Sparking Up The Wrong Tree

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”- Friedrich Nietzsche

Every day, we are exposed to a diverse range of messages and concepts constructed to challenge our ideologies and stipulate our thinking.  Our interpretations of these images and how susceptible we are to them are influenced by our existing knowledge and beliefs, and our ideological positions.

Calhoun (2002) examines the distinction between primary and secondary meanings in A Dictionary of the Social Sciences through the study of denotation and connotation. In essence, denotative language is factual; connotative caries an emotional overtone. For example, the word heart literally denotes an organ that circulates blood throughout the body. However in another context, the image of a heart yields the power to connote feelings of love or heartbreak.

And for those of you that need an extended explanation, G-Mama has a more dynamic approach and some interesting examples…

The notions encapsulate semiotics in many instances. Advertising campaigns have capitalised on exploiting well-known events and abusing pre-conceived feelings as a solid foundation for messages they want to convey.


Figure 1 Advertising campaign by ASH to promote anti-smoking

The Action on Smoking and Health (NZ) created an advertisement (shown above) in an attempt to promote an anti-smoking campaign. However, what they were presented with was a response combined of controversial and heightened criticisms.

At face value, the image denotes two burning cigarettes with a large amount of black smoke filtering into the atmosphere. This is accompanied by a text that reads: “Terrorism-related deaths since 2001: 11, 337- Tobacco-related deaths since 2001: 30, 000, 000”.

An individual’s ideological position greatly influences the interpretation of the message that is to be conveyed. When I was first presented with this image I assumed that it was in attempt to signify the impact of pollution, and how passive smoking pollutes the air we breathe. Obviously, I was wrong.


Figure 2 Burning of the Twin Towers during the event of 9/11

After reading the text, I was able to note the undeniable resemblance between the image of the two cigarettes and the attack on the Twin Towers. There was much contention in this regard by U.S citizens, especially those who had lost loved ones in the terrorist attack. A heightened sensitivity to the advertisement may have resulted from the social ideologies in which U.S. citizens formed their interpretations. This theory establishes a distinguishing variable: interpretations are shaped by a persons ideas and ideals.

The advert juxtaposed smoking and terrorism in attempt to define smoking as a social evil that should, like terrorism, be eradicated. I do not believe that it was compiled as a deliberate attempt to undermine the casualties of 9/11. However, I agree that the comparison between the two doesn’t work. Smoking is not terrorism, but a conscious choice made by those well aware of the consequences. The people who tragically died in the acts of 9/11 were unaware of the situation they were placed in, and it is this apathetic comparison that sparked and shaped the audiences connotations.

As a result of different ideals, it is inevitable that one message will inspire a diversity of interpretations. Volosinov (1929) examines the duality of semiotics and interpretations, concluding that:

“Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation… everything ideological possesses semiotic value”

Once something is produced, it becomes available to the public for interpretation. Once something is produced, the author is dead.