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This article appeared in Volume 9 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Semiotic Arms Race

by Michael Pollex

Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising. by Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson. New York: The Guilford Press 1996, 322pp. ISBN 1-57230-014-0.

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties (Marx, 1977: 163).
The "strange" nature of the commodity-form is an aspect of social life that has preoccupied social theory since MarxŐs pronouncements in Capital and continues to haunt us today. What is most disturbing about the contemporary manifestation of the commodity-form is not MarxŐs fear of a society of increasing levels of alienation, although this is indeed an aspect, but rather, something Marx did not foresee. Namely, how the system of signification that gives the commodity its context for meaning is strengthened by the very knowledge that attempts to create a critical space for opposition. This is to say that the contemporary manifestation of the commodity-form has at its very roots the only form of knowledge that attempts to resist commodification -- critique. This indeed poses serious problems for critiques of Capitalism and the advancement of critical knowledge in general and returns us to the problems faced by Marxists, in particular the Frankfurt School theorists, over the last fifty years in establishing the grounds for a critique of Capitalism, mass culture and the reification that these disseminate.

Advanced Capitalism, through advertising, commodification and consumerism, is proving to be a very dynamic and flexible system that actually grows and strengthens through resistance. Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising is an attempt to map this flexibility in the contemporary cultural terrain of advertising through the lens of a critical semiotics. As advertising involves systems of signification that actively manipulate meaning through a perpetual decontextualization, the authors use of semiotics as a tool is a significant aspect of the text. Further, Goldman and Papson focus on the continual appropriation of critical knowledge and radical critique by advertising. The consequence of advertisingŐs resistance of critique through appropriation, as we will see, is the necessity of continual critique in the face of a generalized loss of meaning. Sign Wars is an attempt to provide us with a critical understanding of our cultural landscape such that the grounds for the development of further critique are renewed, vis-à-vis semiotics, beyond the nihilistic vision of many recent commentaries of advanced capitalism and the hyperculture it disseminates.

Goldman and Papson begin their analysis of the advertising landscape with an overview of the use of images and their relation to the selling of the commodity. In what is referred to as the "sign war", it is demonstrated that it is not simply the quality of the product that is being communicated but it is also, if not more importantly, the corporate logo that is emblazoned on the surface of the product that is the focus of communicating the sign-value of the commodity. Here the authors draw on the shift that is charted by Baudrillard in his earlier work on various systems of signification revolving around the commodity, consumption and the illusion of pure use-value (1981/1972). As a compliment to BaudrillardŐs theoretical premises, the authors go to extreme lengths to empirically demonstrate exactly how sign value functions in contemporary advertising. With respect to sign value the authors argue that what is important in advertising is not extolling the use value of a product, for the differences between mass advertised competing products are slight, but differentiating a product from other products through the sign to which it is attached. Difference drives the sign machine. The authors conjure up the Coca-Cola/Pepsi battle to demonstrate this point arguing that it is the systems of signification that are constructedaround the product that give it its uniqueness. Where Coke appeals to its own authenticity: "ItŐs the Real Thing", PepsiŐs claim to uniqueness, often through the use of humorous narrative, is that it isn't Coke and that's a good thing! (p. 32). The "sign war" occurs in this context when each ad attacks the competitor through a play on signification in order to "steal the market share from its rivals". While Coke carry the sign of authenticity, Pepsi discredits it through an ad associating the consumption of Coke with playing Bingo signifying that Coke may be real but it is definitely not cool. "Real" in this case is equated with boredom whereas Pepsi signifies the solution to this boredom. At the bottom of the sign war, however, is a clever semiotic encoding strategy which the authors suggest is a tool that has been appropriated for the purposes of advanced sign fetishism.

Sign wars represent a mature stage of brand competition. With each successive round of sign competition, semiotics has become increasingly annexed as a tool and foregrounded as a substance. Just as critics like ourselves have adopted semiotic strategies for decoding ads as texts, advertisers have begun to explicitly reveal the same strategies for their encoding processes (p.25).

Moving from the discussion of sign wars into the visual style of contemporary advertising, the authors show how, in response to the growing distrust and cynicism of the viewing audience, advertising in the 1980s shifted to incorporating such sentiments in their ads in order to reconnect with the viewer. The world that was toted by advertisers was seen to be unreal as it presented images and gave promises that were increasingly interpreted as unattainable by the skeptical viewer. Here the authors make an interesting argument that continues throughout the text. The authors contend that a shift occurs in advertising that mirrors the shift in the critical theory of mass culture a la Frankfurt School. They write:

Ironically the trends in 1980s advertising parallel the theoretical critiques of mass culture dating from the late 1940s. Some advertising campaigns from 1986 to 1989 tried to reverse the critiques leveled against advertising by incorporating those critiques. Advertising strategies such as hyperreal encoding, reflexivity, and the use of hypersignifiers have been motivated by intertwined crises in the political economy of sign value. ...As it grew more difficult to sustain product and image differentiation, a leading edge of advertisers sought to take advantage of viewer antipathy toward advertising by turning criticisms into positioning concepts. Criticism has thus been converted into a series of competing stylistic differences (p. 57).
When the reflexivity about viewer skepticism is translated into images this means, for advertisers, the elimination of the realist images that were interpreted by audiences to be unreal and the creation of the hyperreal image. "Hypereal encoding techniques tacitly acknowledge the insurmountable gap bewteen photographs and that which they represent" (p.63). These images, created through visual techniques such as grainy film stock, reveal the constructedness of the ad. They give the viewer the impression that advertisers are aware of their cynicism about the "reality" of their claims and as responsible, caring, reflexive and also cynical advertisers, they position themselves as having the same concerns as the viewing audience. Ad reflexivity acts in this way to close the gap between the advertiser and the cynical viewer by siding with the cynicism of the viewer to create a new "authenticity".

Advertising has shifted reflexivity to the plane of metacommunicaton. It now attempts to create an empathetic relationship with the viewer by foregrounding the constructed nature of the text. Such positioning gives the viewer status by recognizing the viewer as a holder of cultural capital, someone who has a knowledge of the codes. By positioning the viewer in this way the advertiser appears to speak to the viewer as a peer (p.74).

This appropriation of reflexivity is carefully detailed by the authors in a rich display of examplesof recent ad campaigns. Ranging from the self-mocking ad of Sunlight dish detergent where the cartoon female protagonist is given the caption "Who writes this stuff?" to the use of home videos and cinéma vérité techniques that do not disguise the use of the camera, contemporary advertising is demonstrated to use such techniques to both side with the viewer and include her/him in the interpretive play of meanings. However, the authors caution that this "play" is not without its costs. "These developments mark a crisis in the system of producing sign value" (p.79). With reference to semiotics the authors argue that the signifier-signified relationship is undermined as advertising has reduced both the signifier and the signified to semes -- the units of meaning are meaningful only insofar as they come to mean at all. They explain:

The integrity of the signifier-signified relationship is defeated when the difference between them is undermined. The contextualizing factors responsible for determining what signifies what, that is, the chain of signification as a whole, are cut off. Meaning becomes a floating point, a search for narrative where advertisers confuse the identity of signifier and signified. Uniquely privatized meanings must surely abound under such circumstances (p.80).
In order to be reflexive advertisers must continually appropriate images in order to both keep the viewers attention and also demonstrate the affiliation between the advertiser and the viewer. This necessitates a continual appropriation of images from the viewers life. However, the problem arises when the images are accelerated to such an extent that the viewer is left with an ambiguous distinction between the signifier and the signified. "Questions of realness now lie in the encoding strategies rather than with referents" (p.80). According to the authors this does extreme violence to the potential for a community based on discursive rationality as the chains of signification are disrupted by advertising and its "floating signifiers".

Advertising's drive to continually renew its supply of images leads it into some interesting terrain. In the chapter titled: "Hailing the Alienated Spectator", the authors demonstrate the areas into which advertising is going to establish a connection to new markets. What is revealed through this analysis is the appropriation of critique that fully undermines the notion of a critical distance or "outside" for the legitimation of critique. Using feminism as an example, the authors demonstrate how product images are combined with political slogans that inevitably depoliticize the content of the message as they are brought into a new system of signification to sell products as opposed to serving some emancipatory project. The case of running shoes serves as a good example. Nike ran a series of ads in the 1980s that make reference to the essential woman, a concept that was used at the time by radical feminists to empower the feminine and critique the established institutions of patriarchy. However, in Nike's hands it is simply used to sell shoes -- to radical feminists? Lines such as "your body is a miracle... and every move you make is another celebration. Or a prayer", are accompanied by the "Just Do It" tag line. Obviously in the hands of Nike the notion of the essential woman is obviously no longer a serious threat to patriarchy, however, the signifiers of a previously potent political ideology remain.

Not to be outdone by the competition, Reebok also ran a series of ads the authors describe as: "combining aerobics training with assertiveness training" (p.95). Touting slogans such as: "I believe babe is a four letter word" and "I believe high heels are a conspiracy against women" Reebok joins the appropriation of critical messages in order to secure a market without alienating the female viewer. However as one commentator notes, advertisers are slow to accept the anger of women. Despite the fact that there are a lot more angry women "out there", "advertisers don't want to see women are angry... That's not their image of women" (p.96). As a result, the images and slogans are appropriated but the politics are left behind. In some cases the feminist message is so watered-down that the effect is more one of supporting patriarchy through the product asopposed to some genuine concern for feminist politics.

An example that demonstrates this inverse relation is that of Maidenform, a lingerie manufacturer, who created an ad called "Stereotypes". By critiquing such stereotypes as the high society matron, the busty blonde, the prudish headmistress and the bawdy stripper the ad was making an appeal to the uniqueness of the individual woman. While images of these women are being shown a female voiceover narrates: "Stereotypes of women. There aren't many women who fit them. A simple truth known by all women, most men and one lingerie company" (p.97). While the impression is that of a pro-woman company who supports the diversity of femininity the authors point out that the company name "Maiden-form" suggests a contradictory message with that of the ad.

The voiceover that draws attention to our history of patriarchal domination is both revealing of who the advertiser thinks their audience is and oddly contradictory given the fact that Maidenform has clearly chosen not to change its name. Despite the postpatriarchy of the voiceover, the name Maidenform still carries the worst connotations of an era in which women conformed to definitions of female beauty imposed by a male dominated social structure (p.98).

The ad assumes that the viewer has rejected the male gaze, that is why she is sensitive to the inadequacy of the stereotypes presented. On the surface it appears as though the resistance of the male gaze is a fait accompli. The viewer, with the ad, has rejected this form of domination. However, the authors argue that the hegemony of the commodity form and patriarchal hegemony have historically reinforced one another (p.99). As a result, the seemingly politicized message of the ad is undermined by the fact that it is still an ad with an eye for commodity sales and little interest in feminist politics beyond the fear of alienating that share of the market.

While advertising contributes to the fragmentation of identity by constantly renewing the signs we use to present ourselves it can only do so through a constant appeal to authenticity. This contradiction, one of several generated by the advertising machine, is demonstrated by the authors to exist at the heart of advertising's systems of signification.. The authors draw upon Roland Barthes definition of myth to point out that "advertising is less about lies than about inflection -- the bending and redirecting -- of social and cultural meanings to serve commodity brand names" (p.142). The tension of the authentic underlies all advertising.

The dilemma of authenticity in the age of the commodity sign is that no sooner does something become recognized as a mark of authenticity than it gets appropriated and transformed into a popular sign. As soon as it becomes a hot sign, however, its authenticity is dissipated and lost for those who gave meaning to the sign prior to its mass commodification (p.143).

Much like the appropriation of feminism as an appeal to the authentic -- the essential woman, Nature and the environment have become new appeals to authenticity for advertising. Also, much like feminism, the critique of capitalism and its resistance are undermined once those images have been appropriated for the purposes of commodity exchange. In the chapter: "Green Marketing and the Commodity Self" the authors seek to demonstrate how in an appeal to authenticity advertising generates its greatest contradiction in the appropriation of the environment.

In response to the growing concerns of environmental politics, advertising has moved towards "green advertising". "By appropriating signifiers from nature and transforming them into commodity signs, advertising repositions thoughtful consumption as a solution to encroaching environmental disasters" (p.187). However, as we have seen above, once the signifiers are appropriated they are disconnected from the political signification and reconnected with the product image. This re-contextualization acts to depoliticize the messages, and in this case moreseverely, redirect an explicit attack by environmental politics on consumption by further promoting consumption. Green advertising works to leave the consumer guilt-free as their consumption can be seen as ethical or in accordance with Nature. This is entirely despite the fact that it is the overconsumption promoted by advertising that is in many ways responsible for the environmental crisis. This contradiction does not seem to thwart the use of the environment to promote "ethical" consumption. In fact, it is this contradiction that drives the green advertising machine.

As resistance, environmentalism is faced with its Goliath -- multinational corporations. The corporate giants latch onto environmental issues in order to appropriate their signification and appear caring and moral. However, their practices are far from their prescriptions. This is demonstrated by the authors in the example of the "green" Visa Card which carries the signification of protecting the environment while at the same time increasing the volume of consumption. Visa, in one ad, has attached itself to the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, and such images as "a whale skimming along the surface of still water, a single blue egg in a nest, a raccoon clutching the bark of a tree, silhouetted wildebeests at sunset..." followed by the caption:

Every time you use the Sierra Club Visa Card, you'll be helping the Sierra Club -- the group that's charged with preserving the environment. And since our card is accepted in more places around the world, it's easier than ever for you to help save the most beautiful places on Earth (p.199).

The Visa Card, however, epitomizes the ease of administration of the consumer society -- instant gratification for the ever-desiring consumer. Consequently, we are again left with an empty political message that is geared t owards further consumption, fully defeating the signification of the ecology ideology from which advertising parasitically draws its signifiers. The environment as a signifier in this sense ironically contributes to its own destruction when it is transplanted into the new system of signification. Much like feminism, the ecological knowledge that initially stands as a critique of the practices of advertising and the corporate capitalism that it supports is rerouted through its appropriation in the attempts by corporations to appeal to all markets.

The authors conclude with the chapter titled: "The Corporate Politics of Sign Values". In this they demonstrate that advertising has also shifted towards the support of the corporation or "Corporate Ads". These ads rather than selling a particular product attempt to sell the integrity of the corporation by connecting the corporation with a particular set of values. In this public relations attempt that is fueled by legitimation strategies corporations look to increase their public by presenting images that portray them as having the same values as their customers. These, the authors contend, are semiotic strategies that ideologically frame the issues in terms of the support of corporate power. However sensitive they appear to the consumer, the point of the ads is about the framing of meaning, an exercise in which those who control the frames of meaning have a disproportionate amount of power on the conceptual frameworks used to publicly interpret and make sense of our world (p.221). They argue that our ability as consumers to resist corporate framing is horribly undermined as we lack the necessary control required to redirect corporate messages away from defining us as purely consumers. This is especially the case as attempts to reflexively redirect the messages through critique are continually appropriated by the corporate sign-makers in order to always appear to side with the concerns of the consumer. In conclusion, the authors point out that as corporations draw from communities of meaning for their raw materials without any respect for the communities themselves the inevitable result is acrisis of meaning (p.255). Ultimately this process of legitimation strengthens corporate agendas and weakens political resistance.

Throughout this text what is both most evident and most alarming is Capital's ability to absorb what stands in resistance through symbolic rather than physical violence. Through the advertiser's appropriation of political signs for reattachment to products, critiques of Hegemony are absorbed back into that system of signification which they attempt to reject. This continual appropriation, as noted earlier by Baudrillard (1997: 203), has devastating consequences for the success of any political strategy in terms of its revolutionary status. When revolution, be it socialist, feminist or ecological, is taken solely as an idea, it is subjected, according to Baudrillard, to the status of consumption and is therefore subject to the political economy of the sign and the logic of Capital. As long as it exists as an idea its signification can be manipulated and attached to a product giving the sign new meaning. Political practice is then subverted as it is transferred to a new system of signification that empties the sign of radical political consequence. Revolution, in this sense, as the Nike ad suggests, is something that is consumed as an idea and eternally consumable like any other idea. The authors clearly demonstrate how this is indeed accomplished through advertising and its strategic appropriation of critique.

While the authors explore the status of critique in the age of hyperculture, "culture where political ideologies are reduced to the role of adjectives used to bolster the flavour of this or that commodity" (p.257), there is also an implicit understanding of the necessity of the role of critique in unpacking the cultural processes that continually subvert its status. Charles Levin in his book on Baudrillard (1996: 274) describes hyperreality as "the third order of simulacra... not a separate category from reality but a way of presenting a receiving reality -- in brief it is a reality without otherness". Traditionally, critique, especially in its dialectical sense, always occupied the position of the other, typically through negation. At its most effective, critique challenges the categories of domination by subjecting them to an inspection that reveals the contradictions of the dominant framework. Otherness is very important to critique as it establishes a critical distance that allows one to resist the categories that one is critiquing. This otherness, however, is not simply a theoretical construct. While it indeed has theoretical dimensions it is through the practice of otherness that the dominant categories are truly revealed and subsequently challenged. One only need to conjure up any deviant act to demonstrate the point that otherness is a political act. As is demonstrated in the text with advertising and its aggressive marketing techniques, critical acts of otherness are subsumed within the political economy of the sign. The other is assimilated such that it can easily be consumed as a sign. As a result, critique, once appropriated, loses its power of otherness. As such it is forced, by the acceleration of hyperculture, to continually reestablish itself as the other, fully cognizant of the fact that it will in all likelihood be appropriated shortly thereafter. The continual appropriation of critique in hyperculture calls for the continual establishment of otherness. However, a new "other" in consumer society unfortunately becomes a new market that has yet to be addressed by advertising executives. It is for this reason that Sign Wars implicitly demonstrates the necessity of the continual positing of "the other", and hence critique, through political practice.

Sign Wars is a very lucid and well-argued attempt to illuminate the parameters of advertising and the flexibility of Capitalism in consumer culture. While it resembles in many ways Robert GoldmanŐs earlier work, Reading Ads Socially (1992), it is also a departure in that it focuses specifically on the cultural appropriation of otherness as a response to viewer and market alienation. Although theoretically, much of their argument can be found in the work of Jean Baudrillard, their contribution lies in the thorough elucidation of the empirical dimensions ofhyperreality. It is here that their claim about charting the "maturing stage of the political economy of the sign" is most fully supported and it is in this examination that their semiotic strategy is most fully developed. Insofar as the more broad "crisis of meaning" that is the supposed result of the "accelerated de-contextualization of meanings", however, Sign Wars is a good example of how meaning is continually established even despite the seeming nihilism that lurks behind every contemporary cultural corner. Further, although one is initially given the impression that critique is constantly in danger of its own appropriation, this notion is put to rest when one accepts that demonstrating this appropriation is one way of developing critique to accommodate these changes. In this sense Sign Wars is ultimately a text that attempts to further critical knowledge of advertising by pointing out how this knowledge is indeed limited when placed within the greater context of consumer culture. Awareness of the limitations of critique is one way to further establish its necessity.


Baudrillard, Jean. (1996/1968). The System of Objects. New York: Verso.

---. (1981/1972). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis: Telos.

Goldman, Robert. (1992). Reading Ads Socially. New York: Routledge.

Levin, Charles. (1996). Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics. London: Prentice Hall.

Lury, Celia. (1996). Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Michael Pollex is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of British Columbia. He is currently working on his dissertation titled: The Epistemic Commodity: Academic Knowledge, the Market and Consumer Society.

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