Semiotics - Intranet

Introducing Semiotics
Or How Forms of Communication like
Advertising Harness the Power of Language
The Power of Grammar:
 “Mummy, the milk was spilt on the table”
 “Bombs were dropped on Bagdad”
The use of passive syntax removes agency
from a statement.
The Power of Grammar:
102 – Weasel Words
Another example of the power of verbal language to
influence meaning is the use of ‘weasel words’. These
words act like a weasel, an animal which can suck the
yolk out of an egg but leave the shell intact. These
words ‘suck out’ the validity of any claim they precede,
but sound like they’re affirming them:
 “Helps fight the seven signs of aging”
The word ‘helps’ from this Olay skin cream slogan sounds
good on its own, but really means that the product
doesn’t have to ‘fight the seven signs of aging’ – it only
has to help a bit!
The Power of the Sign
 Literacy in the multimodal dimension…
The arbitrary nature of the sign
 Alphabetic symbols have no direct
correlation to the objects to which
they refer; this is the nature of
 In the same way, visual symbols can
also slip from one meaning to another
 Advertisers have known this for years
A Crash Course in
Semiotic Analysis
 Up until the 1900s, linguists studied
language over time (e.g. “How did
Anglo-Saxon become English?”)
 Then a Swiss linguist tried a radical
new approach to linguistics
 He asked “How does language
actually work in the present?”
Semiotic Analysis
 Ferdinand de Saussure answered his
own question by saying:
 Language uses Signs that are made of
random connections between
 signifiers – sounds like “ tree ”
 signifieds – ideas in our head “
Semiotic Analysis
 Because that link between sounds
(signifiers) & ideas (signifieds) was
random, a “sign” could be broken
down and analysed to see if other
“signifieds” could be attached…
 This enabled critics like the French
writer Roland Barthes to analyse how
signs in popular culture carried
indirect meanings & ideologies
Semiotic Analysis – an
example from advertising
It is the role of advertisers to
create distinct signifieds for
a product
This printed advertisement
juxtaposes (puts together)
two key signifiers
1. French actress Catherine Deneuve
(whose name appears in small type)
2. The plain image of a bottle
Semiotic Analysis – an
example from advertising
Signified = French chic,
sophistication, elegance, beauty
and glamour
Semiotic Analysis – an
example from advertising
The second signifier is rather 'empty' when
we cannot actually smell the perfume
Repeating the name of the perfume at the
bottom of the ad, in large distinctive
typographical letters, makes a link between
the two key signifiers.
Thus the viewer transfers the qualities
signified by the actress to the perfume,
substituting one signified for another, and
creating a new metaphorical sign:
Chanel No. 5 = beauty and elegance
Semiotics: the study of signs
 This advertisement
from a French
communicates a
myth of authentic
Italian-ness through
the use of ‘signs’
A sign = signifier + signified
 Italy = colour (red,
white, green) +
national flag
 Authentic lifestyle =
market vegetables +
healthy freshness
 Bountiful nature =
open string bag +
The semiotics of layout
 The diagram on the right
represents an analytical
framework developed by
Gunther Kress & Theo Van
Leeuwen for analysing graphic
layout, where positioning acts
as a signifier that is given
particular signified meanings
by our culture’s left-to-right and
top-to-bottom reading
 Additionally, the gaze of any human figures in an image
create lines of sight or ‘power lines’ that have particular
effects on the reader of such images
The musician’s gaze creates a ‘power line’ that draws our attention to the ad’s caption
Reading above the horizontal, these chalk images of
gold and platinum record awards carry the ‘signified’
of a motivational ‘ideal’
Positioned in the top
right corner, the ad
caption “we see”
carries the ‘signified’
of an idealised future
or ‘new ’ idea
Positioning the laptop near
the axis of the ad’s layout
gives Microsoft a signified
of central importance
Reading from the
bottom left, the garage
musician carries the
‘signified’ of a realistic
starting point or ‘given’
Positioned in the bottom
right corner, the Microsoft
logo and slogan carries
the ‘signified’ of a ‘new ’
grounded reality
The model’s face is situated in the top right, signifying a new idealised woman
Her direct gaze confronts the reader,
affirming the caption’s self-confident
first person address and challenging
women to emulate her
"Did You Ever Eat Tasty Wheat?":
Baudrillard and The Matrix
by William Merrin, University of
Wales, Swansea, UK
 Baudrillard… presents us with our own simulated reality: a
world where every act and thought is preceded by its own
semiotic model; … where all our experiences are
overexposed first in the cold, electronic light of the mass
media, in the aspirational, high-definition of the advertising
image, and in the hyper-cool, hyperreality of digital
cinematography; where our most fervent hope is for the
cinema, or television to give meaning to our existence by
broadcasting it, or for our lives to attain their hyperrealistic
effect. This is a matrix that is more penetrating, complete, and
attractive than any yet realised on our cinema screens, and
this matrix does, indeed, have us.
Date of posting 08/02/03 Institute of Film Studies, University of
Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD.
If your brain hurts, you are
not alone…
Pause for multilayered
 The night Busta Rhymes recorded “Do
My Thing”, he brought the ruckus to the
mike with his rapid-fire fury of growling
rhymes and blew the fuses in the studio –
three times.
 Of course, if you had a Bazooka you
already heard that.
 With a Bazooka® subwoofer in your car
or truck, you’ll hear things in “The
Coming” you never heard before. The
Bazooka reproduces more of the low
frequency bass regular speakers can’t –
so you hear more of your music. Call 1800-The-Tube for your nearest dealer.
And listen to the difference the Bazooka
patented BassTubes® enclosure makes
in a five-minute demo. In your ride. With
your music.
 Bazooka. Listen to your ears
 As a whole colour full page print
magazine advertisement for audio
electronics, it was designed for the
context of high quality special interest
music, sound and technology magazines
like Rolling Stone, Wired, Limelight, etc.
These publications generally display a
clean visual style, witty pop-culture
awareness and high level of readability.
 The audience are technically discerning
audiophiles over 18 years of age but with
a particular interest in powerful
automobile and home hi-fi systems.
 The product is a Bazooka® range of bass
speakers marketed for the company
Southern Audio Systems (SAS) as part of
a general campaign including cross
promotional ties with music artists Busta
Rhymes and Emmy Lou Harris as well as
computer games manufacturers.
 The tagline “Of course, if you had a Bazooka
you already heard that” emphasizes the
product’s high-fidelity to audio detail that the
average listener would miss. Its colloquial use
of a rhetorically conditional syntax (“if you
had…”) also implies that a discerning audience
would already own the product. The
advertisement’s design builds on this concept
of an audio product whose incredibly powerful
sensitivity to sound detail reflects the
discernment of the consumer.
 The central photograph expresses this concept
via the symbolic code of a tiny glass electronic
fuse literally and figuratively (through the
technical code of photographic enlargement)
‘exploded’ in front of our eyes. The clarity of
visual focus on both the neon pink laser light
and tiny shattered glass pieces are signifiers of
the product’s audio focus on the most minute of
sounds. It is a perfect visual representation of a
frozen split-second moment in time, as well as
a ‘shattering’ sound detail.
 The caption’s use of a disjointed typewriter font reflects
both the power of the sounds it describes as well as
the ‘freestyle’ nature of the rap lyrics to which it refers.
The language of the caption itself also imitates rap with
the alliterative “ruckus … with his rapid-fire fury of
growling rhymes”, enhancing the cross-promotional
use of the hip-hop artist Busta Rhymes to whom it
refers. This is further developed in the copy which
identifies a specific technical feature of Bazooka brand
subwoofers, “patented BassTubes®”, a feature that
highlights the most notable audio aspect of this musical
style – its powerfully insistent bass lines. Such
technical jargon is also mixed with sub-cultural slang
like “in your ride” to reinforce authenticity.
 The technical code of layout not only conforms
to the left-right, top-down diagonal of magazine
page reading conventions, with the angled
lines of text drawing the eye down the page
towards the product logo, but they also
reinforce the explosive symbolism of the
central image. Like the uneven typeface of the
caption, the misaligned diagonals of the copy
represent something shaken out of place by
powerful reverberating bass sounds.
 The logo itself combines grammar and font to
encapsulate the brand concept of an intense and
discerning audio experience. Using an imperative verb
form (“Listen…!”), the key first and last words of the
four word logo ‘shout’ in exploded block capitals above
and below the prepositional phrase “to your”. The
obviousness of the sentence, “Listen to your ears” also
works for the advertising concept because besides
reinforcing the product’s audio speciality, it suggests to
the reader that its not slick advertising that will
convince you, but your own discerning senses. This is
reinforced by the contrastingly subtle font used for the
Bazooka brand itself, pictured diegetically on the
photographic image of a “BassTube” boom box
immediately above.
 The advertisement’s colour scheme is
dominated by a soft focussed chocolate and
tan background – symbolically coded for hiphop’s African American subculture in general
and Busta Rhymes in particular. Technically,
this serves as an ideal contrast to the hot pink
highlights on the shattering glass fuse –
themselves a colour design element with hitech connotations – and the flat primary yellow
of the logo text’s font.
Credits & Statistics
 WORD COUNT: advertisement 112 + commentary 629
= total 741.
 Details for the advertisement from the marketing
company’s web site:
SAS- Southern Audio Systems
Develop full colour, magazine print ad campaign + product
positioning / tagline
Full colour, magazine print ad campaign
Additional: Advertisements included cross promotional ties with music
artists Busta Rhymes and Emmy Lou Harris as well as
computer games manufacturers.
Online examples of
semiotic analysis
“Semiotic Analysis of Magazine Ads for
Men's Fragrances” by Alexander Clare
“Semiotic Analysis of Teenage Magazine
Front Covers” by Siân Davies