Semiotics: Southern Comfort style

Jackie Rousseau Sociology 43

March 12, 1999

"The old ball-and-chain" is a phrase that many Americans are familiar with. Oftentimes we imagine it spilling forth from the lips of some distressed, fatigued, overworked man who is with his nagging wife. It is this image that the advertisers for Southern Comfort are trying to reproduce. They want the person looking at the ad to sympathize with the man in the image, the man dragging his imaginary "ball-and-chain". We associate the ball and chain with oppression, hard labor, and unfairness. These connotations are probably derived from the images that we have seen in old prison movies where the convicts are forced to work the fields, shackled by a ball and chain. Let us back up for a moment though and look at just how this Southern Comfort ad takes us from the image of a man to the labor intensive fields of old prison movies.

There are many denotations in this ad. There is a man, three women, bags, sides of buildings, a chair, writing on a window, a sidewalk-like walkway, a bottle of Southern Comfort, some white lines, and two lines of copy. The first line of copy reads, "Your free time may have changed. Your drink doesn't have to." The second line reads, "Hang on to your spirit." There is also a division in the ad, the top two-thirds of the ad being the photo image and the bottom one third being a black background.

How is it that the advertisers take our mind from the image on the page to the thoughts that progress in our head? To figure this out let us more closely examine the images, or signs, that have been presented to us. Let us first examine the image of the man in the ad. He is dressed casually "preppie", wearing khakis and a blue, collared shirt. Tucked under his left arm is a box and his hands are full of shopping bags. On his right foot is the image of a ball-and-chain created from dashed white lines. On the man's right (the direction in which he is looking) is a woman wearing a short black dress with black heeled-shoes. The woman is holding onto the right arm of the man, clutching a purse with her right hand. Her head is turned toward him and she appears to be smiling. Much of our reaction to this ad comes solely from looking at these two individuals. More specifically, from the image of the man.

The brightness of the man's shirt and the bags he is carrying stands in contrast to the black of the woman's dress and thus attracts our eye toward him. The fact that he is carrying so many bags, whereas the other individuals in the ad have at most one bag, also makes him the center of our attention. By using metonymy, we substitute the bags that the man is carrying to mean that there has been a day of shopping, a "shopping spree" perhaps. The paradigmatic relation between the man and woman, aided by our own codes of what the duties of both the male and female are in a relationship, leads us to assume that the bags do not belong to the man but rather, he is carrying them for the woman next to him. It would be one thing if the man were walking along carrying the bags by himself but once we see the woman next to him, holding onto his arm, our mind begins to draw its own conclusions. Another paradigmatic relation begins to form after we have made the assumption that the man is carrying the bags for the woman. The image of the ball and-chain along with the woman's grasp of the man's arm, leads us to believe that the man's presence here may not be a completely voluntary action. Rather, one may begin to associate this with the myth of commitment, of a man becoming "whipped". That is to say, the man is "suckered" in or "captured" by the woman and is then forced to do things that he otherwise would not do (in this case, spend the day shopping).

The copy of the article supports the myth of commitment, or the lifestyle change that a man is forced to undergo once he enters into a relationship with a woman. It blatantly reads, "Your free time may have changed", referring back to the paradigm of masculinity, that a man would not, under normal circumstances, choose to be shopping (this paradigm that shopping is a female hobby is also reinforced in the ad by the fact that there is only one male figure in the ad as opposed to the three women, and the only man is there because he is fulfilling some unstated requirement of a male in a relationship). In the next line, "Your drink doesn't have to", the syntagmatic relation of the words in relation to the previous phrase, leads one to assume that the Southern Comfort being advertised is the drink that the man used to use before his life was interrupted by the woman, or is at least a common drink of choice for bachelors. Making this connection is important because it links the drink to the freedom that the man presumably had before he became "whipped", the freedom that men like to hold on to. The next line of copy, "Hang on to your spirit", stands out from the rest of the copy because it looks like individually cut-out words which stand out on the contrasting black background. Our mind associates these cut-outs as looking like the print found in newspapers or magazines. By using the cut-and-pasted words the advertisers invoke the "ransom" myth. This myth is something that we have seen in numerous movies, the villain/kidnapper of the film using cut-out letters and words so as to prevent being traced. In this sense, one can see this line of copy as a warning. The advertiser is warning the consumer not to let what happened to the man in the ad happen to them, not to let the man's bachelor spirit be overtaken by a demanding woman. They are imploring the consumer to hold on to their freedom found in their old way of life, which has been linked to the Southern Comfort.

The image of the Southern Comfort bottle on the bottom right of the ad is outlined in the same dashed white lines as the ball-and-chain. These dashed lines resemble a style used to represent the lines along which something is to be cut (like coupons) . Building on this concept, advertiser is trying to get us to assume that the ball-and-chain could be replaced with the bottle of Southern Comfort. That in fact, by inserting the bottle into the place where the ball-and-chain is now, the man would regain the freedom that he used to have (the freedom which is signified by the bottle).

Overall, the advertiser is working to associate the bottle of Southern Comfort with the freedom that a man supposedly experiences as a bachelor. The advertisers are appealing to the codes and paradigms that we have established in our culture which dictate to us what bachelorhood is like, what happens when a man enters into a committed relationship with a woman, and what behaviors are normal for men and women. Interestingly, the woman for whom the man is presumably carrying the bags, is dressed in black. This could represent two things, it could be used to signify the fact that the woman is "upper class" or, it could be seen as signifying that she is the death of the man's freedom. Here, two contradicting social codes could be invoked for interpretation. Do we use the code that signifies black to mean high class and high society, or the one that interprets black as the color of death? Semiotics is a complex system of interpretation: and can be used in different ways by different people. What a teenager might interpret in this ad, a sixty year old may not agree with. However, I do believe that the main objective of the advertisers here is clearly to associate Southern Comfort with the freedom that a man feels as a bachelor and, to appeal to an age group of men who might be in committed relationships and who are attracted by the lure of reliving their "glory days", escaping the ball-and-chain (hindrance) that they are currently experiencing. The advertisers try to connect, in the reader's mind, Southern Comfort with myth of male bachelorhood, and thus encourage the public to buy Southern Comfort so that they can experience those things which society has come to associate with the myth of bachelorhood, namely freedom, and good times spent with friends.