Abstract of “Meaning and Ideology” by Judith Williamson
Abstract by Diane Neu
I. Description of Article
Williamson explains how advertising has created objects that are now an interchangeable piece of human culture. Instead of saying “I love you,” we give flowers. Instead of recycling and reducing consumerism, we buy a new Prius. Advertising has created “structures of meaning” where the good or object is now a stand-in for human language and action (188).
II. Comments and Questions
Williamson argues that advertisements are one of the major factors influencing our culture today, in addition to being the major cultural mirror “reflecting our life today” (188). Advertising is so pervasive in our culture because of its status as “a vast superstructure with an apparently autonomous existence and an immense influence” (188). You cannot easily counteract a force that is so rooted and ingrained in our culture that most people do not even recognize it for what it is. Williamson clarifies that her purpose is not to measure the influence of advertising but rather to analyze “what can be seen in advertisements” (188). She continues to explain that while part of advertising’s obvious function “is to sell things to us,” it also functions as a modern day replacement for art and religion in that it “creates structures of meaning” (188).
Advertising creates meaning through its ability to “translate statements from the world of things […] into a form that means something in terms of people” (189). Williamson gives two examples of automobile advertisements. If a company is trying to sell a car that gets good gas mileage, they might portray the buyer of such a car as economical or eco-conscious. If they were trying to sell a car with low gas mileage, they might portray the buyer as someone who is too cool and wealthy to care about something like gas mileage. Advertising takes the product and creates a relatable story or meaning that we, the consumer, can connect to. Williamson points out that this aspect of advertising shows that advertising is not a “single ‘language’ ” (189). Instead, advertising can be seen as “capable of transforming the language of objects to that of people” (189). One set of advertisements that comes to mind is the new “healthy” McDonald’s campaign. They have these commercials with a hip, young mom and her beautiful toddler spending a wonderful day together – and then they finish the day by having a healthy meal at McDonald’s. The mom gets her salad (with Paul Newman dressing, natch), and the kid gets all white-meat chicken nuggets with milk and apple slices. Mmmmmm. Now you can eat Fast Food Nation style and presumably not get cancer. Of course, this whole campaign has nothing to do with McDonald’s actually caring about the food they serve – they just know that this is a great opportunity to capitalize on the whole organic, Whole-Foods movement.
Advertising does not always reduce “people to the status of things,” but it happens quite frequently when both the object and the person “are used symbolically” (189). This happens when the object becomes interchangeable with the person or human act – the object becomes a physical stand-in for emotion or human connection. Williamson uses the example of how diamond rings have become the ubiquitous symbol for true and enduring love. The diamond isn’t just associated with love – it is love. This immediately reminded me of the engagement ring ads for Scott Kay. Their slogan is, “Never compromise when asking someone to spend the rest of their life with you,” indicating that no matter how heart-felt or genuine the proposal, it just won’t mean anything without a Scott Kay diamond. The word “compromise” holds two meanings for me in this ad. The more obvious connotation is that the person who proposes without a Scott Kay diamond would be striking a compromise between cost/benefit. They have compromised and decided to not spring for the giant, platinum-set diamond. The other, more striking, meaning is that the person who proposes without a Scott Kay diamond would be compromising their relationship. They would be sending the message that the receiver of the ring means little to the giver. There is no love without a Scott Kay diamond. Williamson summarizes this phenomenon by pointing out that these kinds of ads “are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves” (190).
People are no longer “identified with what they produce” in a culture where advertising invokes “false categories” of class in order to “obscure the real structure of society by replacing class with the distinctions made by the consumption of particular goods” (190). We are no longer associated by what we can create, produce, and contribute; we become what we consume. Our identity and class status becomes inextricably linked to “what we are able to buy” (190). I remember one time reading this article where they were interviewing the marketing executives at Pottery Barn. They were commenting that while it is true that a lot of people can’t afford a $5,000 sofa, a lot of people can afford $20 Egyptian cotton towels. They are still purchasing a luxury item, but it is an affordable luxury that makes them feel like they are participating in a higher level of consumer culture. It makes them feel like they belong in that social class. That’s why you can now spend $20 on Kate Spade branded pencils. You might not be able to afford one of her purses, but if you use the pencils, everyone will think that you can.
Williamson concludes by pointing out that advertising can be elusive because while it “speaks to us in a language we can recognize,” it uses “a voice we can never identify” (190). This is due to the fact that “advertising has no ‘subject’ ” (190). There are people that produce these advertisements, but the ad never comes out and says, “This is Bill Jones, senior advertising executive, and I am here to sell you…” This leaves “a space, a gap left where the speaker should be” (190). As consumer, we are “drawn in to fill that gap” (190). Advertising sets up the social structure and meaning for us, and we are left to consume and distribute that meaning. Williamson reasons that if we could take back the “relationship and human meaning appropriated by advertising,” we “could radically change the society we live in” (191).
III. Key Terms and Links
Structures of meaning