A Semiotic Analysis of a Cosmetics Ad and
Its Interpretation by Readers

Nadin Reschke

Every day in our lives we are surrounded by advertisements. Even if we don't read a paper, watch television or walk around with our eyes closed, we will find it impossible to avoid some form of publicity, whether it might be the latest offer at the local supermarket or some adverts on the television. Yet one is often not aware of the impact advertisement has on the individual. I myself experienced the power of public advertisement, when in 1989 so many East Germans (I myself not excluded) were happy at last because they could buy and try what they had so long seen advertised on Western television. What was it that made all these people spent their newly changed money on goods they had not needed for the last 40 years?

The primary function of advertisement, we know, is to introduce a wide range of consumer goods to the public and thereby support the free-market economy. But that is clearly not its only role. Advertisements also assume certain characteristics which are less directly connected to selling. Advertisers try to manipulate people into buying a way of life as well as goods. In this respect it could be argued that advertising fulfils the function traditionally met by art or religion. Gillian Dyer claims that advertising is 'the "official art" of the advanced industrial nations of the west' (1982: 1). Some critics even suggest that it works in the same way as myths in primitive societies in as far as it conveys values and beliefs through providing people with simple stories and explanations which helps them to organise their thoughts and experiences and to make sense of the world. However, I find this explanation exaggerated because it does not take a critical, objective and conscious reading of advertisement into account.

As the subject of this assignment I have chosen to analyse a specific advertisement in semiotic terms and to explore the differences in interpretation by several readers. Thereby I hope to show different ways in which advertising works and the extent to which different readers are aware of its impact.

For the purpose of analysing an advertisement I have chosen a cosmetic advert for Lancôme The advert is taken from the magazine Marie Claire (spring 1998); more specifically from a contained leaflet titled 'Recreate your look with Lancôme'. I have decided upon this specific advertisement out of very personal reasons. I came across it several times in different magazines. What caught my eye each time I saw it was the 'ugliness' of the made-up model. I personally disliked the image but at the same time I was fascinated by the colour choice. As an artist I am a very visual orientated person and there was something in the advert that caught my attention. I took it as my aim to find out what fascinated me about this advert (or even why I became a 'victim' of it?).

The advert spreads over three pages. The first page shows a photograph of a red-haired model in front view covering more or less the whole page. The female model- a woman whose age is difficult to guess (as nowadays 10-year-old models are made to look 25) - wears a blue, shiny silky dress. On her head the model wears a kind of hat which takes the form of an insect's head. The colours of the hat (blue-turquoise-green) are the same used for a scarf-like material hanging around the model's neck. This scarf also takes the form of an insect with shiny palettes and a spiky shape, which reminds of the antenna of an insect. The background is very light coloured - rose and peach tones are dominate the blurred shapes of the background. The only recognisable feature is a pair of wings attached to the back of the model. The woman seems to move forward, her posture is very dynamic. Through that motion the image appears very lively and direct. The direct gaze of the model exaggerates this. She directly looks into the viewer's eyes. There is no text shown on this first page, not even the label for the product it advertises for. Consequently the viewer is left with no direct context for the image. As soon as one turns the page the context becomes clear.

The next double page shows the same woman wearing a dark blue-green make-up. The photograph of her covers the whole left page whereas the right page shows a dark blue rose and a photograph of the cosmetic product advertised. The brand name 'Lancôme' is printed in big capital grey letters over the whole length of the double page. On the right hand side appears the exact name of the product 'Chrysalis, Spring Colour Collection 1998'. Beneath the text there is an image of two lipsticks and two eye shadows with their colour smeared over the white surface in a way that reminds one of the traces of an insect. The trail leads to an image of a beetle, which is printed right next to the logo 'Chrysalis'. It appears to be the same kind of beetle the model wears on a necklace. Vertical on the page and parallel to the rose appears the text 'BLACK+ WHITE= COLOUR'. On the right bottom corner the logo 'Lancôme Paris' is repeated. The advert also gives the web-site address for the product (www.lancome.com) and also mentions the designer of the make-up Fred Farrugia. This short description of the advert shows the different elements involved in it. However, it does not provide any information about the way in which the individual elements are related to each other or influence each other.

A more detailed analysis based on semiotics will give a better insight in the way this specific advertisements works. But before we start a semiotic analysis of any kind, I feel that it is first appropriate to explain some of the basic concepts of semiotics to become familiar with the use of terms in this technical field of media theory.

The term semiotics (often also referred to as 'semiology') derives from the Greek word semeion meaning 'sign'. In its simplest definition it can be understood as the 'study of sign'. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a Swiss linguist, gave the subject its name when he first taught the 'course in general linguistics' in Geneva university. Another key figure in the early development of semiotics was the American Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). He constructed a triangular model to illustrate the relationship between what he termed 'sign- object-interpretant'. According to Peirce's model a 'sign' refers to anything from which meaning is generated. Saussure, However, proposed a different, dyadic model. He saw the sign as a physical object with meaning which consists of the 'signifier' and the 'signified'. The signifier' is the material vehicle for the sign and the 'signified' can be understood as the mental concept it represents which is common to all members of the same culture, who share the same language. (Fiske 1990:43) For Saussure the meaning of signs was only lying in the relation of signs to each other.

In the discussion of semiotics there are three main areas of interest, identified as:

(Fiske 1990:40)

This distinction makes clear that signs are not independent from their context. The meaning of a sign is not contained within itself, or as Daniel Chandler says, 'the message is not the meaning' but arises in its interpretation and context. Semiotics therefore refers to a kind of social interaction between the individual as a meaning maker and the sign offering different interpretations. It is commonly believed that signs are organised into codes. Saussure first differentiated between the paradigmatic and syntagmatic structure of any sign. Paradigms refer to a sign that forms a member of a defining category whereas syntagms refer to the orderly combination of interacting signs with a meaningful whole (Chandler WWW). This distinction offers two different ways of analysing a sign. Thwaites et al. argue that 'paradigms provide a plurality of possible meanings, while syntagms tend to narrow these down according to context' (Thwaites et al. 1994:40).

Furthermore it is important to be aware of the concepts of different codes as a set of principles that govern the sign itself The codes used in an advert are often difficult to describe because they are underlying the obvious structure. But the detailed analysis of the codes employed by a sign offers a useful insight in the way that a sign works. Intertextuality is a concept that also has great importance in this context. As mentioned above the sign generates its meaning not from within but from the context in which it appears.

Let us now turn back to the 'Lancôme' advertisement to semiotically analyse its content and assess how effective this approach to advertising really is. I will use a framework proposed by Chandler (WWW) and concentrate on the important signifiers and what they signify, the syntagmatic and paradigmatic structure of the text, semiotic codes and intertextuality. Applying Saussure's dyadic model of 'signifier-signified' to the advert shows that there is no clear-cut distinction between what is the signifier and the signified. A number of different signifiers could be identified; the main one obviously being the woman dressed up as an insect. The signified -the mental concept the woman represents is 'change'. Of course the woman as she is depicted in the photograph also stands for conventional norms of female beauty. But what has the concept of 'change' to do with the dressed up woman and the advertised make-up? There is an assumed underlying narrative in the ad, which explains the relationship between the signifier and the signified. The woman shown on the first page of the advert does not wear any make-up. She then transforms into someone (or something) else on the second page. The make-up has changed her into someone else. The word chameleon describes this process the best. Like a chameleon the woman has changed her look and image by changing the colours (make-up). Make-up is commonly believed to enhance beauty, keep the skin fresh and 'young' and make a woman look beautiful.

The use of make-up comes from the ancient Greeks who already used herbal extracts and balsams or creams to enhance their beauty and underline their facial features. In many 'primitive' societies the applying of colours to the body is believed to have spiritual effects. Special designs are painted over the whole body using clay, minerals or herbal colour pigments. The use of make-up is also associated with the concept of a mask. In theatre make-up is used to change the actor's or actress' face into the likeness of the person s/he is playing. By applying make-up to the face the person changes to someone else. This is especially apparent in Indian performing arts, like Khartakali, where the actors make up themselves and thereby lose their identity and take on the character of the role.

This concept of change or transformation, which is deeply associated with the use of make-up, has been used very successfully in this advert. The advert combines two narratives: the change of a woman through make-up is connected with the change of an insect during its physical development. The woman on the first page wears an insect costume (but no make-up) whereas the woman on the second page wears make-up but no costume. It seems as if the make-up is her costume. She has internalised the insect-features and has become someone else through the make-up. She is the insect.

Another very different signifier in the advertisement is the text given on the left page. The sign as a whole is the printed text:

Lancôme Paris.
Spring colour collection 1998'
and 'Black + White = Colour'.

The signifiers are the letters or words as individual units and the signified concepts are:

  1. the company 'Lancôme' which is based in Paris
  2. a state in the development of insects: the state into which the larva of most insects passes before becoming an imago.
  3. the new collection of colours available in spring 1998
  4. the mix of the colour black and white will give different shades of blue-green.

The first three signified concepts are easily identifiable, whereas the last, fourth signified is not easily accessible. In fact it took me several days to understand its full meaning, and it was not by using my intelligence but with luck that I found a solution. The equation 'Black + White Colour' did not make sense to me, although black and white are the two ends of the colour spectrum and often called 'not-colours' because they do not posses all the qualities of a colour. Yet white, it has been argued by colour theorists, contains M other colours. By sending light through a glass prism one can identify the whole range of colours contained in the light. However, by mixing white with black one will always get a grey tone, even if the grey will slightly tend towards another different colour. It was in another magazine that I finally found the answer to this question. A small article in the beauty section of Now "the smarter women's weekly' (5th March 1998) explains: Make sure your nail polish does two jobs

Black + White = Colour
Lancôme's new polish Vernis Triple Tenue, £10, gets you three intriguing nail looks in one. Worn alone, the white looks natural, the black dramatic.
But brush the white over the black and you get a strong, metallic blue - very vampy.

And in another magazine I found some similar information. Company (March 1998: page 12) writes:

The look: magical. Layer the Chrysalis collection of lip, eye and nail duos to create a third shade. Vemis Triple Tenue Mini Due in Morphing Bleu, £10, are black and white nail laquers infused with shimmery aqua.

It is only after reading this additional information that the reader can make sense of the equation 'Black + White = Colour'. The advertisement then is also read or understood in a different light. The woman on page I suddenly appears to wear a make-up, but only using the white colour. She then transforms into the woman on page 2 by applying the black colour onto the white, which results in a strong metallic blue. But this additional information is not given in the advert itself. As it can not be assumed that all Marie Claire readers will additionally read other magazines such as the Company or Now, it can be assumed that the reader will not understand the text. It will be interesting to see how different readers will interpret this text and whether they will be able to make sense of it.

It is interesting in this context to look at the audience group of the magazine. Marie Claire is a magazine similar to Cosmopolitan which is mainly read by single middle-class women. 'In fact, 48 per cent of its female readers are unmarried, and 72 per cent of all its readers come from the age group 15-34' (Vestergaard & Schroder 1985:12). Company and Now are less profiled magazines although they still in the range of glossy magazines. Their readership is less 'classy' than Marie Claire is. The full three page colour advertisement for Lancôme was not to be found in Company or Now. These magazines only give a short article explaining the use of the new Spring Colour Collection 1998. It can therefore be assumed that the Marie Claire readership is not seen as needing this additional information about the black and white colour. Maybe it has been counted that the secret arouses more interest than the mere presentation of facts. Furthermore it can be argued that the ambiguity of the text adds to the overall mystical and gothic character in the ad. This points us to another question to be raised in semiotic context: the relation to reality.

At first sight there seems to be hardly any connection with reality except the product being made and sold in the real world. The narrative is a fantasy: the woman is dressed as an insect and changes into a ghost-like gothic figure by wearing the make-up. There is no reference to an everyday experiential world. This advert does not operate within a realist representational code. The situation the product is shown in, is fictional. Although the context is based on cues that refer to reality (for example the woman wearing the make-up) the advert changes reality to some mystical dream-like state.

A paradigmatic analysis will offer further points in the discussion. A paradigm is defined as a set of associated signs which are all members of the same category, but in which each sign is significantly different. According to this definition the paradigms thus can be identified as:

The relationships between the individual signs are manifold. It has been argued that the meaning of many signs is defined by the absence of certain features. In this case it could be argued that the absence of text on the first page leaves the reader in innocence regarding the product that is being advertised. The reader gets involved with the image more easily, because s/he is not yet aware that it belongs to an advertisement. 'Most people are consciously sceptical of advertising' (Gillian 1982:72). They would turn the page much quicker if they knew the image were part of the following advertisement. It can also be argued that the relationship between the image on page 1 and page 2 is of vital importance for the ad. If the first image had been left out - and there are reasons for this (e.g. the costs would have been reduced) - the second image on page 2 would appear rather cruel. It is only the relation between both that tells the story of chrysalis. It is the contrast between the first 'natural' looking woman and the second made-up woman that brings out the importance of the product. Many semioticians employ a structuralist method of studying paradigms. They describe the polar oppositions or paired contrasts (as they are not always presented as direct opposites) of paradigms. Such pairings are seen as part of the deep or hidden structure of the text, shaping the preferred reading. (Chandler WWW) The contrast in the given advert is the image on page 1 and the image on page 2. Both images stay in contrast to each other, representing the 'before' and 'after' or more general the contrast between nature and culture. The dominant one is the second image because it represents the product.

There are also certain connotations involved in the paradigmatic structure. As Fiske & Hartley (1978:41) note 'Connotations derive not from the sign itself, but from the way the society uses and values both the signifier and the signified.' Cosmetics and make-up connote beauty in our Western culture. Using cosmetics and make-up enhances beauty and 'good looks'. The notion of transformation is also deeply associated with make-up. Make-up creates different looks and women believe they can change their image by using a specific kind of make-up. it is of course of vital importance in this context to take the target group of this advertisement into account. The advert works with the convention shared by society that make-up enhances beauty (at least that is its primary aim). In Western culture make-up, However, is mainly used by women hence women will identify more easily with the context the product is presented in.

Let us now turn to a syntagmatic analysis to explore what kind of structure the advertisement shows. It can be argued that the advert is based on a narrative structure, the most widespread form of semiotic structure. It has been suggested that the most basic narrative syntagm is composed of three phases - equilibrium-disruption-equilibrium which relates to the beginning, the middle and the end of a story. (Chandler WWW) The 'story' of the chrysalis, the transformation of an insect which the advert is based on, also shows this composition (Larva- chrysalis-imago). However, in the advert there are only two of these stages shown. The first page showing the chrysalis can be identified as the stage of disruption, whereas the image of the second page showing the 'imago' (made-up, transformed woman) is associated with the equilibrium. Thwaites et al. (1994:124) also argue that narratives which end in a return to predictable equilibrium (narrative closure) reinforces a preferred reading. The preferred meaning in this context would be the message that 'Chrysalis' make-up transforms you (if you are' a woman) into someone special and beautiful. However, some interpreters may nevertheless 'read' against this preferred reading. The interviews with different readers of the ad will provide more detailed information on this aspect.

Another important aspect in any semiotic analysis is intertextuality. This particular advert has to be seen in relation to other, earlier adverts by the same company. Most of the Lancôme adverts show the same concept: A close-up of a woman's head is shown as lying or sitting in a very relaxed pose. Lancôme always works with the same models, who have come to be known as the three Lancôme 'faces': Juliette Binoche, Ines Sastre and Christiana Reali. The make-up the models wear appears very translucent, almost invisible. The colours used are very soft - ranging from white to peach and brown. The image of a white rose, a sign associated with Lancôme, is 4 often included in the advert.

Compared with the new advert for the Spring Collection 1998 there seems to a drastic change in the advertising strategies. The new advert seems to be an innovation throughout. Not only the product is new, but also the basic concept employed for advertisement changed. The colours are radically different, the narrative behind the advert is unusual and the photographs are very vibrant and eye-catching. This suggests a new trend in Lancôme cosmetics. The traditional market for Lancôme cosmetics was and is the single middle class woman aged between 18-40. This new advert seems to target a much younger audience, which suggests that the company is trying to broaden their target group.

Another important aspect of intertextuality is the specific context in which the advertisement appears. The Marie Claire leaflet titled 'Recreate your look with Lancôme' shows how well intertwined advertisement and information (as in articles) are. The first three pages of the leaflet contain the analysed advertisement. It is followed by an article called 'Catwalk Chameleons' which states that:

This article seems to be itself an advertisement. It is like a verbal transcription of the advert given before. It furthermore explains in detail why the traditional Lancôme 'look' has changed and puts the advert right in the context with catwalk models. The idea of transformation seems to dominate the content of this leaflet. Another article titled 'How I change my looks' explains that: "Make-up enhances the looks of even the world's most famous beautiful women. Emma Bannister talks to the three Lancôme 'faces' about the transforming effects of cosmetics.' Again, this article could be read as an advertisement for Lancôme products. Big close-up photographs of the three models show the reader how beautiful women can be with the company's products. The whole leaflet, so it can be argued, is an advertisement for Lancôme cosmetics. The intertextuality of this advert shows how much advertising has changed in the last decades. Nowadays it uses very sophisticated methods of combining informative articles with adverts in a way that the reader is often not aware what s/he is 'reading'. Another aspect of semiotics is the analysis of the different codes involved in an advertisement because the meaning of any sign depends on the codes within which it is situated. The colour code would be of special interest in this context. But the extent of this essay does not allow going in any further detailed analysis. So instead I shall turn to the actual application of the advert on several different readers and explore the differences in their interpretation of the advert.

I interviewed three women on their reaction to the advert. All three women have a different cultural background: the first woman (we shall call her A for reasons of anonymity) is English, but lived in America for more than ten years. The second woman (B) is Dutch but has been living in Britain for the last two years, and the third woman (C) is originally from Thailand, but went through an English school system and has been living in Britain for more than twenty years. The age range spans from 25-47 years of age. Factors like this are important in an analysis of different interpretations because they shape the reader's way of looking at the subject. There are different ways of seeing or perceiving reality as it is constructed in the media. The audience is strongly influenced by the culture and environment they live in and the roles and values that are of importance in society. On the personal level there is the personality factor, different cognitive styles as well as purposes, needs and expectations that influence the way of seeing or 'reading' advertisements.

I am aware of the fact that the chosen subjects do not provide a representative sample of the readership of this magazine, but my interest lies more in individual differences in the interpretation of the advert.

In the following I will be giving short extracts from the actual interviews to show the difference in 'reading' and interpreting the advert by all three women.

A started to describe the image on the first page with the following:

and she concludes with:

The first reaction when turning the page is:

She recognises what the advert is for when looking at the right page. A also comments on the narrative of transformation involved in this advert by saying:

And finally she adds:

The way in which A interprets this advert shows a certain awareness of the effects of advertisements. A somehow keeps a distance to the advert, does not see it as 'reality' (as many people do), but describes the techniques used to create an 'impact' as she calls it. Her comments clearly show the dominance of the figure in the advert. A describes the image in terms of personal like or dislike. She is obviously trying to identify with the woman in the advert. She dislikes the image of the made-up woman on page two and therefore concludes that the advert does not 'work' with her. She clearly associates the image of the model with the product itself, as if both were the same. Boorstin argument that 'Images have become more interesting than the original and in fact have become the original: 'the shadow becomes the substance'.' (Dyer 1982: 82) supports this finding. However, A also acknowledges that the advert caught her attention, especially because of the use of such vibrant colours.

Person B interprets the advert in a very different way. She first describes the imagery in a similar way, but she does not realise that the first model is dressed as an insect. She is therefore not aware of the underlying narrative in the advert. She merely sees the contrast between the first 'natural' model and the second made-up woman and she comments on it with:

It is interesting to notice that B does refer to the image with 'it' and not with 'she' as Person A does. B obviously refers to the make-up itself, whereas A sees the model and the make-up as one belonging together. Like A she does not like the image on the second page and she gives similar reasons (not looking natural) for her dislike. This shows very clearly the paired contrast between nature/culture, Both women obviously associate the use of make-up with looking natural'. It is interesting to see that both women interpret the advert in very similar ways although B does not regard the narrative of transformation (Chrysalis). This would suggest that this second dimension of the advert does after all not have significant importance in the interpretation of the advert. B does not comment on the text. It could be argued that the cultural background of the 'reader' - she is Dutch - plays an important role in this context. She did not generate any meaning from the word 'Chrysalis' because she is not familiar with the word's meaning in English. The relation between the signifier and the signified gets lost and the word looses meaning. The text or the linguistic message often seen as 'to "anchor" the variety of possible meanings' (Dyer 1982: 130) stays meaningless for person B. When asked specifically about the line 'Black + White = Colour' she comments:

The equation does not make sense to her, so she ignores its existence. The same can be said about person C. She also does not understand the meaning of this equation but she tries to interpret it with colour theory, saying that white contains all colours in the colour spectrum. C instantly realises the insect head dress of the model on page one. She is a regular reader of the magazine but says that she has never really looked at the advert before. When asked to describe its impact she comments with:

It seems as if all three women dislike the use of the product as shown on the photograph of page two. This would support my initial reaction when I first looked at the advert. C goes on to say:

The phrase 'I don't like the make-up' is interesting because it allows different interpretations. It is not clear whether she dislikes the brand Lancôme make-up in general or whether she refers to the specific representation of the make up that the model wears. It could be argued that she identifies one with the other. Her dislike of the product advertised is very apparent. Nevertheless she still acknowledges certain aesthetic features of the advert saying that it is 'well done'.

In a final analysis of all three interpretations it seems as if the advert does not work very well. Whether or not the disguise as an insect is recognised the 'reader' withstands the preferred reading of make-up = beauty. All three dislike the product because it appears unnatural. They associate make-up with looking natural. The linguistic message of the advert stays ambiguous for the 'reader', like the phrase 'Black + White = Colour'. There is no indication to clarify the meaning of this phrase. These facts tend to suggest that the advert is not successful. It uses interesting and very innovative ideas but disregards some of the common traditional conventions about beauty. Of course one cannot assume that every reader interprets the advert in the same way. But the three examples show surprising similarities. I would suggest that younger readers tend to sympathize with the advert much more because they are more open to fashion changes and innovations like the use of make-up in this case.

In conclusion, we can see how the semiotic approach has helped to analyse the advertisement in detail. However, one is led to the assumption that semiotic terms alone are not enough to describe and analyse an advertisement sufficiently. Advertisements are made for an audience. Therefore it is of vital importance in my view to consider the audience reaction in any analysis of advertisements.

I hope that this essay has combined both successfully. It shows a theoretical analysis of an advertisement example and examines different interpretations in practice. Thereby it shows the effects of advertising on the public and offers answers to the introductory question on why so many East Germans were so heavily influenced by advertising in Western culture. I leave the final answer to Dyer who claims that:


April 1998