Thursday, December 6, 2007

Semiotic Analysis of Gender in Diesel’s “Fuel for Life” Print Advertisements

How does one promote the use of a product such as perfume by both men and women despite its traditional association with the feminine? Diesel’s marketing campaign for its latest fragrance “Fuel for Life” connects its product with certain human universalities (what it means to be alive and particularly, sexual escapades) while still establishing a clear division between the masculine and feminine roles within those broader themes. The two print advertisements presented, one promoting its product to men and the other to women, create and convey meaning concerning differences in gender roles in a larger social context predominantly through the inclusion of paradigmatic visual cues and differing choices made between them in the positioning of elements, both representational and linguistic.

The presentations of signs in the two advertisements create meaning because signs are “something which stands to somebody for something in respect of capacity” and are therefore situational. (Pierce via O’Shaughnessy, 118) Presentation of both solely male and solely female depictions between the two images create and convey particular meaning due to their relation to one another. This relational meaning concerning gender is most obviously presented through a system of binaries.

The first image presents a male figure that stands rigid and upright, seemingly self-aware and self-assured. His body is slightly tanned, appearing rough and well-defined with an obvious amount of body hair which creates a trail leading the viewer to his genital area. He addresses the viewer directly and unabashedly, however the viewer is unable to gaze back at him as he remains enveloped in shadow. He wears clothing that seems to have a working function, a white button down shirt with an open vest, tucked loosely inside his jeans. His shirt is unbuttoned, allowing the viewer to see his torso, but one gets the sense that he has chosen to leave it unbuttoned and has the power to choose to cover himself again should he desire.

The second image depicts a female who seems to be a nostalgic motif of a cabaret performer, “dressed-up, made-up, [a] glossy ‘surface,’ holding the eye in fascinated distraction away from the mechanics of production.” (Mulvey, 12) She is looked at as if on display on stage or as a poster pin-up in a provocative and flirtatious pose that she makes to please the viewer. Her body is curvy and soft with smooth pale, skin, suggesting she dwells indoors. These qualities are also signs typically associated with weakness or sickness, heightening a sense of feminine frailty and perhaps subtly referencing a state of being confined to bed. Although she may not be deathly ill, she seems to know her place. Her long neck curves to the side in a captured moment of vulnerability, drawing up images of gothic fetish and vampires. She is shown with open arms in a very artificially contrived yet still flower-like manner. Her clothing is made to be revealing, clearly not made for a practical function outside of pure décor as one senses that her dress could rip very easily, a detail inclusion implies a narrative to follow.

For the woman, the perfume bottle is set aside, presented as if it were a potion as a means to attract and receive. The bottle itself is presented much like the woman: lacey, delicate, soft and transparent. It is a decorative accessory, existing only to be enjoyed. The man, however, wields his bottle as if it were a weapon, as a means to take action or to go forth and take the object of his desire. The bottle is covered in rough and weather worn, dirty leather, suggestive of a canteen or flask taken on adventures. It is opaque with a solid textured body, serving a function.

The placement of the product itself within the advertisement stylistically creates and conveys meaning through its relative position to the other elements in the text while drawing attention toward certain features while away from others. In the female image, the bottle is centrally placed at the bottom creating a line that follows the fabric strewn between the woman’s legs and the daringly long beaded necklace whose end lies in the viewers imagination and up through major sexual points of the body, including the genital region, the nipples, and the provocatively open mouth lined in dark red lipstick, a color associated with passion. This central line that pulls the figure down and visually secures her to the bed and the product is clearly sexual in nature. In contrast, the male figure is shown with the bottle placed directly over his genital region as if likening the product to his sex organs, a synecdoche for man himself. It is seen as tool to be used with a powerful function. Placed directly near his belt buckle, it is as if suggesting the bottle can be used as a tool to pry it open, the image of unbuckling of the belt buckle as the beginning to a traditional sexual narrative.

The catch phrase presented with the product reads “finally legalized,” which establishes a sense of mystery and danger within both texts. When placed in context with the male figure however, one is more likely to think of this illegal something as if it were a weapon of sorts. When placed in the context of the posing woman, it seems to draw up connotations with underground vaudeville and, when considered in addition to the phrase “use with caution,” (which is presented much larger and of central focus here than in the male text) the idea of using that which is presented (the openly displayed female) conjures up thoughts of prostitution. Making both a visual and linguistic allusion to cabaret girls or prostitutes unites the image of woman with a commodity because they become a form of femininity that has been fetishized. According to Mary Louise Roberts, the woman depicted represents “woman-as-image rather than image-of-woman” because she is removed from a clear referent. (Roberts, 828)

The background in both images is that of a gradient black, serving as a visual metaphor for night, connotative of mystery, shadow and allure. It is further suggestive of an opportunity for particular action as the night is considered time in which anything can happen. The particular positioning of the light within this black ground differs between the male and female images. The head of the male figure is highlighted, where the head is a metonymy for the mind and a synecdoche for an individual’s whole self. The head of the female figure is surrounded by darkness, but her lower torso and genital area is highlighted. Where the male figure is a thought-processing person, presented as mindful (with intentions and capabilities for decisiveness,) the female is mindless, an object that receives something of a physical quality, in essence: a thoughtless sex toy.

The factors in both images come together to suggest a similar main signified concept concerning the use of the product as an enabler for receiving or achieving of something desired. However, the nature of this desired something is presented in a manner which suggests that it is different for a man than it is for a women. It is suggested that the product would enable a man to do whatever it is that he chooses (assumedly in life) by providing power and energy to do so. This may be engagement in sexual activity, however it need not be. The male figure, a representative sign for any male which allows the viewer to place themselves in his place, is shown without a provided background, suggesting that he can be placed in an extensive list of interchangeable possible scenarios in which he is attempting to arrive at his point of desire, whatever that might be. The female figure, however, is depicted in an unmistakably flirtatious and sexual pose within a scene of draping satin suggestive of a bed of seduction. Her narrative has already been decided for her. She is limited to a desire that is sexual in nature. In addition, the viewer feels a certain visual tension and constriction that is not present in the male image in the sense that if she were to move, her whole physical space would unravel. (This difference, although not present in the print advert, is interestingly supported further in descriptions of the product found on Diesel’s website which names the male version an “energy potion” and the female as a “sexy elixir.”)

In addition, it must be noted that masculinity and femininity are culturally manufactured myths. In the given advertisements, the images seem to play off what could be visually associated with historical motifs of man and woman, suggesting to the consuming audience that the oppositional image depictions of gender hold as natural and true because they seem to have maintained from what ‘has been’ and will likely retain itself in what ‘will be.’ Although there is a suggestion that the depictions of gender in Diesel’s “Fuel for Life” advertisements are presented as if natural and given, there is also quite some room for ambiguity. By maintaining a certain complexity and mystery in its meaning, the texts avoid being too simple and dull to the reader yet still provide a clear enough relationship between the signifiers and the signified to remain credible. According to Edward McQuarrie and David Mick, “the initial ambiguity is stimulating, and the subsequent resolution rewarding. Texts that allow multiple readings or interpretations are inherently pleasurable to readers.” (McQuarrie, Mick, 40) Perhaps one can say that through its various constructions and conveyances of meaning, the product and its gender specific advertising texts are concerned mainly with one thing: Pleasure.


Berger, Arthur A. Media Analysis Techniques. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2005. 3-30.

Hawkesworth, Mary. "Confounding Gender." Signs 22 (1997): 649-685.

McQuarrie, Edward F., and David G. Mick. "Visual Rhetoric in Advertising: Text-Interpretive, Experimental, and Reader-Response Analyses." The Journal of Consumer Research 26 (1999): 37-54.

Mulvey, Laura. "Some Thoughts on Theories of Fetishism in the Context of Contemporary Culture." October 65 (1993): 3-20.

O'shaughnessy, Michael, and Jane Stadler. Media and Society: an Introduction. 3rd ed.New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 111-138.

Roberts, Mary L. "Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture." The American Historical Review 103 (1998): 817-844.

[fall 2007]

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