Brand Myth

Brand Myth (Mythological images in brand advertising – A semiotic-iconological analysis) is a media science dissertation project published 2010 at the University of Basel.
© NIKE: ATITUDE vs ALTITUDE, Nike Design, 1993 (Courtesy of Nike)


«Brand Myth | Mythological images in brand advertising – A semiotic-iconological analysis» is a media science dissertation project published in 2010 at the University of Basel (Switzerland). In the tradition of the semiotic work of Roland Barthes it examines images in brand advertising staged with mythological references.

The subject under examination is poster motifs of the three major international sports brands (Nike, Adidas, Puma) from the period between 1993 and 2008. Individual images are analysed by way of example with the help of a semiotic-iconological method.




At the beginning of the 20th century Max Weber speaks of the «Disenchantment of the World», critically describing a process which has been accompanying the development of the consumer society through to the present.

«The more intellectualism causes the belief in magic to retreat, thus disenchanting the happenings in the world, and the latter lose their magic meaningfulness and just are or happen but no longer mean anything, the greater becomes the demand on the world and conduct of life– each in their entirety – to be organised to be meaningful and reasonable

Myths were part of that «magic world». People narrated things to each other in order to pass on their knowledge from one generation to the next, to explain natural phenomena or secure the favour of the gods for themselves. Whether for Mars, the Roman war god, to Saturn, the ancient Roman god of agriculture or Nike, the goddess of victory – mankind built altars and temples in their honour to obtain their favour by means of prayers and sacrifices so that they would win battles, bring in abundant harvests and be victorious in hostile wars or in peaceful competitions. Mythical stories about their origin, their family, their appearance and their divine work put them in connection with all gods.

If you are looking for the gods of today, you won’t find them in the paradise of any religion. Their new habitat is the projection surfaces in advertising. The re-enchantment of the massess has become a business of brand strategists. As early as 1939 brand technique specialist Hans Domizlaff wrote in his textbook on brand technique:  «No matter how greatly the brand objectives may differ, they can all build on the laws which the brain of the collective brain follows in the same way because a brand is just a conception in the  collective brain.» Influenced by publications on mass psychology and the political development in the 20s and 30s Domizlaff is one of the first advertising psychologists wanting to make systematic use of the mass-psychological inclination to create fetishes using collective myths and symbols.


Over 70 years later Domizlaff’s strategies seem more up-to-date than ever. In a seemingly «disenchanted world» products and services are intentionally charged with «magic» meaning. Ostensibly familiar mythical religious images, stories and rituals are intended to overcome the consumer's reservations. Knowledge of the structures and effects of the myth hold the promise of being able to actively generate and control brand identities. And ultimately to achieve what Hans Domizlaff called the objective of brand technique: «… the assurance of a monopoly position in the consumers’ psyche.»

The sports equipment manufacturer NIKE is one of the first corporations to have been practising the mythological, religious mise-en-scène of its own brand identity since the 80s. It opened the first NIKE Town in Portland (USA) in 1990, a megastore with the intention of offering the customer a «holistic» shopping experience. This trend was picked up and developed further by other corporations in the years thereafter. With gigantic investments in so-called brand worlds like NIKE-Town in Berlin (1999), Sony Center Berlin (2000), VW City Wolfsburg (2000) or BMW World in Munich (2007) these corporations build complex, extravagant experiential worlds intended to be the perfectly planned space for ritual actions in connection with a brand.  No matter what happens to them, it takes place under the big brand mark which, like a sail, spreads itself out all over everything that comes into contact with it.

NIKE-Town in Berlin is therefore not just a sports article store; in its basic architectural concept it is designed like a church. The top athletes on the big ADIDAS advertising spaces  are depicted like Gods of the Ancient World. In future at PUMA even the football stars are chemaera, part human, part machine and reminiscent of the satyrs in mythological tales. Those who collect their new cars in the VW Autostadt don’t simply pick it up. They are visitors in a staged world in which an automotive corporation presents itself and its brands and the actual moment when the key is handed over is ritualised as if it were an initiation. The car is not simply an article of daily use. From now on it is a member of the family.

The projection surfaces of the old myths in new vestments have many facets: Posters, advertisements, TV spots, books, cinema films, PC games, sales rooms, the Internet and other advertising media bring to life in pictures, stories and rituals what has hitherto been left to historical myths or the religions: Creation of meaningfulness, social integration and identity. The Austrian market researcher Helene Karmasin brings the reasons for the customers’ purported need for consumption as a source of experience and adventure to the point: «People want to escape the purgatory of boredom. They are fed up with consumption and are searching for experiences and adventures which distinguish them from other people.» Brands promise to satisfy this desire.

The critical examination of myths in advertising has been under scientific review for decades. Ever since the 50s such authors as Marschall McLuhan, Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco have been dealing critically with this combination from the perspective of media science and semiotics. For example, in «The Mechanical Bride» (1951) Marshall McLuhan subsumes a selection of advertisements, comics and newspaper articles and analyses them from the point of view of media science. As an expression of folk culture, to him they represent «… a world of social myths and organisation, and they speak a language with which we are both familiar and unfamiliar.»

In «Rhetoric of the Image» (1964) Roland Barthes regards the ideological message as concealed in the structure of the advertising content and obscured by the advertising rhetoric at the level of expression: «The more technology develops the dissemination of information (and especially of images), the more means it contributes towards obscuring the constructive meaningfulness under the mask of a given meaning.» Barthes develops a model for the semiotic analysis of advertising which is picked up and further developed in this work.

With his eye on the novel version of myth-building in advertising, in «The Myth Of Superman» (1964) Umberto Ecco considers two projects to be especially urgent: «[…] firstly to investigate the goals embodied by the image, i.e. what follows the image; secondly the demystification i.e. determination of what lies behind the image.»

Despite a wide variety of publications on the topic of advertising, brand and myth in the subsequent years, little attention was paid to staging mythological images in advertising. Therefore the present work investigates the connection between brand and myth based on brand advertising images in line with Roland Barthes' «Everyday Myths».  The subject under investigation is mythologically designed poster motifs for sports advertising for the three major brands, ADIDAS, NIKE and PUMA dates back to the period from 1993 to 2008. Central pictorial motifs are analysed by way of example and supported by a semiotic-iconological method.

In the past visual communication research has experienced increasing attention as an interdisciplinary science. The more pictorial representations characterise culture and science, the greater is the interest in a broad understanding of the conditions and rules of using images. We are all exposed to visual impressions every day, whether we want it or not – and not least of all by brand advertising. Posters are perceived as we drive past, print adverts as we browse through the newspapers for example, Internet banners when we click to continue, and TV spots when we are zapping. According to the most recent findings consumers devote maximally 1 ½ to 2 seconds to an advertising message. If that. Therefore, the visual impression of a brand is especially important because images create images in the beholder's brain.

These reflections bring up the following question: If images have a significant influence on the development of a brand identity, in what way do mythologically arranged images in advertising influence the formation of a brand identity?




The Brand Myth interdisciplinary research project combines two scientific methods – iconological analysis of aesthetics and the semiotic analysis of the image semiotics. The combination of the two methods enables the more profound levels of meaning of the objects under examination to be analysed from the point of view of media science, and reflected in the light of a critique of contemporary civilisation.


Iconological analysis

Iconography deals with the description of objects in pictures and their interpretation. On the other hand, iconology is a method in aesthetics which is based on descriptive, classifying iconography, yet furnishes the subject of the picture with extensive meaning by taking into account the material properties, its historical context and the conditions under which it was created.  This links the iconology of the fine arts more to the other disciplines in the Humanities such as philosophy, religion and sociology.


The method of iconological analysis originated from Aby Warburg and was further developed in 1932 by Erwin Panofsky. It is still being used for examining images today. The interpretation model developed by Erwin Panofsky breaks down into the following levels and corrective measures:


I. A sense for phenomena
Pre-iconographic description (and pseudo-formal analysis)


Practical experience
Familiarity with objects and events


Corrective: History of Style
Insight into the way in which objects and events were expressed via forms under changing historical conditions.


II. The  meaningfulness of meaning
Iconographic analysis


Knowledge of literary sources
Familiarity with certain topics and ideas

Corrective: History of types
Insight into the way in which certain topics or ideas were expressed through objects or events under changing historical conditions.


III. Document meaningfulness
Iconological interpretation


Synthetic intuition
Familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind, characterised by personal psychology and «Weltanschauung» (philosophy of life)


Corrective: History of cultural symptoms or »icons» in general
Insight into the way in which essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by certain topics and ideas under changing historical conditions.


The images examined in this way are not all classical ones as defined in art history. Political (e.g. election posters, caricatures) and commercial advertising motifs (e.g. advertisements) can also be analysed iconologically. A quotation from Erwin Panofsky, who extended the iconological method to include commercial images, is intended as the transition to semiotic analysis: «Because it has to be indirect, commercial art is more vital than non-commercial art […]. Commercial art is certainly always in danger of ending up as a whore, but it is equally certain that non-commercial art is in danger of ending up as an old maid.»

Semiotic analysis
Semiotics is derived from the Greek word sēmeîon and is the science of all semiotic systems (e.g. images, gestures, formulae, language, design, fashion, food culture etc.). In the 50s to 70s one of its proponents, the French philosopher Roland Barthes, analysed the language of the images in advertising from the point of view of ideological criticism. His concept of signs is strongly influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotic model and Louis Hjemslev's connotation model. Taking a French advertisement (Panzani) as an example, Roland Barthes examines the interaction of denotation and connotation and of verbal and visual text elements. The questions he poses in his essay, «Rhéthorique de l’image» are: How does the meaningfulness get into the picture? Where does the meaningfulness end? And if it ends, what lies beyond it?

To amplify the iconological method, the semiotic analysis is also applied to the subject of this research project because – in Barthes’ opinion «[…] in advertising the meaning of the image is certain to be intentional.» According to Barthes a «[…] good commercial […] is one which condenses the richest rhetoric within it, absolutely exactly […] hits the great dream motifs of mankind and thus effects this huge liberation of the images (or thanks to the images), […]». According to Barthes images carry three messages:


I. The verbal message


In Barthes’ view a verbal message forms a kind of «vice», which hinders the connotated meaning from swarming out into excessively singular regions or into dysphoric values. The text, «[…] guides the reader through the significates of the image, directing him/her  past some, and allowing him/her to adopt others; he/she is remote controlled in the sense of being predetermined via a subtle dispatching.»


II. The non-encoded iconic message (denotation)


To Barthes the denoted image represents a kind of «pure state of the image».  If one were to obliterate all connotative meanings of an image, the literal residual message would remain. The image of a tomato would have no meaning beyond the tomato itself. According to Barthes the level of the denoted image represents «the first level of intelligibility» a kind of base level of cognition. «Below this level the reader would only perceive lines, shapes and colours.»


III. The encoded iconic message (connotation or rhetoric of advertising)


The connotations which an image triggers in the person looking at it are determined by that person’s «practical, national, cultural and aesthetic knowledge». The constructed meaning is simply concealed behind the mask of an endowed meaning, «[…] the denoted image naturalises the symbolic message, it makes the (especially in advertising) very differentiated semantic trick of the connotation appear innocent, although the Panzani poster is full of symbols/icons, in photography a kind of natural existence of the objects nevertheless continues […]».


Semiotic-iconological analysis
Combining the iconological with the semiotic image analysis enables the research project to penetrate deeper into the layers of meaning of the image. In view of the fact that both the iconological analysis according to Panofsky and the semiotic analysis according to Barthes describe similar levels of examination, they are applied to the object under examination partially parallel to each other or in succession (NIKE, ADIDAS and PUMA-brand poster motifs).

The strict structuring of the image analysis processes is ideal-type because all levels are inevitably all inter-connected. Panofsky therefore points out that the ostensibly separate levels of the image description «interweave in practice to become a completely homogeneous overall occurrence which develops organically in tension and relaxation which indeed can only be dissolved into individual elements and special campaigns ex post and theoretically.»  Image analysis is therefore no linear process. Rather, it is a complex process in which the levels of meaning and meaningfulness overlap.