Inthis essay with reference to connotation, detonation and myth I will carry out a semiotic analysis of the 1992 Calvin Klein Underwear Campaign featuring Mark Wahlberg. I will also discuss what the strengths and weaknesses of this approach are. Semioticsis the study of signs; an investigation into how meaning is manufactured and communicated to the audience. Its grass roots originate in the study of how signs and symbols create meaning. A sign is a unit of meaning, however the meaning is manufactured, as there is nothing natural about it. The meaning is usually created from social, historical and cultural constructs and ideologies.
These are broken down into systems.Thesignifier – This represents the actual image, spoken or written word. What can be seen.TheSignified – This represents the mental concept associated with the signifierForinstance, when walking down the street in any western society upon coming across a traffic light which is red (the signifier) we instantly know this means stop (The signified), without even having to think about it. This understanding of the signified is learnt from earliest points of child hood. Unconsciously we have a cultural knowledge of the meaning that is required. Denotationsis all about what can be seen.
So, when walking down the street. We see the traffic light and we can see that it is red. Connotation is the feeling, association and understanding thesign invokes, whether positive or negative. For example the red light connotesthat when seen on the traffic lights that the cars will stop. The Myth could be seen as a “special form of language,which takes up existing signs and makes a new sign system out of them”(Bignall:2002).
With the red traffic light the special form of language isthat it is now safe for the pedestrian to cross the road without the fear ofbeing knocked over, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that all cars willcome to a stop or that it isn’t still possible to be part of an altercationwith a car. Whenanalysing the advert, I have chosen, we can see that a young 20 something, white male. In the advert, he is shown in just a pair of white Calvin Klein boxers, grabbing at his crotch. He is wearing a calvin Klein hat turned backwards. His body is smooth and muscular and he is pouting and frowning aggressively towards the camera Theconnotations are arguably more interesting.
The main two being the dominant ideologies of masculinity & race. Here Calvin Klein portray what then it depicted to be the Alpha male. What it means to be a man. The advert has been predominantly aimed at the White Male and we know this because that is all that is shown. When this campaign was released back in 1992, it played with America’s then and continuing fragility of its ongoingnegative attitude and portrayal of Black men by colliding Wahlberg’s All American “whiteness” with the frisson of black masculinity. Mark grabbing his crotch can be argued toconnote a clear incarnation of black hip hop gestures through a white, boyish innocence. These images are erotically charged, but they are also the result of a pattern of advertising that tenderly danced around America’s fear and desire of black male sexuality, and in this routine every gesture from a smile to the angle of a bulge is highly important.
With his hat turned backwards the way it is, with his lips pouted and the grabbing of his crotch, connotes heavily of the mythologies associated with the style and swag stereotypically associated with the black male and connected to the culture of rap and hip hop and was very iconic of the then poster boy star who at the time was making headlines, Tupac Shakur. The campaign exploits this idea of blackness by giving this innocent white boy a subtly racialized “good boy gone bad” duality. Calvin Klein manages to create ambiguity by its ability to exploit the fantasies of race in a way that was mainstream but quietly transgressive.
Why not push the boundaries and actually just use Tupac? It then briefly gave white performers the thumbs up to indulge in taking on characters that played on all the feared and fantasised myths of aggression and hyper sexuality of the black male, but with the most important aspect missing, which was the very real cultural baggage, surveillance and prejudice that comes with actually being a black male. This continues to be seen till today with stars such as Justin Bieber & Nick Jonas who have both recently recreated this campaign to move away or solidify the ideas of them moving from wholesome “All American” boys to more edgy, grown “bad boys”, via being coded “black”. BeingBlack has its appeals anddesires but only when it comes to sports where they are allowed to be stars, or when it comes to fetishizing of the black male body. What this campaign strongly highlights are the state America was in at the time (and continued to be for many years) when it came to positive and sexual portrayals of the black male body, as it wasn’t until 2007, that the brand actually featured a black celebrity as an underwear spokesman. This wasn’t the case just for Calvin Klein but had been the way since the 1950’s, but how all brands had handle the situation (or didn’t) when underwear began to promote for happiness rather than just health like it had been done during WW2. There was a distinctive lack of the black males in campaigns apart from one 1965 Fruit of the Loom ad that featured a little black boy in briefs alongside 3 different types of White male.
The implications being that perhaps an actual black man would appear “threatening” to the presumed white women who would be purchasing the product for their husbands and sons. This is what would lead to Klein questioning how to recreate the black male physique and characteristics in a “non-threatening” way for white consumers to buy into. When it came to this particular campaign, Wahlberg ultimately attracted a broad audience. “It was a really nice combination — he appealed to women, he appealed to gay men and he appealed to men who wanted to be him,”(NeilKraft:2015) Whenlooked at closer, this advert is loaded with Gay Undertones. At the time and still now this advert stands strongly as an iconic ad amongst the gay community and turned Mark Wahlberg into a Gay Icon.
The ad played into the gay fantasy of the masculine “straight acting” guy, that was moving away from the old pin up of the late70’s and 80’s of the camp “YMCA” Moustached beef cake, to the naughtierghettoised bad boy. This was the pin up of what gay men now either wanted to attain sexually, for relationship or wanted to be like themselves with his perfect gym physique and what appears to be his boyish attitude. Therefore, this advert Bronski felt that adverts especially this one in particularcreated an overbearing ideal amongst the gay community. With porn andadvertising giving a platform where the image is muscular, very white, veryyoung and very clean. This can be seen clearly in this advert. I think it canbe argued that this was no mistake, as Calvin Klein specifically hired BruceWeber, a queer filmmaker and photographer to shoot an earlier underwearcampaign who felt America was “starved for a way to look at men” so chose Tom Hintnaus, a Brazilian-AmericanOlympic pole vaulter, but who was of European descent, therefore had the rightcombination of tanned ethnicity to seem exotic, but safe. Webber says “I took something that was very,very, very easy for me to doing the sense that my feelings about men were veryclear to me and I just photographed what I knew” Bruce Weber’s coded “white gaysensibility” helped this 1992 campaign as it played on the liberation of malesexuality that the earlier 1982 campaign had given America. However, Bronksi commented that “The image is soclean and ultimately so safe and non-threatening that it doesn’t allow for usto explore our sexuality to see what the limits of our fantasies mightbe,” which clearly highlights a huge weakness within the campaign or couldbe said to be an “ironic side effect” for the gay community as that’s where thecommunity’s movement began with a mission of sexual liberation.
In the 1960’sand 70’s many gay men will tell you stories of long, sweaty nights, going toclubs and being surrounded by a plethora of different types of men, all underone roof. From the ones who were into bondage, drag queens, cottaging, “fratboys”, men in uniform, different body types, ages and race. There was a muchwider variety of man and pin up than what is on offer today. The strengths of using a semiotic approach when analysing adverts isthat it gives a much deeper and better understanding of what is being sold.
Allows the potential costumer to not just take the advert on face value andallowd them to understand why this product is being sold to them the way it is.In simple terms it makes you stop and think Whata semiotic approach doesn’t do so well when analysing an advert is thatsemiotics assumes that everybody looking at this ad will interpret the meaningsand understanding in exactly the same way, which is not always the case. Forexample, a black man would decode this campaign completely different to how hiswhite counterpart would.