Roland Barthes embarks on a brilliant, yet complex analysis of myth and language in "Myth Today" in which he implies that signification is a sign. When an object is signified that object becomes the sign of its signification. The sign is the totality of the signifier and the signified. In this discussion, Barthes also distinguishes between language and myth. He states that mythology is a language system; it is a signifier. Myth is the transformation of a signified into a second order signifier and the consequent construction of second order meanings. A picture has no meaning until it is associated with something; when images are used in ads they almost invariably become second order signifiers.
Myth is a metalanguage; a language about language and about unspoken communication. In advertising myth can be a system of symbols in which the original, or first order meaning, is taken out of context and used to produce a second order of meaning, often in relation to the advertised product. The creation of myth via advertising is also about the manipulation of language and meaning. The construction of second-order signifiers robs one system of meaning to serve another. This is the heart of most modern advertising - and it may be a force which contributes to postmodern culture.
Benetton's recent advertising campaign, stock footage of pink flamingos, or beautiful mountain scenery (the latter of which are repetitively and tirelessly used in advertisements) are examples of the transformation of certain images into second-order signifiers. For example, Benetton takes an object, such as a picture of an electric chair, which is pregnant with the signification of death, and puts the Benetton logo on the picture. The electric chair represents death, whereas the Benetton logo merely represents the company. By associating Benetton and its logo with something as obscure and scary as a decontextualized image of an electric chair, Benetton robs the chair of its meaning, the signifier of death, distorts it and is equates it the brash audacity of the company. Benetton shifts the first order signifier, the electric chair, into a second order signifier. The new meaning of the electric chair is now irrevocably linked to the irreverence of Benetton and it no longer carries its original meaning. It becomes a signifier of a non-ad; that is, it is not an ad for the clothing, just the aura of the company. The electric chair no longer has any historical or contextual relevance and is thus transformed into myth.
With this in mind I would like to turn to two ads in particular which are not nearly as serious as Barthes but, I would argue, are still relevant to his argument. Both ads feature a naked or nearly naked woman and both are advertisements for Candie's shoes. The first ad is from YM, a magazine for adolescent girls. It features former Playmate, MTV V-Jay, and host of The Jenny McCarthy show (on MTV), Jenny McCarthy. JM is sitting on the pot, presumably taking a shit, in an orange T-shirt with her undies at her knees and her styling Candie's shoes on. She is holding the business section and smiling sweetly at the camera. The second ad from the same Candie's ad campaign ran in SPIN, a magazine with a mostly male audience. This ad also features Jenny McCarthy on the pot, however she is sans shirt and cutesy smile; in fact, she appears to be glancing up from reading the business section, folded to the NASDAQ, and has a distinct 'fuck you/fuck me' expression on her visage. Her undies are still down around her knees she is wearing the same pair of Candie's shoes.
It is not surprising (disheartening, maybe) that the predominantly male audience of SPIN magazine gets a sultry look, nearly naked pose, dark and grainy imagery while the young female audience of YM gets a cutesy smile, orange T-shirt, matching shoes, and a decently covered bust. It is surprising that she is positioned on a toilet. So when one asks the question what exactly is she doing on the toilet, with newspaper in hand, the only answer is that she is taking a shit.
Her position, obvious change in attire, and expression all raise the important question of who exactly is being appellated in this ad campaign. Are they hailing young women to buy the shoes or young men? The shoes are for women, so ostensibly this is who they are hailing. But why use a naked JM in a predominantly male mag to sell women's shoes? Are they trying to encourage guys to envision their girlfriends on the pot in those shoes, still sexy while taking a shit, and then go buy them? Are they trying to draw women in so that they step into the frame of the ad and pretend they are Ms. McCarthy - body, hair, shoes (shit) and all? Both ads are framed in such a way that either a woman or a man could pretend to be the person in the ad. A woman could easily imagine herself in JM's body (and what a body) and thus, the shoes. A man could easily picture himself as the person privileged enough to be in the bathroom with JM. However, it seems most likely that they are asking young women to imagine themselves in JM's position (literally or not) and fantasize about the shoes.
It is clear that the ad adjusts for the predominantly male audience of SPIN. The way in which it is done calls to mind John Berger and the concept of the male gaze. Berger writes:
Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight (Berger 1972: 47).
In light of Berger and the male gaze it seems clear that JM is aware of the gaze. In fact, her hyper-awareness of it is what she is known for. What meaning is to be associated with these ads remains unclear until her persona is discussed. As mentioned earlier, JM is a former Playmate and has done extensive photo shoots, most of which focus on her body; to many she is considered a sex object, or 'eye candy'. There is however, something that differentiates her, if only a little, from most other Playmates and models: she often takes her sex appeal to absurd lengths. JM is self-reflexive of her part in the male gaze; she acknowledges it but often mock and ridicule it while participating in it. In a photo shoot, for example, she might sniff her armpit while in a sexy bikini or make faces. She does so knowing that she will still be watched, desired, and even envied.
The use of Jenny McCarthy, and the meaning associated with her, attempts to transfer meaning from one system of meaning to another - the aura of JM to Candie's. Jenny McCarthy, the semi-naked sex-symbol on the pot, is the first order signifier, while Jenny McCarthy the MTV V-J is propelled into a weak second order signification for Candie's shoes. While her beauty and nakedness are part of a first order signification system, she is no longer the signifier of beauty, desirability and sex that she once was; the shoes are now the totality, in which they signify sex appeal and beauty (what was formerly associated with the woman, Jenny McCarthy). However, the Candie's advertisement falls short of their target of self-reflexivity and loses the "Jenny McCarthy" persona by using the docile and cutesy smile in YM in addition to the 'fuck you/fuck me' look used in SPIN. The use of the toilet is a desperate attempt to latch on to shock value and the absurd and differentiate themselves from other shoe brands and logos. These ads, although they are not executed smoothly, are an example of the creation of myth and second order systems of signification.
The historical signification of the female nude is lost to the shoes and is transformed into myth - the myth of the shoe as sexy. The first order female nude of JM is appropriated so that Candie's can avail themselves to its second order meaning; an ad that attempts self awareness and reflexivity. Even with a gorgeous model who is taking a shit, people will still look and wonder what she is doing, thus drawing attention to the shoe and gaining recognition for Candie's. There is a metasign of self-conscious awareness attached to the shoe via the metamessage and the framing of the ad.