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Human communication is a dynamic and complex conglomeration of meaning that is signified

through the used of mutual agreed upon symbols as well as the context in which those symbols
are used. Chandler (2002) indicates that many theorists argue that even our own perceptions of
the everyday world around us involves codes, therefore in order for the communication process
to be as absolute as it can possibly be, there needs to be a commonality in the signs systems
used by both the sender and the receiver. However, when messages are sent through mass
media (e.g. radio, television, newspapers, etc.) the degree of ambiguity between the signified
and signifier is further diminished in order to facilitate understanding and information transfer.
It is in this vein that television advertisements must construct their desired message in such a
way as to ensure that the desired target audience receives, internalizes and understands the
communicated message. This essay will examine the use of symbols, codes and signs in the
Cell-C advertisement “Snapshot” in order to illustrate how visual codes can be constructed and
embedded within the society from which it is produced (South Africa). In addition, this
semiotic analysis will indicate how, in the given example, the array of visual and audio signs
are use within Cell-C’s advertising campaign in order to create a positive correlation between
the series of symbols (the advertisement itself) and the brands message and image.


The Cell-C advertisement revolves around a young black boy as he travels from a bus stop to
his desired location. Along the way he takes photographs of various signs, people, places, etc.
that would allow his friend to follow, ultimately guiding him on the same path the boy had
initially traveled. The pictures that are meant to act as a guide to the second boy are governed
by the context in which he travels, that is his pictures are culturally important and relatively
recognizable within the South African (S.A.) culture (e.g. the photo of the finger in S.A. has a
specific reference to the area to which you want to travel to, this same finger positioning may
have significantly different meaning when examined outside a S.A. context). After the first boy
has reached his destination, he systematically sends the pictures he has taken to the second boy
in an attempt to guide him to his current location. The ‘tag line’ of the commercial is ‘Clever’,
suggesting that through Cell-C’s affordable service one is able to use visual texts as a means of
communicating in a new and unique way.


The process through which ones acquires the meaning of the sign system, in one’s culture, is
largely learned through one’s interaction with members of that that culture (Fourie, 2002:10).
Therefore the degree to which the ambiguity between the signified and the signifier is reduced
is directly proportionate to the level of ‘sameness’ between the communicators (i.e. the style of
advert designed used to promote support of local product in the U.S.A. would differ from one
in South Africa). The recognition of the signs, produced within any given society, can be
divided into three basic types: iconic. indexical and symbolic.

Iconic signs are signs that are the easiest because “it most closely resembles the ‘thing’ that it
represents” (Fourie, 2002: 11), an example would included an Identification photo used in
passports or, in the ‘Snapshot’ advertisement, the chicken outline most closely resembles a
actual chicken. In the advertisement the iconic signs are strategically designed and placed in
order to reinforce the link forged between the target audience (young South Africans) and the
visual codes, in other words the cognitive dissonance the viewer experiences, as a result of the
fast-paced bombardment of images, is subdued when these (easily recognizable) iconic signs
are displayed. Hence, the role of iconic signs in the ‘Snapshot’ advertisement acts as a base
level which allows the viewer to internalize and understand the abstract nature of other, more
ambiguous, codes and signs.

It is through indexical signs that form the foundation behind the advertisements theme of
direction; these are signs that do not have a direct resemblance to the object or idea being
represented (Fourie, 2002:11). A good example of this is the first image taken by the boy, that
of the red stairs, this sign indicates direction, an inclination and a possible pathway – all of
which can not be know without previous exposure to. Without the use of such signs in the early
stages of the advertisement the viewer would become disoriented, a tactic used only later on in
the advertisement through a series of short shots of symbols and signs that are juxtapositioned
in such a way that a sense of time and distance is created. This process exemplifies
syntagmatic-paradigmatic nature of semiotic structures in that the sequential nature of the signs
portrayed (i.e. African dancer in the street) and the required conceptual notion of urban life in

As previously mentioned, signifiers and the signified are culturally embedded; signs that are of
this nature are labeled ‘symbolic signs’ (Fourie, 2002:10). These signs are rooted in our social
and cultural past (e.g. the picture taken of the taxi sign just before the boy boards the taxi) and
they represent the heritage of the culture in which they are used.


Although when studied in isolation signs identification can be a relatively easy task, however
signs and codes exists within a system of cultural understanding as well as the intertextuality
that exists within all semiotic structures (Chandler, 2002). Through the used of pictorial depth
cues and viewer relativity, the given Cell-C advertisement makes used of common daily
symbolic encounters and draws the viewer to their relative significance (i.e. they are being
used as important ‘landmarks’ to guide the second boy). This reinforces the tag line of the
commercial in that it seeks to transcend the conventional use of signs and symbols, or at least
reinvent the manner in which we make associations to them, in other words the extent to which
the “signifier is constrained by the signified, the more ‘motivated’ the sign is” (Afronord,

Language, as a complex sign system, tends to isolate any person who is aware of all the
denotative (as well as connotative) meanings attached to those signifiers. In this vein we can
reiterate that Cell-C has attempted to narrow that gap between South African’s because as one
of the most diverse countries in the world there are many language spoken by the population,
therefore the use of visual symbols in the advertisement can be interpreted as an attempt to
avoid homogenizing the population but instead creating a new sense of commonality and
understanding. If, hypothetically, the boy was sending verbal descriptions of his progress
through cell-phone technology in an African language the objective meaning of the
advertisement would have been compromised and the essence of the advert lost. Interestingly
though, one of the only audio material signifiers used in the commercial is in the latter stages
when the second boy receives a message, despite the fact that he is holding a Erikson phone the
message alert sound is that of a Nokia, this is because the sound of a Nokia SMS alert
notification is more commonly associated with receiving a message than other audio tones,
hence Cell-C made use of yet another symbol that is aimed at mass reception.


Semiotics encompasses a large array of signs, symbols and codes that derive meaning when
examined within the social structures in which they are created and used. The Given Cell-C
advertisement makes uses of this structural intertextuality in an attempt to create an
advertisement that acknowledges the diversity of individuals that it wishes to target, whilst at
the same time it serves as a testament to the advance communication technology available
through their company, as well as its flexible and adaptable nature. Just as the Cell-C logo
itself is a ‘C’ symbol create through perceptual proxemics (i.e. as a series of disconnected
dots), similarly the advert itself seeks to create meaning through gestaltic principles. (i.e. the
notion that the idea behind the advert is ‘clever’ is only so if it is examined as a whole, or sign
system). Hence the Advertisement derives meaning from the sequencing of symbols as a
eclectic mix of culturally signified messages that induce a common understanding of both the
Cell-C brand and the advert itself.


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