Mainstream semiology has an elaborate vocabulary for interpreting visual images, as Chapter 6 of Visual Methodologies explained. So too does social semiotics. The aims of this activity are to:
- become more familiar with the analytical vocabulary of mainstream semiology by applying it to another advertisement;
- iscuss the strengths and limitations of mainstream semiology;
- xplore the overlap between semiology and other methods.
Start by skim-reading Jan Hadlaw's discussion of the advertising used by the US telephone company American Telephone and Telegraph Company in the first half of the twentieth century.
Free online article [via SAGE Journals Online]
Hadlaw's essay does not use semiological terms to interpret the advertisements she discusses. Nor does she pay much attention to the visual content of the adverts. What her essay does do very effectively, though, is pay attention to how 'representations of the telephone reflected and were imbricated with larger debates about modern life' (Hadlaw 2010: 85). Hadlaw uses the term 'discourse' to refer to those debates. However, you could also think about how Judith Williamson's (1978) notion of a 'referent system' might be relevant here, or Stuart Hall's (1980) discussion of codes – they are described in section 6.3.4.
To get used to how mainstream semiology might offer a method for unravelling how the visuals and the texts of the adverts work together to convey meaning, and how those meanings are connected to what Hadlaw calls those 'larger debates about modern life', have a go at doing a semiological analysis of the advert reproduced in as her Figure 10, 'The Efficient Minute'.
Take a good look at the advert – maybe print it out – and recall the steps described in section 6.3.5:
- decide what the signs in the advert are;
- decide what they signify 'in themselves';
- think about how they relate to other signs 'in themselves' then explore their connections (and the connections of the connections) to wider systems of meaning;
- and then return to the signs to explore the precise articulation of ideology.
Now work through the following pages to see how I used mainstream semiology to interpret 'The Efficient Minute'. Compare your answers to mine; mine are not the only possible answers! Remember Stuart Hall's (1997a: 9) comment, quoted in the Preface of Visual Methodologies, that 'it is worth emphasising that there is no single or 'correct' answer to the question, "what does this image mean"'. For example, I pay most attention to the visual signs, not the written signs.
Start the exercise >>