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Polysemy in Advertising

In this issue, Advertising and Society Review concentrates on the phenomenon of polysemy. The term "polysemy," which admittedly smacks of postmodernist intellectualism at this point, is actually simple to define: it refers to the capability of a particular text to have multiple meanings. However, in interpretive practice, illuminating polysemy can be very complex because the multiple meanings can be located in different ways and among different viewers.

The issue begins with a reprint of an article about one of advertising's classic texts, the "1984" commercial that introduced Apple's Macintosh in that year. I have selected this article as an opening because the example, along with the accompanying update, illustrates three key dimensions along which polysemy is often evident in the advertising discourse. By opening with this example, I hope to frame the original articles that follow in a way that helps the reader who is unfamiliar with the phenomenon of polysemy.

Certain genres or formal types are actually typified by polysemy. For instance, both satire and parody depend on manifesting enough similarity to another text to be recognizable, but different enough to communicate a divergent, often humorous or political message. Irony is emphatically polysemic: the conflict between the apparent meaning and the "real" or intended meaning in an ironic statement or picture is the basis for its effect. Allusion is another form that is basically polysemic: a reference to an outside event, story, character, or image is brought into the current text to create a new meaning through combination with the old. Similarly, we may argue that metaphor is fundamentally an exercise in polysemy, since the union of two otherwise dissimilar elements into a new meaning implies the operation of multiple prior meanings. Indeed, critics have argued that the ability to recognize a metaphor—or any fictive form—as a statement that should not be read literally, is the essence of artistic communication. Such critical arguments depend on a polysemic understanding of the basis for literature.

Trope, the rhetorical term for metaphor, is often said to function most effectively when it resonates richly across many interpretations. The "1984" Apple commercial is a trope, one that borrows from another text—George Orwell's 1984—in a way that creates a two-level narrative in which Macintosh becomes the hero against IBM's evil empire. The commercial is not working unless the viewer mentally "creates" the trope: recognizes the allusion to 1984 and substitutes IBM for the "Big Brother" on the screen and Macintosh for the hammer-throwing heroine. So the first element of polysemy here is the formal one, an allusive trope.

In order to create the trope, however, the viewer must have some knowledge of 1984 or, at least, other futuristic dystopias, and must be cognizant enough of the current computer industry to know that Macintosh is pitted against IBM in an apparent struggle to survive. It is axiomatic in reader response theory (as argued in the article) that viewers/readers, not authors or critics, create texts, thus the potential for polysemy always exists among different viewers. Since one viewer may not be familiar with 1984 or another may not agree that IBM is an evil corporation, those viewers may not create the trope—or may simply reject its argument. This incipient polysemy, which can occur across any diverse audience, is, then, the second dimension.

The intended reading for this commercial, however, depended on understanding cultural material and concerns that were very current at the opening of the year, 1984, and therefore, were historically specific. In another twenty years, readers would be unlikely to identify IBM as Big Brother, for instance, because they would see Microsoft as the opposing force to Apple. The commentary that appears with the reprint looks at the way the "1984" commercial sometimes fails today, when read by contemporary viewers, especially in a global environment, because they are too far removed from the original historical moment. This historical specificity, then, is the third dimension.

The articles that follow focus on polysemy in different ways. The first, "Man's last stand! Polysemy and Dialogue in Advertising Reception" by Gry Høngsmark Knudsen, traces the online dialog about a Superbowl ad that asserted a politically sensitive stance in the gender wars. We can see polysemy in the difference between the way men read the ad versus women (and especially feminists). However, we can also see polysemy in the claim that the ad was not intended to be read "seriously" (or "literally"), but was meant as a joke (thus presenting an irony). Such a stance, frequently made by advertisers to escape a critical response to an offensive ad, gets the advertiser "off the hook" by disclaiming intentionality for one meaning and claiming another.

The second article, "Hard-sell and Soft-sell Advertising Appeals with a 'Polysemic' Difference: A Purposeful Advertising Polysemy Perspective," is an experimental investigation of the operation of polysemy as a strategy comparable to "hard sell" or "soft sell." Such a perspective on polysemy implies that multiple meanings are "contained in" the ad—that is, are a matter of the formal features—rather than "created by" the reader. At the same time, the article investigates the response of an African-American audience, which presumes that this audience would have a different reading from other audiences, suggesting the potential for polysemy across all three tested types.

The third article, "Moving Beyond Vodka, Vacations, and Viaticals: How The Advocate's 1992 Redesign Contributed to the Solidification of a New LGBTQ Market Segment" illustrates how different groups have often radically various readings of a particular text or genre, as well as how those readings change with time and circumstance. Importantly, this article shows how readings, as well as the actions that result from those readings, track against interest. So, for this reason, in the beginning of the narrative, large corporate advertisers had a different view of sexually explicit homoerotic messages (which led them to avoid advertising alongside such texts) than did many gay readers (which led them to buy the magazine, place ads, and so on). Yet even within the gay community, attitudes varied, explicitly and implicitly. Some wanted to see the ads eliminated in favor of an emphasis on clothing, home décor, and the like, for instance. Yet others felt the sexually explicit messages were an important expression of gay identity and even pride. A consistent emphasis on erotic imagery featuring a white Caucasian male raised the issue of readings by lesbians, as well as by gay males who were not Caucasian. As the HIV-Aids scare progressed, attitudes even within the gay community shifted. And, as the Internet significantly diminished the appeal of personal ads in print, the entire discourse changed in value. Here we have a full-blown picture of the potential for polysemy and the way it works as a rhetorical force.

Linda M. Scott

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