How cultural identity is narrated through specific representational conventions found in two examples from the world of advertising.

This essay was an assignment that I wrote in the first term of Freshers Year.

As shown in the title of this post, this essay is revolved around how cultural identity is shown through advertising.  I had hoped to raise the awareness how cultural indifferences are also shown through the media.  As this essay was written in an academic tone and structure, it might seem to be boring for some of you, but hopefully you would find some interest in this essay :)

Sorry for the photo glitch, I wasn’t able to upload the second advertisement onto the post right now, but i’ll try again later x

Self-identity is ‘the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography’ (Giddens, 1991:53). This concludes Giddens’ view of identity as a ‘Project’, where individuals attempt to construct their own identity over time and experience. This essay attempts to provide a detailed analysis on how the identity of females are narrated through two breast enhancement magazine advertisements from two different cultures – Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Key signifiers in the advert that contributes to the understanding of how the identity of the female are narrated through advertising shall be analysed.

Barker (2003: 222) has interpreted Giddens’ identity as a ‘Project’ as identity being our own creation, where one’s identity is constantly changing, and hopes to answer the questions of ‘what to do? How to act? Who to be?’ (Barker, 2003: 221). In the modern society, it is as if sexuality is for sale. Janice Winship suggests that ‘Ads sell us, as women, not just commodities but also our personal relationships in which we are feminine’ through advertisements of makeup or tight-fit clothes that shows off the woman’s body figure, or in other words, the femininity of the woman (Hall, 2006: 218). Such advertisements contribute to the ordinary consumer’s answer to the questions ‘how we are/should be/can be a certain feminine woman?’ (Hall, 2006: 218) The focus of this essay shall be directed to how the advertising of breast enhancement narrates the female’s identity in their respective societies.

According to Lewis (2003: 190), ‘the role of women as consumers and as sexualized figures in the consumption process seems to have expanded considerably during the earlier years of the twentieth century’. Moreover, Lewis has identified that ‘Millett sees the female experience of sex and sexuality as fundamentally constrained by the need to satisfy male’s material and ideological interests’. The bust and slimming advertisement from Hong Kong clearly displays an example where physical beauty is equated to be ‘feminine’.

In the determination of how the representational conventions operate within the advertisement to construct the female’s identity in the society, it is essential to first identify the ‘signs’ in the advert and then analyse the effect of the signs. The discussion of signs in the advertisements chosen for this analysis specifically targets the signs that are relevant to the construction of the female’s identity in the society.

Peirce’s ‘sign’, symbol, icon and index, are classified depending ‘on the logical relation between the sign and that for which it stands’ (Gillespie and Toynbee, 2006: 30). The examination of the operation of representational conventions in the advertisement assists the audience’s understanding of what is being a ‘woman’ in the society.

The symbolic sign’s relation between that for which it stands is ‘arbitrary and totally conventional’ (Gillespie and Toynbee, 2006: 30), examples of which are the written words used in texts. Iconic sign’s relation with that for which it stands ‘resembles what they stand for’, examples of which are two or three dimensional representations of a more or less photographic or ‘realistic’ type’ (Gillespie and Toynbee, 2006: 30). Lastly, indexical signs are signs that have a ‘causal relation between the sign and that for which it stands’ (Gillespie and Toynbee, 2006: 30), examples of which would be smoke being an indexical sign for burning and fire. There is a dispute on whether photographs are limited to being an iconic sign due to the nature of photographs (Gillespie and Toynbee, 2006: 30). ‘Photography can be said to be indexical because in a sense it is a pure ‘effect’ of the light reflected by the object(s) in front of the camera when the picture was taken.’ 

The Hong Kong bust and slimming advertisement from the company Josephine Bust & Slimming focuses on sex appeal and that beauty and femininity could be attained through breast enhancement. This advert uses a famous actress showing her breasts (after breast enhancement) as the spokesperson (as both the iconic and indexical sign) of the product. By dressing in a sexually appealing manner, the effect is explained in Janice Winship’s article (Hall, 2006: 220) to be, ‘the naked woman is always a nude woman, ‘framed in the beautiful photography’, a representation comparable with soft-porn photos, potentially to be gazed at by men even if it is women who look at it. Thus women not only see themselves as men see them but are encouraged in these ads to enjoy their sexuality through the eyes of men.’ Based on this statement, this ad appears to encourage its female audience to become the actress, or at least have her body figure, in order to be ‘feminine’. Moreover, Lewis (2003: 212) stated that ‘the emphasis on beauty might seem to play on the insecurities that are so replete within contemporary image-driven culture’, this is supported through the self-confident look and posture of the actress. Not looking at the audience and acting aloof portrays the actress as high-class, elegant and confident in herself after having breast enhancements. It appears to be conveying the message that breast enhancement, and having a to-die-for body figure can increase the women’s self confidence and femininity.

This advert incorporates a lot of symbolic signs (words) to introduce the product/ service to its audience. The slogan as a symbolic sign situated on the ‘body’ of the blue female body figure reads ‘Love yourself, natural breast enhancement’, it conveys the message to its female audience that breast enhancement should be done because you love yourself, showing that the women in the society are ‘obviously narcissistic representations in which pleasure is self-induced rather than being reliant on men’ (Hall, 2006: 219). However, with her breasts being the focus of her posture, it clearly draws attention from both man and woman to look at the advert. Her heavy make up and wet hairstyle also contributes to the seductiveness that the advert is trying to link with femininity.

In this breast enhancement advert, it is clearly shown that the direction of the advert points to physical beauty being a sign of femininity. The exposure of the actress’ breasts and large blue background image of a female’s body figure shows that the advert is sexual-content oriented. Attracting both male and female audience, the advert portrays the idea that this is how an attractive woman should look like, and how men believes a feminine woman should look like. This view is supported by Winship in her article Sexuality for Sale (Hall, 2006: 219), ‘women are invited by the ads to respond to themselves through the imagined fetishes of men – the tights/legs, the lipstick/lips which fragments or distortion of them stand for all of their womanness’.

On the bottom left corner, Josephine, the owner of the company and breast enhancement expert, shows herself to also be an iconic figure of the company through the advert. Wearing a confident smile, looking at the audience and standing in a casual yet professional pose, she portrays the image of the modern successful woman in the Hong Kong society. With the ‘information box’ next to her and the photograph of her in the lab with her colleague, Josephine is shown to be the expert in her field, indicating that the role of women in the society are not only defined by her physical features, but women can also take on a professional role in society.

On the contrary, the breast enhancement advert by Transform from the UK has significantly less components compared to the Josephine ad. At first glance, the advert has almost no sexual signifiers. It is seen that the main image (iconic sign) is the woman wearing a bikini standing and holding a signboard which covers her upper body. Upon closer inspection, the words on the board act as a caption to the advert, relaying the message to the audience that this advert is, in fact, a breast enhancement advert. The focus of the advert is drawn to the purpose of breast enhancements being entirely the decision of the woman’s psychological and personal pleasure rather than as a visual pleasure for men.

Moreover, the use of an ordinary woman as the main ‘character’ of the advert rather than using a famous actress appeals to the female audiences in the way that the advert is applicable to everyday women and not only to those who want to ‘become’ the idol-icon. By covering the woman’s breasts with the signboard, the focus of the woman shifts to her confidence, shown through her smile and posture, which corresponds to the words on the advert, that breast enhancement gives her confidence. The symbolic sign of words written on the signboard is the slogan for their breast enhancement advertising campaign, and has appeared in many other Transform adverts. This slogan further shows that the advert is directed to the psychological satisfaction for the women who has undergone breast enhancement rather than the physical appeal and visual pleasure that it could bring to men.

Despite both advertisements selling the same product/service – breast enhancement, their focus and emphasis on how to sell the product varies greatly. Both adverts are trying to send the message that breast enhancements could increase the women’s self confidence, yet the approach taken through the advert is hugely different. Features such as the use of actress/ ordinary woman as the main character of the advert, their composure, facial expression and extent of nudity all plays a contributing part to the difference in the portrayal of the female’s identity in these two cultures. This essay clearly shows how each of these components have helped in the construction of the female’s identity through the ‘imagined fetishes’ (Hall, 2006: 219) of men in Hong Kong and the female’s identity established through their own psychological pleasure and confidence in the United Kingdom.

 Josephine Bust & Slim advert w: Notes

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