Semiotic theory can seem quite daunting but it’s a lot easier to understand what’s going on with reference to an actual example, so this exercise asks you to try a spot of semiotic analysis for yourself.
• First, look carefully at the image below and describe its literal elements (i.e. denotation). What can you see?
In this image the literal elements are a sailor sitting on a torpedo that’s splashing along some water. The sailor has a ‘rein’ he’s holding with one hand and some other kind of rope or string in his other hand.
The text is telling the reader to ‘Join The Army’ which is a clear message, and then ‘The Service For Fighting Men’ part is aiming to be persuasive.
• Now think about its implied meaning (i.e. connotation). What else could the elements you’ve identified mean? Try and decide whether these connotations are intentional or accidental. How do they support or undermine the overall message? To modern eyes, for example, the torpedo might look like a phallic symbol, but is it likely that this was Babcock’s intention in 1917? On the other hand, such a reading might suggest manliness, a quality that might attract potential recruits.
The connotation here seems to be that if you join the Navy, you will be able to be a master of warfare. The sailor riding the torpedo could be seen as a jockey, or a cowboy, riding a horse (or maybe even a bull as in a rodeo)), holding a riding crop in one hand and a rein in the other. The sailor appears to be in control of the torpedo and looks very happy about it. The connotation here seems to be ‘Join the Navy’ and you too will be able to have fun controlling dangerous weapons, which may appeal to young recruits, and the message of ‘The Service for Fighting Man’ may be doubly appealing to young men who want to feel strong and ‘grown up’.
As mentioned above, the torpedo could be viewed as a phallic object. On one hand, as suggested , the sight of the large appendage between the sailors legs may well suggest manliness to some men, for whom having such a sizeable object between their legs is very appealing. The suggestion is that joining the Navy will make you feel like you have a large penis. On the other hand, I see this as a somewhat homoerotic image of a man riding a phallic symbol. Whether this was intentional or not, I’m not sure. Some military art was produced by openly gay artists like J.C. Leyendecker, whose work was very homoerotic, and perhaps it was intentional to appeal to impressionable homosexual young men who might be persuaded to join the service. In this way, posters like the one above kill two birds with one stone – some men will see it as a very heterosexual image of a strong young man that they can aspire to be like, while others will see it as a homoerotic image of a man riding a phallic symbol, and are enticed by the idea that life in the navy may offer them encounters with other like-minded non-heterosexuals.
Overall, I think the suggestion that the Navy is all about strength and power is an intentional one and supports the tag line that the Navy is ‘The Service For Fighting Men’. It’s difficult to tell whether the homoerotic connotation is intentional or an accident, but I’d lean towards accident as it doesn’t seem like the kind of message the Navy at the time would want to give out. It may of course have been intentional on the artists’ part, but I can’t find very much information about him as a person.
• Now choose a different image to analyse. Reflect on the process in your learning log. To what extent do the implied meanings you’ve identified reflect your own values? How might other people see them? If you can, ask someone else to take a look at the image you’ve chosen. How does the meaning they take from it differ from yours? Why do you think this might be?
The next image is take from a set of ’37 awe inspiring advertising posters’ chosen by Graphic Design Junction.
The image is an advert for a book called Life in five seconds, the concept being a book of stories for people short on time.
The denotation of this image is 4 ‘man’ symbols in different colours – three upright, one on it’s side – and arrows between them, pointing from left to right. Beneath this is writtent the words [Michael Jackson].
If you didn’t know who Michael Jackson was, or knew nothing about him, this image would probably be meaningless. I do know who he was though, so the connotation here is that the four men in varying colours represents the way that Michael Jackson’s skin got lighter in colour as his life went on, until he finally died with skin almost white in colour.
Another image from this book illustrates the fact that these images don’t mean much to someone without some prior knowledge:
I personally know nothing about Silvio Berlusconi and even after Googling him I’m still not entirely sure what the connotation is of this poster. It’s four men, each with a thought bubble above their heads containing a screw, a bird, an otter (maybe), and a bone. The images below look like a building site, a tv, a footballer, and a podium.
Some research tells me that Silvio is a former prime minister of Italy (the podium) and also owns the largest broadcasting company there (the tv). In the 60s, he was a construction entrpreneur (the building site) and he was a previous owner of A.C. Milan football club (the footballer). I have no idea what the symbols in the thought bubbles refer to, although the screw at least corresponds to the construction industry.
Someone else who knows more about him, perhaps even someone from Italy, may look at this image and know exactly what the connotations of the symbols are, but to me, a lot of them infer nothing but their literal meanings.