Ideology and Signs in Advertising
The term ideology was first used in 1796 to refer to a science of ideas (Nöth 1991: 377). Three versions of the concept exist: the value-neutral concept, the pejorative sense and the universalistic sense. The first concept refers to ideology as any system of norms, values, beliefs or Weltanschauungen directing the social and political attitudes of a group. The second type refers to a system of false ideas, representing the false consciousness of a social class. The third concept identifies ideology with the sphere of ideas in general (Nöth 1991: 377-8). This view coincides with the view of psychologists that ideology is the way that attitudes are organised into a coherent pattern (Fiske 1982: 144).
Bahktin (1990: 378) links ideology with semiotics when he writes:
Everything ideological […] is a sign; without signs, there is no ideology. The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present too. Everything ideological possesses semiotic value.
Advertisements become a vehicle for ideology by reflecting ideas, beliefs and opinions that are a reflection of the society within a specific culture. This idea is echoed by semioticians such as Fiske (1982: 145) who argue that ideology is determined by society, not by the individual’s set of attitudes. According to Maria Campos (1983: 978) "ideology attains material existence. It becomes concretised, it acts surreptitiously, it never presents itself as ‘being ideological’". The ideology is generated by the signs that represent the advertisement and its message.
In other words, the ideology-semiotic relationship is established when the ideology makes use of signs to convey its message; thus the ideology precedes the signs. "It becomes communicable as it is turned into a code" (Campos: 1983: 978). This code then relates the ideology by portraying certain deeds, habits or institutions.
On the one hand, advertisements make the consumer/receiver believe that they reflect reality, but in fact they only create a world which makes allusions to reality. The same can be said for ideology. Ideology becomes the category of illusions and false consciousness according to Fiske (1982: 145). As
Multinational companies propagate their products and the virtues and lifestyles of the capitalist, American Dream by reflecting this and many other values and ideologies in their advertising. Examples include motor cars (Ford), clothing (Levi) and perfume (Calvin Klein). The underlying message is that all that is American is good and should be followed.