The Meaning Behind the Ad

Reading: An Introduction to Visual Culture by Sturken & Cartwright, chapter 2: Viewers Make Meaning

More and more in my assigned readings, I’ve been learning about the importance of pictures and how you can’t just slap them anywhere on a page and expect to create a meaningful impact.

For example, chapter two of Practices of Looking (by Brian Schrank) lists three elements involved in the production of meaning.

The codes and conventions that structure the image and that cannot be separated from the content of the image

the viewers and how they interpret or experience the image

the contexts in which an image is exhibited and viewed

Did you realize that we can pretty much NOT affect these three factors?  Differences as small as whether or not someone views an image in private or public can have an affect on the way they interpret the meaning.

Another example:


What do you think of when you see this picture?

My roommate loves flowers.

My mom on the other hand would say something about how badly they make her sneeze.

The only thing I can think of is how damn hot it looks in the background.

Another example:


New Yorkers may feel prideful about Time Square (or uninterested, who knows.  I’m from South Carolina).

Good ol’ Mom would definitely not enjoy the crowds depicted.

This picture makes me want to go wherever everyone else is going.  Reagan is wherever the party is.

It’s all about perception.

Interpretation is based on current beliefs and prior experiences. Most people pick photos that agree with popular beliefs in order to appeal to a larger audience.  This is a bit harder to do now that online audiences are literally at a global scale. What we interpret in one nation will most likely differ from whats interpreted in another. This is one reason as to why cultures are blending at such an outstanding rate: tools like the internet (and blogs) are allowing people to see the world through the eyes of natives, a feat we were not capable of in past decades.

Another factor to consider when choosing pictures is interpellation, which basically refers to the way some images “call out to us” on a seemingly personal level.  Where do you think YouTube got the idea for its name?  A channel all about the viewers definitely appeals to human nature.

ImageTaste is another word to describe how we can interpret images.  Specifically, taste deals with experiences relating to one’s class, cultural background, etc.  Let’s not forget that tastes often get recycled and re used through cultures and generations.

Perfect example.  Did you know that these expensive ass boots, these $150+ winter boots that Americans ship from Australia, aren’t even popular in Australia?  Most locals wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of Uggs outside the house.

What about this: its common in African-American culture for women to spend hundreds of dollars on their hair in addition to bragging about what type of extensions we’re wearing, the fact that its real human hair, and the fact that it looks 100% real. I’ve yet to find one of my Caucasian friends that would even think of doing such a thing, or who brag about the type of extensions they’re wearing.

My final bit of info deals with the fact that museums, art galleries, and the like have an influence on what is culturally accepted and what is not.  By displaying certain genres or artists, those gain a more “mainstream” connotation.  Likewise, I’ve seen social media take an artists and create a huge fan base as well, also creating a “mainstream” connotation. The actual term “mainstream” really depends on which groups you identify with and which mediums are able to have a “mainstream” effect on your perception.


Discussion Questions

1. How do you think advertisers account for factors of interpretation? Do they market towards one specific audience? Or do they try different strategies?

2. Which of the factors do you think has the most influence on how successful an ad, design, etc is?


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