Advertising and the Use of Misleading Signs
University of Colorado at Boulder
The environment is the big-ticket topic of the upcoming generation. The media of today has the power to frame environmental issues in ways that determine the majority of public opinion on these issues. This becomes problematic in that the media is not representative of the views or interests of the people that view it. The consumer does not set the media’s agenda but instead the owner of the media sets it. Today large corporations own all of the major television networks and in this way have a great deal of power over how we develop our shared meanings of cultural significant signs. This fact must be considered when looking at how the media portrays environmental issues. I argue that because of the power of corporate interest over mass media photographic messages on various environmental issues and the efforts to address them are misrepresented by corporations. This is often referred to as greenwashing. Greenwashing is a corporation’s attempt to hide their environmentally unfriendly actions behind misleading messages that portray environmentally sound practices. Analysis of Monsanto print advertisements will illustrate the problem of greenwashing through the paradox of the photographic message as Barthes explains it under Barthes' semiotic theory of communication.
Barthes’ theory of the photographic message discusses the communication capacities and intricacies of photographs as “an object endowed with structural autonomy” (Barthes, 1977). Semiotic theory views communication as the development of shared meanings through the use of signs (Craig lecture notes 9/30/10). In Gottiender’s (1985)article, "Hegemony and Mass Culture: A Semiotic Approach," he points out, "the object of analysis in semiotics is the socially sustained system of signification, including its material objects and their inter- dependencies, that produces and sustains meaning through socio-structural interaction” (p. 985). The material objects are the images themselves and the interdependencies can be seen as the basis that the images are signs of shared meaning. Advertising and thus media acts as the socially sustained system that allows for the shared meanings to be developed in a structured space.
Barthes’ theory is contingent upon the paradox that is created by the dual detonated and connoted meanings generated by photographs. The photographic message is unique in that it can be one "without a code." For Barthes this is pure denotation, but he notes that this pure denotation "may have every chance of being mythical." This is in part because of the connoted message that simultaneously exists. The photograph is conventionally thought to be an image of reality captured in time. According to Barthes, this is the ideal form of the denoted message. In modern society photographs are more readily capable of being manipulated to express a desired or connoted message through the use of what Barthes calls connotative procedures. The use of text with a photograph also introduces a directly connoted message, often "to signify something different to what is shown." In modern press and other media outlets the denoted meaning is coupled with the connoted. This is where Barthes acknowledges a paradox. A photograph has two meanings simultaneously, the image itself, or the denotation, and the connoted message. Their simultaneous existence brings the question of how an image can be both "objective and interested." In advertising the message must not be false but typically has some sort of agenda. The question in advertising is about how an image can be true while conveying the message that it desires to connote. Connoted messages are the basis for discussion regarding the application of this theory to modern corporate advertisement. The connoted message is created through the shared meaning of signs and the use of text. Through the use of what Barthes calls connotation procedures, images can be edited to convey a desired meaning based off of understood cultural signs. Barthes' theory of semiotics faces critique in the assumption of a shared culture that presumes the shared meaning of signs. Monsanto advertisements illustrate the semiotic theory’s functions and flaws in action.
Monsanto is the world’s largest conventional seed producer and the number one producer of RoundUp, a chemical used to kill weeds commercially. Monsanto recently produced new advertisements to promote their environmentally friendly efforts. An application of Barthes’ connotative procedures illustrates how Monsanto creates a connoted message that suggests its’ actions toward environmental sustainability in a way that greenwashes the corporation through manipulation of signs. Below is one of the Monsanto advertisements:
Monsanto’s ad shows a middle-aged African American man standing in the foreground with a field (presumably his) in the background that extends to the horizon. The man is looking into the distance with his head up and a thoughtful expression on his face. Just over his shoulder a piece of machinery called a harvester is sitting in his field that is tall and brown with wheat. The sky is a similar color and very cloudy. This is the denoted message of this photograph. Now let’s explore the simultaneously connoted meaning. The man is posed wearing clean but worn in clothing. His facial hair is perfectly trimmed and turning grey. His head is over the clouds in the background and his back is before his field. All of these subtleties of pose imply an experienced farmer with plenty of work behind him. The angle of the man gaze resembles the aesthetic of presidential portraits. In particular this image resembles President Obama’s portrait (below) because both men are middle-aged and African American. The Presidential image signifies leadership, strength and nobility. The link to President Obama also brings to mind the idea of change. Both signs act to align the image with positivity and institutional legitimacy.
There is a harvester in the background of the image on the man’s shoulder. This is a piece of farm equipment that is used to gather the crop once it has dried in the field. To a farming community the image of a harvester signifies profits and rewards for the long and often arduous season of growing crops. Barthes explains the significance, “the posing of objects, where the meaning comes from objects photographed…” These are all non-verbal signs developed to provide intended connotations.
The text that accompanies the image directly provides a connotation to the image. There are two text clips on the image. One rests on the farmer’s shoulder and says, “America’s farmers grow America.” This supports the connoted message that has been developed non-verbally. The phrase praises the farmer for his work and uses agricultural terms (i.e- grow) to do so. The placement of the phrase also carries the connotation of a conscience. This signifies cartoons that illustrate conscience personified. The connotation is then that the phrase is representative of the farmer’s conscience. The other text says, “Thanks a Million. Make that 11 million. Thanks to advanced farming practices, America’s farmers reduced their CO2 emissions 11 million tons in one year. That’s the same amount produced by 1 million SUVs. Few industries have shown such respect for the environment.” This text puts forth a completely new connotation on the image. Now the farmer is a sign of environmentally sound practices. He is also a sign of the “industry.” The messages denoted and connoted in this image are not the same. The production of the connoted image is problematic at best.
As previously mentioned the semiotic theory of communication is defined the generation of shared meaning through signs (Craig lecture 9/30/11). This advertisement constructs meaning that presumes various levels of shared meanings. The theory's assumption of shared cultural meanings may not be valid in this case. To a lay viewer the field may look dead. The harvester in the background of the image may not signify that the field is ready to be harvested. These ambiguities may signify the opposite of what the image is attempting to convey. The connotative procedures used by Monsanto work to make the image feel positive. The text is used to connote environmental commitment that is not portrayed in the image itself. The use of the two together allows Monsanto to portray a positive image of a farmer, and then verbally plant environmentally conscious practices without any other indications. Monsanto’s chemicals have done unquantifiable damage to forests in Vietnam and polluted the environment of many people. The use of generalized claims in advertising and connotative procedures allows Monsanto to misrepresent their environmental impact. The theory as presented by Barthes assumes a shared meaning from this advertisement that is not shared by all viewers. Those that are aware of the impact that Monsanto has had on the environment are aware that this advertisement falsely represents Monsanto’s environmental footprint. The connotative procedures that Barthes outlines can be clearly seen but the scope of these techniques is limited where incongruence lies in the cultural background of the public.
Through understanding Barthes’ theory of the photographic message one can analyze any modern publication and see the connoted messages that lie within. When the theory is extended to account for the various meanings of signs across a culture, the practice of inquisition that this theory promotes is beneficial. An examination of the various meanings created by a sign is useful for understanding and examining the value and importance in variations on shared meanings of signs within cultures.
Barthes, R. (1977). The photographic message (S. Heath, Trans.). In S. Heath (Ed.), Image, music, text (pp. 15-31). New York: Hill and Wang.
Craig, R. (Sept. 30, 2010). The Photographic Message. Class Lecture Powerpoint.
Gottdiener, M. (1985). Hegemony and mass culture: A semiotic approach. The American Journal of Sociology, 90(5), pp. 979-1001.