In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • A Currency Of Signs
  • Judith Williamson (bio)

Williamson, Judith. A currency of signs. In Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars, 20–39. Reprinted with the permission of Marion Boyars Publishers Inc.

‘A sign is something which stands to somebody for something else, in some respect or capacity.’

C. S. Peirce 1

‘That which exists for me through the medium of money, that which I can pay for, i.e. which money can buy, that am I, the possessor of the money.’

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts


Saussure says that with the word H-0-R-S-E, where the concept of horse is what is signified, the referent is what kicks you. Thus the referent always means the actual thing in the real world, to which a word or concept points. The referent is external to the sign, whereas the signified is part of the sign. (However, the external “reality” referred to by the collection of signs in an advertisement is itself a mythological system, another set of signs. These mythologies I call Referent Systems:(cf. Part II.)

In A1 we saw how two things — an object from the ordinary world (jetty) and a product (tyre) — were connected. The jetty stood for a certain quality (strength), and by making the object and the product interchangeable in terms of this quality, its value adheres to the product. The intermediary object, the jetty, in representing a value which becomes attached to the product, is thus a sort of currency. Currency is something which represents a value and in its interchangeability with other things, gives them their ‘value’ too. It thus provides a useful metaphor for the transference of meaning; especially as this meaning is so intimately connected with real money transactions.

As a preliminary to this chapter I want to start with a look at colour in visual advertising: it provides an introduction both to my method of analysis, to the way in which most visual adverts function, and to various aspects of the use to which this functioning can be put. Although the colour cannot be reproduced here it is described in the analyses. The next six examples all use colour in a slightly different way, but in each case it is the basis for a connection or connections unstated by the verbal part of the ad, and sometimes quite — apparently —irrelevant to it.

Click for larger view
View full resolution

A2 Colour tells a story: In this picture the colour ‘axis’ is the triangle of orange-gold, formed by the two glasses of screwdrivers and the sun behind the trees. This connection already suggests a warm, natural, pure, light quality in the drink, since it is linked to the sunlight. This gold colour is echoed in the golden corn which surrounds the couple, also suggesting something natural, ripe, mellow. The other colour connection in this picture is the white of the couple’s clothes and of their bag. One would expect this white to be a reminder of the ‘White Rum’ but in fact it functions differently inside the picture. It helps tell a story, bridging time past and future. The white bag is already full of golden corn; this ‘harvesting’ is a piece of past consumption that hints at a similar action in the (at present undrunk) golden screwdrivers being placed inside, consumed by, the white couple. This hint is supported by the additional fact that the golden sun is just about to set, to ‘go down’ just as the drinks will. And so, as sure as the bag is already filled, and the sun is bound to set into the white sky, the drinks will, undoubtedly, end up inside the white people.

This ‘story’ gives a new meaning to the words beneath. The idea of there being ‘still room’ now refers less to the environment (although it obviously does this on a simple level — countryside, a field, is shown) than to the fact that there is room inside the people for the drinks. The theme is, in fact, filling up, like the corn in the bag—consumption rather than expansion. It is significant that the space shown — the ‘room’ in the ‘intended...

Additional Information

Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.