We are surrounded by the media every single day. Even if we don’t read the newspaper, watch television or walk around with our eyes closed, it is almost impossible to avoid some form of media interruption. The media is simply everywhere.
The primary function of an advertisement is to introduce a wide range of consumer goods to the public. However, that is not the only role that the media and advertisements have on society. Through a product, the media manipulate us into buying into a way of life, as well as the goods that they are selling. As consumers, it is important for us to understand the underlying meanings that are being portrayed in these advertisements, and how to effectively deconstruct them. That’s where the semiotic analysis approach in media criticism comes in.
For the purpose of analyzing a media text using semiotic analysis, I have chosen a print advertisement for an AIDS awareness campaign. The advertisement was created by AIDES, a French community based non-profit organization that aims to bring those living with HIV/Aids together with their loved ones into an organized entity dedicated to fighting the virus. The organization, now active in over 100 cities around the world, has developed many AIDS awareness campaigns since its establishment in 1984.
This particular campaign series depicts the super-heroes Wonder Woman and Superman infected and suffering with the HIV/AIDs virus. I however, will be discussing and analyzing the semiotics within the Wonder Woman advertisement.
The text displays a photograph of Wonder Woman lying down in a hospital bed, looking severely ill. An IV is hooked up to her left arm, presumably with antibiotics to help fight the sickness in which she is suffering from. At the bottom of the ad, there is the headline text, which in the American version reads “Aids Makes Us Equal.” After reading the text, it can be assumed that the super-hero has contracted the AIDS virus.
Whereas the objective of a standard advertisement is to market a product, this advertisement serves more as public service announcement. It was created to raise awareness of the AIDS virus, and to potentially affect public attitudes about the issue. Because of this, it is much different than a consumer-driven product ad and its targeted demographic is actually society as a whole, rather than a specific target audience. However, although the comic book character of Wonder Woman can span across several different age demographics, some can argue that this ad could have been created with more of a young-adult audience in mind.
Now I must admit, this particular ad is extremely straightforward. With vivid imagery, a well-known subject and straightforward text, it is highly likely that this text receives a dominant reading from its viewers, which means that it is decoded as originally intended by the creators.
However, we are going to take a step further and look deeper into the text in order to decode the signs that may not be so obvious, through the use of semiotics.
For those who don’t know, semiotics, in its simplest definition, can be understood as the ‘study of signs’. It is the study of how social production of meaning is constructed through a system of signs within media texts; According to class lecture, semiotics is the study of signs (signifiers), their meanings (signifieds) and how they are signified (signification into codes).
According to Daniel Chandler, in order to understand semiotics, it is important to both look deeply into all details of the text, as well as beyond the text itself in order to establish the underlying conventions; Identifying the significant differences and oppositions within media texts is key when trying to make explicit what is usually only implicit to the audience.
When it comes to understanding the underlying meanings of the AIDS awareness campaign advertisement, the first major sign is the subject of the text, Wonder Woman. Known universally around the world, Wonder Woman is arguably one of the most popular and iconic female superheroes in comics.
With powers including superhuman strength, speed, stamina and agility, Wonder Woman’s mission is to bring the Amazon ideals of love, peace, and sexual equality to a world torn by the hatred of men; she is a symbol for strength and power. This ad however, portrays almost the complete antithesis of that. Known to be incredibly beautiful, here Wonder Woman looks extremely frail and emaciated, and is confined to a bed. Her skin tone has lost all of its flesh tones, and her body is covered in what can be assumed to be bruises and/or lacerations. The super-hero’s indestructibility has obviously been broken.
Even Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, the tool which forces those bound by it to obey and tell the truth, has been set aside on the table next to her. One can assume that “the truth” in this scenario, is the reality of the AIDS virus, and that Wonder Woman herself has been bound by her own tool.
The setting in which Wonder Woman is another extremely important asset for understanding the media text. The scenery resembles a hospital room; It displays common hospital items including medical supplies on the table, a hospital bed, and an IV which is being injected in Wonder Woman’s arm. For some, the imagery portrayed in the text could be seen as primarily just a medical atmosphere. For many others however, hospital scenes can provide somewhat of a negative stigma. Quite often, people associate hospitals with being sick, which evokes negative thoughts, sadness and uncomfortable feelings (I am without a doubt one of these people). This could be from a variety of things, from the sterile color palette as well as all of the intimidating medical equipment. Because of this the hospital room setting, even without the portrayal of an extremely ill Wonder Woman, already brings forth the ideologies and thoughts associated with sickness.
Another sign displayed within the text is the HIV/AIDS awareness red ribbon in the lower right corner. The ribbon is a symbol for AIDS awareness, and demonstrates compassion for those living with the disease. The red color of the ribbon can most likely be identified as a representation of passion and love. It can also serve as a connection to blood.
The headline text, the loosely English translation “Aids Makes Us Equal” ultimately serves as the final piece for uncovering the codes of the text: Even super-heroes, which we believe to be indestructible, aren’t even strong enough to fight against the reality of the AIDS virus. This signifies that the virus can attack anyone, even the strongest among us, and it is our responsibility to get informed and spread awareness.
Now why is semiotics so important? Semiotic analysis offers valuable tools for analyzing media texts and the great impact that the media has on our society as a whole. We are constantly being bombarded with imagery from the media, and it is important for as consumers to be media literate and be able to read the signs of what the media is throwing at us. By doing so, not only will we become more educated consumers, but we will also be able to take some of the power back from the media and give it back to ourselves.