Social Semiotics and Literacy: A Case Study about the Social Meanings Constructed by Ads of a Children's Magazine

By Carvalho, Flaviane Faria | Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Social Semiotics and Literacy: A Case Study about the Social Meanings Constructed by Ads of a Children's Magazine


Carvalho, Flaviane Faria, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy


Children and advertising: the importance of visual literacy

In today's society, where consumption is the watchword, advertising has been established as a powerful means of socialisation and construction of children's identity. The finding that young children are a profitable market has led to the development of children's marketing and increased advertising to this segment.

As a consumer, children assume three roles (Joannis, 1990). The first is the consumer who is potentially acquiring consumption values and appropriating signs conveyed by advertisement, when they begin to accompany their parents on everyday purchases, or when they embody advertising and marketing initiatives conveyed in mass media. The second role refers to the children consumer who decode, transform the signs in something not inherent to the object, searching for something that is not configured as a real need. They can fill this role not only when they have capital to buy, but when they are able to infer directly and imperatively like advertising does-in the acquisition of material goods. According to research done by Interscience (2003), 49% of children strongly influence their parents on purchasing decisions and, ten years from now, this percentage could increase to 82%. The third role refers to the children's actions as a catalyst for the consumption of others, when children are simulacrum used in the promotion of products whose advertisements are directed immediately to children, but aimed at reaching adults.

In this context, academic research, (1) youth support, and other political, health and education institutions (2) have advocated the importance of media education, calling for more support in the development of media literacy programs to provide youth, who are much more vulnerable to manipulation and potential risks brought about by advertising, with skills that allow them to analyse and understand the purposes of these media products.

In terms of social representations, images projected by advertising have a dual character. On the one hand, they are 'social indicators' (Sampaio, 2009) of how society understands and relates to childhood. This means that advertising does not create such images, but betakes tendencies of the social context, selecting and giving visibility to the images according to specific intents. On the other hand, when it publicises such images, advertising makes them 'models' for millions of children in physical and psychosocial terms. In this sense, a fundamental question to be considered is every time that an image is chosen, others are crowded out, giving more weight to certain standards of beauty and behaviour at the expense of others. It provides them with options and models of behaviour and choice, which may reveal lifestyles associated with interactions and social values.

An advertisement requires more than comprehension. It also requires the seduction of the reader. As a result, it is the visual elements that stand out in this type of text, but in most cases, they are absorbed uncritically and unnoticed by readers. Unlike TV, which does not allow the child to settle on an advertising image for long, magazines provide no such time constraint. For Kapferer (1989, p. 46), a magazine can be described as a 'media friend' because it allows the child to handle it, select what is of greater interest, share this with colleagues, read and reread whenever and wherever it pleases him or her. As such, the magazine allows its complete ownership, and it has the same language of the child, becoming a faithful companion.

The understanding of children about what constitutes an advertisement and its persuasive strategies becomes therefore indispensable. Several studies show that children before 8 years do not have the ability to recognise the persuasiveness of advertising (Kunkel, 2004). The ability to build a more critical view tends to establish itself around the age of 12 years. …

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