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The visual chosen for semiotic analysis is the Axe body spray advertisement provided by Professor Murphy. Axe is a men’s grooming company focused on creating products such as body sprays, deodorants, and shampoo (“Axe”, n.d.). They are notoriously known for creating controversial campaigns for their products (Naulls, 2019). The advertisement chosen for semiotic analysis depicts a man helping a woman stretch in a gym while surrounded by other women exercising. There are other elements in the ad, including a caption, web link, and product image.
Upon further analysis of Axe’s body spray advertisement, it is evident that the visual delivers a stereotypical message that both sexually objectifies women and emasculates men. This message is communicated through the inclusion and exclusion of specific elements in the visual that create syntagmatic and paradigmatic meaning. According to Murphy (2019), syntagmatic meaning is assessed through what an image represents or what kind of story it is trying to communicate. This type of meaning can be found when analyzing the surface of a visual and is created in a sequence through a particular order of aspects (Murphy, 2019). Upon examining Axe’s ad for syntagmatic meaning, the image conveys the message that men cannot be “real men” without using Axe body spray. There are several visual elements to reinforce this message. In the image, a man in a gym is displayed, aiding a woman in her stretch routine while surrounded by two other women. The larger amount of women weakens the man and puts him in a vulnerable position. Adding on, the man is shown to be pale and feeble with no indications of sweat and muscle definition. He is stood with a stiff posture and has an uncomfortable facial expression. He is also sporting a feminine braid hairstyle. Comparatively, the women in the image are attractive, and tan with toned bodies that are glossy from the sweat built up from exercising. This drastic contrast in appearance and dominance sexually objectifies women and emasculates men who choose to have friendships with women.
Moreover, the top right-hand corner of the image contains a capitalized caption: “if they tone their body with you, but enjoy it with somebody else, they are seeing you with braids.’ While the majority of the caption is capitalized, the word “braids” is left in lowercase. By doing this, Axe communicates the word “braids” as less dominant, further reinforcing the emasculation of men as the man in the image is wearing the mentioned hairstyle. The bottom right-hand corner displays a picture of Axe’s body spray product as well as the caption “stop being a friend and start being a man” stylized in capital letters. The caption is situated right next to the body spray, drawing a connection between the product and the text. The association between the four elements reinforces the message that one is a “friend” and not a “man” if he does not use Axe. While syntagmatic meaning can be analyzed through the aspects that are visually present, paradigmatic meaning can be found through elements that are not visually represented in the image (Murphy, 2019). According to Murphy (2019), paradigmatic meaning is analyzed by examining what the image does or does not represent. This type of meaning is “created by absence, or the choice to include a particular element in the image at the expense of others” (Murphy, 2019, slide 19).
When analyzing the ad for paradigmatic meaning, it is apparent that it is targeted to a male heterosexual audience. This choice to target a male heterosexual audience is reinforced by Axe’s decision to include a male-female dynamic, which excludes any representation of other sexualities. The advertisement does not portray a man who is attractive, muscular and dominant. Instead, his comparatively average appearance feeds into the message that men cannot be “real men” without Axe body spray. The advertisement’s portrayal of the “weak” man, effectively emasculates and gives a negative connotation to men who decide to have friendships with women. Additionally, the image is not representative of an average female individual. Axe opted instead to represent women in an inaccurate “picture-perfect” appearance. The stereotyping of the women here subjects them to sexual objectification. They are employed as an incentive for heterosexual men to buy Axe’s products.
To conclude, an extended semiotic analysis of Axe’s body spray advertisement reveals that the visual delivers a stereotypical message contributing to the sexual objectification of women as well as the emasculation of men. Axe communicates this message by having contrasting appearances between women and men in their photo and using textual elements such as captions to connect what is occurring in the photo to what Axe is trying to tell the viewer. The decision to include these elements into their image creates a specific syntagmatic meaning. Alternately, the elements that Axe excluded from their image, such as the representation of other sexualities, the portrayal of the attractive male, and portrayal of the average looking women, create paradigmatic meaning. Axe encourages their target market to purchase their grooming products through the communication of these discriminating messages using the previously mentioned methods and although the message is delivered controversially, it works to a great extent to engage viewers.
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