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Semiology

“Semiology is a more specific version of the general structuralist approach” (McQuail, D., 2000, Mass Communication Theory 4th Edition, Sage. See page 311.) Discuss what he means by this and assess the value of Semiology for understanding how display advertising works. Use examples drawn from print media, like newspapers and magazines, to illustrate the answer. (Advertisements used will be located in an appendix).Structuralism is an analytical method. The Structuralist’s approach is to seek to describe the overall organisation of sign systems as ‘languages’. They engage in a search for ‘deep structures’ underlying the ‘surface features’ of phenomena . Unlike structuralism, semiology has moved far beyond the concern with the internal relations of parts within a self contained system, for example words and letters in a particular language organism, but seeks to explore the use of signs in specific social situations making semiology a more specific version of the general structuralist approach . For the purpose of this essay semiology will be examined with a view to understanding how display advertising works.

In this century, Linguistics, the scientific study of language, has seen a quite extraordinary expansion. The study of language has held a tremendous fascination for some of the greatest thinkers of the century, notably Ludwig Wittgenstein and Noam Chomsky, whose influence has been felt far beyond linguistics. The driving force in the development of linguistics, was the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, from whose work , his lectures published in 1915 after his death by two of his students. French theorists developed ‘structuralism’, out of which grew ‘post-structuralism’ (if only as a rebellion against the strictures of structuralism), both of which have placed enormous influence on the role of language in cultural development and both of which have had a massive impact on cultural studies and the media industry.

As this essay deals with semiology and its influence on the way advertising agencies employ display art, rather than specifically linguistics, linguistics here shall be overlooked; Saussure’s ideas do need to be looked at, though, as it was he who laid the foundation stone of semiology. It was he in fact who coined the term (which he developed from the Greek word for ‘sign’ – semeon). He used the word to describe a new science which he saw as ‘a science which studies the life of signs at the heart of social life’. This new science, he said, would teach us ‘what signs consist of, what laws govern them’. As he saw it, linguistics would be but a part of the overarching science of semiology, which would not limit itself to verbal signs only.

“A sign is the basic physical vehicle of meaning in a language – any ‘sound-image’ that we can hear or see and which usually refers to some object or aspect of reality, about which we wish to communicate, which is known as the referent. In human communication, we use signs to convey meanings about objects in the world of experience to others, who interpret the signs we use, on the basis of sharing the same language or knowledge of the sign-system we are using (for instance, non-verbal communication).”

The fundamental structures of semiology as dictated by Saussure and his contemporaries, are actively employed when advertisers use display art in print media, and examples will be provided to show how this takes place. But it must be understood that semiology arose out of a medley of sciences and art forms, which at the beginning of the 20th century sought to understand the relationship between symbol and man, i.e. the school of the surrealists, the developing science of psychoanalysis, etc. In fact, when the relevance of semiology towards modern-day advertising is considered, it should only be considered alongside all of these other burgeoning sciences for they have greatly overlapped throughout this century.

Just before looking at how advertisers uses semiotic principles in order to capture and control market audiences, we should look at some of the details of the relationship between signs and man. The word ‘tree’ in English consisting of the letters t-r-e-e is a symbol for the concept of tree – however, different people looking at the word ‘tree’ imagine different trees. The word tree is no more or less a symbol for the concept of tree, than the Chinese picture word for tree, but each would possess meaning for one culture and no meaning for another. The meaning of a sign or symbol is rarely pure, but always coloured by the interpreter of the sign, who Saussure refers to as the signifier, and this issue becomes further confused when you not only consider the literal and connotative meanings of a sign within a culture, but also the psychological peculiarities of the interpretation of each individual.

Is there a simple symbol that can bridge differences between cultures and individuals?
Colours, are by the very nature, suited to a wide range of symbolic purposes within culture, but perhaps some of the meanings of certain colour have deeper foundations than culture – foundations that are rooted in biological rhythms. Its has been shown that red light, because of its predominance in the morning, when shone on the human body produces a vasodilatory effect and the increased production of adrenaline; these colour operated physiological switches help to prepare the body for a day’s hunting – the link between blood flow, adrenaline and danger are clear – red throughout all cultures means danger and excitement.

But while in the mind of early man, red light was used as a switch for biological activity, in modern society, red is often used as a symbol or sign meaning ‘stop‘ – i.e. follow these instructions and you will AVOID danger, or warning – danger ahead.
How then do advertisers employ these fundamental, almost instinctual symbol reactions, that are hardwired into the psyche?



Direct Line is an insurance company, and their display art in print media, shows a phone leaping with excitement, and driving along, almost speeding. The literal meaning of the advert is a red phone with wheels, but the connotative meaning of this speeding red wheeled phone, when you consider cultural and instinctual implications is – ‘if you are in an emergency (999), especially one involving cars, we can help’ or ‘phone this number and you can stop worrying about the danger of an accident of any form’, the wheels on the speeding phone and its colour, all reinforce the meaning of urgency and danger.
Second-order signification like that discussed above, is what has elsewhere been referred to as connotation, or connotative meaning. But it is also what Barthes refers to as myth. Barthes quotes in Mythologies (1957) the example of a photograph on the cover of the magazine Paris Match. It is of a black soldier wearing a French uniform. He is giving a military salute and his eyes are gazing intently upward, no doubt at the French tricolore flag. That, as Barthes says, is the meaning of the photo. That is the meaning in terms of the first order of signification, that is what the photo denotes.
But Barthes goes on to explain the further meaning of the photo. The further meaning, the second order signification (connotation) must arise from the experiences we have had and the associations (connotations) we have learnt to couple with signs.

However, such connotations cannot be independent of the culture we live in and within which our sign-systems operate. The sign of this particular soldier becomes the signifier of the cultural values that he represents in the photograph. That takes us into what Barthes refers to as myth. Under the operation of this myth, the sign becomes a second-order signifier. The signified is: ‘France has a great empire; all her sons, without distinction of colour, serve faithfully under the French flag and that there is no better answer to the critics of colonialism than this black’s zeal in serving his supposed oppressors.’

“Often the thing signified by a sign, will have its place in a larger discrete system of meaning, which is also available to the member of a particular culture. Myths are pre-existing and value laden sets of ideas derived from the culture and transmitted by communication. For instance, there are likely to be myths about national character or national greatness, or concerning science or nature (its purity and goodness), that can be invoked for communicative purposes (as they often are in advertising).”


The above is an example of display art that clearly demonstrates the use of myth in order to sell a product. The mythological semiotics represented by the cowboy are those of freedom, independence, the pioneer, hard work, leadership, rebelliousness and alpha male masculinity, I.e. taking control of the herd. Nowadays we are more likely to see a Marlboro smoked by a gangster in an Hollywood movie, but cigarettes have long tried to exploit the mystery cool of the rebel.


In this advert we see the Budweiser brand claiming kingship of all the beers; this relates to a mythological recognition of the seizing of the crown, or the crowning of a king – and kingship is a mythological representation that goes very deep. The colour that is used to represent Budweiser here is red, a royal colour. Why is royalty associated with red in light of the discussion of its connotative meanings? Red equals danger equals King. “Don’t mess with me.” The literal meaning however is of a simple cool fresh Budweiser.
Finally we must consider the manipulation of the symbolic meaning of words themselves, linguistic semiotics. English language, being as it is, has many connotative meanings for different words throughout the many cultures that speak it. Use of language to say one thing and mean another is a common trick in advertising media.


The above example is taken from an FCUK marketing campaign that was pulled out of ‘teen’ magazines amongst some controversy. The literal meaning of the word ‘scent’ accurately describes the product, but when combined with the words ‘to bed’, the connotative meaning is clear. We have the idea of a perfume that will attract more men into your bedroom, linked to the idea of parental punishment – this was clearly felt to be an unacceptable use of linguistic semiotics.
In closing, perhaps it would be wise to look at a fragment of the work of Enrico Passeo: “We semioticians owe too much. We are always in obligation to the copious foundational ideas of too many writers. Maintaining an original stance and perspective in semiotic writing is as difficult as being a creative historian without the risk of changing history itself. Depending on what we happen to be writing about on a given day, semiotic writing is as my friend Jorge L. Borges used to say, “una labor intensa de anotaciones interminables de historia, leyenda, y antigüedades.” But two semioticians, whether they knew themselves as such or not, who need to be showcased more often are Sigmund Freud and Carl. G. Jung. Our footnotes about their important work need to be larger than they are today.”

Although semiology as Saussure and Peirce would have known it helped to lay down the structural principles and concepts behind semiology, and knowledge of these concepts does indeed help us gain insight into the way display art is used in the media, semiology alone does not complete the picture. The link between psychology and semiology cannot be clearer, symbols and their meanings have a direct effect on the human mind, and the human mind, is in effect a meaning making machine, ‘homo significans’. The two subjects diverged within structuralism but they remain married to one another. Looking at the modern approach to advertising, with particular emphasis on the print media, it is not only recognition of symbols, or brand awareness, but how people interpret and learn through symbols that has become important.

The modern reinterpretation of both psychology and semiology, ‘Psychosemiotics’, drawing on the work of Howard Gardner, addresses meaning through seven different pathways or sign ways: Musical; logical-mathematical; spatial; linguistic; bodily-kinaesthetic; socio-personal and natural. Two other features of Piercian theory (Charles Sander Pierce – an early semiotic theorist) are emphasised, a) feeling and emotion (response to the sign), as ‘firstness’ lies at the heart of every developing sign and b) the theory offers the framework for understanding psycho semiotics as an evolutionary phenomena that operates within biological and psychological restraints, like biological rhythms and social taboos. This new science is used to great positive effect in education, teaching children what they should know in the manner they are best equipped to learn, and to a more dubious effect in the world of the advertising media – where knowledge of psychosemiotics is used to build brand awareness and market loyalty.

Psychosemiotics then, is an even more specific form of structuralism than semiotics, as it complements one structural science with another that found its birthplace in structuralism and linguistics.

BibliographyBooks
1. McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 4th edition, Sage Publications
2. Consequences of A Synnomic Evolution of Language, From “Hablo, Hablas” (1980)

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