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


Semiotics is per definition about the study of signs and the meaning they generate. It appears that the Belgian advertising industry is aware of and sensitive to the use of signs and symbols, more so than in South Africa. However, advertising campaigns are conceptualised after a strategy has been decided upon. Only after this has taken place, the impact of signs and their meanings are accessed in order to create an effective message to the consumer/receiver.

Certain subjects, such as religion, are treated with great care and tact and usually only in a serious manner. Religion is treated with respect and solemnity and not associated with humour.

Interviews with different copywriters revealed that the Belgian consciousness is that of subtlety – visual material and language are used in advertisements in such a way that they are discreet, subtle and not shocking.

According to Sophie Frére (1997), a Bennetton billboard depicting a black stallion mounting a white mare caused much criticism and outrage from the public. These symbols were powerful in conveying a message, but too radical for the general Belgian public.

Advertisers often use television and music personalities to endorse their products; these personalities would be well known in the French (Walloon) or Flemish community, depending on their cultural orientation.

Voyages voyages – Elders en anders

This was the only print advertisement found in which the same advertisement was used in two magazines (French and Flemish) that showed a difference in terms of the visual material. Both magazines are Belgian products aimed at either French-speaking (Voyages voyages) or Flemish-speaking (Elders en anders) readers. Both the advertisements appeared in motor car magazines (the French and Flemish versions of the same magazine, namely De AUTO Gids and Le Moniteur AUTOMOBILE). The paradigms used in both advertisements are words and images. (See gallery.)

Images and signs

Syntagmatically speaking, the images carry more weight than the words. A yellow background signifies the sun that is mentioned in the heading. A warm feeling, a sense of excitement and warm climes are evoked by this colour and the word "sun" for the Belgian reader, who is used to grey weather for most of the year.

A photo of the cover of the magazine (October 1997) issue is shown. Below that is a much larger photo of an old, rusty car from the fifties. This signifies travel and a bygone era - a romantic connotation of travel is created. The image is strengthened by the image of the travel trunk filled with old copies of the magazine in Flemish and French. This signifies the passing of time and also a sense of adventure and mystery hidden in the trunk. A hidden treasure and pleasure are stowed away in the trunk and in the magazines.

French advertisement

The images of the car and the travel trunk were left in colour. The whole advertisement is filled with words and images, and distracts the eye easily; there is no specific focus point in terms of the images. There are no contrasts. The reader’s attention is drawn by the word STOP in bold black capital letters. Freely translated, the heading says: "We interrupt what you are reading to bring you a ray of sunlight".

This direct form of address is used to attract the attention of the reader. The ray of sunlight refers to the colour of the magazine’s cover as well as the destinations, Morocco and Mexico, both of which conjure up images of warm, sunny places.

Flemish advertisement

An optical and semiotic contrast is created by using both black-and-white and colour images. By using the black-and-white images, it could be presumed that the reader finds herself/himself in grey surroundings or in a grey (depressed) state of mind. In other words, the magazine will bring relief (a ray of sunlight).

A free translation of the heading reads: "New, we interrupt your reading for a ray of sunlight". The use of "Nieuw" (new) instead of "STOP" is strange. "Stop" could have been used with the same level of success, but the word "Nieuw" has the added denotation of a new edition of the magazine that would then add to the text density. This heading is shorter than the French version. A contrastive effect is created in the heading by saying that the reading (already a relaxing activity) is being interrupted by something better, namely an escape to a holiday in the sun.

Translation analysis

It is difficult to say in which language the original advertisement was created. As in the case of many advertising agencies, the advertisements were created separately. The Belgian Flemish version works better semiotically due to the contrastive effects created by the visual images; the visual images supported by the text (message) make the overall message stronger on a denotative and connotative level. The code used is definitely broadcast – a wide readership would respond to the message, namely to buy the magazine. The advertisement for this magazine not only informs potential travellers, but armchair travellers could also find solace in reading about sunny places in the world.

Mercedes-Benz: CLK

Images and signs

The signs in the advertisement consist of two naked people (one male, the other female) and an expensive, luxury car. The medium used is that of a print advertisement that appeared in the same motoring magazines as the above advertisements. (See gallery.)

In terms of intertextuality, the advertisements refer to the CK 1 (Calvin Klein) perfume by using a naked young man and a woman, who resembles the supermodel Kate Moss (who was used in the CK advertisements). The only difference is that the models used in the CK advertisements are clothed in grungy wear, whereas these models are naked. (See gallery.)

The heading connotes a young, carefree lifestyle as created by the makers of the CK perfume. Calvin Klein is an American fashion designer who caters for the young and stylish. The car is linked to the clothing of the famous designer by the use of the metaphor "Sportswear". The only thing the car and the clothes have in common, is the possible market that Mercedes-Benz hopes to entice into buying its product, in other words a younger, brand-conscious consumer. The metaphor is strengthened by the use of an English heading, both in the Flemish and the French advertisements.

Just as the CK perfume is aimed at both sexes, the CLK is also aimed at a unisex market. Stereotypes are thus debunked: this car is not only aimed at older, mature people with a certain social status but at young, sporty and hip consumers.

Young, sporty and hip are equated with sex (naked bodies of young, nubile female and handsome, young man). This is a rather outrageous approach to take for selling a car that has been associated with serious, status-conscious people. The advertisement is aimed at a young (biologically) and young at heart, upbeat market. Positive connotations are created by the direct reference to the CK advertisements. It could be interpreted as taking a too radical departure from the image of Mercedes-Benz, and the advertisement could be interpreted as being facetious.

This car is presented as an extension of a lifestyle, just like the clothes or designer label your choose to wear. The car is an extension of the self.

The medium used is a print advertisement in a motoring magazine. The vocabulary of three natural languages, namely English, Flemish and French, was used. It is extraordinary that the English heading was kept in the French version due to the fact that the French feel very strongly about preserving their culture and not having it infiltrated by English. The only reason could be that this advertisement appears in a Belgian magazine and not in a French one. Bearing this in mind, it enforces the message sent by the advertisers even more. They want the receivers to make the connection with the CK advertising campaign, and the only way to achieve this is to keep the heading in English. The binary oppositions presented in this advertisement include male/female; and technology/natural beauty.

The code used is definitely narrowcast: a middle-aged or older consumer would not necessarily realise the reference to the CK advertising campaign; and thus the images and signs would not appeal as much to their sensibilities as they would to those of a young consumer. The green sepia format gives the advertisement a nostalgic feeling and focuses the receiver’s attention on the images; whereas a coloured image could split the focus. The body language used is also a strong communicative element in the narrative sequence of the advertisement.

Syntagmatically, much can be said about the body language of the models. The man looks straight into the camera – shyish but not self-conscious. Comparing this man to the CK advertisements, there is a difference in attitude. In the latter the look is bored and slightly daring. In this advertisement the woman looks furtive (maybe due to her nakedness). Again in the CK advertisement Kate Moss looks at the camera but she also has the same disinterested and bored look as the man. In the CK advertisement the two characters are presented as being together and belonging together by means of physical contact. In the Mercedes advertisement the characters are apart; the focus is on the man. This is achieved by splitting the advertisement in two: the photo of the man fills half the space and is a close-up shot; the woman, the car, the heading and the text are shown from afar on the other half of the page.

This signifies that the man is the most important sign in the advertisement; he is the focus point and the leader. The car and the woman are subject to him. This could be interpreted as a having a sexist slant.

Although this is mentioned nowhere, one can infer from the signs that the Biblical connotation of Adam and Eve can be made. In this case the woman is interacting with the car (snake in the Bible): the car first seduces the woman and later the man…sinful exploitation of man’s material needs and wants as embodied by the luxurious car…

Applying the communication test

This test, as described in the chapter on semiotics, proposes that certain elements in this advertisement be substituted with others to test the accuracy and meaningfulness of the signs.

If the signs in this advertisement are changed at all, the essence will be lost: it is based on another advertisement (the CK one advertisement). This advertisement can only exist in its current form because it refers to a well-known campaign for another product. The only aspect in favour of this Mercedes advertisement is that the models look slightly older than those in the CK advertisement, who portray the Generation Xers with their typical grungy appearance. If any of the objects, the gender, or the choice of heading would be changed, the reference to the CK advertising campaign would not be so easily recognizable and the reference and connotations lost.

Social semiotics

The signs or choice of intertextuality could have a negative impact on older receivers and alienate this market. By using the naked bodies, the advertiser breaks away from its usual target market. The stereotyped, older, more distinguished buyer of this luxury car is replaced with young people and their designer-conscious mindset. It is clear that the advertiser (and thus the client) wants to penetrate a new market, a market that possibly has the money to buy a car in that price range.

However, this approach is a radical departure from the entrenched connotations in consumers’ minds about the product. For this reason, the success of the advertisement is debatable. One could also ask whether this young market has been approached in the right way, by equating a car with sportswear. There is indeed a play on the "sporty" idea, but one could ask whether young people who buy designer clothes really have the money to buy an expensive car to match the image. It seems that the advertiser overestimates his market.

Another consideration is that a shock tactic was used: naked people. Although nudity in advertising is not that uncommon in Belgium, as in South Africa, the Flemish community is more conservative than their French-speaking brothers and sisters in Wallonia, who would not object as such to the use of nudity. On the other hand, the French-speaking community has very strong cultural ties with France, more so than the Flemish with regard to their language and culture. The Flemish community, under the influence of the Netherlands, is more open to the use of English words and concepts than the French-speaking community. So, either way, this advertisement does not seem to be as successful as the advertisers hoped it would be, if one considers its semiotic analysis.

Translation analysis

The advertisers of this German product decided to keep the English heading in both the French and the Flemish version.

It seems that the texts in both languages correspond to a high degree. In the Flemish version the words "atletische kracht" is used, whereas in the French version "athletique" is used; "sportieve uitstraling" is translated with "musclé". The Flemish version uses English words such as airbag and sidebags; whereas the French only uses airbag but adds adjectival descriptions.

When comparing the two advertisements, it is difficult to say in which language it was created. The copy/text gives the basic information about the product; there is no sign of flowery language. The language is as streamlined as the image of the product. The language used refers to the car as well as to the models in the advertisement; beauty is strongly emphasised. Due to the poetic nature of French, more words are used to describe an object or attribute; the Flemish creates and compounds words more readily, which makes the text shorter.

It is difficult to say in which language the advertisement was originally written and which is the translated text. One could only guess that the original was Flemish, because from a cultural point of view, Flemish copywriters would be more open to persuasion to have an English heading, than the French would. The text itself does not give a clear indication whether it is a translation, although it could be a word-for-word translation.


The object or product advertised is a Pirelli tyre. The Flemish and French advertisements appeared in the same magazine as the Mercedes-Benz advertisements. The Afrikaans version of this advertisement appeared in the Automobile Association’s magazine, Die Motoris. (See gallery.)

Images and signs

The signs in this advertisement are: a female athlete running inside a huge wave, and the image of one tyre superimposed on the photo. The woman running on the water evokes allusions to Jesus walking on water, in other words performing a miracle. These signs can be interpreted differently by different consumers/receivers due to the fact that it is not an obvious equation: the control of a tyre with that of a female athlete running on water. Not only is the equation strange but also a hyperbole. The sign-object-interpretant relationship does not form a natural whole signifying a clear meaning to the receiver.

The woman is running in the wave – not away from it – she is thus in control of her situation. This can be inferred from the heading. Power and control are weighed against each other: power is worthless if you do not have control over it. Just as the athlete runs against the waves – thus showing her power – she controls the wave and her fate because she is in control of her situation and destiny. The image of the athlete is a metaphor for a Pirelli tyre. One could only wonder why a black model/athlete was used. Was it a deliberate choice or just because of her powerful, athletic appearance?

As with the previous advertisement, the advertisement’s heading is in English, probably taken over from the original English advertisement. Again one could ask why this is the case, especially when looking at the Afrikaans advertisement which has an Afrikaans heading. The use of English for the heading in an advertisement that does not suggest any reference to another text does not warrant the use of it in English. The Afrikaans heading is more powerful that the English because it does not jar with the idiom of the language and expression of the message.

The code is narrowcast. The advertisement is aimed at people, probably mainly men, who regard the technical and safety features highly. The magazines in which all three advertisements appeared address the motoring enthusiast and not a broad public.

The medium is a print advertisement in a motoring magazine in all three cases. The binary oppositions presented are: (wo)man/nature and technology/natural elements. The woman and nature (sea/wave) are also indexically paired. As mentioned earlier, the use of a wave to signify extreme wetness is an exaggerated image; it is also interesting that two forms of transport are mixed. Water transport and those vessels associated with it do not use tyres to move, as would road transport would require. The beauty and the strength of the woman are equated to the tyre.

The language used in the Flemish and French advertisements plays a secondary role to the image, although the image could not stand alone without the text. It is clear that the emphasis is on the images, but the language (text) does not support the images to form an integrated sign and message. The text does not refer to the water element or the connection between the tyre and the athlete running in the wave. The reader/receiver is left to her/his own imagination and connotative abilities to make sense of this aspect.

The images in these advertisements do not form a unified unity. It seems as if this photo was created by means of a computer package in which different photos are superimposed upon one another to create a new photo. It is highly debatable whether it is possible to run in a wave of this size, and secondly the rest of the athlete’s body is dry. The photo is presented as if to be real, which it is not, and furthermore this assumption is not refuted in the text. This realisation influences the credibility of the product and the message to the receiver/consumer. This contrived image reflects negatively on the validity of the claims made by the manufacturers of this product.

The Afrikaans advertisement is, however, a much more successful attempt at integrating all the signs in the advertisement. Under the section dealing with the translation of the advertisements, these aspects will be discussed.

Pirelli is famous for publishing an annual calendar of the most beautiful and well-known women photographed by a famous photographer. These calendars are given to only a few select people in the world. For the informed reader/receiver the beautiful model in this advertisement would remind her/him of the famous calendar and thus be highly allusive.

Social semiotics

The model’s appearance is reminiscent of that of Flo Jo, a famous American track athlete. This symbol signifies black excellence and success. It also addresses the issue of women being successful in a traditionally male domain, namely athletics and the subsequent sponsorships and endorsement contracts. A stereotype endorsed by this advertisement is that of using beautiful women to advertise cars and related products. By using a "pin-up" girl, the stereotypical image and ideas are continued, but with the difference that this athletic woman is in control, and not merely a decorative and submissive object. Thus stereotypical assumptions are turned upside-down.

Communication test

Much can be said about the signs used in this advertisement, but not that they are successful. The idea of an athlete taming the waves by running along the swell is highly implausible. Neither the body language nor the position of the wave indicates that the woman is in control of her surroundings. As a matter of fact, it looks as if she is sprinting for fun in the sea. The relationship between the wave and the tyre is also not clear from the outset.

The nature of the product dictates that this is not something that should be treated light-heartedly; safety is a serious matter. If the heading is kept, and the language has to utilize it to convey the message, images of difficult bends or road scenes can be used. Rain or any other form of water (e.g. frozen snow) that could impact on road safety can be included. If the advertiser insists on keeping the image of a beautiful woman in the advertisement, it would provide intertextual reference to the calendars. However, the elements used should signify control and power within a motoring/driving context.

Translation analysis

The French and Flemish advertisements have the same English title, namely "Power is nothing without control", and sub-titles that state that this is an intelligent tyre.

The French text starts with a number of abbreviations that indicate the qualities that this tyre possesses. The Flemish text is introduced with a sentence claiming the technical ability that this tyre gives to a car. This sentence does not appear in the French text. However, the first sentence of the French text states that the tyres of today differ vastly from the tyres of ten years ago. This sentence does not appear in the Flemish text. The third sentence in the Flemish text refers to the design of the tyre, which again does not appear in the French text. The last sentences of both texts correspond.

It seems that the Flemish text is the original (or even a translation from an English text) due to the fact that it gives much more information, and has more sentences. The French text is a watered down version of the original. At first glance it appears that the translation is dynamically equivalent, but upon further inspection this is not the case. As per the definition the message should have the same effect on the receivers in the target language as in the source language. If the Flemish (or English) version is the source text, the receivers of that text would respond according to the information supplied in the text. The target text does not give the same information -- it gives receivers much less, and receivers could therefore not respond in the same way because they have not been equipped with information about the product, only opinions and statements.

Both texts lack direct reference to the images by means of example. The only reference is that the tyre offers control in all circumstances and weather conditions. The themes of the sea/waves and the athlete are ignored in the text by the copywriter (translator?). There is no thematic connection between the words and the images; they are two loose entities.

One could argue that both these texts were translated from an English text, seeing that the product is multinational. The many abbreviations (without explanations) presuppose that the reader knows what they stand for; they are abbreviations for English words.

The claim that this is an intelligent tyre is made in both texts. However, only the Flemish text substantiates this claim by saying that the tyre was designed by keeping the electronic brain of your car in mind. Both the texts read like translations: the language use is bland and unimaginative; no figures of speech are used or anything to make the text read like an original creation; it lacks dynamism.

If one assumes that the Afrikaans text is a translation (which is highly likely), one could say that it is much more successful than the other two. From a semiotic perspective, the text and the images send the same message; the text reinforces the sign production of the images and vice versa. The language is manipulated to support the water theme. Words such as golf (wave), breek (breaking wave), kloukrag (control) refer to the sea. No abbreviations are used; the denotated function of these words is given. Reference is made to wet conditions and the tyre’s composition to deal with such situations. There is no sub-title in this advertisement which refers to the intelligence of the tyre. The heading is repeated in the last sentence, which reinforces the message to the receiver.