Assignment 8: Critical perspectives on social media

“Participatory culture is a term often used for designating the involvement of users, audiences, consumers and fans in the creation of culture and content” (Fuchs, 2014). As Henry Jenkins characterizes social media and web 2.0 as “spreadable media”, which empowers consumers and make them an integral part of a commodity’s success. Social media are also an expression of participatory culture, in which defined by Jenkins as culture “in which fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content”. He defines participatory culture as:
1) relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2) strong support for creating and sharing creations with others

3) some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4) members who believe that their contributions matter

5) members who feel some degree of social connection with one another

However Fuchs (2014) has pointed out a few criticisms of Jenkins’ proposition of participatory culture. Firstly, participation is a political science term that is strongly connected to participatory democracy theory (Fuchs, 2014, p. 54). He mentions that the use of the term “participation” in participatory culture is vulgar, and that Internet Studies should instead relate themselves to participatory democracy theory in which it has more political dimensions of democracy. Fuchs (2014) suggests so because Jenkins’ definition and usage ignores certain aspects, such as ownership of platforms/companies, collective decision-making, profit, class and the distribution of material benefits. These aspects are important as Jenkins’ definition suggest equality in ownership with everyone connected on the internet, however that is not true to Fuchs (2014) as he notes that huge platform owners such as Facebook and Google strongly mediate the cultural expressions of Internet users. Fuchs (2014) criticizes that Jenkins has a reductionist concept of media participation, and also essentializes exclusion when he put forth the argument that participation is a relative concept.

Fuchs (2014) also criticized that Jenkins’ notion of participatory culture is mainly about expressions, engagement, creation, sharing, experience, contributions and feelings, while not so much about how these practices are enabled capital accumulation. Jenkins ignores the broad notion of participatory democracy, and fails to realize that an Internet dominated by corporations that accumulate capital by exploiting and commodifying users can never be participatory in nature. Jenkins celebrates participatory culture without engaging the downsides of the Internet, such as E-waste, privacy violations, user exploitation, or even workers who produce hardware that are engulfed in a toxic environment.

Fuchs (2014) acknowledges that Jenkins is aware that corporations exert greater power than consumers, however notes that Jenkins still wants to assert the reader that contemporary media empower consumers to successfully resist corporatism. Jenkins is criticized that he overlooks the inequality of power in voices, and that frequently voices are marginalized because visibility is a central resource that powerful media corporations can buy. He fails to realize that as long as corporations dominate the Internet, it will not be participatory. A participatory Internet can only be found in areas that resist corporate domination such as projects like Wikipedia.

Finally, Jenkins, Ford and Green’s (2013) book Spreadable Media seem to give the impression that the world is only inhabited by fans, as if the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Occupy movement and widespread protests and revolutions all of which originated or propagated from the Internet did not exist. It is a form of elitism that privileges fans and disregards activists and citizens.

Van Dijck and Nieborg (2009) agree with Fuchs (2014) largely in that they paid detailed attention to the aspect of ownership in the culture of “co-creation”. They emphasize that users who contribute content are indirectly sending personal information to corporations, who may extract and use this information for advertising and marketing. Van Dijck and Nieborg have also criticized the authors of Wikinomics and ‘We-Think’ for overlooking issues of ownership, similar to how Fuchs (2014) criticizes Jenkins for his celebration of participatory culture.

Like Fuchs (2014), Van Dijck and Nieborg (2009) also criticized the overstating of users’ creativity and activity. They criticized the authors of Wikinomics and ‘We-Think’ for the assumption that users have the equal amount of creativity and all users are motivated by self-expression, while only a small minority are actually content creators. Most of the web 2.0 users only wish to be self-entertained, and not creating content for others.

We can thus observe that Fuchs, Van Dijck and Nieborg propose the importance of critically examining the concept of participatory culture, considering important aspects such as ownership, economy and reductionistic thinking.


Fuchs, C. (2014) Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage. (chapter 3)

Van Dijck, J., & Nieborg, D. (2009). Wikinomics and its Discontents: A Critical Analysis of Web 2.0 Business Manifestos. New Media & Society, 11(5), 855- 874.

Assignment 6: Persuasion and Rhetorics

Persuasion has been defined by Simons (2001) as the human communication designed to influence the autonomous judgments and actions of others. It attempts to influence and alter the way others think, feel or act. Although it is a form of influence similar to coercion and inducement, it differs from these two other forms in that it predisposes others but does not impose, affecting their sense of what is true or false and their evaluations of people or situations. Persuasion may or may not successfully influence one’s judgments or actions, but is still ultimately considered persuasion.


Sonesoon (2013), acknowledging the origin of rhetoric as the art of persuasion in Ancient Greece, proposes two traditions of rhetoric that are backed by long tradition. Firstly, it is the theory of argumentation and persuasion and secondly it is the taxonomy of rhetorical figures. Similarly, both interpretations agree that rhetoric is heavily reliant on the presuppositions shared between the initiator of the message and its recipients (Sonesson, 2013).


Sonesson (2013) mentions that rhetoric, just like semiotics and hermeneutics, is only a particular perspective on the situation of communication. Rhetoric in its classical form has four parts: Inventio, the art of compiling information, Dispositio, organizing information, Elocutio, expressing information and Actio, pronouncing the discourse, to which later, memoria, the technique of memorizing the discourse was added. On the other hand, the second form of rhetoric as the taxonomy of rhetorical figures, seeks to uncover “a set of general operations responsible for the functioning of these figures in verbal language”, so that it is applicable to fields other than verbal language for analysis, such as pictures (Sonesson, 2013). Rhetoric in itself is also said to have a communicative function, whereby one subject conveys meaning to another subject. Sonesson (2013, p. 13) proposes a communication model which shows that rhetoric takes the perspective of the message sender.


Sonesson (2013) then applies these concepts to three publicity campaigns: Absolut Vodka’s “European cities”, a Turkish car servicing advertisement and IKEA. To show Sonesson’s application of these concepts, I have selected Absolut Vodka’s campaign to exemplify his application of rhetorical figures. Sonesson (2013) proposed that “the most general procedure underlying all rhetorical figures could best be described as the production of meaning resulting from a divergence in relation to that which is expected”.

This is exemplified in his example of Absolut Athens, where he mentioned that “the bottle consists of parts of a Greek column, but in a different order and with different proportions than the parts have in the column”. As mentioned, rhetoric takes the perspective of the message sender and is heavily reliant on the presuppositions shared between the sender and receiver. In the case of Absolut Vodka, the company aims to create the image of an European product, therefore the campaign, attributing the shape of an Absolut Vodka bottle with elements unique to the European countries to create adherence on the receiver’s part.


The above print advertisement is for Heineken, a beer with its roots from Netherlands that has become one of the biggest beer companies globally. The poster applied the same principles of rhetorical figures as the Absolut Vodka campaign. It communicates the message that Heineken is a beer that everyone around the world can drink, not just a beer that is originated from The Netherlands. In the poster, it depicts the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris taken from the Trocadero Garden just adjacent to the tower, however all of the architecture has either been switched to the colour green which is symbolic to Heineken, or superimposed with crates or bottles of Heineken beer. The entire poster then creates a huge green landscape that seems to be seen at night, with green lights brightening up the skies of Paris. The slogan “for a fresher world” on the top right corner of the poster also seeks to prove that this Heineken campaign is trying to sell its beer to the entire world, and that despite its roots in Netherlands, such an image was created using the landscape of Paris, showing that it knows no geographical boundaries.


Simons, H.W. (2001). The Study of Persuasion. In: H.W. Simons with J. Morreale & B.E. Gronbeck, Persuasion in Society (pp. 3-24), Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Sonesson, G. (2013). Two strands of rhetoric in advertising discourse. International Journal of Marketing Semiotics, 1(1), 6-24.

Assignment 5: 1950s Television Commercial

As the 1920s and 30s marked a shift in the advertising field, advertisements increasingly emphasized on the consumer rather than the producer (Marchand, 1985). Largely evident in television commercials in 1950s and 60s, I will adopt a semiotic approach in analyzing a Coca-Cola television commercial to examine the shift onto the consumer. This approach originated by Machin (2007) involves studying 1) semiotic resources to align the viewer with the experiences of participants, 2) how participants can be categorized visually and 3) how we can analyze the actions of participants in images.


First off, the advertisement introduces by addressing an average American anxiety, getting worn out from shopping and needing a break. This evidently shows the commercial’s focus on solving a problem for the consumer, as detected by Marchand (1985). The first gaze given by the man talking into the camera, depicts a symbolic ‘contact’ or ‘interaction’ between the viewer and the man. He continues talking while maintaining a smile, which demands a smile back from the viewer according to Machin (2007, p. 111), forming an imaginary power relation between the viewer and the man. The shot is also taken from a horizontal plane, which suggests direct involvement as we identify ourselves as an audience. In fact, most of the angles taken in the advertisements are from a horizontal angle, which does not look to effect any forms of superiority or power relation, but instead just requires engagement and direct interaction. The distance from the man presenting is also considered from a ‘medium shot’. This suggests a certain distance from the man to the viewer, but close enough to see his emotions and facial expressions to create a form of slight intimacy, but not too close that it feels uncomfortable, suggesting an impersonal relationship (Machin, 2007, p. 116).


The advertisement then switches to a shot of two women at a table waiting for their meal. These two women are not looking at the camera, they are instead looking at each other such that the ‘direct address’ is absent (Machin, 2007, p.110). There is no contact made with the viewer and no demand made of them, we are able to look at the two women enjoying a Coca-Cola as an observer. The shots are not close-up, to further enact the image of the two women as strangers just having a coca cola with their meal, however it is close enough to allow viewers to scrutinize their facial expressions, emotions and reactions to show the viewers that there is enjoyment from drinking Coca-Cola. This shot was also taken from a horizontal angle, where the camera is placed at the height of the two women’s faces to show direct engagement. While the viewers are observing the two women from the side of their faces, it reduces involvement and creates detachment (Machin, 2007, p.113). Therefore in this case, we are merely witnesses or observers to the scene, whereas compared to the introduction of the commercial, we were required to directly interact with the man presenting. Another interesting observation was that as the shot was on the two women, it moved to show a close-up of the Coca-Cola and the meal. Although Machin (2007) did not explain the relationship between viewers and products in advertisements, but instead talked more about the interaction between human images and its viewers, there could still be an interesting deduction drawn about the close up of the coca-cola. The association of closeness and intimacy is depicted by the size of frame, as the camera zooms into the meal and the Coca-Cola, it could serve to make the viewers feel less uncomfortable about having Coca-Cola, or rather create more intimacy and personal touch between a cup of Coca-Cola and the audience of the advertisement.


Another interesting observation I had about this advertisement was also how it ended. The camera panned from the two women drinking a cup of coca-cola to the right where the same man from the introduction directly gazes into the camera again. The advertisement suddenly demanded interaction from a passive observer to the man. This could create a sudden power relation as most people are taken aback if they are suddenly addressed when they are not expecting to. The distance of the shot also becomes more of a close-up than the first shot, which demands more interaction and also more association of closeness. The advertisement does that as we are not strangers to the man anymore after watching the first half of the commercial, therefore we would not feel uncomfortable with him looking ‘nearer’ to us, instead it serves the purpose of getting more involvement with the audience to make a point about the satisfactions derived from drinking a Coca-Cola, making a powerful ending.


Machin, D. (2007). Introduction to multimodal analysis. London: Hodder Arnold.

Marchand, R. (1985). Advertising the American Dream. Making Way for Modernity, 1920 –1940. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press.

Assignment 4: Looking into looking at museums :)

As mentioned in the previous chapter of Rose (2001) Visual Methodologies, discourse analysis I narrows its focus with visual images and written or spoken texts, it tends to focus on the production and rhetorical organization of visual and textual materials. However in chapter 7, “Discourse Analysis II” is much more concerned with discourse produced by, and their reiteration of particular institutions and their practices, and the production of particular human subjects. As discourse analysis remains central to deciphering power differences, “Discourse Analysis II” focuses on how institutions exert power on human subjects that are part of these institutions.

In the chapter, Rose(2001) exemplifies Jeremy Bentham’s work on the study of prisons, introducing concepts such as “Panopticon” and “Surveillance” to present discourse analysis II. A panopticon’s effect is to induce in subjects a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power, as the subjects are always seen without ever seeing, and the institution sees without ever being seen. This effect is thus coined by Foucault as “Surveillance”, as it is an efficient means in producing social order, and is prevalently observable in most modern capitalist societies.

Foucault also suggests that institutions exert power in two ways, through their apparatus and through their technologies. An institutional apparatus is the forms of power/knowledge which constitute the institution, such as the power endowed on police officers to enforce law, while institutional technologies are the practical techniques used to practice that power/knowledge, such as police cars and their fire-arms.

The types of sources that can be analyzed with discourse analysis II are as diverse as discourse analysis I, except that while using the sources and deciphering the texts/visuals/speech, the focus has to be on the institution studied, its apparatus and technologies. These sources could range from written texts that discuss the institution, interviews with the directors of the institution, visual images, architecture of the institution and observation of the people in these institutions.

The institution to be analyzed will be the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is an art museum dedicated to the works of Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries in Amsterdam. In 2015 it received 1.9 million visitors, featuring many of Vincent Van Gogh’s unsold works that were inherited by his nephew. The Van Gogh Museum has an online website for interested people to have a sneak peak of what will be in the museum, and also offers the availability of tickets online. At first glance of the web design, the website boasts the world’s largest collection of works by Van Gogh, then highlights new paintings that have returned to the Van Gogh museum that were previously stolen. The museum exerts its institutional apparatus of power that they are the experts in Van Gogh’s works, that these works are truly works of Van Gogh, despite being lost for 14 years. As mentioned in Rose (2001) the museum’s apparatus of power are always classified according to what are claimed to be ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’, whether they be drawn from notions of historical progress, scientific rationality or anthropological analysis, the museum still wields the regime of truth, being the most expert in the field its gallery is displaying.

On further physical inspection of the Van Gogh Museum, you can notice the entrance being unnecessarily high, while the first space that museumgoers will experience is a large, empty, naturally lit room. In this experience, the museum seems to be imposing a façade of an inspiring and uplifting, to induce the feeling of the eagerness to understand the copious amounts of culture to be experienced within the museum building.

The first level into the museum, most of Van Gogh’s self-portraits or portraits of others are hung around, then as the levels get higher, the paintings are classified based on period, to allow people to see the evolution in Van Gogh’s painting, directing people in a definite path till the end of the gallery. The internal layout and interior design dictates the way all museumgoers experience the gallery, which is definitely part of the narrative that the museum directors or curators have exerted on all of us.

Another interesting institution techonology observed in the Van Gogh Museum, and many other museums nowadays, is the availability of mobile devices to be rented and brought around the museums to explain the different paintings that are displayed. The museum(s) use such technology to ensure that the experience of the subject is what they want it to be, explaining every single detail of the painting without any other room for interpretation.

Most of Van Gogh’s works however were on display cases, but were not barricaded away to ensure that people cannot physically touch the paintings, with the exception to some paintings. They were all mounted on walls on eye level, side by side, till it leads you to the next room. An interesting observation was that despite no warning signs of touching the displays, nobody actually lifted a hand to attempt to touch the paintings. This I believe would be an apt example of surveillance that is well inculcated in the mindsets of museumgoers that displays are never meant to be touched, and that an invisible someone is watching these museumgoers turning them into what Foucault mentions as “docile bodies”, despite the museumgoers not being able to see them. Upon looking around, there are certainly surveillance cameras around the rooms.

Van Gogh Museum certainly exercises many of its institutional apparatuses and technologies as mentioned above, even its means of surveillance to exert power onto the behavior of its museumgoers can be evidently observed.


Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. London: Sage.

Assignment 3: Discourse Analysis

Gillian Rose (2001) focuses her concept on discourse analysis on a larger context: Visual Methodologies, as she runs through the different methodologies available to approach visual image analyses. She begins chapter 6 (Discourse Analysis I) with a comparison to psychoanalytic approaches, and mentions its three shortcomings, which are the loopholes that discourse analysis will cover.

  • Psychoanalysis does not consider much about forms of social difference
  • It concentrates too much on psychic and visual construction of difference, forgoing social construction and consequences of difference.
  • It pays little attention to ways of seeing, or to the institutions and practices through which images are made and displayed.

The notion of discourse in the first place is central to Foucault’s theoretical arguments and methodologies, and is defined by Rose (2001) as “a particular knowledge about the world which shapes how the world is understood and how things are done in it”.

Naturally, discourse produces subjects, a patient of a doctor is a subject, a consumer of a brand is a subject, a student is a subject of the teacher, since discourse commonly involves imparting of knowledge or information from one to another, even knowledge is a form of discourse involving unequal power relations. According to Foucault quoted in Rose (2001), “Discourse disciplines subjects into certain ways of thinking and acting, … it does not impose rules for thought and behavior on a pre-existing human agent”. In my opinion, the meaning of every object, individual, relation, is created through discourse, or rather “there is no meaning without discourse” as Stuart Hall would mention. For example we would not know that a table is a table, until someone of certain higher power relation tells us that the piece of furniture is in fact a table.

Foucault also suggested that the dominance of certain discourses could occur because their discourses claimed absolute truth, while the subjects of the discourse willfully trust the “fact” that they received. The “Regime of truth” as Foucault called, explains that most discourses that are extremely effective socially depend on assumptions and claims that their knowledge is true.

Discourse analysis I (Rose, 2001) thus focuses on the notion of discourse through both visual and verbal, and is most concerned with discourse, the formation of it and their productivity”. As mentioned above, it looks at the social construction of difference and authority and how these power relations are formed through discourse.

Rose (2001) draws similarities from iconography with discourse analysis. The method is developed by the art historian Erwin Panofsky, which is a “branch of history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form”. Which is also an intertextual method, in which intertextuality has an importance on discourse as there is a large diversity of forms through which a discourse can be articulated. Intertextuality suggests that “meanings of any one discursive image or text depend also on the meanings carried by other images and texts, not only itself.”

One theme of discourse analysis is the organization of discourse itself, i.e. how it is structured, how it describes things, how it constructs blame and responsibility etc. Therefore someone conducting a discourse analysis has to try to forget all preconceptions about the materials he is working with, while trying to disturb the tranquility that is socially accepted. The rigor is discourse analysis is thus as such, the struggle for the researcher to pick out and display what do not come about by themselves, but are a result of social construction. However the method is much more flexible than content analysis for example, where the rigor is in quantitative counting, and when issues arise, the entire analysis might have to be restarted.

In Elliot’s (2001) discourse analysis of Starbucks, she fulfills many elements of discourse analysis I (Rose, 2001). The first telling sign is in her abstract, where she narrows down to the construction of the coffee bean into something symbolically exciting. What comes up most certainly is how Starbucks’ discourse claims truth about the origins of the coffee, with global exotic places in mind that would excite and entice the majority of Americans. Elliot (2001) mentions that the “unsuspecting consumers must choose from beans from countries that college graduates cannot find on a map”, such as Yemen, which is just a borderless, generic geographical area instead of a country. Its misleading names of coffee bean origins certainly cloud the truth, while its claims still hold true for its discourse remains powerful and effective.


Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. London: Sage.

Elliott, C. (2001). “Consuming caffeine: The discourse of Starbucks and coffee” In: Consumption, Markets and Culture, 4(4), pp. 369-382.

Assignment 2: The First PR Campaign

‘Cultural branding’ according to Holt (2004) uses cultural icons to present an identity myth, a form of story that consumers use to feed their desire for a certain identity, and these identities are commonly found in a populist society. The icons give symbolic meaning to these myths, especially during a certain historical moment when a specific common census can be felt across a society, and problematized using the myth. This myth then convinces a large popularity that there is a need for the identity that the myth is putting across, thus leading to these huge groups of people searching for the identity that the brand brings about, eventually buying into the brand. The economic motives are simple, to reach the full potential of the brand by selling to as many customers as possible, thus allowing a brand to grow monetarily.

An icon however does not need to be a person, despite many companies using celebrity icons to portray their products in a certain manner; we have seen many brands as examples of icons quoted by Holt (2004). A brand becomes a cultural icon when various “authors” tell stories that involve the brand, such as the company itself, culture industries, intermediaries such as critics and salespeople and a community of customers. These stories told collide in everyday social life, forming conventions and emerging as a consensus view of the brand, being treated as truths in eventual interactions, forming the identity myth. According to Holt (2004), there are three axioms of cultural branding, firstly, the iconic brands address acute contradictions in society, secondly, iconic brands perform identity myths that address these desires and anxiety and lastly these identity myths reside in the brand, which consumers experience and share via ritual action.

A good example of cultural branding, placed a century ago in history is Lucky Strikes, an American cigarette brand that flew to its riches in the late 1920s. It started its first remotely successful ad campaign using the slogan “it’s toasted”, informing the consumers that their tobacco is toasted instead of sun-dried, which makes the cigarettes taste better. This is a perfect example of mind-sharing, by advocating a unique selling proposition over and over again, which of course its success did not last long for Lucky Strike. About a decade later, Lucky Strike was pulling behind its competitors, and hired Edward Bernays, who is hailed as the Father of PR after his Lucky Strike campaign.

Despite the theories rooted deeply in PR, the campaign “Torches of Freedom” fits Holt’s (2004) axioms of cultural branding very well. After the first world war in 1928, tobacco use peaked among men as probably the greatest symbol of manly pride, on the other hand, women who smoked were considered social outcasts and scorned upon, so much that women who were seen smoking could face a jail sentence. The first world war however changed all notions of traditional gender roles in America, with men out at war, women had to enter the public sphere. The 1920s in America were a time when movements demanding equal rights for women was abundant, be it the right to vote or the right to smoke. Despite legal obstacles, Edward Bernays saw the opportunity to expand the market, he hired women convincing and appealing enough to influence the masses, however not too good looking to give a form of connectivity to the audiences. He got a couple of women to start smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes in the middle of huge crowds and parades, and did it over and over again as a string of events as an action of women empowerment (Bernays, 1965) The contradiction that Bernays exploited was sexual liberation as a form of control, by selling cigarettes to women who were not allowed to smoke then. Lucky Strike also performed an identity myth evidently in the way it allowed these “Torches of Freedom” to be held by women, who then desired equality and caused a lot of social anxiety amongst people. While voting rights were yet to be granted by women, Bernays got women an equally symbolic though hollow torch of freedom in a spectacular fashion. Eventually, more and more women picked up Lucky Strikes to smoke publicly as a symbolic action, sales doubled from 1923 to 1929, these 8 years saw a miraculous jump in the sales of cigarettes, the identity myth of freedom resided in Lucky Strikes, that women experienced and shared via the ritual action of smoking a Lucky Strike.

The essence of this whole Lucky Strike campaign, was not to make women buy cigarettes, but buy into Lucky Strike. Klein (1999) mentioned in her book that products are made in the factory while brands are made in the mind/something bought by a customer. An interesting contradiction that can be observed in the brand of Lucky Strike, through Klein’s (1999) glasses are that these cigarettes are probably being manufactured by globalization’s laborers: nonunion, horribly underpaid, permanently “temporary” female workers whose idea of freedom is entirely different from the comparatively posh, carefree lifestyles of the American women in that context of history.


Bernays, E. (1965). Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Holt, D. B. (2004). How Brands become Icons. The Principles of Cultural Branding. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Klein, N. (1999). No Logo: no space, no choice, no jobs: taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador.


Assignment 1: Signs, Icons and Symbols

The study of semiotics, or semiology, offers a useful approach to examining how different signs communicate meaning. It is essentially the science of signs, as many media scholars would describe it. There are three founding fathers to study of semiotics, Roland Barthes, Ferdinand De Saussure and Charles S. Peirce (Branston & Stanford, 2003).

Barthes and Saussure describes semiotics similarly, that semiosis is the production of meaning and is constructed through the interpretation of signs, which is a combination of signifiers and signified. Signifiers are culturally constructed arbitrary words or symbols we use to refer to something else, the signified (Berger, 2010). For example, the word cat is is a word that we use to refer to the signified, a small feline animal.

Peirce has a slightly different approach, he distinguishes three basic types of sign: icon, index and symbol.

Icon – An icon bears resemblance to is object, thus they can help with faster information processing (Branston & Stanford, 2003). For example, since globalization has led to the increase use of icons since many international travellers are not connected through language. The silhouette image of an airplane is an icon for an Airport.

Index – An index is a sign with a direct existential connection with its object (Branston & Stanford, 2003). For example, smoke is an index of fire, while most traffic signs are indexes as they represent information about the traffic condition of a location. A traffic congestion sign is commonly seen as three cars together in a triangle sign, which is a representation of many cars being in the same road together at the same time.

Symbols – A symbol is a sign whose connection to an object is a matter of convention, agreement or rule (Branston & Stanford, 2003). A symbol often has no logical connection between it and the object. Flags are symbols of countries, the Arabic or roman numerals are symbols of numbers, brand logos are also symbols of the brand (e.g. an apple that has one side bit off symbolizes the apple brand that has no logical connection to the products they are selling)

Icons, indexes and symbols are all signs of objects, however are differentiated by the way it signifies the object. The difference between the various types of signs has to do with how the meaning happens to be attached to the object. For example, an icon resembles an object unlike symbols that have no resemblance to the object signified at all. A little square with a picture of a printer on the top of the word document window is an icon of the print function, but a little box with the alphabets PRINT in it is not an icon, but a symbol because it has no physical resemblance to printing or the printer.


However some words can be icons too, for example words like splash or hiccup remotely resembles the sounds they represent. As mentioned above, most traffic signs are icons of the traffic condition in a certain geographical area, however some traffic signs are symbolic signs that are manmade or rather culturally constructed. For example, a red stoplight is globally known as a sign that you should stop your car if you don’t want to risk an accident. The differences between an icon and an index is pretty straightforward, for example dark clouds would be an index for impending rain whilst an icon would be the rain itself.


Berger, A. A. (2010).
The objects of affection: semiotics and consumer culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan. (chapter 1: “The Science of Signs, pp. 3-31)

Branston, G., & Stafford, R.
(2003). The media student’s book. London/New York: Psychology Press. (chapter: “Semiotic Approaches”, pp. 11-17)