In the same way a word can have more than one definition, it is possible for signs to have different meanings, so producers will try to direct the audience’s interpretation towards a preferred reading of a media text by using anchorage.

In newspapers and magazines, photographs are often accompanied by captions which are used to fix their meaning. This is probably the most common form of anchorage in the media. The choice of music can also influence our reaction to an advertisement or sequence in a film.

Using Captions for Anchorage

Scroll through the following three slides and think about how the caption changes the meaning of the image:

The first caption suggests the man is full of confidence about his upcoming fight but the second image looks like a profile picture for a dating app. The bio is certainly much softer in tone. The third image is accompanied by the branding for World Mental Health Day.

Although the man’s stare remains, the meaning is decoded differently each time.

When a sign has more than one meaning, we called it polysemic.

Music (Non-diegetic sound)

Music can also anchor our interpretation of a scene in a television programme and shape our understanding of the story. For instance, an eerie wind and screeching violin would make this underground location seem incredibly scary:

dark and foreboding subway
Using Music as Anchorage

This unnerving score might be effective for a thriller or a horror film. Imagine the lead character walking through this space, stalked by a terrible villain and eager to reach safety.

However, if the violinist played a softer harmony, our reaction to the setting might change. This non-diegetic sound might be more appropriate, for example, if the programme was documenting the plight of homeless people during a harsh winter and having to take shelter in a subway. In this way, music can have a powerful impact on our reading of a media text.

In conclusion, anchorage can help construct meaning and position the audience’s interpretation of an image towards a preferred reading. This is particularly useful if the sign is polysemic or when the producer wants to encode their own opinion and bias in the text.

Task One

Look carefully at the following photograph and try to fix the viewer’s interpretation of the narrative by using a caption to anchor its message. Encode a positive and a negative definition.

man staring out to sea
“sea and i” by

Task Two

Flick through the posts on whatever social media platform you like best and consider how your friends, family and followers try to anchor our understanding of an image with their choice of words and emojis. Try changing the intention of the image by substituting some of the words with other ideas.

For example, people use emotive language to influence our reaction to a post. Provoke different feelings by changing the anchorage.

Further Reading

News organisations have the power to shape public opinion by setting the agenda and the way they represent important issues in their reports. Anchorage is one convention producers can use to frame the events according to a particular perspective or to satisfy their own interests.

Advertising often relies taglines and slogans to anchor our interpretation of the dominant signifiers and engage with their messages.

You should also consider Stuart Hall’s reception theory and the difference between the meaning encoded in a text compared to how it is decoded by the audience. Producers want to control the meaning structures and anchorage is a very useful tool to achieve the preferred reading.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!