Table of contents
2. Development of Semiotics
3. Media Content
4. Semiotics applied to media content
4. 1 Denotation
4. 2 Connotation
5. The Semiotic dimension of Advertising
6. The Semiotic Power of the Audience
We live in a world of signs and symbols – of past and present. The science of symbols - Semiotics or semiology – helps us to understand deeply and somewhat fully the world of signs and symbols. Many thinkers – beginning with the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure – contributed to the development of this science, which by the very nature of signs and symbols, is in a dynamic state. This in itself is the beauty, attractiveness and relevance of this science. One of the areas where semiotics comes in handy is in the field of the media – books, newspapers, magazines, television, cinema, radio, social media and so forth – to understand how media content is produced by the sender, consumed and interpreted by the audience. Advertisements is one content which transcends all media. Hence the paper would take a special look at a semiotic understanding of advertisements. Media content consists of data and meaning. The content of an advertisement yields/gives rise to many meanings and interpretations. Some writers use the term media ‘text’ instead of media ‘content’. A text can be understood in a variety of ways. Thus media content or text in principle is polysemic, having multiple potential meanings for its audience. Media content or text may also be considered to be more or less ‘open’ or ‘closed’ in its meanings. Further, media content can be differentiated according to its degree of openness. Semiotic method as applied to media content sheds light on the hidden or underlying meanings. Considered in this way the primary objective of media semiotics is to study how the mass media create or recycle signs for their own ends. In this denotation – the first order of signification - and connotation – the second order of signification - play a great role. With regard to mass media content or text, connation is more significant. Indeed, all mass media texts and genres are grounded in connotation, since they are designed to generate culturally-significant meanings. The activation of this second level of meaning requires some deeper knowledge or familiarity with the culture on the part of the audience. But it can also be true that the same cultural product can be ‘read’ in different ways, even if a certain dominant meaning may seem to be built in. Herein lies the semiotic power of the audience meaning that all texts can be read in an oppositional way and their encoded ideology readily subverted.
Semiotics is one of the most popular subjects today, especially in relation to media. It is because this subject provides: a clear idea of what to look at when analyzing the meaning of media messages; explains why the media have differential effects; enables the observer to analyze the structure of media messages without ignoring the interpretive processes of the audience.
What is Semiotics?1 The shortest definition is that it is the study of signs2 . But that doesn't leave enquirers much wiser. ‘What do you mean by a sign?’ people usually ask next. The kinds of signs that are likely to spring immediately to mind are those which we routinely refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday life, such as road signs, religious signs and public utility signs. If you were to agree with them that semiotics can include the study of all these and more, people will probably assume that semiotics is about ‘visual signs’. You would confirm their notion if you said that signs can also be drawings, paintings and photographs. Further we should know that it also includes words, sounds and ‘body language’.3
“It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, ‘sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them.” Thus wrote the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder not only of linguistics but also of what is now more usually referred to as semiotics (in his Course in General Linguistics, 1916).4 Jensen (1995) adds: Evidence from twentieth-century Philosophy as well as different scientific fields also suggests that signs are the inescapable condition of knowledge. He goes on to say, “Piercean (referring to Charles Sanders Pierce) pragmatism gives us the insight that signs are the media through which we come to know what we can justify saying we know.”5
In this paper my primary focus is on how Semiotics can be applied to media content. Usually by the term ‘media’ we mean ‘the media’ – books, newspapers, magazines, television, cinema, radio, social media and so forth. These communications media do make available a wide range of messages and meanings. But the term ‘media’ refers more widely to all those things which are channels for communicating something and to that extent a large part of our experience of the world involves interaction with media. If this is so, then it is clearly both useful and interesting to find a way of understanding how these media are meaningful to us. In recent times, one of the most powerful and influential ways of thinking about media has been the semiotic approach.
We will also try to explain what we mean by ‘media content’ and how semiotics is applied to media content in general. Since the scope of this paper is limited, I will only be looking at just one media content in particular, namely advertisements (that too advertisements in general). Later we will dwell very briefly on the semiotic power of the people. Before going into all that, a few words about the development of Semiotics are in order.
2. Development of Semiotics
Other than Saussure, key figures in the early development of semiotics were the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (sic, pronounced ‘purse’) (1839-1914) and later Charles William Morris (1901-1979), who developed a behaviourist semiotics. Leading modern semiotic theorists include Roland Barthes (1915-1980), Algirdas Greimas (1917-1992), Yuri Lotman (1922-1993), Christian Metz (1931-1993), Umberto Eco (b 1932) and Julia Kristeva (b 1941). A number of linguists other than Saussure have worked within a semiotic framework, such as Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1966) and Roman Jakobson (1896-1982).6
Semiotics began to become a major approach to cultural studies in the late 1960s, partly as a result of the work of Roland Barthes. Writing in 1967, Barthes declared that “Semiology aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification”7 For C W Morris semiotics embraced semantics, along with the other traditional branches of linguistics: semantics: the relationship of signs to what they stand for; syntactics (or syntax): the formal or structural relations between signs; p ragmatics: the relation of signs to interpreters.8
Semiotics is not widely institutionalized as an academic discipline. It is a field of study involving many different theoretical stances and methodological tools. One of the broadest definitions is that of Umberto Eco, who states that “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign”9 Semiotics involves the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects.
To sum up then Semiotics is the study of signification, or the ways signs are used to interpret events. It makes a sharp separation between a medium and its content. Content matters a great deal and depends on the reading given to it by the producer or consumer. Semiotics focuses on the ways producers create signs and the ways audiences understand those signs. We will take up some of these points as we go on.
3. Media Content
Media content consists of data and meaning. Different medium transmits data in print, sound or pictorial image, which the receivers can directly observe and is in a sense ‘fixed’. While the meanings, which are claimed to be embedded by the producers are variously received by the audience, and therefore not fixed, are largely unobservable.
The most important question perhaps concerning media content is how it is received by the audience. Mc Quail (1994) states that most early research into media content tended to assume that content reflected the purposes and values of its originators … and that receivers would understand messages more or less as intended by producers.10 Further, the content of mass media has often been regarded by social commentators as more or less reliable evidence about the culture and society in which it is produced.
Some writers use the term media ‘text’ instead of media ‘content’. And the term ‘text’ itself has been used in two senses: 1) to refer to the message itself: the printed document, film, television programme or musical score …etc. 2) to refer to the meaningful outcome of the encounter between content and audience. For instance, a television programme “becomes a text at the moment of watching, that is, when its interaction with one of its many audiences activates some of the meaning/pleasures that it is capable of provoking”11 It follows from this that media messages can elicit numerous meanings, so that a text can be understood in a variety of ways.
Mass media content is thus in principle polysemic, having multiple potential meanings for its audience. “They are mulitisemic because they can mean different things to the same person at different times, places, and situations, and in different moods.”12 Fiske argues that “polysemy is a necessary feature of truly popular media culture, since the more potential meanings there are, the greater the chance of appeal to different audiences and to different social categories within the total audience”.13 Summing up this point Fiske tells us that a programme is produced by the industry, a text by its audience. In this sense, the word ‘production’ can be applied both to the activities of the producers and the audiences. This is a central point in our discussion of the media content from the point of view of its reception by the audience.
Mc Quail states that media content may be considered to be more or less ‘open’ or ‘closed’ in its meanings.14 According to Eco (1979), an open text is one whose discourse does not try to constrain the reader to one particular meaning or interpretation. Further, media content can be differentiated according to its degree of openness. For example, “news reports are intended not to be open but to lead to uniform informational end, while serials and soap operas are often loosely articulated and lend themselves to varied ‘readings’ … It has also been argued that television in general has a more open and ambiguous text than cinema film.”15
4. Semiotics applied to media content
It is French Semiotician Roland Barthes (1915-1980) who first showed the importance of studying media in terms of how they generate meanings. Semiotic method is fundamental because it focuses almost exclusively on hidden meanings.16 As Mc Quail too says, “The application of semiological analysis opens the possibility of revealing more of the underlying meaning of a text (content).”17 Semiotics can be applied to ‘texts’ which involve more than one sign-system and signs (such as visual images and sounds).
Barthes (Mythologies, 1957) was of the opinion that the meaning structures built into media products and genres were derived from ancient myths, bestowing upon media events the same kind of significance that is traditionally reserved for religious rituals.18 It is clear from the above statement that semiological analysis of media content presupposes a thorough knowledge of the originating culture and of the particular genre. Burgelin (1972) writes: “The mass media clearly do not form a complete culture of their own … but simply a fraction of such a system which is, of necessity, the culture to which they belong.”19
Semiotics provides us with an approach, if not a method, to help us establish the ‘cultural meaning’ of media content. “It certainly offers a way of describing content: it can shed light on those who produce and transmit a set of messages.”20 Jensen (1991) speaks about ‘social semiotics’ by which he meant semiotics applied to media content in order to bring out its social significance. He writes: “When the discursive differences of mass media content and other cultural forms are interpreted and enacted by social agents, thus serving to orient their cognition and action, media discourses can be said, in the terminology of pragmatism, to make a social difference.”21
Now it might be right to state that the primary objective of media semiotics is to study how the mass media create or recycle signs for their own ends. It does so by asking: 1) What something means or represents, 2) How it exemplifies its meaning, and 3) Why it has the meaning that it has. For example, take the figure of Superman (in comic books, films, science fiction …). What or who does Superman represent? He stands for ‘a hero’ in the tradition of mythic Greek superman heroes, such as the Prometheus and Hercules. As a heroic figure Superman has, of course, been updated and adapted culturally – he is an ‘American’ hero who stands for ‘truth’, ‘justice’, and ‘the American way’. But like the ancient heroes, Superman is indestructible, morally upright, and devoted to saving humanity from itself.22 (At the moment the US needs a Superman to save itself from the Vietnam-like mess it has created in Iraq.)
The gist of the semiotic story of Superman, therefore is that he is a ‘recycled’ or ‘mediated hero’. As this concrete example shows, media representations are, more often than not, recycled signifiers, dressed up in contemporary garb to appeal to contemporary audiences.23 It is said that, like their ancestors, modern-day people need heroes sub-consciously to ‘make things right’ in human affairs at least in the world of fantasy.
4. 1 Denotation
Continuing with the example of the Superman, let us suppose that if someone is not exposed to Superman (in action comic books, films, science fiction …), to that person Superman would appear to be a ‘man in tights and red cape, who has the unusual ability to fly, and who possesses superior physical powers. This ‘literal’ perception of Superman is known technically, as denotation.24 Quoting Barthes (1967) Mc Quail says denotation has been described as the ‘first order of signification’, because it describes the relationship within a sign between the signifier (physical aspect) and signified (mental concept). The obvious straightforward meaning of a sign is its denotation. For example, in an advertisement for a brand of perfume an actor’s photo is used to advertise it. The photo denotes the actor.25
1 See David Lidov, Elements of Semiotics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 1-10.
2 Mc Quail defines a sign as “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”. See Denis Mc Quail, Theory of Communication (London: Sage, 1994), 245; See also Sante Babolin, Piccolo Lessico di Semiotica (Roma: Hortus Conclusus, 1999), 89; for another definition of signs see Arthur Asa Berger, Signs in Contemporary Culture (New York and London: Longman, 1984), 1-4.
3 Sante Babolin, Piccolo Lessico di Semiotica (Roma: Hortus Conclusus, 1999), 84-85.
4 As cited in Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners (E-book, 1999) http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13658276-semiotics-for-beginners, accessed on 14 September, 2014.
5 Klaus Bruhn Jensen, The Social Semiotics of Mass Communication (London: Sage, 1995), 168-169.
6 See Thomas A. Sebeok, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Vol II. (Berlin, New York and Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter, 1986), 893-898.
7 Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 9.
8 Clifford Christians and Michael Traber (Eds.), Communication Ethics and Universal Values (London: Sage, 1997), 42.
9 Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press/London: Macmillan, 1976), 7.
10 Mc Quail. 1994, 235.
11 J. Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987), 14.
12 James Lull, Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach (Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2013), 162.
13 J.Fiske, 1987, 14.
14 Mc Quail. 1994, 239.
15 Ibid., 239.
16 Marcel Danesi, Understanding Media Semiotics (London: Arnold, 2002), viii.
17 Mc Quail. 1994, 247.
18 As referred to by Danesi, 33.
19 O. Burgelin, “Structural Analysis and Mass Communication”, in Denis Mc Quail (Ed.) Sociology of Mass Communications (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 317.
20 Mc Quail. 1994, 247.
21 Klaus Bruhn Jensen and Nicholas W. Jankowski (Eds.), A Handbook of Qualitative Methodologies for Mass Communication Research (London: Routledge, 1991), 41.
22 Danesi, 34.
23 Ibid., 35.
24 Arthur Asa Berger, Pp. 48-50; Babolin. 1999 Piccolo …, 31; Babolin, Semiosi e Communicazione (Semiotics and Communication) (Roma: Hortus Conclusus, 1999), 243-245.
25 Mc Quail. 1994, 236.