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Semiotic Analysis of Two Watch Advertisements 

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On my regular commute to Los Angeles on the 405 Freeway South, I encounter a large number of billboard advertisements, three of these for luxury watches. The first of these billboards is the most prominent. In it, James Bond wears the OMEGA Seamaster “Spectre” 300. The other two advertisements, for watch companies Tudor and Raymond Weil, rely on generic images such as ocean water and an airplane instead of a film protagonist or celebrity actor. All three billboards use images that tie the displayed watches to luxury, and, interestingly, all three billboards are advertisements for men’s watches. While the effects of advertising images certainly varies. The Spectre watch advertisement is, for me, seemingly more effective because of its additional association to the latest Bond film of the same name, in addition to its other associations.

While I don’t own many expensive watches, I frequently come across advertisements for watches in print magazines, newspapers, on billboards, and on the internet. The same Spectre watch advertisement was recently featured on an entire page of the Wall Street Journal. The close proximity of the three billboards I encounter on my route, all of competing watch companies, and the associations of their marketing images with luxury, indicate that watches are attractive luxury products for many high end consumers. One report reveals global watch sales are expected to exceed one billion, with Swatch group–the parent company of Omega and several other brands and companies–earning over eight billion U.S. dollars annually, and Rolex alone bringing in over four billion dollars (Wrist Watch Industry Statistics). Additionally, U.S. buyers constitute the second largest buyers of watches, topped only by Hong Kong (Wrist Watch Industry Statistics). Given the global popularity in rising and huge economies of watches as luxury commodities, analysis of the mass marketed images of watch advertisements may unveil how luxury and other values wealth, class, and so on might be constructed in consumer society.

For the purposes of this writing, I will use semiotic analysis on the aforementioned Spectre watch ad as well as two past ads, a 1968 ad for a Rolex Submariner and a 1926 ad for a Rolex Oyster. I chose to analyze these two ads instead of the Tudor and Raymond Weil ads because they give a sense of the congruence with past marketing techniques. Watches have only been common consumer products since the early twentieth century. Rolex being the first of today’s well-known watch giants (Adams, A Brief History of Watches), yet advertisements throughout the century to the present also show distinctively different marketing: for example, the use of descriptive text and fantastical imagery. I chose print ads to simplify comparisons between the advertisements, but TV and online video ads for watches have also been prevalent throughout the history of watch marketing. While I focus on how each of these advertisements work to associate their respective watches with luxury, other values or constructions may also be evident. According to John Fiske and John Hartley in Reading Television.

Semiotic analysis emerged out of the philosophical and theoretical practice of constructionism around the middle of the twentieth century, most influentially from Roland Barthes. This analysis is built on earlier studies of linguistics such as by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as well as the philosopher C. S. Peirce. In short, semiotic analysis involves the decoding of signs. A sign consists of a signifier, visual-, sound-, or text-image, and its signified, its associative meaning. These associations can vary amongst the individual decoder of the signs. The signs are also layered: they can be denotative (exactly what they appear to be), or connotative (given meaning through cultural association). For example, an apple is denotatively an apple, but it can connote seductiveness because of its association with the Biblical Garden of Eden. A further layer of connotation refers to the wide, perhaps limitless, network of possible associations the apple or any other sign may connote. Commonly held associations with signs, such as that of the apple and seductiveness, are described by Fiske and Hartley as “constructed equivalence[s]”, only feigning to “display the actual real world” (32). It is important to note that the connotative associations between signifier and signified are either iconic, motivated, or somewhere between the two (Fiske and Hartley 25). For example, a photograph of an object may be a more iconic sign of the object, whereas a red, hexagonal road sign signals most drivers to stop even if the letters are blacked out. The shape and color of the sign have only associative meaning to drivers to stop and are thus arbitrary. In my analysis of three print advertisements for watches, I look at how certain visual and textual signs that signify associative meanings tied to consumer culture, such as the value of luxury, among others.

Because of the prolificacy of advertisements in contemporary culture, it may prove useful to begin with the present ad for the Omega Seamaster 300 Spectre watch. Denotatively, this advertisement shows the watch itself and the actor, Daniel Craig, dressed in a tuxedo in a bare room. On its own, the watch is shown in a relatively objective fashion, displaying its face, numbers, bezel, lugs, etc. It functions to tell the time, although the medium presenting it cannot show it functioning in real-time. The remaining fixtures of the advertisement support the connotative value of the watch, including both the character of James Bond and the celebrity actor Daniel Craig who portrays him.

The fine suit he wears supports this association because the character of James Bond often wears a tuxedo, suits, or other fashionable, expensive-looking, clothing, even whilst embroiled in deadly action. During the opening scene of Spectre, Bond escapes a crumbling building in such a suit, dusts himself off, and continues chasing after his antagonist without worry. This image is doubly promoting, as viewers may see Bond, but also may see Craig. Not only does Bond wear a fine suit in the advertisement, he gives the impression that he is just finishing putting it on, his left hand adjusting his tie and right hand fastening a jacket button. Bond is frequently caught up in riveting action in the films. Perhaps he readies himself for another mission or just finished enamoring a woman. Along with his gestures, Bond’s readiness is also emphasized in his expression, with a busy frown, and his eyelids half-covering his eyes, he focuses on something important in the distance, he’s always thinking about time in a future sense, never thinking about the past only about what’s going to happen. He doesn’t appear to look at the viewer, but beyond him or her, on some world saving goal. His portrayal of women and what the watch symbolizes as a center of female attraction, whatever he is up to, the message is simple: owning this watch will make you more like James Bond.

The advertisement’s message is accentuated by smaller visual signs as well as some textual signs. The setting behind him is bare, so as to keep the viewer fixated on Bond and the watch. Spatially, Bond and the watch each are given their distinct spaces, each situated on one half of the space. Perhaps to prevent Bond from taking away from the watch, two lights are fixed on either side of his head, diverting the eye. The middle light draws the viewer to the largest textual sign, OMEGA, the letter “O” literally connecting with Bond and connecting him to the other half containing the watch. Smaller textual signs are also apparent. Beneath it, “James Bond’s Choice”. Not only does Bond wear the finest suits, he also has the best gadgets. If Bond’s chosen watch is the Spectre, it is associatively the finest watch one can have. Yet the OMEGA logo looms conspicuously large amidst all of these other signs.

A 1926 advertisement for the Rolex Oyster works dramatically different from that of the Spectre watch. Most distinctively, the advertisement features a drawn or painted image rather than a photographed image that was likely digitally enhanced and edited. Accordingly, the advertisement is less motivated, or iconic. The mermaids are associated with women according to some of their bodily features, and they would be considered beautiful according to conventional standards for female beauty. Non-human features, their webbed hands, pelvic fins, and the tailfin situate them as fantastical, mythical beings. They are thus presented as doubly attractive, not 6 only in their associations with beautiful women but also with fantasy, a site of resistance from quotidian work and domestic life.

These three mermaids all frame the watch itself. Denotatively, a watch would be quite smaller in comparison to any human. In this advertisement, however, the Pearl is the largest image. The watch is clearly situated in the foreground, though it may be even with the red Rolex logo along the bottom edge. The center mermaid seems to collapse into the sea from the size of the watch, her arms held forward as if to ward it off. The mermaid closest to the Rolex logo swims away. Or, her waving hand hails it, perhaps in awe. The last mermaid dives into the sea, perhaps escaping, or worked into some frenzy by the watch’s advance. The tone of the scene is dire. The black or stormy sky denotes a night sky, while the broken waves signal a tempest. Steam billows out behind the center mermaid, almost as if a volcano awakens beneath. The figure behavior of the mermaids and the stormy setting present seemingly ill-boded signifieds; yet once the viewer has put the scene together, he or she has entered the fantastical. Mermaids are associated with sailors and their ships. A ship out to sea, in a storm–that is high adventure. And the hero’s talisman? A Rolex Pearl.

Again, textual images support the visual. The red Rolex logo stands out most clearly. A crown topping the “L” connotes power, prestige, and royalty while also providing visual continuity between the logo and the scene in the scene, connecting not only to the water but also the foregrounded mermaid’s hair, also red. To the left of the logo reads “Il Principe Degli Orologi” or “The Prince of Watches”, perhaps the protagonist to our sea story. To the right, “31 Primati Di Alta Precisione” translates to “31 Records of High Precision”, a denotative description of the watch. The logo bridges these two terms, connecting to the fantastical to the expository.

Using semiotic analysis, I looked at two watch advertisements to show how value is associated with watches according to conventions of luxury as well as fantasy. Further analysis of these advertisements and others may further unveil these conventions and others. Print ads continue to be prolific advertising media in the watch industry, and will continue to draw from convention to create messages that attribute value to watches through signs. Consumers and advertisers alike should look to how such signs are used in the messaging of popular consumer items such as watches.   

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Semiotic Analysis of Two Watch Advertisements . (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/semiotic-analysis-of-two-watch-advertisements/
“Semiotic Analysis of Two Watch Advertisements .” GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2022, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/semiotic-analysis-of-two-watch-advertisements/
Semiotic Analysis of Two Watch Advertisements . [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/semiotic-analysis-of-two-watch-advertisements/> [Accessed 17 May 2022].
Semiotic Analysis of Two Watch Advertisements  [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Apr 11 [cited 2022 May 17]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/semiotic-analysis-of-two-watch-advertisements/
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