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Denotation and Connotation

We make a distinction between denotation, which involves the literal meaning of a term or factual aspects of objects, and connotation, which considers the cultural meanings of signs and objects, which become attached to them. The denotative meaning of a Big Mac is that it is a hamburger that weighs a certain number of ounces and comes with a certain sauce (unless you don’t want the sauce). The connotative meaning of a Big Mac is that is stands for certain aspects of American culture such as the fast food industry, the industrialization of food, and related matter. Connotation is tied to our cultures. I once wrote an article called “The Evangelical Hamburger” in which I tied McDonald’s to important aspects of American character and culture and suggested it resembled evangelical religions in certain respects.

We can see the difference between denotation and connotation in the following chart.

Denotation

Connotation

Signifier

Signified

Literal

Figurative

Evident

Inferred

Describes an object

Suggests an object’s cultural significance

Advertising, generally speaking, focuses upon the connotations of words and images, in an attempt to generate emotional responses to those exposed to advertisements. It has been said that advertising is pure connotation.

 
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