sad clown face

Dominant Signifier and Punctum – Mental Health


Mental health is an important issue that is increasingly being taken more seriously by society, but there is also a recognition that men are less likely to respond to the warnings signs and seek help. The Heads Up campaign was funded by the NHS and created for Buckinghamshire County Council to engage with men and their wellbeing. Created by Social Change UK, a research and marketing company, the print advertisements directed the audience to the Heads Up website for further information.

The dominant signifier is clearly very striking and appeals directly to the viewer’s emotions, making it a perfect example for further study through the framework of Barthes’ punctum.


Analyse the following print advertisement in terms of the dominant signifier and Barthes’ theory of the punctum.

Mental Health Advert
Mental Health Campaign

Points to Consider

In his final book, “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes defined a photograph’s two planes of meaning. The studium refers to the situation and historical context of the image whereas the punctum refers to the dominant signifier that catches the audience’s gaze and evokes an emotional response.

The marketing company behind this mental health campaign certainly wanted to pierce the viewer with the focus on the man painted as a clown. You should describe this dominant signifier in some detail, such as how the painted face, red nose, eye makeup, coloured hair and the clothing are all part of the stereotypical representation of a clown. However, you must also focus on the sad expression conveyed by the downturned mouth and blank eyes. Comedy and slapstick humour is supposed to make us smile, but the facial features suggest something else.

In other words, how does the image make you feel?

If you have read our guide to Barthes’ sign theory, you should have a good understanding of his first order of signification. This is the denotation and connotation encoded in the sign. Make sure you link the sign’s physical form to its connotation of mental health. Of course, you could argue mental health is a myth – the second order of signification when the sign has an ideological relevance.

There is also a headline to analyse. The question “tired of putting on an act” sets up the dark punchline “you are not alone”. How do these written codes provide anchorage and shape our understanding of the text? Do they help us decode the preferred reading and confirm our emotional response to the punctum?

There is a list of questions beneath the man’s face that attempt to engage the viewer directly. When it asks us to visit the website, do you think the call to action will be successful? The answer to this question is really an evaluation of the success of the punctum.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!