I Saw the Sign: A Semiotic Analysis

Advertisements are everywhere! On the Internet, television, newspapers, magazines, billboards, everywhere a person looks there are advertisements. But what are these advertisements really doing? How are they attempting to sell their products to consumers? What is really in an advertisement? To answer these questions, I will be performing a semiotic analysis. For this analysis, I will be using a magazine advertisement for Calvin Klein’s fragrance, Escape.


The image above will be my reference while attempting to use Daniel Chandler’s D.I.Y Semiotic Analysis as a guide.

Choosing the Text

Keep in mind that a semiotic analysis can be performed on any piece of text from a radio program to a cereal box.  There are so many advertisements out there, so why did I choose this piece? I chose this piece of text because it appeared to have multiple layers of meaning behind it.If a person is willing to dig deep enough, there is hidden meaning behind all texts. To understand a piece of advertising, we must understand the signs.

Signifiers and the Signified Equal the Sign

The signifier plus the signified equals the sign. If this makes little to no sense, try taking a look at my last post about semiotics entitled, “This is a Sign!”

The first things I noticed were the people in the ad. It is a man and a woman in a very close, intimate position, so let’s be honest here. Sex sells. Not only is this a young couple being what is socially considered the peak of sexuality and beauty, but it is a heterosexual couple. Obviously there is no law prohibiting men or women of a different sexual orientation from purchasing and using this product, but heterosexuality is most socially accepted, therefore advertising specialists will almost always choose to portray a man and a woman. Honestly if a company put out a fragrance ad portraying a homosexual or transsexual couple in the same position I’m pretty sure there would be an uproar. Also, both of the models in this ad have light skin pigmentation. Think about how different this ad would look if the models were of a different ethnicity.

Even further, look at the body types of both the male and female models. They are meant to represent the pinnacle of beauty and desire. Just look at their body languages. The way the woman is looking into the face of the man signifies passion and somewhat of a craving. The man on the other hand appears strong but tender in a way. Take a look at how delicately he places his left hand on the wall in contrast to the strength that can be seen in his right hand somewhat pulling the woman close.

Take a closer look.

One of the most interesting aspects of these characters is the fact that neither of them are wearing shoes, symbolizing a sense of freedom or even vulnerability. Again, let’s be honest. Who in their right minds would go out in such nice clothes and have no shoes on? There’s a purpose here, people! Why would the artists have their models be barefoot? Think about if they had been wearing shoes to match each of their outfits? To me, having shoes on would alter the sense of intimacy and make the image more sexual instead of intimate. Being barefoot represents a level of comfort and vulnerability that can only be achieved through a certain type of intimate relationship.


The black and white color palate works with the position and style of the models to create a sense of mystery. But just like with most things, it’s never just black and white. The only pop of color on the whole ad is in the actual product itself. Stylistically this draws your eye to the product. Not to mention the large font used to display the name of the product. In reality it doesn’t matter if a consumer knows what the bottle of fragrance looks like. They need the name of the product.

The setting of the text is also important to the overall image, especially in relation to the product name. The name of the fragrance is Escape, yet the set is made up of at least two very close walls, again adding to the intimacy, but what does this have to do with Escape? Escape from what exactly? When I think of the word “escape” I think of open spaces and nature. If you would have asked me to design an ad for a fragrance called Escape it would probably involve lots of trees and very little clothing. This ad seems to go in the opposite direction and brings the two characters to a very confined setting. Maybe its my slight case of claustrophobia, but that doesn’t sound like and escape to me; it sounds like confinement, but upon further inspection, I came to a different interpretation.

The set also works with the motif of intimacy, which is probably what they were going for. The walls, instead of acting like a prison for this couple, may very well be a barrier to keep the rest of the world out. The setting can be interpreted as their own little escape, away from all of the chaos and responsibilities that come with being an adult. Couple this concept with the vacant white backdrop and it’s serene. Also, the walls themselves are semi-reflective, not to the point of being mirror-like, but just enough that a person looking at the ad can see silhouettes of the characters in the image creating a kind of whimsy and romance that add to the overall sense of the image. It gives the ad depth and actually shapes the walls of the image. Without the silhouettes a person may not be able to see the walls on either side of the characters.


What is this ad trying to get you to think or feel about this fragrance? These people do not have anything to do with the actual product itself. They are not Calvin Klein and more importantly, wearing this fragrance does not cause anyone to fall into a situation such as the one portrayed. Ultimately this image means nothing without the meaning that consumers place of the signifiers in the advertisement. When I look at this image I see all of the signifiers that the advertisers have used to, hopefully, cause me to make connections to their product that actually aren’t there. The connotations of vulnerability and romance, passion and intimacy are in no way physically related to the fragrance itself. The fragrance is a fragrance. It’s a smell; chemical reactions are taking place in a person’s brain because their olfactory receptors picked up a scent. (I was a nursing student prior. Don’t sue me.) The point is, semiotics is the study of the way humans see the world, through signs, and signs are everywhere. Look at all of the meaning I pulled from a picture I found online! Everything we see, taste, touch, hear, and smell means nothing without personal interpretation of signs. What does Escape even smell like? Explain that one to me.


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