How Might Advertising Be Understood As A System Of Signs?

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Advertising is everywhere in our daily lives nowadays; during an average working day, people are surrounded by around 2,500 promotional campaigns. In this essay, we are going to explore how an advertisement is made using different kinds of signs that the reader must decode to understand the promotional meaning of the ad. We are going to investigate this system of signs by comparing two different ads in the same market sector with two different meanings decoded by the reader through the signifiers of each ad.

“Advertising is all about meaning” said Bell (1990), as cited by Beasley and Danesi (2002, p. 38). In the advertising field, a system of signs wants to indicate the set of meanings that are assigned to a product through the association of signifiers made of images or words, as well as logos, brand names, and advertising with text that has implicit signifiers in relation to culture, personality, desires or lifestyle (Beasley & Danesi, 2002). When people look at a commercial on television or pass by a promotional billboard on their way home, they do not always notice the message that the advertiser wants to transfer to the reader. In looking at, or listening or reading to, advertisements, we do not often pause to reflect on the way in which this communication takes place because we are bombarded with millions of messages of all kinds every day, and from every means of communication.

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As the world of advertising communication continues to evolve rapidly, disciplines such as semiotics have made approaches to clearly interpret and understand its evolution. Semiotics is known to be the science that studies the sign, or what each language is made of, whether it be verbal or non-verbal. It is a discipline that can be used to approach different areas, including advertising (Chandler, 2017).

Semiotics was born out of controversies over the relationship of discourse with reality, and advertisers start from this same principle as they question the link between advertising discourse and product reality. An advertisement is made by a composition of images and text, although it is sometimes possible to find advertisements with images or text alone. It very often happens that the advertising text represents its own recipient; that is to say, it contains the representation of a character in which the consumer is induced to recognize themselves, whether - in the most common case - the character consumes the product or is pleased to know that product, whether it carries out other activities more or less related to the product.

Semiotics is often used in advertising to promote the message of an advertiser using the system of signs or symbols. The text is the primary linguistic sign. It is a sign made up of the correlation between two levels of language: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the written or pronounced word, perceptible with the senses. The signified is the image present in the mind, the meaning, the concept. A sign can be understood in a better way as a signifier or as a symbol that is intended to mean something else. Sometimes, the sign can be an exact representation of the thing to be signified, in other cases it can be seen as a symbol associated with it. The text is the written part that aims to promote the product, leaving to the reader the freedom to use his knowledge to act on them, determining the reactions aroused by the text. But to decode the text, the deep structure must be identified - and semiotics is used to do so.

Celebrity endorsement is an advertising technique; associating the brand image with that of a famous person means reinforcing the reputation of the brand, connecting it to ideas of success and glamour, considerably increasing visibility and the target area. It is used to promote a product or service with the matching of the product to the image, lifestyle, and characteristics of a very well-known character. We can see in this advertisement that the Puma brand associates the image of its new fitness clothing line “Forever Faster” with the image of Kylie Jenner, a very well-known influencer, model and businesswoman.

When a brand chooses to associate an image of a celebrity, and the chosen person has a positive and vital image, then also the advertising of that product or service will be seen as positive and it will give a positive image of the brand. The relationship between celebrities and followers will give the consumer a more positive attitude towards advertising and a greater desire to purchase (Ford, 2018). Kylie Jenner represents the image of a healthy strong woman, a young businesswoman that created her company by herself, has a child, finds the time to grow her company and she is one of the most powerful influencers in the world. People admire her - her followers are impressed by the success she got at a very young age and both young girls and grown-up women aspire to be like her. Puma is targeting her followers and people who aim to be like her.

The association of Puma’s new fitness collection with Kylie Jenner's image will attract people who want to be like her, and they will want to buy the new Puma fitness collection because she is wearing it. This is the denotation of the meaning that Puma wants the reader to understand and decode. If you look at the denotative level of this advertisement, we see a picture of Kylie doing sport. At a connotative level, the reader decodes Kylie’s qualities such as ideal body shape and her strength. This Puma advertisement shows us the image of Kylie Jenner (which is the sign) and it signifies the celebrity beauty (which is seen as the concept). Roland Barthes (1972), as cited by Chandler (2017), called this understanding of beauty as engendered by a mythic meaning. 'Myths can be seen as extended metaphors. ' (Chandler, 2017). Barthes (1972) thinks that signs can be seen as myths and they can operate into different levels: denotation and connotation.

The decoding process is used to understand the meaning that the advertiser encoded into the advertisement. It is possible to have 3 phases of decoding.

At the first stage, in a specific way the celebrity integrates into the environment in a certain way, using it to communicate social values linked to personality, age, lifestyle, and status. For the second phase of the process, we have opinions based on the advertiser that any product can carry virtually any meaning. Therefore, the offer is given a particular style and meaning through a precise marketing plan only. Following this assumption, this second stage involves the search for a celebrity that is more in tune with the style envisaged by the marketing plan for the product. Therefore, the transfer of values from celebrity to the offer of the company takes place. For the third phase, the values are transferred to the consumer, who would in turn proceed with the purchase of the product to achieve a certain lifestyle, to become like the celebrity. This passage is neither immediate nor simple but precisely indulges the use of a celebrity who, according to this model, allows consumers to observe how to define a precise personality through the use of a certain product.

In some cases, instead of looking for a correspondence between the lifestyle of the celebrity and that of the product, there is the possibility of using the same character as an attribute to differentiate the brand from its competitors. The celebrity, in this case, becomes a connotation of the product and emerges as the only benefit examined by the target audience.

The Nike brand, the biggest global producer of sports footwear, created a revolutionary promotional campaign in 2005 called 'My Butt Is Big'. In this advertisement, we can see the body of a curvy woman and not the classic advertising with the body of a model. When we look closely at the text, reading the words next to the image, we can understand that body parts belong to women who love to train and appreciate their bodies as they are. The font used for the text has got a curve effect over the length of the text, and to denote confidence in the woman the author used an all-capitalized font. Using all capital letters is usually considered aggressive but, in this case, it can be seen as confident, as the woman is.

This advertisement style does not rely on the product, but on emotion, on feelings. Creating an emotional connection with customers is essential today to make a brand more than a purchase choice, rather a lifestyle choice. So, when the reader is looking at this campaign, they do not look only to Nike products, but they look to a lifestyle that they would like to undertake, and this advertisement drives them to find motivation.

Nike's brand understands its followers. All its customers share the same mission: they want to be proud of their images. This advertisement is a motivation sign for them. This advertisement is targeting women towards the idea of an athletic woman who is also a curvy woman. Many times, women don't often share thoughts about their bodies, because they feel ashamed or they don't like their body as it is. In this advertisement, we can notice that the woman is speaking directly to the audience while celebrating being proud of her body. This directly speaking to the audience is facilitated by the use of images and words together, because the author wants to express how women should feel about their bodies.

“Through words and images, these artists want to express what lies beyond words and images” Sheldon (2001), as cited by Hawkes (2003, p.118). Advertising is a way to communicate a message to the reader; the advertiser encodes a sign into the ad and the reader must decode that meaning. This is a mix of signs that lead to the final goal of the advertiser: to persuade the reader about their brand and product.

The message the reader is decoding is that women have the power to be what they want to be; they have freewill to decide to be the best version of themselves in order to become their ideal self. Sport, for those who practice it, is a fundamental part of a person's life and the world; Nike manages to pass on the idea that, whatever happens, you can be a winner. In this Nike advertisement, the “big butt” with the long text represents the signifier, and the message that we can decode in this ad is that we don't have all the same bodies, they are not all the same shape, but all body shapes are beautiful as they are. Even if not everyone sees beauty, it is still there.

By comparing the two advertisements we can see that both aim to create the desire in the reader to reach their ideal self. Both the advertisements have the ideal self-desire of the reader in common, but they differ in what they are promoting.

The first advertisement uses a celebrity to leverage the desire of the people who admire that person; it makes the reader believe that by having that product they can become similar to the celebrity. “People want to believe that if they copy something that worked for someone else it will work for them, too” (Hogan, 2013, p. 28). Therefore, the process is very easy - if you buy it you will have something similar to Kylie Jenner and you can become like her. They are promoting the product itself by associating it with the Kylie Jenner symbol.

Meanwhile, in the second advertisement, Nike uses the symbol of a strong woman to promote women's identity and to transfer a message into the reader. Images can be a powerful tool to communicate feelings and emotions, and make a person feel a certain way (Walter and Gioglio, 2015). They are not just selling their product; they are selling a lifestyle. Nike is sending a specific message to women: be proud of your body.

Semiotics, or the interpretation of signs, help to define those subconscious and emotional elements. Semiotics in advertising can help to improve communication and messages sent to a target audience, to communicate the most hidden meanings and to influence the subconscious decision-making process of customers. This is a semiotic process applied in advertising: brand encodes and sends a message, the reader decodes that message with the meanings of image and words, and then the consumer decides whether or not make the message align with their identity.

To sum up, decision-making is based on emotion and subconscious interpretations of words and images. Semiotics can help to decode those messages to improve the perception of a brand and the messages sent to the target audience using signs encoded in advertisements. We can then confirm that advertising can be understood as a system of signs.

References list

  1. Barthes R. (1972) Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press.
  2. Beasly R. and Danesi M. (2010) Persuasive Signs: The Semiotics of Advertising. Walter de Gruyter. Available from: [Accessed 20 November 2019]
  3. Chandler D. (2017) Semiotics for Beginners. Available from: [Accessed 3 December 2019]
  4. Ford J. B. (2018) What Do We Know About Celebrity Endorsement in Advertising? Journal of Advertising Research, 58, pp. 1-2. DOI: 10.2501/JAR-2018-006
  5. Hawkes, T. (2003) Structuralism and Semiotics. Routledge. Available from: [Accessed 19 November 2019]
  6. Hogan, K. (2013) Invisible Influence: The Power to Persuade Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. Wiley. Available from:
  7. [Accessed 20 November 2019]
  8. Nike (2005) My Butt Is Big. Available from:
  9. [Accessed 10 November 2019]
  10. Puma (2016) Kylie Jenner for PUMA. Available from: [Accessed 10 November 2019]
  11. Walter E. and Gioglio J. (2015) The Power of Visual Storytelling. Primento. Available from: [Accessed 16 November 2019]
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