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  • Writer's pictureDominic Cincotta

What the Heck Are Semiotics...

And why do semiotics matter?

Studying symbols, signs, and traits that translate into meaning can be traced back to the French philosophers Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. The work of these two men in the early 1900’s centered on grammar, signs, and the use of languages. Saussure posited that all languages are symbolic. Languages do not have true meaning until they are looked at as a whole and not dissected to their independent elements. Peirce’s work focused on the iconic, indexical, and symbolic aspects to signs or the meaning of their representations. As an example, the letter “a” is only a letter “a” because we give it that meaning. The mark “a” represents a letter and sound in human language to us. This work centered Saussure and Peirce as the founding fathers of the field of semiotics. Berger (2012) identifies that the term “semiotics” originates with the work of Peirce.

Semiotics is, “…’the study of signs’. It is not purely a method of textual analysis, but involves both the theory and analysis of signs, codes and signifying practices” (Chandler, 2002, p. 259). Chandler also goes on to define a sign as,

…a meaningful unit which is interpreted as ‘standing for something’ other than itself. Signs are found in the physical form of words, images, sounds, acts or objects (this physical form is sometimes known as the sign vehicle). Signs have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when sign-users invest them with meaning with reference to a recognized code.

A symbol is, “A sign which is learned. No intrinsic meaning or conventional relationship to its actual physical form” (p. 259).

Barthes extended Saussure’s work in to the physical structure of grammar and the meanings conveyed (de Burgh-Woodman and Brace-Govan 2008). He believed it is the play between individual sentences/symbols/texts that create meaning. Individual elements have multiple meanings but it is the arrangements that allow us to agree on a meaning. Meaning is not linear, but more akin to a constellation or plot graph. Barthes moved the study of semiotic meaning away from the author’s intent and into how language is structured and interpreted by the reader.

In the 1980s, Umberto Eco asserted that we can only communicate through signs and symbols. “The sign is used to transmit information; to say or to indicate a thing that someone knows and wants others to know as well” (Eco, 1988, p. 27). It is how we arrange the rules around those signs that create understanding. A sign may not have the meaning assigned to the literal iteration of it. The rules create the meaning. As an example, the sign “+” may mean the mathematical operation of addition to one person, but may symbolize medical aid to another depending on the rules each interpreter applies to the symbol. Eco rejects the idea of “iconic” signs, which are widely accepted and analogous to their objects. Cultural conventions create signs which are commonly agreed upon and therefore are only given meaning among a particular group.

Erving Goffman is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. He focuses on points of view and how we relate to and interpret the world around us. Goffman’s studies hypothesized rules that govern our social interaction. These rules are formed from our framework of understanding the culture in which we function. This framework structures our understanding and meaning of signs, symbols, and culture.

With Goffman’s 1979 book, Gender Advertising, he moves semiotics into advertising. In this book, Goffman studies how media represents and uses gender in advertising. He shows how women are regularly subordinated and made smaller than men. Goffman presents five assertions:

  1. Overwhelmingly a woman is taller than a man only when the man is her social inferior;

  2. A woman’s hands are seen just barely touching, holding, or caressing – never grasping, manipulating, or shaping;

  3. When a photograph of men and women illustrates an instruction of some sort, the man is always instructing the woman – even if the men and women are actually children (that is, a male child will be instructing a female child!);

  4. When an advertisement requires someone to sit or lie on a bed or a floor, that someone is almost always a child or a woman, hardly ever a man;

  5. When the head or eye of a man is averted it is only in relation to a social, political, or intellectual superior, but when the eye or head of a woman is averted it is always in relation to whatever man is pictured with her;

  6. Women are repeatedly shown mentally drifting from the scene while in close physical touch with a male, their faces lost and dreamy, ‘as though his aliveness to the surroundings and his readiness to cope were enough for both of them’;

  7. Concomitantly, women, much more than men, are pictured as the kind of psychological loss or remove from a social situation that leaves one unoriented for action ... (Gornick, 1979, p. 7)

Kress and van Leeuwen are the first to create the idea of observed regularity and the impact it has on interpreted meaning. The regularity of these occurrences of syntax create meaning. Their 1996 book, Reading Images, defines how traits impact the interpreted meaning of pictures and images. This book looks at all images as a sort of advertising with embedded messaging that the reader is meant to understand through ‘narrative vectors’, ‘modality and colour’, ‘gaze’, ‘power and camera angles’, ‘social distance’, and ‘composition’. Kress and van Leeuwen claim, “The key to understanding such texts therefore lies above all an understanding of the visual semiotic means which are used to weld these heterogeneous elements into a coherent whole, into a text” (p. 57). Aaker (2000) relates this idea to websites and brands. He states, “When a brand is conceptually and visually strong and the site is well done, the user should feel that he or she is in the brand’s world. The look and feel should be present in the colour, layout, and personality….help create the world of the brand” (p. 244). By understanding the text of brand websites, we can better understand the world of the brand.

Bringing Kress and van Leeuwen closer to technology, Campbell (2007) examines how technology impacts the idea of gaze in advertising. Campbell offers that, “gaze is a technical term that describes the ways in which we visually consume images of people and places as well as the ways images are constructed to entertain and encourage certain ways of seeing” (2007, p. 3). She goes on to show that technology is revolutionizing the way we look at the world and is intimately affecting our gaze and how we consume images and advertisements around us. Through Campbell it is understood that, “Technology gazes determine not just what is seen, but what can be seen, thus in a way, what is permitted to be seen” (p. 13). Technology frames not only what we see and what we do not see as viewers and also how we see these elements, weaving a narrative that represents the brand identity.

A study performed by Tresidder (2010) bridges from Goffman to Kress and van Leeuwen and introduces a look at how the food retail industry uses signs and symbols to represent their products. Tressider uses a social semiotic read to develop a hermeneutic epistemology that shows the interpretation process that happens in food symbolism in advertising. Tresidder uses a form of narrative in developing linkages between images, and social distance to create meaning between observers and observed. The author presents the idea of regional brand identity elements as “signposts in culture” (p. 480).

In the end semiotics are very important to anyone in marketing and branding. The technological and digital shift in marketing has put a magnifying glass on the signs and symbols a brand uses. A sales person or marketer is not always there to explain the brand or give the live :30 commercial in today's age. Therefore, we must understand the visual images we are putting out into the ether and the multiple frames through which they will be viewed.

In today's race to be first in marketing, it pays to slow down. Understand what you are saying to the world from multiple perspectives. Semiotics alone is a great reasons to develop a diverse marketing department with a culture that allows the challenging of pervasive group think.... But more on that later. For now, in today's constantly shifting culture, make sure you have some sort of guardrails up that are stopping and understanding your visual an textual semiotics in the real world before you go to market and you will avoid unintended negative impacts to your brand.

- This is an excerpt from my 2014 Robert Morris Doctoral Dissertation.

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