Roland Barthes

Sign Theory

Although he agreed with Ferdinand de Saussure that a sign consisted of two parts, the form and the concept, Roland Barthes believed this relationship was part of a larger model of communication which he called the signification process.

In the first order of meaning, the denotation refers to the literal or explicit interpretation of the sign, such as the dictionary definition of a word or a photograph represents the person in the shot. The connotation is an additional meaning which usually expresses an emotion or a value. For instance, the word “green” denotes a colour but it can also be used to describe a feeling of envy or to suggest someone is naïve.

However, some signs are used to represent a more complex concept, such as the shared values and ideologies of a particular culture or group. This is the second order of meaning, or signification, which Barthes called myth.

In “Mythologies” (1957), Barthes discussed the glamorous appeal of steak and chips and how the meal was a source of French pride. This prestige is a good example of a myth. He also mentioned the promotional material for the new Citroën DS which represented the car as a “magical object” that should be worshiped like a goddess. There is no doubt Barthes would be impressed by our luxury car showrooms which really are more like cathedrals preaching a new form of spiritualisation rather than simply shops peddling a means of transport.

If you would like to know more about Barthes’ approach to semiotics, this guide contains some examples and activities that will help develop your understanding of his sign system and the signification process.

Denotation and Connotation

When you are tasked with analysing a media text, you will want to explore the meanings of the dominant signifiers and how they combine to deliver the preferred reading. Therefore, you need to identify the denotation or connotation of each sign. Let’s start with the straightforward example of this road sign.

no pedestrians roadsign

We already know the word “red” denotes a particular colour. Here, the denotation is the physical form of the colour. Since connotations are meanings and concepts beyond the literal definition of the signifier, “red” actually signifies danger on this road sign

Of course, signifiers can be grouped together to form a single connotation. This road sign combines the pictogram of the moving person with the red colour code to signify to pedestrians that they are not permitted to walk in this area. The red line cutting across the figure is an important part of the overall image because it is widely accepted to mean something negative. In this case, “don’t walk”.

Task One

Analyse the following two images in terms of their denotation and connotation.

microsoft logo
fire alarm icon

Although most of the marks in the exam are awarded for your understanding of a text’s connotation and message, you should still try to describe the physical form of the signs because that will help support your interpretation. This is particularly true for the fire alarm image. For the Microsoft logo, mention the four squares and their use of colour, but then suggest what they connote.

Myths

The representation of French wine remains an excellent example of the way society confers meaning to signs to reinforce a cultural or political point of view. Wine might signify good health and friendship, but that sign is then used by producers and writers to represent the brilliant sophistication of French society. It is a great marketing strategy.

Barthes argued myths are often regarded as facts – wine is good for us and we should continue to enjoy its taste. Of course, this belief reinforced the ideology of French culture as wonderfully sophisticated and intellectual.

We have already seen how red is associated with danger, but the colour has also been used to connote love, courage and even sacrifice because it is the colour of blood. These values are found in the ideologies of many countries and communities so lots of their signs will include the colour red.

Have you ever noticed how many sports teams wear red jerseys or the number of flags around the world have red in their design? Think about the American “stars and stripes”, the Union Jack or the French tricolour.

Since monarchs and politicians want to promote these values of bravery and sacrifice in society, it makes sense to uses the colour red in their flags. In this way, red is now accepted as a colour of strength and national identity. Barthes would define this signification of red as a myth.

The Signification Process of Cars

Consider the signifier “car”. The three letters denote an actual car. Depending on the context, this sign could connote the idea of travel and mobility. This is the first order in Barthes’ sign-system.

However, the ideology of freedom is promoted as a key part of our culture and cars are often encoded with this sense of independence and adventure. In this way, the signification of cars helps naturalise the values associated with freedom.

The following advertisement demonstrates the link between images of cars and the myth of freedom:

car advertisement with mountains in the background
Myth Example

You can clearly see how the producers try to position the audience to connect this car to our desire for individuality and adventure. The rugged mountains and beautiful sky are visually appealing, but they also encode the myth of freedom. This preferred reading is supported by the words “your epic tale starts today”. Buy the car and live the dream.

Task Two

Analyse the following two advertisements in terms of Barthes’ denotation, connotation and myth. Briefly describe the physical form of each sign. For example, if you are referring to the facial expressions of some of the individuals, you should specify that it is their smiles which connote happiness and satisfaction. This should strengthen your comments on the myths being expressed in both texts.

students smiling
children playing in nursery

Introduction to “Mythologies”

In his first major publication, “Mythologies”, Roland Barthes explored the hidden assumptions behind a few of France’s most important symbols, especially those aspects of society and politics which caused him incredible frustration with the cultural landscape of the 1950s. His description of the many functions and meanings of wine is perhaps the best example of his anger.

Barthes joked if a man did not drink wine, he would find it very difficult to integrate into French society. Depending on the context, wine could signify strength, hard work and even purity. However, by accepting these assumptions, we ignore the dangers of alcohol and its destructive impact on many French citizens. The economics of wine is also problematic because harvesting the crop could lead to the exploitation of the workers.

The signification of wine also positioned other societies as inferior so you can see why Barthes wanted to expose these destructive narratives.

Building on the concepts of semiotics devised by Saussure, Roland Barthes created his own model of communication to help explain the mechanics of language and unmask some of the definitions we take for granted.

First Order: Form and Concept

To demonstrate his model of communication, Barthes used a cover of “Paris-Match”, a French magazine he happened to notice while waiting in the barbers to get his haircut. Here, the dominant signifier is the young soldier saluting, presumably, the French flag. Barthes believed the image signified a “mixture of Frenchness and militariness”.

In other words, the form is the young soldier who conveys the concept of a benevolent French imperialism.

young boy saluting
“Paris-Match Cover”

Second Order: Signification

Barthes believed there was another level of meaning being encoded on this magazine cover – that “France is a great Empire” and everyone will “faithfully serve under her flag”. The purpose of the image and such a positive representation of the boy dressed in French uniform, Barthes suggested, was to silence the vocal critics of French colonialism in Africa.

He called this process signification and he tried to summarise the model in a table:

Barthes sign diagram

In this way, the producers of the “Paris-Match” cover crafted this image of a confident boy, dressed in a French military uniform and, presumably, saluting the tricolour, to signify the wonder of the French colonialism. This sign then becomes part of a larger cultural and political narrative which wanted to see France reinforce its military power in Africa and around the world.

In the diagram above, you might have noticed Barthes called the first order language and the wider, cultural meaning the myth.

The Signification of Roses

Perhaps another example will help explain this signification process. Think of the signifier “rose” denoting the plant and its wonderful flowers in real life. However, we then use this sign to signify romantic love – that is why they are offered as a gift to a loved one.

Taking us into the second sign-system, this gesture is also part of the wider myth regarding the importance of love and relationships in society. The ideology of romance is certainly very pervasive in mainstream media, such as television dramas, rom-coms, and popular magazines.

Signification Process of the Word Rose

Worked Example

The following advertisement was produced by an Australian government agency as part of their campaign to reduce greenhouse gases and promote a more sustainable society. The message is straightforward: reduce your carbon footprint by cycling to work or to see your friends and help save the planet. Barthes’ model of communication is a useful approach to help explain how this important message is constructed and received by the audience.

global warming advertisement

The headline is probably the first signifier we should consider. The idiom “take the pressure off” means to reduce your feelings of stress. The colour code green is usually associated with health and nature. In this way, the advertisement is introducing the concept of healthy living to the audience.

The wonderful image of the hand pump inflating the planet, which is formed by the leaves of the tree, is the most eye-catching of the signifiers because it is so unique and interesting. This combination carries connotations of a “green” and unpolluted world where we aspire to live.

The phrase “our environment” helps anchor our interpretation of the dominant signifier above. The icon of the cyclist should also confirm our understanding of the hand pump. If you are in any doubt about the advertisement’s message, there is a strapline “pump up your bike tyres, not your carbon footprint”.

With global warming being such a huge and immediate problem, there are many advertisements and media products raising the issue and its profile in the public consciousness. We now accept as fact that humans are having a negative impact on the environment and we need to take responsibility for our actions. In terms of signification, this connotation is now a myth – a cultural truth we now take for granted.

signification process diagram
Signification Process Summary

Task Three

Barthes wants us to investigate these myths and to scrutinise them in more detail. This is quite a difficult question but discuss why one of the biggest petroleum companies in the world, BP, was raising awareness of our carbon footprint back in 2005?

BP advert for carbon footprint

This campaign was created by KJ Bowmen and used the phrase “carbon footprint” before it became a buzzword. Their ideas were integrated into print and outdoor advertisements, YouTube videos and interactive content on the BP website. It was a very deliberate attempt to get people talking about our individual impact on the environment. And it worked.

You task is to work out why a major contributor of global warming would want to create this myth of public responsibility towards the environment?

Punctum

In his short book, “Camera Lucidia”, Barthes applied the terms denotation and connotation to photography. He also argued that images contained a punctum. This was the dominant signifier which pierced the audience’s attention, creating a connection between us and the object. Images could also contain a studium, which is the political and culture myth being communicated to the view.

These two terms are quite useful when you are analysing a media text.

Conclusion

When we use words and signs to communicate with one another, we take their definitions for granted. We know “roses” are prickly bushes with beautiful flowers while “nettles” are plants which should be avoided. Or the word “cat” refers to a soft-furred and short-snouted animal, but the word “dog” is an animal with a longer snout and unable to retract its claws. The difference between a “car” and a “bus” is obvious.

However, these words and their meanings are arbitrary and without any real criteria for their determination. Rose thorns are just as dangerous as nettles, yet one became a symbol of love while the other was classified as a weed. Why are dogs considered loyal and “man’s best friend” but cats are often portrayed in modern texts as devious?

Roland Barthes was interested in signs and their meanings, especially the many assumptions we make about concepts and objects that we simply accept as the truth. His signification model is a great way to describe culturally important signs. If you are inspired by this critical framework, you might also be interested in reading Barthes’ five narrative codes which tries to identify the signifiers used to tell a story.

Exam Practice and Revision

The best way to learn the key concepts of Barthes’ signification process is to apply the framework to a variety of media texts. You can find examples on our semiotics exam practice page, but the Marlboro advertisement and the way it relies on the myth of masculinity is probably a good place to start. You should also try analysing the representation of the New York firefighters in Thomas E Franklin’s famous image taken in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

There are also questions that focus on a text’s studium and punctum. Definitely have a look at the dominant signifier used in this mental health campaign.

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