Part four — Exercise 4.1

Part four — Exercise 4.1

The blog post ‘Looking at Adverts: 17’ (Woolley, 2017) examines the advertising that surrounds the beauty industry, in particular that aspect that relates to the attempt to slow or even arrest aging, at least its outward manifestations. All advertising can be ‘decoded’ in one way or another — it is interesting that Roland Barthes used an advertisement to illustrate his concept of the ‘rhetoric’ of an image (Barthes, 1977), explaining:

We will start by making it considerably easier for ourselves: we will only study the advertising image. Why? Because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible. If the image contains signs, we can be sure that in advertising these signs are full, formed with a view to optimum reading: the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic (Barthes, 1977: 32).

Without undertaking a semiotic analysis Woolley suggests that advertisements for anti-ageing cosmetic products offer an example of how science, nature and myth are often combined. The word ‘myth’ is used in its modern context:

The word [myth] once referred to stories that told hallowed truths, which as believers we took on trust. Now in common usage, it refers to a tissue of more of less amusing lies, like the urban legends about albino alligators splashing in the Manhattan sewers or the pirate’s treasure buried somewhere … The lost art was recovered by the writers of advertising copy, who had a sly awareness of its fictionality. Ancient myths were theological; although their contemporary equivalent are commercial, the products they tout still pretend to purvey spiritual truths (Conrad, 2016: 14).

The author of the above passage could have had in mind, as he wrote, the advertisements cited by Woolley (see fig. 1. and fig. 2.). Wooley observes that the products contain, along with the mythic ‘drops from the fountain of youth’, stem cells extracted from marine plants. This combination of myth and science makes the science more credible and illustrates Judith Williamson’s point that ‘all consumer products offer magic, and all advertisements are spells’ (Williamson cited by Woolley, 2017).

A photographer who attempted to break such spells and expose the ‘commercialism and venality of contemporary life’ (Grundberg, 2006) was Robert Heinecken (b. 1931). For example in his ‘most influential body of work’ (Grundberg, 2006) ‘Are You Rea’ (1966-67) he ‘superimposed upon ads for stockings and woman’s razors a picture of a Vietnamese soldier holding up two severed heads, then inserted the new images into fashion magazines on the newsstands’ (Goldberg, 2010: 170). The images were intended to shock the viewer, to shock them awake: ‘something terrible is going on out there while you’re wondering whether your legs are sufficiently silky’ (Goldberg, 2010: 170).

John Berger makes a similar, basically political, point when he gives as illustration a page from a magazine containing the unintended juxtaposition of a photographic advertisement for bubble bath with that of a news photograph of an desperately impoverished family (Berger, 1972: 152). Berger sees this and similar juxtapositions, because they occur unplanned, as symptomatic of an underlying societal malise.

Unlike the advertisements for stockings, woman’s razors or bubble bath (above) the mixture of science, nature and myth as exemplified in the anti-aging advertisements is not employed in selling a product, or even a life-style, but something broader and deeper. Would a strategy of superimposing news photographs on these advertisements shock as did those by Robert Heinecken (above) in the 1960s? Heinecken wanted ‘reality’ to intrude on the viewer, and Berger’s point (above) was that the bourgeois consumer of bubble bath was indifferent to (and was being made indifferent to) the material reality of those less fortunate around them. Behind both works is the assumption that there is a baseline consensus reality that can be brought, sometimes with difficulty due to distraction or wilful ignorance, to a viewer’s attention.

In this regard a 1991 work by John Baldessari — ‘Beach Scene/Nuns/Nurse (with Choices)’ — (see fig. 3.) may be a response that echos Heinecken’s work (above) from the ‘60s:

Drawing from a wide lexicon of appropriated and altered stills from B-movies in concert with painted dots over the faces of models or actors to shield identity and make universal, the theatrically scaled 92 by 144-3/4-inch polyglot work recalls the symmetrical structure of an altar.  Indeed, Baldessari almost demands that the viewer deal with the ethical and moral choices of contemporary existence by contrasting age-old themes in his images.  The altruism of a Red Cross nurse in a hospital (top image) compliments the compassion of two nuns with hands tented in devotion (actually the identical photograph used twice but flipped).  The nuns however, bookend the largest image in the grouping, which is a bikini-clad woman embracing the more frivolous pleasures of being held across the muscled chests of three macho body-builder types.  Hanging at an angled tilt, a fifth image, of a woman’s bejeweled and manicured hand, gestures to a lineup of six precious gemstones.  … contrast between selflessness and narcissism provided by the artist’s strategy of juxtaposing images which collide … (Appel, 2006).

The demands made on the viewer by both Heinecken and Baldessari are the same, each use contrast and juxtaposition along with images of the ‘more frivolous pleasures’ (above) in order to call the viewer to ‘deal with the ethical and moral choices of contemporary existence’ (above). Baldessari’s image (see fig. 3.) stands in opposition to much consumer advertising and attempts like Heinecken’s work (above) to subvert it.


Appel, B., 2006. Contemporary Photography: Truth & The Burden Of Reality. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17 10 2017].

Barthes, R., 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Berger, J., 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Conrad, P., 2016. Mythomania. Tales of our times, from Apple to ISIS. London: Thames & Hudson.

Goldberg, V., 2010. Light Matters. Writings on photography. New York: Aperture.

Grundberg, A., 2006. Robert Heinecken, Artist Who Juxtaposed Photographs, Is dead. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 10 2017].

Woolley, D., 2017. Looking at adverts: 17. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 10 2017].


Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Figure 3. Baldessari, John  (1991) Beach Scene/Nuns/Nurse (with Choices). [Online]
Available at

(Accessed 22 10 2017)