Semiotics is defined as the study of signs and symbols and their application in the interpretation of messages in the communication process, or as the science that focuses on the meanings produced by a communication (Danesi, 2007). Semiology as a research domain has evolved over time and now applies to a number of fields such as communication, advertising, philosophy, grammar and other linguistics studies (Deely, 1982).  In this paper, focus is made to understand the effect of aesthetics in consumer advertising. This area was selected because it is one of the areas which utilises both language and art (signs) to appeal to the consumer (Holbrook and Hirchsman, 1993). Communication is different from speech because it includes other elements in addition to speech. The signs and symbols are also part of the communication, and carry vital information which when ignored, leads to communication breakdown.


A keen study of language reveals that good mastery of language entails much more than just memorising the words of a language and their meanings; but also includes the knowledge of the proper use of language in the situation or context at hand. For this reason, apart from just conveying the meaning aspects of the words, language also conveys the emotions, feelings and moods of the speaker. The speaker must design his language in a way in which it will convey exactly the intended message to the audience. Use of language in professional settings, especially in circumstances which require the message to be encoded in a way in which it will appeal to the senses and emotions of the audience provides a good example of such language use. For example, theatre and arts are aimed at entertainment, and the message is usually designed in a special way to appeal to the emotional side of the audience (Powell, 2013).

Advertisements are also good examples where the design is aimed at appealing to the audience, since they are designed to make the audience develop certain feelings about a given product so that they buy them in the end (Turow, 2011). To achieve this, there is usage of signs alongside the words uttered by the speaker, which is the central interest of semiology studies (Eco, 1979). Any accompaniments to the speech process become aspects of interest to the semiotics experts, as long as it influences the message in any way. The body language of the speaker, the facial expressions evident as the words are uttered, and the tone of voice, the hand gestures and the pace of delivery are all aspects that carry some important information that the study of semiotics is interested in (Eco, 1979).  Semiotics is divided into semantics, syntactic and pragmatics (Littlejohn et al, 2008).


This is the study of the meaning of an entire communicative process. In semiology, semantics covers the communicative value, in totality, of the words, the non – verbal communicative devices, the signs and symbols in order to understand how the message is delivered to the audience, and how the audience deciphers it in the manner it does (Littlejohn et al, 2008). In this field, words are taken as symbols and they only make sense because the listeners are able to associate the word with what it signifies. Connotation is an important process in communication, as the meanings an audience assigns to words are only due to what they have learnt to associate them with. Semantics springs from the realisation that what is intended by the speaker is not always what the audience deciphers, leading to a communication breakdown. Interpretation of the signs and symbols that make up speech is therefore not always uniform, which makes the audience get a different message from the one that the speaker set to out to deliver.


This is the study of how different elements of a language, especially the words of that language combine and relate to form meaningful units of communication (Eco, 1979). Syntactics studies show that while words or phrases can be associated with meanings, they cannot effectively communicate on their own, and need to be used in collaboration with others so that the communication process is complete. When humans communicate, they do so in sentences and not in single words, therefore, the syntactic scholars argue that a study on meaning needs to focus on the sentence as the basic unit of communication(Eco, 1979).


This is the study of the relationship between the signs and symbols of a communicative process and the users of the language. The role played by the environment in aiding or interfering with communication are focussed on in pragmatics. Context has a great contribution to the meaning finally passed across. Pragmatics is concerned with linguistic aspects such as the speech act theory, implicature in communication, interpretation of a message by the audience and the relationship between linguistics and other areas of study such as philosophy and anthropology. One area of interest in pragmatics is that unlike the other areas of study which only focus on the speaker, pragmatics also looks at the listener, since communication involves both the speaker and the audience, and the two must work in harmony for the communication process to be complete. The interpretation of the message is therefore as important as the message itself (Eco, 1979).

In addition, the context in which the communication is made has a lot of bearing on the interpretation the audience will make of it. The environment also includes the prior knowledge the listener has on the topic in discussion, as meanings are deciphered depending on what one already knows about the topic. In addition, pragmatics studies the effect ambiguity has on communication. A sentence or a phrase is said to be ambiguous if it can be interpreted in different ways by the audience. The message the audience interprets may not be the one intended by the speaker, leading to a message mismatch. Communication will be incomplete in such a case. For example, the sentence “John saw the man with Mary” could mean John saw a man who was in the company or Mary, or it could mean Jon was in the company of Mary when he saw the man.

A Theoretical perspective

A number of theories have been put forward to explain the relationship between signs and symptoms and the message that is eventually delivered to the listeners, for example the Theory of Symbols by Susanne Langer (Reichling, 1993) and the Roland Berthes’ Semiotic Theory (Chandler, 2001).

Langer’s theory of symbols

Susanne Langer posits that communication is full of symbols, which aid a lot in communication. She defines a symbol as anything upon which the audience is able to make an abstraction from (Reichling, 1993). She adds that language is made up of fixed meaning units, which join to form even larger one, all which can be defined, translated, and possess a general connotation. This joining of the elements is what, according to her, gives language a definite form to make it possible for a thought to be arranged and communicated. Her argument is that unless something can be projected in a discussion, it cannot be communicated using language, which also means that it cannot be deciphered by the human mind. If the human mind finds one symbol inadequate, it seeks another that can fit with the idea it seeks to portray (Reichling, 1993). This theory takes a great a look at the artistic expressions, which are powerful ways of communication and expression.

The semiotic Theory

Posited by Roland Barthes, this theory posits that language is a representation of the cultural signs and symbols using words. A sign could be a word, an image, an object, or even a certain type of behaviour (Chandler, 2001). Any signs that exist are, according to this theory, as important in the communication process as the words themselves, for example a traffic light operates using colours and replaces words in the communication. Sighting red is enough to tell a motorist to stop, while green is enough to tell him to go. There has been formed over time, in such an instance, an association between the colour and a certain meaning (Chandler, 2001). In addition, he says that in semiological studies, an object, a picture or drawing, or even a gesture is good at giving certain messages to the audience. The interpretations given to such items of communication differ from one society to another; and are closely linked to the culture of that society. Clothes, for example, may be used for protection and privacy, but they may also carry other messages such as identity and belongingness, in which instance they become signs. The theory comes up with an element called a “sign – function’, which is what they call a sign that carries a communicative process.

An example of Language using signs and Symbols to communicate:

Advertisements are one of the ways language makes use of much more than words, but uses emotional appeal as well; and also utilises signs and symbols which are aimed at appealing to the emotions of the listeners. The Coca Cola advertisement is an example of how communication makes use of more than just words, but also utilises signs and symbols to communicate in the best way possible, as discussed below

The Coca- Cola Advertisements

Coca Cola is the world’s largest soft drink company (The Coca Cola Company 2015) and one of the strategies they cite as having propelled them to the top is advertising, which is the reason this study picked their advertisements as some of the data items of focus on. The aspects that were selected during the text analysis as contribution to the appeal of these adverts were as follows:

Colour. There is a strong, catchy bright red, and white colours used in the advertisements. The intention is to capture the attention of the audience. When placed amongst other advertisements, the Coca Cola advertisements stood out, easily attracting the attention of the audience. The colours have a second effect in the coca cola advertisements, they have been used for a long time that they have become associated with the drink. It is branding put to good use, so that one can tell a place that he can get a coca cola drink from the distance, even before they read the advert itself.  This is in line with what the Semiotic theory puts forward, that a sign is as important as the words it intends to convey (Chandler, 2001).

Diction / Word Choice. This is another strategy that is used to communicate in the Coca-Cola adverts. There are adjectives such as “refreshing”, “Sparkling” “delicious” and “cooling” to describe the drink. There is also the use of the words “quench’ and “thirst”. The appeal to a thirsty consumer in such an image is almost instant, as the adjectives stir some emotional longing for the drink in the audience, as if the product is an extremely attractive option in fighting the thirst they face. There are also some statements such as “Fun in a bottle” and “desire fulfilled”, which are meant to make the audience associate the drink with maximum fun.

Pictures. The selection of the pictures is meant to appeal to the audience in a special way, for example, in one of the advertisements, there is a group of young men and women on the beach in swimming costumes, their clothes are soaking wet, their hair dripping with water, yet each is holding a bottle of coca cola, and the smiles on their faces wide. Anybody who sees the picture gets a feeling of an extremely happy group. The description of the semiotic theory that images are one of the most powerful ways of communication and selection of images being done in order to convey a certain message, comes to mind when looking at this advertisement (Burnet, 1991). There are also pictures that tend to appeal to the sexual arousal as a means of attracting consumers; the picture of people in swimming costumes is one such case. There was also a picture of a beautiful lady in her lingerie, her head thrown far back, her eyes closed, and sipping coca cola. The erotic appeal has been used to advertise items that have totally no relation to sex or sexuality, and the success, while contested by some moralists, is usually tremendous (Reichert and Lambiase, 2003).

Metonymy, metanarratives, and the metaphor

In language, not everything is said in a straightforward manner. There is always a way in which words are applied to other situations to make them pass a certain message or to appeal to certain aspects of that the author feels need to be emphasised. Metonymy, metanarratives, and the metaphor are some of the styles in which such words are combined into meaningful or interesting fashions. Metonymy is defined as the use of a part to represent the whole (Panther and Thornburg, 2003). An  example is in the novel “The Beautiful Ones are not Yet Born” (Armah, 1968), a man who has been described as having two layers of teeth, an image used to symbolise his greed, is later just referred to a s ”the teeth”. Metanarrative can be defined as is a critical language perspective of the organisation of other narratives, with special focus on their historical setting, their knowledge value, and their social impact; which then offers the society which holds such narratives a legitimate reason to keep them alive (Baringer, 2013). Metaphor can be defined as a style in writing where one item is used to represent another by direct reference (Ricoeur, 2004).

The usage of these aspects of language have been noted to apply to most languages of the world, and one of their major functions is to aid in communication, a metaphor does this by linking a new concept or item to a well known concept in the society, and in so doing helps in the encoding of the message in a more easy manner (Giles, 2008). The use of the metaphor has been exploited greatly in the scientific and technical world, where symbols are used to communicate in a much easier manner than words would do, for example, in driving, the road signs of a spoon and a fork are used to represent a restaurant, while the sigh of school children is used to signify a school in the neighbourhood. In this manner, the metaphorical sign not only passes a message, but does so in an easier and quicker way, especially considering the fact that the drivers who need to read such signs are in motion and at a speed, and may not have time to read lengthy explanations (MacArthur and Luis, 2012).

The metanarrative aspect of communication is applied to a number of fields, including linguistics, philosophy, and religion. A metanarrative is simply explained as away a group of people perceive reality, or explain the way life came to be the way it is, and how it should be organised. Some of the examples of religious metanarratives include Christianity and Islam, while in the secular world; the metanarratives include Marxism, capitalism, and socialism (Netland, 2001). It is simply a way in which a society puts what it believes in practice, and carries the philosophy and the pride of the society (Heywood and White, 1998). The National Anthem of a country is an example of the embodiment of the metanarrative of a country, as it carries within it what the country values (Ebert and Forbes, 2010). The use of metaphors has also been noted to be a good portrayal of the culture of that society. Language, after all, is an expression of a people’s culture, and its carrier. The metaphors formed by a society are obtained from items or ideas in the immediate environment (Mooij, 2010).

It has been established that the use of metaphors not only adds to the beauty of a language, but also aids in communication. This is because a metaphor is formed form those items the society is familiar with, thus, it is easy for the audience to relate to it (Churchill et al 2001). In addition, the metanarratives of the society is closely linked to the religious values of the community. This is because the myths and other stories composed in the society were done to give a firm grounding to the religious values they held dear. Vice was condemned and virtue praised in the stories, thus helping spread the religious values to other generations (Reno and McClay, 2015).

Example of metaphor use in advertising:

Tropicana advertisement

Tropicana Inc is a leading American soft drink company which has grown and expanded its products to many countries of the world. One of the reasons for this major expansion is the creative advertising that the company comes up with to woo the market. Advertising uses language as its stock in trade and a careful examination of the Tropicana advertisements reveals that one of the styled employed is metaphors. An example is discussed briefly below..

One of Tropicana’s advertisements features the line your daily Ray of Sunshine” to describe the drinks. This is an example of a metaphor put to use in advertising so as to boost the sales. The drink is compared to ‘a ray of sunshine’ in order to portray certain images in the minds of the customers. A ray of sunshine is something good, it connotes a morning, coming after a night, and is associated with warmth, light, and brightness, and by using it as a metaphor to describe the drinks, and Tropicana intends to associate the drinks with these qualities. In addition, the fruits from which the juices are made are usually grown in sunny tropical climates, which the advertiser would like to remind the audience about by using sunshine in the advertisement. The image one gets is that of natural products as opposed to the many artificial drinks in the market, thus making it look a healthier alternative than the competition.

The linkage between language and culture in this essay is an important aspect which linguists need to focus on and bring to the attention of all communication experts. As briefly stated above, language is closely linked to culture and the associations that people make of the words and phrases; thus the interpretation of the message they listen to, they hear are linked to what their culture has taught them to associate with those words. The interaction is easy in cases where the speaker and the listener share a cultural background. However, lately, there is an increase in communication between people of different cultural backgrounds a lot of these people have learnt the language without learning the cultural background of those languages. Such case is prone to communication breakdowns.


This research has brought to the fore the creative use of language to appeal to the emotions of the audiences. As seen in the advertisements studied, language is a powerful tool to convey not just the message, but the emotions too. The metanarratives and the metaphors that a language utilises are a good portrayal of the philosophy, environment and even the values of that society. In addition, the metanarratives (myth, metaphor, legend) of a society is a reflection of the religious values they hold dear.


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