Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 2 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Semiosis Or Neurosis: Advertising And Psychology

by Michael Hutcheon and Linda Hutcheon

"Are they Selling Her Lips?": Advertising and Identity. By Carol Moog, New York: William Mor row, 1990. Pp. 236. (ISBN 0688087043).

In theory, popular books written for the general public should also be of interest to semioticians. And if a book is written by a Ph.D. (as the cover of the book says) in psychology with a strong interest in "projective testing, the working of the unconscious, Jungian archetypes, and semiotics" (14), that would seem likely to be even more the case. Carol Moog is a practicing clinical psychologist-therapist and also a consultant to advertising agencies Curiously, the market for this book appears to be the general public, yet one has the feeling that the study probably is supposed to function more to buttress her authority within the industry itself, where she offers her services as the modern Tiresias-cum-Alice of the advertising wonderland: "So here's a look in the mirror, through the mirror, and behind the mirror" (19). Whatever the intended audience, a semiotically oriented readership is likely to be left somewhat disappointed.

The format (and indeed tone) of each chapter is that of the (women's) magazine article, opening with a chatty anecdote about a person, named by a (one assumes) fictional first name only (and, like the cover of the book, a university degree, if possessed). Then; descriptive "analyses" of specific ads (all reproduced in the text) are carried out in the light of the ad agency's intention and the advertiser's desires (not always the same). The method of analysis? Not discernible. Ads are deemed successful if sales of the product increase and/or if they "ring true" to her (clinical) experience. (For contrast, see Ferguson 1988.) The theoretical underpinnings? Again, not discernible, beyond the most simple of psychological concepts, such as the idea that images in ads invoke identification or projection on the part of viewers. She presents a notion of a "product language" that is part of our sense of and, more important, search for identity (e.g. the Pepsi generation). This concept raises two questions. The first: is it really a "product" language per se or are we dealing instead with a more complex phenomenon of image creation or semiosis in a broader sense?

The second issue raised by this idea of a language of products is more a professional than theoretical one: Moog's clinical practice impinges upon and indeed conditions the entire book, for she studies identification with "products" purely on the model of the consumer as neurotic. In other words, she works from her patients -- who indeed, by name, are used to show how identifications and projections work -- by implication for all of us. (We assume these patients are real and that their names are fictional; if not, this is a fictive construct that a practicing psychologist might best eschew.) But this model of the interchangeability of the consumer and the treatable neurotic is never argued. Yet to be influenced somehow by advertising is surely not necessarily a clinical state; it is a condition of life under late capitalism. It may well involve the ideological construction of identity, but not necessarily the anguished search for one. This "deformation professionnelle"becomes ethically ambiguous when she uses her patients as examples (unfortunately, in the worst kind of stereotyping), or as trials for her particular interpretations of ads, or as simplistic analogies (of the kind: ads are contradictory, but so are my patients -- listen to this one).

Despite these reservations, it is not that this book has nothing to teach us. Its opening chapter, tracing the 40-year history of Maidenform bra ads in relation to the rise of the women's movement in the U.S. is interesting, as are the next two chapters on ads that misfire because of unconscious condescension, or trashing of basic symbolic values, or offering mixed messages or signs of excessive selfabsorption. Using specific examples, Moog shows how she can be of use to agencies by pointing out these problems and saving them face -- and money. The next five chapters deal with what advertising appeals to: from the commercialized conjunction of guilt/inadequacy and aggression/intimidation ("the buy-our-product-or-die-sucker school of advertising") to the use of children in ads. The requisite chapter on "Sex, Sin and Suggestion" offers the now standard interpretation: our sexual fears and doubts, desires and expectations are played upon, for example, in alcohol ads in terrible obvious ways; any sad-masochistic urges find themselves exploited in certain jeans and perfume ads.

The most original section is about the impact of AIDS on the kind of ads we see today: there is less sex, and more romance, but also much more narcissism and self-absorption/self-indulgence as self-protection.

Two chapters in this section seem somewhat out of place. One is called "Tell Me a Story" and is about the appeal of the narrative about the self that ads sell (here specifically regarding automobiles). But surely all advertising sells a narrative along with an image? Similarly there is a discussion of the difference between perception and reality in ads -- but this is probably relevant for all ads, not simply; those that invoke the search for the "Real". She notes that many products are now labelled and sold as "reality" ("the real thing"), and so a psychological dynamic of identification is set up that blots out the fact that the ad is creating an image and not reflecting any reality. The problem is that Moog offers no theoretical basis or explanation of this observation or any conclusion -- short of: "When we consumers are playing along with this reality game, we may not believe the advertising, but we're willing to hedge our bets" (112). Roland Barthes comes to mind since, in Mythologies, he did try to work out a theory of ideology and mythification to explain how cultural constructs become "given" and "natural." Such a dimension would have been particularly relevant to her discussion of the 1988 American presidential campaign and its controversial television ads; its absence leaves one yearning for some analysis beyond Moog's view that Bush's tactics obviously worked.

However, the chapter on "Stereotypes Beneath the Skin" offers important examples of changes over time in advertisers' awareness (mirroring general awareness) of the negative representations of the disabled, the elderly, the fat, and racial/ethnic minorities, though Once again no ideological analysis is suggested which might explain the changes (or retrograde slips). The final section on the expansion of "ad space" into the information, education, and entertainment; fields contains some important data about the gradual infiltration of ads into films, the classroom, and so on. Aware that she is feeding our paranoia about Big Brother-style manipulation, Moog reassures us that the advertising industry -- especially in its grade publications -- monitors and critiques itself. Nevertheless she does end the book with the belief that "the hour is long overdue when we should develop a critical language to help describe the way advertising affects us" (222). Unfortunately, she has not contributed very much to this development. Her "analytic" language consists of such awkward metaphors as this description of a Japanese ad run in the U.S.: it "was conceived in a cross-cultural fantasyland and delivered by a myriad of butterfingered midwives" (58). Or else she "gushes": "I have tremendous respect and admiration for the creative leap. Beyond my fascination with the psychological interplay between us and advertising, l love the astounding creativity in great ads" (171).

Moog ends with the exhortation to think critically about advertising -- as she believes she has done -- to "acknowledge and understand how it's influencing us, why it's trying to influence us that way, and the attempt to separate ourselves from the images, and act objectively" (223). But the lesson of Barthes's very early work-influenced by Althusser and others -- is that one cannot step outside ideology. "Objectivity" is, from this point of view, a construct of a positivist ideology, not a fact or a practical possibility. There are now many books about advertising that do offer both a methodology for analysis and a theoretical, semiotic model -- beyond the consumer as neurotic -- for understanding how ads work: Judith Williamson's early Lacanian Althusserian-Barthesian Decoding Advertisements (1978), Bill Nichols's Ideology and the Image (1981), Gillian Dyer's Advertising as Communication (1982) (a good introduction to the field with an annotated bibliography), not to mention all the more recent work in England, France, Canada, and the U.S. (e.g. Umiker-Sebeok,1989; Leiss et al.1991). In other words, if popular works on any subject are to be of interest to semioticians, they should offer something beyond what is available in the field already. Short of anecdotal evidence drawn from clinical practice and more knowledge than most writers have of the inside workings of ad agencies, this work does not seem to do the trick.


Barthes, Roland.(1973) Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers London:Grenada.

Dyer, Gillian.(1982) Advertising as Communication. London and New York:Methuen.

Ferguson, Sherry Devereaux.(1988) "Advertising Effectiveness as a Consequence of Congruence with Information Processing Models".Recherches semiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry 8.3: 319-37.

Leiss,William,Stephen Kline,Sut Jhally (1991) Social Communication in Advertising. New York and London:Routledge, New edition.

Nichols,Bill(1981) Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and other Media. Bloomington:lndiana UP.

Umiker-Sebeok,Jean,ed.(1987) Marketing and Semiotics:New Directions in the Study of Signs for Sale.Berlin and New York: Mouton/deGuyter.

Williamson, Judith.(1978) Decoding Advertisements. London: Boyers.

Michael Hutcheon is the Chief of Respirology, Toronto General Hospital, and teaches in the Department of medicine at the University of Toronto. Linda Hutcheon teaches English and Comparative Literature at the same institution, and has written on the semiotics of irony and parody, and on postmodernism. In the past, they have done joint work on the semiotics of medical advertising.

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives