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Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Semiotics of Nintendo's Advertising, Part 1: The Theory

Following on from 2 of my previous Media and Cultural studies related essays on Representations & Ideology and Star Studies, comes the third in the series: Semiotics, otherwise known as Semiology.

About Semiotics: 

If someone walked up to you, approaching you on the street and asked you what is Semiotics, the answer would be, well, you wouldn't know what that is. Semiotics is one of those things that has a very strange sounding name, and yet you wouldn't have a clue what it entails or why it exists.

The short answer would be 'it is the study of signs', but even that definition alone, is too vague and not specific enough to understand what Semiotics is.

Okay, for those reading this, the study of signs is a way of saying 'analyzing signs for meaning', for definition, understanding the intent of that sign is and why, perhaps, the person or people who created that sign, decided to opt for this sign. Usually, when someone mentions signs, it tends to be visual, symbols, logos, signs that you see in person. Road signs, sign language, star signs. These are things you see in everyday life.

But what if I told you that signs can also be people, celebrities, animals, transport, food, clothing, jewelry, items, money and paintings, as well as sign language, song lyrics and words? You'd probably be surprised, and intrigued. 

Semiology (pronounced as Semi-o-logy) and semiotics (pronounced as Semi-o-tics) are both derived from the Greek term Semion, meaning sign (5, Bignell). It is closely related to the field of language and linguistic studies. However, in media and cultural studies, Semiotics is used to analyse and deconstruct meanings and ideas in TV shows, movies, advertising. 

French literary theorist, linguist and Semiotician Roland Barthes developed a method of analysing rhetoric structures of media culture by taking apart the mythologies that colonise social life and reproduce critical consciousness on behalf of the reader (92, Introduction to Part 2 et al durham, kellner).

Semiotics is a way of seeing the world and things happening around the world and to understand how the landscape and culture in which we live in has a massive impact on all of us (Sign Salad). 

Semiotics represents a radical break from traditional criticism. The first order of business is the interpretation of the aesthetic object or text in terms of its immanent meaning (Benyahia, Rayner). It asks how meaning is created, rather than what the meaning is, by using specialized vocabulary to describe signs and how they function (4).

Therefore, how does the producer of the image use existing structure of meaning to ensure the product means something, and how do we extract that meaning?

The semiotic approach understands that representations do not operate separately from one another, but rather collectively, it forms a representational system similar to written or verbal language (Fourie, 215). It allows for a detailed deconstruction of representation, in order to uncover the sign's connotative and ideological meanings.

Take Red as another example: it is a primary colour; however, Red can also mean something else depending on its context. If the context is a traffic light, then Red would signify 'stop' for the person waiting at the pedestrian crossing. 

If the context is a rose, then Red would signify romance, love, passion. If the context is a flag, then Red would signify 'danger' or caution. If someone's face or cheeks turns Red, it would signify that they are blushing, but also it could mean they are embarrassed or shy. 

Therefore, words, objects, places mean different things to different people, depending on the context that they are used and what they might infer to us.

Every single thing we say and do in life - from cooking, playing sports, talking about our favourite TV shows-, is all governed by a set of cultural messages and conventions. It is through these conventions and messages that we are reliant and dependent on them to decipher and interpret them to the best of our ability.

For example, when someone gives you the 'thumbs up', you notice the thumb being up, not down. Down would connote bad, not good, whereas up connotes 'good', 'good job' , someone happy. We instantly interpret signs as and when we see them. 

Umberto Eco once said that 'Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign (1976). 

Because signs are words, images, sounds, flavours, smells, objects, such things have no intrinsic meaning attached to them. anything can be a sign, as long as you interpret it as signifying something. For example, let's take Orange, as in the fruit. How do we know it is an orange? An orange is practically nothing. Why is it an orange? This is where the concept of the sign is applied: the sign is made up of 2 parts - the signifier and signified. The signifier is the object, the visual image shown. The signified is the word of that object, so therefore the signified is the word Orange and the letters O.R.A.N.G.E. 

 (object) >>  Signifier 

   Orange  (Word)   >> Signified 

(object)  +   Orange  (word)   =  Sign   

(Signifier)   +   Orange  (Signified)  = 


When the signified and signifier both meet together, it then becomes the sign. Hence, Orange the fruit (Signifier) and the word 'Orange' (Signified), stating what the signifier is. We know it is an orange because of how it looks and the word 'Orange' that states what the object is. And there you have the sign 'Orange'. 

As children, we learn that it is an Orange and that we rely our cultural knowledge to understand and to know it is an orange through its colour, taste, shape, the word 'orange' and size. 

The Semiotic Terms

According to Charles Sanders pierce, there are 3 types of signs: symbolic/arbitary, iconic, indexical.- A sign represents an object by people who use it. It has no connection between sign and object. CAT has no link to the animal as a pet. It works because we understand the letters C.A.T when put in that order means/signifies a cat. Because it is symbolic or arbitrary, it can have several meanings (Rayner, Wall, 35). When we see the sign of the cat, we then know it is a cat. A cat is a type of animal and pet with 4 legs. When we mention cats, we refer to domestic pet cats, but cats can also mean lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, pumas etc. Animals that are part of the cat family. 

The other 2 signs are iconic and indexical; iconic signs are paintings, statues, photos, street signs, the effiel tower, statue of liberty. Iconic signs resemble the object it signifies. A painting is an iconic sign that depicts in visual form the subject, the painting. 

Indexical signs are signs that are connected to what is being signified. sign of smoke = fire, tear = sorrow, sadness. 

Other Semiotic terms used in Semiotic and Textual Analysis are:

Anchorage - fixing, limiting set of meanings to image. caption, headline underneath a photo. 

Codes - constructed and adhered to by society; dress codes, colour codes, body language, facial expressions, poses. each language possesses its own set of conventions. these conventions aka codes make a representation understood by its readers (Hall, 1997, 36). 

Technical codes - particular texts used, reproduced

Referent - the thing to which the sign is referring to. For instance, the image of a cat is designated by the term, 'cat'. 

Connotation - meaning of the sign through cultural interpretation, experiences, identifying what the sign is signifying beyond what it is. 

Denotation - what the image shows, what is immediate, not assumed. 

Identifying text - offer clear description of what it is 

Semiotics is all around us, every one is a semiotician: when you look at images, signs, photos in the newspaper, on websites, watch TV shows and talk about the characters, storylines, meanings, that is part of what semiotics is about (Sign Salad - Semiotics Explained). 

In structualism, each element within a cultural system gets its meaning from its relationship to every other element in the system (4, Benyahia). Alas, there are many multiple meanings, otherwise known as Polysemic.

In media studies, our task is to break down or deconstruct texts and images into parts and to reveal and understand how advertisers use different signs and codes to create meaning or a message to sell a product or service (33, Rayner, wall).

Analysing media texts is often very complex because it combines the analysis of both 'language' and visual signs. The 2 work together to create meanings that s/he is able to decode.

About Advertising 

Advertising is a form of non-personal form of promotion that is delivered through selected media outlets, that under most circumstances, requires the marketer to pay for message placement ( 

It is a process and a way in which the manufacturer of the product communicates with customers via a medium, or different media.

Most advertising involves communicating a complex range of messages about a product known as 'branding'. A brand is a product or range of products that have a set of values associated with it that the consumer easily recognises (Mediaknowall). The brand is distinguished and recognized immediately by its name and/or symbol/logo. For instance, Nike's brand is the swoosh tick symbol, followed by the slogan, 'Just Do It'. 

Brand identity is created in 8 steps:

- essence: a way of summerising the significance of the brand to stockholders and consumers of the brand in one sentence 

- slogan: public way of identifying the brand to consumers, involves using the logo

- personality: marketers describe the brand as if it was a person, celebrity

- values: what it stands for/against

- appearance: what it looks, taste, smell, sound like, how it looks 

- heritage: how long has the brand been around for?

- emotional benefits -  is specifically tied to brands, their particular features and how they are marketed. (Day, 2010) 

- hard benefits - Is it bigger? Better, value for money, longevity factor, does it have good controls, is the material of good quality that it won't come apart and break easily? (Media Knowall) 

Advertising will inform and entertain us in a variety of ways and persuade us to purchase a product or service. It is visible everywhere, on TV, newspapers, magazines, online (89, Kolker). Yet it is also a text, comprising of a range of texts- images, words, music, product it is selling, person promoting the product- with its own codes, conventions, genres, narratives to tell and reach out to audiences.

Advertising combines 4 things: art, graphic design, psychology and social engineering. It makes use of visual arts to illustrate its message and product, the narrative from the movies, TV world to tell a story, as well as social, powers of persuasion and processes of deceit, convincing us to buy the product (Kolker, 90). 

In advertising, semiotics helps advertisers easily identify the target market. most advertisements play on cultural knowledge, common references etc to be relevant to the consumer (Manral, 2011).

Through a combination of symbols, words, images and music, advertisers combine all these things to create 1 meaningful, coherent composition (Lewis, Small Business Chron).

(To be continued in part 2....) 


  • Semiotics the Basics, D. Chandler, 2001
  • Semiotics For beginners, D Chandler
  • Media Semiotics: An Introduction, J Bignell, 2002
  • Media Studies: The Essential Resource (Essentials) - Sarah Casey Benyahia, Abigail Gardner, 2013
  • AS Media Studies: The essential introduction for AQA, philip rayner, peter wall,  2008
  • Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, The Key Concepts, J Hartley, 2002
  • Media Studies: Media History, Media and Society, Pieter J Fourie
  • How To Do Media and Cultural Studies, J. Stokes, 2012 
  • Messages, Signs and Meanings: A Basic Textbook in Semiotics and Communication, Marcel Danesi, 2004
  • The Advertising Club, Kiran Manral, November 1 2001
  • Examples of semiotics in advertising, Chron, Jared Lewis
  • Key terms in semiotics, Bronwen Martin, 2006
  • KnowThis - What is advertising
  • Mediaknowall - What is advertising?
  • Media studies: An introduction, Robert Kolker, 2009
  • Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming, ed Mark J.P Wolf, Sheila C Murphy
  • Nintendo: The Company  & Its Founders, Mary Firestone, 2011
  • Nintendo Wikipedia page
  • Nintendo History Lesson - N-Sider, 2003
  • Brand Building and Emotional Benefits, Derrick Daye, 2010
  • Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, Meenakashi gigi durham, douglas M Kellner, ed. 2006
  • The Media Students Book, Gill Branston and Roy Stafford, 4th edition, 2006 
  • Semiotics Explained: SignSalad, 2011 

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