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


Semiosis or generating meaning can be done in a text by using metaphors and metonymy; it is most often used to create connotative meaning. Metaphor expresses the unfamiliar (also called the "tenor") in terms of the familiar (the "vehicle"). The tenor and vehicle are usually unrelated: the reader/receiver must make an imaginative leap to understand a fresh metaphor (Chandler: WWW).

Fiske (1982: 96) notes that the metaphor simultaneously exploits similarity and difference. It works paradigmatically because the vehicle and the tenor must have enough similarity to place them in the same paradigm, but enough difference for the comparison to have the necessary element of contrast.

Metaphors are often used, and very successfully, by advertisers to sell products. In the advertisement an event or object will be used as a metaphor for a product or idea. In the case of Coca-Cola, the good life, fun and youth will be used as a metaphor for the soft drink.

Metonymy is the term used to describe the invocation of an object or idea using an associative detail; thus a syntagmatic dimension. Metonymy is based on continuity: it does not require an imaginative leap (transposition) as metaphor does (Chandler: WWW).

In other words, a part of an object or idea stands for the whole. For instance, a policeman could be a metonym for the law.

Fiske (1982: 97) notes that the selection of metonym is crucial because from it the reader/receiver constructs the unknown remainder of reality.

It is thus important for the semiotician and translator to take the whole context into consideration before deducing what a metonym stands for. If the translator deduces a meaning not intended by the source writer/creator, the signification of the other signs and the text as a whole will create a different meaning and effect in the target text than in the source text.

For the purposes of advertisements, metonyms are powerful indicators of reality because they work indexically. A shot of a street strewn with bodies and blood, shown on television, is an index (metonym) of violence and murder.


Semioticians organise signs into systems, which are governed by rules or conventions that are agreed upon by all the members of the community who use that code (Fiske 1982: 68). These rules represent a social dimension: the code is a set of practices familiar to the users of the medium operating within a broad cultural framework. Members of a specific culture will understand the codes that operate within that culture.

Codes are dynamic systems that change all the time and are therefore historically and socio-culturally influenced. Due to the fact that codes and culture inter-relate dynamically, the translator must be very sensitive to the codes operating in the target culture so that the linguistic choices made during the translation process reflect the culture at that point in time.

Some codes are unique to a specific medium or to closely related media (e.g. fade to black in television and film); other codes are shared by several media (e.g. scene breaks); and some are drawn from cultural practices which are not tied to a medium (e.g. body language) (Chandler: WWW).

For the purpose of this dissertation, only two types will be discussed. They are broadcast and narrowcast codes. The reason for this is that these two types of codes are defined by the nature of the audience. All advertisements are aimed at specific target audiences, and although the focus has not been on the receiver as such, but more on the message, it is important for the semiotician and translator to be aware of the codes at work in an advertisement.

Members of a mass audience share a broadcast code; it has to cater for heterogeneity. (This is most evident in international persuasive advertisements for soft drinks such as Coca-Cola or Levi jeans.) (See gallery for examples.)

This type of code is simple; has immediate appeal and does not require an "education" to understand them (Fiske 1982: 78). Used in advertisements, for example, this type of code binds people within a certain culture together; they communicate by means of things they have in common. In South Africa codes such as rugby, soccer and cricket, or the "sunshine and braaivleis culture" in advertisements would appeal to a wide audience.

Narrowcast codes are aimed at a specific audience. In an advertisement, for instance, a narrowcast code (having a defined, limited audience) would be opera music, whereas a pop song would be broadcast (having a wider appeal). Fiske (1982: 81) notes that they do not rely on a shared communal experience but on a common educational or intellectual experience.

Narrowcast codes can be seen as elitist or socially divisive and for this reason the translator has to be especially sensitive when translating within this type of code. The receivers will be educated; and if misguided choices are made in terms of style, register, vocabulary, etc. the receivers could be alienated and not respond as the receivers in the source language.

Fiske (1982: 81) makes a valid observation when he says that:

Narrowcast codes have acquired the function in our mass society of stressing the difference between "us" (the users of the code) and "them" (the laymen, the lowbrows). Broadcast codes stress the similarities amongst "us" (the majority).

The creators of advertisements are fully aware of these two types of codes and use them according to the aim of their marketing campaigns. An exclusive product such as a Rolls Royce motor car is aimed at a very specific group of people in terms of status, income, etc. A persuasive advertisement aimed at the prospective buyers of these cars would be addressed in a way that will emphasise the receiver’s social status, individuality and the exclusivity of the product that is a reflection of the owner of such a vehicle.


The primary function of signs, namely to generate meaning, has been discussed but now the levels of meaning (or signification) have to be investigated. One can distinguish between denotation (what a sign stands for) and connotation (a sign’s cultural associations).


It can be said that denotation refers to "first order" of signification generated by the relationship between the signifier and the signified within the sign; or the initial, common-sense and obvious meaning of the sign (Fiske 1982: 91).

According to Roland Barthes (cited in Fiske 1982: 91) the referents of the sign have their referents in the external reality.


Connotation refers to the "second order" of signification. Hall (cited in Chandler: WWW) sees this as the associative meaning, since it describes the interaction that occurs when a sign meets the feelings or emotions of the users and the value of their culture.

Connotation describes the interaction that takes place when the sign meets the emotions of the user and the values of his culture. Connotation is directly related to the inner reality of the user/receiver and is thus highly subjective. According to Fiske (1982: 91):

This is when meanings move towards the subjective, or at least the intersubjective: it is when the interpretant is influenced as much by the interpreter as by the object or the sign.

Connotation involves emotional overtones, subjective interpretation, socio-cultural values and ideological assumptions (Chandler: WWW).

In terms of advertisements made for television, connotations can be created from the tone of voice of the actor, that is, what he feels about a product or a situation; for the translator of text the choice of words involves connotation. Connotation is linked to emotions and our view of the words concerned and their associations. The translator can assume to a certain degree that other users of a specific language and cultural group would have similar connotations with certain words and concepts. Because signs on the connotative level are more open to interpretation, the translator must pay attention to the choice of words (and signs) used to translate a text into a target language and culture.

Fiske (1982: 92) is of the opinion that connotation is largely arbitrary, specific to one culture, but often has an iconic dimension. It can, however, be said that certain words, for instance words referring to bodily functions or genitals, would have similar connotations across a broad spectrum of languages and cultures.