Semiotics is an approach that can be used to understand how media texts make meaning for their audiences. There is no exam question on semiology but it is a useful set of ideas to help you approach the analysis of media texts.
A women holding her hand over her face
The image shows someone scared – this could reveal to the audience that something sinister may happen in the movie.
Different sorts of sign that will help you to engage in semiotic analyse and to decode and deconstruct photographs images and audio clips. One of the key academic theorists behind semiotics was C S Peirce and he came up with three types of signs which you will most often see when you are looking through text books on the subject. These aren’t the only types of signs that you will come across but Peirces three notions of the sign are particularly important. The first he identified was an iconic sign. Quite simply is a sign which is a direct representation of the image or thing is signified – it may be a drawing or an image or a picture of something and it actually bears a likeness to it. So an example of this is a the block print image of what is clearly a rose – it may not be realistic but it is good enough for us tell that it is a direct representation of a rose. He also identified what he termed the ‘symbolic sign’. This is basically a sign which does not necessarily look like the object but has come to be accepted with a particular meaning. The key issue is that in a particular culture – for example like our culture, the object has become to have a particular meaning. For example – so a good example of this, if you have studied biology you would know that it doesn’t actually look like this. But this is a symbolic representation of it and all that it implies, for example, love, passion, affection, etc. Symbolic signs are particular significant in media studies because of course our culture is full of different sorts of representations. A good example of this is the development of the road sign, this was used to represent to motorist when they were approaching a school. This image is clearly a type of roman or Greek torch but it was used to represent a school – the interesting thing is it didn’t work as it was too confusing and accidents happened etc. For those of you wondering why a torch would be used in this way is that is signified, it was meant to reflect the greek notion of knowledge and enlightment and it was meant to lighten the way. Education was meant to be enlightening, so it was highly symbolic but it didn’t actually work for motorists. So when they changed the highway code, they came up with a set of signs which we now recognise today, this is why all highway code and traffic signs are actually iconic. We can see here that this representation of two children, they are holding hands which represents that they might be friends or siblings. One of them is wearing a skirt, so one must be a girl/female. The smaller one is meant to be a boy. Moving on, the final sign is called an indexical sign. This is a sign which suggests other meanings, it is what we call a referent or a connected referent sign, just like an index in a book, it is about all the bits that are connected together that tell us something about a book, so an indexical sign is a sign which refer to something else. Smoke for instance refers to fire, if we think are a car wheel we know that it refers to a car. If we think about downing street it can refer to the prime minister, the crown can represent the monarch or kind or queen. Indexical signs are signs which are interconnected to other signs and represent them. So those are the three that Peirce identified, they are very useful, use them as a practice in your semiotic work.
Signs rarely appear in isolation in media texts. In order to create a clear and convincing message, they are combined with other signs – these are referred to as codes.
Start to think about analysing media texts and deconstructing them – literally taking them apart and accounting for an explaining the relevance and importance of the main constituent parts, such as verbal communication, the use of colour, sound, lighting, the position and movement of the camera, the performance of the actors or presenters, the setting, the layout, how the people and places are being ‘represented’ in the text.
Hand out for denotation and connotations – do exercises
Moving on now…looking at codes in a little more depth. These can be broken down into two types, primary and secondary does.
Codes are a merely a collection of signs, so the notion of a code is merely a pattern or an organising principle to help us to understand media products. Primary codes are essentially those codes which related to the every day, real world – that the media represent when making media products like films, TV programmes, magazines and newspapers. One of the most important codes to look at when we study the media is of course the use od clothing or dress codes. Famous Italian semiologist – Umberto Eco, famously said ‘I speak with my clothes’. What he meant by that was that our clothes and the clothing we wear are essentially a form of communication, that we wear clothes to make a statement – that our clothes say something about us, our status, who we are and how we feel about the world. So when we study the media we can recognise, that clothing is used to establish status or identity for characters and of course what we need to understand is the social and cultural context in which clothing is used in the media because it reflects what we see in the real world at some level. So for instance clothing could be seem as formal, smart or casual and of course that is entirely dependent on the social context in which we engage with that media product. Uniforms for example are an interesting concept here. There are formal uniforms that identify people but semiologist might also argue that we all wear a uniform. The clothing we wear is reflecting the peer group we want to fit into, or perhaps the extent we don’t want to fit in, and we see ourselves as an individual. So it is really important to recognise that clothing is a form of highly symbolic communication, clothing can be seen as appropriate or inappropriate – for example you probably wouldn’t wear flip flops and shorts to a job interview, so it is really important to try and understand the social and cultural context in which we understand dress codes. Lastly, as I have mentioned, clothing is very much about our identity and status, clothing represents to a certain extent social class, gender, race and sexual identity. So if we take gender, in this country that women are expected to wear skirts or dresses, yet in other parts of the world where men wear kilts or sarongs, there is a completely different cultural context. So we do have to understand that clothing does communicate certain deep seated issues about society and culture. What I would like you to do is a semiotic analyse of these two images.
Task – a couple of minutes –to do a semiotic analysis of these two images. Based on what we just discussed, deconstruct those images based on their dress codes, what their clothing suggests about their status or identity, who they are, the context in which they operate etc.
Moving on, I want to look at speech and language. Clearly where the media is concerned, sound and language is vital, there is printed language but what I am talking about is speech – accent dialect and tone of voice. You can tell from my voice a great deal for instance perhaps, where I come from, my gender, my age, you maybe even able to tell my social class. But a really important thing from a semiotic concept speech is really important in terms of what we call paralinguistics. That is the emotional basis of someone's voice. That means that you can tell the emotional tone and mood from someone's voice, you tell if they are happy, sad or anxious. Have a listen to this clip – do some analysis – identity what you can tell about that person and the situation – is there a equal power in the conversation? How about tone of voice, emotions?
Understanding the importance of primary codes. Another key concept - Body language or NVC, just as understanding dress codes and speech and language codes are vital in semiotics in being able to deconstruct images, so are body position, movement and facial expressions. In essence the notion of NVC suggests that the way we hold our body, the way we move our arms and legs, our posture or the way we stand in relation to other people, communicate the way we feel and communicates a great deal about the individual concerned. A great deal has been written on both NVC and body language and they are distinct. Firstly body language. If you look back at the images that I asked you to analyse earlier you will see that it is not just the clothing but the way that these individuals are standing – with their hands on their hips, and the way they are looking – the other individual also has hands on their hip but with their head tilted. Last but not least we need to consider the way they are looking – whether they are looking at us or turned away, this is called mode of address and we are going to talk more about that later. Lets understand a little more about body language and NVC. NVC is particularly about the expression of the human face. Human faces are the most expressive on the planet of all the primates humans are the most expressive. I would like you to take a minute and do a little bit of analyse, and deconstruct the NVC of this image in the right, what can you tell about this individual what does it tell us and what are the signs that have led you to this conclusion. One of the key things we talk about when we look at body language and NVC, we talk about whether the body language is opened or closed. For instance a classic of open body language is if your arms are opened, that shows relaxation. Closed body language suggests that you are a little bit more anxious or you don’t particularly want to engage with the individual. So having your arms crossed is a really good example of closed body language. We also need to understand relationships and to understand that we need to introduce you to a new term – proxemics. Is essentially the spacial relations between people and objects. For example, this image shows that they are very close. One of these things you would understand for instance is that humans like their personal space. People who get too close to us can make us anxious – we don’t want them too close to us. However, this image shows that they clearly they are close – they are touching and his body is slightly turned inwards, that is a sign that this person is connected in someway – interested. There are interesting semiotic issues to discuss here, that the balance and symmetry of the image- their heads are close together, there is a baby here and a dog – so the whole image is really very symmetrical. And of course there is some interesting background information as well. Take a few minutes to deconstructs these two images.
Finally we are going to take a look at colours, shapes and forms – in essence everything else you will see in an image. Take a look at these two images – the square bottle and round bottle – one represents perfume for men and one for women – which do you think it is – shapes are important – that will tell us a lot.
The gender images in these commercials are designed to match the expectations and fantasies of their intended audience. Examples of how adverts are tailored for the desired gender is illustrated above in figure 1 and figure 2. Figure 1 is selling Davidoff’s Cool Water for women and Figure 2 is selling the same fragrance for men. Figures 1 and 2 use the same approach of photographic imagery of the sea and shore, the colours - blue and white - associate with water hence the fragrance name ‘Cool Water’ and the text for the advert. Figure 1 show’s an attractive, confident female model passive on the shore resting her head on a rock and gazing at the reader. Figure 2 shows a muscular male model in water, who is active (splashing water) and seems he has just ‘jumped’ out of the water. It is intriguing that the bottle in figure 1 is fragile and passive like the woman and the design appears to have curvaceous, smooth curves resembling a woman’s body. In figure 2 the bottle is solid, rectangle with sharp edges and resembles a man’s ‘strong and muscular’ body.
Here we see the dark, un-fussy shape for the men's version, compared with a red or pink colour and a more "feminine" silhouette for the women's product.
Moving on to secondary codes – better known as technical codes which are the codes and conventions that the media industries use when constructing media text so that we can interpret and understand them in specific ways that producers want us to understand them. There are many technical codes so we cant explore all of them, but we are going to look at 2 or 3 of them main ones that are important. First and foremost, that you need to grasp, is how all media texts follow particular formats, often based on genre, so TV programmes, newspapers, print adverts all tend to follow a certain format that we have come to recognise as generic. For example, this image on the top right from the Guardian, this follows the typical format that we might associate with a newspaper. It has a mast head, it has what is called a primary lead and a secondary lead story. We can tell this because the lead story has a bigger title and it uses bigger typography. So that is the simple idea about formatIf we look at the format of a Youtube layout, we can see that we are looking at a different kind of medium, because Youtube is interactive, what we have is a main image on the middle left where we can play videos, on the right we are given a series of choices and below the main image there is place for us to write comments. So the structure of Youtube is specially designed to influence us in a particular kind of way and to create meaning. This leads us on to the idea about layout and we have already touched on this at one level. Layout is all about this relationship between images and text, whether for instance the medium we are looking at is a landscape medium – e.g. youtube follows this convention based on film and TV increasingly that it is landscape, the ratio gives us a rectangle image. Newspapers still tend to have this rather portrait feel and this makes a difference in the terms of layout and design and how we interpret the image. If we look at the image on the bottom right, we can see that it is a screen grab from Coronation Street, although in some ways this is like the youtube image, there is no way the same amount of text. Because it is not an interactice medium – it is a TV programme and the opening credit sequence – so there is a simple piece of overlay that tells the title and a very simple stark image. Another important technical code, whether you are looking at still images or audio/visual images, is the role of lighting. This is incredibly important creating meaning and ambience for audiences and it often creates a very powerful mood. If we look at the image on the top left, this is shot in what is called low key lightning, it is dark and shadowy – and there is a sense that it is quite sinister, so low key means when you have a single light source, so it is half lit. If we go back to the image on the right hand side – this image is shot in high key lighting. This is when things are brightly and evenly lit, so that we can see everything and there is no ambiguity or doubt. Of course there are many other ways we can talk about lighting – it can be natural or artificial, soft or hard, but these are things that you will develop over time. Moving on, to camera work – we will go into this in more detail later, what you need to understand is really about how framing and shot scale helps to create meaning for the audience. The top image on the left is a close up – it just gives us detail of the person. The coronation street image is a long shot. A long shot fills the middle ground and background, that fills the frame and that’s where our observations are focused by the producer. Media images can also be cropped as well which can change and create meaning. Lastly is sound – sounds effects can add the realism of the film or programme, they also act as an indication of the genre and support action codes. In a horror film the sound effects are stereotypical and recognisable, for instance wind howling, doors creaking etc. Music is an important audio code. Songs can convey narrative information and suggests genre. It is expected that romantic music will be heard at appropriate moments
Now to discuss some other semiotic terms. First is Preferred meaning – this is essentially the meaning that the producer or encoder intends to be understood by the audience who are engaging with the media text. So generally speaking it is the most obvious interpretation that most people would come to when they look at a media text. For example if we look at the example on the top right from the Daily Telegraph- looking at the headline, the preferred meaning is clearly making a connection between the young people in those images and the fact that there is something wrong with society. The headline is ‘our sick society’, suggests that there is a problem, so the preferred meaning is going to be a negative story about young people and crime. Another useful concept is polyemic meaning. Some times media messages are not straight forward. The preferred meaning is not tied down. Polysemic means ‘many sides’ and it essentially refers to media images and texts, when they are much more open to interpretation. For instance the image on bottom left is of George Bush – it is a screen grab from Sky News – went round the internet as a Memes, because some people found it very funny ‘it says, George Bush , one of the worst disasters to hit the US, you could interpret that as meaning George Bush was a terrible president and a complete disaster but that wasn’t what Sky news had intended it to be. It was in fact referring to Hurricane Katrina. But the preferred meaning doesn’t work, it is actually polysemic – so we may interpret it in two ways. It is important to note at this point that the basis we interpret such things is all to do with who we are, the way we have been brought up – this is called socialisation. You might look at this and feel that it is unfair and it is not a reasonable reflection of young people in society and you might feel that this is not fair to George Bush. It is very much up to our political views, beliefs and how we see the world.
One of the things that will dictate the extent to which an image can be tied down and preferred meaning can be created, this is called anchorage. This is where a text or caption are essentially there to tied down the meaning – to make sure that it isn’t polysemic. You can see on the right had side that The Telegraph have been quite successful in tying down the meaning – we are in no doubt that it is a negative, whereas the George Bush image, it didn’t work it wasn’t tied down and the ancourage didn’t work.
Recap: What was covered last week?
Started to look at anchorage
Summary: The Media Influence
The way we think…
Of the world – the way it is organised & run?
Other people – social groups?
What is good/bad or right/wrong?
What is important?
How we should act and behave?
• Students will consider semiotics and how it
can be used to assist with analysis and the
evaluation of media texts.
• Learning Objectives:
• To define key semiological terms and
provide examples of their use within a
media studies context.
Final hand in for: A textual analysis
of a print advertisement
Question 1 of exam: requires an analysis
of an audio/visual or print based extract
What can you see?
-Can you see a young woman?
-Can you see an old woman?
-Can you see both?
•Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols
All media texts are constructed using a variety of signs. Everything
that can be seem or heard on a screen or a page is a sign.
•Signs are all objects and things which surround and form part of
our culture. Language is also a sign system.
•Signs have no intrinsic meaning! Meaning is based on social context
(where the sign appears and with what other signs)
•The meaning of signs is therefore dependent on cultural agreement
and acceptance. E.g. shared assumptions by a group
Cultural context gives meaning to signs
• A sign is made up of a signifier (the thing used to represent the
concept e.g. a word, gesture, sound or a picture), or what is
• A sign is also made up of a signified (the idea or concept of a thing)
or what is connoted.
Cute, fluffy domestic
animal which represents
home life... or?
• Describe ‘Signifier’ in
relation to this.
• Describe ‘Signified’ in
relation to this.
C S Pierce argued that there are at least 3
types of sign:
•Icon: The iconic sign is a direct representation
of the object or thing signified e.g.
•Symbolic: A sign which does not look like the object
or signified but has come to be accepted with a
particular meaning e.g.
•Index: An indexical sign is a sign that suggests
other meanings as a connected referent e.g.
What is a CODE?
A combination of signs - that give a sense of the whole.
A system or set of conventions – requiring mutual understanding.
Example: Morse code, Highway code, dress code?
Media Example: Opening credits of TV news or Front cover layout
of a daily newspaper or magazine
Everything we see in a text, whether it is
a print text or moving image, will contain
meaning communicated through codes.
In an MS1 response it is important that
you can understand those codes and also
to offer connotations and not just a
denotation of the codes contained
within a text.
Denotation – This is the simple description of
what can be seen in the text before meanings
are attached to it. For example, the
denotation of a red rose is a flower with a
Connotation – This is the meaning placed
upon the code or sign according to its context.
For example, a red rose will have different
meanings when on the shirt of a rugby player
or in a fragrance advert.
A SIMPLE COMMUNICATIONS MODEL
Two Types of Code
Secondary codes (technical)
colours, NVC, etc
Media specific e.g.
camera, angle &
• Dress Codes: Confers status & identity. Formal or informal,
smart or casual, uniforms. Appropriate or inappropriate?
Influence of class, gender, race, sexual orientation?
Speech/Language: Accent, dialect, race,
gender, age, class, but also attitude,
emotional tone and mood
• Task: What can you tell about these people
based on their voice alone?
Body Language & NVC (non verbal
Bodily position, movement & facial expression
all communicate without the need for
language i.e. proxemics – the spacial relations
between people and objects. ‘Open’ or
Task: Deconstruct these two images looking at
body language and NVC
Semiotics and Colour
• Colour can convey meaning and
communicate to us
• Colour can evoke strong emotional
responses in viewers – effecting our
• Gender and colour - socialisation
or technical codes
• Format (TV programme, newspaper, print advert,
webpage et al & conventions of/issues of genre)
• Layout – relationship of images & text inc.
typography. Portrait /landscape
• Lighting – low or high key, natural or artificial
• Camera work – framing, shot scale, movement (if
• Sound, either diegetic or non diegetic – sound
effects, music, et al
The meaning the producer/encoder intends
to be understood by the audience
(decoder). The most obvious interpretation
by most people in a culture.
Polysemic meaning (polysemy)
Signs & codes which are ‘open’ until
the meaning is tied down. The
preferred meaning is dependent on
other meanings being ‘closed’ off. Its
A sign or signs that ‘anchors’ and therefore reinforces the
preferred meaning of an image. Text or captions are good
examples of creating the preferred meaning intended by the
producer. However, any sign can serve the function of
‘anchoring’ the meaning of an image or media product.
Mode of address
The way a media image/artefact is positioned in
relation to an audience. Its use of rhetoric. Whether
it acknowledges our presence (pictures) or uses
certain kinds of language (first person pronoun).
Inclusive or exclusive language for example:
We/Us/Our. Direct (looking at us) or indirect
Key Terms to use
• Signs – iconic, symbolic and indexical
• Codes – primary (dress, colour, NVC) and secondary
(technical codes – composition, angle, etc)
• Denotation (specified object)and connotation
• Preferred meaning (what does it mean)
• Mode of address (how does it position the viewer)
• Anchorage (consider visual signs or text)
• Polysemy or polysemic (extent of ‘openness’ or
closure or meaning)
Image Analysis Exercise
• Analyse three of the following images – do not
pick consecutive pictures ie do 4,6,8 or 5,7,9
• Use the key terms as tools to help you explore
and decode the images to create your own
notes (e.g. Cornell system).
• Write in as much detail as you can.
• Write up your notes as prose or bullet points
which you can use to feed back in class.