One of the greatest challenges for advertisers is bonding with target audiences within the restricting confines of a 30-second commercial or a print ad. This age-old problem of insufficient time and space is addressed through the use of semiotics. Advertisers pack a lot more narrative into signs that tell stories than words could possibly convey within the time and space constraints of most advertising vehicles.

Semiotics Basics

Semiotics is a discipline of assigning additional meaning or subtext to signs beyond the meaning of the sign itself. For instance, a picture of a Porsche 911 connotes more than a jazzy-looking car. The Porsche 911 also has semiotic meanings of affluence and "living the good life." The basic unit of currency in semiotics is the "sign." All signs consist of two elements: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is usually the sign itself, which is the indicator of something else. The signified is the "something else" that the sign connotes. Thus, "connotation" links the signifier and the signified. In the absence of clear connotation, there is no signifier or signified.

Theater of the Mind

Semiotics requires mental processes to make the leap from signifier to signified by way of connotation. In many respects, it is theater of the mind. Semiotics tells stories through signs and is most prevalent in branding advertising. The goal of branding advertising is to drive sales by associating products and services with pleasing user experiences in such a way that the experiences and the brands are virtually synonymous. Neuroscientists call this association "super-familiarity," according to Millward Brown, a global marketing research consultancy. Advertisers depend on audiences to use their mental processors to draw the connotation between the brand and the experience by way of semiotics. Because mental processors function in fractions of nano-seconds, semiotics provides the utilitarian function of instantaneously linking brands to satisfying experiences.

Semiotics in Advertising

The Millward Brown researchers emphasize that great advertising executions must tell great stories with brands as the heroes. They lament that too much advertising dramatizes advertising's "message" while short-shrifting the brand as central to the message. In essence, advertising that tells great stories that people remember is wasted money if they can't remember the brand. Examples abound, however, of using semiotics to great effect in dramatizing the brand as central to the advertising message. Who can forget the "Marlboro Man" campaign as a semiotic sign that associated Marlboro cigarettes with stud-like masculine virility? The campaign is arguably one of the main reasons for cigarette advertising becoming a fading memory. It was too effective.

Implications for Small-Business Advertisers

"A picture is worth a thousand words." Semiotics is a "high-class" term that describes a phenomenon most people already know but do not know that it describes a discipline that is purposefully used for branding advertising. Try using semiotics in your advertising. Think about signs and all other forms of symbols and imagery that offer the promise of unique customer benefits, which can be favorably and rapidly associated with your business. Winnow your list down to the best one and use it to brand your business. Shoppers trust brands and will cheerfully pay more for the confidence they get in buying the branded stuff.