Monday, April 28, 2008

Basic analytic concepts

The key concept in advertising analysis is that of the Sign, as defined by Ferdinand de Saussure, which is the combination of a Signifier (below, "sr") and a Signified (below "sd"). Culler (1987) provides an excellent introduction to Saussure's thinking and highly influential ideas.

The importance of the sign has been widely recognized in the previous literature on advertising. Taking a simple case from language, Saussure observed that the relation between Signifier and Signified is arbitrary: the concept of "dog" is picked out by "dog" in English, "chien" in French, "Hund" in German, "inu" in Japanese, and "kay" in Korean, for example. Although each of these sound sequences has a history within its own language, from which we may come to understand why the word is currently the way it is, there is no specific sound sequence which is universally associated with any given meaning (with the possible exception of onomatopoeic words, though even these are quite culture-specific). Hence we say that the "dog"-dog Sign in English is arbitrary, just as the "Hund"-dog Sign in German is (equally) arbitrary.

The "arbitrariness of the sign", as it is called, may strike you at first as a cause for concern, as arbitrariness perhaps suggests randomness, sloppiness, or inattention. But in fact, the arbitrary relationship is a vital and fundamental part of any creative communication system, because new signs can be created as needed. And far from being subject to randomness, a sign-based system works only because all participants in the community agree on what given sr-sd relationships are.

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