Alan Carroll Media

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April 2017

Semiotic Analysis

As previously discussed on this blog, semiotic is the study of the various signs and symbols that convey meaning in forms of media. In this blog post, I will be applying semiotics to analyse the messages within a printed advertisement.


Above is an advertisement for Crisis Relief Singapore, a charitable, christian organisation. The campaign that the advert is a part of takes aim at online ‘slacktivism’ .

The first thing that is obvious about the image is that it features a child with a missing leg. The fact that the leg is missing tells us that the child was possibly a victim of war. The most likely cause is a landmine which is a common cause of limb loss in warzones. The fact that the leg stump is freshly bandaged and the stain on the bandage indicates that this is a recent injury. This implies that the war in which the leg was lost could still be going on.

The next aspect of the image is that it’s in black and white. The use of black and white photography is considered to be artistic. However, it is also used to convey unhappy situations. The lack of colour indicates a lack of joy or happiness. this is why it is often used by charities to convey their subjects desperate situations and to evoke empathy.

Surrounding the child are several hands giving the thumbs up signal. This is a striking image that contrasts heavily with the image of the injured child. The thumbs up signal is one that indicates approval in common parlance. However, in the context of the injured child, it seems in very poor taste.

The text of the advert, ‘Liking isn’t helping’ is presented very subtly. This is to bring as much attention to the image as possible. The stunning image of the hands giving the thumbs up to the injured child draws people in. It is only when they focus on the image that the text becomes clear. The font of the text gives the effect of a typewriter. Such imagery evokes thoughts of war as many documents from World War 1 and 2 were typed on typewriters.

The intention of the phrase ‘liking isn’t helping’ is to bring to attention the fact that social media campaigns that invite people to ‘like and share’ a post to increase awareness of an issue, don’t actually mean much if you don’t actually go out and do something to help.

Semiotics 101

Semiotics is the study of how meaning is created and communicated. In a way, we are all semiologists because we are all constantly decoding signs and symbols on an unconscious level.

For instance, take the following image;

By Corazón.svg: Fibonaccithis derivative work: Pengo (Corazón.svg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
There is a significant chance that you would identify this image as a heart. However, the image bares little resemblance to an actual heart.

By Meul (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons
The difference between the two images is understandable when you consider that the origin of the heart symbol is not, in fact based of the heart at all. In fact, the symbol may have been based off of the shape of the seedpod of the Silphium plant, which was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a form of birth control. It may have been this association with love and sex that popularised the shape as a symbol of love.

This is a good example of another model of semiotics, Barthes’ three levels of signification. Barthes came up with three levels of interpretation that signs can go through. The first level is that of denotation. When it was first discovered, the image of the Silphium seedpod represented simply itself.

As it’s properties became known, the image and shape took on a meaning related to sex and birth control. This is Barthes second level, connotation. Although, in the ancient city of Cyrene, the symbol could potentially have represented wealth as the city had become so wealthy from the Silphium trade that they put the symbol on their money.

Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a seed/fruit of silphium

Barthes’ third level is that of myth. In the middle ages, the symbol took on its current meaning, thanks, in part to Christianity. The symbol was appropriated to represent the love of Jesus Christ and it was incorporated into many pieces of art from that era.

On the off chance you weren’t aware of the symbol’s meaning, it could be interpreted through its use. For instance, the symbol on its own may not carry any particular meaning but, in the context of an image like this;


The meaning becomes more clear. If, however, I replaced the heart symbol with something else, say, a hamburger, the sentence makes no sense. This is an example of De Saussur’s paradigmatic and syntagmatic model of semiotics.

If we take the sentence, ‘I love you’, each individual word is interchangeable with any other word. Each word is a paradigm within the sentence’s syntagm. Changing one word would change the sentence’s meaning. Indeed, on a smaller scale, each letter in a word has a paradigmatic relationship within the sentence’s syntagm. Changing the o in love to an i changes the word’s entire meaning. However, the sentence I live you makes no sense and the meaning is lost

Andrews, E. (2016). What is the origin of the heart symbol? – Ask History. [online] Available at:

The Huffington Post. (2013). Why’s a Heart Represent Love, Anyway?. [online] Available at: (2017). Semiotics for Beginners: Syntagmatic Analysis. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2017]. (2017). Semiotics for Beginners: Denotation, Connotation and Myth. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2017]. (2017). Semiotics for Beginners: Paradigms and Syntagms. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2017].

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