Special Session Summary Polysemy: the Multiple Meanings of Advertising


Mark Ritson (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Polysemy: the Multiple Meanings of Advertising", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 341-343.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 341-343



Mark Ritson, London Business School, UK

The glaring assumption that haunts advertising theory is the fallacy of a pre-existing meaning within the advertising text. This assumption leads to a relegation of the role of the advertising audience to that of decoders of the message. In audience terms you either get it or you don’t. Black or white. In or out.

But what if there is no meaning in an ad? What if a TV ad is a series of pixels on the screen? What if a print ad an array of coloured dots on the page? What if the audience constructs the meaning from the ad?

Aside from promoting a far more audience centric view of the process of advertising interaction, this approach also presents the possibility of polysemy. The same ad, viewed at the same time, may well result in multiple meanings across an audience that inevitably constructs different interpretations from the same text. Neither black nor white, but whatever colour you think.




Stefano Puntoni, London Business School, UK

Mark Ritson, London Business School, UK

Lan Nguyen, University of Minnesota, USA

"Our advertising is a Rorschach test of what you bring to the image", Oliviero Toscani (from www.benetton.com).

Despite the contention that advertising represents the means by which meaning is ascribed to consumer goods (McCracken 1987), advertising research has traditionally conceptualized advertising comprehension as "the grasping or extracting of prespecifiable meanings from the message" (Mick 1992, p. 411). Typically, a researcher carefully constructs a number of advertising stimuli according to a certain experimental design, displays the ads to a sample of individuals and then, after collecting the responses, tests a certain number of theory-driven hypotheses. Within this paradigm, a researcher imbues the advertising stimulus with a certain "correct" meaning and assumes that such a meaning flows from the ad to the consumer. The researcher has decided what the ad "means", and these meaning are assumed to be transparent to the consumer or subject. Any other alternative interpretation is labeled as "miscomprehension" (Jacoby and Hoyer 1982). Over the years the "advertising as information" paradigm has served well the field of consumer research, as shown by the extensive body of knowledge developed in the field. However, as highlighted by Scott (1994), "models of processing that attribute control to the advertiser, constrain the objectives of the reading experience to brand processing, and define the consumer’s primary task in terms that privilege the interests of the advertiser, disempower the consumer to a degree that is unrealistic and undesirable" (p. 477).

One of the most recent developments in advertising research has been the emergence of "meaning-based models" of advertising (Mick and Buhl 1992). Such models differ from the traditional information processing approach to advertising reception principally because advertising meanings are "constructed within the semantic frame" of the text by the audience rather than simply being "delivered in content" by the advertising (Anderson 1988, p. 25). In effect, the causality of the advertising-audience relationship is reversed and passive terms such as 'reception’ and 'processing’ are rejected by meaning-based models and replaced with the more active concept of 'interpretation’. This subtle shift in the advertising’s semantic locus has had a number of major theoretical implications for the study of advertising interpretation (McCracken 1987). Most important, meaning-based models stress that audience members may well produce different interpretations from the same advertising text.

The pluralistic nature of advertising meaning reflects a wider recognition within theories of popular culture and mass communication that all texts are "polysemic" (Condit 1989 for a review). The term polysemy refers to the "interpretive scope of media texts, the argument being that several interpretations coexist as potentials in any one text" (Jensen 1995, p. 75). Polysemic conceptualisations of media texts directly oppose the univocal assumption that there can only be one correct interpretation of any text. The actual meaning of the advertising text is constructed by individual audience members who make meaning from the text in a way congruent with their own experiences and perspectives. Passing from information-based to meaning-based models, power moves from the text to the reader, because meaning-based models empower the individual with the capability of selecting a specific reading from a potentially infinite number of interpretations. This moment of selection is usually named "heteroglossy". Texts are defined as open or closed as a function of te measure in which they allow a broader or narrower heteroglossic range. While the individual’s cultural background and repertoire of experiences determine the choice of a certain interpretation, both background and experiences have matured within a specific social-historical context leading, in turn, to the formation of "interpretive communities" (Fish 1980).

A growing body of evidence of advertising’s polysemic status has emerged in recent years (e.g., Keck and Mueller 1994; Mick and Buhl 1992). What is missing from the literature, however, is a systematic study of advertising interpretation that demonstrates not only that advertising is polysemic but which also explores the nature and sources of such polysemy within and across different interpretive communities.

This study investigates these issues by using an interpretive methodology. A sample of students from a large US Midwestern university (composed of 20 heterosexual and 25 homosexual informants), were interviewed to examine the informants’ interpretation of the events portrayed by a 30 second TV commercial and to understand the mechanisms behind the emergence of recurrent dominant readings within different interpretive communities. We selected as the stimulus for this study the ad "Sunday afternoon" for Volkswagen Golf, broadcast in North America in 1997. The ad portrays two young men (one black, the other white) driving around a suburb with a Volkswagen Golf car. When they see an armchair left close to a trash bin they put it on the back seat of the car but after realising that the chair smells they leave it on the side of a street. The stimulus was selected because anecdotal evidence from undergraduate students revealed that two very distinct, independent interpretations existed for this particular ad, according to whether the liaison between the two characters was seen as friendship or romantic relationship. Furthermore, because the commercial had been widely broadcast, interpretations of the ad had already been formed naturalistically and would therefore not need to be artificially induced. Like no other subculture, gay subcultures have constructed their identities around oppositional reading strategies (Creekmur and Doty 1995). Consequently, the interpretative discrepancy between the gay subculture and mainstream culture was identified as the ideal starting point for a study of advertising polysemy.

The results support the contention that individuals from both hegemonic and dominated social groups are knowledgeable about the cultural codes of the hegemonic group whereas the opposite is not true (e.g., Grier and Brumbaugh 1999; Stern 1993). Heterosexual informants showed a poor knowledge of the cultural codes of the homosexual community. The entire heterosexual sample failed to interpret any gay connotations to the characters or story in the ad. Moreover, when exposed to the alternative reading most of the heterosexual informants denied the alternative reading and dismissed it as untenable. This provides support for the results obtained in a laboratory setting by Bhat, Leigh and Wardlow (1998), according to which attitudes towards homosexuality influence response to homosexual imagery in advertising. The informant’s negation of the alternative reading represents the strategy used to reduce the cognitive dissonance generate by the alternative reading. In other words, the informants "protect their attitudes by selective interpretation" (Fiske and Taylor 1991, p. 470).

The homosexual informants, however, exhibited far greater heterogeneity of interpretation. The homosexual sample was divided into a group that only saw the ad’s "gay" connotation and a group who perceived a dominant, heterosexual reading of the ad and a second gay interpretation. The analysis of the transcripts revealed three key factors in determining the meanings that an audience member produced from the ad.

Supporting the assumptions of meaning-based models, the first one is the role of the lifeworld in influencing interpretation. Accordingly, different people have different experiences and thus their interpretation of the text is influenced by the intersection of the same text with drastically different experiential contexts. The second is the contextual priming effect on interpretation. Contextual factors such as program context can also influence the final interpretation of advertising content. In fact, some informant in the heterosexual sample cited, as the reason for interpreting the couple in the ad as a gay couple, the fact that the first time they saw the ad was within the "Coming out" episode of the TV serial "Ellen". Finally, another key factor behind the occurrence of polysemy is the presence of interpretive communities of advertising. After an initial interpretation, the advertising audience will often reinforce their interpretation by confirming it with others from the same peer group.

Condit (1989) pointed the attention to the limits of polysemy: while in theory the concept of polysemy suggests that it is possible for every reader to produce a unique interpretation, in practice only a limited number of different interpretations are tenable and, as a result, idiosyncratic readings of a text repeatedly reoccur within a particular audience group. This research suggests that a combination of different factors, some textual and some contextual, combine to ensure that different audiences will interpret one meaning for the advertising text over another.



Magnus Soderlund, Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden

Joy appeals with smiling faces appear frequently in marketing, but in relation to other emotional appeals they have received little attention from researchers. In an attempt to examine this type of appeal we designed two versions of an ad for a mobile telephone (Figure 1). Both ads had an identical bottom part that contained a picture of the product and short a list of some of its main characteristics. The top part, however, was different: the first version depicted a smiling female model (cf. the enclosed figure), and the second version contained a text with detailed information about the telephone’s attributes. Respondents were randomly allocated to one of these versions (n=60 in both groups). The analysis shows that the smiling face appeal was judged to be significantly happier than the other appeal. Moreover, the smile appeal elicited a significantly more positive attitude towards the ad (particularly among male target persons). These results suggests that smiles in ads may be contagious, and that they may affect judgments by a process of affect infusionBdespite the fact that the high frequency of this appeal may signal "influence attempt" rather than stimulus person joy. In other words, the smiling model does appear to make a difference, at least on variables that are located at the early steps in the hierarchy-of-effect models commonly used to assess advertising effectiveness. These results are consistent with findings from (1) psychologists’ studies of the effects of smiling strangers and canned laughter and (2) previous marketing research on other appeals than the joy appeal (e.g., the effects of physically attractive models in ads).

However, a smiling model has other characteristics besides a smile being present; the smiling model stimulus is one particular case in which polysemy is encountered. A smiling model in an ad, for example, may also be physically attractive, sexy and healthy. If this is the case, the presence of the model may evoke a bundle of emotionsBsuch as attraction, joy and arousalBthat together color the target person’s subsequent judgments.



Karolina Brodin, Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden

Mark Ritson, London Business School, UK

Even though television advertising is often consumed together with other people, advertising research has tended to ignore the social dimensions of advertising. According to Ritson and Elliot (199) the dominant view of the advertising recipient as a solitary subject in advertising research has resulted in an only partial understanding of the effect that advertising has on an audience. Another shortcoming of advertising research is that it has suffered from a considerable bias in the formulation of the audience; viewers are being seen as if "searching for product information, compliantly forming positive brand attitudes, and resolving intentions to purchase", when a more realistic formulation might be "television viewers who roll their eyes, sigh and go for a snack when the commercial comes on" (Scott, 1990, p. 227). For most people advertising represents an obtrusive and unsolicited form of communication that reaches the viewer in the form of an interruption of the chosen viewing experience (Mick et al., 1999). Few sit down with the aim to watch television advertising. Instead, people sit down to watch TV in order to catch specific programs (Livingstone, 1990), to relax or to use TV viewing as a way of socializing with friends and family (e.g. Lull, 1980; Anderson and Meyer, 1988).

Advertising meaning is not supplied as a pre-packaged reality; instead it comes "to our homes as raw material which we process and reprocess within the social actions we perform" (Buttle, 1991, p. 10). Many texts are open and are thus open for several interpretations, i.e. the notion of polysemy. This means that several interpretations can coexist and may be actualized differently by different audiences with different interpretive conventions and cultural backgrounds (Jensen, 1995). The person’s cultural background and repertoire of experiences don’t exist in a vacuum but is framed by a specific social-historical context and people can therefore be said to belong to different "interpretive communities" (Fish 1980). An interpretive community is a group of individuals that share the same "interpretative strategies", i.e. the ways these individuals approach and digest a text (Scott 1994). Polysemy can occur only when two audiences have different interpretations of the events described in a text.


In this study we use data taken from ethnographic interviews and in situ video recordings made of eight different UK households over a two week period as the households watched their television. This data has been analysed to understand what people decide to do during the commercial break. One activity is to watch the ads, another is to engage in advertising interaction, which is defined as an individual or social behavioural response to a particular ad. We present a series of excerpts from the data to illustrate the theme of advertising interaction and then discuss the role that this interaction plays in reducing or expanding the polysemic potential of a particular advertising text.

Interestingly, in the case of advertising interaction and the following social interaction there is seldom an open disagreement about the evaluation of a particular ad. Instead of verbally supporting or challenging a household member’s opinion about an ad, there are alternative non-verbal communicative strategies. In taking the household as the effective unit of consumption of television advertising, one immediately brings on issues concerning "power relations" (Morley, 1995) and the"complex mixture of people, social roles routine activities, processes of interpersonal communication" (1988, p. 245) that exists within a particular household. Depending on the existing and ever evolving power relations and social roles, a spoken comment about an ad by a powerful household member might not be challenged by weaker household members even though there is a disagreement on its interpretation or evaluation. At other times statements about ads can be seen as a tool in the process of interpersonal communication; there might be polyvalence in the evaluation of an ad due to a previous conflict about a non-associated matter.


Anderson, J. A. and M. P. Meyer (1988), Mediated Communication: A Social Action Perspective, Beverly Hills: Sage.

Buttle, F. (1991), "What Do People Do With Advertising?" International Journal of Advertising, 10: 95-110.

Ceccarelli, L. (1998), "Polysemy: Multiple Meanings in Rhetorical Criticism," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 84 (4), 395-415.

Condit, C.M. (1989), "The Rhetorical Limits of Polesemy," Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 6(2), 103-122.

Fish, S.E. (1980), Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jensen, K. B. (1995), The Social Semiotics of Mass Communication, London: Sage.

Lull, J. (1980), "The Social Uses of Television," Human Communication Research, 4(3), 197-209.

Livingstone, S. (1990) Making Sense of Television. The Psychology of Audience Interpretation, Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Mick, D. G., J. E. Burroughs, P. Hetzel, and M. Y. Brannen (1999) "A Global Review of Semiotic Consumer Research: Progress, Problems, and Prospects," Working Paper, University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Business.

Morley, D. (1995), "Theories of Consumption in Media Studies," Pp. 296-328 in Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies, Editor D. Miller. London: Routledge.

Ritson, M. and R. Elliott (1999), "The Social Uses of Advertising: An Ethnographic Study of Adolescent Advertising Audiences," Journal of Consumer Research, 26(December), 260-277.

Scott, L. M. (1994,) "The Bridge From Text to Mind: Adapting Reader-Response Theory to Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 21(December), 461-80.

Scott, L. M. (1990), "Understanding Jingles and Needledrop: A Rhetorical Approach to Music in Advertising," Journal of Consumer Research, 17(September), 223-36.



Mark Ritson, London Business School, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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