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Comunicar Journal 37: The University Network and on the Net (Vol. 19 - 2011)

Structures and archetypal content in advertising communication


Francisco García-García

Miguel Baños-González

Paloma Fernández-Fernández


The aim of this investigation is the study of publicity from the point of view of the archetypes, following a hermeneutic model of analysis of the content; through this we have studied the presence of the Greek mythological figures in comparison with the characters that appear in the advertising messages of perfumes, which at first allows us to observe the analogy of the gods of the old Greek Mythology with real human archetypes; secondly, it allows us to dig deeper into these advertising contents to know if these stories are purely commercial or if they could be interpreted with other meanings. The results of this analysis show a high participation of the female archetype of the woman as a wife, related to the goddess Hera, and followed by the archetype of the sensuality represented by the Aphrodite goddess and that of the goddess Artemisia or goddess of liberty; in perfume commercials aimed at men, the biggest frequency in the myth of Zeus and of Narcissus is emphasized, as archetypes of power and success, continued by the presence of the myth of Odysseus, the hero’s archetype, known as a model of strategist and intelligence; in commercials aimed at both sexes the myth of Dionysus as archetype of the party and transformation is the most relevant, followed by the myth of the brothers Hera-Zeus that become husbands and fathers of the Greek Panteon of Mithological Gods.


Advert, advertising, hermeneutical, interpretation, mythology, persuasion, speech, symbolism

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1. Introduction

The creation of advertising messages for perfumes, a process that is integrated in the so-called social sciences, incorporates in its eminently visual language cultural contributions of all the orders of our environment which, through the perspective of this investigation, has led us to study the references contained in modern commercials that come from the classical mythological culture. The reinterpretation of stories and symbols corresponding to gods and Greek and Roman myths that are in turn nourished by the Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythologies is widespread in advertising (León, 2001) and this investigation concentrates on the specific segment of the advertising of perfumes of the last decades. These messages stand out in the current advertising panorama because of their greater expressive richness through persuasive stories in which we can find multiple rhetorical and symbolic contributions at the service of a product whose essence, the aroma, cannot reach the consumer through conventional communication media.

Myth, from the Greek word Mizos, means etymologically: word, saying or story (Pabón, 1975). Herodotus (Elíade, 2001), in the 4th century B.C. describes it as fiction and even falsehood, in comparison to logos, the word of truth. The myth comes to us anonymously while the word can come from God, as understood by this classical historian. Art and literature have recreated popular myths due to the unavoidable attraction that those stories exert on individuals when containing a non-scientific interpretation, and due to the restlessness that surrounds human life. That continuous focus on the classical myths has also had its corresponding influence on other fields like analytical psychology, in which C.G. Jung, the outstanding pupil of S. Freud, elaborated a theory around the archetypes (Jung,1982) as unconscious elements of the human being that underlie all cultures in terms of basic outlines that operate in our way of explaining reality, appearing in the core of all the stories that the human being builds, be they of a literary, didactic or religious nature.

The archetype works as an innate structure of the individual, and taking that substratum, different societies build their cosmogonies which are accepted, with slight local variations, by other cultures and transformed with the passing of time, but which still maintains its original essence.

Archetypes are not inherited individually but collectively, so we can speak of the collective unconsciousness as the virtual space in which certain archetypes have settled, all of them constituting what could be taken to be the structured nature in which man lives so that the human being can understand his life via similar images that are repeated throughout time. The recognition of an archetype is not conscious, but contact with them produces a reaction in the individual that doesn't allow him to remain indifferent; this reaction can take the form of a sudden shiver, fascination, self-absorption, fear…because according to Jung (1982) we are standing before an authentic symbol that he liked to define by using the expression coined by Rudolf Otto (Jung, 1982) referring to the archetypal images as numinous. Those images materialize in what we call myths.

Advertising, in its constant generation of messages for human groups of different social classes and cultures, acts as catalyst and updater of those units of archaic knowledge that are myths. The goal of this investigation is not to know if creative activity is conscious or to analyze the transmission of those archetypes, but to verify their presence in perfume commercials. Through a hermeneutical methodology and the analysis of the advertising messages for perfumes from the end of the 20th century and beginnings of the 21st for women and men, we can interpret the content of the commercials we have selected.

2. Material and methods

The general hypothesis that has inspired this investigation is the following: TV commercials of modern perfumes reproduce mythical stories and contain references to specific cultural archetypes. The objective of this investigation is to check the basic preexistence of the classical myths in publicity for perfumes through the advertising story. We must keep in mind that the means through which the attributes of the products or brands are transmitted are not always linguistic, but symbolic, iconographic and evocative; but, whatever the means are, they would not be effective if the recipients did not recognize them or interpret them appropriately. Herein lies the point of this investigation: to check that the messages contain references to classical myths and the recipients can decode them with the same meaning as the originators intended, because both share the same cultural references. Persuasion is elaborated to produce a response from the recipient by the «vis rhetórica» of the speech, as García Jiménez (Moreno, 2003) calls it when interpreting Aristotle´s theory of persuasion. This forces the recipient to complete the meaning of the message on a triple demand level: the plausible level, the level of the logic of the actions and the level of symbolic dimension.

A widespread and extended tendency exists to consider the advertising language from a linguistic approach characteristic of normal languages, when the reality tells us that the verbal component of this language is used less and less. Studies have been developed focused in semiotics, linguistics and the meaning and structure of advertising communications that lead us to understand the consumer's reaction to the messages that he/she receives. We know that the images and texts that are included in the messages have an empathic relationship with the social environment of the communities in which they are broadcast, being constantly updated by the inspiration of film, literary and artistic novelties in general produced by society, but that doesn't explain everything. The audiovisual narrative is nurtured by recreated situations or fiction, of real scenarios, daily and spontaneous conversations, but also of cultural symbols, sometimes intentionally chosen and on other occasions without keeping its meaning in mind. From this we can distinguish two significance levels: the intentional and the materialized.

In the recent perfume advertising it has been observed that the stories have become richer in symbolism and suggestions that capture the attention; however, the interpretations coming from the consumers are usually of a literal meaning, like a simplified translation meant to bring the contents closer to the real world known by the audiences. In the first place, the deep meaning in a conscious way is not noticed but it should be sensed and because of this, more attention is given to these stories than expected. The irrepresentability of the scent of the perfume (Cánovas, 2005) has motivated a more rhetorical and more emotional elaboration of perfume commercials.

2.1. Material

The samples chosen for this investigation consist of 150 commercials of the main international perfume brands for mature consumers broadcast on television between January 1990 and July 2009, and which have been kept alive on the YouTube channel, demonstrating interest in these advertising messages of users who can continue to enjoy them and express their opinion. This presence implies a degree of acceptance, regardless of whether they have been situated in the portal of the users of the brands or in that of the perfume companies; the fact that they are still being watched on Internet indicates that they have connected with the recipients because of their aesthetic and/or thematic qualities. The 150 commercials found on YouTube contain a story or narration. Of these 150 messages analyzed, the number of commercials aimed at women is greater than the ones at men, in short two thirds of the sample.

The advertising gathered in this investigation is relevant because of the message and its meaning in an individual way and as part of a group. The results obtained will tell us about the meaning for the consumer, as much as at the literal as the conscious level, and at the symbolic or unconscious levels, and the method applied is that of the literal and allegorical interpretation of the images. Analogy, as a hermeneutic principle, transmits to us the power of the subjective, giving a visible symbolism to an invisible sense and a singular phenomenon that it is deified. Analogy will be the key factor in the analysis of these advertising commercials.

2.2. Analysis model

The analysis model uses association and confrontation as a methodological axis characteristic of the hermeneutical application. According to the German philosopher and student of the Greek Classics, Hans-Georg Gadamer (León, 2001), the key is in comparing what the text says and its interpretation, trying to maintain a neutral position, even knowing that pure neutrality doesn't exist. The person must be aware that he/she is limited, unable to give a complete interpretation of a story, and to accept that their interpretations should be contrasted and supplemented with other interpretations. However, the hermeneutical formula of analysis can be considered subjective on the part of the person who uses it; yet artistic creation is also subjective and this is decisive in the elaboration of the advertising commercials to channel sales potential to the consumer in a suggestive and interesting way. In the artistic scenario, where advertising comes closer in its effort to seduce the consumer, the German thinker E. Panofsky (1970) elaborated a method for the realization of iconographic-iconological analysis that entails an interpretation at the different layers of meaning of an artistic work that he called factual and expressive analysis, where he verified the presence of symbolic elements and analyzed their meaning. This method is currently still being applied. Perfume commercials have been chosen because as a group they are quite homogeneous from simple observation, and are open to in-depth analysis; this characteristic of the investigation can be used as a critical argument, however, in practice the recipient does not consume all products motivated by the same interests but rather establishes differences among purely practical products, of mass consumption; in those he does not deposit more interest than is necessary, as opposed to those products that he wants for their benefits or for the emotions that they arouse; some receive great attention for the potentiality that they contain and mainly for the aspirational content channeled towards the consumer, and this is generally the case of perfumer.

To reach the objective pointed out in the previous paragraph, the investigation has been designed with 3 differentiated work phases.

-- First phase: Hermeneutics; the hermeneutic or interpretation model is applied from José Luis León (2001) to analyze advertising messages. We distinguish the following stages:

- 1st stage: the immediate literal sense, in two steps: a) The literal sense of the narration: the story narrated in the text. b) The literal-strategic sense: the inherent sales strategy of the announcement, the benefit offered to the consumer, the promise, the positioning of the product based on tangible and intangible attributes.

- 2nd stage: The allegorical sense: the elements of the commercial are considered in a symbolic way: the individuals are valued as representatives of social or human groups, the products become main characters of actions and become symbols.

- 3rd stage: reconstruction of the tropological sense: unify different commercials that pursue the same goal, or which are related by common service to the same value, far beyond the immediate sales purpose. This is the deepest plan that goes beyond the author's strategic intention to deliver to the audience messages that are internalized. The aim is to put commercial categories at the service of specific values with an end result of these interpretations being a complete vision of man and the current world as a great story. -- Second phase: Descriptive statistical treatment of the data obtained in the first phase from which we can find quantitative and qualitative results that allow us to group the 150 commercials in homogeneous archetypes or mythical groups. -- Third phase: In-depth analysis of the content of a specific commercial, selected from each resulting group in the previous phases.

The selected commercial in each group has as main characteristic a great wealth of stylistic, iconographic and iconological resources that assumes greater elaboration, at least formal. This third and last phase follows the hermeneutic pattern adapted to the one used by Francisco García García (2006) for content analysis; it studies the narrative structure distinguishing enunciated, enunciation, forms like the characters, space, time and actions, and the different expressions of these elements. In this phase, special attention is prioritized towards the significant aspects of the message and not to the technical aspects or set-up, unless they contribute or reinforce the persuasive story.

3. Results

The application of the hermeneutic and statistical analysis to the total of the sample has allowed us to classify successfully each of the commercials with its corresponding archetype and myth. The quantitative and qualitative conclusions of the analysis (Chart 1) indicate that commercials dedicated to women number around two thirds of the total, in which 26% have women in the role of partner or wife; if we add the archetypes represented in the stories that appear with less frequency but which are, nevertheless relevant, we come up with the role of feminine sensuality, like that of the goddess Aphrodite as the second most widely used persuasive argument (18%), followed by the appeal to individual freedom as a natural value that connects woman to Nature, after the image of the goddess Artemis (15%). Perfume is also presented as a special, valuable or divine element equivalent to the old idea of possessing a magic elixir (13%) with which to achieve love, a perfect accessory to physical appearance or to seduce the man of her desires. This idea complements another reiterative argument in the group, as it is also explained in relation to men, which consists of assigning to the perfume the capacity to operate non-imagined but desired changes by the one who uses it (11%), causing sensations and experiences that remind one of the processes of metamorphosis of the Greek gods who changed their aspect, shape or identity at will to achieve their goals, generally of seduction.

Younger women who are just leaving adolescence behind and entering maturity receive messages specific to this collective, describing the main characters of the commercials through the evocation of the myth of Persephone, the Koré in the Greek mythology, in which the young woman discovers her sexuality after accepting a pomegranate from her captor, Hades, the god of the underworld, arousing passions and deep sensations which are translated into commercials by young women taking in their hands a bottle of perfume in the shape of an apple, a magic object or a star from the sky, metaphor of a promise of love. However, commercials aimed at females which use motivation to reach social or professional success are few, an attribute traditionally assigned to the goddess Athena in her vision of a victorious Nike. Less used is the plot involving fun or partying to accompany perfume use, in fact the opposite is true: perfumes are presented as a product for personal and private use on a deep level.

The group of commercials dedicated aimed at men, which is far smaller than those aimed at women, less than one third of the total, has a clear tendency towards stories of social success as an outstanding persuasive value. Man is seen as the god that leads the Greek pantheon, Zeus (40%), leader in heaven and on Earth, god of all that is seen and where Earthly life is developed. Within this role of control, a characteristic aspect of this mythical character is inserted, narcissism, as a consequence of success, which leads man to see himself as complete, autonomous and superior to the rest, destined to reign in any social environment. The man as a part of a couple or husband (2.85%), barely appears, as opposed to the predominant role he holds in plots in female perfume commercials, in which man is seen as an object of seduction and a necessary complement for the woman's happiness; there is no reciprocity in this aspect, and Zeus as a husband, a decisive role in the development of the mythology, is not an outstanding value. Besides supreme god, the role mainly portrayed in these commercials for men, although to a lesser extent, is that of a hard-working hero (25.7%), determined and necessary, a superior being to man but inferior to the gods, and as a result he can achieve greater empathy with male consumers; this coincides with the Odysseus argument, the hero of Greek mythology, Ulysses in Roman mythology, who is the prototype of all the most socially and culturally valued qualities, possessing intelligence, loyalty, generosity and beauty. Lastly, the argument that man has feelings, corresponding to what you cannot see, where Zeus does not reign but his brother Poseidon does (14.32%), appears in third place, perhaps as a complementary characteristic to the arrogant man described earlier, to show his interiority, allowing his unconscious and sensibility to be expressed. Finally we see that, as in the commercials for female perfumes, the discreet presence of the Metamorphosis concept of change in the male perfume commercials adds to the possibility that men who are not so sure about resembling Zeus or Ulysses can imagine that the perfume boosts their social projection, endowing them with a powerful dimension with regards to their possibilities of being and/or seeming.

Unisex perfumery represents a very scarce and not very relevant percentage in the universe analyzed but this does not prevent us from proving that the most important message is concentrated in three fundamental concepts that correspond to the three main characters of Greek mythology and their corresponding modern archetypes. Man and woman as a couple (26.6%), partners or husbands, Zeus and Hera-style, frequently related to fun, leisure, partying and happiness that Dionysus represents (26.6%), and united by the desire for transformation of themselves and of the group (26.6%), by using perfume as elixir identified with the values of sharing and enjoying the existence with others.

The in-depth content analysis of a relevant commercial from each group has enabled us to make a detailed check of the iconographic and iconological presence of each myth seen in the commercials, with a fairly high analogy level, as is the case of the «J' Adore» commercial by Dior in which a woman takes off her clothes and complements herself with the perfume in a tranquil, elegant environment as if she were the goddess Aphrodite, naked and beautiful, with no interaction with a man taking place, emulating the goddess that is born mature. The commercial for Chanel Nº 5 for young women that recalls the process of Persephone entering adult life, dressed in the commercial like the character of the story that relates the same myth - Little Red Riding Hood, who this time is accompanied by wolves that do not threaten her but rather obey her when she picks up her perfume and takes a step toward a new world, that of adult life; the goddess Artemis was also accompanied by wolves that protected and obeyed her; we see in this commercial a combination of myths and archetypes that is very appropriate for the modern woman, the young and daring woman. Artemis is played by the actress Keyra Knightly in a commercial for «Coco Mademoiselle» from Chanel, in which she dares to flirt with men who she leaves behind to feel free in Paris. We also find Persephone in Nina Ricci´s commercial for the «Nina» perfume, this time symbolizing the end of adolescence with the act of catching the symbol of carnality, a red apple that is also the bottle of perfume. The phenomenon of the metamorphosis, typical of the mythological gods is seen in the commercial for «Madame» by J.P. Gaultier, in which the transformation has to do with the aesthetics promoted by the designer. The success and intelligence attributed to the goddess Athena hardly appears in any commercials although an outstanding example is that of actress Nicole Kidman for Chanel Nº 5. Power as a masculine attribute began to be seen at the end of the 20th century in a memorable commercial for Chanel’s «Egoiste», in which a man fights with his shadow in a clear narcissistic combat for power. Man as the hero of modernity is compared to Odysseus, the hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in a purely Mediterranean environment where manliness and serenity stand out in the main character of the commercial for Light Blue by «Dolce&Gabbana». The commercial of another Italian brand, Giorgio Armani, for «Acqua di Gio», shows the most profound and sensual man in Greek mythology, Poseidon, playing sexual ambiguity that includes homosexuality as a suggested proposal through the movements of a man who has a relationship with the ocean, similar to that of two male lovers, where the deep water is a symbol of the unconscious and the model who plays this role is of a classical beauty. The analogy is also clear in «Escape» from Calvin Klein, a unisex commercial that represents the myth of the Minotaur and Ariadne with the man’s expressions true to character as the bull-man seducing Ariadne in the labyrinth. Finally, we must mention the mark of the god Dionysus in the commercial for Hugo Boss brand XY that transforms the atmosphere where he appears partying and in debauchery.

This brief summary of the deep analysis of 12 commercials and the precedent phases of the analysis allows us to verify that the hypothesis posed at the beginning of the investigation has been confirmed in each of the phases of the analysis of the sample, resulting in some general conclusions which we now present.

The advertising of the perfumery sector that prevails in the audiovisual media is primarily focused on the mature woman who is identified mainly by the character of the goddess Hera, wife or partner of a man that she feels proud of. At the same time she is sure of her sensuality and uses it as a gift from nature, just like the goddess Aphrodite, which provokes greater attention to the body and arouse the desire of those who admire it. Young women are persuaded to enter the world of high perfumery with stories that hint at a discovery that will change their lives, which leads them out of the infantile world of imagination. All of this brings us closer to the idea of the perfume as elixir, able to make the most diverse fantasies reality and also to the promise that perfume can transform women and men to help them fulfill personal wishes or dreams.

Men have a much smaller presence in this category of commercials, but these concentrate a lot on the idea of man as holder of power, control over himself and others, like Zeus, proud of himself and his possibilities and able to become a hero in his approach to mortals, as a superman or a semi-god. This also connects with the idea that an elixir or a metamorphosis is possible by using a certain perfume; however, the perfume does not appear as a creator of relationships among couples or with a wife, except in isolated cases.

Perfume commercials whose target is a mixed man-woman public are very scarce and are based on the argument of the group as a formula for Dionysian amusement, partying, the transformative possibilities by means of participation in the group and the formula of the perfume as elixir that offers the happiness and enjoyment of feeling and being with other people.

The targets in the group of perfume commercials, even if they seem to differ for each sex, coincide in the use of empathy to get the different consumer groups to indentify with the different archetypes shown. These are for both male and female and summarized in a single sentence: woman is a sensual and free wife that transforms and reinvents herself; man experiences success, is daring, brave and with feelings; men and women who enjoy life together.

In the period analyzed, almost two decades, the evolution in perfume commercials is observed with regards to the archetypes represented, with those mentioned in the previous paragraphs remaining constant. The most recent archetypes to be incorporated for women, men and mixed group/unisex are archetypes of female success, Athena-Niké, and independence, Artemis; in men, the hero's archetype represented by the figure of Odysseus, a more intelligent and conscientious man than the one represented by Zeus, and lastly, the archetype of transgression and the breaking of conventional rules, summed up in the myth of Dionysus, introduced through unisex commercials or focused towards an ambiguous public that cannot follow the conventional patterns of the female and/or male sex.

The peculiarities of publicity of the high perfumery sector are so many that without exaggeration we could open a new category of commercials that we could name, in light of the results of this investigation, archetypical advertising.

In short, this investigation shows the viability of the hermeneutic model in the analysis of current publicity and the use of archetypes as an instrument for content analysis, offering us a new focus for knowledge of advertising messages which in the case of perfume advertising, are rich in analogies from the classical mythologies and human prototypes, protagonists of persuasive speeches that act as references in our society. A greater proportion of advertising targets women, this is confirmed; the predominant role is that of the goddess Hera, wife and partner; the role of success and power is most frequently used to target men, both of which reinforce or maintain the role that both sexes have played out in society for centuries. The sentimental man or the autonomous woman are infrequent archetypes.

4. Discussion

The stage that advertising messages currently occupies has been called emotional advertising and its peculiarities continue to be studied; among the characteristics of these messages is the description of characters through highly accentuated physical and emotional features that coincide with the dominant features exhibited by certain social groups in society, those that the recipient identifies with and this investigation identifies as human archetypes. The integration formula of the archetypal content in the advertising characters is not perceived in a direct way but rather functions through familiarity; they obtain the corresponding automatic recognition in the mind of the recipient who adopts them as models to follow; this explains and reinforces the idea that modern advertising messages are channeled indirectly and that the consumer is being constantly trained by publicity to decode message beyond a first reading or impression (López and Farrán, 2010), and aside from this investigation we can understand how and why this emotional and archetypal publicity works.

The most recent tendencies in persuasive communication have led publicity to show an individual that looks more and more like himself/herself, which could lead us to consider that the commercials analyzed respond to a fashion, but the advertising of structure and archetypal content is no mere temporary accident but a natural resource and, therefore, of constant use as much in publicity as in any communication environment; as it is, publicity consolidates the dominant archetypes in each period because its objective is always to maximize the diffusion of a content to obtain quantifiable results; the most original contribution in this investigation indicates that that general objective of publicity is achieved, in the case of perfume advertising, through the use of archetypes in narrations, and this adds to our understanding of the success of some advertising messages and consolidates the idea that publicity, true to its expansive role, makes the majority the minority, as Stella Martinez-Rodrigo comments (2006) with regards to this topic. Our focus can be of great interest to further investigations centered on other products or content, and could be a useful guide for institutional campaigns that work on eliminating behavior such as domestic violence (Berlanga, 2009) since the decision can be made on the diffusion of a certain female archetype that strengthens a new woman model that doesn't have as a main vital objective the achievement of becoming part of a couple and complementarily, a male archetype that far from looking for power, develops complementary archetypal qualities such as those of Odysseus.

The relationship between publicity and mythology has hardly been explored; when this encounter has taken place it has been to consider that publicity creates modern myths, but this investigation has gone in the opposite direction, considering it implicit in the starting hypothesis that publicity is inspired as much by classical ideas as modern ones, and that their stories are renewed and activated, and are massively diffuse concepts or knowledge that have accompanied man throughout history, as happens with the archetypes. To sum up, it is about an innate substratum in the individual, and due to this it should be valued in tackling persuasive communication both for content and for an effectiveness factor.


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