Playing With Symbols in Marketing Campaigns

By: Logan Arey, creator of Winding Expressions

Whether you realize it or not, you’re being bombarded by the inherent definitions/meanings that signs and symbols have in your everyday life. What do I mean by this? Well, if a traffic light turns red, it means you stop, right? If you see two golden arches or a girl with freckles and red pigtails, you think hamburgers. Even language itself is an intricate sign-system. When someone utters a word it automatically puts a meaning in your head, and the same thing happens when you read a word on a page. This is semiotics, and this is just a brief introduction to it.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and the way they’re used and interpreted. Why should you care about semiotics? Mainly because signs and symbols shape us and our reality. They are the only way we perceive the world and that makes them very powerful things.

Can you guess which department knows the value of signs and symbols? It’s marketing. That’s right! Those commercials you see on TV are filled with meanings and definitions, and marketers intend for those to play on your subconscious.

Marketers put a lot of effort into selling products. They carefully construct definitions and ideas for their product. It could be something like this: buy product X and your body will become THE sex-symbol of all sex-symbols. We’ve all seen this type of ad before and we can see that the defining quality of product X would be sex. It will make you attractive therefore it will get you action.

Now I want to get into something a little more subtle but also keeping along the same lines. There’s one ad in particular that I’ve been watching a lot, and it comes on during every basketball game I watch (remember basketball, I’ll mention this later). The commercial I’m referring to is the Nivea Men Lumberjack Contest commercial.

The product is a simple moisturizing-creme for men and Nivea is selling it through sex. That’s obvious. But I want to examine what they’re saying about men and sex in general through this ad.

Nivea made sure to use a model that looks like he’s been pampered in Nivea Men’s products in order to represent their ideal man. The woman in the crowd is immediately attracted to him and gives him a flirtatious wink. The other two guys have rugged features and look more like the everyday man. But they are desexualized because they don’t “appear” to be as clean and well-groomed as the hero of this commercial, and they don’t use Nivea Men Creme! We should’ve seen this coming, duh!

I want to dive in a little deeper though. We can’t disregard the fact that the other guy has a beard, and a red, buffalo-check, flannel shirt! He is the symbol of the lumberjack – semiotics, remember? Also, google “Paul Bunyan” and look at those images for verification (if you have doubt for some reason).

“Nivea Men” by Joinvibhuatwikipedia used under CC BY-SA 4.0
Why bring up the beard? I want to bring it up because beards have made a comeback in mainstream society and are more acceptable. But through this ad, Nivea is undermining men who choose to have a beard. The woman isn’t smitten with the bearded man and he doesn’t win the contest (or the woman’s heart) because he didn’t use Nivea Men’s fast-absorbing creme, and because he has facial hair.


You might think though, hey this is an ad for moisturizer – bearded men can use moisturizer too, which is completely true, but I do believe Nivea is purposely trying to sabotage beards. I went to Nivea Men’s website and looked through their products. They sell: lotion, body-wash, face-wash, and shaving products. Yes, they sell shaving gel and post-shave balm, and there’s nothing else beyond those products.

What I’m getting at is there are no products for beard care even though there are plenty of male-grooming companies that rely on beard care products such as: beard oil, beard soap/shampoo, beard balm, etc. I actually find it odd that Nivea doesn’t sell for beards. Then they could expand their market and perhaps increase profit, but whatever! Nivea isn’t interested in beards – they don’t belong on their version of a man so they will undermine them and desexualize them (go buy Nivea Men’s shaving gel and post-shave balm for a face as smooth as a baby – what woman could resist that).

Nivea’s product lines are all about skin care and had a focus on women for the most part. Hence the creation of Nivea Men. You can sort of see why they support shaved men since the absence of body and facial hair had been absent in ad campaigns for so long. Although, it’s worthy to note that hairy men need skin care products too. Dermatologists don’t focus solely on women and shaved men. In fact, take a look at Nivea’s history and you can see through the slides (slide 4 in particular) that Prof. Paul Gerson Unna, a dermatologist, supported a nice beard, and he’s one of the founders of Nivea! Oh how we lose our ways sometimes!

This isn’t the first time Nivea Men has waged a war on “unruly” body and facial hair. Take a look at this controversial ad they printed. The point of the deemed-racist-ad is that in order to civilize, or re-civilize yourself, you need to be shaved and have a uniform haircut. The ad was printed in 2011 and now it’s 2017 and Nivea Men is still trying to fight back body and facial hair.

I mentioned earlier how this commercial runs during my basketball games. The reason I did so is just to remind you what the target audience is: it’s men. Nivea is set on selling men what it looks like to be a man. It’s a “well-groomed” guy (men with beards can be very well-groomed, mind you) with a slight stubble. You know, the stubble like sandpaper that would irritate a woman’s face when you make out with her. In fact, he’s probably going to shave with Nivea Men’s shaving gel right before he makes love to that woman in the stands. We know it’s going to happen!

Now my purpose here isn’t to trash Nivea or Nivea Men products. I’m sure the products are fine. In fact, I’m curious about this creme myself. What I wanted to do was point out how symbols really are powerful and that they can influence on a conscious and subconscious level, and commercials are an easy way to teach this. I invite you to think about the next ad you watch and determine what idea is being sold with the product. Remember, the definition is what marketers want you to buy rather than the product itself. Maybe you can crack their code and get laid.


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