Semiotic Devices in Advertising

Advertising is defined as an attempt to convince people to start or increase their use of certain products or services. This may either be done through language or by the use of graphics. This paper will look at the device of decoding advertisements called semiotics and how it gives an advert meaning in the advertisement ‘40 hour famine.’

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The advertisement ‘40Hour famine’ is about a campaign to feed hungry children through donations. It appeals to its target audience to go without food or anything else that is important to them for forty hours or eight hours for those in primary school. This is to tackle the global food crisis facing many children. The advert targets the youth and this explains why it ran in a magazine like a Girlfriend. This magazine targets teenage girls and therefore it will reach a big number of young people. It is supposed to inform them about the plight of children in the world’s poorest nations who go without food all year long. The advert has been created to inspire young people to join hands and alleviate hunger. As (Sinclair, 2006) states, “Advertisers look for the means to communicate with a particular niche or ‘target’ market.”

Today’s world is dominated by electronic media and most advertisers often use graphic images that are designed to convey the desired message to a target audience. Semiotics gives us a perspective to recognize the effects contained in the adverts. It does this by studying all things referred to as signs in the everyday language as well as those that stand for other things. The signs in semiotic are informed of sounds, gestures, images, and words (Chandler 2000; Leeuwen 2005, p. 26-29).

Words and images may have a connotative meaning that goes beyond the literal one. In advertising, the linguistic signs have a literal meaning which any viewer from any culture is likely to recognize. In the ‘40hour famine’ advert, anyone can see that is a black child. On the other hand, the meaning may be culture-specific and this leads to the connotative meaning. Connotation refers to socio-cultural, personal associations like ideological, emotional, and so on. They are associated with the viewer’s gender, ethnicity age, class, and so forth. In this case, the signs are open to divergent interpretations. A photograph has denotation foregrounded because it appears to be a natural sign which does not have the intervention of codes (Hall 1980, p. 132). The denoted meaning is that the young boy looks hungry. His torn clothes appeal as they suggest the level of poverty in most third world countries is high. The placing of the boy in the picture is very significant because the manipulation creates empathy in us. This will then push us to respond to the advertisement by donating. The boy looks very innocent and sincere in appealing to “You” to take action now and stop the hunger-biting young children. As Williams says,

“Surrealism has been described as ‘the road to the absolute … By using the
absolute world, that can be bracketed off from the real, advertising again finds a
way of placing objects in juxtaposition. The cultural image of Surrealism
means that the spectator of the adverts assumes a link between them.”
(Williamson, 1978: 132)

A link is created between us and the many hungry children suffering.

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Ideology is the “necessary representational means through which we come to experience and make sense of reality” (Shevchik & Ruben, n.d). The ideology hails us unconsciously through interpellation which addresses people as subjects. Advertisers achieve this through the use of language as well as images. The dominant subject in the advert is that poor people, especially in third world countries need to be assisted. The picture of a young black boy paints an image of a helpless boy who must be rescued. Therefore anyone who is concerned must donate to show their support in such cases. Society expects people who are well-do to help the needy. Hunger has a black face and therefore the picture sends that message across very clearly. If the boy in the picture was white the advert would not have the same kind of impact on the target audience. The picture in the advert reinforces the image that the majority of people in the society have of African countries; that is the continent is characterized by drought, deadly disease, and poverty.

Symbols are used in advertising to attract attention which creates an impact and makes the viewer develop an interest in the message represented in the advert (Moriarty, 1986). The target viewers can associate the symbol with the products being advertised. In this particular advert, there is the use of the world vision symbol. This symbol is well known across the globe as representing a humanitarian organization. Therefore several people are most likely to give donations to this organization as they will feel that it is for a worthy cause and to a genuine organization.

The implied narrative meaning in the advert is a boy who needs help. The designer of this advert has represented a boy in tattered clothes so that when one looks at it, they are bound to ask themselves what the picture is all about. Therefore, a message that something is wrong and action needs to be taken, is passed. This is because, unlike an advert, a narrative is about change, disturbance, and disorder (Narrative Media n.d). Through the use of a brief text, the viewer is urged to take action by finding out what the advert is about.

The anchorage of the advertisement is the young people. They are many and a good number is likely to take action to feed the hungry children. The advert has text that says hunger is a global crisis and together with the goodwill that world vision has there is hope that the campaign will achieve its objectives.

In conclusion, the advertising discourse is diverse and an advertiser needs to understand it. This may require a thorough knowledge of a certain culture and the codes used. By the use of appropriate codes, an advertisement has the potential to sell its message to many people and cause them to change their perception about whatever is being advertised. This is because adverts can naturalize ideologies in society and hence people may end up believing what they would not under normal circumstances.

Reference list

Chandler, R 2008, Semiotics for Beginners.

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Hall, Stuart ([1973] 1980): ‘Encoding/decoding’. In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.): Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 London: Hutchinson, pp. 128-38

Moriarty, S.E. (1986). ‘The Role of Visuals in Advertising’ (paper presented at the International Visual Literacy Conference, Madison, WI.,

Narrative media n.d. Web.

Shevchik. L & Ruben, R. Ideology & Desire: Advertising & Popular Culture.Web.

Sinclair, J, 2006, ‘Advertising’ in S Cunningham and G Turner (eds), The Media & Communications in Australia, Allen & Unwin, NSW.

William, J, 1978, Decoding advertisement: ideology and meaning making in advertising,Boyars, London.

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