index.html   Visual Semiotics and Interpretation in the Television Commercial


Türkay BULUT


Cag University




         Visual communication does not include language codes; it leaves the visual message and the recipient alone. This paper focuses on the production of meaning from visual messages in advertising from a semiotic analysis perspective which can be examined through viewer responses to identify patterns of meaning construction. For this purpose, we have investigated one specific advertisement (the Coca cola light commercial which ran in Turkey during the second half of the year 2004) and asked a group of viewers to produce the meanings of the images in the commercial. The results yielded that the viewers noted more iconic message elements than symbolic or indexical ones; however, symbolic meaning seems to be more effective than iconic meaning.


“One picture is worth a thousand words. Yes, but only if you look at the picture and say or think the thousand words”

                                                                                                      William Saroyan

         Communication refers to the act, by one or more persons, of sending and receiving messages that are distorted by noise, occur within a context, have some effect, and provide some opportunity for feedback (DeVito, 1991). Every message system, whether linguistic or non-linguistic, verbal or nonverbal, is a system of signs. Humans, then, are immersed in a world of signs- to be human is to be creator, disseminator, and consumer of signs (Trenholin, 1986). We use available signs and codes to produce and receive verbal or nonverbal meaningful messages. While language is a powerful model for understanding communication, it has its limits as an explanatory schema because it ignores other forms of communication (e.g. visual) (Moriarty, 1996). Like verbal communication, nonverbal communication may create ambiguity; then, how is meaning produced and conveyed in visual communication? People use signs to construct meaning mediated by personal experience and culture because, as Lester (1995) has put forward, the problem with admitting that there is a visible language is not that there are no words – pictorial element – in still or motion picture photography, but there is no universally acceptable language of visual description. As we live in a world dominated by electronic media, producers of visual messages such as advertisers, filmmakers, graphic artists, image-makers all use images and signs to affect our meaning making process.

1. Semiotics 

         Semiotics offers a focused perspective for recognizing the effects of other sign systems on critical literacy abilities. The semiotic approach to visual communication stresses the idea that images are collection of signs that are linked together in some way by the viewer. One way to understand how interpretation works is to analyze the logical process, by which we create inferences and make sense of things (Langrerhr,2003).

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         A sign can be a word, a sound, or visual image. It is an object which stands for another to some mind. Saussure (in Lechte, 1994) divides a sign into two components – the signifier (the sound, image, or word) and the signified, which is the concept the signifier represents, or the meaning. As Berger (in Moriarty, 1995a) points out, the problem of meaning arises from the fact that the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and conventional; they can mean different things to different people. In this philosophical focus, the most basic premise of this semiotic theory is that all that we can know is mediated by signs. Pierce categorized the patterns of meaning in signs as iconic, symbolic, and indexical. An iconic sign is one which is, in one or more respects, the same as the object signified; a symbol, as Pierce reminds us, originally meant something ‘thrown together’ making a contact or convention; in a contemporary setting, a symbol refers to conventional signs used, for instance, in speaking and writing (in Lechte, 2000). An index is a sign physically linked to, or affected by, its object. For example, a cry for help may indicate someone in need. Similarly, a knock on the door may indicate that there is someone at the door. All these three types of signs are used in visual communication, including video forms.

        Abduction is a logical form for understanding how signs operate (Moriarty, 1996). Abductive inferencing designates the reasoning process by which hypothesis, rather than definitive conclusions are initially constructed. This is formed by combining implication (incomplete information) provided by the message producer with various schema (including prior knowledge, attitudes, association, etc.) that may have been socioculturally learned; this application of prior knowledge should be differentiated from the type utilized in inductive processing (Langrehr, 2003). From a semiotic perspective, abduction often includes meanings gleaned from nonverbal messages. Intrinsic qualities such as intuition, emotions, and physical senses play a part in the message recipient’s cognitive process. According to Eco and Sebeok (in Langrehr, 2003), the message recipient is seen as an investigator or message detective who is trying to reach a conclusion by making educated guesses about seemingly ambiguous information. A comparable motivation is evident in Eco’s discussion of signs and signification in semiotics and the philosophy of language. There, Eco argues that a sign is not only something that stands for something else, but must also be interpreted (in Lechte, 2000).

         At the heart of semiotics is the realization that the whole of human experience, without exception, is an interpretive structure mediated and sustained by signs. Semiotics considers a variety of texts, using Eco’s terms, to investigate such diverse areas as movies, advertisements, and fashion, as well as visuals (Moriarty,1995a). The essential breakthrough of semiology should take linguistics as a model and apply linguistic concepts to other phenomena (e.g. texts). Marketing experts have also used semiotic interpretations to analyze the rich cultural meanings of products and consumer behaviors. Visual texts are an important area of analysis for semioticians and for scholars working on visually intensive forms such as advertising and television because images are such a central part of mass communication sign system.

1. 2 Visual Communication


Metz (in Moriarty, 1996) discusses how visual interpretation takes place in film through two processes: montage and decoupage. Montage is how we make sense of relationships between objects, as well as internal composition and sequencing. Decoupage in the assembly of pertinent traits needed for perception and classification; for Eco, these are the pertinent traits of code recognition. Visual recognition is based on certain perceptible traits of the object and its images. We do not need the whole image or all the details to recognize something because these key traits retain enough of the schema for perception and cognition. As we work through the processes of montage and decoupage, we are using cues – bits and pieces of visual information – to construct hypothesis which eventually lead to sense- making experience; i.e. we arrive at some meaning interpretation.


1.3 Commercials

Visual texts are important for semioticians and particularly for scholars working with virtually intensive forms such as advertising and television because images form a central part of our mass communication sign system (Moriarty, 1995a). Since television advertisements include both verbal and nonverbal signs and prepare the conditions for the viewers to infer meaning from it, advertising language has gained consideration as an important area of linguistic research. In language based communication, the one transmitting the message either in spoken or written language guides the recipient to make inferences. However, in making meaning process of nonverbal communication, viewers are responsible for interpreting the messages. Recipients equipped with critical thinking skills may have more efficient critical comprehension in the interpretation process.


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Commercials also rely on the viewers to understand the messages they are producing and try to guess the knowledge of the viewers that they want to reach. Advertisement producers try to find images that support the product and that will help to sell the product. From a semiotic perspective, television advertisements consist of language and image information (both verbal and nonverbal signs) and provide particularly effective environment for examining the ambiguous nature of abductive inferencing (see Section 1.1); skilled copywriters value elusiveness and incorporate the incomplete reasoning of abduction into their messages (Langrehr, 2003).

            In order to make sense of the world we live in, we try to interpret what we observe. Our senses, cultural environments, rules and values and our personality as well as our aims, needs, moods influence our interpretation. For this reason, advertisers conduct focus group studies in order to get the general idea of how their commercials will be interpreted. Powell et al (in Gibbs, 1997) define a focus group as a group of individuals selected and assembled by researchers to discuss and comment on, from personal experience, the topic that is subject of the research.

         A semiotic analysis of a commercial seeks to find out how the messages are formed and given meaning. In a semiotic approach, the meanings of ads designed by their creators give shape and significance to our experience of reality. To study advertisements may mean to decipher the framing of meaning since they are always produced in a social context and are always relational and contextual. Without a context, no meaning can be produced because the image will stand for nothing, so commercials compose connections between the meanings and images of products. Bignell (in Atkinson, 2002, parag. 5) states that a semiotic analysis needs “to identify the visual and linguistic signs in the ad, to see how the signs are organized by paradigmatic and syntagmatic selection, and note how the signs relate to each other through various coding systems. The semiotic analysis of commercials is to make meanings from linguistic and visual signs.”

         Communication theorists have also made contributions to visual communication. Wendt (in Moriarty, 1995b), for instance, in his book titled The Language of Pictures interpreted visual communication in terms of basic communication theory, and claimed that the meanings of pictures are not in the pictures, but rather in what we bring to them. Since visual interpretation is based upon perception through cognition and language and is affected by social, cultural, and personal frames, we strongly believe that semiotics will help us explain the complexity of visual communication while processing visual information and producing meaning from visually intensive areas such as commercials (Lester,1995; Griffin, 2000).

2. Methodology

         This review has led us to investigate how meaning is produced from a commercial, particularly in visually rich and complex messages such as the ones found in the Coca Cola Light commercial that ran in Turkey during the second half of the year 2004. This commercial was thought to be an ideal tool for analyzing meaning production because of its message structure and because of being appropriate for interpretive analysis. Since this study is an exploratory effort that attempts to analyze the different readings of visual texts and does not focus on scientific analysis of commercial’s effectiveness, we will investigate the meanings of the images in the commercial as produced by a group of viewers in terms of semiotic analysis of the visual aspects of the text. In order to achieve our main goal, we have formed several research questions:

1)  What are the dominant visual images?

2)  How are these images described?

3)  What do they symbolize?

4) How do various message elements function in terms of semiotic meaning: iconic, symbolic, indexical?

5) How do message elements carrying various types of semiotic meanings differ in type of impact they create on viewers’ perceptions?

2.1 The Participants and the Procedure

            The viewers included 45 university students in the spring semester of 2005 at Çağ University, a private university located in Içel on the south coast of Turkey. They were students in the preparatory school and the English Language Teaching department. We believe that this age group (between 18-20) is the target audience of the Coca Cola Light in the aspect that they are the consumers of the light drink. The gender of the participants is not taken as a variable in this study.

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            The viewers were first asked to watch the commercial. Then they completed a short survey which contained a set of open ended questions to probe the types of meanings the viewers derived to probe from the commercials. We asked the students to comment on the commercial, cite the visuals that made an impression on them, and explain the symbolism they saw in the imagery. They completed the task in Turkish in order to avoid the language barrier. A code form was developed to categorize the meanings found in the viewers’ responses. This approach is basically qualitative although it uses content analysis methodology to bring structure to the compilation of the 45 responses. This is similar to the approach reported in Moriarty’s(1995a) study on Apple Macintosh commercial. She states that the approach is on the basis of the approach reported by Leiss, Line and Jhally which they described as a semiological / content analysis combining a sensitivity to layers and patterns of meaning with the more rigorous and systematic strategies of quantitative content analysis.

            The commercial is set in a store window. A man is looking at the shirts in the window. He hears the opening sound of a cola can and sees a beautiful woman just outside the store. A visual communication occurs between the man and the woman.

2.2 Findings

2.2.1 The elements of imagery in the commercial

            In the survey, the first question was about the dominant images noted by the viewers in their open-ended responses. The list in Table 1 separates the message elements in terms of characters and objects. As depicted in the table, the most important element of imagery in the commercial was the male figure who was mentioned by 97.7 percent of the respondents. This was followed by the second element (the woman; 95.5%) and the third one (the cola can; 75.5%). Other message elements that received some mentions include the shirt, the mannequin, the night-dress, and the shop.

            When we look at the descriptions of the viewers, we see that the categories of responses provide a method to note which images were dominant, but the descriptions used by the viewers as they framed their responses were also interesting because they noted a rich variety of descriptive information.



Table 1.

The dominant images


Image                                                n                                             %



Man                                                    44                                          97.7

Woman                                               43                                          95.5



Shirt                                                    29                                          64.4

Cola can                                             34                                          75.5

Mannequin                                          24                                          53.3

Night-dress                                         11                                          24.4

Shop                                                   10                                          22.2

Music                                                   3                                            6.6

Background objects                             6                                           13.3



For example, the man was found handsome, sympathetic, attractive, young, sexy, rich, and cool. In character, he was thought to be indecisive, generous, shy, clever, playboy, choosy, seductive, natural, at ease, and has good taste. Here are some of the thoughts of the participants:

1)  He is a customer;

2)  He simply needs some advice;

3)  He cannot resist woman;

4)  He is just a man who is shopping.


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            When we consider symbolism, this figure operates on several semiotic levels. At the iconic level, he clearly is a man who is shopping; however, he represents more than this. The viewers were asked to note symbolization and explain what the images meant. The more common interpretation identified him as a symbol of indecisiveness which was expressed by 17 viewers (37.7%). This idea was conveyed in related phrases like ‘cannot decide what to buy, needs advice.’’ He was also seen as a metaphor for being handsome, cool, natural, attractive man for women, man of cola, and playboy. The playboy metaphor appeared with some frequency of five (11.1%). He was noted as a sexist symbol by three (6.6%) viewers. Some of them (11.1%) related the man with cola using phrases such as “the man symbolizes the courage coca-cola gives”, “effectiveness of coca-cola”, “the man of coca-cola.” Six (13.3%) of the viewers related the man with the woman explaining that men need women’s advice, men trust women’s ideas. Other symbols stated by the viewers include the inner world, the chosen, and communication.


            As for the woman, we have found that she received 43 (95.5%) mentions. She was described in terms of appearance and character. She was a beautiful, attractive, sympathetic, young, chic, slim, seductive, sexy, and cute woman in appearance. The participants thought that she was courageous, self-confident, humorous, at ease, modern, desirous, clever, rebel, extraordinary in personality. They thought that the role in the commercial could be:

1)  a customer,

2)  a woman who is doing window shopping,

3)  a passer-by who is trying to attract man’s attention with the cola.


When we consider symbolism, we have found that 10 participants (22.2%) identified this figure as a symbol of being graceful and the relationship between being thin and light cola. Six of the viewers referred to her as a symbol of sex using the terms like sexual object, feminine, sexy. Three of the viewers identified her as the symbol of “a typical coca-cola woman.”


            Although almost all the viewers have a positive attitude towards the woman figure, three of the viewers displayed a negative attitude using such expressions as: “she is not attractive other than being slim”, “she is playing a game to the man just like all the other women”, “she has unnecessary behavior when she tries to seduce the man.” Two viewers stated that the figure symbolizes the person who makes preferences.


            As it is illustrated in Table 1, the product (the Coca cola) can was the third important message element; this was noted by 34 viewers (75.5%). It was referred to as Coca cola, cola, Coca cola light, the main item, cola can, or diet cola respectively. In the descriptive part, they used various identifications most of which are related to their former ideas or information about cola or diet cola. For instance, eleven (24.4%) of the viewers identified it as “a cooler”, “cold drink”, “great taste”, “a taste giver”. Other descriptions include “a drink”, “a light drink”, “a drink without calories”, “a drink not harming the skin”, or “a drink creating addiction.”


            Eight viewers (17.7%) thought that the product, Coca Cola was not the focus of the commercial. Some of their expressions are: “not the focus”, “the least seen item”, “she was given the cola just to hold in her hands, other images are more dominant.” One student even expressed that she could not identify the image because the product was not a dominant image; another one stated that it was equivalent with the images of the shirt and the mannequin.


            While the cola can carries a clear iconic meaning, it also offers an opportunity for the viewers to read a variety of symbolic meanings. Seventeen ( 37.7%) viewers noted it as a tool for communication, using phrases like “a tool to meet”, “making people closer”, “a tool to attract attention”, “using the same product brings people together.” Four viewers said that it is a symbol of being slim. One viewer said that it represented the billions of money that Coca Cola earns; another said that cola is the meaning of life.


            The Shirt was another feature noted by the participants. It was noted by twenty-nine people or 64.4% of the viewers who directly focused on the iconic level by using the following terms to describe the shirt: Chic, graceful, nice, ordinary, a product sold in the shop, white striped, the product that the man wants to buy. Most of the viewers who tried to find some symbolic meaning saw it as representing a tool for communication, preference, harmony, and something confusing.


            The Mannequin was commented by 53.3% of the viewers. Fifteen viewers described it as “naked”. Two viewers named it as “not a living thing.” Such descriptions appear to be iconic; however, there is also symbolic meaning. For example, seven of the viewers referred to the mannequin as a symbol of sex. Three viewers found some message elements explaining it as: The woman wants nothing; a message that the woman wants to give to the man; if you do not prefer the right thing, you miss the opportunities.


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            As for the fifth image, the night-dress, few viewers (n= 11, 24.4%) interpreted on both iconic and symbolic level. Most of the viewers identified the night-dress as a symbol of sex and life style. On the iconic level, they used the terms transparent and white.


            Among the environmental structures (the shop, the music, and the other background objects), the shop was mentioned 10 times (22.2%). They described it as “a good quality shop”, “a meeting place”, “an empty, chic, luxurious, ordinary shop”. Only four respondents noted the shop in terms of symbolic meaning using phrases such as “a new window in the world of cola”, “a place where you can feel comfortable and courageous by the help of cola, indecisiveness.” Six viewers referred to the environmental structure using the terms such as car, city, and street. While describing them, they used the words such as real, natural, and an ordinary day in terms of symbolism. One person viewed it as a symbol of escaping from an ordinary day. The background music of the advertisement, though not a visual image, was found to be one of the dominant images and noted it as a symbol of adventure and love (f=3). Since sound and motion are thought to be the characteristics of television advertising, this study also looked at the interpretation of the dynamic, as well as the audio elements. Action and sound could be iconic, indexical, and symbolic. As for the third question in the questionnaire, we asked the participants to note down the motion and sound elements in the commercial and what they symbolize. The sound is categorized as the music and the opening sound of the cola can. Music was mentioned by most of the viewers (n= 30, 66.6%), and all of them had a positive feeling towards the music: “it enriches the commercial, attracts attention, gives peace, and is appropriate for the commercial, enjoyable, lively, and, energetic.” Several viewers identified it as a symbol of nonverbal communication, mood of the people, love, and life. The other sound which had a relatively small impact was the opening sound of the cola can. Twenty-four (53.3%) viewers noted this sound; they expressed that it represents a seductive sound, communication, getting cool, the aim of the commercial, a tool to attract attention, innovation. One viewer said: “it is a sound known by everyone in the world as a sound of cola.”


            Among the other background objects, passing cars and walking people seen in the background received some mentions but they were few. It is interesting that two respondents noted the mannequin as motion imagery although it is not. One person said that the motion between and man represented a rhythm.




2.2.2 Semiotic analysis


         For an analysis of the intricacies of the semiotic meanings, a different type of analysis will be conducted; in other words, for each message element, all the phrases explaining the impact will be examined. We have explained in the previous section that there are different message items in the Coca Cola Light Commercial, and they also carry different levels of semiotic meaning. For example, the woman as a passer-by or a window-shopper is an iconographic element at the simplest level. Nevertheless, at the more complex level, she can be interpreted as having different symbolic meanings (metaphor for sex or cola, being natural). For this analysis, the phrases used to note the message elements were categorized as being iconic (mostly representational such as a label for description), indexical (a signal of something in nature or event), or symbolic (something that stands for something else – a meaning assigned by convention).


            Table 2 summarizes the number of viewers noting the various message elements and the level of semiotic meaning associated with each element. Some viewers could not make the distinction between iconic and symbolic as they were asked how the images were described and what they symbolized. In some cases, they only wrote the symbolizations in the description part. Some of the viewers (n=7, 16%) had difficulty in making the distinction between symbolic and iconic elements. Some others (n=10, 22%) just named the images but could not explain the descriptions or symbolizations. These are not included in the table below. As the table depicts, iconic meanings tend to be noted more than symbolic meanings. This may mean that the phrases used to note the iconic elements in the viewer’s responses are either obvious labels, or more descriptive than symbolic in their meaning construction. The man, the woman, the shirt, and the action were treated as iconic signs in the viewer’s responses. The sound, the cola can , and the mannequin were found to be predominantly symbolic signs. Among these, the first two had the impact which has led us to infer that the images with the most impact were interpreted in the symbolic level. For the indexical signaling, it should be noted that there were few mentions of the sound of opening cola can (signaling the cola) and the cola can (signaling cooling). One might think that the symbolic meanings of these message elements are more ambiguous and less predictable than iconic elements. In terms of advertising objectives, it is interesting to note that none of the highly noted message elements carried a direct reference to a sales message. However, the sound of opening the cola can made the viewers notice the brand.


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Table 2.


Semiotic Meanings

                                                             symbolic         indexical                    iconic


 Message elements (f)                            f / %                f / %                           f / %


Cola can            49                               27 / 55            1 / 2                            21 / 43

The woman        65                               26 / 49            0 / 0                           39 / 60

The man            67                               24 / 36            0 / 0                            43 / 64

The shirt            30                               12 / 40            0 / 0                            18 / 60

The mannequin  32                               24 / 75            0 / 0                            8 / 25

The night-dress 8                                  4 / 50              0 / 0                            4 / 50

The shop           12                               3 / 25              0 / 0                            9 / 75

Envir. Struc.      8                                 4 / 50              0 / 0                            4 / 50

Actions              25                               10 / 40            1 / 4                            14 / 56

Sound                37                               21 / 57            1 / 3                            15 / 41





         The viewers noted the dominant images as the man, the woman, the shirt, the cola can, the mannequin, the night dress, the shop and the music. They were more comfortable when writing the descriptions of the images rather than their symbols. In the commercial, the images operate on several semiotic levels. In general, more viewers note more iconic message elements than symbolic or indexical elements. Few of the viewers mentioned indexical signaling. When respondents’ answers are considered, symbolic meanings of the message elements are more ambiguous and less predictable.






            This study demonstrates that a semiotic analysis of visuals can be tested with viewers’ responses to identify patterns of meaning construction. In general, more viewers note more iconic message elements than symbolic or indexical elements. However, those elements with symbolic meanings can create great impact because of the interest to the ambiguity.

            Perception and cognition are significant components of visual communication. Another significant component is the interpreting process of visual images. Humans do not come equipped with ready-made meanings. Interpretation of a visual image is founded upon our knowledge and experience. The interpretation of visual information, like semiotic approaches to meaning interpretation, are highly subjective and highly projective, which puts more demands on a viewer than on a listener or a reader. Because of the resemblance factor for icon interpretation and the experience factor for index interpretation, the formal training may be needed less than for language- although the life experience may be more demanding if there were a way to measure such a thing – but regardless, the visual and nonverbal systems operate relatively untutored in our society, at least in comparison to language; with visuals we are much more on our own, both in learning and in interpreting, and that is why visual learning in our contemporary society is equally as challenging an accomplishment as verbal learning.



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