Semi... What?

06.08.20213 min read

Semiotic approaches are often utilised to make sure language and visuals cater to the purpose of communication in the best possible way. This is specifically true for advertisements and commercials. But what exactly is semiotics? The field of study examines the properties and regularities of communication or, to say it like a scientist, a sign system. The analysis focuses on three dimensions: the syntactic, the semantic and the pragmatic.


Syntactics traditionally studies the arrangement and relationship of signs. Independent of the meaning, it looks at the formal relationship between the elements of a sign system and attempts to analyse its construction. As the fundamental dimension of semiotics, syntactics forms the basis for all semantic and pragmatic considerations.

Semantics describes and disseminates the meaning of a sign system. It focuses on the relation between the sign and its meaning and offers icon, index, and symbol as the categories for better differentiation.

Last but not least, pragmatics examines communicative intentions. This dimension looks at the relationship between a sign and the people it is addressing.

Charles S. Peirce is known as the founder of modern semiotics. His Semiotic Triangle is often used in the analysis of sign systems, particularly in advertising. It refers to the interdependencies of object, sign and interpreter.

Peirce also came up with three classes: icon, index and symbol. Following his definition, the icon attempts a direct translation from meaning into a format, as in traffic signs. Index refers to reason - for example, warning of smoke or fire. Symbolic signs refer to shared habits or conventions like the heart for love or the cross for faith.

Another dimension of his research refers to the purpose of a sign. It differentiates between indicative signs, which address the intellect, suggestive signs, which talk to emotions, and the imperative signs, which influence the will.

The Semiotic Triangle

The relevance of this analytic approach is evident when looking at brand names and logos. Many examples show an apparent lack of consideration about the cultural background and possible conclusions or associations. The Airbnb logo, for example, was often visually linked to symbols for genitals. The Nissan Pajero caused some irritation in the US because of the (vulgar) meaning in the country’s slang (“jerk-off” or “wanker”). And the Toyota MR2 raised eyebrows in France because it is pronounced like "merde" (“shit”). A good reason to double-check on semiotics before making a decision, one could say.

Semiotics is only one of several tools in your marketing and communication methodology, of course. The other aspects to include are data mining and qualitative consumer research, performance measurement, and, of course, neuroscience and multisensory marketing. Put them all together and you’ll be speaking consumers’ language in no time.

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