Structuralism and Semiotics essay

The contemporary society paved way to a ubiquitous nature of the advertisements, commercials, and other forms of publicity. As a matter of fact, we cannot walk down the street, shop, watch television, read a newspaper, or surf the internet without having to encounter them. Advertisements are always with us even when we are alone or with friends or with family (Cook 2001, p. 1). Advertisements use fictions, word play, story-telling, acting, photography, cartoons, puns, and rhythms so that they memorable and amusing to their respective audience.

The words and details in advertisements come to people’s minds more readily than other literary means like that of a novel, poem, or play (Cook 2001, p. 3). It is believed that advertisements are the most influential institution in the socialization within a modern society. Among others, it has impact on mass media content, construction of gender identity, relationships of parents and children, in political campaigns, in public policy, and in cultural institutions. However, more than anything else, advertisements’ specific concern is the marketing of goods.

Through advertisements, manufacturers use their attempt to produce an adequate consuming market. Because of this, sometimes advertisements create false needs in people purporting them as needs of the consumers instead of as needs of the manufacturers (Jhally 1990, p. 3). However, more than this, advertisements have meaning in itself. Also, it has both social and symbolic significance. According to Raymond Williams, because of advertisements goods are seen as things more than in its practical sense but also its social meaning.

In the same sense, it is contended that goods become important to people not because of their usage but also because of their symbolic meaning in the fields of anthropology and history. Advertisements for the most part reflect the symbolic breadth of a human need (Jhally 1990, p. 6). In order for us to understand the intricacies of advertisements, a good way to start is to look at the language of the text and the symbolism of the pictures and other images. The main component of advertisement is language: through words and through symbols. Language is the means where advertisement is able to convey its meaning and its purpose to its audience.

Linguistics for its part is a vast field of study so that taken in general it cannot be an effective means in the analysis of advertisements. Linguistics is interested in all manifestations of human language from primitive people to highly civilized people, from classical periods up to modern times. As a discipline, it has close connections to other social sciences and even the sciences. However, linguistics has remarkably drawn a clear demarcation between the other related disciplines by stating that language is the factor of greatest importance alongside culture, and psychosocial factors (Saussure 1986, p. 9).

Structuralism as a Tool for Analysis One sub-field of linguistics that is notable in the analysis of advertisements would be structuralism. It started with the works of French Jean Piaget on structures. He argues that structure is observed in an arrangement of entities which will then emanate three important ideas about it which are the idea of wholeness, the idea of transformation, and the idea of self-regulation. The first idea means internal coherence. Each entity when arranged is complete in themselves and not composite forms of independent elements. Each part shares with others intrinsic values and laws which shapes its very nature.

Structures are not static but they are not only structured but structuring. Language is a basic human structure which is capable of transforming into a wide variety of sentences and utterances while still adhering and conforming to the accepted and conventional structure. Moreover, the structure is also self-regulating in the sense that in order for it to be able to transform itself it does not rely on any other mechanism but only to its structure and intrinsic qualities. Language, in this context, does not construct its transformations only on the basis of its own internal rules.

As a concrete example, the word “dog” exists and functions as it is in the English language without reference to the four-legged barking animal that we know in reality (Hawkes 1997, p. 16-17). Following this line of thought, structuralism is a “way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the perception and description of structures (Hawkes 1997, p. 17)”. This is new perception that engenders the idea that contrary to popular belief that the world is consists of independent existing objects, the world cannot be classified into bits and pieces but as a whole.

However, this popular belief still persists. It is said that every perceiver has a method of perceiving that is shown to have a bias that affects their interpretation in a significant degree. A wholly objective way of interpreting things is not possible because every person will make out or create something from what he observes. The relationship of the observer and the thing observed is very important which means one thing: that the nature of things does not lie on the things itself but on the relationship an observer constructs and perceives (Hawkes 1997, p. 17).

This is the new concept that structuralism is patterned with. “The world is made up of relationships rather than things, constitutes the first principle of that way of thinking which can properly be called ‘structuralist’ (Hawkes 1997, p. 17)”. In other words, structuralism claims that every element has no importance or value in itself because its significance is always determined and in relation to other elements that are involved in every situation. The full significance of a particular entity is only perceived when it is integrated into a structure where it is a part.

This leads structuralists to the ultimate quarry on the permanent structures of human acts, and perceptions. Fredric Jameson has described it as a search for organizational categories and forms in which the mind will use to experience the world or organize meanings among things that are primarily and essentially without meaning (Hawkes 1997, p. 17). Structuralism is said to be closely involved to the study of language. This started with the works of French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure purported traditional idea that the world is consists of independent objects which can be observed and classified objectively.

In the field of linguistics, it yields to the thought that language is composed of aggregate separate units called “words” which is attached to a separate meaning that is determined as times and history changed. In his lectures that were later on collected to become the book entitled Course of Linguistics, he insisted that language should be studied not in its individual parts but in terms of the relationships created between and among these parts. This is because of his contentment that language as a total system is complete at any moment in history even when altered at particular times.

Language has a valid existence on its own through the sound and speech of its speakers. This existence can readily be distinguished from its history (Hawkes 1997, p. 20). The most famous dimension that started out structuralism would be the langue-parole dichotomy established by Saussure himself. This refers to the distinction between the abstract language system and individual utterances y the speakers in everyday situations. He compares this to a game of chess where he contends that chess would be the abstract rules and conventions and the actual game would be the actual utterances.

The rules can exists above and beyond each game, but the game can only take real and concrete form through the relationship of each piece to one another and this can only be manifested through individual games. In language, the langue has no real existence even when it predetermines the parole. The parole is the real language and this is determine and is only a manifestation of the langue. In other words, the natural mechanism of men to construct a language comes only to existence through the spoken language itself such as utterances, chats, writings, and drawings (Hawkes 1997, p. 20).

In a phonetic level, each sound or item can only operational if it is listened in a conversation. In other words, it is only with a conversation that phonetic symbols can establish range and complexity. This reiterates the idea that a particular phonological item does not have a meaning because of an inherent quality in it but because of its relationship: sameness and differences with other sounds. For instance, in the English language the difference between tin and kin lies on their first symbol namely t and k. This difference in meaning is because of relationship of each sound and symbol to each other.

The meaning then resides on the structure of each sound and not on each sound alone (Hawkes 1997, p. 21). The process is called structuring. The linguistic sign is characterized in terms of a dual aspect of concept and sound image or also known as the signified and the signifier. The structural relationship between a concept tree corresponds to a sound-image of the word tree will constitute a linguistic sign which will make up the language systems of every group of speakers. These systems of linguistic signs which is composed of a signified and a signifier is true among all languages.

Furthermore, this relationship is wholly arbitrary so that the kink between a signified, a signifier, and the actual thing are not naturally produced. For instance, the word tree has no natural or tree-like qualities in it that would make the speakers establish a relationship between them. Therefore, the relationship and link between them would purely be arbitrary and conventional. This is part of the structuring. One can never know the meaning of the word tree without reference to the primary structure of the signified and the signifier (Hawkes 1997, p. 25).

Moreover, each word also has a formulaic association with other words such as in the case of antonyms and synonyms. In this sense, the meaning of words can be established through the help of words with the same meanings, opposite meanings, or the same grammatical features. This would be another reiteration of language as a structure wherein everything in language such as the determination of meaning is part of the whole system. Thus, a linguistic term’s value is wholly determined by its environment and the concepts are defined by its structure (Hawkes 1997, p.

27). As a summary, structuralism is “an analytical method which involves the application of the linguistic model to a much wider variety of phenomenon” such as advertisements and literature. This linguistic model means the abovementioned ideas of the school of structuralism as defined and developed by Ferdinand Saussure (Chandler 2007, p. 5). Because “language is purely a semiotic system (Chandler 2007, p. 5)”, structuralism is very much related to semiotics as indicated by that of Saussure’s notion of the signifier and the signifier.

Semiotics draws heavily on linguistic terms and concepts partly because of the influence of Saussure and partly because linguistics is naturally sign-system (Chandler 2007, p. 5). Semiotics as a Tool of Analysis At the onset, semiotics is the study or the science of signs which are conceivable in a particular society (Hawkes 1997, p. 123). Its field is enormous because its study ranges from communicative behavior of animals to human bodily communication to aesthetic theory to rhetoric. By and large, its boundaries are the same as those of structuralism because the interests of the two fields are inseparable.

As a matter of fact, it is believed that structuralism is within the umbrella of semiotics as a method in achieving and validating its theories (Hawkes 1997, p. 124). Semiotics governs the laws on how a language signifies a particular social practice. Every speech-act includes not only a transmission of message but also gestures, postures, hairstyle, clothing, accent, and social contexts. Humans are at the same time senders and receivers of messages. We receive messages even without being the intended recipient of it.

For instance, we hear horn hoots, light flash, billboards, and other subliminal messages in advertisements (Hawkes 1997, p. 125). According to Roma Jakobson, every message is created by signs and semiotics is the only way to understand the diverse messages that these signs suggest. Jakobson’s concepts of the signans and the signatum are pretty much the same as that of Saussure’s signifier and signifier respectively. Both pairs have the element of making the relationship between the sign and the concept an indissoluble unity (Hawkes 1997, p. 126).

What structuralists differ from semioticians would what Charles Pierce emphasize on the differences on the degree of arbitrariness. He formulated classifications of types of signs. First would be symbolic. This is a mode in which a signifier does not in any way resemble the signified which is primarily conventional and arbitrary. Examples of this type would be numbers, punctuation marks, traffic lights, and national flags. The second type is iconic. This is a mode where the signifier is perceived to have resembled or imitated the signified in probably looks, or sounds, or smell.

Examples of which include portraits, onomatopoeia, metaphors, and imitative gestures. The third type would be indexical which means that the signifier is not arbitrary but is connected in any way to the signified. This includes in natural signs such as smoke, thunder, and footprints; medical symptoms such as pain, rash, and pulse rate; measuring instruments such as thermometer and clock; signals such as knock on the door and phone ringing; and personal trademarks such as handwriting and catchphrase (Chandler 2007, p. 38). In the interpretation of symbols, we take into account the rule or the habitual connection it has.

The symbol (signifier) is connected to the object (signified) by virtue of the symbol-using mind purely based on convention. This is possible because speakers of the language or producer of such symbols would understand such symbol to mean a particular thing. A symbol is therefore, a conventional sign which depend upon an acquired or an inborn habit. It is a sign “whose special significance or fitness to represent what it does represent lies in nothing but the very fact of there being a habit, disposition, or other effective general rule that it will be so interpreted”.

For instance, the word man is a three-letter word that do not in any way resembles or imitate the object man that we all know of (Chandler 2007, p. 39). In interpreting an icon, one must bear in mind the similarity that the sign has in relation to the object that it represents. They are not necessarily visual, they could be sound and taste. Icons have qualities that resemble those of the object that they represent and they “excite analogous sensations in the mind”. It would not be a duplicate of the object but only it resembles the object in some respect.

Pierce contends that it would technically mean that there is some analogy among the parts of the sign to the whole of the object. More to this, icons also have an element of cultural convention in its mode of representation. On one hand, an index has a dynamic connection with the object it represents. It can be said that both icons and indexes are read as natural signs because unlike symbols it does not make the relation of signifier and signified habitual. The connection is highly evoked by the characteristics that they have on them (Chandler 2007, p. 40).

As a summary, semiotics is the study of representations and the processes involved in representational practices. This also includes the reality that is involve in the process of representations (Chandler 2007, p. 55). Structuralism and Semiotics Together Structuralism when applied to the analysis of advertisements would technically mean that every component in the advertisement should be taken together for it to mean something to the listeners and watchers. A single component cannot in itself convey meaning about the product; the advertisements should be taken as a whole.

The wholeness of the advertisements is piece together by individual components whether it is in the language itself or in symbols. This is where semiotics comes in. In understanding advertisements, most especially print advertisements, there are images and symbols that are used to represent something else. These signs are either symbolic, iconic, or indexical as already mentioned above. But just the same, whatever it is, the most important thing is how it is related to the whole advertisements. Signs in themselves do not have meaning.

They can only have some if they are related to the rests of the advertisements: other signs and texts. The texts in themselves are also taken as a whole. Their relationships with each other are the very core of its meaning. Structuralism and semiotics where taken together is very effective in unleashing the meaning and the messages that advertisements because of two reasons. First, these two fields taken together would be very effective in establishing a holistic interpretation of advertisements because not only that it take into account their meaning in a textual sense but also in a symbolic sense.

Moreover, each part is also not left on its own and without meaning. They are taken together to form a part of the whole that will create a more solid interpretation. Second, the method is well-developed by both linguists that are pioneer in the fields and semioticians that are in the same way innovative in the field of interpretations. Interpretations of Selected Advertisements The first print advertisement that this paper is going to analyze would be that of Horlicks Milk where a picture of a kid with both hands in her face looking so sad and bored is the focal point.

At the rightmost corner is the image of the product At the leftmost corner of the print ad are the texts that say “Sammy gets bad colds, Jess gets fever, Nell gets bad coughs, Brian gets bad throat and I get bored on rainy days (http://phd. images. googlepages. com/Horlicks_small. jpg)”. Taken together as a whole, the advertisement should be clear only if the texts coincide with the image. Let us first examine the image; the kid in the picture evokes a feeling of sadness and boredom. These feelings are then connected to the text which somehow explains it.

Each line in the text should be read as a whole. In other words, we cannot get a meaning if we just read the first line. The whole texts will only be understood if it is related to the rest of the lines most especially the last line. The last line explains the feelings of the kid and the other lines explain why she feels that way. Because of the text, the image stands illuminated. We all know by now that the kid is bored and sad because she will no longer have a playmate during rainy days. Because these kids appear to be unhealthy, they get sick when it rains.

This presupposes that the kid in the image does not get sick when it rains. This is then explained by the image of the product. The product, though not emphasized in the picture, is obviously the main point of the whole picture. It presents itself as panacea; it is the answer to the other kids’ illness. The image of the product coincides with the kid’s image. However, both images cannot stand alone. Otherwise, if interpreted it would mean that the kid would be bored to drink the milk. In this case, the text is needed to explain the kid’s temperament.

Once the kid’s image is already established, that is, bored because she does not have a playmate on rainy days for the reason that all her friends become sick while she remains healthy, then the image of the product will be enhanced in a positive way. The product will then be attributed to wellness and health. It presupposes that the kid drinks Horlicks which makes her not susceptible to illnesses like that of her playmates. The product was not detailed to be effective in preventing illnesses but it is already presupposed in the picture. The kid obviously drinks the product because the two images are present in one whole picture.

The two images are then connected by the mind as interrelated. The image of the kid is also very suggestive of the market of the product. We understood the product as only meant for kids for them to stay healthy during the rainy days just like the kid in the picture. The second print advertisement would be an Absolut Vodka ad. The whole picture is composed of a woman and a man who are obviously married couple in a particular room in a house. The room is minimal with embellishments. It got only wallpaper, a floor, and a couch. The couple stands at the middle of the room along with a dog which sits next to the man.

The interesting part in the whole picture would be the eccentric situation the man is in. He is obviously pregnant because of his protruding belly. The woman for her part just stands next to the husband with a smile in her face. This image is very disturbing if not bizarre altogether. In the real world, we all know that men cannot get pregnant because of biological reasons. But this image proves otherwise. The picture, as a whole, deviates from the normal order of things that every person is aware of. The same as the first advertisement, the images are enhanced by the texts that they are together with.

In this particular ad, the text is IN AN ABSOLUT WORLD (http://images. quickblogcast. com/113289-105784/alcohol_print_ads_515_08_0001. jpg). In interpreting this advertisement, we first dwell on the image and text second. The image of a man getting pregnant is not normal to anyone alive because we all know that only women bear children ever since the world began. The image of the man then in this case suggests deviation and extraordinariness. It is something that is out of the world. It is something that people would not think of happening but is happening in the whole picture.

The image of the pregnant man suggests that bizarre things like these happened in real life. It presupposes the idea that the things that we thought is impossible to happen may happen at one point or another in our lives. This will then be in connection to the image of the product which is located at the rightmost corner of the whole picture. The two images when juxtaposed to each other would suggest that ABSOLUT can bring about the bizarre and the impossible things. It also presupposes that the product will make come true the things and desires of every person that they thought will not happen in their lifetime.

The text on one hand is very subtle. Once the image has already established the abovementioned propositions, the text’s role is only to reaffirm this proposition. The text says that IN AN ABSOLUT WORLD, men can get pregnant and women can put a smile in their faces knowing that they are the only living being in this world that has to suffer the pains and challenges of pregnancy. The texts emphasized that it is only in this world that people can experience the extraordinary and the out of this world. This is the world we come to if we want out wildest dreams to come true.

This can only be done through drinking the liquor. By having a taste of the liquor, one can experience something that he/she has not experienced before. One can experience the opposite of the ordinary. One can transcend conventionality and conformity. One can be different. One can experience ABSOLUT happiness. This is what the text suggests in relation to the whole picture. In summary, the print ad is emphasizing the power of the product to transport anyone who consumes it into a world that they do not know of, or the world that hey have not experience, or the world that is beyond the real world.

The ABSOLUT world is a world that is beyond anybody else’s sense of the real world. This can only be achieved by consuming the product that is its final suggestion. In the analysis of the two print advertisements, both structuralism and semiotics contribute for the interpretation to be whole. Both texts and images are taken together to mean a single proposition. As already mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, the images alone cannot make a complete interpretation because they suggest only a part of the whole. The same as the texts, they cannot also establish the whole meaning because they need to be contextualized by the images.

The method is that they should be woven together so that they make a single idea that is whole and holistic in nature. Every single word and every single image is important for people to see the whole picture. Every part should contribute to make a whole.


Chandler, D 2007, Semiotics: The Basics, Routledge, Oxford. Jhally, S 1990, The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society, Routledge, Oxford. Saussure, F, Bally C, Sechehaye, A, Harris, R, and Riedlinger, A 1986, Course in General Linguistics, Open Court Publishing, Chicago.