Deceptive Discourse in Advertising

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

20 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Part I: Decoding Advertisements
2.1 The semiotic structure of a product
2.2 Visual images and Intertextuality
2.3 Perception of deception
2.4 Semiotics used in advertising images
2.5 Effects on viewers
2.6 Advertisement structure
2.6.1 The outer and inner textual frame
2.6.2 Analysis of outer & inner textual frame in e-sixt advertisements
2.6.3 The pragmatic advertisement frame
2.6.4 Masked advertisements
2.7 Rhetorical figures in advertising

3. Summary

4. Bibliography

1 Introduction

The Art of War, written more than 2000 years ago by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, is arguably still the most important work on the subject of strategy today. Although it was originally written for the military elite of Sun Tzu’s time period, this treatise has been absorbed also by others of influence - from the fearless samurai in feudal Japan to the shrewd business leaders of the 21st century. Especially in marketing competition, The Art of War has become one of the most popular business books, as the principles are timeless and true, the words pragmatic and universally applicable to any situation that requires absolute victory - like in the field of product marketing and advertising.

Hence, the perception prevails that marketing is warfare. However, what are the arms used to wage this war? The answer can be found turning to Sun Tzu (The Art of War, 800 B.C.) again, he says: “Warfare is one thing. It is a philosophy of deception”

This suggests that in marketing, as well as in warfare, deception is widely accepted as a legitimate tool to evoke desired reactions. However, as Sun Tzu’s stratagem would be politically incorrect in marketing issues, the term deception has been refined in sales talk and the concept is now generally referred to as ‘controlling the market’s perceptions’.

As print and television advertising is the mainstay in sales strategy, the paper in hand detects the persuasive elements and deceptive techniques which are presently used to achieve ultimate market control.

While the first part of this paper aims at exploring deceptive techniques through a mostly semiotic frame, focusing on automobile advertisements present in Germany in 2001 and 2002, the second part of this paper examines the role of psychological components in television advertising.

2 Part I: Decoding Advertisements

2.1 The semiotic structure of a product

Adverts have become increasingly complex and sophisticated. Due to the large scale production of goods there is an increased need to create a market for products that people do not really need. Furthermore, there are so many similar products and so many competing brands that advertisers cannot rely merely on rational arguments to sell their goods. The answer to this problem is to differentiate products not only from a technological but also from a non-technological perspective. In order to achieve this, marketers investigate the semiotic structure of a product, only then can they meet the unconscious physical and psychological consumer needs. Following Ferdinand de Saussure’s model, Greimas and Courtés (1982:299-301), developed their own semiotic paradigm, according to which every product consists of a signifier and a signified.

The signifier contains concrete components, like material, technology, design, color or brand name to satisfy consumers’ rational needs, while the signified satisfies physical and psychological needs and gives a product its denotative and connotative meaning. In this content, the term denotative describes the functional meaning of a product, while the term connotative contains the non-material, imagistic meaning assigned to a product.

In example 1, the above-mentioned theory is illustrated. Four different advertisements for the smart, an automobile brand of DaimlerChrylser, have been analyzed under the aspect of the semiotic structure. The signifier is made up of the general idea given in the pictures: the smart is a small, mobile car, designed single-mindedly for two people, with an unmistakable design and a big volumetric capacity.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

example 1 – smart

The signified, i.e., the denotative meaning is presumably: efficient, roomy, functional car for which parking space can be found anywhere; thus, the smart meets the standard physical needs for a means of transport. The psychological component, contained in the connotative meaning and conveyed in the pictures, can be described as: driving the smart is fun, it places you in the limelight, gives you a spirited appearance, and distinguishes you from the average.

The message of this advertising campaign is clearly focused on the connotative meaning, there is no information given about engine power, price and gasoline consumption. After all, marketers know that it is in most cases the emotional component which is the decisive factor when a product is bought, the choice between one car and another is mostly a decision from the heart, therefore, it is best to address the consumer’s sensory perception. Design, colors, brand names, taste, smell or tactile qualities of a product are thus focused on.

2.2 Visual images and Intertextuality

Noteworthy in the above-mentioned examples is the fact that the brand name is not mentioned in the pictures. After all, the brand name, the company name or logo are the least minimal verbal message which can be used to promote a commodity.

The phenomenon that viewers interpret the advert nevertheless correctly, is explained by the concept of intertextuality, which was first formally introduced by Julia Kristeva. She argued against the concept of a text seen as an isolated entity which operates in a self-contained manner. Instead, every kind of text formation and interpretation is influenced by the creator’s and audiences’ prior knowledge of other texts, cultural conventions and individual associations.

However, also visual images can produce intertextuality. This is evidenced in the advertisements for the smart, where only a photograph is depicting the commodity. This is rather rare, yet works if previous campaigns have indicated the brand name and thus provided the intertextual frame which now determines the interpretation of the advertisement. Although missing in the textual surface, the brand name can then be inferred by the reader from the intertextual knowledge built up in these previous campaigns. Otherwise, the text could not have been understood as an advertisement.

In respect to the semiotic paradigm, the extraordinary design of the smart must then be described as the signifier.

2.3 Perception of deception

Regarding the stressing of non-technological, namely psychological components in the examples above, it is contentious whether this technique can already be called deceptive. According to its 1993 Policy Statement on Deception, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which is the primary regulator of deceptive advertising in the United States, considers a marketing effort to be deceptive if

“(1) there is a representation, omission, act or practice, that (2) is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances […]”

Although the addressing of psychological components contains a strong persuasive and deceptive element, it is regarded as a legitimate tool for an increase in sales as it is finally the reader’s mind which is leading him/her astray, the advert just addressing subconscious needs and ideas.

In comparison, other forms of advertising, which may work with outright fakery and illusion, are indisputably deceptive. This is the case when products are shown which are cosmetically altered to seem more appealing, when raw turkeys are made to look baked and delicious with food coloring, or when gelatin deserts are made denser than the real thing, so they will look firm and symmetrical.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Deceptive Discourse in Advertising
LMU Munich  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
Empirical Linguistics: Deceptive Discourse
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
1028 KB
Deceptive, Discourse, Advertising, Empirical, Linguistics, Deceptive, Discourse
Quote paper
Stephanie Helmer (Author), 2002, Deceptive Discourse in Advertising, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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