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


The advertisements under discussion were created for a Belgian market and the international market. The Belgian advertisements are in Flemish. The French equivalents are not discussed.

According to the copywriter, Bart Broodcoorens (1997), the French advertisements are merely a literal translation of the Flemish. This advertisement is a good example of how semiotic adjustments had to be made to fit the different markets and thus receivers. Both these advertisements were translated from German, because it is a German product.

The advertisements under discussion are examples of methods to deal with language and culture within a semiotic framework.

Iglo Spinach

Images and signs

The hands are very strong signs in this advertisement; they are symbols that provide the catalyst to set the narrative in motion. (See gallery.)

The English advertisement starts with two hands hiding something. The sign is that of magic being created with the hands. It signifies something hidden, some trick being played. The connotation is that of a magician performing a trick.

In a British or American context, these signs and their meaning would create a positive and fun response. After all, magic signifies relaxation or a hobby, as could be seen on television variety shows or at the circus. There are no sinister connotations. The speed with which the spinach is harvested and frozen is so unbelievable that it could only happen as if by magic.

According to Bart Broodcoorens (1997), this connotation caused a negative response from Belgian consumers. The credibility of the product was questioned. The consumers felt that there was a hidden message in the advertisement and that the manufacturer was hiding something from them. Therefore, the advertisement had to be changed for the Belgian market.

In the English version five hourglasses are used to indicate the passing of time. The sand runs through one of them very fast, which is supposed to indicate that the spinach is frozen very quickly after the harvest, thus sealing in all the vitamins. This is a strong and known symbol of time and the passing of time. However, it was cut out of the Flemish version because the receivers did not understand its use. It could have been replaced with a clock or watch to retain the time aspect. The only negative connotation that the hourglasses could have is that they are old-fashioned instruments, and thus do not fit into a contemporary society (and kitchen!).

Towards the end of the English version, one sees a vitamin seal, which guarantees that the vitamins have been preserved in the product. This seal connotes that some or other health authority has approved the product. However, this suggested claim cannot be proven. In the mind of the receiver/consumer a seal such as this creates credibility and thus increases its selling power. In the Flemish version, this seal does not appear because it is against Belgian law to make such claims according to Broodcoorens (1997).


The medium used is television. The medium makes the narrative sequence possible; one action and sign flow into the next, thus building suspense. The climax in this case is the showing of the vitamin seal that guarantees the freshness of the product. The theme is that the goodness and freshness of the spinach are captured as if by magic.


In both versions the focus is on the hands, which look as if they belong to a man. Stereotypically, magicians are men and the assistant is female. The change of focus and shots takes place quickly and smoothly, like magic. Again the idea of optical illusion is emphasised. There are no lingering moments in either version, expect for the last shot. The voice-over is also soothing and smooth on the ear.

The narrative in the Flemish advertisement is simpler than the English advertisement, because a number of scenes were cut out. They are: the hands making the spinach disappear, the hand holding the vitamin seal, and the box with the vitamin seal on it. As a result signs such as the hands lose the connotation of performing magic.


The code is broadcast because it is aimed at everyone who buys food, and digital because separate units can be distinguished, moving from shot to shot.

Social semiotics

From a semiotic perspective the English advertisement is much more successful than the Flemish one. The former is filled with signs and symbols that are supported by the language used to construct the narrative. Different visual elements are used in conjunction with the narrating voice to show the process of harvesting, packing and consuming.

The small spinach plant in the opening scene is an index of harvesting. The next shot shows fresh spinach leaves in a man’s hands; then to the next shot of five hourglasses, which are indices of time; then the hand with a seal in it; then the seal is shown on the packaged product, which is a symbol of guaranteeing quality; and finally showing a plate of food with a child’s laughter in the background, which is a symbol of good health.

A powerful sign is that of the vitamin seal in the hand, and in the next shot it is on the packaged product. This could be interpreted as the product receiving an award for its excellence.

The aspect of showing a child eating the food and the laughter fits into the context of the world created by a magician.

Certain cultural assumptions are made in the English advertisement. The first is that German products are of a superior quality and excellence. This view is supported and endorsed by the use of a vitamin seal guaranteeing freshness and a high level of nutrients.

Semiotically, the Flemish advertisement is not successful. The signs used in the original advertisement worked within a specific narrative sequence to generate meaning. In the Flemish version these essential signs were omitted. What was left are loose signs strung together but not as a meaningful whole to generate the same message as the original. The hands, which are the most important sign in the advertisement, have been reduced to an interesting object in the Flemish advertisement. At times it comes across as if the hands are there to convey meaning through sign language, which they do not do.

Translation analysis

One could argue that these two versions of the same advertisement for the product are good examples of Jakobson’s intralingual semiotic translation. This is true to a certain degree. The original advertisement was changed to fit the Belgian market by omitting certain signs, and then translated. The Flemish text is a literal translation of the English text. The translation of the text as such is successful, but the text does not work on its own, only in conjunction with visual images.

Iglo Fish

This concept was taken from an Italian advertisement for the same product. The stereotypical belief that the best fish come from the area around the North Pole was used to emphasise the quality and freshness of the product. Two advertisements were created for the Flemish and French-speaking inhabitants of Belgium. The first advertisement is a translation of the Italian advertisement. Then a new advertisement was created, using the same basic Eskimo sign, but expanding some ideas. The Italian advertisement will not be discussed but serves as an illustration of how an advertisement can evolve to be more powerful in generating meaning through its signs. (See gallery.)

Images and signs

The principle sign is that of the fish. The advertisement starts with the man carrying fish, and throughout the receiver/viewer is aware of the fish, in nearly every shot. The father gives a fish mascot to the visitor, which then becomes a drawing of a fish skeleton. There would be a popular perception that the Eskimo is a symbol of superior knowledge regarding fish. Using an Eskimo to endorse your fish gives credibility to the product because they eat it raw and would not if it was not fresh.


The themes used in this advertisement are those of survival, knowledge, friendship, and family values. These are closely knit into a narrative that moves quickly from one theme and scene to another. The main paired oppositions in the advertisement are natural/industrial, family/single person, old age/youth, and myth/reality.

This advertisement has all the elements of a mini-film: a love interest, bravery and suspense. Furthermore, it is a mixture of genres, namely that of fact and fiction. Information (for the consumer) is integrated with a beautiful story in which a myth is embedded.

The medium is a television advertisement. The genre of the advertisement with the Eskimo family in their igloo is presented as that of a documentary. This is done by shooting the advertisement on a 16 millimetre film. The Eskimos are presented as real life people and not actors. Sub-titles and the length of the advertisement further support the notion that this is a documentary and not an advertisement.


On this level, messages are conveyed by means of body language. For instance, the little girl running towards the visitor upon recognizing him, the young girl looking shyly at the visitor and the friendly expression on the father’s face when telling the story. The close-up shots of all the characters’ faces emphasise the ambience being created. An interesting shift of focus is brought about with the voice over towards the end of the advertisement. First one hears a male voice talking while one still sees the Eskimo context; then a shift takes place and a woman’s voice comes up. At the same time, a shot of the raw product is shown. In other words, while the serious "documentary" was shown, an authoritative male voice was used, but when the shift took place to a domestic context, a female voice was used.

Thematically, this shift is very clever. A connection was created between the male dominance in the "documentary" part and the male voice-over; while the wife in the documentary is also associated with the female voice at the end talking about the product.

Social semiotics

The advertisement starts with a Camel man lookalike walking across the ice carrying fish in a bag in his hand. His appearance conjures up images of a rugged, adventurous lifestyle in exotic places. The next scene shows an igloo, huskies and an Eskimo family in the background. Thus the context of the narrative is set. A child recognizes him and runs towards him.

In the next scene the whole family is congregated. The family stereotypes are presented: mother, father, young children, and a teenage girl. They all take on stereotypical roles. The mother cooks, the children play with the visitor, the father instructs them about fish, and the girl seems infatuated with the visitor.

The father is the symbol of wisdom and knowledge, instructing the foreigner and the children. The mother is the caretaker and homemaker. The father tells them a myth about the fish and fisherman. The fish is central in this advertisement. It is elevated to a position of mythical status. Not only is it the primary food source of the Eskimo, but is also imparts a social status to those who can catch it.

The whole process of catching a fish becomes an adventure, an act of great courage and reward. It is elevated above its mundane purpose of providing nutrition and subsistence.

The Eskimo are a symbol of people living in harsh and remote areas in a primitive way, not succumbing to modern, twentieth century ways of living. They are symbols of purity and pure surroundings, as connoted by their white, cold environment. Most receivers would be able to recognize an Eskimo and know that they eat fish as a staple food.

There would be no need to change anything in this advertisement for Western receivers. It could be problematic if used in parts of Africa, where illiterate people do not know what an Eskimo is, but then again this product would not necessarily be aimed at these markets. In such cases, the voice-over would have to give extra information to fill in the knowledge gaps of the receivers and anchor the message and information for the receivers.

The myth is called a legend in the narrative. It claims that the gods reveal only to the bravest fishermen the knowledge that half of the spine of this fish is the firmest part. The legend implies that these fish can only be caught in parts of the ocean where it is very dangerous and only a select few will ever gain this knowledge.

Translation analysis

The French version is exactly the same as the Flemish version. The sub-titles were semantically translated, in other words the meaning of the source text was retained by means of the translation method used. According to Broodcoorens (1997), the latest trend in advertising is to use exotic and foreign languages in advertisements. These are then sub-titled, using the language of choice. The reason is that it is cheap to change the text but not the visual material. The only restriction would be that of the length of sentences, because they have to be short enough to fill the space on the screen, and also easy enough to read quickly because the shots change very rapidly.

Also, when an advertisement is situated in a foreign setting, the cultural sensibilities of the receivers/consumers involved are not compromised in any way. They are outsiders observing another culture, and are thus removed and not familiar with the customs and language of the reality presented to them in the advertisement.