Your Mother Wouldn't Like it!

Laura's Essay
The semiotic approach to analysing texts focuses on the social production of meaning from sign systems. Semiotics is able to deal with a single text rather than the large scale patterns that empirical sociology uses as its focus and is a theoretical approach rather than an academic discipline It is devoted to analysing how meaning systems produce meanings, myths and connotations via texts. Semiotics are especially used as a means of analysing forms of popular culture, especially literature, cinema, publicity, photography and television. It is in this context that I hope to use semiotics to analyse two visual and static texts.

My texts that I am going to attempt to analyse are two examples of advertisements for the same product, MG sports cars. The first case is an ad for an MG Midget from a 1971 magazine, the second case is an advertisement for a MGF, the nineteen-nineties equivalent. I hope to compare and contrast these two texts with the aim of discovering whether any variance exists in the manner in which the product is marketed over a space of twenty seven years. I hope to assess the symbols and signs used in both ads to discover any changes in the indexical meanings, ideology and social significance that the advertisers hope to connote.

YMWLI - Click for larger image
1971 MG Midget Advert
Romantic Sunset - Click for larger image
1998 MGF Advert

Advertising has become an enormous industry and something that permeates every aspect of our lives. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements everyday, either by the sides of the streets that we walk down, in the magazines we read or broadcast into our homes in the form of television or radio. Large organisations and companies can spend millions of pounds on advertising campaigns. It is no wonder that it has become an important indicator of our society's norms and values and a major influence on the meaning and belief systems that exist within our society. Every magazine advert is rich with signs that have attached meanings and connotations it is these meanings that the advertisers rely on to make the consumer desire the product, as Bignell states; 'The semiotic analysis of advertising assumes that the meanings of ads are designed by their creators to move out from the page, to shape and lead significance to our experience of reality. We are encouraged to see ourselves, the products which are advertised, and aspects of our social world, in terms of the mythic meanings which ads draw on and help to promote.' (Bignell 1997, P.33). The aim of adverts is to engage the reader in their structure of meaning that have to be decoded and interpreted. Readers enjoy deciphering codes of meaning and feel involved in the process.

Despite being divided by 27 years the two images I have chosen to analyse are surprisingly similar, although they achieve their goals in different ways. The first example from 1971 has the image of a couple talking outside a trendy shop with a MG Midget parked in the foreground. The ad has the caption 'Your Mother wouldn't like it' (also the ads title) across the centre of the page. The second example from last year is entitled 'Romantic Sunset' and features a couple sitting in a MGF. Most of the image is made up of the deep orange sunset. The only text included in the ad are the words 'Copyright 1924 MG Sports Cars.' (not included in the facsimile on page 7 of this project). Both ads appear to be targeting the same social group, that of young professional males (although the target group of the first ad are probably the parents of the second ads target group). The 1998 ad was run in so called 'new-lad mags' such as Maxim and FHM whose readership group is mainly twenty-something single males with large disposable incomes.

The Midget advertisement's famous slogan of 'Your Mother wouldn't like it' effectively appeals to the target audience and has a number of connotative meanings which help to create an image for the car and the type of person that would own one. Social status, membership of particular social groups, and our sense of our special individuality, are all signified by the products that we choose to consume. This is particularly true of cars, an individual's choice of car leads others to make an instant, and possibly even permanent assumptions about the type of person they are. It is this that advertisers wish to play on, portraying their products as the consumable that will create a positive image. The Midget ad was released at a time when the generation gap was widening. The younger generation of the sixties and seventies were eager to prove themselves as different to their parents. The music of the period was still greatly dominated by the Beatles, John Lennon released 'Imagine' in the October of 1971, people were growing their hair long and wearing flairs. The phrase 'Your mother wouldn't like it' was probably a familiar one to many of the people in the target group. The fact that 'your mother wouldn't like it' is not presented as a reason against buying a Midget, but rather as an incentive, if you buy an MG it will rile your parents and their disapproval makes the MG all the more attractive. The slogan is more ambiguous than that though. It is not specified exactly what it is that your mother wouldn't like, it could be the car (which is also a rebellious shade of orange) the fact that you shop at the groovy shop in the back ground or it could be the girl perched on the side of the MG chatting. The central character in the photograph is a man in his early twenties in fashionable clothes, he is the kind of person that the targeted group would identify with, or wish to be like themselves. He is sharing a joke with a young woman sitting on the side of the car in a manner that echoes the car advertisements of the past. The picture seems to imply that owning a Midget makes you popular with women. The girl in the ad is black, maybe another indicator that the type of person who owns a MG is modern and progressive, some thing else his mother wouldn't approve of.

Although targeted at the same social group (but a generation later) the 1998 advertisement takes a very different approach. The 1971 ad shows a large group of fashionable people admiring and appreciating the MG Midget whilst the 1990s version depicts just two people enjoying a sunset in solitude. The advert does not present the whole car, in actual fact only the outline of the wind screen of the roofless car can be seen. It is expected that the reader has some prior knowledge of the MGF, that he doesn't need to see a detailed image of the car. This maybe because the 'Romantic Sunset' ad was part of the second wave of advertising after the initial release of the MGF in 1996. The original advertising campaign was accompanied by intense media interest, the result being that the MGF was well known and easily recognised by the time 'Romantic Sunset' was released. The purpose of the ad is not to make consumers aware of the product, but to distinguish it from other sports cars that are available.

The 1998 advertisement makes the seventies version look rather cluttered, it doesn't have much of anything in it except the enormous sky. We can see the outline of the car with the sunset reflected in its unflawed paint work and we can see the silhouette of a couple sitting in the car, their faces are hinted at in the wing mirrors and in the rear view mirror but other than that nothing can be seen of them. More important than the actual content of the picture is the feeling that it creates. The woman is leaning across the car closer to the man indicating intimacy and closeness between them, the image seems idyllic and peaceful, the colours are comforting and the whole thing seems very romantic. The accompanying text 'Copyright 1924 MG Sports Cars' at first seems inconsequential but on closer inspection connotes many different things. This type of disclaimer is usually in the small print of an advertisement it is easily recognisable but is not usually read. In this advert its status has been enhanced, it is the only written information on the page, except a telephone and internet contact. The main aspect of the image is not the car but the sunset and the situation. This implies that it is the sunset that MG hold the copyright to. A romantic sunset sitting in a MG is the 'copyrighted' version, it is the original and a romantic sunset in any other car would not be an imitation and not as good. By including the date 1924 the text connotes the history of the car company, it demonstrates that MG have been making sport cars for people to sit and enjoy sunsets in for a long time, implying again that they are the best and of the finest quality. This is in contrast to the advertisement from 1971 where the MG sports car was portrayed as a car for young people, a car that older people would disapprove of. The 1971 ad does allude to the classic nature of their cars, but in a more subtle way. Next to the MG logo the by-line reads 'The Great British Sports Car' (illegible on the facsimile on page 7) Great not only describing the MG as a sports car from Great Britain, but one that is 'great

Both the advertisement from the seventies and the nineties make extensive use of signs and their meanings to promote the sports car as a desirable commodity and to connote the type of person who would own one. The example from the 1990s especially relies on the interpretation of symbols as it contains no information about the product more detailed than the price and doesn't even include the car itself in any detailed form. There are two main problems associated with the interpretation of meaning from signs in advertisements. Firstly there is all ways ambiguity associated with the meanings that are attached to signs and secondly real readers decode signs in different and individual ways, which produces a number of effects. It is not entirely possible to state how a sign is interpreted because every sign has a number of interpretations. All signs do not exist independently but as a part of a wider system. To analyse the way that the signs within an ad work you have to remove it from its context. The semiotic approach also requires the analysts to look much more closely at the meanings of an ad than an ordinary reader would. Often the deep analysis of a text leads you to read much more into signs than a casual observer would which can render the whole exercise useless. In terms of my own analysis I feel that placing the texts in the context that they were intended to be seen in could have furthered my understanding of the signs and their preferred interpretation. This is especially true of the first example, 'Your Mother wouldn't like it' from a 1971 magazine. Because of the source that I used to gain this extract (it was from an MG enthusiast's internet website ) I wasn't able to compare it to the other ads within the magazine or the magazine itself.


Bignell, J. (1997) Media Semiotics: An Introduction,
Manchester Univ. Press.

O'Sullivan, T. et al (1994) Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies,
Routledge, London

MG Owners Club, Cambridge Branch Website;

The University of Nottingham