Advertisements go beyond what they are selling by sometimes reflecting and perpetuating popular narratives of identity circulating in society. Advertisers use meanings that their target markets already know and associate with certain situations to promote their clients’ products. They understand that advertisements belong to a larger media landscape and feed off this knowledge to connect the product to other aspects of life. This form of cultural cannibalism allows brands to add another layer of significance onto the product, giving consumers another reason to buy it. “Stripped of its glamour, advertising is a kind of cultural mechanics for constructing commodity signs. Advertisements are structured to boost the value of commodity brand names by attaching them to images that possess social and value…” (Goldman & Papson 81). Since the assumed shared worldview is implicitly presented, the task for consumers is to interpret the meaning of symbols and images in advertisements to understand the intended message.

One analytic approach that identifies these signals and how social values are communicated to the audience is semiotics. The “science of the sign” studies the relationship between a sign and its intended meaning, uncovering the deeper conventions at work (Leiss et al. 164). “Semiotics can provide an answer to some very basic questions concerning meaning: How do ads work?” (Leiss et al. 164). It breaks down an advertisement into its smallest components, such as an image or graphic, and derives the specific points trying to be conveyed. A sign in an advertisement has two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the sign itself, which can be an image, sound, or object, and the signified is the concept the signifier represents. Attached to this first level of signification is a sign’s connotation. It is the evoked ideas automatically associated with a given word and is greatly dependent on a culture’s ideology and social conventions. “If we are not adequately aware of the relevant referent system, we will not be able to decode the message” (Leiss et al.164).

For example, in American media, hair color is a common sign manipulated to symbolize a certain personality, especially concerning women. Brunettes are usually the nerdy, sensible, and conservative characters, while blondes are considered the fun-loving, ignorant, attractive brats. The Vonage television commercial that aired in 2006 called “Dolphins” reinforces the relationship between blonde hair and its connotations as suggested by American ideology to promote its phone service. The main actress takes up her stereotype by mistaking the fins she spots circling in the ocean water as belonging to dolphins as opposed to sharks. Most viewers will immediately associate the moving fins (signifier) as dangerous (signified) due to the prolific appearance of shark attacks in films and television programs, such Jaws and The Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week. These platforms present the creature’s fin peaking above the surface of water to chilling background music (another signifier) moments before it feeds on its prey. The blonde actress is considered dumb to the audience for not making the connection. Instead of running away from the risky situation, she runs towards it excitedly as if these menacing animals are only going to want to play with her. In this case, the image of the hair is one signifier and it refers to the personality adjectives used to describe the hair color, such as naive and ditzy.

Through the blonde’s actions, Vonage seeks to depict itself as “a smart decision among many, many stupid ones.” Although the main actress makes this painfully obvious mistake, she also can appreciate the value of Vonage. Therefore, if she can see its advantages, then the intended, brighter audience should recognize them and want the product too. The advertisement rides on the cultural coattails of widely circulated portrayals of blondexs and sharks that their target audience already believes in. No where in the advertisement does it specifically say for them to recall Jaws or blonde portrayals in culture. The viewers make the link themselves. Would the message be as clear if a brunette actress was casted instead? Probably not. Thus, those who are not familiar with these mainly American representations will not make the connection between Vonage being the smart choice in phone service. The storyline of the advertisement would not make sense to them. Instead, they would possibly believe the animals swimming around were dolphins just as the blonde did and not realize why going to play with them would be a “stupid choice”.