Semiotics, also referred to as Semiology, is the study of signs and symbols. It involves deciphering the construction and meaning of words, images and objects and also serves as a powerful tool in determining patterns that exist within different cultures and societies.
The media has always used semiotics to interpret meaning or to represent ideas.The image being discussed in this paper is from an advertising campaign launched by the Bucharest Traffic Police. Here we have analyzed its meaning, which in semiotics is induced on two levels.
Denotation is the first level. In Semiotics it is referred to as ' the literal, face value meaning of a sign.' (Sturken and Cartwright 2009,438) Therefore, what we see in an image- people, colors, shapes or objects to name a few- are all part of its denotative meaning. 'The denotation of a visual image is what all viewers from any culture and at any time would recognize the image as depicting.' (Panofsky 1970,51-3)
The image in question is one of an accident that has occurred at night. Two cars, one black and the other brown have collided head on. The black car, which has suffered extensive damage draws our attention. It's windshield, bonnet, headlights, license plate and tires have all been disfigured due to the impact of the collision. On the other hand, only the rear of the brown car is visible in the image. Nevertheless, we can comprehend that is has endured similar damages. The road around the cars is covered by shattered glass.
However, the focus of the image is not on the cars, rather on the chalk drawn bottle at the centre of the image and the bold white text printed underneath it reading 'ABSOLUTE STUPIDITY'. We also see the logo of the Bucharest Traffic Police printed in a smaller font size at the bottom. Apart from all this, there are two small numbered cards, one at the foot of the black car and one to the left of the chalk drawn bottle. All these objects and our observation of the image, that is, what we see in the picture, are part of its denotation. Thus, 'Denotation is the relation of the signifier to the signified.The signifier is any material thing that signifies. The signified is the concept that a signifier refers to.'(Streeter 2010)
Connotations, on the other hand, are interpretations or secondary meanings implied to images or objects based on the interpreters personal and socio-cultural associations ( Sturken and Cartwright 2009,436). For Roland Barthes, 'connotation was a second order of signification which uses the denotative sign (signifier and signified) as its signifier and attaches to it an additional signified.' ( Sturken and Cartwright 2009,436)
This particular image has several connotative meanings attached to it. The advertisement in itself aims at spreading awareness about driving under the influence of alcohol. From the way it has been designed, it succeeds in conveying the message and the consequences of drunk driving very clearly and graphically. The chalk drawn bottle in the image resembles a bottle of Absolute Vodka, a widely consumed alcohol. Its placement in the image in relation to the accident site is very similar to that of dead bodies at an accident site. The police usually border a dead body with chalk and place numbered cards next to evidence to photograph the site. The text 'ABSOLUTE STUPIDITY' further confirms the association made with Absolute Vodka.
Thus we can say, the two wrecked cars connote recklessness, slowed reflexes and impaired judgment whereas the chalk drawn bottle connotes fatality, disability, injury or near escape. The text succeeds at implying the message that drinking and driving is a mindless, dangerous act and can be fatal. The association is very impressive because it is inspired from Absolute Vodka's advertising campaign. The text attracts attention, makes a powerful statement and also effectively discourages people from driving under the influence of alcohol.
Another important aspect of Semiotics which ties together the concepts of denotation and connotation is Myth or Mythology. According to Roland Barthes, a French theorist, 'myth allows the connotative meaning of a particular thing or image to appear to be denotative, hence literal or natural'( Sturken and Cartwright 2009,450).In other words, myths conceptualize and form the basis of ideas like feminism, secularism and individualism to name a few.
Drunk driving is the most frequently committed violent crime in the United States. (FAS Community Resource Center 2010) . This is not just in case of the US rather a common phenomenon across the world. Advertising campaigns like the one carried out by the Bucharest Police Station is one among many such awareness programs conducted by both governments and non-governments organizations. Images like the one discussed have contributed in spreading public awareness and responsible driving.The fact that it has become so stereotyped has transformed it into a myth.
This image ,therefore is not just a depiction of an accident and neither is it just a poster against drunk driving. More than 10 innocent victims are killed everyday owing to irresponsible consumption of alcohol. Thus, the images mythology is an extended metaphor and signifies an aspect of social life which till now has been taken for granted.