Diesel’s “Fuel for Life” A Semiotic Analysis.

In this essay I hope to study Diesel’s “Fuel for Life” advertisement. To do this I will use semiotics and using the theory of the Sign, put forward my ideas. First I believe it a good idea to explain Diesel’s “Fuel for Life” perfume. “Fuel for Life” one of Diesel’s top selling fragrances. It was ranked number three in world sales overall after it first launched in 2007. This was also diesels first fragrance to reach such high sales in the fragrance industry.

And now for a description of what semiotics is and its established theory. Semiotics is the study of signs. There are two major branches of “Semiotic Theory”. One branch is based in Europe and was developed by a Swiss-French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913).

Ferdinand de Saussure

The other branch emerged out of America with philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (1839–1914). Saussure wanted to explain how all the parts of a language are taken as a larger system of language in use. This lead to the field of what Saussure called “Semiology”. Peirce had an interest in logical reasoning which in turn led him to investigate different categories of signs and the way society extracted meaning from them. Saussure and Peirce independently worked to better understand the three-way relationship between physical signs, the objects to which they relate, and the human viewer.

Charles Sanders Pierce

Saussure was the founding father of semiotics, but his views on semiotics focus on linguistic aspects of signs. Saussure described language as a system of signs, which have meaning because of their relationship to each other. He believed every sign was made up of a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the term for the sign or images itself and the signified refers to the mental concept. The human mind organizes the structure into something it can understand.

In Saussure’s semiology, the sign is made up of a signifier, for example, a sound, a printed word or image, and a signified, which is the idea that is generated in the mind by the signifier. Saussure believed that the signifier does not form a sign until; the viewer interprets it. Saussure saw the sign as a physical object with meaning, made up of what he described as a signifier and a signified. Charles Sanders Pierce shared Saussure’s observation that most signs are symbolic and arbitrary, but he pointed out that the relationship of the sign to the object is made in the mind of the interpreter as a mental tool which Pierce called the “interpretant” (The effect of a proposition or sign series on the person who interprets it). Pierce named his theory “semiosis” the process of sign interpretation. He believed that the signifier triggers in the viewers mind a thought, which would act in essence as a “decoder”, in the brain to help the viewer understand or identify with what they were viewing. This might be a remembering of a prior experience that allows the viewer to understand the message in what they are looking at. Peirce believed that a sign was, “something which stands to somebody, for something else, in some respect or capacity”. The signified stands for an idea which is recognised by people of the same culture, e.g. they share the same language, cultural history etc. Pierce saw the sign as anything from which meaning is generated. Pierce, using Saussure’s view of semiotics, changed the way of viewing signs by the way they are connected and the objects they represent to semiosis as a way of seeing everything as a sign.

The signifier in my understanding is simply an image as we the viewers understand it. To Pierce anything could be a sign…… “every picture, diagram, natural cry, pointing figure, wink, knot in one’s handkerchief, memory, dream, fancy, concept, indication, token, symptom, letter, numeral, word, sentence, chapter, book, library. ‘Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.”

Before an analysis of any advert can be carried out I think that a look at Semiotics and its definitions would be a good idea as Semiotics for me is a fairly technical and at times difficult to understand area of media theory. This quote I feel sums up semiotics best for me, “semilogical literature has remained elusive to most people. The main reason for this is fairly simple: it advocates have written in a style that ranges from the obscure to the incomprehensible”.

Semiotics is broken into three fields of study:

The Sign: This is the study of different types of signs, and the ways they can convey meaning, and how they relate to the people who use them.

The codes or systems into which signs are grouped: This includes the way codes have developed to meet the requirements of the society which uses them.

The users of the signs: For example the culture that the codes and signs work in.

Pierce created a triagular template to demonstrate the connection between what he described as a “Sign-Interpretant-Object”. Semiotics can be seen as a way that an individual can connect with society on a wider scale. According to Pierces “Triangular model”, the message of an image refers to the way signs are set up and how they produce meanings as a result of their connection with the viewer.

A sign can be divided into three separate types of sign:

Iconic: signs whose signifier bears a close resemblance to the thing they refer to. For example road signs, which show the silhouette of a car and a motorbike, can be seen as highly iconic because the silhouettes look like a motorbike and a car.

Symbols: Words can be seen as symbols, because they have been agreed upon to mean certain things in a culture.

Indexes: These lie between icons and symbols. An index is a sign whose signifier we have learnt to associate with a particular signified. For example smoke can be seen as an index of ‘fire’. A thermometer is an index of ‘temperature’.

Using Saussure and Pierces theories we can now look at an advertising image. We have to remember that the icons, symbols and indexes which lay in an advertisement can be seen as codes or rules which the advertisement uses to transmitt signals to the viewer who in turn due to their cultural background interprets the message the advertisemnet is trying to convey. An example of how cutural background can play an important role in the deciphering of the signifier and signified is the case of when a US baby food manufacuture Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging they had used in the US with a cute Caucasian baby on the label. Later, after low sales of the product, they learned that it was part of the African culture to put a picture on the label of whats inside the jar, due to the high level of illeteracy, the African’s cultural background lead them to believe they were buying food made from white babies. This is an example of an advertisement “reflecting pretty closely the current trends and value systems of a society”. They don’t work when introduced into a society with different values. Apart form the major blunder of the above company, advertisements generally do work in the society they are intended for as the people who produce them are the sign-makers and usually are aware of the “codes” in the society they work in. In this way advertising uses specific signs to sell their product.

I have chosen two advertisements from the same manufacturer — Diesel — specifically Diesels “Fuel for Life” perfume range. The obvious aim of Diesels advertisements is to differentiate their products from other brands which basically do the same thing. To my understanding the advertisements are produced in such a way, that the product .ie the perfume is a “signifier for the signified” in other words the perfume is the physical form of the implied idea that Diesel want to put across about their product. The advertisers have in mind exactly who they want their advertisement to speak too. Advertising is costly and the company wants to have as low an advertising budget as possible. The designers choose their typography, images, the way an image is shot, whether it is colour or black and white, whether the subject is male or female all with the express purpose of making the social image of the product a positive one. A practiced design team draws on the expriences and perceptions of its individual members to generate ideas of what a product is about and how to target the ideal audience. In this way I believe an advertisement can have a myriad of messages and ideas hidden in it. But it still is up to the viewer to interpret the image presented to them. Pierces “Triangular model”, comes into play in this situation. Any views and opinions I have about these adverts are based on my experiences and will differ obviously to the readers of this essay.

Ad A.
Ad B.

In the two images I have chosen to base my analysis on, the entire advertising image in my opinion can be seen as a series of signs. The main signifier in Ad A is a typically scantily dressed woman and in Ad B the signifier is a typically handsome man. The typography, the captions, the body language, the colours or lack of colours used, the layout of the page example portrait or landscape are also signifiers.

The images themselves in my opinion can be seen as iconic signs, because the images are a representation of a man and woman. They look like a man and woman so they are taken as that. The photo of the product also resembles the product in reality so that to is an icon. The signs in the advertisements can also be seen indexically due to the fact they encourage other meanings. In Ad A the “clothes” the woman is wearing indexically highlight her social standing or perhaps her desired status. She is well to do and could be seen as sophisticated and chic, depending on your point of view, she also gives a sense of possibly being of an exotic etnicity. The minimal clothing gives an air of naturalness of being comfortable with hereself perhaps also a hint of eccentricity. The portrait aspect of the advert gives the viewer the sense that they must look up to this woman. For women she is a person to aspire to, for men a figure of adoration. In Ad B the man is reclining with his shirt open suggesting strenght, masculinity, naturalness, being at ease with himself. Possibly roguish, again his clothes speak of sophistication, well to do, possibly a James Bond type figure. Maybe of European etnicity, Italian or Spanish. The landscape aspect of the advert gives a sense of being at ease, women are supposed to feel comfortable with this person.

From a distance these photographs look like they are shot in black and white, especially Ad A but closer inspection shows that a small amount of colour is present. The image of Ad A is almost an “inverted” silouhette. And the woman is placed in a central position. The main caption is at the top of the image surrounded by an opaque box which looks as if the words “Fuel For Life” have been cut from it or the box itself is a stencil. The designers are using the words fuel for life as a symbol. We associate Diesel as a type of fuel, which does play a important role in everyday commerce and so could be seen as a fuel linked to life. The perfume bottle itself is situated in the bottom of the poster and is a golden colour, which helps it stand out from its black background and almost gives the impression that it is floating. The perfume bottle has the most dominate colour in the advertisement sending a message that it is the most important item in the poster. It is almost a light in the dark. Its colour is highlighting the fact that the perfume is the commercial point of the advertisement. The viewer cannot mistake which brand of perfume it is. If a person was unable to read though they might have a problem diciphoring what was being sold by the advertisement.

Above the bottle of perfume is the words “use with caution” this I believe is to convey a sense of mystery or danger that Diesel cannot be held responsible for the effects the perfume will definitely have on you and society. In my mind the very word Diesel conjures up car fuel and this is only strenghtened by the caption “Fuel for Life”, to me the caption suggests that the perfume bottle contains diesel fuel and that is why the public is being told to use caution when using it. This I think just adds more proof that it doesn’t matter how many signs are used to hopefully direct the viewer to the right conclusion. It is still up to the viewer to diciphor the codes properly.

In both the ads the medium used is photography. Both ads can be found in womens magazines, in tv adverts and as cardboard cut outs outside pharmacies. As a matter of interest I choose a day and watched several different TV channels such as the BBC, RTE, Sky, Channel 4, ITV, Dave, to see to what extent the ‘Fuel for Life’ adverts were shown. In one day the ads were shown 22 times across the stations, mainly after six o’ clock and mainly on youth orientated stations such as Dave, Channel 4, and Sky. Obviously the target audience are the young. The advert appeared in 10 different womens magazines, for example Elle, Glamour, Marie Claire, Vogue, Cosmopolitan.

The adverts appealed to me as subject for this essay because though they are selling the same product the adverts themselves are sending out different messages. Perfume is generally associated with women, but both the male and female form is being used to sell it. In both ads a sense of fantasy is being portrayed, the conceptual idea of masculinity and femininity. The perfume is being associated in one ad with feminine elegance and in the other with strenght and mystery. In both ads the male and female represent real people. But as John Berger is quoted as saying:

The contemporary public photograph usually presents an event, a seized set of appearances, which has nothing to do with us, its readers, or with the original meaning of the event. It offers information, but information severed from all lived experience. If the public photograph contributes to a memory, it is to the memory of an unobservable and total stranger. The violence is expressed in that strangeness. It records an instant sight about which this stranger has shouted: Look!

We have to remember that everything in the adverts have been constructed in such a way as to shout to us, call us over to take a look, by a “stranger” or in other words a designer, who is using our cultural background to hopefully sell the product. The designer in my opinion puts their faith in the viewer to follow the trail of signs that they have carefully laid out and trusts that if they have done their job that the viewer will come to the “proper” conclusion and see the product in a positive light.

In conclusion to this essay, I must point out that there is no right or wrong way to view the examples of advertising I have chosen. Remember Pierce himself stated that a sign was “something which stands to somebody, for something else, in some respect or capacity”. Each person will take from the adverts what they will depending on their experiences. This essay dealt with the way my brain “decoded” the messages I saw in the adverts. It was based on my life expriences. And the reader is free to agree or disagree.

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