Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 8 : 4 April 2008
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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The Semiotics of Visual Communication in Print Advertisement: How to Read Between the Lines

Gajendra S. Chauhan, Ph.D.

Advertisements Are Everywhere!

Advertisements are everywhere. On the bus, in the city, in the streets, in the movies, in our mail, in our SMS, these powerful images follow us like Tom chases Jerry wherever we go. A baby crying for its feed, a young executive flaunting a new car, a dusky girl applying a fairness cream and a doting wife desirous of having a new sari are all the colors of advertisements. They want to communicate, persuade, influence and lead to some action. It has become a strong force in our economic and social lives. Billion of dollars are spent on advertising every year. Out of these billions are born the messages that tell us where to invest, how to dress, what to eat, how to get slim, how to gain weight and they even claim to offer solutions to anything that we find difficult in our life. More than this they shape our everyday plans and decisions.

Advertising Is Subjective!

Advertising, being a study of human behavior and responses, is subject to unpredictability and lack of clear answers. Its answers are at best probabilistic and never ever universal truths.

Intensity of the Imagery

As advertising is a lot about strong images and perceptions, the intensity of the imagery is quite understandable. Apart from the intense imagery, advertising also generates a lot of heated debates and 'opinions' among people. Yet, opinions, likes and dislikes on ads will keep coming from all corners because having opinions and expressing them is part and parcel of being human. The subjectivity of such opinions will also continue. After all advertising is seen and felt by most of us in our 'personal' domain, what we can identify with (what we like) and what we cannot (what we don't like) (Tiwari Sanjay 2003).

The Aim of This Paper

The current paper seeks to find how the visual messages are formed and given meaning through the semiotic analysis of the advertisements.

A Semiotic Approach

The practitioners of semiotic school believe that the meanings of pictures are not in the pictures, but rather in what we bring to them. Since visual interpretation is based upon perception through cognition and language and is affected by social, cultural, and personal frames, we strongly believe that semiotics will help us explain the complexity of visual communication while processing visual information and producing meaning from the advertisements. This concept of semiotics is the major force of the present paper. The primary goal is to establish the underlying conventions, identifying significant differences and oppositions in an attempt to model the system of categories, relations (syntagmatic and paradigmatic), connotations, distinctions and rules of combination employed.

How Does Semiotics Help Us to Understand the Meanings of Images?

Images that we find in the ads are hard to elucidate their meanings .To a humble consumer, the reality always eludes. If we study the ads, we may be able to "look into" them to unfold social and cultural realities. We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organized.

Through the study of semiotics we become aware that these signs and codes are normally transparent and disguise our task in 'reading' them (Daniel Chandler 1985). It is important to mention about the basic theory of semiotics that inspired me to decipher the visual images of the selected advertisements. The writings of Ferdinand De Saussure and Charles Pierce are the fundamental works for the semiotic study of advertising images and help us in reading the hidden meanings and underlying current of advertising signs. A sign can be a word, a sound, visual image. It is an object, which stands for another to some mind. Saussure divides a sign into two components-the signifiers (the sound, image, or word) and the signified, which is the concept the signifier represents, or the meaning. C. S. Peirce, who is characterized as the founder of American semiotics, disagrees with Saussure on the arbitrariness condition. To Peirce, signs are of three types--icons, indexes, and symbols. There are just three ways a sign such as word, a sentence, a picture, a graph or a gesture can have meaning in semiotic theory. It can be a picture of a thing in the world. In that we call it an icon. The little picture of a happy face made by email users out of a colon and right parentheses (:)) is an icon. It shows a schematic picture of a smiling face. A sign can also be a completely arbitrary representation of thing in the world. In that case we call it symbol. A green traffic light means we can continue driving. There is nothing inherent in the color green that 'means' move ahead or keep going. It is an arbitrary association. Finally, a sign means something because of where and when it is located in the world. In this case, it is called an index. An index is a sign. An arrow pointing one direction down a street is an index which shows the exact direction in which traffic should go (Scollon 2003 ).

Advertising Is a System

Advertising is a system consisting of distinct signs and what an advertiser means depends on how its signs are organized. Semiotics seeks to discover how as the meaning of an advertisement doesn't simply float on the surface waiting to be understood by the consumers. Let's take the first advertisement of Marlboro for semiotic analysis. The advertisement predominately features a macho male model in his sporting mood and adjacent to him is an iconic image of the product itself, which is projected as the secret of heroic deeds performed by the male model. In between these images we find the signified linguistic concept in the form of a verbal message: 'Come to where the flavour is.' It is difficult to ignore the powerful iconic image of a typical American cowboy who stands for adventure, freedom and fearlessness. The print ad is designed with a purpose to create an image of a Marlboro Man -an icon that is an antithesis of an ordinary man. A cowboy who signifies an environment that is challenging, natural and relatively stress free. In the given ad, he is his own man in a world he owns. Two images are very prominent in the ad: First that is the subject, (the image of the muscular man) provides a youthful element of glamour and adventure, which serves both the product and the text in which it is being advertised, and second that is the image of Marlboro countryside is a physical acknowledgement of the product name. However, these images alone certainly do not convey this central signified concept, for this is only guaranteed by the inclusion of the advertisement of the statement: 'Come to where the flavour is.' Thus, a strong relationship is allowed to emerge between the 'signifiers,' (the photographic image of the Marlboro Man and his physical environment) and the 'signified', which is the linguistically expressed: ' Come to where the flavour is.' The linguistic sign is very meaningful here to lead the target audiences to the desired results. The word 'flavour' has its own layers of meaning. While there is no logical connection between the cowboy and the smoking experience but the composition of ad, the color scheme, the aura of iconic cowboy, the verbal message depict a realistic world where it acknowledges the pleasant experience of smoking to Marlboro cigarettes. The advertisers work at every stage to create the maximum impact of the advertised product. The striking element I found in Marlboro cigarettes pack where the two letters 'l' and 'b' stand tall in the brand name resembling the very shape of smoke in the black color. Fred Inglis writes that cigarette marketing, packaging and advertising offer a central topic for any study of advertising. Not only are cigarettes utterly expendable and very dangerous, they are dirty, smelly and unsightly. Consequently a great deal of advertising goes in for fresh, wholesome scenery. The associations of this picture (setting aside the subconscious and the economic ones) are clean and uncontaminated. Whatever the reality of offshore sewage, the sea is poetically bracing and salty.

This is only the beginning part of the article, which contains numerous visuals. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

The Semiotics of Visual Communication in Print Advertisement: How to Read Between the Lines | Religion and Ethnicity in Africa | Transfer of Conjunctions in ESL Writing | Use and Rankings of Vocabulary Learning Strategies by Indian EFL Learners | English for Engineering Colleges - What Do the Students Want? And What Would the Teachers Like to Change? | Errors Made by the Students of Engineering and Technology in Written English | Ethnicity, Nativity and Recent Migrants - Problems of Imposed Loyalty and Perceived Disloyalty | HOME PAGE of April 2008 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Gajendra S. Chauhan, Ph.D.
Languages Group
Birla Institute of Technology and Science
Pilani - 333031

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