Semiotics 101

Semiotics, the science of signs, is considered to have two fathers: Ferdinand de Saussure, and Charles Peirce. The former was a Swiss linguist whose contribution to the discipline was published after his death. Two of his former students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, used notes take in his classes to put together Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916. The work was groundbreaking for its innovative and original approach.

My experience of semiotics so far is that it is the most complicated simple idea I have ever had to come to grips with. Saussure’s foundational idea is the easiest to explain: a message (any communication) consists of a signifier, and a signified. The signifier is a sign representing a concept. So the word “donkey”, which you read on the screen, is a sign. It represents a concept in your mind – and it is that concept that is called a signified.

Independent of Saussure, another great mind in the USA was working to explain signs. Charles Sanders Peirce explained it as a triad: a sign, an object, and the interpretation of the sign. His terminology is representamen, object, and interpretant. Taking the example of a donkey, you have the word written on the screen – donkey – which is the representamen. Then there is the actual animal braying in a field somewhere: the object. Finally, there is the concept that arises in your mind when reading the word.

Of course, signs or representamens go so much farther than words written on a page. Everything is a sign, whether the originator of the sign meant it as a sign or not. Signs are originated by humans, animals, nature. Complicating matters even more, our interpretants differ. Sheep to a child born and raised in a city means something very different from the same word to a child living on a farm, who has a sense of touch, smell, sound to add to the representamen in their mind.

Both these founding fathers’ work is explained in very simple terms here, but Peirce’s theory especially is like a deep pool. My explanation here touched no more than the surface, but his concepts go far enough to provide material for lifelong study.

Great minds such as Roland Barthes, Stuart Hall, Jean Killbourne and more expanded and built on the original ideas first bound and comprehensively described by Saussure and Peirce. Their work launched a fascinating, culturally critical new school of thought.


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.

“Scoff-law cyclist” myth strikes again

I was once admonished by a driver that I should wear a helmet when cycling. I politely pointed out to the driver that he was not wearing a seatbelt. Today, a pedestian crossing the street in front of me remarked how astounding it was to see a cyclist wait for the bicycle green light. He was in the process of crossing the street against a pedestrian red – this time I didn’t bother to point it out.

Meanwhile research suggests that all road users break the law in equal measures, but drivers and pedestrians are more likely to break the law for their own convenience, while cyclists are more likely to be motivated by the desire to stay safe. But hey, let’s keep demonising cyclists, why don’t we.

Logs and eyes come to mind.

I am not an idiot

Our boiler is one of those that directly heats water instead of warming a whole tankful. It’s been acting up for months, but it always managed to revive itself and work if you just left it a while and tried again later. We hoped to hold on until its service was due in July before getting it fixed, as our landlord passed away just after Christmas, so we wanted to leave the family alone as long as possible. Alas, last night it finally died beyond all hope of revival. Today I will have to arrange to have it fixed, and some guy (never met a woman boiler mechanic) will come around to fix it.

All this morning I loathed that this happened. As I made breakfast, it occurred to me that the thoughts and feelings, the imagined scenarios around the impending visit went beyond just the inconvenience of having a stranger in our house (which we hate). I soon figured out why. In my life, I have most often been treated like an imcompetent bimbo by people fixing mechanical type stuff for me.

“Ooh, this switch here now, you should turn it to that position, with that picture there. If you have it here, only the taps will work, the radiators won’t get warm.”

It’s July, dude. I actually turned the switch to that setting myself as it is SUMMER, we won’t need the radiators for months, and if it’s off there then if someone for some reason accidentally moves the timer switch to “on”, it won’t mean the house boiling and us wasting gas. Yes, it’s unlikely, but no, I am not that much of a moron that I didn’t know what I was doing.

“Yeah, that’s actually the hottest the shower can get in winter. It just works that way.”

No, dude, you are just too stingy to replace the electric shower that has built up enough calcium deposit on the element to not work properly any more. I am not that stupid. Though to my frustration so often I’d just go along with it, pretend to have just been enlightened by this glorious revelation, too polite to call them on their bullshit.

And on and on. I just anticipate a high possibility of being treated like an idiot when someone comes around to fix stuff in our house. Meanwhile, that is MY toolbox, I rebuilt these stairs myself, I built in this kitchen counter, I built this little shelf myself and hung it, too, secure now for going on six years even though it was hellishly difficult to work with these crumbly walls. I know I more often than not do a real Heath Robinson job, but no more so than your average male DIY enthusiast.

But hey, I have boobs, so many people see that and assume I’m stupid. And the one guy who used to come around and be welcomed because he always respected me and explained things to an equal… he was very sick last time I heard, so alas, I have no idea who’ll be trudging through our door in future when we need stuff fixed that is beyond me. My favourite handyman is not qualified to fix boilers, anyway.

Wish me luck for today, hopefully I won’t need it.

You say Pu-tay-toe, I say Pu-tah-toe… (Conversationalisation)

I’m a sucker for the written word. I have been fascinated, since way before starting my studies, with how words are used to give subtle meaning to a written text, the reader not always realising they are being manipulated. Yet written text leaves out many intriguing aspects of communication. One of these is the impact of conversationalisation.

Conversationalisation is the effect of the audible delivery of a text (remember in media analysis ‘text’ refers to a media artefact, not only the written word). It is the tone of the speaker, their choice of words, grammar, accent, the regionally or culturally specific ‘lingo’ they may use. These factors or choices are as critical to the meaning of the message as the actual words in the sentences; in some cases, more so.

Consider this old advertisement from South African television, first aired in 2008:

The first time I showed this to a friend in Ireland, she asked: “What language are they speaking?” Well, they’re all speaking English, but this ad captures a range of specific ways of speaking English in South Africa which are typical of various cultural groups. The brilliance of the ad lies in tapping into the country’s pride of its cultural diversity, and in making a hero out of the African Mama who was in the past often the least respected member of society.

It’s notable that not a single white person is featured in the ad – this in itself makes a political statement that would resonate with people of colour who find the continued economic dominance of whites frustrating. The use of accents previously looked down on, by those relating the story as important witnesses, as well as by the hero of the story, use of the slang spoken widely in everyday life, and the strong accent of the voice-over at the end, all make a powerful statement that taps into deep emotions and very emotive issues of the day.

Contrast the accents in the ad with the media- or general accent used in this news broadcast:

In South Africa, English is spoken by almost everyone, but people have distinct accents which can indicate their background. Among others, there is an “African” accent, such as heard in the Hall’s ad when the hero speaks, which is indicative of a native South African first language such as Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Venda etc.; an English accent, typical of white people who are descended from English settlers, who were raised speaking English as their first language; then there is an Afrikaans accent, typical of white people who speak Afrikaans as their first language. Accents are very strongly associated with cultural groups rather than regions, though there are minor regional variations.

A South African music group that has seen some international exposure, Die Antwoord, uses the Afrikaner accent. This accent is more likely to be associated with conservative values and, typically, Calvinistic religious convictions. This interview with Eugene Terreblanche shows the accent clearly:

It is difficult to overstate how severely the stereotypical “Boer” would disapprove of Die Antwoord‘s appearance, actions, and especially their music. Instead of tempering their accent, they emphasise it (listen from 2:27):

The duo are well able to temper their accents, indicating that it is deliberately emphasised as an artistic device. While this may not be evident to a foreign ear, I can hear an adaptation in the interview below which seems aimed at an American audience – Ninja rolls his R’s less in this video, while in others I listened to his Afrikaans accent is much more pronounced (listen from 1:32):

Employed in music designed to shock, it creates a dissonance that works like a car crash: it’s not pretty, but somehow you can’t look away.

Conversationalisation can also be used to create false intimacy, especially in radio. A good example of this in the South African context (bearing in mind this opinion is limited, as I am a white South African and would not be able to evaluate conversationalisation aimed at my black peers) is Jeremy Mansfield. His media personality is of an agreeable, fun guy who gets along with everyone, and his English South African accent is pronounced:

Whereas the same accent is not erased, but still used more formally by a veteran reporter, Jeremy Maggs:

The use of various accents, specific ‘lingo’, and tone are all powerful tools, and in the South African context it can be particularly meaningful and powerful. I have shown examples where various accents were either emphasised or neutralised as part of the message being delivered, where an accent often associated with white supremacy is used as an artistic device, and where an accent associated with a certain cultural group is used in a context that aims for false intimacy and another context that aims for respectability and formality.

Conversationalisation is arguably as important, if not more so, than the words used to deliver a message. It is a fascinating field of study.

Media as Paintings (Discourse)

When a painting is created, its final appearance is affected by more than the talent and purpose of the painter, more than the image depicted. Every element making up the painting affects what it eventually is. What paint did the artist use? Oil, water colours, perhaps something else altogether? How thick was it? Did it contain glitter? Did they use more than one brush? What were the bristles made of, and how long were they? Were the brushes flat, round, or a mixture? What did the artist paint on: canvas, wood, metal, a wall, a rock? What size is the painting, how well was the canvas stretched across the frame, was the rock smoothed, the wall plastered, the wood sanded or not?

These elements that shape a painting as much as the artist holding the brush are to the painting what discourse is to media. It is the environment in which media comes to be, the myriad elements that influence what is eventually broadcast. The questions we can ask to form an understanding of the discourse that shaped a media artefact are, among others:

Who created the message? As I’ve discussed in previous posts, everything influences media, from the fingers hovering over the keyboard or the voice reading the teleprompter, to the editor who decided this story instead of that one should be produced, through link by link to the owner or shareholder exerting silent or not so silent control over the decisions of everyone down the chain, to the advertisers either spending or withholding their money.

Why did they create the message? In the neoliberal system currently dominating at least Western culture, the answer almost always is ultimately to make money. This also almost always means that “to make money” is preceded by “To draw an audience, so as…”.

When was the message created? Current events can play a role in shaping a message. Often, an understanding of the historic placement of an artefact is essential to decode its deeper meaning.

How was the message created? The tools at our disposal, or that we choose to use, can shape the message we deliver.

What are the effects on the audience, or the wider social effects? Especially in such cases as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as president, media artefacts have a wider and deeper effect in context that should be considered in analysis, especially taking a step back and seeing how an individual artefact fits into a pattern.

That Famous Paxman Interview

Media analysis can be extra interesting for me as an immigrant. I grew up and lived in a world far removed from the one I live in now. Famous names and faces can mean nothing to me. I often have little knowledge of issues, scandals and challenges that are part of the social memory here.

Yet even I had a vague recollection of seeing Jeremy Paxman’s (in?)famous interview with John Howard. Until I watched it again for a Media Discourse and Analysis assignment, I would not have associated those names with the memory. My task this week is to analyse this interview through the lens of what we learned in class. To begin, I watched the clip with a “clean slate” – I looked up nothing about the interview except the date on which it took place. I had no idea who Michael Howard is, what his role was at the time, which may help me to better focus on the techniques used by both interviewer and interviewee in this encounter.

Is the interviewer maintaining a stance of “formal neutrality”? Or can we see some form of bias?

Ideally, mediators (reporters, journalists) should maintain a stance of formal neutrality in an interview. This can be difficult, as your duty as interviewer is also to challenge the interviewee, a purpose often fulfilled by playing devil’s advocate. Of necessity, that can cast the interviewer as someone with an opposing point of view.

While Paxman meets this requirement, it becomes clear as the interview progresses that he “set the scene” with Howard at 1:40 in the clip. Paxman knew that he had a statement which contradicted Howard’s “party line”. Does this mean Paxman went into the interview with a preconceived bias? While he had a clear agenda, set by the acquisition of information which exposed a lie, Paxman’s position qualifies as formally neutral. Howard is trapped, but he is not trapped by Paxman “doing a Bill O’Reilly“, he is trapped by his own conduct.

Paxman also starts by giving Howard an opportunity to disrupt the narrative before confronting him with the statement contradicting what Howard had said to the House of Commons Select Committee. He first asks Howard if he had ever lied in a public statement, and while this was part of the trap being set for the interviewee, it was also an opportunity for Howard to present himself as no more than human. He makes a strong statement that he had never lied – the subsequent unfolding of the interview might have been less damaging if he had said: “None of us are immune from mistakes, but I strive in everything I say to be completely honest.” Next Paxman asks Howard if he wants to change anything from any public statement he has made about the matter on hand. Again, this is part of the trap, as Howard cements himself into a position, and is left no wiggle room. Yet at the same time, in the strictest sense it is a fair opportunity for Howard to lay down some kind of firebreak.

How are the questions being answered by the interviewee (regarding language being used, is it conversational)?

Conversationalisation has to do with the accent and delivery of a media text. In this context the word “text” means audio or video, as we cannot hear the voice of the encoder of the message when we read it. The question therefore refers to the way Howard speaks and the “lingo” he uses. Audiences’ decoding of a message is influenced by the accent and vernacular. Media personalities can deliberately cultivate a certain way of speaking so as to better connect with their audience.

Judging from Howard’s way of speaking it is clear he is either deliberately or inadvertently addressing a more educated audience. Consider his manner and speech in this more recent interview (from 2:04), in which he was addressing a very different audience:

Especially in answers or parts of answers where he likely prepared his response, he leaves out contractions, saying “did not” instead of “didn’t”, for instance. In many cases his grammar is odd and sounds forced, but looks right when written down:

“… the journalist who wrote the story in the Daily Mail, to which you have referred, has confirmed…” (0:20)

“…a decision which I had to take in the light of…” (1:00)

“There can have been few decisions that have been…” (1:56)

“It was a decision that it was necessary for me to take…” (2:04)

Has the interviewee answered the specific question that has been asked?

Howard answers the first two questions unambiguously.

Paxman asks the third at 0:36 – “Would you agree that such stories are cheap and nasty and bring shame on anyone who spreads them?” This time Howard doesn’t answer. Instead he subtly attacks Paxman’s reporting, referring to “an independent report, not mentioned in your introduction”, and implies that reporting on the issue at hand is frivolous.

Paxman asks another question (1:10), which Howard answers unambiguously, but misleadingly.

He then asks two questions which Howard answers unambiguously, before he confronts Howard with evidence of wrongdoing, to which Howard responds by making a number of no doubt true statements which dance around rather than answer the question at hand: had he threatened to instruct Derek Lewis to dismiss John Marriot? Howard again makes statements which are related to the issue but do not answer it. Paxman does not let him get away with it. At 4:12 he condenses the question to: “Did you threaten to overrule him?”

Howard repeats statements which are not an answer to the question, and Paxman famously repeats the simple question twelve times. Howard never answers the question.

What approach is the interviewee using, if any, to avoid providing an answer to a specific question?

Howard uses a few techniques:

  1. He answers a very specific and pedantic interpretation of a question.
  2. He answers, in essence, a different but similar question to the one asked.
  3. He tells the interviewer and the audience what he was and was not allowed to do – something related to the issue but not an answer to the question. In other words, he evades the question.

Is the interviewer allowing this to happen (violation) or are they pushing for an answer to a question?

Following Howard’s pedantic answer (about “bawling out”), Paxman pushes beyond Howard’s base for his denial. He does this in a very polite and civilised manner, so that it is possible to miss his effective “herding” of his interviewee in the direction needed.

Paxman points out that the question “Did you threaten to overrule him?” has not been answered at 5:44, and Howard goes as far as to say the question is something different from what Paxman asked. After this exchange, Paxman moves on to another question. Howard doesn’t answer the last three questions unambiguously, but Paxman allows his non-answers. This is likely because the purpose of the interview had been fulfilled with the famous string of evasions. The final questions seem to be aimed more at the audience than at Howard. His answers are likely irrelevant.

Can we see the use of language within the interview being influenced by the perceived social context of the ‘target audience’?

The interview took place on Newsnight, which is broadcast on weekday nights and specialises in news analysis. The programme’s time slot at the time was 10:30pm, and combined with the subject matter it is clear the target audience was adults with an interest in more than the summary of current events provided by the nightly news. This demographic may even today appreciate presenting language that is more formal and precise. In addition, the mature age group at the time will have grown up through the infancy of television, in which even entertainment programmes’ presentation was stiff and formal.

Howard also uses the passive voice a lot, which can be a deliberate effort to portray himself as a passive victim of circumstances. Instead of himself being the actor in the example from 2:04, for instance (“It was a decision that it was necessary for me to take…”), the decision is the actor, and pushed him into the current situation.