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What are Codes?

Semiotics can help us deconstruct a media text and explain the different was producers create meaning. However, Ferdinand de Saussure argued the relationship between the signifier and what it signifies is arbitrary, so signs have to be organised into some sort of system for them to make sense. These are called codes.

For instance, it is widely accepted that the colour blue on a water tap means the water is cold, but the colour red informs us the faucet contains hot water. This framework is straightforward and might prevent you from scalding your hands the next time you are washing them.

Teachers tick a correct answer and mark an incorrect response with an x. Again, this system is obvious and used in classrooms around the world.

Finally, you need to learn the codes and conventions of written language in order to understand this sentence. If you cannot recognise the individual letters or make sense of each word, you will struggle to interpret the message.

To summarise, signs get their meaning by being part of a well-established system of codes.

The words pass, dribble, volley, goalkeeper, VAR, posts, square, and offside, only really make sense because they are part of football’s codes.

Codes are social constructs and can be part of a wider ideology. For example, blue is stereotypically associated with boys and pink represents girls. In this way, the colour codes reinforce the traditional ideology that gender is binary.

The following types of codes are probably the most useful when it comes to analysing media texts:

Colour Codes

The choice of colour codes will impact the tone of a media text. Bright colours could suggest excitement and energy whereas darker shades might create a more menacing atmosphere. Producers will also make sure the colour palette is controlled and aesthetically pleasing.

Dress Codes

Clothes continue to be an important part of our personal and group identity. In media texts, formal wear could suggest wealth and sophistication. By contrast, casual clothing connotes a more relaxed attitude. In other words, hoodies and tuxedos will signify two very different concepts.

Lexical Codes

Lexical codes, such as headlines and captions, help anchor the meaning of a text and position the audience towards the preferred reading.

Non-verbal Codes

Body language, movement and facial expressions are crucial to the narrative. Think about the obvious difference between an actor smiling and an actor wiping tears from their face. Or if the character is slouching compared to sitting back-straight on the chair. Actors will often stare out at the audience from magazine covers and marketing materials to grab our attention. This is known as direct address.

Task One

Analyse the following advertisement in terms of the various codes used to promote the perfume:

For colour codes, you have to consider the decision to desaturate the footage and present the actor in black and white. This will contrast with the gold perfume bottle hovering over earth. Think about the clothes Brad Pitt is wearing – is the open shirt casual or cool? Even though there is not much movement, you should explore the actor’s body language and facial expressions.

Technical Codes

In their analysis of print media, McMahon and Quinn (1988) argued the position of the camera in relation to the subject, the use of lighting and the editing of the shot were all technical codes. An image might be a medium shot with shallow focus and soft lighting. The photographer can change the preferred reading of the text by changing the lens, focal depth or the way the subject has been lit.

McMahon and Quinn also defined non-verbal codes and the mise-en-scène as symbolic codes.

Written codes are the headlines, briefs, main copy, captions and other words in the text.

For more detailed information on the technical codes, you should read our guides in the media form section of the website. For example, there is plenty of analysis on the codes and conventions of print media and moving image. You should also read our guide to the range of camera shots used by photographers and cinematographers.

Finally, narrative codes are explored in the narrative section of the website.

Task Two

Look again at the Chanel No. 5 advertisement featuring Brad Pitt and analyse the text according to the technical and symbolic codes. You should comment on the camera tracking closer to the actor, the shifting light and the choice of editing. It is also worth considering his performance, including body language and tone of voice.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!