Page 1: Advertising in Photography (Photography Degree, Year 1, Essay 3)

Year 1, Essay 3

Question 15 Advertising images function in particular ways to make us desire the product. Compare and contrast two advertisements that use photography, highlighting the ways they are intended to communicate with their intended audience.

Dan Foy

BA Hons Photography Module No: PHOT100058 Seminar tutor: Malcolm Brice Word count: 3054

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Advertising images function in particular ways to make us desire the product. Compare and contrast two advertisements that use photography, highlighting the ways they are intended to communicate with their intended audience.

Advertisements are an inescapable element of modern life. They are

everywhere: obvious posters and leaflets on the sides of shops and at points

of sale, billboards on busy roads, in between programmes on commercial

television stations and content on websites, hidden in viral videos on

YouTube, masquerading as articles in newspapers and magazines. They

take the form of photographs in magazines and newspapers and on

billboards, moving images on television and the Internet, audio clips on radio

stations and during podcasts, and as text, logos, and other branding adorning

virtually every consumable in every market. In newer arenas, such as the

Internet, advertisements are even disguised as interactive games or system

warnings, albeit with variable success.

There are numerous motives a company may have for creating

advertisements, such as to promote a particular product line, the brand as a

whole, or a certain mindset beneficial to a company’s goals. The range of

genres within photography that a advertising agency are able to choose from

in order to communicate their clients’ message to their target audience is as

varied as the different motivations for creating these images. In product

photography alone, for instance, there is the ‘clean’ studio style, in which a

product is isolated from a contextual background and is instead lit evenly with

studio lighting and set against a seamless light or coloured background, or

else lit selectively with grids and snoots and set against a darker background

for a moodier, more dramatic feel. Alternatively, some products may be set

against contextual backgrounds and photographed on-set or on-site, as is

often the case with restaurant menus and furniture catalogues. Product

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photos may also be a combination of the two, with meticulously studio-lit

products placed within a separately photographed or rendered location in post

production, or against (or within) abstract backdrops, as with the iconic iPod

advertisements. Different styles of photograph offer different aesthetics that

can be used by photographers and advertising agencies to more effectively

communicate with the intended audience for the advert.

For the purpose of illustration, I have selected two photograph-based

advertisements from separate multinationals. Both images, although

described here in isolation, belong to larger sets of materials for their

respective advertising campaigns. The first is from a campaign by The Coca-

Cola Company advertising their flagship product in 2009-10; the second is

part of the online marketing for the 2007 version of Apple’s iMac desktop

computer. I have purposely chosen two images that are similar in their formal

presentation, in order to show how photographs shot using similar methods

can communicate very different messages to their audiences.

The Coca-Cola advertisement (Appendix A) consists of bottle of Coke with the

text ‘Aaahhh’ formed above it in what appears to be Coca-Cola that has burst

out of the bottle. The image is of the product-on-white style described above,

with a faded reflection underneath the bottle the only indicator that the bottle

may be in a physical space. The bottle is of the uncommon glass variety, is

perspiring and is adorned with small clumps of ice. Coca-Cola branding is

visible in three places: the logo in the top left, the logo on the bottle bottom

centre, and also through the iconic Coca-Cola font that is used for the

‘Aaahhh’ text. The ‘Aaahhh’ text is defying gravity, yet is peppered with

explosive splashes of the type that are created when small items are dropped

into liquid. An extended serif from the ‘A’ in ‘Aaahhh’ underlines the

proceeding letters, and at its terminus morphs into an impression of an open


The Apple advert (Appendix B) follows a similar format – a product shot on a

clean white background, save for subtle shadows underneath the products.

Unlike the Coca-Cola advert, however, Apple’s image does not contain

fantastical elements. It features two subjects: the then current model of iMac,

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and a Dell XPS 410 tower and monitor set. Each subject is equipped with a

selection of peripherals and is shot in what could be considered the ‘profile’

for each product, perpendicular to the front of the monitor. The image

features just two tones, a light grey and a near black, with the same shade of

grey used for a thin line that separates the products, and also for small text

labels underneath the units which state their respective brands and product

names. The iMac is connected via aesthetically wrapped white cables to a

keyboard and mouse; the XPS is connected via an unruly mess of black cable

to a mouse, keyboard, monitor (including a separate cable to the base-

mounted speakers), webcam, and wireless transmitter.

Despite the formal similarities between the two images, the context in which

they would originally have been viewed is significantly different, which is an

important consideration whilst viewing these images out of context. The

Coca-Cola image was intended to be used in print, both in reading material

and on small billboards such as those on the sides of bus stops, and was a

small element in a much larger campaign, which also featured video adverts

on television and before movies at the cinema. It is an invasive type of

advertisement that is forced upon a viewer during a separate activity – i.e.

reading, watching a movie, or waiting for a bus. This contrasts the Apple

image, which appeared on Apple’s website in the guise of an informational

image, and required several mouse clicks to purposefully access, and is not

something that a viewer would have been likely to stumble upon in its original

context if he or she was not already researching into the product. These

differences mean that the images have to function in different ways: the Coca-

Cola advert is viewed incidentally, and must draw the attention of the viewer

through novel imagery – a new type of image for the prospective viewer to

consume. Conversely, the Apple image is something that a potential viewer

must purposefully seek out (despite its potential as a viral image by brand-

loyal Apple consumers reproduced on forums, blogs, and other Internet-based

social channels), and therefore can afford to concentrate less on branding and

brand recognition and more on the benefits of its product.

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Despite their apparent formal similarities, each image is specifically suited to

its individual purpose. The Coca-Cola advert is presented in the portrait

orientation, which makes it ideally suited to fill a single page of an A4

magazine or an entire bus stop billboard, without sharing page real-estate

with other distracting advertisements, guiding the viewer to concentrate solely

on the image’s message. Online images work differently, and Apple’s image

is presented in landscape, as this is the orientation of most computer

monitors. Taking into account the monitor shape, and also the fact that most

web browsers have at best navigation buttons across the top or, at worst,

numerous height-stealing toolbars, Apple’s image is ideally shaped to fit

inside a single browser window without the need for a viewer to scroll.

Although in its original context the Apple image masquerades as an

informational reference, it clearly exists with promotional intent. By directly

comparing its product to that of a competitor, Apple proposes that the viewer

has a free choice in product, which at a basic level is a functional tool, whilst

at the same time clearly positioning its product as the obvious choice based

on its materialistic qualities. This is an effective strategy as, according to two

authors on the subject, Sturken and Cartwright (2009, p.266), “the concept of

consumer choice is central to capitalistic consumer cultures.” The choice of

competitor is also significant – Dell was formed as a small, independently

owned and run business that sold lower-than-retail-cost machines running

Microsoft Windows, tailored with components of the customer’s choice,

directly to the customer. This contrasts Apple’s premium product model of

manufacturing both hardware and software for its products, and optimising its

products to work with a very limited selection of components. Whilst Dell’s

model was initially very successful, by 2006 the company was beginning to

collapse under its own weight, and between 2006 and 2008 the company had

a series of issues with poor customer service and faulty components.

Through this association, Dell becomes the lumbering and ineffective

commercial monster, whilst Apple rises as the nimble and innovative

alternative. This is clearly referenced in Apple’s image through Apple’s

innovative design and considered cable placement, versus their presentation

of the Dell product as cumbersome and unwieldy, mirroring Apple in design

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materials and colour palette but ultimately failing to break from the

conventional. Apple achieves this practically through product photography

alone, without the lengthy marketing copy and the endorsement of perfect,

happy Arian faces and direct commands to buy found in the adverts of the 30s

and 40s, which respects the contemporary independent and advertising-savvy

consumer of 2007.

The idea that businesses have a personality is an important element in the

marketing of many products, and is something explored in the documentary

The Corporation (2003). People tend to anthropomorphise companies and

products with human traits and personalities – IBM is seen as being corporate

and businessman-like, Nike is seen as being young and sporty, and so on.

Through considered advertising, it is possible for a company to change its

personality to break into new markets. For instance, Coca-Cola’s flagship

product started life marketed as a health tonic sold to cure headaches (see

appendix C), but was reinvented as an informal beverage. Both Coca-Cola

and Apple avoid alienating demographic brackets of consumers by not

including images of people in their product images, with the exception of the

lips in the Coca-Cola advert. Because the lips are formed by the product,

they could feasibly represent any race; however, their fullness and soft curves

suggest that they belong to a female, whilst the explosive splashes present on

the text give the impression of excitement and youthful energy. The

unstained and perfectly aligned teeth, along with the fullness of the lips,

present a subtle sexuality that implies that Coca-Cola is the drink of attractive,

sexual people and that, by extension, in consuming it you too will become

attractive. The mouth device is beautifully balanced in that it is prominent

enough to attract males wishing to be ‘kissed’ by the product, and significantly

sexualising of females to infer a sense of empowerment, whilst being subtle

enough to avoid overly objectifying the female.

It can be useful to describe meaningful visual elements in a photograph in the

language of semiotics defined by Ferdinand de Saussure. Although Saussure

was a linguist, his ideas translate well to the realm of photography.

Saussure’s theories, translated for photography, suggest that a ‘sign’ (or

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suggestion) within a photograph is given meaning by consisting of two parts: a

‘signifier’, the element of the photograph itself; and a ‘signified’, which is the

idea that the element represents. In the Coca-Cola advertisement, the lips of

the mouth are parted a little as if it has just received a drink, and roughly

forms a smile, linking the signifiers of the ‘Aaahhh’ and ‘open happiness’ texts

into the signified idea ‘drinking Coca-Cola will quench your thirst and make

you smile’. In addition, the direct link between the product created by the line

‘open happiness’ reveals one of the major driving forces behind capitalism:

the idea of commodity fetishism, and that products are sold as experiences

rather than functional consumables. Drinkable fluids are plentiful commodities

that at a rudimentary level exist as consumables to allow us to live, but in the

context of a contemporary consumerist society also provide social status. This

is described in Practices of Looking – An Introduction to Visual Culture:

“It is commonly understood that commodities fulfil emotional needs.

The paradox is that those needs are never truly fulfilled, as the forces

of the market lure us into wanting different and more commodities – the

newest, the latest, and the best. This is a fundamental aspect of

contemporary consumer culture – that it gives us pleasure and

reassurance while tapping into our anxieties and insecurities and that it

promises what it can never fulfil.”

Sturken and Cartwright (2009, p. 274)

Coca-Cola is effectively marketing itself as bottled happiness, an experience

rather than a product; however, by its definition as a consumable, this

emotional connection is short lived and the product will need to be

repurchased again to maintain this level of psychological comfort. Even the

text, shown as an explosion from the bottle suspended in mid air, has a

fleeting feel to it – a momentary experience that ends when the explosion of

feeling comes crashing down. The advert creates a superficial feeling of lack

in the customer, which the customer is then inclined to purchase Coca-Cola’s

product to fulfil this created need – not only a physical lack of the thirst

quenching and refreshing drink, but also a psychological lack.

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It is a premium product, magnitudes more expensive in monetary value than

tap or rainwater, yet holds added value in cultural capital – it is ‘the original’, it

advertises that you as an individual are young and sexy, and that in drinking it

you are making a conscious image decision. The product is standardised and

despite being a basic commodity and a consumable, through open-ended

adverts that require interpretation by the viewer, it has broad appeal beyond

its physical makeup. This phenomenon of cultural capital as a driver of

commodity fetishism is described by Andy Warhol, who explored Coca-Cola

and other consumables during his career as an artist:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition

where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the

poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know

that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think,

you can drink Coke, too”

Warhol (1975, p .100)

Coca-Cola’s image contains exclusively shades of its iconic red branding, in

contrast to the equally iconic blue of its major competitor, Pepsi – bright, bold

branding in primary colours that is instantly recognisable, like the uniform of

your favourite sports team, and echoed in society and commerce: Roses

versus Quality Street, Visa versus MasterCard, Labour versus Conservative.

The ‘brand war’ phenomenon is an aspect of consumer culture that Apple has

historically used very effectively.

Whilst the inclusion of Dell’s logo in Apple’s advertising image has already

been discussed in relation to how it arouses negativity to the competition

through Apple’s suggestion of alternative consumer choice, the conspicuous

absence of Apple’s own logo is a statement of Apple’s confidence in the

recognition and reputation of its own products. Other companies in the

technology sector, such as Microsoft, Intel, and nVidia – and also in other

markets, such as with Coca-Cola - will often plaster their comparative

advertisements with branding that weight the advertisements in their own

favour. In contrast, in terms of the lack of branding in the Apple image in

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question, the image could almost have been created by a third party if it were

taken out of the context in which it originally appeared. Apple’s confidence in

its own brand is reasonably justified – at the time of the photograph’s

publication, Apple was considered one of the brands that customers felt the

most loyalty to (MacNN, 2006), and more recently one of its commodity

products was voted a more important invention than the flushing toilet or

space flight (Telegraph, 2010).

Apple presents two products, both with the same colour palette: one machine

barely 3 inches thick with just two small and immaculately coiled cables

protruding from it, which are white and fade into the background; the other,

magnitudes larger and consisting of more twice as many components

connected messily via a tangle of unruly black cables. The photographer for

the Apple image has purposefully chosen a competitors product whose design

appears to echo the iMac in choice of finish, but which is presented in a way

that is clearly inferior in terms of elegance and practicality. The Dell XPS is

packaged with a wired mouse and keyboard, same as the iMac, but is also

shown with modular, optional elements to provide functionality equal to that

which the iMac has built into its main chassis; namely: a display, speakers

(mounted under the monitor in the XPS image), a webcam, and an external

WiFi adapter. The aluminium exteriors of these machines suggests sterility

and fine precision engineering – something that is clearly undermined by the

mess behind the Dell, suggesting that the back-end and ‘under the hood’ have

been neglected, placing the iMac as the more considered product.

The message that Apple wishes to convey is that personal computing doesn’t

have to be about complicated setups, bulky hardware, and additional optional

components to provide missing functionality – Apple’s alternative solution

offers everything the user needs as standard, in a standalone package, as

part of the premium products it provides. This is epitomised by the company’s

old slogan, retired by 2007 yet still strongly associated with the company

ethos: ‘Think Different’. The choice of showing the products in profile is also

an unusual decision (although the product was shown front-on in other

images in the series), but showcases the iMac’s sleek aesthetic curves and

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perfect balance on its stand – elevating the product from the realm of the

office drone or the boys toy to something accessible to both male and female,

the design conscious, and the technophobe. The image encourages the

viewer to be dissatisfied with the competition (and, by extension, the

computers that the viewers themselves probably own), and to lust for the iMac

in this case not for any specific functionality, but for its elegance, aesthetic

qualities, and the psychological benefits of considering oneself a cultured,

premium customer who appreciates such refined matters as design.

This final point highlights a significant difference between Apple and Coca-

Cola. Coca-Cola is the market leader, ubiquitous to the point of owning the

generic product name ‘Coke’, whose primary focus is retaining customers and

reminding them that consumption of their product is directly linked to their

happiness; whereas Apple, despite inventing the ‘personal computer’ with

their Lisa and early Macintosh products, command a tiny percentage of the

overall personal computing market, and seek to differentiate themselves

through innovation and the creation of aesthetically pleasing, user friendly

products. Despite the formal similarities between these two advertising

images – both product shots, featuring isolated products taken out of context

and shot against a seamless background - these opposing aims are clearly

evident in the marketing campaigns of both brands.

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The Corporation, 2003 [documentary]. Canada: ACHBAR, Mark, and SIMPSON, Bart. [Distributed by Zeitgeist Films, free to watch on YouTube or download via Torrent].

MACNN, 2006. Apple, Google tops in loyalty survey [online]. MacNN. Available at: [accessed on 26 May 2010].

STURKEN, Marita, and CARTWRIGHT, Lisa, 2009. Practices of Looking - An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

TELEGRAPH, 2010. Britons vote for the iPhone as most important invention ahead of flushing loo and space travel [online]. Telegraph. Available at: [accessed 26 May 2010].

WARHOL, Andy, 1975. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and Back Again). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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BARRETT, Terry, 2006. Criticizing Photographs – An Introduction to Understanding Images, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

THE COCA-COLA COMPANY, 2009. Open Happiness Press Kit [online]. The Coca-Cola Company. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2010].

DUDROW, Andrea, 2000. Notes from the Epicenter: Exploring the Reality Distortion Field [online]. Creative Pro. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2010].

EKMAN, Paul, 2003. Emotions Revealed. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson.

STURKEN, Marita, and CARTWRIGHT, Lisa, 2009. Practices of Looking - An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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A: Advert from Coca-Cola’s ‘Open Happiness’ campaign (Aaahhh)

THE COCA-COLA COMPANY, 2009. Open Happiness Press Kit [online]. The Coca-Cola Company. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2010].

B: Image comparing Apple’s 2007 iMac to the Dell XPS 410

APPLE INC, 2007. iMac Design [online image, cached]. Apple Inc. Cached image available at: [accessed 25 May 2010]

C: Advert promoting Coca-Cola as a health tonic, circa early 1900s

THE COCA-COLA COMPANY, Date unknown (posted 14 September 2009), Coca-Cola - The Ideal Brain Tonic [online image]. The Coca-Cola Company, via The Retroist Blog. Available at: [accessed 26 May 2010].

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Appendix A

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Appendix B

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Appendix C

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