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


The cultural identity of a specific group or society is an image referring to external as well as internal characteristics of that group. However, a culture must be located in time and space to "anchor" it in terms of its past, future and place and to indicate or compare changes that took place within that culture.

According to Askegaard (1991: 12) " the domestication of space consists in the creation of a fixed point in the universe" which in turn becomes the centre of that culture’s activities.

Man’s cultural identity is constituted of four different elements ("mirrors"): past (retrospective), future (prospective), interactive and coalescing (Askegaard 1991: 12). The retrospective element refers to the past through which the meaning of the origins and the history is made clear. The prospective is used to view the purpose and the meaning of the continued existence of society. The society reflects itself in the interactive mirror, and discards elements that do not belong to a specific cultural identity. The coalescing mirror is used to see how the members of a specific cultural group relate to the identity of the culture and whether there is consensus regarding the internal organisation of that specific culture.

The retrospective element represents the stability of the culture in the past. Symbols such as sport emblems often serve as "demarcations or as condensed symbols of a particular culture"; these instituted symbols "anchor" the sign in a certain space in time (Askegaard 1991: 16).

In contrast, there is the prospective element that points to the future and change where new signs can be produced. Askegaard (1991: 16) maintains that "Western society explicitly leaves room for the questioning and the development of itself".

The interactive element refers to collective man and her/his signs, and her/his organisation thereof. The semiotic function of this mirror is the "diversification of worlds, ours from theirs…so as to locate the culture in its environment" (Askegaard 1991: 19). One of the most widely used organising systems is that of language (also a sign system). Man uses language and words to make sense of her/his world and expressing himself in the cultural group.

As Askegaard (1991: 17) puts it:

This field is the field of Taxonomy, creating a fundamental semantic order of society and at the same time also taking steps toward an ontology because the taxonomy partially answers the question: ‘What is this?’

The counter-element of collective interaction is the individual’s coalescence. For the coalescence of cultural identity there must be signs which define the "we" internally and not just externally. The semiotic function of congregation defines the internal human relations in a culture.

These four elements or mirrors form the dimensions of the semiotic structure of cultural identity (Askegaard 1991: 19).


The cultural identity of a society entails many elements and concepts. All the elements that constitute a specific culture work together and separately to signify and create meaning in that culture.

Signs (linguistic and non-linguistic) create meaning for every member of a given cultural group. However, a sign might have a different meaning for different members of the given cultural group. For instance, the old South African flag might signify political oppression to a white South African (if we assume that all white South Africans belong to the same cultural group), while for another this flag could signify a period of prosperity. The meaning generated by such a symbol depends, in this case, on the person’s political beliefs.

Members of the same cultural group also create their own signs and symbols in order to establish unity and conformity. These are binding elements. As a result, sub-cultures form within already existing cultures. For instance, on the Cape Flats, members of different gangs have a tattoo to indicate to which sub-culture they belong, such as skulls or daggers.

For the semiotician South Africa provides an interesting but also confusing society in terms of the different cultural groupings. Broadly one can divide it into the white, coloured, black and Asian population. Within each of these populations, many different cultures and ethnic groupings are represented. As a result, a homogeneous society cannot exist and there is a huge amount of cross-pollination and cultural cross-over.

General Hertzog ensured the protection and the survival of English and Dutch by means of the constitution of the Union of South Africa. Later constitutions kept the wording, thus ensuring the protection of these two languages (Beukes, as cited in Postma 1995). For the past 40 years, under the National Party government, English and Afrikaans were the official languages. But among those opposed to the predominantly Afrikaans government, Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressor. In this way the language as a sign system within a broader Afrikaans culture was seen as a symbol of oppression. Language was made the representative of a culture and an ideology.

As a result, many coloured Afrikaans families sent their children to English schools. These children would grow up between cultures, not having a cultural heritage associated with the English language, and experiencing a home situation where Afrikaans is spoken and the habits of the white, Afrikaans-speaking culture are practised. In a sense, a new culture evolved, but this culture has very little that defines it, it borrows from different cultures but does not create its own symbols and signs.

The negative views held by those opposed to Afrikaans are ironic. Afrikaans evolved and grew from Dutch, and the first people who started the trading station at the tip of Africa. Later the country (the Colony - Cape Province - and Natal) came under British rule. The development of the Afrikaans language was an act of rebellion, but also of the growth of the new culture, developing what was later to become the Republic of South Africa. Afrikaans and the Afrikaner culture were acts of defiance and against the British rulers, and created cultural unity; until 1948 it was the language of the oppressed, and not the oppressor as it was later held.

A culture cannot exist without signs, whether in the form of natural language, rituals or symbols, signifying a specific meaning within a specific context. Culture means different things to different people even within the same cultural grouping. In a multicultural society as South Africa, there is even less agreement between the members of certain cultural groupings. For instance, all mother tongue English speakers do not belong to the same cultural group. There is a large community of coloured people who chose English as their mother tongue rather than Afrikaans, which was traditionally more commonly spoken by the coloured community. Then there is the white community that can broadly be divided into English and Afrikaans speakers. Members from both groups share cultural customs, values and habits, but so retain, to a certain extent and depending on the demographic position, their own defining cultural signs.

Semiotics of culture looks at similarities and convergences between different systems of signification in historically existing cultures. A good example would be South Africa and the multilingual and multicultural Belgium. Officially Belgium has three languages - and thus a German, French and Flemish (Dutch written and Flemish spoken) region. These different cultural groups are demographically separated. Geography demarcates the language and cultural groups.

Despite some efforts of the government and cultural groups, Belgium is divided into these cultural groups, with very little of a Belgian culture evident. Brussels, the capital, is the closest one would get to a multicultural society due to the fact that it is the seat of the European Community, where nations from across Europe are represented.

However, it is interesting to note that restaurants advertise Flemish or French cuisine. Distinction is made between the cultures, with very little cross-pollination taking place. Language (Flemish) is one the sign systems which borrows from another sign system (French words).

Meaning shapes culture, and culture shapes meaning. Meaning given by members of a cultural group to elements that define that group will invariably shape the culture, either by accepting or rejecting an element (such as a value or ritual). If a meaning is attached to a cultural element that has a negative connotation, the members of that group will view that element in a negative light; and vice versa. But by the same token an existing culture could give new meaning to existing cultural elements or decide upon meaning for newly acquired cultural elements.


The main aim of persuasive advertisements is to manipulate the consumer/receiver into taking a certain action. The advertisement reflects the time and spatial setting of its origin. It also reflects the social relationships prevalent within that culture, and forms values that establish a range of ideological references.

The term ideology was first used in 1796 to refer to a science of ideas (Nöth 1991: 377). Three versions of the concept exist: the value-neutral concept, the pejorative sense and the universalistic sense. The first concept refers to ideology as any system of norms, values, beliefs or Weltanschauungen directing the social and political attitudes of a group. The second type refers to a system of false ideas, representing the false consciousness of a social class. The third concept identifies ideology with the sphere of ideas in general (Nöth 1991: 377-8). This view coincides with the view of psychologists that ideology is the way that attitudes are organised into a coherent pattern (Fiske 1982: 144).

Bahktin (1990: 378) links ideology with semiotics when he writes:

Everything ideological […] is a sign; without signs, there is no ideology. The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present too. Everything ideological possesses semiotic value.

Advertisements become a vehicle for ideology by reflecting ideas, beliefs and opinions that are a reflection of the society within a specific culture. This idea is echoed by semioticians such as Fiske (1982: 145) who argue that ideology is determined by society, not by the individual’s set of attitudes. According to Maria Campos (1983: 978) "ideology attains material existence. It becomes concretised, it acts surreptitiously, it never presents itself as ‘being ideological’". The ideology is generated by the signs that represent the advertisement and its message.

In other words, the ideology-semiotic relationship is established when the ideology makes use of signs to convey its message; thus the ideology precedes the signs. "It becomes communicable as it is turned into a code" (Campos: 1983: 978). This code then relates the ideology by portraying certain deeds, habits or institutions.

On the one hand, advertisements make the consumer/receiver believe that they reflect reality, but in fact they only create a world which makes allusions to reality. The same can be said for ideology. Ideology becomes the category of illusions and false consciousness according to Fiske (1982: 145). As Campos (1983: 978) says, "Ideology takes certain elements as a starting point but changes them at the moment of expression." The falseness of the ideology is used by the ruling class to maintain dominance over the working class. This can clearly be seen in African countries, of which South Africa is no exception, and the advertising campaigns used.

Multinational companies propagate their products and the virtues and lifestyles of the capitalist, American Dream by reflecting this and many other values and ideologies in their advertising. Examples include motor cars (Ford), clothing (Levi) and perfume (Calvin Klein). The underlying message is that all that is American is good and should be followed.