a delicious burger

The Semiotics of Simulation


We have always used signs to communicate our thoughts and ideas. A smile on someone’s face suggests they are happy, the image of a burger in a fast-food restaurant advertises what’s on offer, and the smell of smoke warns us something is on fire. These signs refer to something real and tangible.

Even symbols, as categorised by Charles Peirce, which have no link between the physical form of the sign and its meaning, still reference a mental concept connected to the real world. When you see an indicator flashing on a car, you know the driver is signalling to turn. Or the word “medium” on a clothing label defines its size. And the numbers on a clock tell the time.

Jean Baudrillard noted how representation is based on the “principle of equivalence”. There is a clear value and connection between the sign and reality.

However, we live in such a media-saturated world, signs have become “distortions of the original” and are no longer connected to referents in the real world. The signs are empty.

If you would like to know more about simulation and simulacra, you can read our introduction to Baudrillard’s concept. This guide is going to use semiotic analysis to develop our understanding of simulation.

Empty Signs

When was the last time you ordered something from the menu and it matched the image you saw on the billboard? Now think about all the other misleading signs you read every day. We purchase products based on idealised versions of reality.

juicy burger advertisement
Example of Simulacra

We are also obsessed with Instagram influencers who use filters to help sell their fantasy. TikTok represents the world in vertical format with a 9:16 aspect ratio. Newspapers spin the report to suit their agenda – “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. Politicians don’t know the difference between propaganda and policies. Television is full of repeats, “reality” programming, and gameshows with false smiles. Another sequel in cinema. Loot boxes and in-game purchases. Auto-tuned singers. And advertisers who promise the impossible.

The signs these media texts use to communicate no longer have an equivalent in the real world because they have been reworked and redefined for mass consumption. We are the audience and the consumer. To quote Baudrillard, the media controls the original signs transformation from “the real to the hyperreal”. Sign used to have “a representative sphere of meaning”, but they are now a “programmed signal”.

In conclusion, the media uses these empty signs to construct our new reality – the simulation.

The Implosion of Meaning in the Media

Baudrillard argued “we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning”. Instead of creating new meanings, the media simply reproduces old signs until they become disconnected from the original and reality. This results in a “brutal loss of signification” and the implosion of meaning.

Interestingly, Baudrillard did not consider the media as a socialising agent, but “the implosion of the social in the masses”. The philosopher even questioned if the media still existed because there are no new messages to be received.

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan

Systems of Control

You are probably already familiar with Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea that signs derive their meaning from being part of a system. For example, you can find out the definition of a word by looking it up in the dictionary, a game of football only makes sense if you know the rules, and without an up, there is no such thing as a down.

However, in the simulation, signs are not something to be decoded and understood. They are the “verification of the code” which enables the simulation to perpetuate itself.

Baudrillard used the proliferation of hypermarkets in France to illustrate we live in a hyperreal society. We are going to steal his image of an employee “remaking the front of the stage, the surface display” as a final example of simulation and signs.

Have you ever noticed the shelves in supermarkets always seem well stocked? The next time you are walking down the aisles, pay attention to how the products are positioned at the front of the shelves, facing forwards to make sure their labels are easy to read. In terms of signs and the preferred reading, there is a sense of prosperity and order being encoded in this message.

supermarket shelves with lots of stock
Screenshot from “Deutschland 83”

However, it is an illusion the industry calls “facing”. Look behind the first few rows and you will see lots of the shelves are actually quite dark and bare. The sign does not encode a message which is connected to reality. It is a monstrous trick. A simulation.

Advertising Tricks

Blossom is a YouTube channel which offers cheat sheets for creative and unique DIY projects, but this video reveals the tricks advertisers use to make food look incredibly tasty.

For the burger, it is fascinating to see ingredients held in place by toothpicks, sponges adding height to the burger and how the vegetable oil gives the meat a juicier look. We are being positioned to desire the food by the sneaky manipulation of the signifiers.

Baudrillard, Jean (1994): Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Glaser, S.F.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!