Male-perfume advertising in men’s magazines and visual discourse in contemporary Britain : a social semiotics approach
Source: Image and Narrative. Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative – ISSN 1780-678XIssue 11. The Visualization of the Subaltern in World Music. On Musical Contestation Strategies (Part 2) / Images in Advertising
Author: Eduardo de Gregorio Godeo
Published: May 2005
Abstract (E): This paper explores the construction of the visual discourse of male-perfume advertising in British men’s magazines. Thus, the particularities of visual discourse are discussed first of all. Drawing upon social semiotics as an analytical framework, the article examines the articulation of the `new man´ in this form of print-media discourse, focusing on such visual dimensions as the visual structure of representation, the position of the viewer, aspects of modality and the meaning of composition. The results of this study are finally placed in the socio-cultural context accounting for the production and consumption of this form of visual discourse on masculinity in contemporary Britain .
keywords: visual discourse, masculinity, male-perfume advertising, `new man´, social semiotics
The fact that women and men behave in accordance with specific parameters when defining themselves as gendered subjects leads authors like Mills (1997: 17) to assume the existence of different discourses on masculinity and femininity in society. Considering a classical definition by Michel Foucault, within contemporary cultural theory, discourses have come to designate “the practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (1972: 49). Men’s magazines have thus become a fundamental vehicle for the representation of the `new man´, a renovated image of masculinity characterised by his embrace of feminine universes, his deeper concern over personal looks and the greater importance attached to dimensions like fathering. Focusing on such a print-media vehicle consumed by men in Britain, this contribution will explore the construction of the `new man´ in the discourse on masculinity articulated in the perfume advertisements published in these publications, shedding light on the articulation of this form of visual discourse .
Once admitted the existence of the visual as a form of discourse, social semiotics will be presented as an instrument for the analysis of this type of discourse, only to explore a corpus of male-fragrance advertisements published in 1999 in men’s general-interest magazines like GQ , Arena, Maxim , FHM, Esquire and ZM in the UK. In particular, a number of analytical dimensions – the visual structure of representation, the position of the viewer, modality and the meaning of composition – will be examined insofar as contributing to the articulation of the `new man´ in this form of visual discourse. The results of this study will be finally placed in the socio-cultural context accounting for the production and consumption of this form of visual discourse on masculinity in Britain at the turn of the millennium.
2. Exploring visual discourse
2.1. The visual as a form of discourse
The notion of `discourse´ has been approached from different perspectives. Some theorists insist on its relation with language, defining discourse as any form of language above the sentence level (Stubbs, 1983: 1); any form of oral language (Alcaraz and Martínez, 1997: 185); or any form of language in use of used language (Brown and Yule, 1983: 1). However, discourses have also been understood as forms of social practice of linguistic nature:
`discourse´ (…) refers to language in use, as a process which is socially situated. However (…) we may go on to discuss the constructive and dynamic role of either spoken or written discourse in structuring areas of knowledge and the social and institutional practices which are associated with them (Candlin, 1997: ix).
As announced in the introduction, within contemporary socio-cultural theory, authors like Foucault have seen discourses as practices that systematically form the objects with which they deal. Therefore, discourses often cease being practices of linguistic nature to acquire a non-linguistic nature – more often than not visual:
Discourse reaches out further than language itself. When we think of discourse in the wider context of communication, we can extend its analysis to include non-linguistic semiotic systems (systems for signalling meaning), those of non-verbal and non-vocal communication which accompany or replace speech or writing […] non-verbal discourse modes include painting, sculpture, photography, design, music and film (Jaworski and Coupland, 1999: 7).
As stressed by Fairclough, the visual is often closely interwoven with verbal communication, and may even be found in the form of autonomous nonverbal communication:
It would be quite artificial to conceive of discourse in exclusively verbal terms. Even when texts are essentially verbal […] talk is interwoven with gesture, facial expression, movement, posture to such an extent that it cannot be properly understood without reference to these `extras´. Let’s call them collectively visuals, on the grounds that they are also visually perceived by interpreters. Visuals can be an accompaniment to talk which helps determine its meaning […] Or visual can substitute for talk as a perfectly acceptable alternative (1989: 27).
The notion of discourse may be employed to refer not only to linguistic uses but also to other types of nonverbal communication, and even to any form of semiotic activity, visual images included  . We could thus assume the existence of visual discourses , as stated by Fairclough and Chouliaraki in their recent explorations of the meaning of discourse in contemporary societies:
We shall use the term `discourse´ to refer to semiotic elements of social practices. Discourse therefore includes language (written and spoken and in combination with other semiotics, for example, with music in singing), nonverbal communication (facial expressions, body movements, gestures, etc.) and visual images (for instance, photographs, film ) (1999: 38, emphasis added).
2.2. Social semiotics as a resource for the analysis of visual discourse
As discussed by Fairclough and Wodak (1997), social semiotics may be located within the broader field of `critical discourse analysis´ – which is likewise to be understood as a major research tradition of `discourse analysis´ – as a domain specialised in unveiling the close relations among language, ideology and power in society. In addition to the work of critical discourse analysts like Fairclough (1989, 1995a, 1995b), studies by theorists such as van Leeuwen (1987), Hodge and Kress (1988), Kress and van Leeuwen (1990) or Thibault (1991) have been highly influential in shaping social semiotics into a methodological framework for the analysis of photography, video, art and, if that is the case, their relations with language. As Fairclough as Wodak put it, “social semiotics draws attention to the multi-semiotic character of most texts in contemporary society, and explores ways of analysing visual images (from press photographs and television images to Renaissance art) and the relationship between language and visual images” (ibid, 164).
The theoretical framework for this study is based upon Kress and van Leeuwen’s (1990) model for the analysis of visual images as designed in their work Reading Images . In this work such authors explore the value and applicability of a number of categories from systemic-functional linguistics (cf. Halliday, 1985, 1995) for the examination of visual images. The analytical parameters considered, as expanded upon below, are thus the visual structure of representation, the position of the viewer, modality and the meaning of composition.
2.2.1. The visual structure of representation
According to systemic-functional linguistics, language represents and constructs our perception of reality in the form of `goings-on´ or PROCESSES of various types (e.g. doing , sensing , being , happening , etc.), which incorporate different categories of PARTICIPANTS (e.g. `actors´, `goals´, `receivers´, `sensers´, `attributes´, etc.). Adapting this model to the analysis of images, Kress and van Leeuwen posit the existence of two main categories of processes, of which the participants represented in those images come to take part, namely narrative and conceptual processes. On the one hand, NARRATIVE PROCESSES involve ongoing actions or events, where actors are represented by means of vectors – either real or imaginary – doing something to or for each other. On the other hand, CONCEPTUAL PROCESSES entail a classification or analysis of participants in terms of their stable and timeless essence, for instance, graphics, diagrams, etc.
2.2.2. The position of the viewer
Following Kress and van Leeuwen, visual images involve an interaction relation among the participants represented in the images, the producers of such images and their viewers. A key factor for that interaction is the VISUAL CONTACT between represented participants and viewers. The fact that represented participants gaze at viewers is interpreted as a request or `demand´ to the viewers. In contrast, the absence of gaze at the viewers is taken as an `offer´ made by the producers of images to their interpreters. Furthermore, short shots construct a close and personal SOCIAL RELATION between represented participants and viewers, whereas longer shots project that relation in more impersonal terms. Finally, the representation of image participants from a frontal angle – no matter that there is visual contact or not – produces an ATTITUDE of subjectivity and involvement with the viewer. However, oblique angles create an attitude of detachment and avoidance of any subjectivity towards the viewer.
In Kress and van Leeuwen’s view, modality markers account for the degree of factuality or truthfulness of visual images with regard to the real world: “modality markers have been established by the groups within which we interact as relatively reliable guides to the truth or factuality of messages, and they have developed out of the central values, beliefs and social needs of that group” (1990: 159). The higher the degree of modality is, the more `credible´ the represented message will be  . The following dimensions will thus be considered in order to define the degree of modality of visual images.
2.2.4. The meaning of composition
Following the linguistic distinction – concerning the informative structure of the message – between GIVEN and NEW, Kress and van Leeuwen postulate that those elements perceived by the viewer on the left side of the images may be considered as new or given information, whereas those perceived on the right side are to be interpreted as new information . Furthermore, elements placed at the top of the image have an ideal value, contrary to the real character of those situated at the bottom. Moreover, elements with a special SALIENCE in the composition on account of their size, colour, fronting, etc, are to be highlighted as well  .
3. Cases study: analysing the discourse of male-perfume advertisements in British men’s magazines
We proceed to present the results of the analysis of the male-fragrance advertisements ( Paco Rabanne , Rochas , Calvin Klein , Allure , etc.) published throughout the 1999 issues of a number of men’s magazines such as GQ , Arena, Maxim , FHM, Esquire and ZM in Britain . These advertisements tend to appear recurrently in the pages of such general-interest magazines for men.
To begin with, regarding the VISUAL STRUCTURE OF REPRESENTATION, all the advertisements involve the representation of narrative processes  . Apart from actual perfume bottles, this advertising draws upon the representation of human participants. In all the advertisements there exists a young man usually represented alone in the form of a human participant acting as a reactor focusing his sight outside the composition or even closing his eyes, and accordingly behaving as if he were posing for a viewer observing his perfect male body. Nonetheless, men – frequently attractive, smartly dressed and clean-shaven – tend to be constructed in an intimate relation with female participants in the images. Men are thus represented as the object of action processes carried out by feminine participants. That is the case, for instance, of the advertisements where the masculine participant is tightly held by a woman. Men are likewise portrayed as the phenomenon or reactor of reaction processes which entail visual contact between both sexes, which is manifested in a number of advertisements where men and women are represented looking in the eyes of each other. Holding a child – probably a son – in some of these advertisements constructs men as active and committed fathers. Therefore, we can conclude that the visual structure of these images tends to highlight the representation of a man characterised by the increasing attention paid to his personal appearance, his coming to terms with the universe of femininity, and a greater commitment with his dimension as a father.
As far as the POSISTION OF THE VIEWER is concerned, it is necessary to stress that represented participants very rarely gaze at the viewers of these advertisements. In contrast, visual contact with viewers is more often than not inexistent, to such an extent that male participants are sometimes represented with their eyes closed. We can therefore assume that the producers of these advertisements addressed at an audience of male consumers have opted to promote a type of man who, rather than `demanding´, is constructed by `offering´ and dedicating himself to other individuals.
As it is, represented male participants come closer to the male viewers of these advertisements by means of short shots, which articulates an intimate relation between both. A kind of masculinity is thus being projected for which the realm of the private and the intimate happens to be more important than the public. Nevertheless, advertisement producers are well aware that too close a contact between the men represented in these advertisements and ideal male consumers might trigger homoerotic interpretations, so that many male viewers might not identify with the explicit `valuation´ of the male body activated in these advertisements; hence the detachment between represented participants and male consumers implemented through a generalised use of oblique angles in the images. In order to understand why taking excessive pleasure in observing male bodies is avoided to such an extent, it is imperative to bear in mind that these advertisements are included in such a print-media vehicle as men’s lifestyle magazines, which are targeted at a heterosexual ideal reader, as substantiated by market research studies like Edward’s (1997: 76). This tendency is stressed in some advertisements, where men are represented from a perpendicular angle with reference to the viewers, which addresses the gaze of the former and the latter in opposite directions.
As for MODALITY, the visual images examined are slightly modalized, evidencing a minimum saturation of colour and quite a limited range of colours. Black and white prevails in the majority of the advertisements, despite this monochrome being sometimes broken in some advertisements designed on the basis of a range of blue tones. And yet, the play of lights and shadows provides these images with an aura of realism, although the range of brightness is not particularly rich. As a matter of fact, the realism of illumination, brightness and colours is far more developed in the bottles of perfume than in the accompanying human figures. This lack of realism is accentuated considering the lack of perspective and context of the images. Realism is accordingly a fundamental characteristic of the form of representation carried out in these male-fragrance advertisements. However, we must insist upon the certain unreal of `ideal´ atmosphere surrounding the representation of masculine figures in these advertisements, which, however, is never tantamount to actual abstraction.
Finally, as regards the MEANING OF COMPOSITION, considering the relation among represented participants from an information-structure point of view, men are consistently represented on the left of other human participants such as women or children. Masculinity is consequently represented as something `given´ or `known´, whereas other dimensions like femininity, couple relations or fathering are constructed as `new´ from an information-structure perspective. In other words, these perfume advertisements come to construct a form of man characterised by his renovated rapprochement with feminine universes, the greater importance attached to relations with girlfriends or wives, and a more committed attitude towards fathering. In constructing such dimensions as `new´ from an informative point of view in the images, they may accordingly be read as acquiring a novel importance for the definition of masculine identities which is projected in these male-scent advertisements.
On the other hand, perfume bottles also tend to be located on the right of men, which constructs concerns about personal looks as a remarkably new dimension in men’s identities. As announced above, elements placed at the bottom of images tend to be associated with the sphere of the real, whereas those situated at the top of images are admitted to be linked with ideal worlds. The frequent location of male-scent bottles at the bottom of the image places this product of personal-appearance care as a tangible reality in men’s lives. This is consistent with the salience of fragrance bottles in the advertisements explored. Admittedly, their fronting position, colour and brightness vis-à-vis the black-and-white human figures placed behind in the images helps to project a type of man who is constructed as being highly preoccupied with such dimensions as his personal appearance and body care.
4. Conclusions: the visual discourse on masculinity in its socio-cultural context
Semiotic products such as male-fragrance advertisements in the press might be considered as textual manifestations of wider discursive processes. As Hodge and Kress maintain from a social semiotics perspective, “a discourse refers to the process of semiosis rather than its product (i.e. text). It is always realized through texts” (1988: 264) . As it is, within contemporary cultural theory, any cultural artefact, visual images included, may be understood as having an essentially textual dimension: “in cultural analysis, by contrast, texts do not need to be linguistic at all; any cultural artefact – a picture, a building, a piece of music – can be seen as a text” (Fairclough, 1995a: 4). These visual images could be understood as activating a type of discourse on masculinity in a vehicle addressed at and consumed by an audience of men such as men’s lifestyle magazines, where such advertising is inserted. This form of discourse revolves around the renunciation to traditionally hegemonic and patriarchal constructions of masculinity and the incorporation of new dimensions into masculine identities, to wit, a closer contact with the realm of femininity including and a greater consideration of feminine requirements and demands, a remarkable preoccupation with personal appearance and a more committed attitude towards fathering. Such features have come to define the ideological repertoire of the `new man´ in the UK . In addition to the visual images, this type of discourse does consist of further textual products within these publications such as articles, narratives and other forms of advertising of a more strictly textual nature.
From the critical discourse analysis tradition – where social semiotics may be located – authors like Fairclough (1989: 25 and passim ; 1995b: 203-204) consider discourses – including their textual dimension – to take part of social interactions among individuals comprising processes of textual production, interpretation, distribution and consumption. Such discourses could likewise be taken as being part of wider socio-cultural processes with a social matrix, involving power relations, embodying ideologies and positioning individuals as social subjects. In this context, authors like Edwards (1997) or McInness (1998) echo the progressive constitution of a certain `crisis´ of traditionally hegemonic masculine-identity models over the past few decades as a result of various factors, to wit, the impact of the feminisms and their calling traditional social structures into question, women’s deeper access to power, and the impingements of consumerism on men. Popular-culture vehicles in Britain like television, the press and advertisements in men’s magazines – like the ones examined in this contribution – have greatly contributed to the articulation of discourses on masculinity projecting new models of masculine identity or subject positions available for individuals to negotiate their identity as men. In particular, the `new man´ appears recurrently in these discourses representing an ideal and more caring form of masculinity who is also more willing to satisfy women’s requirements and demands, has come to terms with feelings and emotions, become a more committed father, and grown remarkably concerned about personal looks: “the ideal partner for the modern, liberated, heterosexual woman […] a softer, more sensitive and caring individual, who also avoids sexist language, changes nappies and loves to shop all day for his own clothes” (Edley and Wetherell, 1997: 204, emphasis added).
As remarked above, various features of the visuals examined turn out to be consistent with this new image of masculinity. On the one hand, the visual structure of images highlights the impeccable personal looks of the masculine participants represented in the advertisements – the prominence of perfume bottles is significant in this respect – and men’s closer attention to women and their fathering dimension. This renovated construction of masculinity is significantly underlined by the informative structure of the composition in the advertisements. On the other hand, we have to stress the fundamental role played by the realm of the private and the intimate in this form of printed advertising, together with an actual `devotion to the others´, which materializes in participants’ closer rapprochement with the viewers and potential consumers of these perfumes for men. A simultaneous process of representation and construction of masculinity is accordingly articulated in these advertisements, which is characteristic of mass-media communication. As claimed by Fairclough, “the wider social impact of media is not just to do with how they selectively represent the world, though that is a vitally important issue; it is also to do with what sorts of identities, what versions of `self´, they project” (1995b: 17). At any rate, it is imperative to emphasize the ideal nature of such representations of masculinity, as stressed by the definition of `new man´ provided above and evidenced by the slight modalization of the advertisements.
According to McLoughlin, “magazines are a means of presenting ideal-reader images to which the purchaser can aspire” (2000: 95), so that the publication of these male-scent advertisements in men’s magazines comes to construct masculinity models for the viewers and potential consumers of these commodities. In actual fact, the discourse of advertising is characterised by the creation of ideal-consumer communities sharing an ideology which advertisements attempt to activate:
It is also relevant to see these groups as constructed consumption communities. These are idealizations of what people are really like, and advertisements based on these idealizations might therefore be argued to be performing ideological work in bringing these groupings into being through the messages they convey (Delin, 2000: 124).
As explored by different authors (e.g. Cook, 1992; Goddard, 1998), the integration of images with the advertised products – in this case, the representation of the young men linked with these perfumes – plays a key role in constituting an ideological universe presupposed among the community of consumers. Consequently, although further sociological analyses should be undertaken to establish whether these constructions of masculinity reflect significant changes in contemporary British males, the referential value of advertisements of this type for many men cannot possibly be denied.
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 As Davies and Harré explain, “a discourse is to be understood as an institutionalised use of language and language-like sign systems. Institutionalisation can occur at the disciplinary, the political, the cultural and the small group level. There can also be discourses that develop around a specific topic, such as gender or class ” (1990: 45, emphasis added).
 According to Alcaraz and Martínez, “in the 20th century, semiotics has come to define the science of signs and their meanings; in other words, a social theory of SIGNS and the properties of the SYSTEMS of which those signs are part” (1997: 524, our translation).
 For systemic-functional linguistics, modality may be understood as the speaker’s attitude towards the proposition expressed in an utterance: “intermediate degrees, between the positive and negative poles, are known as MODALITY” (Halliday, 1994: 88).
 According to Crystal , “`given´ refers to information already supplied by the previous linguistic CONTEXT whereas `new´ information, as its name suggests, has not been previously supplied” (1997: 168-169).
 Kress and van Leeuwen consider salience to refer to “the degree to which an element draws attention to itself” (1990: 225).
 Kress and van Leeuwen (1990: 74-75) distinguish two fundamental subcategories of narrative processes. On the one hand, action processes , entail the existence of a vector – real or imaginary – which flows from a participant called `actor´ and sometimes is directed towards another actor named `goal´. On the other hand, in reaction processes the vector flows from a participant labelled as `reactor´ and may focus on another called `phenomenon´. This type of process does not involve an action as such, but a visual contact between two participants.
 Visual images like these advertisements have a fundamentally textual nature. As Lotman (1982: 10) sees it, texts correspond to any form of communication carried out within a given system of signs. Evoking Saussure, Alcaraz and Martínez echo the tradition according to which language is “the richest and, simultaneously, the most significant semiologic system”. However, other semiologic systems are equally rich and elaborate, and are autonomous with reference to language, co-occurring with it at times. That is the case of visual communication, as stated by Kress and van Leeuwen in the work methodologically supporting this paper: “language and visual communication both realise the same more fundamental and far-reaching systems of meaning that constitute our cultures, but […] each does so by means of its own specific forms” (1990: 17).