Semiotics and Shock Advertisement

How and with which semiotic means do advertisers create a shocking effect?

Essay, 2011

25 Pages, Grade: Excellent



1 Introduction

2 Attention-seeking and shock effect: a theoretical overview on semiotics in advertising

3 Qualitative analysis of shocking and attention-seeking print advertisements
3.1 peta

4 Conclusion


List of Figures


1 Introduction

There is advertisement – and there is advertisement: Most ads have the intention to make people aware of a product, service or concept followed by the purchase and therefore “support the free-market economy” (Reschke: 1998, p. 1); but there are ads whose main aim is to inform people, more precisely to call their attention to a certain topic. Consequently, advertisements cause different reactions: Some ads make people smile or even giggle; some just communicate plane information; whilst others make people think and reflect; and again others literally shock people. Advertising campaigns such as the WWF 9/11 one, the “Get unhooked” ads or Antonio Federici’s banned campaign (q.v. Appendix 1-3) are only three examples on the list of campaigns banned in the 21st century due to unethical content. Those offensive advertisements include “messages that transgress laws and customs (e.g. anti-human rights), breach a moral or social code (e.g. profanity, vulgarity) or outrage the moral or physical senses (e.g. gratuitous use of violence, use of disgusting images)” (Chan et al.: 2007, p. 608). Researchers found out that adverts, which “are incongruent with social norms attract attention and are more likely to be retained in memory” (Gulas and Weinberger: 2006, p. 173). Attracting interest can be done on different ways: by either using attention attracting pictures, sounds, signs or just simple words and phrases.

This work deals with the study of signs, so-called semiotics, as an attention-seeking device. In order to understand why semiotics has such an influence on advertising, chapter two sets the theoretical background on semiotics and how signs, such as symbols, icons and indices, are being used in order to attract attention. For this purpose existing literature on semiotics and its use in advertising, as well as literature on shock and attention-seeking advertising are examined, although there is not much literature that is engaged in the topic, due to the fact that shock advertising has left the starting blocks not long ago. The working definition of shock advertising used in this work, based on the ideas of Trojan (2003) and Wünnenberg (1996), is as follows: Shocking adverts are adverts that make use of posed or realistic pictures showing misery, agony and bale, which also contain extremely sensitive religious and political topics, cause a psychic trauma and/or an ethical indignation, and which sometimes have an insufficient or no relation to the promoted product, company or institution. While the second chapter of this work covers the theory, the third chapter, dealing with qualitative analyses of print adverts, covers the question of how and with which semiotic means advertisers create a shocking effect. The work then concludes with a short review and further perspectives.

2 Attention-seeking and shock effect: a theoretical overview on semiotics in advertising

Although advertising has traditionally been used to "equate products with positive cultural or social experiences" (Klein: 2000, p. 29), there are advertising campaigns which transfer emotions that stay in the viewers mind by attracting attention through provoking or emotional images. But it is not just the image used; many means influence the effect of an ad. English surveys show that exploitation (53%) plays the biggest role in defining shock adverts, followed by semiotics and depending on trends (both 47%) (Holz: 2006). Hence, signs and symbols play a huge role in advertisements and are the main means to create shock ads.

Going back to the Greek word sēmeion (σημεῖον), which means mark or sign, semiotics or semiology, as it is sometimes called, is “generally defined as the science of signs” (Danesi: 2000, p. 205) in society and has its origin in the early 20th century. Semiotics mainly originates from the ideas of two philosophers: Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who was a Swiss linguist at the University of Geneva and is the eponym of the subject; and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) (Bignell: 2002), who concentrated on the triangular relationship between sign, objective and interpretant. According to Weiss and Burks, Peirce was “the founder of the modern theory of signs” (1945, p. 383).

The two inspired other scientists such as Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes who later contributed significantly to the studies of semiotics (Lester: 2006). Nevertheless, there had already been approaches to semiotics “in the antiquity and the Middle Ages” (Nöth: 1995, p. 11). Both, de Saussure and Peirce had a similar fundamental idea but did not agree totally (Bignell: 2002). According to de Saussure, who concentrated on linguistic signs, semiotics “would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them” (1986, p. 15) and to him a sign would be a physical object consisting of a signifier and a signified.

In order to demonstrate the two parts – signified and signifier – here an example:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2 : Safetly belt

The signifier is the illuminated symbol showing the two parts of a safety belt and the red arrow; the signified is that people should fasten their seat belts.

Saussure’s idea of a sign consisted, as shown in the figure above, of two parts: the signified and the signifier. The sign itself “is a result of the relationship between these two parts” (Woolman: 2004, p. 39). The signified is the meaning that is connected to a sign and there can be more than one signified to one signifier. On the other side there is the signifier, which is either the look or the form of the sign.

In contrast, the American philosopher Peirce defines semiotics, respectively signs as

“something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign” (Peirce: 1955, p. 99).

Consequently, a sign is something that somebody identifies as something; a “thing” such as a symbol, a sound, a sequence or a picture that stands for, amongst others, an action, advice, item, object, cause or rule. When seeing that something the person knows the meaning of the something. It is grounded in our minds and knowing about its existence has been a process of learning and experiencing; a child for example would not know that stands for sum.

Peirce also extended Saussure’s two dimensions signifier and signified with three different types of referents: Icons, indices and symbols (Sowinski: 1998). Icons, which can generally be seen, are e.g. words, like splash or bang that resemble their referent visually; metaphors; sound effects, statues or photos/pictures. An object, which needs to be figured out and is represented by some kind of indication, is a so-called index. Examples for indices are smoke, identifying a fire source or a pointing finger, indicating either a direction or the location of an object. Further indices are footprints, echoes and signals such as a fire alarm. The symbol, the most used referent in advertising (snap2objects: 2009), is the most conventional referent and needs to be learned: e.g. the symbol of love is a rose, the Chinese swastika symbol stands for the sun, £ stands for the currency Pound Sterling; and simple numbers and flags are also symbols. Symbols have the most complex level of complexity, whereas icons have the least complex level (Danesi: 2000; Berger: 2005).

There are advertisements, like the following, which only make use of meaningful pictures in order to attract attention. The picture on its own stands for something and no further explanation is required. Nevertheless, advertisers usually use a short sentence to make sure that people understand the advert in the intended way or to underline the picture.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3 : WWF France – before it’s too late

When looking at an advert people create a certain feeling which gets influenced by things such as layout and colours; whereupon, especially colours have a huge influence on people’s mood.

- white for example stands for innocence, goodness, purity etc.,
- black refers to guilt, death, evil, indecency etc.,
- green is linked with hope, life, trust, naiveté, plants etc.,
- red is tied to anger, passion, danger, sexuality etc.,
- blue related to the sea, the sky, calmness, mystery etc.,
- brown reminds of naturalness, constancy, earthiness etc. and
- grey presents mystery, mistiness, dullness etc. (Beasley and Danesi: 2002).

The arrangement of the individual elements, the colours used, the pictures chosen etc. have, just as well as the typeface, influence on the effect of an advert. Since the viewers do not isolate the images from the verbal/written text, or the written from the image, fonts and punctuation play an important role in advertisements. “Writing is a form of image-making” (Goddard: 1998, p. 16), whereupon the size, the colour, the type etc. of the written influence the advertisement rating. How does writing appear? A different image and mood can be communicated by typefaces, which have varying personalities (O’Guinn et al.: 2009). First of all it needs to be distinguished between handwriting and typed print. Handwriting usually appears “more personal and individualistic than machine-produced typeface” (Goddard: 1998, p. 16). The following WWF advert would not be as effective if the four lines on the bottom left were not handwritten. In this case it is not even a computerised hand; it in fact looks like it could have been written by anybody.


Excerpt out of 25 pages


Semiotics and Shock Advertisement
How and with which semiotic means do advertisers create a shocking effect?
The University of Surrey  (Department of English)
Language of Advertising
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2030 KB
Semiotics, Shock, Advert, Ad, Saussure, peta, Peirce, WWF, image, sign, typeface, symbol, shockvertisement, ethics, linguistic, Federici, ads
Quote paper
B.A. Corinna Colette Vellnagel (Author), 2011, Semiotics and Shock Advertisement, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Semiotics and Shock Advertisement

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free