Semiotics is the study of signs and as we are all directly involved in the business of creating and communicating signs, a semiotic analysis can shed light on the troubling experience I had earlier in my career while walking through Waterloo station.
There was an arresting outdoor ad for the Land Rover Freelander Masai.
The poster ad was actually a sign and like every sign it consisted of two halves: a signifier (the thing being represented) and a signified (the thing being communicated).
In this case the signifier was a photograph of men and women from an African tribe, and their children, standing in a line. The corresponding signified meaning of this photograph was that these are people from a Masai tribe in Africa. With both signifier and signified identified, we can now understand the relationship between the two – the denotation. The poster ad denoted members of the Masai tribe.
But advertisements are complex signs. They rarely end with simple denotation.
To understand them we must understand a second level of significance known as connotation. The purpose of the first sign is to become part of a bigger, more subtle sign: the Masai must be linked in some way to Land Rover.
A second glance revealed that the tribe was actually standing in the shape of a Freelander. The apparently natural line-up, the presence of shields, even the position of the small child on the end, were an attempt to link the Masai and the Freelander within the same signifier.
Seen this way, the true intention of Land Rover's ad was revealed. It was designed to connote that the meanings signified by the Masai (noble, African, free, rugged) are also signified by the Freelander. Hey presto!
A commodity sign had been created and now consumers seeking nobility, ruggedness and freedom from their next four-wheel drive will be attracted semiotically to the latest Land Rover.
Not so fast. Semiotics teaches us that connotation is a much more slippery concept than straightforward denotation. Connotation is open to innumerable different interpretations.
And this is why my experience at Waterloo station was so troubling. I decoded correctly the denotation of the ad: these were indeed Masai tribespeople.
Then, once I spotted the clever juxtaposition, I was about to link them to the Freelander in the intended semiotic union.
But then it hit me. How disgusting. That these noble people were forced to stand, like performing animals, to form the shape of a car.
Their proud faces reveal nothing but the ignominy of them being posed, with their partners, and with their young children, for the purpose of selling a car. It was a nauseating realisation.
Connotation is indeed a tricky business. In some cases an advertisement can have the opposite effect to what was intended. In my mind at least, the Masai and the Land Rover could not be more different from each other.
Courtesy of Marketing Magazine
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