According to scholars of semiotics, all signs have orders of signification

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“Semiotics examines how signs (words, pictures, gestures, sounds) come to mean and have meaning” (Tomaselli: 1991). Our interpretation of signs are determined by the set of social conventions that we are born into i.e. different signs evoke different significations in different cultures- a mopane worm can be seen as a disease carrier in America, while Namibians consider it a delicacy. Saussure (cited in Caldwell1) talks about how we articulate meaning. He says that “signs are arbitrary, these are social conventions,” (M Caldwell’s innerweb notes). This would imply that people use agreed signs for communication. The advert articulates meaning through signification. Since American Philosopher C.S Peirce developed semiotics, I will be using most of his definitions for my theory component.

I will firstly analyse the picture applying the second Dichotomy of signs (Tomaselli: 1996)”Icons are signs whose signifier bears a close resemblance to the thing they refer to”-(Caldwell! Pierce (1903) defines an Icon as “a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own and which it possesses, just the same, whether any such Object actually exists or not”. In this sense, it can be seen that the icon is the literal component of a sign and is something symbolic that can be linked to a concrete image. In the ad, the icon can be seen as a boy lying on the ground with his head resting on some concrete. His clothes are torn. These two observations are done at a basic level. Since this is a photograph it can be seen as being highly iconic as it is very much like the object they represent, a sort of mimicry or imitation.

Secondly there is the index, which draws attention to the thing to which it refers. Pierce (1902) defines an Index as “a sign which would, at once, lose the character which makes it a sign if its object were removed, but would not lose that character if there were no interpretant”. The example he gives is of a piece of mould with a bullet-hole in it as sign of a shot. He says that without the shot there would have been no hole; but there is a hole there, whether anybody has the sense to attribute it to a shot or not.” (‘Dictionary of Philosophy & Psychology’ vol. 2, CP 2.304, 1902) There are no distinct links or bridges that joins signification to an object. Cultural conventions provide meaning. The advert refers to a street boy who is suffering from poverty.

The Indexical signs represent the unseen and are often abstract- Christianity, morality; guilt can be interpreted from this ad. We read it this way because of our socialization. If one had to show this picture to an aborigine in thirteen-century Australia, they would not draw the same meaning, as they would not make the connection between the boy and the image of Jesus on the cross. This is because their frame of reference would be different from ours. Karl Marx’s initial intention explanation for this is that “”it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.) In this way it can be seen that society infers meaning.

‘reality’ is always encoded, or rather the only way we can perceive and make sense of reality is by the codes of our culture. There may be an objective, empiricist reality out there, but there is no universal, objective way of perceiving and making sense of it. What passes for reality in any culture is the product of the culture’s codes, so ‘reality’ is always already encoded, it is never ‘raw’. (Fiske 1987)

Dry sand in background might imply arid climate and scorching heat. This might not seem out of the ordinary for a Bedouin, but the advertiser wants us to interpret it as being harsh, and that we should relate this weather condition to the child’s life. It can also trigger of various other chains of signification, which I shall expand on later.

His position associates itself and tries to replicate the image of Jesus Christ on the crucifix. The linguistic component enforces this interpretation- “Don’t let him die for our sins”. Traditional Catholic belief is that Jesus died to wipe out the sins of others. “Jesus died on the cross to wash eternal sins of Adam’s children through his blood”2. A sacrificial lamb, so that his followers would be sinless. Another line says, ” Please give generously and you will be rewarded. In this life or the next”. This applies only to people who believe either in the afterlife or reincarnation. While Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus would read the text the way it was intended, an Agnostic, Atheist or Zoastarian might not. In this sense, these alternate groupings would deviate from the preferred reading and will reject it.

The context in which the advert is placed is also important in articulating meaning. The advertisement is placed during the Easter weekend to ‘cash in’ on the renewed interest in religion. This also ties in with the commercialisation of religion on which I will touch on later.

Chains of signification

Note- these are generalised categories only, and are not representative of all. They merely depict stereotypes, as a means of illustrating different chains. It is important to qualify interpretations as potentials and not absolutes. Chains of signification allows advertisers to predict either the dominant preferred readings of the text as well as the deviant alternative or discrepant readings. An oversight of many advertisers is to overlook any negative connotations that might be interpreted, and this leads to a decline in sale and a loss in brand loyalty.


Myths about the advert

A myth is seen as something that is natural and taken for granted. Almost like an unspoken truth. Myths confer a “common significance or unconscious formulations which are the work of minds, societies and civilizations” (Tomaselli 1987). Myths reinforce social and cultural stereotypes, and in doing so, reinforce the particular dominant ideology of the society that is propagating the myth. Ideology is defined as the “grid of significations which organises myths in the legitimation of particular social, economic and political relations” (Tomaselli 1987). The dominant class can effectively use the media as a vehicle for portraying ideology and strengthening myths. In the same article, the writer attempts to show how the South African media, maintains dominant power relations, using myth. In later works, Tomaselli (1996) goes on to say that those who accept the myth see it as having a concrete existence. There are various myths that can be attributed to this advert, like:

Many Christians do not believe that Jesus was crucified. There are those who follow Mathews account and quote “And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross”- Mathews (27:32)- explaining that Simon wore the cross and not Jesus. This disputes the preferred reading, as there are those who believe that the crucifixion was actually a ‘cruci-fiction’. Muslims are also told in the Quran (4:157) that the Prophet Jesus was not crucified.

Not every person reading the ad is Christian, and therefore not everyone will decode the message as intended. The intended meaning would evoke sympathy for the child with the desire to be charitable. The advert also enforces idea that all street children are black; this is another myth as many street children are of other racial denominations. Many Christians do not believe that they are sinless or that Jesus died so that they would be sinless. This would negate the linguistic component of the advert and work against the preferred reading.

Cynics would say that the child collapsed because of excessive glue sniffing. This is a reality that is often overlooked when one looks at the plight of street-children. Many equate this social problem with an expression of freedom and fail to realise that many children leave their home because of domestic circumstances. Also, there is a lot of media attention on AIDS at the moment. Before, people would talk about a variety of issues, and the media would cover these issues. Now, the media is selective in nature in that it provides the topics of discussion. For example, before, people could talk about anything, it could be said that now, when one talks about global epidemics they can only be heard in the media if they talk about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) or HIV/AIDS. Even though glue sniffing is a preference and not a disease, it is still often overlooked, by AIDS etc.

Many do not believe in the adage “He who is sinless, must cast the first stone”, and as such have a different set of criteria of what constitutes sinning, and therefore would not be under the impression that the child is suffering for their sins. A question of ethics would then come into play. The ad also destroys the myth that Jesus was a Blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian. McCray (1990) as well as Locksley D.M. Geoghagen (1997) go to great lengths to prove that Jesus was a man of colour, being a descendant of Ham, with a traceable lineage in Egypt, where there were no Caucasians.

Symbolic- The symbol has no obvious connection to the idea it represents except through convention. (Tomaselli: 1996) This can be seen as a process of understanding society. In terms of the nature of semiotic Interaction, this would be how we make sense of the world. In essence, this is ideology. Pierce (1904) defines a symbol as being

A sign which is determined by its dynamic object only in the sense that it will be so interpreted. It thus depends either upon a convention, a habit, or a natural disposition of its interpretant, or of the field of its interpretant (that of which the interpretant is a determination).” (A Letter to Lady Welby, SS 33, 1904)

We live in a country that is predominantly Christian. “Christianity is the predominant faith of almost three-quarters of the diverse South African population”- R. Elphick and R. Davenport (1998). This advert reinforces this belief. The Editors go on to say

In the twentieth century South Africans have used Christian doctrine both to justify and to oppose doctrines of racial segregation, and Christian leadership provided much of the impetus for the founding of the African National Congress in 1912. But the history of South African Christianity is found for the most part in local, or “micro” narratives, while the highly elaborated “macro” narratives of colonialism, capitalism, and liberation–the backbone of the conventional histories of South Africa–assign Christianity a marginal role, or no role at all.

From this observation, one can hypothesise that Religion plays a large role in a South Africans life- by making the reference and associations in the advert, the company is hoping that South Africans will be more generous. This can once again be linked to crucifixion, as what was once a most disgraceful way to die has been glorified. This is similar to Christianity’s role in South Africa, from justifying apartheid to ‘turning the other cheek’ in more recent times.

Caldwell (2003) talks about Third-order signification. He states that cultural meanings are not derived from the sign itself, but rather from societies use and the values of that society. These are also known as public signs in terms of Phenomenology. “We draw meanings from the stock of images, notions, concepts and myths which are already available in the culture in a particular context and at a particular time”-Caldwell (2003) this is what is known as paradigms, in that an appropriate word is used from a list of alternatives.

Ideology legitimises relations of power, and has elements of consent. Ideology is at work when we take the messages given to us and naturalize them. Culture resides in the different responses between groups in the same society, of one ideology. There is this ideology of charity and monetary compensation as a replacement of morals. The underlying implication is such, that if we give charity, we are redeeming ourselves. This legitimises many social ills like the wealthy buying justice etc.

“Say what you will about oil and hegemony, but the pending invasion of Iraq is more than just a geopolitical act. It is also the manifestation of a cultural attitude” (Richard Goldstein:”Neo-Macho Man,” The Nation, February 24, 2003). This would imply that there is a global trend of promoting and propagating American ideology of self-righteousness, in that others cannot help themselves.

Our countries ideology is codified in our constitution and bill of rights. It is increasingly difficult to have a democracy, which caters for the majority, while not sacrificing plurality. The symbol of the black child caters for the majority of black people in the country, while also appealing to the other groups to attain its objective- generate money to help street children

The advert was placed on the 20th April, which is in the Easter weekend. Reinforcing the myth that people are only generous during certain days of the year. There is growing concern regarding the commercialisation of Religion, particularly Christianity- Marx argued that the economic base determined the superstructure and that ideas do not determine materiality, but rather, the material base determines ideas. If the base is capitalistic, then the ideology will be one of capitalism. The problem with this model is that there is no place for change in the system. There is this perception that we live in a system of exploitation, and people are moving away from beliefs, and are embracing the commercial aspects only.

Instead of thinking of Christ, young children are reminded of Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. I read this advert as being a tool of hegemony in that it is a resistance against commercialisation, however it is constrained in that people are reminded only of the sacrifice and not of the good. Gramsci (1971) defines hegemony as being the “social basis of the proletarian dictatorship and of the Workers State”. This can be seen as the relationship between domination and consent. This perpetuation of domination, similar to the “never forget” ideology of the Jews with regards to the holocaust actually erodes the purpose of charity as an act of worship and merely labels it as a form of monetary repentance. Resistance is subverted within consumerism and a blurring of concepts.

In terms of firstness, secondness and thirdness, firstness is seen as a possibility. It is an unspecified idea that comes to mind. It is associated with a more literal understanding. In the advert, the firstness would be the child lying on the ground. The secondness or actuality is the reference to Christianity. There is a focus with regards to time. At the symbolic level or the thirdness, there is a probability as there is a ‘what would be’, what could be, and ‘what should be’, given the certain set of conditions. Tomaselli (1996) sees thirdness as being ” a medium of connection between a first and a second: it is a mode of relations- a method of combining various elements- and making them intelligible”. In this sense, thirdness can be seen as a process of understanding a subtext, in this case, society.

With regards to Hall (1980), Hall hypothesises three ways in which people interpret messages. The first is where the reader interprets the message in terms of the writers intention- in the ad, this would occur when people recognise that the foundation is looking for charity and they give money. The second possibility is where they negotiate what is told. “Negotiating the code occurs when readers acknowledge as legitimate the taken-for-granted code which contains the message but question aspects of the way the message is constructed”- Hall (1980) in this case, people would question how much of the money they donate, will go into administrative costs. Also, many would question why the advert is alienating Christian symbols only and not Universal ones. The third possibility is that the reader would reject the message entirely by decoding it in a different way. When a discrepant reading is formulated, the reader might think that he is in a worse position than the child or that there are more worthy causes to donate too.

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