All images and signs have a message but what they mean to different individuals is arbitrary. This is notion is greatly explored in the study of semiotics which tries to gain a better understanding about how a certain image/sign or signifier can have a certain significance or meaning to an individual. An example of this is a photographic image of a tree. Whilst it is an image of a tree, one may say that it is not a tree, rather, it is a representation of one. Or in regard with traffic lights and street signs, why does red mean stop or danger? It is because society has placed these connotations on the colour red and have become common knowledge or ideology. The same idea is included in the shape of a stop sign. In the western world, a stop sign is an octagon but in Japan it is an upside down triangle. This suggests that the interpretations of these signs are different to different people due to what they signify and the meaning they derive from them.


The media also implements images in it’s marketing campaigns to not only attract attention but to elicit a powerful response. An example of this is an ad by the company ‘Nicotinell’ which aims to encourage smokers to quit. It denotes an elderly woman who appears to be trying to light up her cigarette on a candle. The candles suggest it is her 42th birthday and this teamed with the visible effects of smoking come together to create a striking yet strong message of anti-smoking. The image signifies that smoking can cause premature aging showing that the woman has perhaps smoked her life away. It also plays on the societal obsession with looking younger longer when comparing it to smoking that causes faster aging. The melting candles have connotations that the longer one smokes, the faster their time is running out. The age of 42 on the cake, whilst not a young or old age, suggests that it’s still never too late to quit. Whilst the image is a relatively modern image, it doesn’t discriminate who its target audience is. Young or old, it provides a scare-factor to impact smokers of all ages. Many interpretations can come from the image however. A young smoker may see the ’42’ candles and think they are immune from the effects of smoking for the time being or an older smoker might see the woman and identify themselves in her place and level of addiction.

In closing, an image seen by a thousand people has a thousand meanings. It all comes down to how the individual perceives the world or what they already know and believe to decode the encoded messages of images and signs to make meaning from a media with many messages.

Stay classy,

Tracy Bustamante



2 thoughts on “Signs…Symbols…Ideas…

  1. I thought the images you used to highlight the differing perceptions were spot on, as such a simple thing as a traffic sign can be interpreted several ways and the implications can be fatal. An example is the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games where council workers had to paint “look right” on Sydney streets after an African athlete was killed crossing the road in Penrith. This accident was caused by cultural differences, whereas other influencing factors can be social, generational and gender specific.
    And as you have shown, simple images can have more complex messages like the ad for the company, ‘Nicotinell’. Images can lead a campaign to either create awareness, scare factor or encourage participation within the community.
    In your closing paragraph, you state how people decode a message or image differently, I 100% agree – just show my Mum and I the same image and we will come up with black, white and grey (plus purple, orange and green).

    Liked by 1 person

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