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The Semiotics of Marketing: Selling with Signs

The importance of signs and symbols has been widely recognized, but only a handful of consumer researchers have developed theory and research programs based on semiotics, the science ofsigns. This article outlines the emergence and principal perspectives of semiotics and then discusses its applications and implications for consumer research. Among its strengths, semiotics positions meaning at the nucleus of consumer behavior, provides a rich metalanguage for consumer research, and recommends a multiparadigm philosophy ofscience.

David Glen Mick. “Exploring the Morphology of Signs, Symbols, and

Significance.” The Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 13, no. 2

(Sept. 1986), 196-213

Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, military signals, etc. But it is the most important of these systems.

A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be part of social-psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from Greek, semeion “sign”). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since the science does not yet exist, no one can say what it would be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance.... By studying rites, customs, etc. as signs, I believe that we shall throw new light on the facts and point up the need for including them in a science of semiology and explaining them by its laws.

Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (1966:16)

© The Author(s) 2016

A.A. Berger, Marketing and American Consumer Culture, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-47328-4_2

Abstract The interest of marketers in semiotics is dealt with and some of the basic principles of semiotic theory are considered: the definition of signs, the arbitrary relationship that exists between the two parts of signs— their signifiers and signifieds—and Saussure’s ideas about concepts being defined differentially. This is followed by a discussion on the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce on the three basic kinds of signs: icons, indexes, and symbols. Some topics related to semiotic thought are explored such as metaphor and metonymy, the work of a French semiotician, Roland Barthes, and several works dealing with semiotics and marketing are quoted.

Keywords Semiotics • Signs • Concepts • Metaphor • Metonymy • Icons • Indexes • Symbols

Marketers are interested in semiotics because they believe it will help them understand how people make sense of things, how people find meaning in everything from words to symbols and signs of one kind or another. The Mick quote in the epigraph is useful because it calls our attention to the role of semiotics in helping us understand how meaning is created in people’s minds and the Saussure quote can be regarded as one of the charter statements of semiotics, the science of signs and their meanings.

In the preface to Marketing and Semiotics: New Directions in the Study of Signs for Sale, Jean Umiker-Sebeok, who edited the book, writes (Umiker-Sebeok 1987: xi):

Product meanings are not simple labels affixed to goods in advertising but are created against a backdrop of culture at large. Consumers are practicing semioticians with a considerable expertise in reading and manipulating the meanings circulating in their society, not just rational decision-makers in the economic sense or slaves of social convention or psychological impulses.

Her book is a collection of chapters on topics such as “Marketing and Semiotics,” “A Semiotic Approach to Product Conceptualization and Design,” “Consumer Esthetics,” “Signs of Consumer Identity,”

“Symbolic Consumption,” “Decoding Advertisements,” and “Corporate Imagery and Communication. ” I will deal with many of the topics found in this book, though I am also interested in topics other than semiotics, per se, when it comes to marketing.

A semiotic marketing scholar, Laura Oswald, discusses the utility of semiotics for advertising in her article “How Semiotic Ethnography Solved the Riddle: What Do Chronic Pain Patients Want.” She writes:

Semiotic ethnography accounts for tensions between the codes that structure cultural norms and the messy, unpredictable nature of human behaviour. On the one hand, semiotics brings a degree of objectivity and science to ethnographic research inasmuch as it is rooted in linguistic science and the theory of codes. It draws from Levi-Strauss’s...famous structural approach to culture, which exposes the underlying code system structuring the meaning of goods and consumer experiences in field sites. Semiotic ethnography accounts for the multiple code systems at play in the ethnographic situation, including consumer speech as well as non-verbal signs such as designs, consumer rituals, social interactions, and the disposition of goods in the lived environment. Since semiotic ethnography seizes consumer behaviour in action, it also exposes the unique ways that consumers perform these codes in everyday practice.

With these insights in mind, we turn to the ideas of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and the American philosopher C.S. Peirce. They are the “founding fathers” of the science of semiotics. I begin with the ideas of Saussure.

The Sign

The central concept of semiotics is the sign and semiotics is a word that comes from the Greek term semeion and means sign. Saussure defines a sign as follows:

I call the combination of a concept and a sound-image a sign, but in current usage the term generally designates only a sound-image, a word, for example. ... I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [signifie] and signifier [signifiant]; the last two terms have the advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from each other and from the whole of which they are parts. As regards sign, if I am satisfied with it, this is simply because I do not know of any word to replace it, the ordinary language suggesting no other.

The relation between signifiers and signifieds is arbitrary, based on convention.

Saussure stated that signs have two parts: a signifier (a sound-image) and a signified (a concept generated by the signifier). They are two sides of the same coin.






Words are important kinds of signs, but there are many other kinds of signs such as facial expressions, haircuts, body language, clothes, ad infinitum. This notion that the relation between signifiers and signifiers is arbitrary, is basic to semiotics, though there is one kind of sign, the symbol, that Saussure suggests is never wholly arbitrary.

He offers the example of the symbol of justice. He argues that we cannot replace the conventional symbol of justice, a pair of scales, with another symbol, such as a chariot. Some semioticians would not agree with Saussure on the nature of symbols, I should add. He also discusses concepts and makes an important point about them (Saussure 1966: 117, 118):

Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristics is in being what the others are not.... Signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position.

This leads him to summarize his position (Saussure 1966: 120, 121): “Everything that has said to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences.... The entire mechanism of language ... is based on oppositions.”

Charles Sanders Peirce, the other “founding father” of the science, wrote many complicated books on language and semiotics. He is known for his trichotomy in which he suggested that there are three kinds of signs: icons, indexes, and symbols. They are discussed below.




Signifying mode:


Causal connection




Fire & Smoke


Process used:

Can see

Can figure out

Must learn

As Peirce explained:

Every sign is determined by its objects, either first by partaking in the characters of the object, when I call a sign an Icon; secondly, by being really and in its individual existence connected with the individual object, when I call the sign an Index; thirdly, by more or less approximate certainty that it will be interpreted as denoting the object, in consequence of a habit (which term I use as including a natural disposition), when I call the sign a Symbol. (cited in Zeman 1977, p. 36)

There is, we can see, a difference between de Saussure’s focus on signifiers and signifieds in signs and Peirce’s trichotomy of iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs, although both were interested in signs and both theories have been very influential. Saussure called his science semiology and Peirce called his semiotics and the term semiotics has become the one people interested in signs now use.

Peirce also said a sign “is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (cited in Zeman 1977, p. 27) which puts the sign interpreter into the center of things. He also said that the universe is “perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs” (Peirce, cited in Sebeok 1977, p. vi). If Peirce is correct and everything in the universe is a sign, we are led to conclude that semiotics is the “master” science in the humanities and social sciences, and of particular interest to marketers. The work of Saussure and Peirce on signs, as I said earlier, can be looked on as being at the foundation of the science of semiotics, which has evolved considerably in recent years.

We also know that if signs can be used to tell the truth, they can be used to lie, so signs can be misleading and be used to mislead people. A friend told me that he was walking with his wife in San Francisco recently when they came upon “three of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.” When he told them how beautiful they were, one of them, in a man’s voice, said “thanks.” It turns out that they weren’ t women but were men, lying with signs.

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