How the medium affects the message - Consumer Insight
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How the medium affects the message

How the medium affects the message

The purpose of this paper is to show how accounting for the most recent developments in such a qualitative subject as semiology can profoundly alter the patterns of a quantitative discipline such as media planning.

Media planning today is founded on communication models derived from that of Shannon and Weaver, i.e. models which prohibit our accounting for the influence of the actual medium on message perception. Thus, in print media, the evaluation of various magazines is made in terms of target readers, i.e. readers belonging to the relevant target group.

Without wishing to appropriate Mc Luhan’s deliberately provocative formula of « the medium is the message », we simply wish to explain here why, when talking to the same population, the same message will be more, or less, effective according to the title in which it appears.

Because for one and the same product, and with an identical target audience, the impact of the same advertisement can plummet by almost 40 % according to the title which carries the advertisement. In other words, accounting for the medium’s specific input influencing the efficacy of the message appears to be just as important (at least) as the breakdown of readers!

Problematic and methodology

When César Birotteau, Balzac’s celebrated « perfumer merchant », decides to boast the virtues of his « twin sultana pastry » and « carminative water » to attract local customers, he has to make do with placards astutely located in what today we would call his « marketing zone ».

Soon afterwards, Emile de Girardin opened his daily paper to advertising and so made « La Presse » the very first advertising medium(1). Articles and advertisements got along together without any real interference, and the successors to Birotteau bought nothing other than Girardin’s readers, since his prose was of little significance.

From then onwards, media planning made do easily with the multiple communication theories derived from the Shannon and Weaver pattern, represented as follows :

Transmitter > Coding > Message > Decoding > Receiver

When conveying a message to the receiver, the transmitter and the receiver share a common code. So such a pattern implies perfect symmetry between the coding and decoding operations.

From a linguistic standpoint, this pattern appears to hold water. When telling B that « the door is open », A is assuming that B has the same code as he : a glossary and grammar, where « door » is defined as an « opening through which one enters or leaves an enclosed area », and appears to be the subject of a verb in the passive tense.

Now, if B’s code glossary happened to be totally Shakespearian in nature, he would never understand A’s message.


The problem with this sort of pattern is that « the door is open » will have a different meaning according to context. For example: « You can go away, the meeting is over », « Close it, it’s cold in here », « Watch out, there might be a thief around » and many others for which this pattern will never make allowance, whatever the common code shared by A and B.

This is why a certain number of semioticians have recently replaced this pattern with more flexible or more complex notions such as that put forward by Grice, for whom the message has no real intrinsic significance. It is up to the receiver to infer the message from clues.

In « Relevance »(2), Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson point out that « from Aristotle to modern semioticians, all theories of communication have been founded on one and the same model, which we will call the code model. Here, communicating is a question of coding and decoding messages. Recently, several philosophers, including Paul Grice and David Lewis, put forward a wholly different model which we will call the inferential model. In this instance, communicating is a question of producing and interpreting clues. »

« Robert has bought le Figaro » can mean « Robert has bought a copy of le Figaro » or « Robert has bought the firm which publishes le Figaro ».

Sperber and Wilson call attention to the ambiguity of such a phrase, while stating that « under ordinary circumstances, listeners would have no problem choosing one of these two meanings », namely the first.

But if the people conducting this conversation happened to belong to circles close to Robert Hersant, now owner of « the firm which publishes le Figaro », the second meaning would have been the right one.

In both cases, the people present have the same code, i.e. the English language. On the other hand, the context is not the same:

  • in one case, here are two friends wondering about the results of a soccer match: « I don’t know who won, but ask Robert, he has bought le Figaro »;
  • in the other, there are two friends who are in on the negotiations being conducted in secret by Robert Hersant to purchase the newspaper, and the better informed of the two tells his companion: « The deal’s gone through. Robert has bought le Figaro ».

Media planning, whose field of investigation is confined to the numeration alone of opportunities for the reader of a magazine to be exposed to an advertising campaign, will easily make do with the first pattern. However, taking into account the effect of the advertising message on the target group, or at least its proper comprehension, necessitates recourse to the notion of context.

There are numerous forms of advertising treatment which evoke MacLuhan and his provocative « The message is the medium ». Thus, the Publicitor from Brochand and Lendrevie sells out to fashion, saying: « You cannot keep MacLuhan’s theses quiet. »

However, as soon as one reaches the concrete base of media-plan construction, there is not the slightest allusion to the medium or to the context, just your common or garden economies of scale, leverage, affinity and sempiternal GRPs.

Yet, can we really obtain the same perception of one and the same advertisement when this advertisement is inserted in magazines as far apart as « Prima » and « Elle », one a practical weekly full of cooking recipe cards, the other a fashion and beauty periodical full of women who certainly look nothing like housewives? And does the advertisement stay as effective?

Our intention here, is to analyze the influence exerted by different titles, within one and the same medium, on the perception of a given message.

To do so, we will proceed in three stages :

  • Firstly, we shall show how an essentially semiological approach can isolate the specific features of each title, using women’s magazines as our reference subject.
  • We will then apply the same approach to advertising, after using creative groups to define advertising sensitivities and their appropriateness to each title under analysis.
  • Lastly, we shall draw a number of conclusions as to the influence that different titles can exert on the perception of an advertising message. These conclusions will be given experimental validation.

1 – Isolate the specific features of each title

1.1 – Operational principles

There are two adjacent systems of communication in every woman’s magazine: one is editorial, the other relates to advertising.

The originality of this construction is that if, as emphasized by Sperber and Wilson, « communicating is producing and interpreting clues », the clues available to any receiver of an advertisement come, among other contextual sources, from editorial content.

Every analysis of print advertisement communication necessarily implies an analysis of print communication itself.

We do not wish to record all the clues available to the receiver for inferring the significance of an advertisement, rather to examine the clues he or she can deduce from the editorial context of magazines.

For Umberto Eco(3), « a text, as it appears or occurs linguistically, represents a chain of expressive expedients which the receiver has to update ».

Editorial communication, dovetailing linguistic and conventional content, has no effect whatsoever on this updating process. At most, it only complicates things.

The updating of expressive expedients, all part of Grice’s system of inference, operates at four different levels:

Discursive structures, very close to the text in their linearity, and retaining the text’s shifts in tense, digressions and other parentheses: unaware that the old man slain by Oedipus is his father, the spectator looks on with bated breath.

Narrative structures, which reallocate the speech into fundamental patterns and reestablish the time logic of actions. Now aware of the horror of patricide, the spectator realizes the tragedy of Oedipus, cursed by the gods.

Actancial structures, stripped of their individuality, where players exist only through their acts: Oedipus successively holds the role of patricide, triumphant hero and accursed hero, where his father is the instrument of his damnation.

Ideological structures, where the « action structures are vested with values of judgement and (where) roles convey axiological oppositions ». Where the contemporary reader disapproves of patricide and the Freudian analyst detects some sort of complex, Sophocles will condemn the pride of the triumphant hero.

In the « Système de la Mode », Barthes in his analysis of « Elle » and « Jardin des Modes » mentions their phraseology which forms a « connotative message aimed at transmitting a certain vision of the world », phraseology which pursues the ideological structures of Eco. Our analysis will be confined to these ideological structures, conveying permanent values with which readers can be identified.

From one issue to another, the discursive, narrative and actancial structures have their roots in the contingency of issues under review. On the other hand, the underlying ideology at the fourth reading level is perennial, hence the magazine’s obvious predictability.

This explains why the reader of a Christian faith magazine such as « La Vie » certainly does not expect to come across an article in favour of abortion, unlike the reader of a more contentious magazine such as Cosmopolitan.

This first stage, whose objective is to isolate the specific features of each medium, will unwind in synchronic and diachronic form:

  • Approaching issues dealt with over the same period of time by several different magazines, synchronic analysis will strive to point out relevant systems of opposition.
  • Diachronic analyses will only retain the sempiternal differences which consequently appear to be part of the ideology of the title in question.

1.2 – Example # 1: « La Grande Cabriole »

The Bicentennial of the French Revolution produced a considerable number of televised events.

The filming of a TV series entitled « La Grande Cabriole » provided « Femme d’Aujourd’hui » with the opportunity to run a feature article on Nina Campaneez, the director. On the other hand, « Marie-Claire » preferred to interview Fanny Ardant, the leading actress. The two women had not worked together in a television studio since the successful « Les Dames de la Côte » shot some ten years earlier.

Cosmopolitan also featured an interview with Fanny Ardant, but took care not to mention her return to television.

The portrait of Nina Campaneez in « Femme d’Aujourd’hui » was subtitled « The Family Comes First », while « Marie-Claire » quoted: « Madame Bovary was right: you have to be in love with love ».

The choice of actress versus director was of little significance. However, the personalities portrayed by the two magazines – the « spirited and passionate actress » and the « faithful wife » director – came across as essentially discriminatory.

Both articles were built around these two personalities. One was a short, two page story for Femme d’Aujourd’hui, dotted with amusing anecdotes and accompanied by a brief rundown on the career of Nina Campaneez to avoid « losing » the reader.

Marie-Claire, though, featured a much longer and very direct article with provocative prompts from the journalist such as « that is incompatible with what you are saying » and without any real points of reference as to the artiste’s career.

One pictured the smiling face of a very relaxed Nina Campaneez, the other portrayed a very stark photograph of Fanny Ardant : both these iconographical choices were working towards the same construction.

In Cosmopolitan, Fanny Ardant became the « woman out of step with her dreams » who has the « audacity to be ugly ». The dominant photograph was a disturbing portrait of an actress with a fleeting look, a harsh shot with no soft decor or props.

Femme d’Aujourd’hui constructed a world dominated by an in depth need for family achievement, giving readers the image of a totally reassuring world to which they could easily relate, thereby perpetuating values of tradition, permanence and even transcendence.

Marie-Claire was addressing women who are so much more self assured with the ability to assume alone their individuality and sexuality in the face of others: the opinion and judgment of others are given overriding importance.

With Cosmopolitan, there was the additional role played by social status in the building of their ego, a need to attack and shock others.

All three titles in fact « built » their own reader, a woman likely to adhere to what they were saying, what Eco would describe as a « Model »(4). « This is why he (the author) will plan for a Model Reader able to cooperate with the textual updating in the way the author thought it should be done, and able to act in terms of interpretation the way he (the author) acted in generative terms ».

1.3 – Example # 2: Horoscope

Every January, leading magazines publish their annual horoscopes: « astrology is in fashion », said « Biba » in justifying its decision and lambasting all those who continually pour scorn on horoscopes for the way they « classify individuals into twelve clearly defined categories ».

Without questioning the merits of horoscopes (« I hope this article made you more difficult. When someone says to you ‘I am Aries’, don’t classify him or her into one of twelve little boxes, just imagine nine planets crossing the zodiac to show you the many facets of a personality »), Biba gave horoscopes a new form of legitimacy, as did « Vital » with its Astroscope. « This horoscope is unlike any other. It will not label you with immuable destinies but will help you make the most of the year ahead ».

In a word, while knocking the triviality of horoscopes, both Biba and Vital developed a sort of guide for their readers but took nothing away from the myth that still surrounds them.

Cosmopolitan announced a « Future Special »: « The Revolutions of 1990. The scoops of 1989. The stars of the 1990s. Your horoscope for the whole year ». The latter phrase stood out from the rest in sky blue.

The first surprise appeared in the table of contents, where it was clear that the horoscope was not part of the « Future Special » feature; it was included on page 110, devoid of any title or introduction, in a sort of long vertical tab on the right hand page: « Your horoscope for 1989 ». Selling out to fashion is one thing, but there are limits.

« Elle », in successfully bringing together two of the most prestigious names from the world of horoscopes, refuted the unicity and thereby the truthfulness of its zodiac predictions.

There was, in fact, the previously analyzed phenomenon of latching onto fashion, and the pretext here was nothing other than a fashion feature! Leo was a « Vuitton silk scarf or a gold plated snake necklace from Céline. »

Even in selling out to the horoscope fashion, Elle and Cosmopolitan erased any predictability and thereby ignored the guide function developed by Biba or Vital.

1.4 – The world of women’s magazines

These little comparisons allow us to locate the specific features of each magazine and to reconstruct the network of clues to which the reader will relate for her inference of advertisements.

Remember, the point of this document is to analyze the influence of different media on the perception of an advertising message. We have called these networks of clues Reading Moods. A publication’s Reading Mood may also be defined, in dynamic terms, as the influence exerted by a title’s editorial context on the perception of it advertising content.

Each title obviously has its own specific reading mood, although for didactic reasons moods affecting women’s magazines may be pooled into four major families :

Rebellion: titles such as Cosmopolitan or Biba, with readers who are totally liberated and ready to assume or even provoke situations of conflict. They may even be prepared to shock others.

Highly sensitive to fashion, they continually mould their lives to the idea they have of themselves and, of course, to how others see them.

Responsibility: titles such as Marie-Claire or Elle, with very selfassured readers capable of assuming their individuality in the face of the world around them.

While they do not feel the same need to upset or shock as the previous group, their social status plays a fundamental role in the constitution of their ego.

Motherhood: titles such as Prima or Modes & Travaux, where readers find total achievement within the restricted world of the family cell.

They are upholders of values of permanence and cohesion, their children are their major concern, and education is approached in a highly traditional manner.

Wifehood: titles such as Intimité or Bonne Soirée, with readers continually in search of social, family and married couple stability.

In their private lives, they are very dependent, if not on their husbands, then at least on etiquette and rules inherited from tradition. They are not very sensitive to fashion but behave as followers.

The four reading moods of Rebellion, Responsibility, Motherhood and Wifehood are split along an Introversion and Extraversion axis, as illustrated on our map(5):

Extraversion combines the Rebellion and Responsibility moods with titles referring their readers to the image of women who attach prime importance to their social status and of course how they are viewed by others.

Introversion combines the Wifehood and Motherhood moods with titles referring readers to the image of housewives who are more concerned with their homes than with being attractive.

A second axis opposes a pole of Proximity, covering titles with a guide function, similar to what we saw with Biba and Vital, and a pole of Distance, which ignores this function.

2 – Reading moods and advertising

The second stage consists in applying the same semiotic approach to a body of advertisements after defining sensitivities and their appropriateness to the titles under analysis by organizing creative groups.

During these creative groups, we asked participants, all of whom were readers of women’s magazines, to:

  • organize the titles presented to them according to the affinity they considered to exist between each one. The outlines thus produced proved to be very close to those on our own map;
  • locate a number of advertisements on the pattern they had created according to appropriateness with titles presented.

Each advertisement was a complete discursive manifesto, fully updateable on all four levels as defined by Umberto Eco. Thus, at actancial level, the American Express advertisement was interpreted as a story with three actors: a hero, the young man in the foreground, the woman, whom the man is seeking to win, and alongside him, the waiter, absent but obviously necessary to understand the message properly.

Successful in the way he pays (the American Express is accepted by the waiter), the hero unveils himself in the eyes of the woman he is out to win; he becomes « client hors du commun » (a customer with a difference).

At this level of analysis, the message can but function, i.e. secure a positive inference in the mind of the (woman) reader. However, the same reader may, or may not, accept the money values superimposed on this successful story at the fourth and last level, i.e. ideology.

The Radiola advertisement is receptive to the same sort of analysis; however, the values underlying its comprehension at the deepest levels differ completely. The advertisement presents two actors: the washing machine in the role of the hero, and a user, visible only via her arm.

The hero is identified as such by the user because it provides a tangible answer to a question of capabilities in terms of silence: the advertising benefit shifts from ostentation to privacy.

Opposite Radiola, the Miele advertisement refers to an ostentatious benefit shifting it closer to Extraversion. This proves that the comprehension of an advertisement at the final level is in no way dependent on the product presented. It also proves that the appropriateness between an advertisement and a publication is not linked to the product presented but to the values on which it is based.

The Extraversion pole is always surrounded by advertisements in which the views of other people weigh very heavily through values of simple ostentation, like American Express, and through a clearly stated commitment to provocation, as Kookaï.

Closer to the Introversion pole we find advertisements built around clearly utilitarian and private values and tied to product functionality, such as Radiola, or permanence and tradition, such as Groupama.

As for the vertical axis, the Distance pole confronts object related advertisements, centred on the product, with the Proximity pole and advertisements that are more subjective and centred on the consumer.

3 – Reading moods and advertising efficacy

3.1 – The influence of the Reading Mood

Our intention is to deal with the advertising message and more particularly with the influence several different vehicles may exert on its perception within one and the same medium: for instance women’s magazines.

We have seen that the reader of an advertisement did not decode it mechanically using a process symmetrical to the way it was coded by the transmitter. On the contrary, the meaning is inferred from the sum of clues at his or her disposal.

These clues stem equally from the actual message and from the communicational context taken as a whole, including therefore the editorial content of magazines.

Hence a first stage during which we attempted to locate a system of relevant semiotic oppositions between titles, each title being identifiable as a contextual source or a reservoir of clues from which the reader has to draw in order to infer the meaning of an advertisement.

We have called this editorial context or reservoir of clues – specific to each title – the Reading Mood.

We also saw that, while there is a special reading mood to match each particular title:

  • Each title is also matched by a number of specific advertising needs,
  • And the values which help differentiate advertising messages appear to be very close to the values differentiating the titles.

From this, we can deduce:

  • At the very least, a powerful convergence between editorial and advertising dichotomies, with a substantial overlap of the values making up both worlds.
  • And much more so, a strong influence of editorial context on advertising concept.

Indeed, the reader expects the clues conveyed by the actual advertising message to coincide with those conveyed by the message’s context, hence the powerful convergence between editorial and advertising dichotomies.

Thus, the American Express advertisement, where the views of other people weigh heavily through values of ostentation, will fit much better into a title such as Elle or Madame Figaro, where the reader’s social status plays a fundamental role in the constitution of one’s ego.

Thus, the Groupama advertisement, built around more private values tied to product permanence, will certainly be expected in titles such as Modes & Travaux and Prima, which convey the same values.

This kind of convergence between editorial and advertising dichotomies spawns a high rate of advertising predictability for every Reading Mood. In other words, an advertisement already has a certain significance from the very fact that it happens to be inserted in such and such a magazine, independently of real content.

From this advertising predictability tied to Reading Moods, we may consider four different situations:

An advertisement poor in significance, where the product is merely presented with no commentary or marked rhetorical effects, according to what Georges Péninou(6) describes as the « exposure pattern »: « In the absence of phrases, exposure thus corresponds to degree zero of object illustration: a simple tribute to its being there, an imitative reproduction of its shape, conformity between presentation, representation and image ».

To infer the significance of this form of advertisement, the reader will draw clues essentially from its context: comprehension will be formed primarily with the help of its Reading Mood.

An advertisement rich in significance or over-significance, inserted in a title with a « relatively » neutral Reading Mood. Here, the items inherent in the message will have the upper hand over the items composing the Reading Mood.

As we have seen, there is of course no true Reading Mood that can be described as really neutral. However, a very rich advertisement will come across as less disturbed by the Reading Mood of the most centrally located titles on each map, halfway between Extraversion and Introversion, such as Marie-France, or halfway between Individualism and Solidarity, such as Le Figaro Magazine.

A divergent advertisement, where advertising values repudiate the values tied to the Reading Mood. Certainly, the message’s inherent significance will logically override contextual clues, but the risk of narcosis is high.

Indeed, the time the reader spends comprehending advertising is very short. In the event of blatant contradiction between his or her expectations and the predictability tied to the Reading Mood and the reality of the message itself, the message will lose its intelligibility, be put on the back burner and fail to be memorized: it will suffer from an effect of narcosis.

« If an intelligible event arises, it surprises. Then, either the mental system attempts to change and assimilate the event, or it numbs, chokes and finally rejects the event. There is therefore a selection process, the counter effect of which is rejection, leading to obliteration, i.e. oblivion »,(7) remarks Edgar Morin.

A convergent advertisement, where editorial and advertising values converge perfectly: this is the ideal situation, where the Reading Mood reinforces the significance of the advertisement.

Thus, l’Express refers us to the image of individuals who are particularly sensitive to how others view them, just like the American Express or Rover advertisements. Modes & Travaux refers to the image of women who prefer tradition and naturalness, attracted by products such as Herta or Yves Rocher.

3.2 – Experimental Validation

Depending on the Reading Mood of the magazine in which it features, one and the same advertisement will logically see its advertising efficacy increase or decrease.

We shall now try and validate this result through observation: from the very many evaluation criteria available, we have selected impact through recognition score.

Why impact and not approval or change in image? Simply because this is the most commonly used criteria. However, the same exercise may be made using criteria of image, purchase inducement, etc…

For this last stage to be successful, we used twenty advertising post­tests conducted independently from our own research by the Démoscopie Institute. These tests were targeted twice over in order to select only:

  • Interviewees perfectly appropriate to the advertising target audience,
  • Interviewees having had the opportunity to be exposed at least once to the media plan: hence a second filter relating to reading habits.

The interviewees who were questioned necessarily belong to the target audience of one or more titles in the media plan. The recognition score specific to each title was deduced by cross referencing recognition scores and reading habits.

Of the twenty posttests analyzed, all gave concordant results. The two I shall be presenting concern firstly an advertisement for up market beauty products from Jeanne Gatineau, appearing in Modes & Travaux, Marie-Claire, Elle, Madame Figaro and Cosmopolitan.

The second is an advertisement for a brand of domestic appliances, Radiola, published in Modes & Travaux, Prima, Actuelle and Elle.

The Gatineau advertisement, highly elitist, transforms the product, presented majestically as a sign of social recognition. Women who buy this brand of beauty product primarily gain satisfaction from the way they are viewed by others, hence a Reading Mood combining Extraversion and Distance.

Bear in mind that the mood of the previously analyzed advertisement for Radiola was distinctly Introvert.

The recognition score for Jeanne Gatineau ranged from 53.4 % to 33.3 %, from Cosmopolitan to Modes & Travaux. The Radiola ad scored from 38 % to 28.4 % from Modes & Travaux to Elle. In both cases, these scores perfectly matched the preceding analyses.

In other words, the efficacy of an advertisement depends very tightly on the Reading Mood of the title in which it is published.

Paper Published in: Seminar on Qualitative Research – Esomar, 7th-9th November 1990.

(1) Usurped fatherhood, as newspaper advertising existed before the launch of « La Presse ».

(2) Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson, « Relevance », 1989.

(3) In Lector in fabula.

(4) In Lector in fabula.

(5) This map was produced after a detailed semiological analysis of leading women’s magazines as per the methodology defined hereinabove. The items we located were then crossed and analyzed with the reading habits of the various titles concerned.

(6) Georges Péninou: « Intelligence de la Publicité », Robert Laffont, Paris 1972.

(7) Edgar Morin, Sélection, Réjection in Communications 49, Paris, Seuil 1989.


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