In today’s world, advertisements appear in every corner of the Earth: on the walls, TV, posters, newspapers, magazines and social media platforms. It is very easy to catch sight of them in our daily life. So each of us must at least once have wondered: How do people represent those ads? How do we get the hang of the messages conveyed in those ads? And do we interpret the content in a similar or different way? The answer is: semiotics.
Before we go into detail of semiotics’ application in understanding advertisement, let me clarify its definition first.
Semiotics, or semiotic studies, is the science of how symbols and signs communicate. Semiotics “studies the role of signs as part of social life and investigates the nature of signs”, said by Swiss linguist and semiotician Saussure. According to Saussure, to fully understand an advertisement, we need to analyze two parts of sign: the signifier (what we physically see, including both verbal and visual signs) and the signified (the concept and symbolic message represented). Advertisement consists of primary meaning (denotation) and idea or feeling conveyed from it (connotation).
Let’s break down semiotic analysis in regard to an advert of PETA – the animal rights organization. Here is a billboard of PETA animal care campaign in 2010:
At the denotative level, this ad features picture of Tiger Woods, who is one of the most successful golfer in the world, standing with arms akimbo, conflated with the headline “Too Much Sex Can Be A Bad Thing” and followed by the subtitle “… for little tigers too.” and highlighted “Help keep your cats […] Always spay or neuter!” on a black background. There is also a small PETA logo in the image.
At the connotative level, the image yields the first message as a sarcasm of Tiger Woods’ personal life. This professional golfer was involved in a series of sex scandals. The headline acts as a metaphor for his affairs. The second as well as main message encoded in the billboard is that excessive intercourse may cause harm to little tigers aka cats and also dogs. Hence, the purpose of PETA campaign is to encourage people to have their animal companions spayed or neutered.
Whether it was intentional or unintentional, the headline still was quite subtle to mention. From my point of view, using the image of a celebrity in this instance was relevant to deliver the message of the campaign but it was unacceptable as it violated individual privacy. There is simply no reason Woods shouldn’t try to legally protect his image from those who either exploit it for profit or non-profit, without his permission.
This is my own ideas for the above advert. How did you interpret this ad? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below.
Evette Joyce, ‘Semiotics in Marketing Research: Game Changing Marketing Research #3‘, San Diego Ama, 20 April 2015, http://sdama.org/knowledge/semiotics-in-marketing-research-gaming-changing-marketing-research-3/, viewed 16 March
Communication Knowledge Center, ‘Semiotics for beginners’, Slideshare, 15 August 2012, https://www.slideshare.net/CommunicationKC/semiotics-for-beginners, viewed 16 March
Daniel Chandler, ‘Semiotics for Beginners’, document, Visual Memory UK, 7 March 2014, http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/sem06.html, viewed 16 March
Lauren Streib, ‘Too Much Sex Can Be A Bad Thing For Little Tigers, Too’, Business Insider Australia, 27 February 2010, https://www.businessinsider.com.au/too-much-sex-can-be-a-bad-thing-for-little-tigers-too-2010-2, viewed 17 March