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Analysis of

ideology in
Signs as Signifier, Signified, Sign (Ferdinande de Saussure)
A sign is anything with meaning to a
person or group of people.
Signs consist of the Signifier, the
material object, sound or image,
and the Signified, which is its
The signifier and signified are only
divided for analytical purposes, as
in practice a sign is always ‘thing
plus meaning’ (signifier+signified)
The relationship between the
signifier and signified is not natural
but arbitrary and based on
So there aren’t any intrinsic links
between signifiers and signifieds,
and the meaning of signifieds or
• For example, our minds attach the word “apple,” or the
drawn figure of an “apple,” as a signifier to the idea of
an “apple,” that is, a type of fruit grown in temperate
• Apple is the sign made up of a signifier and signified
Semiotic analysis of ideology in advertising: Application of Saussure
and Peirce theories of semiotics.

Advertisements not only sell the

“inherent qualities and attributes of
products” but they also make those
products “mean something to us”.
At superficial level, we can analyse what
advertisements mean by finding out how
they work through deceptive claims to
sell to us products.
From this perspective, advertisements
can be criticized for giving false
information, or even when the
information is true, persuading us to buy
products which are unnecessary;
cle-2010286/Nivea-fined-TV-ad- products manufactured at the cost of
damaging the environment and sold to
make profits at the expense of the
people who made them.
However, criticism of advertising from
this perspective does not enable us
understanding the larger role of
advertisements in our society,
because it is based on the
assumption that ads are merely the
conveyors of undesirable messages,
and only sees meaning in the overt
‘content’ of the ad rather than its
‘form’—in other words, ignoring the
‘content’ of the ‘form’.
Content is the subject of the
advertisement, what the
advertisement is about. While form is
how the advertisement artwork is
expressed, or how the meaning is
presented to the audience. Content
provides something to express while
form supplies the methods for
expressing it. Form enables us to see
the advertisement in a particular way.
For example, form in TV
advertisement is
composed of lighting,
camera angles, editing,
movement, framing and
In print advertising, form is
made up of the principles
and elements of design
used to ensure the
message is effectively
communicated (e.g. colour,
texture, shape, framing,
line, balance, unity,
The same ideas can be
represented differently
based on the form.
The idea of ‘content’ of ‘form’ looks
paradoxical as the words ‘form’ means the
what is used to organise content, which is
seen as substantial, with a solidity of
The terms ‘form’ and ‘content’ can thus be
used interchangeably as form can also be
content, but only when we are keen to
discover how form is content.
Form as content is understood at the
unconscious level when we create a
second message out of form.
Due to the contradictory nature of form
and content, the terminologies ‘signifier
and signified’ are often used in place of
‘form and content’. Signifiers are things,
while form is invisible; signifieds are ideas,
while content implies materiality.
While form and content are usually seen as
separable and their conceptual unity is one
of opposition (form vs. content), signifier and
signified are inseparable, as they are bound
together in the sign, that is, they combine to
make the sign.
Form can be seen as content when
correlative messages, where an object or
person (signifier) represents a value or
function that is transferred to the product or
service (signified).
The link between the product/service and
the signifier does not have to be a literal or a
strong one but the two merely occur together
or their connection is bonded well. Anything
can stand in for something.
Adverts utilise a pre-existing referent system
of meaning, because the product, prior to
signification in the advert, has no meaning.
Products have use value but the sign value
is created through advertising and other
promotional strategies.
Identifying content of form

1. Illogical juxtaposition: Since there is very little real difference

how illogical linking of between brands of fast moving consumer
two objects becomes goods, one of the purposes of advertising is to
logical. create differentiation between a brand and
others in the same category by linking brands
with other signifiers (the link is in many cases
Advertising can achieve differentiation by
providing a product with an ‘image’ that makes
it ‘different’ from other products but not in
The bulk of advertising is for goods that are
the same, FMCC, like cornflakes, beer, soaps,
cooking oil etc.
Many of these advertisements do not give real
information about the product as the products
have no major differences in property.
Therefore, the function of differentiation rests
totally on making a connection with an image
drawn from outside the ad world.
Identifying content of form
The signifier as the overt
meaning in an
advertisement can have a
function of its own, other
than the obvious signified
and thus create another,
less obvious meaning.
This ‘latent’ meaning, unlike
the open ‘manifest’
message, does not simply
remain there waiting to be
understood in simple terms
but we must analyse
messages for us to get the
latent meaning.
The meaning of the
signifier’ can be correlated
with something else based
on the form of the
For instance, due to
proximity, the significance of
(greens/vegetables) is
transferred to Rinsun oil in
this advertisement.
This correlation is non-sequential as the two
things - greens and cooking oil are linked
not by a clear line of argument but by their
place in a picture.
Secondly, this transference of significance
does not exist as complete in the ad, but
requires us to make the connection.
The advertisement does not openly state
that the oil is as good as the greens,
therefore this meaning does not exist until
we complete the transference ourselves.
Thirdly, the transference is based on the fact
that the first object (greens) has a
significance to be transferred: the
advertisement does not create meaning
initially but invites us to make a transaction
whereby it is passed from one thing to
However, a system of meaning must already
exist, in which greens are good for health so
that the advertisement simply refers to it.
Thus the systems which provide ads with
this basic ‘meanings’ (the signifiers) is part
of the ideological systems.
In the examples, the hidden
meanings, the signifier is created by
connecting an object with another
object using our current knowledge
about objects in the advertisement.
The colours of greens and cooking oil
are similar (although not the same).
The assumption here is that because
the objects are related in terms of
colour and proximity, the products
have the same qualities.
Note the prominence of the correlative
in comparison to the product- it is like
the advertisement is for vegetables
rather than cooking oil. The
vegetables are in the middle of the
frame while cooking oil is on the side,
partly outside the frame.
The work of the advertisement, as
shown in the above example, is not to
invent meaning for products, but to
translate meaning for products by
means of a sign system we already
In the example given above, it
is because ‘greens’ have an
‘image’ that they can be used
to create a new system of
significance relating to Rinsun
If vegetables did not mean
something to us, the link made
with Rinsun oil would be
In this advertisement, the two
models and the cooking oil are
not linked by any narrative, but
simply juxtaposition.
The link is in terms of what the
models mean to us, for this is
what the cooking oil is trying to
mean to us, too.
The advertisement presents the transference of meaning to us as
though it were simply presenting two objects with the same meaning,
but in fact it is only in the advertisement that this transference takes
The cooking oil has the ‘meaning’ or image that it shares with the
models through their association in this advertisement. So what the
models mean to us in the real world, the cooking oil seeks to mean
and comes to mean in the world of consumer goods.
The ad is using another already existing mythological language or
sign system, and appropriating a relationship that exists in that
system between signifier (the models) and signified (glamour, beauty)
to speak of its product in terms of the same relationship; so that the
cooking oil can be substituted for the models and can also be made to
signify glamour and beauty.
Advertisements therefore interchange values from different areas of
our lives.
Thus the work of the advertisement is not to invent a meaning for the
cooking oil, but to translate meaning for it by means of a sign system
we already know.
It is only because the models have ‘image’ that they can be used to
create a special image for the cooking oil.
If the models did not mean something to us, the link made between
them and the cooking oil would be meaningless.
Therefore, it is not the models as such, but their position in a system
of signs where they signify beauty, which makes them useful in brand
2. Objective correlation: The outcome of
products as ideology connecting two
interrelated signifiers as
explained above is that
the links originally made,
or rather whose logical
basis exists, in terms of
relationships, very soon
take on an ‘objective’ or
independent status and
exist not as parts within
a system but on their
What was initially a link
between two unrelated
objects becomes the
present day reality over
The frequent juxtaposition of greens with cooking oil or friendship
with Coca Cola becomes logical and natural over time. After a
while, we start associating Coca Cola with friendship in some ‘real’
or ‘natural’ order.
This is true especially for those ads which claim to be either
natural or scientific (in either case objective), since both ‘nature’
and ‘science’ are good in giving our society’s’ ideology an objective
Thus in such situations the form (not message) of advertisements
is part of ideology, and involves a false assumption which is the
root of all ideology, namely that because things are as they are (in
this case, because certain things are shown as connected in ads,
placed together), this state of affairs is somehow natural, and
‘makes sense’ the way it exists.
So when advertisements put two things side by side, we do not
question the sense of it as the form of advertisements, but this
‘hidden’ process of meaning making constitute an important part of
It is certainly a fact that Coca Cola has connected itself with
friendship, but that does not mean that it is logically connected
with it. But the ideology embedded in form is the hardest of all to
see. This is why it is important to emphasize that form plays a
major role in shaping ideology.
After years of advertising, images, ideas or feelings
become attached to certain products, by being
transferred from signs out of other systems to the
products, rather than originating in them.
Yet this intermediary object or person (doing the
linking) is bypassed in our perception as we rarely
notice that the correlating object/person and the
product have no inherent similarity, but are only
placed together.
So a product and an image/emotion become linked
in our minds, while the process of this linking
remains unconscious.
Advertising correlates feelings, moods or attributes
to tangible objects, the possibly unattainable things
with those that are attainable through purchasing,
and thus reassures us that unattainable things are
within our reach provided we have money.
The myth that happiness or other states of mind
may be directly created by certain objects is not
limited to advertising, but advertising is used to
satisfy emotions by acting as a sign pointing at
But emotion is also promised when you buy the
product. So the feeling and the product become
interchangeable as signifier/signified. But, as with
the process of ‘differentiations’ turning into
‘correlatives’, this process is two-way, where all the
meanings are involved simultaneously (signifier
turned into a signified).
3. Product as
Signified Products are given meaning by
advertisements (especially products
that cannot use inherent attributes to
differentiate themselves from their
Through advertising, products which
initially had no ‘meaning’ can be given
value by being associated with a person
or object which already has value to us
Through advertising, something about
the product is signified and the
correlating thing or person is the
The correlative is simply an object,
person or any other signifier. The
correlative must be significant or
balanced against the product. By linking
the two objects, the ‘correlative’ object
acts as an intermediary both for the
abstract quality, and for the product.
In the chocolate advertisement, beauty, leisure and sex are
correlated with chocolates. The matching colours perform some
connecting function: the models body and hair match the colours
of the chocolate.
Although chocolates are a high sugar food product, the
correlation makes the chocolates to mean something else -
luxury, beauty, leisure or sex.
The model’s pose is a symbol of luxury, beauty, leisure or sex
(this meaning is unquestioned on average), therefore its linking
to chocolates signifies the chocolate as being beautiful, leisurely
or sexy.
The form (how the advert is organised) refers to two different
kinds of luxury: what is natural and what we can get from
chocolates. Everything we see in the ad is about luxury.
So we see all of this ad’s signifying process embodied in the
form, the arrangement of signifiers.
Having captured meaning, the product becomes the signified, for
example Java equals high quality. This is a step towards the
product itself as a signifier of meaning, having taken over the
‘reality’ from which its meaning was abducted (the signifier
becomes the sign).
In this way products generate the feelings they represent, so
Java equals happiness; that is JAVA becomes a sign of
something else.
Nivea equals clear skin, equals boyfriends.
Therefore, at this stage something about the product is being
signified and the correlating object or person is the signifier
(what are the correlatives, person or object, in the
advertisements we saw earlier?).
4. Product as After getting meaning transferred from
Signifier objects, a product itself comes to mean
something. What started off as a
reflection of something exterior soon
comes to represent the product itself.
A product may be connected with a way
of life through being an accessory to it,
but after years of advertising, it comes
to signify it. So the product and the 'real’
or human world become linked in the
advert, apparently naturally, and the
product 'takes over’ the reality on which
it was, at first, dependent for its
As the product merges with the sign, its
'correlative’ that was originally used to
translate it to us absorbs the product
making the product a sign itself.
As a signifier, a product takes over as a
monopoly on the empirical reality of
what was originally used to explain the
For example, in the ‘Beanz meanz Heinz
advert, the product has taken over a
monopoly on the empirical reality of
Originally used to explain the product,
‘Heinz’ as ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’ slogan is
a reversal of the first step in the link,
‘Heinz means beanz’.
Once Heinz, the brand name, was
signified as being beans — ‘Heinz
means beanz’ places beans as the
reality being copied by Heinz, but Beanz
meanz Heinz means Heinz is the
signifier for beans.
The slogan is shaped along the old
difference between ‘dogs are animals’
and ‘animals are dogs’.
To say that ‘beans means Heinz’ is to
say Heinz has appropriated all the
meaning that was initially transferred to it
from the exterior reality of beans as
signifiers and Heinz is therefore as the
signifier of reality.
After achieving
the position of a
Product as
Signifier, the
monopolizes the
meaning of
product category
and forces other
products in this
category to
imitate it.
Product as generator of meaning: from product Use-value and Exchange-value
to Sign-value

• A product advertisement can move from being a

signifier of its abstract quality or feeling to being that
• Here it means the product is not only a ‘sign’ but the
actual referent of that sign.
• It is one thing for a product to mean happiness, and
another for it to be, or create happiness.
• The product is always a sign within the ad: as long
as you are not in possession of it or consuming it, it
remains a sign and a potential referent; but the act
of buying/consuming is what releases the referent
emotion itself.
• A bath oil may represent excitement; this is all it can
do in the advertisement, where it is inevitably a sign,
because the referent is the real thing.
• But ads can also shows us the product as generator
in terms of its internal narrative, and we are
promised that the product can create the feeling it
• ‘Open Happiness- how can you open happiness
when happiness cannot be bought?
feel happy;
or you can feel happy because you have bought a box of
These two are not the same thing.

In the first case the

chocolates do not
pretend to be ‘more’
than a sign; they mean
something, but in terms
of a feeling which you
had anyway. They are a
sign for a feeling, which
is the referent.
But if the product
creates the feeling, it
syndrome at work whereby
after seeing certain products
linked to certain feelings for
a long time, by association
the products alone come to
create, to ‘be’ the feeling.
‘Open Happiness’ - The
connection of a ‘thing’ and an
abstraction can lead them to
seem the same, in real life.
Thus the product not only
represents an emotional
experience, but becomes
that experience and
produces it: its roles as sign
and referent are collapsed
Products made become
interchangeable with a
feelings they generate.
interchangeable and hence
Product as Currency: Product exchange value
in value, they may be used as
currency for one another.
For example real happiness and
product initiated happiness are
seen as interchangeable, they
are currency on the level of signs
and can be used to influence real
buying and selling.
The Happiness from coke
represents access to happiness;
As currency, product
are not bought for their
use-value, but their
exchange-value. That
is the capacity of the
product to ‘buy
something else’, for
example body creams
are bought for their
capacity, crudely put,
to buy a
The products have two
uses, its own
usefulness, and a
currency to buy things
that are intangible or
hard to get.
Advertisements can
overrides it in a capitalist
The reason for the
predominance of the
exchange-value is that from
the point of view of use-
value, objects are
incompatible — which is
unexchangeable — with
each other but they have to
be made compatible to
motivate consumers to buy.
For example a luxury-label
leather-jacket has little use in
keeping warm, but may
achieve an extraordinary
high exchange-value on the
market. The (little) use-value
of the jacket is subordinated
to the (much higher)
This puts products in a position of
replacing the consumer;
they do
things the consumer cannot do.
In a Kimbo advertisement, where
the setting is a family home, the
advert claims Kimbo can attract a
husband’s attention and bring the
family together.
A woman’s efforts and Kimbo are
made interchangeable; Kimbo
represent what the woman can’t
do: to make her husband and
family notice the high quality of her