Johnnie Walker – Essay

Bottled Success —
A Cultural and Semiotic Analysis
The way in which the Keep Walking campaign uses branding is important when
analysing its properties. After ‘losing category share in 1997’, Bartle Bogle Hegarty – the
agency responsible for the success of Johnnie Walker’s Keep Walking campaign –
implemented a new branding strategy (Mintel 2010). The strategy was based on the idea
that success is not about ‘material wealth or ostentatious display of status’ (IPA 2010).
Instead, as John Hegarty, the co-founder of BBH points out, ‘Success today is about the
journey’ [of life] (Coventry Conversations 2007). Extensive global research
commissioned by BBH found that this idea was ‘an emerging trend affecting men all
around the world’ (IPA 2010), which enabled the advertising agency to come up with a
campaign whose message was universally appealing (see Appendix A). Therefore, the
USP of Johnnie Walker revolves around the idea of progress (IPA 2010) and is what
Martin Davidson calls the ‘added value’ because it changes a product into a brand:
‘Brands are products with something extra’ and so while ‘all brands are products, not all
products are brands’ (Davidson 1992: 23).
The ‘Keep Walking’ campaign uses branding to create a dual and complex image of
Johnnie Walker: tradition and heritage are the basis of progress (IPA 2010). Firstly, the
golden striding man in the logo (see Appendix B) is one of the major signs used in the
branding of Johnnie Walker. The character is a man, which can be inferred from other
codes, namely the style of the clothes, the tall hat and the stick, which define the dressing
style in the 19th century Britain and which signify tradition and a high social status. Also,
the fact that the man is depicted as walking (at a presumably fast and confident pace)
symbolises the overcome obstacles of the past and the confidence in an unpredictable
future. Secondly, the letters in the logo are signifiers whose signifieds may signify
‘tradition’, ‘elegance’, and ‘success’ (gold relates to wealth), while the white, clear font
that makes up the tagline signifies contemporariness, as well as a future that still
preserves the tradition and subtlety of the past. The black background which accompanies
the logo might signify the unknown and is arguably in opposition with the courage
inspired by the striding man. Certainly, since ‘Signs do not possess a fixed or essential
meaning’ (Hall 1997: 31), these are but a few possible interpretations.
On a more specific level, the ‘Android’ commercial1 also depicts a range of differences
among signs: on the one hand, the sumptuous architecture, the statues, bookshelves,
lighting, dark colour scheme, open book and other seemingly old objects, along with the
calm tone of voice and the orchestral music are signifiers that might indicate history and
tradition. On the other hand, the android may be seen as a symbol of innovation,
[technological] success and discovery, highlighting the idea of progress that is central to
the Keep Walking campaign. It is worth noticing that the overall meaning of the
campaign is based on ‘a system of differences’ (Hall 1997: 32), which enables signifiers
(the striding man, the hat, the furniture etc.) to signify: ‘It is the differences between
signifiers which signify’. Through branding and the use of certain codes that ‘help tell a
story’ (Williamson 1978: 21), the Keep Walking campaign assembles together meanings
that the target audience is expected to decode. The decoding of meaning is possible
because of the ‘shared meaning systems and cultural codes’ (Goldman 1987: 693), which
is directly related to discourse. Hence the concept of success has been largely transferred
to Johnnie Walker, insofar as the entire brand has been given the meaning of ‘success’.
The brand’s meaning may then be transferred on to the people who use it. Therefore,
people who buy Johnnie Walker don’t buy whiskey – they buy bottled success. So,
associating the Johnnie Walker brand with an individual may result in reification
(Goldman 1987: 718), through which individuals are thought of in terms of the brands
they use and the social meaning of those brands. In the case of Johnnie Walker, people
who use the brand are likely to be regarded as successful.
The Keep Walking campaign also creates ‘added value’ by offering pseudo-individuality
(Adorno 1991), which is a common function of advertising, ‘rooted in a fundamental
deception’ (Goldman 1987: 718) because ‘one’s “individuality” is constructed […] from
the palette of mass cultural prosthetics on offer, which themselves are only “pseudoindividuated”’ (Gibson, Rubin 2002: 318). Advertisements like the Android which
incorporate the essence of the ‘Keep Walking’ tagline (‘keep succeeding’, ‘you can
always achieve more’) use the promise of individuality as a persuasive strategy.
See ad here:
Certainly, there are a great number of people receiving the same message through the
same advertising campaign and therefore one cannot realistically be different from other
people because they drink Johnnie Walker. But then again, “The trick is to be different
like other people” (Myers 1994: 83).
The Keep Walking campaign, like most advertising, may be thought of as being partly
‘created out of our opinions’ (Davidson 1992: 5), which is a point of view that authors
like Jonathan Bignell adhere to: ‘ads have […] meanings which come from our culture,
some of which we can easily recognise consciously, and others which are unconsciously
recognised’ (Bignell 1997: 34, 35). This is possible due to the market research conducted
previous to the production of the campaign, which revealed aspects like the audience’s
opinion about success, the age group that would be most likely to be high achievers,
social class and lifestyle. Because Keep Walking may be a reflection of the audience’s
values, opinions and perceptions of success, the campaign is ‘selling us something else
besides consumer goods’: It is ‘selling us ourselves’ (Williamson 1978: 132).
Williamson’s idea also relates to the way in which the campaign targets its audience
through the strategic use of emotion. The main emotion targeted within the Keep
Walking campaign may be happiness, because there is a strong emphasis in the different
adverts on individuals achieving happiness through personal, non-material success. In the
Android commercial, for instance, a series of elements affect emotion, including the
uplifting tone of voice and orchestral music, the silenced music and the clear words, ‘one
great thing’, before the logo is shown and the music plays again. Furthermore, words like
‘stronger’, ‘faster’, ‘much longer’, ‘you can achieve immortality’, and ‘great’ contribute
to the emotional appeal. Also, the mise-en-shot, especially the close-up on the android’s
eyes and mouth, is a nonverbal form of direct address which triggers emotional
involvement among the audience, arguably making the latter feel happy and selfconfident. This may lead to the viewer having a positive attitude towards the Keep
Walking campaign as well (Chaudhuri 2006: 21). Authors like Ogilvy and Crompton
suggest that rational appeals work more effectively than emotional appeals and insist that
advertising should be ‘specific and factual’ (Ogilvy 2004: 137) because ‘facts sell –
generalizations and puffs don’t’ (Crompton 1987: 64). Nevertheless, other authors like
Arens, Weigold and Arens argue that the effectiveness of emotional appeals in
advertising is underrated (Arens, Weigold, Arens 2009). In the case of Keep Walking, the
campaign has been highly successful in terms of sales by focusing on emotions (IPA
Through emotional appeals, Keep Walking targets Johnnie Walker to men, which can be
inferred by the representation of gender in the various commercials2. Because a “myth is
a system of communication” and “a message”, Keep Walking reinforces the masculinity
of Johnnie Walker by targeting the male population (Barthes 1973: 117). This is done
through myths such as the top hat in the logo which might signify tradition (19th century
Britain) and the upper class. Also, the robot/android in the ‘Android’ commercial is a
myth that refers to technology and progress. Apart from gender, age and class are other
discourses that the Keep Walking campaign focuses on. The men featured in the
advertisements are young to middle-aged, which helps Johnnie Walker to address the
male audience. Also, the characters in the adverts tend to be involved in less usual
activities that may reflect courage, significant change or a good professional status (e.g.
the astronaut, the Formula 1 driver). Therefore, the men targeted by the campaign are
likely to be part of the 1, 1.1, 1.2, and 2 social classes (Office for National Statistics
The decoding of advertisements is dependent upon the audience’s level of advertising
literacy, as well as the discourses that its members are part of, because ‘We could not
make sense of ads unless we came to them with experience of various discourses’ (Myers
1994: 5). Moreover, advertising is a two-way process of communication, in which the
audience is ‘neither homogeneous nor passive’ (Goldman 1987: 695), but an active part
of the decoding process. The audience may not always interpret the Keep Walking
campaign in accordance to the advertiser’s ‘preferred meaning’ (Goldman 1987: 695).
The preferred meaning here may be success defined not in materialistic terms such as
wealth or professional status, but in terms of ‘becoming a better man and having an
unquenchable thirst for self-improvement’ (IPA 2010). As Robert Goldman suggests, the
preferred meaning is just one possible interpretation of the advertising message, whose
alternatives are ‘aberrant meanings’ (Goldman 1987: 695) which deviate from the
preferred meaning to a greater or lesser extent. Like Goldman, O’Barr makes the same
point when saying that ‘we “read into” an advertisement additional meanings beyond
those that were intended, or we may “miss the point” and think it means something else
altogether’ (O’Barr 1994: 8) For instance, an aberrant meaning of Keep Walking
influenced by a political discourse in China could define success as loyalty to the political
system. Another example is the interpretation of success as material wealth and a high
professional status.
These suggested types of decoding the campaign may result in three different types of
responses among the audience (Hall 1973). The dominant response involves a high level
of agreement with and understanding of the advertising message and, in the case of Keep
Walking, means that the potential consumers agree with the fact that success should be a
constant self-improvement process and not a matter of material wealth. This category will
be most likely to be affected by the message of the campaign and to buy Johnnie Walker.
A radically different type of response is when the audience rejects the advertising
message and misinterprets it. Applying this to Keep Walking, an oppositional response
would mean that the audience interprets success as material wealth and a high
professional status. The individuals who fall into this category are the least likely to buy
Johnnie Walker because they disagree with the brand’s definition of success (the
misinterpretation of it, that is). Finally, the audience might accept a part of the advertising
message by giving a negotiated response: They might agree that success is about selfimprovement, but they might also regard success in terms of wealth and status. This
negotiated decoding of the advertising message is less likely to result in high product
sales, despite the fact that sales can still be attained. Keep Walking can also determine
indirect responses through the two-step flow, which involves the advertising message
being sent to the opinion leaders who, in turn, may send the message on to the less active
individuals (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1973: 309). In the case of Keep Walking, opinion
leaders – who are directly affected by the campaign – may adopt a dominant,
oppositional or negotiated response. According to their response, they may influence the
groups in which they are opinion leaders. This means that the individuals influenced by
an opinion leader are likely to adopt a response similar to the latter’s. Because Keep
Walking is highly visible over the Internet (IPA 2010), the idea of opinion leaders can
also be placed in a digital context. Applying the two-step flow to social websites like
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the Keep Walking campaign manages to reach key
consumers who have access to a great number of other individuals online. Thus, simply
posting an advertisement which integrates the message of the campaign on YouTube, for
instance, may result in brand awareness across a diverse population. Nevertheless, Keep
Walking manages to work within a wider marketing context across different media and is
therefore characterised by convergence in terms of the advertising message and the media
platforms through which it is delivered. As a process that ‘is taking place […] within the
same company’ and ‘within the brain of the consumer’ (Jenkins 2004: 34), media
convergence in the case of Keep Walking may be significant in that it can determine a
better presence for the Johnnie Walker brand: the audience is able to interact with the
brand through different media, including TV, radio, Internet and magazines. Convergence
is therefore achieved by communicating a unique message (‘Keep Walking’) using
different media.
To some extent, the campaign reflects the hypothesis of a postmodern society through
contradictions and a focus on the entertainment value, because ‘Postmodernism aesthetics
are an outgrowth of cultural contradictions generated by the society of the spectacle’
(Goldman 1992: 202). In Keep Walking, the contradictions are visible both on a general
and a particular level and are augmented by ‘scepticism about […] cultural and political
norms’ (Sim 2001: 3). The general image of the campaign may be regarded as selfcontradictory: the tall hat and the stick in the logo relate to the 19th century Britain and
convey tradition, while the font of the logo is simple and modern. The ‘Android’ advert
depicts a contradiction of codes: the mise-en-scene, which concerns ‘what to shoot’ and
‘how to shoot’ (Monaco 1981: 148), includes references to tradition/the past, such as the
statues, the bookshelves, and the lighting, while also indicating the future through the
android, his voice, and the ‘mise-en-shot’ (Buckland 1998: 8), particularly the extreme
close-ups. This characteristic of postmodernism is indeed present in the campaign,
because ‘Postmodern images […] are culled from any genre, any medium, any period’
(Fiske 1996: 57).
Despite Sim’s suggestion that postmodernism reflects a rejection of cultural norms, Keep
Walking depicts ‘idealised images’ – created through social norms that have evolved over
time – which show ‘how advertising deals with issues of similarity and difference in its
representations’ (O’Barr 1994: 3). The campaign does not include any images of people
with disabilities, nor does it represent ethnic or religious groups, even though it addresses
numerous markets. O’Barr’s idea of idealised images is present in Keep Walking through
the use of stereotyping as ‘an ordering process’ (Long and Wall 2009: 83) that ‘reduces
people to a few, simple, essential characteristics’ (Hall 1997: 257). Therefore, the theory
of representation, as outlined by O’Barr and Hall, might not necessarily reflect a
postmodernist approach as suggested by Sim’s theory (Sim 2001), because Keep Walking
– despite using some postmodern elements – still employs certain stereotypes. Thus,
standardised and idealised images are created through the depiction of professionally
successful, well dressed and good-looking characters that convey ‘sex-role stereotypes’
through ‘sex-appropriate appearance, interests, skills, behaviours, and self-perceptions’
(Tuchman, Daniels, Benet 1978: 5): men are depicted doing manly sports (swimming,
driving, flying) and are strong, managing to overcome obstacles. The fact that women
and other groups (i.e. ethnic, social, religious) are absent from the campaign leads us to
what Gaye Tuchman calls ‘symbolic annihilation’ (Tuchman, Daniels, Benet 1978: 10).
Not only does this mean that women – and other groups – are not represented, but also
that they ‘don’t count for much’ (Tuchman, Daniels, Benet 1978: 10). Indeed, Johnnie
Walker’s target audience is men and not women. Still, other types of representation that
could be applied to males are also absent: there is no reference to a disabled person, or a
man of a clearly defined ethnicity. Hence, Johnnie Walker may be characterised by a
socially idealised image that arguably fails to reflect the diversity of its target audience.
Nonetheless, this is likely to be done on purpose in order to advertise Johnnie Walker as
an aspiration – an ‘ideal’.
Taking the foregoing analysis into consideration, it may be concluded that the Keep
Walking campaign for Johnnie Walker comprises a range of cultural and semiotic
concepts that not only define the campaign as a media text, but also reveal the
campaign’s structural complexity. In this sense, concepts such as branding, targeting, and
emotion were discussed in relation to the audience that the brand targets. Also, the way in
which the signs within the campaign convey meaning was reflected on from different
perspectives such as that of postmodernism. Finally, it was argued that the theory of
idealised images may be present in the Keep Walking campaign.
List of References
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University Press
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Appendix A. Johnnie Walker ads from Russia and Japan highlighting the universal
appeal of the ‘Keep Walking’ campaign.
Appendix B. The Johnnie Walker logo and slogan.
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