Analysis, Semiotic Analysis

A positive spin on espionage? (in The Economist, 12 Nov 2016)

Semiotic (the combination of linguistic and visual signs) analysis of ads assumes that ads’ meaning are designed to shape our experience of reality. Barthes discusses the mythic meaning of the front cover of Paris-Match and showed that the signs and codes used to represent French colonial rule as natural and self-evident. What mythic meaning can we see in this ad?

We see a sleek, handsome 007, looking away with an intense, blue-eyed gaze. In Semiotics (Kress and van Leeuwen) this conceptual representation of social reality is through symbolism: here, we see Daniel Craig as 007. He (both Daniel Craig and 007, actually) is a symbol of a certain masculinity, of wealth, of success. His character kills only bad people and he, of course, is working on the side of the good guys. 007 represents a binary world where some killing is ok and some isn’t.

Judith Williamson (1978) notes that ads replace the position art and religion once had in society. Ads ask us to participate in ideological ways of seeing ourselves in the world. (Bignell, 2002, p. 31). The iconic sign in this ad is 007, the mythic meaning of masculine beauty. The linguistic sign and its connotative meaning here is espionage, a very specific, imaginary world of spies. So what is the ideological function of this ad?

First we have to identify the signs in this ad. We see Daniel Craig as 007. How do we know he is 007? We can see a martini in front of him and we can use our world knowledge and social context knowledge of our society. If we know who 007 is and we’ve read the books and seen the films, we would know that he is a British spy and that he likes to drink his Martinis‘shaken, not stirred‘. The linguistic sign: shaken and stirred helps us decode the reference to 007. Seeing the espionage title also helps. According to Bignell (2002), the function of the linguistic sign is to ‘anchor’ the various meanings of the image, to selectively control the ways in which it can be decoded by a reader of the ad. His gaze is directed away from the viewer suggesting distance, but since it is a close-up, he does engage in intimacy. His look is calm and stern, projecting confidence, seriousness and ability, but not without friendliness.

But what is the significance of altering the syntagm of shaken not stirred to shaken and stirred?  This ad is an example of intertextuality, because it borrows from and refers to another text, namely 007’s known words. The mythic meaning f the ad, that spying is elegant, ‘clean’, chic and other positive adjectives, is constructed from a few connotations of the iconic signs denoting Daniel Craig as 007 and the linguistic signs shaken and stirred, and espionage. The juxtaposition of 007’s calm exterior with the caption is interesting. It makes the reader wonder why are spies stirred? While this report discusses technological problems in espionage, it does not discuss moral or ethical problems.

Contexts and readers

In order to make sense of the signs in an ad, it is necessary for the reader to adopt a particular subject-position. The reading position is where the ad makes sense. It’s possible to understand this ad simply by the word ‘espionage’, but decoding the reference to James Bond makes the reader understand it in a different way.

The readers of The Economist, as far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong), are mostly upper-middle class, well-educated, right wing, white men. Their world view would resonate with 007, they would identify with his character and the masculinity that he possesses as well as with the political stance of the 007 military intelligence agenda. Why did they choose this particular Bond? Why not Sean Connery or Pierce? I think it’s because the age of the readers must be 35-45, those who did not grow up on Sean Connery’s interpretation of James Bond.

So what?

Awareness of ideologies in ads and in images in general is important if we want to change our cultural narratives and build a more peaceful, accepting, equal and just societies.

What interesting ads or images have you come across? Leave me a comment below and share your images!



Chapter 2 in Bignell, J. (2002). Media Semiotics: An Introduction. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2nd edition.

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

2 thoughts on “Analysis, Semiotic Analysis

  1. I’ve trained my vision to avert from online ads, but I wish there were a counter to the body language signalling tricks that politicians use, and how the media panders to it in still imagery. You’ve heard of the Merkel-Raute? That sort of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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