Semiotic analysis of a Heinz Ketchup advertisement

We’ve talked before about the study of semantics (meaning in language) versus semiotics (how things have meanings). We’ve also been talking recently about specific ways that language can be used to manipulate opinion. The article that I’m “reblogging” here is a nice example of using not so much language and its semantics, but rather the broader field of semiotics, to manipulate opinion, courtesy of the Advertising and Society blog.

This ad from 1900 is a good example of a common strategy for getting people to buy a commodity from you: the ad tells you nothing about Coca-Cola, but plays on your desire to want to be like the lady in the picture–young, wealthy (note the elaborate clothing), and loved (note the flowers). Picture source: public domain,

The post is about an advertisement for ketchup. Ketchup is a good example of what’s called a commodity–a product with the property that it generally doesn’t really matter who you buy it from, because it’s mostly all the same. Other classic examples of commodities are wheat, sugar, toothpaste, and razors. If you are, as they say, in “commodities hell”–trying to out-compete other people when all of your products are pretty much the same–then you have to convince people to buy the product from you on the basis of something other than the product itself. Typically, that involves painting a picture in which your product is associated with something that your customers value other than the product itself–family, love, or in this case, health.  Portwood-Stacer’s post is an extended analysis of a very simple-looking advertisement that makes use of semiotics in a pretty sophisticated way, and in particular the interplay between symbols (Porter-Stacer refers to them using a technical term, sign) and the way that symbols can take meaning from their societal context.  Enjoy, and thanks, Dr. Portwood-Stacer!

Advertising & Society

Semiotic analyses of advertisements reveal cultural norms and values associated with a particular society or group of people. In fact, in order for people to decode signs they must do it within their own sign system (dependent on language, historical context, and culture). Social Communication of Advertising, writes, “Semiotics highlights the way that we ourselves take part in the creation of meaning in messages, suggesting that we are not mere bystanders in the advertising process, but participants in creating a code that unites the designer and reader” (Leiss, Kline, Jhally, Botterill 164). Advertisers depend on these signs in order to communicate a point quickly and effectively to consumers.


In the above print advertisement for Heinz ketchup, the signifiers include a vivid red backdrop, a classic bottle of Heinz ketchup horizontally sliced with a tomato on top, and white text reading “No one grows ketchup like Heinz.” While a seemingly…

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