Semiotic Print Advertisement Analysis

What are advertisements for? The most evident answer is that they aim to persuade us to buy things. The process of persuasion is like a deep river: you can dive in and swim ever deeper, see ever more of what it is beyond the surface view. The broadcasters of the message draw on common or cultural associations and assumptions to speak to the people they are targeting. The message also changes over time, in the case of the advertisement not because of the flow of the water passing by, but because the lens through which it is received changes from person to person, place to place, and through the passage of time (with its associated change in the cultural perspective of those receiving the message).

Paradigms are associated ideas, in other words, things we link to each other. Certain signs invoke other signs, through connotation. For instance, a Rolex watch evokes connotations of wealth and status. When you picture a Rolex watch, associated images such as a luxury car, a yacht, an expensive suit, diamond necklace – these all go together. They are part of the same paradigm. Advertisements lean heavily on these connotations, inserting what they’re selling into a narrative containing elements of a paradigm in which they want us to include their product or service.

As with media generally, advertisements therefore serve as an excellent mirror to reflect the existing paradigms in a society. At the same time it shapes the paradigms it reflects, either changing or reinforcing patterns of thinking and associations in the societal mind.

This approach to analysis of an advertisement is semiotic. Pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th and early 20th century, semiotics or semiology is the study of signs. The discipline was developed in stages by notable academics, with the analysis of media through a semiotic approach being most associated with Roland Barthes. In a series of essays, he showed that media is a cultural commentary beyond the obvious. Jean Kilbourne and Erving Goffman focused in particular on the way advertising shapes society, with a particular focus on gender relations. In this analysis, I will examine the paradigm created around BMW cars.

The focus advertisement appeared in print, created by Mab for the German market and released in 2007:

BMW Print Advertisement

Primary Signifiers (Denotation)

The advertisement features a suburban scene created with typographic mosaic art. High rise buildings, trees, two bridges supported by pillars, a wall, a street, and a man are depicted through an arrangement of black and white words. The buildings are made up of the word HOCHHAUS, or highrise, the tree trunks’ words are indistinguishable, but the leaves, bridges, pillars, wall, and street are all made up of their German nouns. The man is not just “man”, instead, he is depicted by an arrangement of the German equivalents of hat, head, jacket, trousers, and shoes. The zebra stripes of the crossing are not just blank, they are made up of a very light grey repetition of the word for Zebra Stripes (which is one word in German).

Secondary Signifiers (Connotation)

While the word art is striking, the depiction evokes connotations of bleakness, lack of colour, and lack of depth – the closer you look, the more “dull” these images become, eventually coming down to no more than a word written in all capitals, which have an even greater lack of variation than words written with a mixture of upper and lower case. All these things blend into a meaninglessness and dullness which is a real risk for city dwellers, who are more likely to suffer from stress and at higher risk of depression and other mental health problems.

The car being advertised is placed in this scene, as if part of it, but it contrasts with the text art as it is a photographic image in full colour. While realistic, the photo is enhanced to exaggerate the gleam. The wheel rims are blurred, indicative of motion, and the windows are tinted, with a driver barely visible, their face hidden by the body of the car. The driver becomes a part of the vehicle, playing into the paradigm of the car being an extension of the self, a part of the owner or driver’s identity. This is especially true for more aggressive drivers, and BMW drivers are as a rule more aggressive than other car types. A UK-based survey found that specifically, drivers of blue BMWs are most likely to be remembered for road rage incidents. The study is not peer-reviewed and therefore referred to with caution, however, it is a survey relying on people’s perceptions, and can therefore indicate a narrative or cultural myth that has grown up around the BMW brand.

Thirty-nine of the first fifty results in a Google image search for “bmw advert” feature blue, black, or silver cars – the top three colours associated with aggressive driving in the UK study. The majority of the rest are red, which was in fourth place of car colours associated with aggressive driving.

Image search result for BMW Advert
Google image search result for “BMW Advert”

There are two possible inferences to be drawn from this. Either the advertisement under investigation uses the deindividuation of the driver and car colour to appeal to aggressive drivers, or years’ use of mostly blue, black, silver, and red in advertisements for BMW cars has led to this colour becoming part of a subtle cultural myth. The myth may lead to these colours being favoured by buyers of a car brand that fits with their above average tendency to view the car as extension of self. Whatever the case, the result is that this advertisement uses the car as a signifier of the opposite of dullness and bleakness.

Google Image Search result for BMW Advert 1990
Google image search result for “BMW Advert 1990”

Another element in the advertisement which is widely used by all car manufacturers is an empty street. This signifies the driving experience as a pleasure beyond verbal description – in this specific advertisement the sentiment is explicitly stated in writing – and a realistic depiction of city traffic would contradict that narrative. The connotation aimed for is a sense of freedom, power, control.

The curve of the visual layout in the ad leads the eye along a path indicated by the darkest part of the image. One’s gaze is first caught by the car, further movement is herded towards the badges and text top right via a C shape formed by the wall and the two intersecting bridges. The badges separate the information in them from the relative clutter of the image. It further signifies a separateness from the soulless city. The square in which the brand name is featured, with the web address underneath, leaves a large percentage of the available space empty, again signifying the luxury of room contrasting with the crowdedness of cities.

Finally, the pedestrian is depicted wearing a hat more readily associated with dress convention in the 1940s/50s. While the rest of the man’s outfit would not on its own seem from that era, this touch evokes connotations of being dated and old-fashioned. It portrays the person who walks, rather than drives, as out of touch with modernity. His clothes are also noticably wrinkled, creating a “frumpy” look, contrasting with the luxury and style symbolised by the car, which is an expensive, luxury brand.

Syntagmatic Related Signs

Syntagmatic relations refers to the positioning of elements in a message. Just like a sentence has to conform to accepted syntax to make sense – “I see the cat” as opposed to “cat I the see” – just so messages have to consider syntagmatic relations to make sense. Thus the high rise buildings and overpass style bridges make syntagmatic sense. A quaint stone built bridge would look wholly out of place in the message, as would the same bridges placed lower than the trees. Likewise the position of the wall, street, pedestrian and zebra crossing make sense. The trees depicted are not full, lush vegetation, instead conforming to something more in line with the poverty of natural-ness associated with cities. They are sparse and relatively frail. Depicting a strong, lush oak, for instance, would have seemed like a word in the wrong place in a sentence. While this is a paradigmatic consideration, I would argue that it is also syntagmatic harmony.

The car is placed in such a way that it seems it is driving away from the city, from the clutter. its nose is close to the edge of the page, it is about to drive out of the whole image altogether. This creates a syntagmatic relationship indicating the car being a conclusion, an escape, leaving all the stress behind.


The ad under investigation, part of a series, uses a striking art form – text mosaic – to create an eye catching visual, which at the same time evokes connotations of bleakness and depression. The car is shown realistically, contrasting colour and “interestingness” with the monochromatic background. Coupled with the empty street, the gleaming machine and signifiers of luxury work with colour to appeal to drivers prone to aggressive driving associated with the brand name. The message conforms to expected syntagmatic placement, with one element – the man’s hat – subtly out of place to create a narrative of walking as out of date.


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