Ever wondered how you always know just when the hero and heroine are going to break into a song or how the change in the music beat prepares you for ‘murder, mystery and suspense’. Surely you know that the clothes you wear, the car you own, the home you live in are giveaways of your personality and your lifestyle. All these signs and more, give out messages that we try and make meaning of and they become part of a language – a language of signs- that we all share. A sign is something that stands for something other than itself. Signs can take the form of words, sounds, gestures, odours, flavours, objects, colours, and images. Semiotics helps focus on meaning generated through communication by drawing upon systems of signs and symbols within our culture. It has its roots in linguistics and is best described as a ‘science’ that studies the life of signs within society.

Semiotics has three main areas of study: the first is the study of the sign itself and of different varieties of signs. The second is the study of codes – these are systems into which signs are organised. And finally, culture within which these codes and signs operate. The appropriation of the swastika (an age old venerated symbol) by the Nazis, is a powerful example of how cultures impregnate signs with meanings.

A sign is the link between a ‘concept’ (the signifier) and ‘what it means’ (the signified). Without these two, the sign is meaningless. Flowers take on a meaning of romantic love when a man gifts them to a woman. However they take on a different meaning and become a whole new sign on a father’s grave.

Signs can be categorised broadly based on the relationship between the signifier and the signified;
Symbolic – here the relationship between the two is arbitrary and therefore must be learned, e.g. numbers, alphabets, colours, and language. ‘1’ means a single unit, but it could well have looked like ‘2’ and vice versa. We learn that a particular red flower is called a rose. But ‘a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet’.

Iconic – the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified, e.g. a picture, a metaphor and so on. A picture or a soundtrack is only a representation of the real thing.

Indexical – the two are directly connected in some way, e.g. smoke suggests fire, a thermometer indicates illness. In films, passage of time is shown by change in seasons or change of apparel.

Signs are meaningful only when they are interpreted in relation to each other. There are certain codes or conventions for communication and the meaning of a sign depends on the code within which it is situated. A code is a set of practices familiar to those who share a culture. Some of the common codes are social behaviour, fashion, clothing, rituals, the arts and mass media (film, television, radio, newspapers and magazines). These vary by culture; ‘bindi’ in one culture symbolises marital status and in another may be a fashion accessory. What is considered socially correct behaviour in one society may be looked down as downright rude in another. You would not be surprised to find a bride in white in a church, but a bride in white at a Hindu wedding is out of the question. Among the Hindus, the color white signifies mourning.

HSBC’s campaign of a global company with its pulse on the local culture makes an interesting point. The ad shows the same symbol represented differently and sometimes even signifying different things. The word protection in England means a cricket helmet, in Japan- a suit of armour and in France, a sun- shade. A string of green chillies and lemons in India is to ward off the evil eye whereas in other parts of the world it could mean food. It is evident that a lack of understanding of local cultural codes could cost a company a great deal.

Advertising is a system consisting of distinct signs and what an advert means depends on how the signs are organised. Semiotics seeks to discover how advertisements work.

We all know what the guy wants when he says, “Ek thanda dena”. A cold drink, yes, but which one – “Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, or……?.” Then Coke introduced – ‘Thanda matlab Coca Cola’. And with that they appropriated the entire market. Coke became generic to the soft drinks product category.

A semiotic analysis of films like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai, Kabie Khushi Kabhi Gham, and soap operas will reveal the behavioural codes within an Indian family. That is what makes it so easy for most people to relate with the characters and the story.
Prudential ICICI commercial uses the ‘sindoor’ and the act of applying it, as signifiers that suggest an everlasting bond with the consumer and the promise of security, safety and assurance. It is unlikely that this commercial will work around the world except among Indian diaspora. Both Coca Cola, and Pepsi had to use local icons and local lingo in their advertising. The latest MTV ad shows a typical ‘cowbelt bhaiya’ in a ‘ganji’, painstakingly preparing a ‘paan’. In a typical ‘paan’ eating gesture he stuffs it between his jaws and then spits on an MTV logo. The dress code and the gestures have their roots in this culture and also show MTV’s irreverent attitude. MTV also manage to take a shot at their own foreign image and successfully evoke humour and admiration reserved for one who can laugh at himself.

Signs are never innocent. Semiotics teaches us that.

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