Semiotic Analysis of a Print Advertisement

For this exercise in semiotic analysis I have chosen the following print advertisement for Ray Ban sun and optical glasses. It is one in a series based on the injunction ‘Never Hide’, featuring scenes from different decades in the 20th Century.


On first viewing we see a black and white photograph of a scene with military personnel, probably from the air force. There appears to be some interaction between one individual who is stepping forward from a line of individuals, hand raised, wearing sunglasses, and one of two apparently superior officers toward whom he is advancing. The small print in the lower left corner of the image, ‘Mojave desert, CA, 1937’ clarifies the time and context to some degree – this is a U.S. military base and the year is 1937. A number of symbolic signifiers add to the authenticity and meaning of the scene: the black and white photographic style of the image; the style of uniforms, which we recognise as military and probably air force; the standing in line of a number of individuals with their hands behind their backs; the stern faces; the uniform style of buildings in the background, probably aircraft hangars. These signifiers, which we understand symbolically as signifying the military and its associated discipline at a particular time in history set the scene for our interpretation of an accompanying narrative.

That narrative is denoted by an indexical signifier in the form of an individual ‘stepping out of line’, literally in this case. Another indexical signifier of the narrative is his holding up his right hand as he steps forward. But what is that narrative? Well on one level I believe that what is being signified is a narrative of defiance or challenging of authority. The stepping out of line, the advance towards the authority figure and the raised hand are all elements inserted into the scene  on the paradigmatic axis, in this case the paradigm being that of defiance of authority, rejection of regimentation. Another symbolic signifier that falls within this paradigm is the wearing of sunglasses while under military inspection. We don’t expect to see an airman or other rank and file military person wearing sunglasses while they are being inspected by officers – although another airman further down the line is wearing them we tend not to see him as important to the scene and he is almost hiding behind the officer from our point of view.

The injunction to ‘NEVER HIDE’, at the bottom right of the image, juxtaposed beside a red Ray Ban logo, completes a largely visually constructed syntagmatic axis from a semiotic point of view and poses a question of what it is we should ‘never hide’. Here the popular belief that people wearing sunglasses are hiding behind them is challenged by the narrative we are witnessing. In fact it is the uncovered eyes of the other airmen that seems to be concealing something.

So on the surface we have a syntagm of linked elements that set the scene of a 1930s U.S. Air Force base where one individual is the vehicle for a number of signifiers inserted on the paradigmatic axis of construction that introduce the paradigm of challenging authority and include the wearing of sunglasses, in this case Ray Bans, as an element within that paradigm. However, I believe there is something more fundamental going on here that brings us onto the level of myth, if not metaphysics. The men in line are wearing bright clothing and the man stepping forward appears, on his upper body at least, to be slightly brighter than his counterparts. The officers are wearing much darker clothing. Light and darkness are usually symbolic signifiers of good and evil. Even in an age when secularism has weakened these ideas they still remain deep within our unconscious selves. Also, if we look at the direction of the shadows cast on the ground we can see that the airman stepping forward is walking into the light while the faces of the officers are in shadow or darkness. The effect of a confrontation between good and evil is heightened by the raised right hand of the advancing airman. When one swears an oath one raises one’s right hand. This is a symbolic gesture and signifier that we understand almost instinctively within Western society as a confirmation that we are going to tell the truth. So that which is an indexical signifier at the paradigmatic level of ‘challenging authority’ becomes a symbolic signifier within the paradigm and mythic context of a struggle between good and evil, truth and untruth. It is worth noting that the out-of-focus figure in the foreground to the right of the image adds an element of incorporeality to the scene, almost as if the struggle is being watched from outside the immediate reality of the scene.

So the question of what it is we should never hide is answered in two ways. Within the paradigm of challenging authority and regimentation it is your self that should not be hidden in a line of regimented, indistinguishable persons who do what they are told. On the mythic level of a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, it is the truth that should never be hidden and being who you are and the telling the truth are inextricably linked with wearing Ray Ban sunglasses. Myth has also a timeless quality that is evoked in this and other print adverts in the series. A bit like the mythic, timeless quality of Ray Bans.

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