Exercise: Making the message clear


Imagine that you’ve been asked to create a public awareness campaign about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and that you’ll be basing your campaign around this image. You want the image to do as much of the work as possible.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 15.41.30

Look carefully at the image. Identify the signifier, the signified and the sign. What is the punctum? What is the studium?

Does this image do the job? How might you modify it to put the health message across more effectively? Try to give your answer in semiotic terms.


If I was asked to base a campaign around this image, the first thing I’d do is challenge that and ask for a reshoot.

If the intention is for “the image to do as much of the work as possible” then it is difficult with this image as the message is (in my opinion) very vague and weak. The only way I can conceivably see this working successfully is with some anchoring text.

At first I thought I was missing something. Was there a pattern on the dress that signified something? In the end I came to the conclusion that the only real signifier was the hand on the bump – as though this is supposed to signify concern about the unborn baby. But how does that work, if she has a glass of wine in her other hand? Are we supposed to infer that she’s just been told that drinking in pregnancy is bad for you? This might have made more sense if there was someone else in shot. And there’s no discernible facial expression to signify a thought process or emotion. She is clearly nearing the end of her pregnancy – are expected to believe that she’s just found out that drinking is bad for pregnancy? The whole thing just doesn’t ring true.

The studium is simply ‘pregnant woman drinking’. There is no punctum for me. Maybe other people think that the hand on the stomach is the punctum.

So no, I don’t think it does the job as it stands.

The more interesting part of the brief is therefore the closing question: How might you modify it to put the health message across more effectively?

If I had to work with this image

I’d fire up Photoshop and create a composite image. Maybe something like an illustrated overlay on the bump to depict the baby holding up a glass of wine? In semiotic terms this signifier (albeit fictional) would produce the signified of the connection between the mother’s drinking and the effect on the child’s health.

If I could reshoot

(and was working with a purely photographic image) I would carefully set up the shot to incorporate signifiers – what kind of signifiers would depend on the objectives, audience and tone of the campaign. (On the question of the audience, one might think this is obvious: pregnant women – but this is not necessarily the case, as a campaign could equally be targeted at those around pregnant women. One could target the campaign at friends, partners, parents of pregnant women – making it about influencing the influencers, if that makes sense).

Anyway, some suggestions:

  • If the tone is one of ‘alerting to the dangers’, use symbols of danger, risk, ill-health – for example the dress could be red (a classic signifier for danger), or the pattern on the dress could be symbolically significant (something harmful like barbed wire, maybe)
  • If the tone is more judgemental, vilifying pregnant drinkers as ‘bad people’ then imagery signifying ‘bad’ could be employed, such as background props (cigarette in ashtray, junk food, messy room), clothing (a black hat?) or body adornments (tattoos, piercings, hair fashioned into devil’s horns…)

By the way, before I get any grief for the stereotypes in my second example above, please note that they don’t reflect my own views but are indicative of some elements of advertising imagery over the years!

An odd exercise, this. I’ve come away from it thinking that whoever set the exercise knew that the image was less than successful and wanted us to improve it. Either that or I’m being very harsh (sorry).


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