What is a sign? A yellow and black metal shape on the side of a road… well yes. But in the terms of semiotics – the study of signs, a sign is anything that conveys a message (Berger 2014).
Semiotics looks into a number of ways we read signs with the most distinctive factors being the signifiers and the signified. The signifiers of a sign is the content you can see within it, it will never change and it will be the same for anyone who reads it. What does change, is the message that the sign has portrayed to audiences known as the signified. The Signified will be read differently by each individual depending on their age, gender, past experiences, religious beliefs and predominantly the ideologies they hold toward aspects in life.
The image above is an advertisement for the fashion label Sisley’s Fashion Junkie campaign in 2007 which caused a lot of controversy being deemed inappropriate due to it’s drug references.
When looking at signifiers, the most obvious things are the two women holding straws in an all black room, leaning over a bright white dress and a credit card covered in powder with the text, “Sisley Fashion Junkie” right in the centre of the image. These simple signifers were specifically chosen to give a signified message that the the clothing brand Sisley’s products are as addictive and high fashion as cocaine.
With the minimal use of signifiers how did this campaign receive such an outcry?
The answer can be concluded using ideologies and in this case, the specific ideologies around fashion culture. This image largely taps into the wide spread idea that the high fashion industry is largely involved with drugs and partying. With this ideology that ties the fashion industry to drugs already in the minds of most viewers, and the preconceived knowledge that Sisley is a high fashion brand, audiences are able to construct a message from just a few simple signifiers.
The use of the colour and representation plays a massive role in the ad, with the (in context) models, in a completely dark room has connotations to the “dark side” of the fashion industry and the struggle many models face with partying and drug use.The contrasting pure white Sisley dress again evokes the representation of pure white cocaine, a substance associated with people with money and who like to party.This is then enforced by signifier the credit card covered in white powder, again linked with the ideology that they are used to chop cocaine.
The final signifier, tying it all together is the use of the text. Sisley, as mentioned above, promotes the brands name. It is the text, “Fashion Junkie” that combines the notion of fashion and addictive drugs that relates it to the brand, giving it the idea you can be addicted or a “junkie” to this fashionable label.
All in all, the use of ideologies plays a massive role into the way we perceive images. If someone who has never been exposed to any of these ideologies were to view this, their interpretation would not be the same.
Here are some more controversial adds from Sisley.
Berger, A 2014, ‘Semiotics and society’, Society, vol 51, no. 1, p. 22-26, viewed 21 March 2014, Springer Link database, item: 1936-4725.