The image cannot lie: representation and interpretation

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and their use and interpretation. A sign is anything that conveys meaning and is divided into two parts, the signifier and the signified. A signifier is anything that gives meaning, such as a word or image. The signified is the mental concept or emotion that is evoked by the signifier. In semiotics, denotation and connotation are two terms used to describe the relationship between the signifier and signified, and a distinction is made between the denotative signified and the connotative signified. Denotation is said to be the literal or obvious meaning of a sign, while connotation is the personal, ideological or emotional associations of the sign. The connotation of a specific image on an individual is different for everyone based on their age, gender, life experiences etc.

While researching controversial advertisements this week, I came across one in particular that struck a chord with me. In 2008, CONAC: Chilean corporation against cancer advertised their campaign with a specific image and slogan.


The little boy in this campaign looks to be suffocating with a plastic bag over his head. Looking more closely you can see it is actually cigarette smoke that is causing him to suffocate. There have been various responses to this campaign, some positive: “A plastic bag over the head gives me the willies but I sat up and took notice. Message received”. While others have been more negative: “Since when are images of innocent children suffering appealing to the target audience…it portrays this organisation as killers rather than one who is trying to save children”. I think the aim of the corporation when designing this advertisement, or the denotation, was ultimately to encourage people to stop smoking by shocking them with this confronting image and the related text “smoking isn’t just suicide. It’s murder”. The connotation of this image Is the possible or probable effects a parents smoking will have on their children, and the reference to murder would only increase their guilt.

Another controversial advertisement I researched is also from 2008 and is related to the Victorian government and their views on abortion. The advertising standards bureau (ASB) processed two particular cases regarding complaints about campaigns presented by the Tell the truth coalition, a pamphlet and a television commercial. Both campaigns featured images of human foetuses in various stages of development which aimed to shock the audience. The pamphlet also contained details of the development of a foetus, comments from women who have had counselling after an abortion, and of the health and psychological problems suffered by these women. All complaint made to the ASB were in reference to the graphic images shown and the way the textual content affected women who have lost their children, by choice or not. While researching these advertisements, the only original content I could find was an image of one section of the pamphlet, which I have edited to crop out one of the images that may have offended the audience.


I’m assuming there is still record of the original advertisements, but based on the complaints detailed in the ASB reports of both the pamphlet and tv ad, I’d rather not see them. The denotation of these advertisements is to condemn the legalisation of abortion proposed by the Victorian government, the connotations of both campaigns affects not only people who have had abortions and their families, but also those people who have had miscarriages or lost their baby to no fault of their own. They are forced to re-live the trauma of their own experience and many complaints referred to the possibility of their children seeing the ad and the psychological effects it could have on them.


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