semioticsslides (2)

What Is This ?
This is a famous painting by Rene Magritte called
"The Treachery of Images." Magritte's caption says,
(in French) "This is not a pipe."
• Actually it’s not a famous painting by
Magritte, it’s a digital image of the painting
All of which illustrates Magritte's point, which is simply that an image or sign
of a thing is not the thing itself. One could make the same point with any
number of images, signs, and symbols.
Magritte's point is a simple one, so simple that we usually don't think about it. But precisely
because we don't think about it, because we forget that the signs and symbols all around us are
just that, signs and symbols, and not things themselves, we can come to take for granted, take as
"natural," aspects of life that are anything but.
What is this ?
What is this ?
What is Semiotics ?
• Semiotics is a tradition that calls attention to
meaning making in culture, particularly the
• It can be traced back to the Swiss linguist
Ferdinand de Saussure and was developed
further by French thinker Roland Barthes.
Basics of Semiotics
• The basic unit of meaning in Saussure's
version of semiotics, is the Sign. A sign is
anything that makes meaning.
All signs have two aspects: The signifier and the
The signifier is any thing that signifies, e.g.,
words on a page, a facial expression, a picture, a bit
of graffiti.
The signified is the concept to which the
signifier refers.
Together, they make up the sign.
• Signifier: RED ROSE----------Signified:
• Together they make up the “sign”
• The denotation is the literal meaning of the
sign. In this case, rose means a kind of flower
• Connotations involve signifying signs, signs
that become the signifier for a second
• Here the sign "rose" becomes a signifier for a
secondary signified, namely love or passion
• Barthes argued that there are no
“innocent” objects or images.
• Anything can be transformed into a sign
by the imposition of “connotations.”
• The bringing together of signs and their
connotations in the form of codes in
messages creates and maintains myths
and media plays a critical role in this process.
• The purpose of myths is to make things
seem normal and natural.
Phto analyzed by Barthes
Connotation at Work
Connotation at Work
• The first thing that catches the viewer’s eye is
the shiny plaque
Connotation Continued
• This image, combined with the words on it, denotes,
or literally suggests, a bronze or gold plaque. it also
signifies a particular health club, presumably one in
Palm Springs California.
• But most viewers of this ad, in turn, will also
associate such a health club with wealth and the
luxurious forms of leisure one might imagine that
frequenters of such a desert resort might be
accustomed to. The gold, shiny color of the plaque
strengthens this connotation, because gold is
generally associated with wealth.
Other Connotations of Wealth
• Other signs in this ad, particularly the Faberge
egg and the written sign, the word "wealthy."
• Together, all these signs suggesting wealth,
constitute a cultural paradigm, a chain or
collection of signs which invoke each other
because they are culturally or paradigmatically
Putting together two or
more elements from a
paradigm generally invokes,
in the reader's mind, many
more associations from that
Of course, the advertiser's
goal here is to get us to add
their product to this
paradigm .
• Thus plugging a product into
culturally desirable paradigms,
encouraging us to connotatively
associate a product with other
things we value, is the basic
strategy of almost all brand-name
product advertising today.
• In this ad, as in most, there are
several paradigms at work. Most
obviously, alongside the paradigm
of wealth, the ad invokes . . .
• The paradigm of health, again
with the hope that we will come
to include the product in our own
personal version of these
paradigms. But the inclusion of a
bottle of liquor in is not
particularly persuasive. For logical
reasons, after all, most people do
not associate health with liquor.
• This is why the ad must rely on
another kind of semiotic
structure besides paradigmatic
relations to make its message
work, namely . . .
Syntagmatic relations, or relations of
sequence. If paradigmatic relations
make meaning by way of shared
cultural associations, then
syntagmatic relations are those in
which the sequence or order of signs
creates meaning.
The words "healthy, wealthy, and
wise" are a familiar sequence for two
reasons: they are part of a
grammatical sentence as well as a
familiar rhyme -- "Early to bed, early
to rise, makes a man . . ." Providing
us with the conclusion to the rhyme
makes us automatically think of the
whole thing.
• The cleverness in this ad is that
the verbal syntagmatic relations
of the phrase "healthy, wealthy,
and wise" are used to establish a
visual sequence that builds a
relationship between otherwise
unrelated images: the plaque, the
egg, and the Canadian Club
• And by this means, the
advertisers are able to associate
their product, not only with
paradigms of wealth and health,
but -- most improbably -- with
• People may not really think they'll become the
people they see in the ads, but the paradigms
invoked by advertisements do seem to matter a great
deal in terms of how people understand their social
• Signs also help constitute narratives
• Because so many narratives are familiar to us,
advertisements can invoke a particular
narrative and all its associations by just
showing us a single image that represents of
one moment in the narrative, a "snapshot"
that invokes the whole story.
Signs, Narratives and Myths
Is it Clearer Now ?
• This is a larger piece of the image (from a two-page ad). You
can see that now the image fills in a lot more of the story for
you: it invokes a familiar sequence of events.
• Most viewers notice the context (the side of a remote road),
the highway patrol car and patrolman (a role emphasized by
his sunglasses), and the young man who seems to be walking
in the direction of his motorcycle while covering his face,
connoting a mood of chagrin.
• And given all these suggestions, we assume that this is part of
a familiar sequence of events, a familiar narrative: the young
man has just received a traffic ticket.
• But the ad tells even more of the story. The
words read: Too much road. Too little time. Six
miles from home.
• The words elaborate on the narrative: We now
know that the ticket is for speeding and that
the young man is near home. But that's not
What Does This Evoke ?
• Many people who look at this say it makes them
think of "a James Dean, rebel-without-a-cause"
theme. Where does this association come from?
• The association comes the black and white photo
is in black and white. In a context in which color is
the norm black and white has become a sign for
"the past," due to its associations with older films
and photographs. Other signs ?
• The advertiser, then, is trying to associate Lee Jeans,
not with the unpleasant event of getting a ticket, but
with a certain myth.
• Myths in this sense are not just narratives, but
narratives mixed with other signs: the rebel-withouta-cause personality, James Dean himself, his hair
style, etc. (This is why many people identify this ad as
invoking the rebel-without-a-cause theme without
ever having seen the movie; that's a sure sign of the
existence of a myth.)
• Other signs in the ad similarly connote a
vaguely specified past time, and thus invoke a
"paradigm of past-ness“
• What are they ?
• Taken together, these devices have a similar
effect to starting a story with "once upon a
• This leads to the question, what do
connotations, narratives, and myths do to us?
Do semiotic systems have any effect on
human behavior?
Semiotics at Work