Use the exercises and activities provided to test your knowledge of the text.

Mainstream semiology has an elaborate vocabulary for interpreting visual images, as Chapter 6 of Visual Methodologies explained.  So too does social semiotics. 

In Saving Time and Annihilating Space: Discourses of Speed in AT&T Advertising, 19091929 (Space and Culture, 14: 85‒113), Jan Hadlaw discusses the advertising used by the US telephone company American Telephone and Telegraph Company in the first half of the twentieth century.

The essay does not use semiological terms to interpret the advertisements she discusses.  Nor does she pay much attention to the visual content of the adverts.  What her essay does do very effectively, though, is pay attention to how 'representations of the telephone reflected and were imbricated with larger debates about modern life' (Hadlaw, 2010: 85).  Hadlaw uses the term 'discourse' to refer to those debates.  However, you could also think about how Judith Williamson's (1978) notion of a 'referent system' might be relevant here, or Stuart Hall's (1980) discussion of codes – they are described in Section 6.3.4.

To get used to how mainstream semiology might offer a method for unravelling how the visuals and the texts of the adverts work together to convey meaning, and how those meanings are connected to what Hadlaw calls those 'larger debates about modern life', have a go at doing a semiological analysis of the advert below, 'The Efficient Minute'.

The aims of this activity are:

  1. to become more familiar with the analytical vocabulary of mainstream semiology by applying it to another advertisement;
  2. to discuss the strengths and limitations of mainstream semiology;
  3. to explore the overlap between semiology and other methods.



Take a good look at the advert – maybe print it out – and recall the steps described in Section 6.3.5:

  • decide what the signs in the advert are;
  • decide what they signify 'in themselves';
  • think about how they relate to other signs 'in themselves' then explore their connections (and the connections of the connections) to wider systems of meaning;
  • and then return to the signs to explore the precise articulation of ideology.

Now work through the following pages to see how I used mainstream semiology to interpret 'The Efficient Minute'.  Compare your answers to mine; mine are not the only possible answers!  Remember Stuart Hall's (1997a: 9) comment, quoted in the Preface of Visual Methodologies, that 'it is worth emphasising that there is no single or 'correct' answer to the question, "what does this image mean"'.  For example, I pay most attention to the visual signs, not the written signs.

Click on the questions below to reveal each answer. 

Which elements of the advert do you think are the significant signs?

In this advert, there is a clear mortice around the visuals, so that they are all clustered together in one part of the advert, with the text in another.  The mortice is thus invisible but evident, and it wasn't immediately obvious to me how to divide the image up into separate signs.  So, using Barthes's notion of anchorage, discussed in section 6.3.1, I read the text to help me identify the visual signs in this advertisement.  The first paragraph is all about ships, railways, rapid transit, cars and planes: that is, all the things pictured behind the telephone in the advert's image.  So I made that into one sign.  The text then breaks and, in a separate paragraph, the phone is described as different from those ships and so on.  So I made the telephone a separate sign. 

What do the signs signify 'in themselves'?

Again, the advert's text is key here.  'Speeded up', 'more and more rapid', 'much faster':  these phrases in the first paragraph of the advert mean that the sign with the ship and car and so on signifies something like 'accelerated speed'.  The second paragraph, though, represents the phone as distinct from that: it is 'instantaneous'.

What kind of signs are these images: iconic, indexical and/or symbolic? 

They are all iconic, because they have a likeness to their referents.  They are also symbolic, as they are being used to show an arbitrary relation to other qualities: speed and communication. 

How do these signs relate to other signs 'in themselves' within the advertisement?

Both the text, and the relative size of the two signs, sets up a relationship between them, in which the telephone dominates the other technologies pictured.  The text makes it clear that the telephone is the faster technology – 'instantaneous' – and the image of the telephone is much larger than the other images.  In fact, while the other technologies are drawn more or less to scale in relation to each other, the phone is hugely out of proportion.

What else suggests the dominance of the phone?

The phone is also given more visual substance because it is not rendered as a line drawing like the other technologies, just in black and white, but instead is rendered in shades of black and grey to make it look like a three-dimensional object.

Can you now describe the two visual signs in the advert in any other way?

The are also syntagmatic, since each is gaining meaning from the difference between them: the faster means of transport versus the instantaneous phone call.

Is there a relay function at work in this advertisement?

I think that there is a relay function.  The text is working hard to establish the meanings of the images.  There is a lot of text, because it is having to create a very clear meaning for the relatively new technology it is advertising. This is why Hadlaw pays so much attention to the text, probably; the text is more effective than the images at creating the meaning of the advertisement.

How are the signs connected to wider systems of meaning?

This is really the focus of Hadlaw's essay on advertising telephones.  She points out how, in advertisements aimed at businesses, the telephone was consistently represented as a time-saving device: it created the 'efficient minute', not the minutes wasted 'waiting for somebody to and come'.  Hadlaw examines how this emphasis on time, speed and efficiency was part of the capitalist modernisation affecting many aspects of life in the late nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century; it both reflected 'the expansion and acceleration of capitalism itself: the speeding up of communication commensurate to the increased velocity of the circulation of capital tha it encouraged and made possible' (Hadlaw, 2011: 99), and was also 'instrumental in shaping modern conceptions of time and space' (Hadlaw, 2011: 85).  That is, it was both caused by, and helped to shape understandings of, modern capitalism.  Hadlaw makes these links between the specific texts of her adverts and changes in the contemporary economy by drawing on other accounts of capitalism (like that of David Harvey) and of the history of advertising (like Roland Marchand's).  She also draws on notions of discourse.

Are there other, more semiological terms that might describe the wider context in which these advertisements made sense?

'Whether framed as "saved time"…. INSERT HADLAW PP100‒101 'Whether' TO ''rates of calls per hour' (Hadlaw, 2011: 100‒1).  Here, Hadlaw is suggesting that, although the advertisements attributed the efficiency of the telephone solely to its technological innovations, in fact much of the efficiency it offered was gained by managing the women who staffed the telephone exchanges.  In this sense, the adverts are a clear case of ideology: knowledge that legitimates unequal social power relations, in this case by obscuring the labour that actually produced the time savings. 

Finally, can you say any more precisely how the signs articulate that ideology?

Although she does not use the term, Hadlaw's essay implicitly draws on Stuart Hall's notion of a code.  Towards the end of her essay she points out that these advertisements were similar in many ways to many other contemporary advertisements, so that they draw on the codes of contemporary advertising.  They are also drawing on the dominant codes that construe modernist capitalism as fast, efficient and new.


Having undertaken a mainstream semiological analysis of one advertisement, let's reflect on the process.  These are my thoughts – you may well have others.


Semiological analysis does give a very clear understanding of how a single advertisement works to make meaning, both in terms of its own structure and in terms of its connection to wider systems of meaning. 


A successful semiological analysis needs a good knowledge of the sorts of meanings and values that are contemporary with the image you are analysing.  In this, it is rather like discourse analysis I, discussed in Chapter 8.


It also needs a good knowledge of the genre of images which it is analysing.  Hadlaw (2011) relies on a broad knowledge, not only of how capitalism was developing in the period her adverts cover, but also how advertising itself was evolving.  This is especially clear in the section on 'The mastery of space: the landscapes of capital', which identifies the sign of 'the businessman' as important to a whole raft of advertising in the early twentieth century.


This suggests that some form of content analysis might be useful for the semiological analysis of large numbers of adverts.  Here, for example, are four of the final five images of Hadlaw's paper, which clearly have a similar visual structure.






However, like many semiologists, Hadlaw does not say anything about how she found these images (though the captions suggest she found most of them in an archive in the Smithsonian Institution), how she analysed them or how she selected these ones for reproduction.


Finally, Hadlaw acknowledges one of the limitations of mainstream semiological analysis: its uninterest in how images are actually looked at.  As she says, 'these advertisements do not directly reflect how people used the telephone'; rather, they show 'how the public was encouraged to imagine its potential' (Hadlaw, 2011: 110).