boy from moonlight

Sign Categories in the “Moonlight” Movie Poster

Moonlight DVD Cover

Depicting the three defining stages of the protagonist’s life, “Moonlight” is a coming-of-age drama which follows the his struggles with identity and sexuality growing up in Miami. Released in 2016, “Moonlight” quickly became a critical success. It is the first film with an all-black cast and an LGBTQ-related plot to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Mahershala Ali was the first Muslim to win an acting award at the Oscars.

The DVD cover follows the typical codes and conventions of format. There is the dominant signifier of the actors, the large title and the intriguing tagline. The cover also relies on its list of awards and fantastic reviews to sell the product. The different types of signs used makes it a perfect media text to use Charles Peirce’s categories to explore how the producers engage the interest of the audience to buy the DVD.


Analyse the following DVD cover in terms of Charles Peirce’s sign categories: icon, index and symbol.

Moonlight DVD Cover

Points to Consider

Charles Peirce categorised the signs we use to communicate ideas according to the physical relationship to the mental concepts they convey to the audience. Since a symbol bears no obvious connection to its meaning, the star ratings in this poster need to be analysed in terms of this category. Think about why we use stars to signify something worthy of praise. How did that meaning become part of our framework of knowledge?

There are seven different five-star reviews from a variety of media sources on this DVD cover. Suggest why the producers wanted so many to appear on the front.

Peirce argued that icons are a category of signs which showed some physical resemblance to what thet represented. Does the image of the BAFTA award and the silhouette of the Oscar statuette look like their real-life counterparts? If you think they share a physical similarity, then they should be categorised as icons. Suggest why the producers were eager to display these well-known awards on the cover. How do they attract the attention of the audience?

How is this message reinforced by the number symbols and the use of the gold background?

An indexical sign will point directly to its meaning even though there may not be a clear physical relationship. The connection is factual. By this definition, is the collage of the actors an index for the movie and its plot?

Are there any other signs in the text which support the preferred reading?

Further Study

Although this question firmly focuses on Peirce’s sign categories, it might be worth referring to the signs with the key concepts from his triadic model of communication: representamen, interpretant and object. For instance, what mental concept is suggested by the stars in the poster or what is the overall object of the media text.

If you want more practice identifying icons, indexes and symbols, you should try analysing this Kit Kat advertisement next. The use of signs to encode the message is very clever. Of course, you can find even more texts on our semiotics exam practice page.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!