Introduction: The essay aims to undertake a semiotic analysis of an image, in this case, a magazine advertisement, and to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. Using analysis of:
- Denotation vs. Connation,
- Signifier vs. Signified,
- Representation of reality.
The image will be dissected into its individual building blocks to assess its effectiveness as an advert and its commentary on society today, also discussing whether the semiotic analysis is the truest discipline to follow in this case. Denotation vs. Connation, Signifier vs. Signified: The image I have chosen is a magazine advertisement for ‘Heinz Big Soup.’ To analyze the semiotics of this image, I will firstly discuss what is visibly present in the image (known as the signifier) and what the suggested meanings are (what is signified).
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
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Prices start at $12
The image’s main focus is a large, seemingly well-made cooking pot with a violently broken handle; in the lower right-hand corner, there is a picture of a can of ‘Heinz Big soup.’ The pot is positioned on a warm beige background, and there is no text. What is denoted in the image is a pot with a broken handle and a can of soup; however, there are underlying conations as to the suggested meaning of this image. What is signified in the image is that the soup is so substantial, so filling and ‘Big’ that even a well-made pot is not up to the job of holding its weight for cooking; it is, in fact, more than just an entire meal in a can.
The relationship between the signifier and the signified is the difference between what is seen and what the advert desires the viewer to see; that is to say, this image is not just a broken pot and a can of soup. Instead, this advert relies almost entirely on representation. The consensus is assumed that average soup is not substantial enough to break a cooking pot handle, thus reinforcing the mental concept of ‘Heinz Big Soup’ being ‘Big Soup.’
This particular ‘sign’ stands for something other than an image of a broken pot; it stands for a soup to beat all other soups, a meal in a can that is of great value because of this. This image does not signify reality; it appears conscious of the almost humorous situation it denotes. The general consensuses would regard this situation as impossible while transmitting a message of ‘Big Soup.’
Codes: “One of the fundamental concepts in semiotics… codes provide a framework with which signs make sense” (Chandler: 1995). Analysis of the codes used in this advert, whether social or textual, helps with the semiotic analysis of this text. Codes may be different languages to give the impression of a foreign product, or they can be the way the advert is constructed with relation to the photography.
There are few textual codes in this particular advert, the only text being the label on the tin of soup. This is important as it gives the advert context; if the tin had no label signifying soup, the advert would be pointless. Because the tin is labelled, the relationship between the soup and the domestic preparation of soup, i.e., the pot, is now clear, and the sign becomes clear. Textual codes play a role in the way in which an advert is interoperated. In this advert, the camera gives the text a feeling of warmth and comfort, conjuring up images of eating the soup by a fireside on a cold winter’s evening.
If the colours were to change, for instance, this may give the text a different meaning. The text’s main focus is the broken pot with one half of the handle in the foreground, the wood violently snapped, and the metal bracket inside the handle twisted and broken. Because of its placement in the text, it is clear to see in detail the violence of the handle breaking, signifying the quality of the soup (see above). If this handle were to appear in the background, what is signified would be ambiguous. The viewer must decode all these elements to understand what is signified by the advert.
Signs: The sign is the relationship between:
- “A ‘signifier’- the form which the sign takes; and
- The ‘signified’- the concept it represents”. (Saussure: 1983)
The sign is the result of these two elements accessed together. Some signs have to be interpreted within this advert to be understood in the context it is meant. For the viewer to understand this image, they would first have to be aware of the following facts:
- Understanding what soup is.
- How it is typically prepared.
- What soup preparation typically consists of.
- What it would take to break the handle of the pot.
The advert would make no sense; the ‘joke’ would be lost. It is assumed that in general, most viewers ‘are’ aware and will therefore understand the signs though they may be unspecified or invisible. Within this advert, as part of the sign interpretation, the signifier is the physical form of the broken pot; the signified is the quality of the soup (see above). With these two elements together, the sign is of a quality product through the sign itself may not be based in reality. The viewer interprets these elements and mentally constructs what is signified by the advert.
Representation of Reality-The strengths and weaknesses of semiotic analysis: Many believe that semiotic analysis is a way of understanding reality. The analysis is a way of commenting on society and its value structure. It seems, however, that there is no definitive answer as to how effective this type of analysis is. As society and its values are constantly changing, analysis of, e.g. a magazine advert today may have no substance when assessed 50 years from now. Also, as there is no set criterion to follow, it is open to the individual’s interpretation using their own social values as the building blocks for their findings. According to Daniel Chandler (2002):
“In practice, semiotic analysis invariably consists of individual readings… few semioticians seem to feel much need to provide empirical evidence for particular interpretations, and much analysis is impressionistic”. However, there are some valid points to be made about the positive side of semiotic analysis: (David Mick: 1986) “No discipline concerns itself with representation as strictly as semiotics does.” David Sless also states that to bring all the elements of language and history etc. together, a person with a semiotic point of view is needed to “survey our world” (Sless: 1986).
In conclusion, it is widely felt that semiotic analysis is not an exact science, but it is ‘the best we have. It is a way of making common sense of our own reality and a way of recording the way things have changed in society: (Schroeder: 1998) “…there is nothing natural about our values; they are social constructs that not only vary enormously over time but differ radically from culture to culture”.
Conclusion: This advertisement signifies big, chunky soup that in reality would not break the handle of a cooking pot; this is just reinforced in the advert as it is assumed that in this case, it has. Consumers are aware that the sign is exaggerated in this case; however, the mental concept remains clear. Other adverts for this product have revolved around a similar principle, one, in particular, denoted the back of a lorry, empty apart from a can of ‘Big Soup’ signifying the same element s again and using the same codes, a whole lorry is not needed to transport one can of soup.
This advert seems to be aimed at men and women; it was collected from a men’s ‘motoring’ magazine. However, sociological ideals dictate that women would undoubtedly be interested also. The advert is affective and humorous, making it memorable and conveying its message without becoming complicated or even offering a gender identity. The only comment it makes regarding society is that soup has little or no gender identity and consumers are hungry, so they need ‘Heinz Big Soup’ providing they have a cooking pot that is up to prepare it.
- Mick, David Glen (1986): ‘Consumer Research and Semiotics: Exploring the Morphology of Signs, Symbols and Significance’, Journal of Consumer Research.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de ( 1983): Course in General Linguistics (Trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth
- Schroeder, Jonathan E (1998): ‘Consuming Representation: A Visual Approach to Consumer Research. In Stern op.
- Sless, David (1986): In Search of Semiotics. London: Croom Helm.
Bibliography: (as above)
- Stevenson, N. (2002) Understanding Media Cultures. 2nd ed. Sage.
- Chandler, Daniel. (1995) Semiotics for Beginners: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html