Monday, 11 January 2010

Introduction to Visual Culture: Context and Theory - Essay

I've posted this on here because I want to keep track of everything I'm doing. It's quite long but feel free to read it!

Critical Analysis of the Visual Image

This critical analysis is based on two visual texts from the perfume advertising genre. One is from Juicy Couture and the other from Sarah Jessica Parker.  Both are advertising women’s fragrances and have used photography as a medium.
This essay will explore and interpret how meaning has been created through visual elements and how some cultural knowledge is needed to understand and decode certain signs and codes.
It will be mostly a Semiotic analysis, based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Pierce and Roland Barthes. It will also be backed up by texts written by Guy Cook, Malcolm Barnard and David Crow.

`The rational consumer chooses at the point of purchase by comparing smells. So the rational core of a perfume ad can only really consist of a sort of nudge.’(Thompson 1990:211) quoted in Cook (2001, p.108).

Normally it is more common for advertisers to nudge the audience by using the female body as an object to attract. This tends to imply that women only exist to physically satisfy men!  This can be further explained by Freud’s theory of `Scopophilia’, which means, pleasure in looking. `The process of Fetishism is where objects or people or fragments of the body are given sexual significance and provide sexual gratification.’ (Middleton, lecture, `Gender in Visual Culture’) These two images are not contrasting in this respect as both use woman in a non sexual way.
Although the perfume adverts can’t physically portray the product, they provide an important iconic representation of both the product and what the product should stand for.
Perfume adverts, like many others, are also metaphorical as they are trying to communicate something about a product that exists in the world in an image. Barnard. (2005, p.52) This would imply that this genre of advertising is synaesthetic as one type of stimulation is needed in order to understand/experience the other.
Analysing the following photographic images will help understand how imagery generates the appropriate meaning, which then promotes the image of the product.
As I’ve said further up, these images have a similarity but there are also some contrasting aspects.
Analysing the Juicy Couture advert on a first level of meaning, described by Saussure as denotation, we see a luxurious room with five smartly dressed women and one man (standing and sitting), all looking in different directions. The poses themselves are significant and may carry many connotations. Only one of the women is looking in the viewers direction and she is also the nearest, so this could signify her importance.
On the right hand side of the image is an out of proportion big glass bottle which the man is leaning on. By amplifying it, the advertiser is creating more connotations round this object. In this case it has reinforced its importance on the scene. The bottle demonstrates a very sleek, posh appearance - the sort of object that one would relate to a princess’s room. There is no signifier on the bottle that would indicate its contents, but when we read the text on the top left corner, (Eau de Couture) we relate the signified to the signifier. As Saussure (1974) described, a meaning is produced when these two elements are put together. (Quoted in Crow, 2003, p.18) In this case, the signified `glass bottle’ and the signifier, `Eau de couture’, creates a sign which is the bottle of perfume.
The fact that the text helps us guess what the object is reinforces Barthes ideas about `closed texts’ where the possible meanings have been `closed off’ with the addition of text. This would contradict the theory of the `Death of the Author’, that announces the birth of the reader. (Middleton, lecture, Text and Image)
The relation between the image and text can also be seen as an example of anchorage. According to Barthes the text, connoted to the image, helps the reader to interpret the signifiers they are presented with’. (Quoted in Crow, D., 2003, p.76)
Anchorage is more noticeable on the Covet advert, as the text on the left hand bottom corner helps us understand the meaning of the image. The text – “I had to have it” is clearly referring to the perfume as this is the main focus in the scene. Covet is derived from the French and means to wish, long, desire or crave for something. The text helps us to contextualize the scene. From the enthusiastic way Sarah Jessica Parker is holding the bottle and the clothes she is wearing (which contrast the prison cell) we can assume the perfume is the reason why she is in a cell.
We can assume then that the bottle is the main signifier on the Juicy Couture image. Even though it is not in the foreground, they have made it the most obvious object in the image, by increasing its size – making it look out of proportion in comparison to the people. ‘Kress and van Leeuwen explain salience as the ways in which the viewer’s attention is attracted to different elements in a layout varying degrees.’ Barnard. (2005, p.41) Also, both the wall which works as the background and the bottle are yellow, but the perfume has been made to have a more vibrant tone which makes it more salient.
In comparison to the perfume bottle in the Covet advert, the Juicy Couture one is much more noticeable, but the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker is holding the bottle leads our eye straight to it. Also, the other people in the cell are all looking in her direction, which solidifies the importance of the bottle and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Also contrary to the Juicy Couture advert, is the fact that the Covet photograph is based on the TV commercial for the perfume. This frozen scene is then a synecdoche, as it’s a part standing for the whole. It shows an instant in time which refers to other events that happened before and will happen after that instant. Barnard. (2005, p.53) The commercial is available from: [Internet] [Accessed 20/12/09].
On a denotative analysis, the Juicy Couture advert looks like the scene of a ball, as the majority are women and they are all wearing gowns. The luxurious room and the chandelier on the top right corner would suggest that. On the next level of analysis, however, it could appear to be representing a party for ladies only. The fact that the lady in the pink dress is holding a cup and saucer which signifies a hot drink may back this idea up. On a closer level of analysis we can see that the whole scene is clearly inspired by Tim Walker’s photography. (Charles James Gowns by Cecil Beaton, Vogue, June 1948). He transformed beauty into elegance, fantasy, romance and charm. Quoted on: .This image also has French influences as it is inspired by the luxurious lifestyle of Marie Antoinette, who was the Queen of France in the 17th century.
The actual room demonstrates this wealth and has similarities to ‘The Ritz hotel’. `All these evoke the whole ethos of stylishness, prettiness and decadence.’[Internet].Available from: [Accessed 22/12/09].

The only man on the scene is leaning on the oversized bottle and has a dress falling half way down his waist. He is wearing a pink t-shirt revealing many tattoos. He is leaning on the bottle, (assumed to be an important object) which accentuates the fact that he may have many more connotations surrounding him. He can be seen as the signifier that is embodying the rebel side of the brand.
The dresses are coloured and all the same style.  At a formal content level of analysis, we realize that the colours are signifiers themselves. The connotations and associations of these pale colours - rose pink, yellow, blue, green, lilac and peach give the onlooker an idea of serenity, gentleness and peacefulness. Yet, on the next level of analysis each colour has an individual meaning, representing the aromas that make up the perfume. For example pink represents wild rose, yellow marigold, green watermelon, and blue water.  These associations are clearly arbitrary, as ‘there is no nature, legal, personal or God-given reason for any of the signifiers being associated with any of the signified’. (Saussure quoted in Barnard, 2005, p.26). The styles of the dresses again on a connotative level are inspired by Charles James gowns and used in Cecil Beaton’s photography.
The dress used by Sarah Jessica Parker, again, is similar to the taffeta dresses worn by the Juicy Couture models but the clothes used by the other people on the Covet advert creates a contrast between the two images. The dress worn by her also brings connotations to a famous fashion designer, Christian Lacroix.
Another contrasting aspect is the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker is a famous person, whilst in the Juicy Couture advert the models are not so known so remain as an anonymous category. By viewing a person with an identity the audience is automatically forced to make connotations and associations that affect our view of the product in question.
The arrangement of the components in an image is also important; ‘the placement of the elements endows them with specific information values relative to each other.’ Kress and Van Leeuwen (2004, p.183).
In the Juicy Couture advert the lady in the blue dress is the closest subject on the scene so one’s eye is immediately drawn to her. This is because the artist has evoked a sense of proximity. That makes her one of the focal points in this advert. Also, only one of the six women is looking at the audience, while the other four and the man are looking in different directions. Her facial expression and body language also carry various connotations. It’s almost as if she is pouting.
Another similarity between the Juicy Couture and the Covet adverts is that there is the same number of people and they are spread out evenly through the image. The main signifier (perfume bottle) is also on the right hand side of both images. Even though the bottle on the Covet advert is at the front whilst the Juicy Couture one is in the foreground.
The colour palettes are complete opposites. The harsh dark Covet colours contrast with the soft pastel tones used in the Juicy Couture advert. The colours are coded information that express different moods. Words like peacefulness and serenity could be used to describe the Juicy Couture advert whilst the opposites of these words would have to be used to describe the Covet one.                       .
Another thing I need to point out is the naming of the perfume. Guy Cook states that `in the naming of a perfume, a metaphor must be created, often invoking a comparison between effects.’ Cook (2001, p.107). The Juicy Couture one doesn’t have such a metaphoric name as the Covet one, even though the known brand name, ‘Juicy Couture’, carries connotations of its own. `Even when a perfume is given a simple manufacturers name, it carries connotations of its ‘Country of origin or other products of the same manufacturer. ’ Cook (2001, p.108) `Eau de Couture’, are words derived from French and mean Couture water.

Overall, the Juicy Couture advert conveys a strong sense of peace and transmits good feelings to the viewer. As it was mentioned earlier, it contrasts the Covet advert by using a very light colour palette.
As I said in the beginning in the world of today we constantly come across adverts where women are being used as sexual objects to give the viewer pleasure in looking and this Juicy Couture advert has quite a clean approach to it, as none of the women are posing in a sexual way. The poses are also non sexual on the Covet other advert.
It’s nice to see advertising that doesn’t use Freud’s theory of `Scopophilia’ as a selling technique!
As we’ve seen there are many levels of meaning when it comes to decoding an image. The reader may or may not need some cultural/educational/social background in order to understand its meaning. Most of the associations in these images are symbolic, which depend on the reader knowing the connection between the sign and its meaning but there are also iconic associations which are literally ‘what is there’.
The ‘Juicy Couture’ print advertising campaign is intended to recreate a high society lifestyle, which takes the audience back to the past. The whole scene is purposely intending to prove to the buyer the idea that this perfume is not just very good, but smart.

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