Semiotics- I saw the sign!


You may be wondering why you’ve just watched a Head and Shoulders commercial. No, it’s not a subtle jab at your hygiene.

What I’d like to call attention to is Todd Sampson’s application of semiotics: “the study of signs and symbols…a visual shorthand”. In his segment on ‘The Gruen Transfer’ Sampson describes the involvement of semiotics in advertising by addressing the significance of seemingly irrelevant features. For example, he comments that the white of the lab coats may symbolise purity and authority. These further meanings are observed almost subconsciously by the audience, and their individual interpretation is dependant on their culture, experience and personal beliefs. There are signs within all texts; further meaning can be found beneath surface-level visuals.

In his analysis, Sampson incorporates both the signifier and the signified (Turnbull, S 2016):

Signifier: The signs’ basic physical form, for example words or images. These can also be described as ‘denotations’.

Signified: What is evoked in the mind; the meaning taken from a sign. These are referred to as ‘connotations’.

The image of the lab coats themselves are denotations, whereas the notion of them symbolising purity is a connotation.

Now, let’s apply these concepts to a contrasting text, an art piece.



This artwork is by Polish-born illustrator Pawel Kuczynski, who creates sharply satirical art pieces to portray current social, political and cultural realities.

Firstly, the denotation: An image of two toddlers, sitting down and playing with blocks together.

The connotations, however, could paint a very different picture…

Observe the clothing; the girl is wearing bright, clean overalls. In contrast, the boy is hunched over in dark, filthy clothes that are covered in patches. This juxtaposition of their attire and physical positioning may, for some, symbolise the rising inequality of wealth between social ‘classes’. Many countries across the globe have a phenomenal gap between the ‘wealthy elite’ and the impoverished. If a viewer of this artwork was impacted by this, or educated on the issue, they would observe this connotation. (Macionis & Plummer 2012)

Once again, we can all see two young children playing with blocks. If you look closer, however, the girl is spelling out ‘apple’, whereas the boy is attempting to eat a block with the image of an apple. A connotation that may be perceived here is the sheer magnitude and effect of world hunger. By contrasting children of opposing economic backgrounds the artist portrays, through the signified, the disadvantages and struggles of the underprivileged.

Every text that we view as an audience goes far beyond the initial signifier, or denotation. The further meanings, or connotations, that an individual perceives however, are dependant on a variety of factors such as culture, personal experience and an understanding of the world around them.



  • “Visual news” 2011- (Accessed 16 March)
  • “Pawel Kuczynski”. 2014. Available: (Accessed 17 March)
  • Macionis JJ & Plummer K 2012, Sociology: A Global Introduction, Pearson Education LTD
  • Turnbull, S (2016), ‘Media Texts’, BCM 110. University of Wollongong



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