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


Since 1948 Afrikaans and English were the country’s only official languages. Legislation stipulated that all advertising had to take place in both languages. The many black languages were not included in this stipulation, although advertisements in black languages did appear. Since the introduction of eleven official languages in South Africa in 1994, the status of Afrikaans has been reduced to being one of many languages. This is evident in the reduced number of Afrikaans advertisements being created. English is the dominant language used in commerce and thus in advertising.

In the past most Afrikaans advertisements were translations of concepts that had been created in English. Few companies insisted on having their advertisements created in Afrikaans and then translated into English; even fewer realised that both these languages represented different cultures. Not all English speakers were white, middle-class citizens, neither were all Afrikaans speakers, farmers in the Free State. The speakers of these languages represent(ed) diverse cultural and ethnic groupings.

Ever since the inception of the Pendoring Awards for Afrikaans advertising (in 1996), the situation concerning the creation of Afrikaans advertisements has changed dramatically. Although Afrikaans has been marginalised in the private and public sectors, it has to a certain extent freed itself from the shackles of a political stigma, and more Afrikaans advertisements are created and conceptualised in Afrikaans than in the past. This does not mean that there are more Afrikaans advertisements, but merely that there are fewer translations and more creations. This is particularly true for print advertisements. In the case of television and film advertisements the opposite is true.

When creating or translating an advertisement in the South African context, the semiotician has to take numerous aspects into account. Various cultures and sub-cultures are represented in this country. Signs and symbols abound, many not generating the same meaning for different people.

In the following discussion of various English and Afrikaans advertisements, the translation of signs (visual, language, others) will be examined to show how translators navigated between the signs and the meanings they generated to produce a product (translated advertisement).

Due to lack of space, only a selection of representative advertisements can be discussed and analysed. Semiotics as a discipline is not yet used enough as a tool in advertising in South Africa. However, a few individuals in the advertising industry have taken note of this discipline and applied it to their advertising strategies and campaigns. The success of these advertisements was astounding. One such company is Sanlam, who introduced its products with a series of advertisements featuring babies.



The life assurance company Sanlam was founded in 1918. The company started out as an insurance company but has gradually grown into a financial services company with assets of more than R50 000 million. This is also reflected in its advertising campaigns. The company has been perceived as an Afrikaans firm, but this has also changed over the years. According to a survey in 1983, the corporate image was that of an efficient but cold and impersonal company.

According to Herman Engelbrecht, Senior Manager: Advertising and Publications, the company’s (1998) image projected a bureaucratic institution lacking warmth and compassion. A solution to this negative image had to be found. A very brave suggestion by Engelbrecht convinced the Board of Directors to use a concept that would have far-reaching consequences for the company: using babies to advertise Sanlam. The thought process behind this choice was visionary.

In terms of semiotics the choice was a winner from the start. Babies are popular with all types of people (cutting across language, cultural and ethnic barriers), since nearly everybody could identify with them. Babies evoke positive reactions and connotations. The sign connotes purity, credibility, warmth, and care.

According to Engelbrecht "…babies were the one instrument Sanlam had with which to communicate messages in a simple but effective way. In the financial world of non-tangible, complex products Sanlam needed a creative concept which did not confuse the public" (Smith 1989: 130).

The company realised that strong signs had to be used to convey messages about the services and products on offer. Engelbrecht (1989: 130) explains why: "Sanlam is in the future game, and we are here to assure the financial future of people. Babies are the symbol of the future and they instil warmth in products and an environment which tend to be rather austere."

The concept of the babies was used in television commercials, print and radio advertisements. However, after 1987 signs other than babies were used because the still photography of babies did not create the same amount of warmth as the television commercials.

In 1997 the company changed its advertising campaign to fit the changes that took place in the company. It no longer was an insurance company but a financial services company. As a result a new theme had to be chosen for the advertisements. The hands that form part of the logo were chosen as the symbol and theme to be used in all future advertisements in all media.

As with the babies, the message, connotations and meaning carried by hands are universal. Hands, as a sign, are not culturally bound; all people can identify with hands and what they do and stand for. The choice of hands also offers a vast number of opportunities and contexts in which they can be used.

Semiotics and translation

It is clear that the company wanted to send unambiguous messages by means of clear and simple signs to its receivers (policy-owners: current and potential). Most of the advertisements were conceptualised in Afrikaans and then translated into English before 1997. However, the signs and their meanings, which communicated the messages, were so carefully and thoroughly thought out that the translation of the text (language) did not prove to be a problem. The meanings generated by the different signs within an advertisement were clear and simple; there were no signs of mixed messages being communicated. The signs generated the same meanings in both English and Afrikaans, and appealed to all ethnic groupings and cultures. The task of the translator was thus to translate the text in the English or Afrikaans idiom (depending in each case in which language the specific advertisement was conceptualized), so that the text would fit each scene. This did not necessarily mean that a literal translation took place, but rather a dynamic equivalent translation which created a similar effect on the target receivers as that of the source text.


The scene is the editorial office of a newspaper where a number of reporters are discussing a major news story. According to Herman Engelbrecht the message of this particular advertisement was that policy-owners get real value for money and that the company makes a real contribution at almost every conceivable level of society, to the benefit of all. The aim of this advertisement was to locate the company within receivers’ minds and perceptions. (See gallery.)

From a semiotic perspective this choice is very convincing and is filled with signs and connotations. Using reporters gives credibility to the story; they are perceived by the receivers/consumers as unbiased commentators who provide an objective view. All the news staff had to go out into the field and research an aspect of the company. The reporters all represent a certain type of person in society: the black reporter, the sporty photographer, the woman’s desk reporter, etc. Each one of these types is associated with a certain type of personality. The signifier (sign) is the newsroom where the different characters in the plot play their part to communicate a message.

The scene depicted in the advertisement shows the reporters giving feedback on their investigations and telling the editor what Sanlam does for its policy-owners and their involvement in the broader community.

The editor also generates a significant meaning because the credibility of the advertisement and the message rests upon him. He has to bear the consequences if incorrect reporting appears in his newspaper.

Paradigmatically speaking, the medium used is that of television, and the genre is that of an advertisement simulating a drama series. The cultural code represented is that of journalists working on a newspaper. The opposition in the narrative is truthfulness versus misrepresentation or lies.

The audience spans a broad spectrum – basically anyone who is interested in the company’s products; the codes are thus broadcast. The tension in a newsroom when a major story breaks is re-enacted by the reporters running around, phoning and then the reporter who attracts the attention by throwing his in-tray on the floor to get a word in. This is the climax of the narrative.

Translation analysis

The concept and signs used in this advertisement are of equal importance in this advertisement. The visual material cannot exist without the text. Both the Afrikaans and English texts are idiomatically correct and form a cohesive whole with the visual signs.

This advertisement was conceptualised and edited in such a way that it stayed the same in both languages. The advantage was that a voice-over was used. By using this technique the advertisement could be used in any language. The only indication of its country of origin is the lettering on the editor’s door, which is both in English and Afrikaans.

Sangoma and fortune teller

The fortune teller advertisement appeared in Afrikaans; while the sangoma (traditional healer) advertisement was in English. In both advertisements the index of the blue ball plays a central role. The blue ball (of clay) plays a significant role in most of Sanlam’s advertisements in all media. The ball forms part of the logo; and is thus immediately recognizable in all the company’s advertisements. In the logo two hands are cupped over the ball; this signifies protection and care.

The creators of the advertisement realised that a semiotic adaptation would have to take place to create a dynamic equivalence in the target language (English). Another consideration was the intended target market that included receivers from black communities. Therefore a literal translation would not suffice and a new advertisement had to be created using different signs (visual and language).

When comparing the two versions, one realises that they have the same product in common and that the message is the same in both. Both make it clear that the answers do not lie in the bones or the crystal ball, but in a Sanlam savings plan. But the execution of communicating this message differs vastly. The language usage in both advertisements is idiomatically correct, and supports the visual material by naming actions, such as growth (the expanding clay), or bones instead of a crystal ball.

Fortune teller

The product in this case is Sanlam’s savings plan. A young businessman visits the fortune teller to look into her crystal ball to predict the future of his financial well being. (See gallery.)

The signifier in this advertisement is a toddler dressed up to look like a gypsy in Oriental-looking clothes with scarves around her head and a lot of jewellery. Her appearance is that of the stereotypical "dark lady". She portrays a fortune teller, sitting at her table gazing into a crystal ball. This sign of the crystal ball evokes connotations of predictions regarding the future, sharing knowledge that is not yet accessible, and a connection with mysticism and magic.

Context is created by the dress code of the character and her tool (crystal ball). A cliché is used to convey a strong message. Paradigmatically, the binary opposition of magic with reality is very strong. Sanlam’s careful planning ensures that the young business man (and all Sanlam policy-owners) does not have to rely on magic or looking into crystal balls to see the outcome of his financial situation; Sanlam guarantees financial success and growth.

Syntagmatically, the narrative structure has a beginning, climax and conclusion; this is achieved by means of the sequence in which the events take place. The young man approaches the fortune teller to give him advice on a good investment to suit his needs. At this stage she still has her crystal ball in front of her. Then a surprise takes place: she removes her scarf. This signifies that a change is going to take place, and also that her role has changed. The code changes from fortune teller to adviser.

She thus removes the crystal ball and replaces it with the Sanlam blue ball (of clay). One sign is replaced with another. The text (voice over) confirms the meaning generated by the action. She says that a crystal ball is not the answer to his question but rather Sanlam’s solution (represented by the blue ball).

A metaphor is enacted when the young man picks up the blue ball and weighs it in his hand. This signifies that he assesses (literally weighing) the advice given to him. Throughout the narrative, the text anchors and supports the meanings generated by the action. Both the characters play with the clay to indicate that the savings plan is adaptable and can be tailored to fit the individual’s needs. Certain binary oppositions in the advertisement create tension that builds up to the climax. The most obvious opposition is that of man versus woman; others include question/answer, seeker/adviser, reality/magic, and idealism/pragmatism. The climax takes place when the ball starts to grow to a huge size; this growth signifies the growth of the investment.

The choice of a fortune teller as a sign is a Western concept and can thus be understood by a broad spectrum of people in South Africa.


The advertisement is set in a traditional African context, and traditional black shamanistic beliefs form the basis of the narrative. The toddler is dressed in traditional clothing and has her hair in braids with beads. She sits on a grass mat with bones in front of her. To an African receiver this scene will have the same connotations as the fortune teller for a Western receiver. (See gallery.)

A young businessman goes to the sangoma for help by throwing the bones to advise him how to save and make money. In the African culture the sangoma is a woman of wisdom: by throwing the bones she communicates with the forefathers who give advice to those seeking it. She is believed to be clairvoyant: a person who can see what will happen in the future but also what has happened in the past.

The language used in this advertisement is English. Paradigmatically, the binary oppositions are wisdom/ignorance, future/present, and male/female. The narrative differs from the Afrikaans advertisement in that the characters and the context are different, but the information given in both is similar. In each case, the text was created around the visual material. In other words, one can say that a dynamic equivalent translation took place in the sense that the English advertisement was a recreation of the Afrikaans advertisement.

An example of this dynamic equivalent method is the following: In the Afrikaans advertisement the fortune teller says: "Waarsêery sal jou niks in die sak bring nie", (thus referring to the context), but the English text says: "The bones are not the answer". Idiomatically and contextually the translation reads like an original piece of writing, which fits with the overall discursive elements.

Paradigmatically a binary opposition arises between the two advertisements. The Afrikaans advertisement uses a fortune teller as its main signifier, and the sangoma in the English advertisement. The opposition arises when looking at the two entities: the fortune teller is seen as someone who uses her own powers to predict the future and give advice; whereas the sangoma acts as a facilitator between the advice-seeker and the forefathers. She is endowed with certain powers but acts a medium between the living and the dead.


The above television advertisements represent only three of the 21 in the series that were made. When comparing the above advertisements with the earlier ones, it becomes clear that the company’s vision has evolved over the years.

The models used in the early years were blonde, blue-eyed, male babies. One could ask the question whether the company’s target market was only white males at that stage or maybe just a coincidence. From about the tenth advertisement this started to change. White baby girls were incorporated, and later on black babies. The last five or sixth advertisements in the whole campaign show a more representative mixture of characters in terms of colour, gender and appearance.

Trapeze Act

This was the first television advertisement made for the new campaign and new company image. (See gallery.)

Very little text is used in this advertisement; the emphasis is on the action, the signs and the meanings they generate. The main signifier is the hand. The advertisement resembles a sepia photograph with spot colour. The significant colour is blue (the characters’ pants), which is an index of the Sanlam logo.

The advertisement starts with a close-up shot of a young man’s face; the next shot shows his hands rubbing lime. The scene is semi-dark, thus creating tension and an ominous feeling. Then two men dressed only in blue lycra tights are shown. They are preparing a trapeze act from two skyscrapers in a city environment. They drop the lime bag, signifying the danger of their actions. They are taking their lives in their own hands, or in this case relying on each other to succeed because a safety net is not in sight to prevent an accident.

Tension is also created by the use of dramatic sound effects, which produce ominous sounds. The narrative builds up to a climax: the men start swinging; one lets go of the bar and does a somersault, before the other man grips his hands to complete a successful act.

The binary oppositions in this advertisement are man/concrete jungle, life/death, and risk/security. The message in this advertisement emphasises all these themes. Sanlam is the company who cares for its clients in all situations and supports and lends a helping hand when necessary.

The only text used is that of the slogan and the logo, namely " Sanlam. Your future in good hands".

Blind father

This advertisement builds on the theme of hands and what they signify. This advertisement is another example where a universally recognizable sign (blindness) is used to generate meaning and a message. This sign is not limited to a specific culture or group but speaks to all people. (See gallery.)

The scene is a semi-lit bedroom. A father is reading a fable to his daughter. The signs in this scene are conventional and represent a normal situation in the life of a family. Soothing music plays in the background. Then the narrative takes a surprise turn, the camera focuses on the man’s hands. He is reading in braille because he is blind. The voice-over says that everyone expects the same from Sanlam irrespective of their situations, suggesting that nobody is treated differently because they are handicapped. It ends with a voice saying "Sanlam. Your future in good hands".


So far there are four advertisements in the hands series. Some use very little language, only music and the visual material, others such as the latter use text and visual signs to communicate a message.

Translating these advertisements does not pose major problems, the reason being that simple language is used in all the advertisements. There is very little play on words or any ambiguities. In both English and Afrikaans it would be easy to find idioms that incorporate "hand" or "hands" in them, thus enriching the text with idiomatic expressions. According to Herman Engelbrecht (interview), the advertisements in this campaign were conceptualised in English because the advertising agency is English speaking, but that the Afrikaans idiom was always kept in mind when the advertisements were being created. The Afrikaans culture was also strongly taken into account during the creative process.


This advertisement appeared on radio, drawing the receivers/listeners’ attention to the fact that Stannic does car financing (see transcript).

The advertisement displays characteristics of a radio drama, but laced with humour to exaggerate the pathos. According to the copywriter, Magriet Krüger (interview), the advertisement was created in English and translated into Afrikaans.

In both cases the target market is the broadcast medium: anyone who plans on buying a car and needing financing would be interested. The comic element is created in the English text by using a foreigner (American) and a stereotypical Afrikaner who speaks English with a heavy accent. The tourist is characterised as a bimbo with a strong accent, whose frame of reference regarding elephants entails the movie The Lion King and the cartoon character, Dumbo.

The construction of the narrative comments on the ignorance of foreign tourists who visit game parks in South Africa and do not realise the danger of the wild animals. For a South African this could be an in-house joke. The tourist is a female, and the South African is male, thus creating sexual tension.

The sign is a car (bakkie); this sign sets the action in motion and leads to the climax and conclusion. The sign is re-inforced by means of sound effects that indicate the sequence of events for the receiver (listener).

The Afrikaans advertisement (the translation) is the dynamic equivalent of the original in that the message stays the same and the effect on the receivers is the same. This has been achieved by the re-contextualisation of the advertisement. This entailed creating new characters: two men, one Afrikaans and the other Flemish. The relationship between the two men implies male bonding, as opposed to the sexual tension in the original text.

The Flemish tourist is characterised by the reference he makes to his country where "het veels te vlak voor sulke autos (is)". His knowledge of elephants is also limited to cartoon characters in films.

The sequence of the sound effects remains the same, as does the dialogue, except that in the translation the announcer’s comments take places at the end of the advertisement. This does not have an influence on the impact of the advertisement, and is mere a personal preference of the translator.

This advertisement is a good example of how the translator analysed the original, identified the signs, changed the cultural codes and then translated the text (word signs) into a new creation that closely resembles the original without being a literal translation.


It can be inferred that this printed advertisement was created in Afrikaans because the client is an Afrikaans radio station. This is one of a few advertisements in South Africa that is created in Afrikaans and then translated into English. From the perspective of an Afrikaans mother-tongue speaker the Afrikaans advertisement is more effective in that the signs and intertextual references hit many sensitivities in the Afrikaner psyche, which is the effect that the advertiser wanted to achieve in the first place. It becomes clear that the advertisers are addressing different groups in the different languages. In the Afrikaans advertisement, the Afrikaans listening audience is addressed. The advertisement appeared in DE KAT, an upmarket Afrikaans magazine. The English advertisement addresses other advertisers to make use of the benefits of advertising on this station, in other words the advertisement is aimed at capturing the Afrikaans-speaking market and not any other market. The advertisement appeared in Advantage, an advertising trade journal. (See gallery.)

Semiotic analysis

This persuasive advertisement appeared in print in magazines, a trade journal and a lifestyle publication. The sign is that of an old type of snuff box, McChrystal’s, with an antenna protruding on a pink table cloth against a bright green background with a purple border. This image looks like an old-fashioned photo. This sign evokes nostalgic days gone by when people used snuff as medicine to solve sinus problems and head colds. The radio station is metaphorically equated with snuff which will ensure "’n 24-uur oop kanaal" or "24-hour unblocking", thus using a medical theme.

The medical metaphor is continued in the text. The radiosondergrense (rsg) medication is presented in the form of information in a leaflet accompanying medication. Symptoms, cause and recommended dose are indicated. However, the text and the image (context) contradict each other. The text is used to turn stereotypical images and connotations of Afrikaners on their head. The image of Afrikaners being stuffy and narrow-minded is contradicted in the text. The contrasted pairs involved are old/new perceptions, problem/solution, and in the English advertisement Afrikaans/English.

The two prominent signifiers, the snuff box and the linguistic sign (words) supplement each other in generating meaning, and could not exist without the other.

In the English advertisement the code is narrowcast, addressing media buyers and advertisers. The Afrikaans advertisement is broadcast because all Afrikaans-speakers are invited to listen to the station.

Translation analysis

The signs used cover vast cultural ground. Due to the large influence of British culture on Afrikaner culture, many signs and customs have become blurred and cannot be claimed by any specific group, as in the case of McChrystal’s snuff. The habit of using snuff is often associated with the older generation, grandparents and their ilk. By using the snuff box as a metaphor for a radio station cultural boundaries are transcended.

The Afrikaans heading plays on the word "kanaal" which could mean channel (radio) or passages (sinus). The English heading could not retain this ambiguity and focuses on the medical reference. The message in both advertisements communicates the idea that this radio station is young, funky and aimed at broadminded people. But the audiences differ and this is reflected in the text.

The Afrikaans advertisement refers to "(toe)neus-in-die-lug" which means snobbery, "traanoë weens tonnelvisie", in other words being narrow-minded, and blocked head due to an illness called "laager-it is". The English text could not use these idiomatic expressions and thus used generic medical terminology such as stuffiness, blurred vision and blocked head. However, the laager idea was incorporated with a reference to "laager fever", a newly-created word. In both versions reference is made to an ossewa, an Afrikaans word that is kept in Afrikaans for extra local effect in the English version.

The most significant difference is between the "side-effects" in the two advertisements. The English text is not a translation of the Afrikaans but conveys a different meaning all together. The English receiver/advertiser is addressed and the advantages of advertising on this Afrikaans radio station are stipulated. In the Afrikaans advertisement the medical theme is continued and the side-effects listed correspond with the symptoms. Afrikaans speakers are addressed and persuaded to tune in to a radio station that does not reflect old stereotypes associated with typical Afrikaners.

This advertisement is a good example of shared cultural symbols, the snuff box, but also of how cultural differences in terms of idioms, attitudes and perceptions are conveyed by the language.