From Cure-alls to Calcium Tablets: A Comparative Semiotic Analysis of Advertisements for 19th and 20th Century Patent Medicines and Contemporary Dietary Supplements

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Albrecht, Karin Anne
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Middle Tennessee State University
This thesis explores American advertising with a focus on health and medicine. Today, ads are integrated into the fabric of everyday life, subtly (or not-so-subtly) communicating to and about American culture. While advertising may not necessarily create society’s values, advertisements certainly convey existing values, tastes, and beliefs; therefore, the way that advertisers communicate messages regarding health arguably shapes consumers’ conceptions of disease and well-being. This thesis uses semiotic analysis as conceptualized by Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure, viewing communication as language systems constructed from visual, verbal, material, and immaterial elements. While comparing signs in advertising for 19th and early 20th century patent medicines and contemporary dietary supplements, this analysis explores each historical context including the history of American medicine, American advertising, and changing regulations. It explores the messages within the ads, the signs used to convey those messages, and the broader myths (cultural ideas) that those signs construct. These myths connect health and well-being to power, nature, and the idea of "the good life" in American culture as it has evolved over the past 150 years. While examining these signs within history, significant differences emerged, but also enduring truths that demonstrate how human nature is surprisingly familiar through the decades.
Advertising, Dietary Supplements, Health, Media, Patent Medicines, Semiotics