A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Translating Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements
ilze bezuidenhout

A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements


The combination of discourse analysis and semiotic analysis brings together two disciplines that have not traditionally been used by translators to deal with the transference of cultural aspects in translation.

Much confusion still prevails amongst theorists regarding the exact definitions of discourse and semiotics. Discourse is often seen as only referring to the spoken word. Stubbs (1983: 9) differentiates between text and discourse: "one talks of written text versus spoken discourse".

Semiotics is often confused with semiosis. In both cases a distinct definition will be presented for these terms to avoid any confusion or ambiguity. These two disciplines will be discussed separately, starting with discourse.

Definitions of Discourse

Various views on the term "discourse" will be compared, as well as various views on discourse analysis. Often theorists use text and discourse interchangeably; others define discourse as spoken words only, and text as written words. In both instances context is seen as a separate function. A distinction is made in this dissertation between these terms and their function, and a working definition of the different terms will be formulated for use and application.

Traditionally, discourse has been treated as "a continuous stretch of (especially spoken) language larger than a sentence…a discourse is a behavioural unit which has a pre-theoretical status in linguistics…" (Crystal 1991: 106). According to this definition discourse is primarily seen as spoken language (a language act: parole).

Discourse covers a vast field and definitions abound. This can be illustrated by the opinions of various theorists. Yule and Brown (1987: 1) state that "the analysis of discourse, is necessarily, the analysis of language in use. As such, it cannot be restricted to the descriptions of linguistic forms independent of the purposes or functions which these forms are designed to serve in human affairs".

It becomes clear that the production of discourse is a social act and therefore written discourse is the representation of this social act. This social act implies that communication takes place. This feature will be further discussed under the communicative function of discourse.

Some theorists distinguish between text and discourse as two separate terms and concepts, an opinion that will be later refuted. Salkie (1995: ix) states that "text or a discourse is a stretch of language that may be longer than one sentence. Text and discourse analysis is about how sentences combine to form texts by means of cohesiveness and coherence".

Widdowson (1983: 9) also distinguishes "textual cohesion, recognizable in surface leixis, grammar and propositional development, from discourse coherence which operates between underlying speech acts".

Newmark’s (1988: 54) definition is similar to Salkie’s definition, in that he states:

The analysis of texts beyond and ‘above’ the sentence – the attempt to find linguistic regularities in discourse…its main concepts are cohesion – the features that bind sentences to each other grammatically and lexically – and coherence – which is the notional and logical unity of a text.

Two important aspects (standards of textuality), coherence and cohesion, are mentioned in the above definitions. Coherence refers to those elements that make a text hang together, and refers to textual and contextual aspects of discourse. A coherent text is "a text whose constituent parts (episodes, sentences) are meaningfully related so that the text as a whole ‘makes sense’, even though there may be relatively few markers…" (Fairclough 1992: 83).

Cohesiveness or cohesion refers to "how clauses are linked together into sentences, and how sentences are in turn linked together to form larger units in texts" (Fairclough 1992: 77). This can be achieved by repetition, conjunctive words, near-synonyms or vocabulary from a common semantic field. Cohesion deals with the textual aspect of discourse.

The relevance of these two aspects is that they are important in text production, and thus in discourse analysis. Should one or both of these features be absent, the text would not be able to function as a meaningful whole. This in turn would have an impact on the context of the discourse, and thus have many ramifications for the translator of the text who would have to make sense of disjointed elements in the advertisement to be translated.

A shortcoming in Salkie’s definition is that it does not account for texts that are shorter than a sentence and consist only of one or two words, or spoken language. In the case of advertisements, especially print advertisements, there is often little or no text and the emphasis is on the visual material supported by very little text. For instance, a print advertisement could consist of only visual material and one word, such as a brand name or an exclamation. This proves that discourse does not necessarily have to consist of lengthy sentences. The coherence would be brought about by the interaction between the word(s) and the visual material, but there would be very little or no cohesion due to the lack of text.

Newmark’s definition suggests that discourse is an all-inclusive term for the written and spoken language used in a social act. Stubbs (1983: 1) points out "that language and situation are inseparable". The situation forms the basis of the context. It follows thus that context and text are two inseparable aspects that work together to constitute the discourse. Thus a working definition for discourse as perceived in this dissertation can be formulated.

Working definition of discourse

Text refers to all linguistic aspects in written or spoken natural language, i.e. the words used to form the utterance or written text. It could be a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or a longer stretch of language, in other words any length of words used to create text. In semiotic terms language represents a sign system. In other words, language is a linguistic sign system creating meaning in a given context.

The information provided by the text must be related to the discourse as a whole; that is with the text as coherent collection of semantic relations, in other words "…the quality of perceived purpose, meaning and connection…" (Cook 1994: 25).

The text takes place within a given situation or context. Context consists of various factors, not all of which always appear at once in a given situation.

According to Cook (1992: 1) context includes:

substance - the physical material which carries or relays text;

music and pictures;

paralanguage - meaningful behaviour accompanying language, such as voice quality, gestures, facial expressions and touch (in speech) and choice of typeface and letter sizes (in writing);

situation - the properties and relations of objects and people in the vicinity of the text, as perceived by the participants;

co-text - text which precedes or follows that under analysis, and which participants judge to belong to the same discourse;

intertext - text which the participants perceive as belonging to other discourse, but which they associate with the text under consideration, and which affects their interpretation;

participants - they are described as senders, addressers, addressees and receivers; and

function - what the text is intended to do by the senders and addressers, or perceived to do by the receivers and addressees. (This element will be dealt with separately.)

For the purposes of this dissertation this definition of context suffices and can be used as such. In persuasive advertisements, usually more than one of these aspects works together to form the context in which text production takes place. In semiotic terms, the different aspects create or represent signs (context) that generate meaning to perform a persuasive function together with the linguistic signs (text).

Therefore, advertisement discourse is defined as text occurring within a specific context.

Discourse analysis

It is vital for the translator to keep in mind that text cannot exist without context and vice versa. The main assumption is that, in persuasive advertisements, the text (language) is subject and sensitive to the context. Context includes knowledge of elements existing outside the text (knowledge of the world) as well as how these elements contribute to create a certain frame of reference and/or a cultural identity.

The culture in which a certain advertisement is created forms part of the context. Schiffrin (1987: 4) confirms this view by saying that "… language always occur(s) in a context, but its patterns – of form and function, and at surface and underlying levels – are sensitive to features of that context". When translating a persuasive advertisement, the translator has to be sensitive to this because "language is potentially sensitive to all of the contexts in which it occurs, and, even more strongly, language reflects those contexts because it helps to constitute them" (Schiffrin 1987: 5).

Advertisements always rely on the relation between the text and its context; the one cannot survive without the other. The receiver senses this relationship and decodes the message accordingly. The context of the advertisement determines how the receivers will perceive the message. The context is embedded in a specific culture, whether it is a language-related culture or a sub-culture.

The task of discourse analysis is to identify the cultural aspects and determine their role in the persuasive advertisements in view of transferring them in the translation process.

Knowledge of discourse analysis is important for the translator to:

  • identify the text and context;
  • isolate and describe the inherent elements in the text and context;
  • determine how these elements interact in the discourse;
  • identify cultural aspects; and
  • determine how the above-mentioned points function in the communication process.

Advertisement discourse challenges the translator more than any other discourse because of its very nature and the multitude of elements that constitute its existence. Cook (1992: 4) states that there are hundreds of discourse types "which merge into each other and defy exact definition". This is particularly relevant to the nature of advertisements: an advertisement could be several types at once. For instance, a persuasive advertisement could display characteristics of a joke, a song and cartoon at the same time. In an attempt to deal with the translation of cultural aspects in advertisements, the characteristics and the function of this communicative event have to be discussed. However, it would not be reasonable or justified to formulate one definitive meaning of what constitutes advertisements: the definition would be limiting - a contradiction in terms.


The various characteristics of advertising as identified by Cook (1992: 214) apply to the broad spectrum of advertisements, in whatever form. These characteristics cover the most important characteristics inherent to all forms of advertising. The translator can use these guidelines to determine whether a discourse is an advertisement if it displays one or more of these characteristics.

The features below are prototypical of advertisements rather than definitive. (They have been arranged in order of importance as viewed by the study. The characteristics from number 26 are the author’s additions.)

  1. They have the typical restless instability of a new discourse type.
  2. They seek to alter addressees’ behaviour. (Persuasive advertisements are prime examples.)
  3. They change constantly. (Advertisements for a specific product change intermittently.)
  4. They are a discourse on the periphery of attention. (Advertisements are not regarded as being "serious".)
  5. They are unsolicited by their receivers. (Advertisements appear in the media, e.g. on television.)
  6. They are parasitic: appropriating and existing through the voices of other discourse types. (In magazines, newspapers and on television and radio.)
  7. They merge the features of public and private discourse, and the voices of intimacy and authority, exploiting the features common to both. (Private conversation and public addresses can be used.)
  8. They use various substances for discourse (e.g. a perfume strip in a magazine).
  9. They are embedded in an accompanying discourse (e.g. in a newspaper).
  10. They provoke social, moral and aesthetic judgements, either positive or negative.
  11. They are often heard in many contradictory ways simultaneously.
  12. Advertisements provoke controversy (e.g. Bennetton advertisements).
  13. They are multi-modal and can use pictures, music and language, either singly or in combination (e.g. television commercial).
  14. They are multi-submodal, in their use of language and can use writing, speech and song (e.g. radio advertisement).
  15. They contain and foreground extensive and innovative use of paralanguage (e.g. body language in a television commercial).
  16. They foreground connotational, indeterminate and metaphorical meaning, thus creating fusion between disparate spheres (e.g. Mercedes-Benz with luxury).
  17. They make dense use of intra-modal and inter-modal parallelisms.
  18. They use a heteroglossic narrative.
  19. They make extensive use of intra- and inter-discoursal allusion.
  20. They are presented in short bursts (e.g. television commercial of 30 seconds).
  21. They follow a principle of reversal, causing them to change many features, as soon as they become established, to the opposite.
  22. They are identified by their position in an accompanying discourse.
  23. They use their space and time to give pleasure.
  24. They use code-play.
  25. They answer a need for display and repetitive language.
  26. Advertisements, as verbal art, are detrimentally constrained by the need to fulfil the wishes of their clients.
  27. They infiltrate new technology and media (e.g. on the Internet).
  28. They (unnecessarily) create need.
  29. They sell a lifestyle. (Fun-loving people smoke Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes and visit exotic holiday destinations.)
  30. They are a form of mass communication.

A persuasive advertisement could contain one, all or a combination of these characteristics. There are no set rules which determine that persuasive advertisements that use a specific medium should display certain characteristics. Advertisements are in a constant state of flux. Although the message of two products might be the same, different mediums could change the characteristics of the two advertisements.


In the broadest sense advertisements either persuade or inform receivers in terms of their functionality. The main function of a persuasive advertisement is to persuade the receiver to take a specific action, in other words the receiver is directly manipulated to change or modify his/her (consumer) behaviour. Elements of information can also be present. The intended function can only take place if the discourse fulfils its communicative role.