The Power of Copy

Here we are again looking at polysemy (images with many meanings). Three advertisements were given to participants without text. They were not told they were advertisements, but were asked to describe the image and explain how they felt about it.

The following images given to the participants are made up of real objects and are uncoded because of their obviousness. It is safe to say that the first impression of seeing an image is expressed as a literal one. After describing in a literal fashion, participants began to interpret the images at a deeper level and not necessarily in an orderly fashion… rather random.  In Barthes essay he describes it as ‘discontinuous’.

For the participants to be able to understand what they are seeing, they use their cultural knowledge and common sense to pull a narrative together. In one instance the eldest participant on describing the ‘Kiss’ advert referred to a particular eye test as a child, a test we both suspected were no longer in use. Additionally she referred to the speaker as a ‘record’, though iconic, an old fashioned reference for music. On the other hand a young man described the speaker as both ‘modern’ and ‘funky’ and most adamant that it was connected to music. Within the cultural knowledge discourse we can see that the generation gap plays a role in how images can be interpreted by various audiences. The uncoded (literal) and coded (subjective/symbolic) image work individually and together which we see on a regular basis in advertising. The uncoded image is easily understood but ultimately functions to disguise the true meaning.

Text anchors image providing a literal description of the image. Without text, particularly with the ‘Statue’ of Jack Daniel no one had a clue what it really represented. Text if included in the exercise would have implied, “What is it that we are seeing?” Ultimately, text navigates the reader through the meaning of the message causing participants to filter out some meanings and embracing others.

The symbolic message is unique because participants may be given the same image to read and they will interpret it in a different manner. Interpretation of the image is made up of an internal bank of signs drawn from a range of personal experiences, knowledge, activities etc. As these interpretations unravel, the language must incorporate an element of surprise, which increases overall interest. Metonymy can be seen in each advertisement provided the text has been incorporated.

  1. The statue represents tradition and longevity of the ‘JD’ brand.
  2. The speaker and mike represent ‘Kiss FM’ is the beginning of life – a progenitor of music. (Composition is key as there are references to the marriage of both objects in a sexual union).
  3. The supermarket scene represents Exorex as an improver of a happy, enviable lifestyle – creating a quality life.

Left to right: Jack Daniel's advert, Kiss FM Radio, Exorex prescriptions for psoriasis


Responses for the image of ‘The Statue’ ranged from:

It looks old.

He is staring into space, thinking about something

It’s dark.

A Smart man, very well to do, rich.

Quite authoritative, he looks lie he is talking with a crowd gathered around him.

Western times – ‘Billy the Kid’

He’s distinguished.

What is the statue made of?


Responses for the image of the ‘Circle’ ranged from:

A speaker with a microphone. Is it a karaoke speaker?

Definitely something to do with music.

Nice warm colour… it looks like it has been turned on recently

It’s an eye but now it looks like a speaker, now it looks like a sperm going into an egg.

Dot looks like the eye test I took when I was a child, now it looks like a record, it’ looks like a target too! … an an eye! Why is a microphone there?

A modern, funky speaker… it’s connected to music.

Resembles an eye.


Responses for the image of the ‘Supermarket’ ranged from:

She’s very healthy with her basket of vegetables

It’s a shock factor

Women are staring in disgust and the men look quite happy

I wish I looked like that!

She’s quite hot.

At first it looks like an airport

It’s silly

This reminds me of healthy eating

Looks like a teen comedy

It’s weird, wandering around with no clothes on. The women’s boy-friends expressions are that of a typical male put in that situation.

It’s funny

Notes on the project

It is increasingly difficult to source advertisements where image and text are kept apart. Technology means we have more text and image and text as image merging being pushed in other creative ways. Men tended not to be as descriptive and with the exception of the Kiss advert, persons were surprised with the ‘true’ meaning of the images.

I enjoyed this project immensely and will introduce the same adverts as case studies to my students. This is a method that is definitely a lot more digestible. Students will be encouraged to gather their own images and conduct their own tests and we will ‘ease’ them into Barthes. J

A summary on Barthes essay the ‘Rhetoric of Image’ is in the previous blog. (Scroll lower).


About s o l o s t u d i o

Graphic Designer and Tutor View all posts by s o l o s t u d i o

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