but he is still being given a representation of ‘male hood’ that many of us can relate to.  Bignall writes, ‘Adverts make use of signs, codes and social myths which are already in circulation, and ask us to recognise and often enjoy them’ (Bignall 1997, pg 33). It is this use of signs, codes and social myths, which I am to analyse in relation to ‘the family’ in television advertising, specifically children’s toy commercials.

Adrian Furnham, in Children and Advertising: The Allegations and the Evidence (2000), writes of the ‘simple-minded’ approach to children’s advertising, which leads to a standard argument in how adverts work with children. ‘It is assumed that somehow television commercials, perhaps even programmes, turn children into irrational, demanding, incontrollable beasts’ (Furnham 2000, pg28). This ‘want’ theory is expressed in Figure 1, from Furnham.


(Figure 1, Furnham, 2000)

 


Furnham goes on to quote Goldstein (1999), and his further study, in which he places parental and peer influence into this equation, believing their input is of more significance, rather than the simple effect of watching the advertisement.  The development of ‘child as consumer’ has led to more complex models; with Furnham believing Goldstein’s approach is the more plausible (see Figure 2).

‘[Figure 2] suggests that the way parents bring up their children is the central and most powerful causative issue.  This determines the child’s values, his or her allowed (and later preferred) media consumption habits and friendship network’

 

(Furnham 2000, pg30)

 

(Figure 2, Goldstein, 1999)

 

If we are to believe that the child consumer is greatly effected by parental decisions (as Goldstein’s model demonstrates), it could then follow that a parent would want to encourage his/her child to interact with toys, literature etc which reflect their values, and more importantly the values of society.

With this in mind, the study of the role of the family in advertising becomes crucial to the stability of the child consumer.  Could we suggest that a toy that implies connotations of a ‘happy, family life’ would be more appealing to a parental unit looking to give their child a rounded, stable and normal upbringing?  It will be interesting to see whether advertisements containing elements of the family seem to take this approach to marketing.

This study is aimed at analysing the representations of ‘the family’ in adverts aimed at children, and by this meaning children in general, withholding any initial bias towards a particular gender.  With this in mind, it is worth noting the differences between adverts for boys and those for girls.  These differences have been studied greatly before, and with the focus on many different aspects (see Chandler and Griffiths (2000), and their detailed history of this widely discussed issue), and it will be interesting to se whether we can determine a difference in the representation of the family in children’s commercials.

Through the adverts I have viewed, with a view to analysing them for this study, I have found it difficult to find many distinctively family orientated advertisements aimed at boys.  This could lead us to many of the stereotypes views often cited in discussions of gender issues in relation to television, and specifically advertising (Chandler and Griffiths, 2000).

I hope to discuss the role of male gendered children’s commercials, and their position in the relation to the role of the family.  The adsense of a family in many boys’ advertisements could prove to tell us a great deal.  A further study could examine the ‘gendered’ role of the family unit within children’s advertising, and I will continue to discuss this where appropriate.  This study will, however, concentrate on a few examples of advertisements, and see what we can learn from the semiotic analysis of them.

The adverts were discovered through watching HTV Wales (Nationally ITV) on weekdays between 3.30pm and 5.00pm.  This section of HTV Wales programming is known as ‘CITV’ (Children’s ITV), and therefore contained the most adverts relating directly to my study.  It was interesting the view just how little variation in advertising there was at this time in the scheduling, with nearly every advert break containing a ‘McDonalds’ advert, and also a ‘Kellogg’s Rice Krispies advert.  I did find several adverts which have direct representations of the family within them, or elements which alluded to the family.  These selected adverts form the backbone of my study, and I hope to suggest some ways in which we analyse trends in a larger study, using the evidence gathered as examples.

A key area of the toy market, especially during the Christmas period, is that if the young girl consumer, who is likely to be given some kind of doll or related present (if we are going by the stereotyped idea of a girl’s toy).  It seems that a fair majority of adverts aimed at children are along these lines.  I shall discuss a more typical example of the ‘baby doll’ commercial, but first I have studied a current advert for ‘The Family Love Doll House’, which is a plastic mould representing the shape of a house, with miniature furniture and a family.  In this case the family consists of Man, Woman, Young Girl, Smaller Boy (so we assume younger) and baby son, along with a dog.

This ‘family’ live within a fairly large suburban style detached house, with large rooms and facilities, which are accessed by the child if she (or he) opens the whole of the front side of the house, and also through the rear, which is completely open. The commercial simply shows us around the house, the camera watching a child’s hand manipulate the small dolls around the play-set, whilst a song is sung, by a little girl, over the images.  Two girls play with the doll house, smiling as they do so, and are joined by a female adult at the end of the advert, who smiles also.

Advertising is never an innocent strategy, but can we approach this commercial in regards to its representation of the family?  It seems as though we can, because a family is clearly present in ‘toy form’, which must have some significance.  The use of the adult within the advertisement (whom we assume is a parent) is also interesting, and shall also be studied.

The significance of the toy family is the central theme of this advert, and is reflected in its name.  These pieces of plastic forming representations of humans have deeper meanings, especially when placed together, and alongside linguistic codes such as the song and the writing on screen.  The toy model of the woman is not just a woman, because we are led to believe this is a family.  This is due to our own knowledge of social and relationship codes.  We know that this is group of plastic ‘figures’ is a family, because society tells us that ‘Man + Woman’ equals a couple, and if there are children present, they are the couple’s children, and therefore a family. 

This is, however, no ordinary family, because the perfect plastic mouldings are not merely perfect in appearance, but perfect in their reflection of the ‘perfect family’.  The family is complete even down to the dog, and this completeness leads to connotations of fulfilment and happiness.  ‘Completeness’ in itself is in direct relation to fulfilment, which is one of our Western, commercialised, consumerist aims.  Fulfilment, in all areas, is considered a good thing.  We must have the right job, and the right car(s), and house(s), and partner(s) etc.  This completeness can be seen as a key part of this toy, and not just through the family.  This family also have a big house, large rooms, and other materials possessions like televisions.  They are considered whole, in terms of relationships and material needs/wants.

‘The Family Love Doll House’ goes beyond these ideals, and attempts to create an ideology around these plastic figures.  The toy re-enforces our desire to have marriage and children and a dog, in a big house with a TV, but it also suggests another level of completeness.  This new level is ‘love’, and the signs to indicate this are created differently than those above.

In a utopia of ’60s freethinking, we might possibly believe that love is everything, and that it is all that really matters.  We might even suggest that love and material possessions are binary oppositions.  This is not the case with ‘The Family Love Doll House’, because the only ‘love’ between this plastic family is given to us linguistically, and placed together with the iconic representations of the family unit.  In this way, the family is meant to represent love, and is love.  The song goes,

            ‘Would you like to see what we do each day,

            When my little brother and I play,

            This is where we live is the house that’s filled with love’

(‘The Family Love Doll House’ commercial)

 

The house is filled with ‘love’ because the family is there, and the child is encouraged to become part of the family (in this case becoming the daughter of the family).  If we remove the family, the house would not be the ‘family love’ house, just a house, without a family, and without love.  The song itself is telling us what the house is about. 

During the advert, we see the girls smiling as they play with the toys, pretending they are meeting at the door or bouncing on the beds.  These are typical activities any family experiences, but the feelings associated with these activities are not directly related to love.  In reality, they are more directly related to fun and happiness, but it seems that these emotions are only part of the feeling of ‘love’, represented in, and by, the house.  By this, we can suggest that all activities, both by the child playing, and by the toys (initiated by the child) are related to love, but only because of the linguistic relationship to the iconic.

It would be interesting to remove these linguistic signs, and see what the child made of the dollhouse then.  Would it still be full of love?  It would also be interesting to change some of the roles within the toy family.  For example, if the family only had one parent, the ‘completeness’ would be fractured, and therefore the ideal set up by the commercial is harmed.  If the couple were a gay couple, would the advert still work?  It could be argued that some people may not see this as ‘completeness’, and also the sense of love within the house would be different.  It goes against what advertisers see as ‘normal’.  The advert is based on Western, capitalist, consumerist; even Christian readings of completeness and fulfilment, so changes to this sense of ‘family’ would not work (in their eyes).  Mass media is still not capable of giving the audience an alternative view of modern day society, and being comfortable with holding it in a positive light.This sense of completeness, which I believe leads to fulfilment (at least in terms the of ideology of completeness), forms the basis of adverts similar to this, and they do seem to be addressing the young girl consumer, rather than the young boy.

Dan Fleming, in his book Powerplay: Toys as Popular Culture (1996), concentrates on toys for a male audience.  He discusses toys in relation to society, and the way this is represented in toys such as ‘Star wars’ and ‘Transformers’.  Fleming writes of the fascination with the hidden power of technologies’ (Fleming, 1996, pg 127), and other obsessions are evident in toys. ‘In the toys, an obscuring and mis-leading adult world, in which espoused values are contradicted by aggression towards others and towards nature, is translated into a fullness of meaning, a graspable whole, a master-narrative’  (Fleming 1996, pg 130). Within a girl orientated context, though, it is harder to see Fleming’s argument fitting.  ‘The Family Love Doll House’, in my model, does not conform to Fleming’s view.  Of course, he is addressing ‘boy’s toys’, but this is helpful in distinguishing a clear definition between the two. ‘The Family Love Doll House’ does not seek to obscure the child’s view of the world, nor mislead the child, but it reaches these ends by creating an ideology of ‘the family’ in our adult world, and is therefore helping to draw away from ‘realism’.  It attempts to create an idealised realism with its perfections and imposed sense of ‘love’.

A whole series of advertisements for baby dolls can be seen in between most children’s television programmes, and nearly all follow a similar line.  It seems now that the advancement of technology in the modern age has led to fierce competition to see which baby can cry the most and wee the most, and in the most realistic manner possible (going as far as having quite realistic looking genitalia).  What is interesting about these adverts, though, is the placing of the baby in relation to the child who plays with it, and how the advertiser attempts to form a ‘bond’ between child and toy.

‘Tiny Tears’ is similar to most baby doll commercials, but with several key differences.  Rather than creating an imaginary family between girl and baby (by visual ‘mothering’ codes and linguistic cues), this advert suggests an actual addition to a real family unit.  The advert does this by placing a child and mother on a clean domestic sofa inside a ‘normal’ family home, and has the baby in the girl’s arms.  The mother and girl both look at the baby, smiling continuously as the female adult voice-over says, “Tiny tears is just like having a new baby in the family”.

There is a more direct visual connection to the voice-over in this instance, because the scene is familiar to most of us.  It is a ‘family’ or social code, where the new baby is given to the older child to hold, normally when the mother and father return from the hospital.  The mother is wearing white, which could suggest the maternal gowns of the labour ward.  The visual codes are supported by the linguistic, and the ‘scene’ could be a reality. This scene of a new baby is also a key cultural code of our Western society.  It is seen as a time for joy and celebration, and a family occasion.  This again alludes to modern Western aims, one of which is to have a family, because this is a scene of happiness and therefore fulfilment.The Tiny Tears advertisement is again making a direct connection between wholeness and buying the toy, but the connotations of ‘love’ are clearer, and not so forced upon the audience.  This is because of the reality of the scene, and its very natural role in society.  It is as if the doll is a replacement for a real baby, and is again attempting to recreate an ideology of the ‘family’.

From the two examples I have studied, it is not possible to form any generalisations about the representation of the family within children’s commercials.  A more focused, and certainly more thorough, study of a greater number of texts would have to be made.  Although this is the case, the study has brought up discussion of the ideology of the family, and the way advertising representing our Western society, whether this is realistically or otherwise. Further separate studies could be made, because the issue is so vast, and as far as I am aware, has not been greatly studied before, especially in relation to girl’s advertisements.  With a greater study, I would investigate these further, and ask more questions in regard to the text I have studied.

References

December 2001