Semiotics in Advertising

As I was flipping through my magazine, I stumbled upon a very seductive picture of a man and a woman together that was supposed to be helping sell their perfume. After seeing that picture, I started thinking about all of the other advertisements I’ve seen in different magazines and on commercials showing off different perfumes and body sprays and I realized they had a very important key aspect in common. They were all using signs to convey slightly different but ultimately the same meanings to the buyers. The observation and analysis of these signs and anything that can stand for something else is called the study of semiotics (Griffin, 323).

When is the last time you watched a commercial or saw an ad about men’s body spray when there wasn’t at least one woman staring at a man in awe or about women’s perfume when the lady wasn’t seducing a man simply by her scent? You probably can’t think of anything right off the top of your head because there certainly aren’t very many. Media is using many signs to get the point across to possible buyers that if you use their products, then you will instantaneously become more of something, whether it be powerful, attractive, manly, or what have you. I wanted to write about this because I find the whole concept very amusing yet sneaky and intelligent. Realistically, I’ve never chased after somebody because of what they smelled like or even watched it happen. A person can be wearing the most amazing scent on earth, but if they’re a terrible person or you’re not attracted to them at all, the smell alone isn’t going to trump those issues and make you fall in love with them. And no matter how strong the scent, you’re not going to become a more powerful person. They make it seem like they’re selling a bottle of magic rather than of some miscellaneous scent, but it is what makes people buy their products.

Let’s watch the video above. This is a commercial for Old Spice Body Spray which is full of many signs. A sign according to Roland Barthes is the inseparable combination of the signifier and the signified (Griffin, 324). One example is that the signifier, being the physical form of the sign or the images we are seeing, would be the very strong, fit, loud man showing off the spray (Griffin, 324). The signified, being the meaning we associate with the sign, would be very simple: power (Griffin, 324). The sign created by this would be that the body spray stands for power and if you wear it, you will become powerful too. According to Barthes connotative sign system, which is a mythic sign that has lost its historical referent, over time this sign could start to be manipulated into meaning something else, but right now it’s simply power and masculinity (Griffin, 327).

As we’ve seen, semiotic signs are being used constantly by everybody everywhere, but especially by advertising agencies in particular. It is important to be able to understand them in order to successfully understand commercials and ads and realize that not everything that’s happening there will happen in real life, even though that’s how they’re trying to sell it. It is also important simply to survive. Seeing a red octagon on a piece of wood and realizing you need to stop soon keeps everybody safe. I find semiotic signs very fascinating and important to understand because they’re going to be used for as far into the future as you can imagine.


Website Citations:

Griffen, Em. (2009). Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead. Ryan, Michael (Ed.), A First Look at Communication                   Theory (pp.59-68). New York, NY: Mcgraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Jacoby, Rachel. (2012, August 11). Evan Rachel Wood’s Gucci Perfume Ads Revealed. InStyle [online] Available at:

2 thoughts on “Semiotics in Advertising

  1. Tori Simmons says:

    When I was a small child, I can’t tell you how many times I would watch a commercial about Barbie dolls, or a Barbie dream house, only to be disappointed when I actually got one. The commercial made it seem like I too could hang out with, and look like Barbie. When I actually got one, I realized that I still looked the same, just with a new Barbie doll in hand that would probably only feel new to me for a few days.
    The signifier, being the physical form (Griffin, 324), was a tall, fashionable blonde. The signified, to me, (this is the meaning we associate with the sign), was her perky attitude, beauty, happiness, and the popularity she found through her many friends. Together, forming the sign of beauty and popularity, it was a combination I could not resist. Commercials really do use trickery through signs designed for all ages and types of people, to appeal to their senses. Though connotation might be a better word to use for Barthes’ theory, the term myth seems to be more appropriate for commercial advertisements. The emotions these types of commercials are attempting to invoke are tied to myths of true or magical love. The actual myth need not be portrayed only a scene which depicts the possibility of the same type of magical connections relations or circumstances. A myth, as described in A First Look at Communication, is described as the connotative meaning that signs carry wherever they go; myth makes what is cultural, seem natural (Griffin, 324). Our culture associates happiness and fulfillment to beauty, wealth, and success. We can all be popular and happy if we are pretty, and have lots of money. To little children, the sign would be a myth, as in a story thought to be true. Although I didn’t understand the underling goal of the consumer, I did think that to be successful was somehow associated with beauty, popularity and that one magical connection. That ‘myth’ seemed a reality to me. As children, we believe that the commercial is true, but as we grow up, we realize it was just a myth designed to signify a connotation.

  2. Benjamin Shukrallah says:

    Like Griffin says in our text book, “A sign does not stand on it’s own: It is part of a system.” The magazine ad above not only plays on culture but our preconceived notions of beauty and even gender roles. Without these ideas we probably wouldn’t even understand what the ad was trying to communicate.

    Your deconstruction, or debunking of the perfume ad was really good. You have proven that it is ineffective, at least for yourself. They seem to have this “I’d like to be like mike” (from the textbook) attitude, that clearly doesn’t work on everyone.

    Works Cited:

    Griffen, E. (2009). A First Look At Communication Theory 7th Ed. New York: Mc-Graw Hill. pp. 325, 326, 330

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