Decoding Advertisements

Advertising only “makes sense” when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems’ (Frith, 1997: vii).

So writes Katherine Frith in “Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising”. She goes on to suggest that in order to “deconstruct” adverts, we must take them “apart layer by layer”.

First, the surface meaning: this is the overall, initial impression obtained upon viewing an advertisement. Breaking the advertisement down into a list of its component parts shows the meaning of an advert at surface level.

Secondly, the intended meaning is the sales message that advertisers wish to promote – this is the “preferred” meaning, the way in which advertisers “expect” viewers to interpret an advert.

Finally, the cultural meaning. The interpretation of this meaning is dependent upon the cultural knowledge and social background of the viewer, the shared “belief systems” to which Frith refers.

Barthes and Heath (1977) inform us of a signifier, something which is identifiable in an advert and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified or the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which the advert attempts to communicate to the viewer.

Interviewed in 2012, Francis Hodgson discusses not only the way in which we analyse images, but also the quality of the way in which we do so (Quality Matters, 2013). Hodgson suggests that we frequently perceive and discuss images as being “of something” without attempting to consider that images are also “about something”, an idea which links strongly with Barthes concept of the signifier and the signified.

Viewing adverts is not a passive process. However, models exist which suggest that this is the case.

The “Effects” or “hypodermic needle” theory suggests that the viewers of adverts passively view images and unquestioningly accept the message.

Conversely, “The Uses and Gratification” theory suggests that the audience takes an active role in consuming adverts, messages are questioned and put to use for the gratification of the viewer.

Both the Effects and the Uses and Gratification models have flaws and limitations. For example, the Effects model posits that children who view violent behaviour on screen will re-enact that violence in real life, the reality is that many people watch specific types of behaviour without going on to reproduce that behaviour themselves. The Uses and Gratification theory controversially suggests that some violent behaviour can be beneficial rather than harmful.

Reception Theory” was developed by Stuart Hall in response to these flaws.

This theory suggests that authors, say for example advertisers, will design an advert to carry a specific message – this is encoding. Decoding occurs when the audience views an advert.

Adverts can, according to Hall, be decoded in one of three ways which will be explored through the following analysis of images.

The first advertisement, The Famous Grouse “Perfectly Balanced” advert of 2016, provides an example of a dominant reading.

Reception theory informs us that authors identify a target audience and subsequently design, or “encode” ideologies into an advert in such a way as to convey a specific message. This message is “decoded” when the audience view the advert. Dominant readings arise when the message is encoded and then decoded in the same way.

The advertisement features a grouse, balancing on the peak of a rocky outcrop, the rock itself is truncated in order to create an impression of great height.

Whilst there is no reference to the product being advertised, Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky, anywhere at all in the image, the intended audience will instantly recognise the preferred message which, according to the distiller, is the bringing together of the “finest grains, pure Scottish water and carefully seasoned sherry and bourbon casks to create our uniquely rich, rounded and sweet whisky.”


Perfectly Balanced” – The Famous Grouse (2016)

Oppositional readings occur when images are viewed by an audience separate to, and outside of, the target audience. The non-target audience forms a view which is based upon their personal experiences or opinions, and which causes them to reject the preferred reading.

Vegans and vegetarians may take an oppositional view of the McDonald’s “Big Mac” advertisement because, in their view, it is unethical to kill animals and eat animal products. This is obviously in opposition to the advert itself which promotes the Big Mac specifically, and McDonald’s products in general, as being delicious and nutritious.


Big Mac Meal” McDonald’s

Finally, the beach body ready advertisement is an example of a negotiated reading.

According to audience theory, “negotiated readings” are the result of an audience both accepting and rejecting elements of an advertisement simultaneously.

The dominant message is acknowledged, but it is not accepted willingly. Instead, the preferred reading is modified according to the audiences own experiences and interests.

Fundamentally, the advert is promoting a series of weight loss supplements. However, the advert received widespread criticism when the “viewing audience” perceived it as promoting lean body types and therefore discriminating against other body types.

Consequently, we can see that the audience will accept the promotion of the weight loss supplements, but objects to the use of exclusively slender models in that promotion.


Beach Body Ready” Protein World (2015)

Adverts, therefore, are “polysemic” in nature – they are open to different interpretations which are dependent upon the audience’s identity, cultural knowledge and opinions.

But what of the “deeply held belief systems” to which Frith refers?

Goodwin and Whannel suggest that messages are “socially produced in particular circumstances and made culturally available as shared explanations of how the world works. In other words, they are ‘ideologies’, explanatory systems of belief” (Goodwin and Whannel, 2005, p. 60).

Their definition of “shared explanations” is interesting because it relates to semiotic concept of symbolism.

Pierce introduced the philosophical system of semiotics in his book “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” (1910), a discourse on the theory of language and reasoning. This system has since been utilised widely in attempts to establish the nature of photography and photographs.

Barthes, in his attempts to qualify how photography “exists”, has referred to the terminology introduced by Pierce’s system of semiotics, such terminology as: icon – the resemblance that a photograph has to its subject, and index – trace evidence of the existence of a subject once photographed.

In semiotic terms, symbols are agreed, standardised points of reference which can be used as a basis upon which to form discussions that are inclusive (e.g. a car is a car because that is what we are taught, and it is universally agreed and accepted that a “car” will have a chassis, four wheels, an engine, etc.).

If the symbolic meaning of a photograph is the “studium” referred to by Barthes, the polysemic “punctum” is the initial (conscious) pricking impression that is purely personal and dependent on the individual.

Ideologies are, then, the explanatory systems of belief suggested by Goodwin and Whannel and messages are the mode by which such ideologies are communicated. Consequently, it follows that symbolism is the agreed shorthand used in those messages.

It would appear then, in relation to decoding advertisements, that we have established the link between the “deeply held belief systems” referred to by Frith and semiotic symbolism.

How then, does theory relate to practice?


Morris, 2017. Tomato Soup

Analysed according to Frith’s meanings, the image “Tomato Soup” has the following characteristics.

Firstly, in terms of the surface meaning, the image shows tomatoes, onion, garlic and carrots, a number of pencils stand ready for use in a pot – which we can see is a tin which once held tomato soup, and there is a recipe with the title “Tomato Soup”.

The intended meaning of the image is clearly to portray tomato soup and its ingredients, at least in terms of this particular recipe.

Finally, the cultural meaning of the image. Whilst the image is clearly about tomato soup, the question is introduced as to what tomato soup the image is trying to portray. The fresh ingredients and the recipe suggest that the benefits of fresh, home-made tomato soup are being depicted. The tin which clearly held a well-established brand of tomato soup has been relegated to the position of pen pot – is this image promoting healthy, economical and delicious benefits of home-cooking? Or is the tin – now empty of soup and with its new contents of pencils – lurking in the background for an ulterior reason?

From Hodgson’s perspective, “Tomato Soup” is, again, clearly an image of the ingredients needed to make. But the same ambiguity applies with regard to what the image is about – is it home-cooked soup, or mass-produced soup in a tin?

Taking Barthes and Heath’s semiotic approach, the signifier is not quite so easily determined. In the case of “Tomato Soup”, is it the range of fresh ingredients and the recipe, or is it the tomato soup can in the background? The signified is, therefore, very much dependent upon what the viewer interprets the signifier to be.

On a final note, for me, as a photographer, the value of audience theory is in knowing the way in which different meanings can be attached to images, in understanding the polysemic nature of photographic images – the way that each viewer can have a unique interpretation of an image as a result of their own experiences and values.

Viewers find interest in images which are multi-layered and which contain some ambiguity in terms of the message that is being conveyed – they like having something to find, something to search for. Knowledge and understanding of the meaning attached to images and semiotic analysis allows me to produce images which appeal to an audience on a deeper level because of their multi-layered, slightly ambiguous and subjective nature.

Furthermore, this information allows me to make informed decisions about the images I make. Ultimately, as a photographer, I have two goals. The first is for the images I make to be viewed by an audience, and the second is for the images to evoke a reaction within that viewing audience. At the very least, audience theory allows me to correctly identify my target audience.



Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. accessed 19 February 2017

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

Goodwin, A. and Whannel, G. (2005) Understanding Television. London: Routledge

Hall, Stuart. (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage in association with The Open University

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