Visual Communication Division of AEJMC, Washington, DC, August 1995.



How is meaning produced and conveyed in messages that are primarily visual? This question is particularly relevant when the message is one that relies almost exclusively on visual communication cues. The production of meaning from visual messages in such visually intensive areas as advertising has been largely uninvestigated even though the question is of tremendous importance to designers of advertising messages. The reason is because of the difficulty of capturing visual meaning and the lack of structured research approaches to code and categorize such information.

In order to investigate the production of meanings from visuals, this study will look at one particular advertisement--the "1984" commercial produced by Chiat-Day for the introduction of Apple's Macintosh which ran during the Super Bowl in January of that year. The study will investigate the meanings of the images in the commercial as produced a group of viewers in terms of a semiotics analysis of the visual aspects of the text. "Expert" readings by two researchers using semiotic interpretation will be used to develop the cateogries of meaning analyzed on the coding sheet.

Admittedly 1984 is in the past and that unique Super Bowl viewing situation can not be recreated, but this particular commercial is still an ideal tool for analyzing meaning production because of its message structure and complexity and because of the extensive interpretive analysis it has received since its airing. This study is an exploratory effort that attempts to analyze the different readings in terms of community of visual meaning and meaning clusters. It focuses primarily on developing techniques and tools of meaning analysis and does not intend to make scientific claims about the commercial's effectiveness.

Visual Semiotics

Studies of meaning evolve from semiotics, a philosophical approach that seeks to interpret messages in terms of their signs and patterns of symbolism. The study of semiotics, or semiology in France, originated in a literary or linguistic context and has been expanding in a number of directions since the early turn-of-the century work of C.S. Pierce in the U.S. and Levi Strauss and Ferdinand Saussure in France.

A sign can be a word, a sound, or a visual image. Saussure divides a sign into two components--the signifier (the sound, image, or word) and the signified, which is the concept the signifier represents, or the meaning. As Berger points out, the problem of meaning arises from the fact that the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and conventional. In other words, signs can mean anything we agree that they mean, and they can mean different things to different people. Given the nonverbal nature of the "1984" commercial, it might be expected that the complex sign system in the commercial might produce a variety of meanings.

Pierce categorized the patterns of meaning in signs as iconic, symbolic and indexical. An iconic sign looks like what it represents--a picture of a dog, for example. The meaning of a symbol, like the flag or the Statue of Liberty, is determined by convention--in other words, its meaning is arbitrary; it is based upon agreement and learned through experience. Language uses words as symbols that have to be be learned; in Western languages there is no iconic or representational link between a word and its signified concept or meaning. An indexical sign is a clue that links or connects things in nature. Smoke, for example, is a sign of fire; icicles mean cold. Visual communication,--including video forms--uses all three types signs. Because of the essentially nonverbal nature of the "1984" commercial storyline, it is particularly rich in complex visual signification.

Most signs operate on several levels--iconic as well as symbolic and/or indexical, which suggests that visual semiotic analysis may be addressing a hierarchy of meaning in addition to categories and components of meaning. As Eco explains, "what is commonly called a 'message' is in fact a text whose content is a mutilevelled discourse. In the "1984" commercial, it would be interesting to deconstruct the visual image to determine what elements are iconic, symbolic, and indexical.

The broadening concept of text and discourse encourages additional research into how visual communication operates to create meaning. Deely explains that "at the heart of semiotics is the realization that the whole of human experience, without exception, is an interpretive structure mediated and sustained by signs." Semiotics now considers a variety oftexts, using Eco's terms, to investigate such diverse areas as movies, art, advertisements, and fashion, as well as visuals. In other words, as Berger explains, "the essential breakthrough of semiology is to take linguistics as a model and appply linguistic concepts to other phenomena--texts--and not just to language itself." Anthropologists like Grant McCracken and marketing experts like Sydney Levy have even used semiotic interpretations to analyze the rich cultural meanings of products and consumer consumption behaviors as texts.

Visual texts are an important area of analysis for semioticians and particularly for scholars working with visually intensive forms such as advertising and television because images are such a central part of our mass communication sign system. Linda Scott has deconstructed the images in perfume advertising as well as in Apple's "1984" commercial using close readings of the various messages which can be interpreted from the ads. Shay Sayre has also looked at perfume advertising images and the visual rhetoric in Hungary's first free election television advertisements using semiotic analysis. Also using semiotics, Arthur Asa Berger has deconstructed the meaning of the "1984" commercial as well as programs such as Cheers and films such as Murder on the Orient Express.

Systems of meaning, Culler and Berger tell us, is analyzed by looking at cultural and communication products and events as signs and then by looking at the relationship among these signs. The categories of signs and the relationships between them create a system. Barthes, for example, has analyzed the "fashion system," and classified the system of communication through fashion into two categories: image clothing and descriptive clothing. Likewise, an advertisement has its own system of meaning. We expect an appeal to purchase, either directly or implied, to be made and a product to be shown, for example, as part of the advertising system.

Research Questions

This review leads us to several interesting research questions about how meaning is produced in an advertisement, particularly in visually complex messages like the "1984" commercial.

-What are the dominant visual images? How are they described and what do they symbolize?

-How do the various message elements function in terms of semiotic meaning: iconic, symbolic, indexical?

-How do message elements carrying the various types of semiotic meanings differ in their frequency of mentions and the type of impact they create on viewers perceptions?


The viewers included 200 undergraduate students in introductory mass communication courses in the Spring semester of 1991 at two state universities located in the western U.S. While these students can not be seen as reflecting the composition of the Super Bowl audience that watched the initial showing of the commercial in 1984, they are similar to Apple's targeted audience in one critical aspect: they are likely to be interested in a personal computer and most of them probably have not purcahsed a computer yet. This state of interest is similar to the type of audience Apple hoped to reach in 1984 with its Super Bowl commercial. It is also expected that few of these students have sen or would remember seeing this commercial when it ran some seven years earlier. Most would have been preteens at that time and personal computers were not as widely available in schools or homes. Less than five percent indicated at the time of the showing that they had seen the commercial.

After a preliminary intorduction designed to set the commercial in the context which it was first seen , students were asked to watch the commercial and then complete a short survey. The survey instrument contained a set of open-ended questions which sought to probe the types of meanings the viewers derived from the commercial. The instrument asked the students to explain the point or message intended by the makers of the commercial, cite the visuals that made an impression on them, and explain the symbolism they saw in the imagery.

A code sheet was developed based on a semiotic analysis of the elements of meaning intended by the creators--taken from interviews with Lee Clow, the agency creative director, and Ridley Scott, the director--as well as the meanings interpreted in two expert readings by Arthur Asa Berger and Linda Scott. This form was used to deconstruct and categorize the meanings and meaning clusters found in the viewer responses. This approach is basically qualitative although it uses content analysis methodology to bring structure to the compilation of the 200 responses. This is similar to the approach reported by Leiss, Line and Jhally which they described as a semiological/content analysis combining a sensitivity to layers and patterns of meaning with the more rigorous and systematic strategies of quantitative content analysis.


The first question asks about the dominant images noted by the viewers in their open-ended responses. The list in TAble 1 separates the message elements in terms of characters and objects, however, for this comparison, we will combine them. As Table 1 depicts, the most important element of imagery in the commercial was the woman who was mentioned by 92 percent of the respondents. Next in terms of frequency of mentions, two objects--the sledgehammer and TV screen--were both noted by 69 percent of the views. They were followed next by references to genderless people (61%), a message element that is broken down in more specific ways in Table 1. Big Brother received the next most frequent mentions with 51 percent. The police were the least likely of the human elements in the commercial to be noted by the viewers with only 69 (34.5%) mentions. Other message elements that received some mentions include the clothing, the tunnel, and the Apple logo.

Table 1

Dominant Images

Image n %


Woman 184 92.0

runner 25 12.5

athlete 18 9.0

People (genderless) 122 61.0

marching people/feet 66 33.2

inmates 93 46.5

inmates with open mouths 11 5.5

men (gender specific designation) 65 32.5

prisoners/zombies (genderless) 46 23.0

Big Brother 102 51.0

Police/soldiers/guards 69 34.5


Hammer 138 69.0

TV Screen 138 69.0

Clothing 73 36.5

Tubular Structure/tunnel 33 16.5

Logo 24 12.0

Big Brother's message on screen 17 8.5

Woman Runner

As Table 1 depicts, the most important element of imagery in the commercial was the woman who was mentioned by 92 percent of the respondents. The table also indicates the primary labels the viewers used to refer to her--for example, runner (12.5%) and athlete (9.0%).

Description The categories of responses provide a method to note which images were dominant, but the words used by the viewers as they framed their responses were also interesting because they exhibited a wealth of descriptive information and judgmental systems. The woman, for example, was described in terms of the following:

physical condition: athletic, Olympic, strong, fit and trim, active, healthy, well-toned, powerful, jogger, physical, vigor, life

appearance: young/youthful, beautiful, pretty, good looking, blonde, short hair, long blonde hair, Hooters, colorful

role: rebel, bolt of lightning, destroyer, last patriot, last hope,

heroine, change agent, rule breaker, destroyer, bringing knowledge to the masses, new way of doing things, God, change attitudes about TV viewing

other: one person, normal person

Symbolism This figure operates on several semiotic levels. In the iconic level, she clearly is a woman runner; on the symbolic level, however, she represents much more. The viewer's were asked to note the symbolization and explain what the images meant. For example, soem 15 viewers identified her as a symbol of a new age, new way of life, or new era. The notion of future was contained in the statements of another 11 viewers. These two combine represent comments by 26 (23%) of the viewers.

The more common interpretation, however, identifed her as a symbol of resistance, rebellion or revolution which was expressed by 82 (41%) of the viewers.. This idea was conveyed in related phrases like "rescuer of the oppressed" and "leader against the odds." She was also seen as a metaphor for freedom, innovation, individuality, and creativity. Also 51 (25.5%) indicated she was a metaphor for Apple or Macintosh which, of course, would make the creators of the message happy.

The savior metaphor appeared with some frequency with10 (5%) viewers mentioning that concept. Some of them clearly had in mind a Christ-like metaphor, a person sacrificing herself for the betterment of "mankind"--and in this case they clearly meant the sexist language.

She was noted as a feminist or sexist symbol by 12 viewers (6%) and they used such phrases as "a woman who opens up the future," "women can see things that men can't," and "a modern woman of the 80s." The sexism angle showed up in defensively in phrases like "we are not sexists" and aggressively in comments like "trying to get men's attention," and the depiction of her as "a Hooter's chick," a reference to a restaurant that uses scantily clad women as waitresses. Another symbol associated with her feminism or, in this case, fertility includes "a mother figure giving birth to new technology," which is certainly an idiosyncratic interpretation.

Other symbols include the Olympic athlete or torch bearer which was noted in five of the viewers' responses. The idea of a mythical hero or leader was also mentioned five times and it is interesting to note that these references generally carry a male identity such as white knight or Thor. Another five viewers saw her as a symbol of the NOW or Yuppie Generation. She also served as a patriotic symbol ("the Russians don't have it") and was referred to as the statue of libery. This range of idiosyncratic interpretations--from savior to Olympic runner, white knight, Hooter's chick, and mother figure giving birth--indicates the wealth of symbolic imagery embedded in this figure.

The People

References to genderless people (61%) were quite frequent and dominated the way in which the viewers depicted the skinheads. The idea of inmates was used often (n=93, 46.5%) and this reference is even higher when you add the 11 (5.5%) who noted them as inmates with open mouths, a reference to the closing shots after the sledgehamer smashes the screen. The marchers, who were featured in the opening shots, were noted by 66 (33.2%). References to these figures as men, in other words, a gender specific designation as opposed to other genderless references, was made by 65 viewers (32.5%). They were referred to as prisoners or zombies by 46 viewers (23%). The words clones (15), droids (4), and skinheads (4)--also genderless designations--were used by 6.5% and 2% respectively.

Description The phrases used by the viewers to desribe these people were rich with interpretive detail. They were variously described as an army of men, a crowd, the masses, mass audience, the human race, spectators, robot men, drones, aliens, children, and IBM users. The one characteristic that dominated their descriptions was the bald heads which was noted by 52 (26%) of the viewers. They were also noted as being all alike/same/similar by 22 (11%). Other descriptions include:

Mental state: solemn, brainless, brain dead, stupid, lethargic, obedient, mechanical, gloomy, possessed, lifeless, unthinking, mind controlled, mindless, mindless sheep, brainwashed, clueless, blind, catatonic, bored

Responsiveness: passive, responseless, entranced, mesmerized, fixated on screen, shocked, suprised

Appearance: gray faced, bald, shaved, drab, dead looking, pale and simple, blank faced, blank expressions, expressionless, stoned faces, washed out, sickly, uniform, unison, dirty, dusty, monotonous, grotesque

Situation: captives, powerless, helpless, useless, oppressed, slaves/slavelike, vegetable like, machine like

Product orientation: computer illiterates, consumers buying other computers, potential computer users/market

Symbolism On a semiotic level it is harder to identify a common iconic meaning for these figures because they function in the commercial as abstractions and clearly their meaning is better described as symbolic. When asked what they thought the people symbolized, 45 of the viewers (22.5%) responded that they represented some form of mind/media control or brainwashing. The 38 that mentioned the marchers (19%), felt that they symbolized inmates controlled by masters or depersonalization. Another 16 (8%) thought they represented either American or modern society. One person said they were computer hackers, which is a novel interpretation. The Nazi imagery surfaced here again with seven viewers saying they looked like people in a concentration camp or a Nazi death camp. In recognition of the marketing situation, another seven viewers saw the inmates as users of the competitions' computers, two said they symbolized today's technology, two said they symbolized U.S. businesses, and two saw them as representing a society held hostage by the limits of ordinary computers or the competition.

Big Brother

Big Brother received 102 mentions (51%). He was referred to variously as the man, old man, the person, and the guy. Other references, most of which include some notion of control, are:

leader: boss, authoritative figure, power figure, power of authority, autocratic, commander, controller, enforcer, higher power, ruler, absolute ruler, playing God, power by one or single power

despot: dicatator, mind eraser, mean ruler, evil/vicious leader, hypnotizer of people

the image: talking head, man's head, big head, one voice

appearance: dude with glasses, overpowering image, scary man, weird guy

role: limit technolgical potential, force acceptance of generic mass culture, enforce domain of computer technology, forcing people to follow rules, misguiding people, put information into people's minds

Symbolism Like the inmates, the Big Brother figure is more enigmatic, less iconic because he doesn't represent anything grounded in reality, and more symbolic. For example, in the leader descriptions are several responses that allude directly or indirectly to God or godlike (higher power, playing God). The most number (n=25, 12.5%), however, identified this figure in the exact opposite as a symbol of evil. One of the common associations was with Hitler. Clearly this character looks nothing like Hitler, however, those viewers must have been projecting Hitler onto this figure because of the mass propaganda situation depicted in the commercial. In fact, three of the viewers specifically identified him as running "hate meetings."

In contrast, the creators and expert readers saw less evil in the character and identified him as a bureaucratic conformist or a representative of

totalitarianism. Some 20 of the viewers (10%) responded with a notion of the totalitarian representative and 13 (6.5%) saw him as the less threatening bureaucrat. Some of these references noted the concept of hierarchy. Three viewers linked him to government and two of them specifically mentioned "overpowering government."

Eight of the viewers identified him as the competition or Apple's opponent as in the old order establishment orcomputers that won't change. Another four saw him as Apple's opponent and three of them specifically named IBM. Three of them described Big Brother as representing "peer pressure," which is a novel and ambiguous interpretation. Reflecting the fact that Big Brother is only represented by a screen image, three of the viewers saw Big Brother as representing media control.


The police were the least likely of the human elements in the commercial to be noted with only 69 (34.5%) of the viewers mentioning them. They were variously referred to as cops, riot police, mind police, military officers, army, police squad, swat team, troops, gunmen, security guards, soldiers, followers, controllers, restrictive authority, and enforcers.. The descriptive terms used in the viewers' statements include controlling forces, men in uniforms, combative men, and bad guys.

The police figures functioned on the iconic level as well as the symbolic, although the viewers' analysis of the symbolization of these figures was not very deep. That may result as much from the fact that few of the viewers even mentioned these figures, as from their rather obvious iconicity. Some 27 (13.5%) agreed with the general notion of the message creators and expert readers that they represented restrictive authority that was keeping people in line. Symbolizing resistance to innovation was another meaning ascribed to the police by 14 (7%) viewers. Conservativism, maintaining the status quo, and society trying to stay as it is was mentioned by seven viewers.

Another five thought they symbolized Nazis, which ties in with the Hitler symbolization mentioned in the Big Brother discussion; one even referred to them as storm troopers. The feminist interpretation, another novel reading, showed up in the statements of four viewers who said that the police were against women or trying to stop women. The competitive meaning was cited by four viewers who saw them as representing big companies against change or other computers trying to stop her.

The Sledgehammer

The sledgehammer was an important message element and it was noted by 138 (69%) of the viewers. It was referred to variously as a sledgehammer, a hammer, an axe, a mallet, and a tool. There was very little descriptive language used in discussing this message element and most of the comments focused directly on its symbolism.

While it carries clear iconic meaning, the hammer also offered an opportunity for the viewers to read in a variety of symbolic meanings. Forty viewers (20%) said that the hammer symbolized destruction of a totalitarian order, and three specifically mentioned destroying IBM. Of those who identified it as a destroyer, some also mentioned destroying authority, power, and communism, the latter being an indiosyncratic interpretation. Some 23 of the viewers (11.5 %) said the hammer represented breaking rules/norms/boundaries, breaking away, or a breakthrough. Another symbolic meaning for the hammer was changing the world or industry (n=10, 5%)

Another 14 (7%) identified it properly as symbolizing the Macintosh. Other terms used to describe what the hammer represented include: an act of rebellion, a new idea or new beginnings, a new computer generation, freedom, hard work, individualism and individual power, strength, determination, and an Olympic event.

The Video Screen

The TV screen was noted by 138 people or 69% of the viewers. While, superficially, at least, this might appear to be an easy iconic sign, in fact, the screen turned out to carry an element of ambiguity which permitted more symbolic meanings to surface. For example, there was some confusion as to whether it was a video screen or a computer screen. A few of the viewers (n=5, 2.5%) said that it symbolized other computers, terminals, or the old technology. Most of the viewers, however, identified it as a TV screen (n=28, 14%) and some referred specifically to such concepts as the power of media, media control, and censorship. Several people noted the smaller monitors, particularly in the tunnel, and mentioned the idea of televisions everywhere as "media monitoring of people."

Most of the viewers who tried to find some symbolic meaning in the screen saw it as representing the influence of a powerful government on society, a government with the authority to tell everyone what to do. Power was mentioned a number of times in referring to the screen, and so was the word standards, as in setting standards or the standard of power. There were also some idiosyncratic interpretations. One person, for example, said that it referred to the addiction of watching TV and another thought that it represented "the almighty power of the clones," which turns the conventional interpretation of power and authority upside down.


Many of the viewers commented on the imargery of the clothing (n=73, 36.5%). The various types of clothing functioned differently. While the inmates clothing operated more on the level of symbolism than on a functional iconic level, the woman's clothing was interpreted on both the iconomic and symbolic level.

Most of the viewers identified the inmates' clothing as symbolizing conformity or uniformity. The fact that they were dressed all alike/the same/similar was the focus of most of the comments. In terms of descriptive phrases, the mens' clothing was seen as dark suits, drab, grey, tattered and baggy. One person said the clothing symbolized "concentration camp duds." One person mention the "chains that the men wore," which is an interesting reference to something that wasn't there. The gas masks on the occasional inmate, however, were only mentioned twice. The masks covering the police faces were mentioned six times and variously described as helmets, riot gear, and welding visors.

The woman's clothing was most often identified onthe iconic level as sport related--track outfit, running or jogging suit, athletic clothes, sport clothes. The shorts were mentioned separately 12 times and the top was mentioned separately three times. The top was referred to as a tank top, an Apple shirt, or a Nike shirt. The last is an interesting intertextual reference to another commercial. The Apple reference is interesting, too, since there the Apple colors and design on the shirt were details that eluded most of the viewers. The woman's clothing also carried some sexual overtones and moral judgments that were evidenced in descriptive phrases like "revealing" and "skimpy."

The Environmental Structure

The tunnels through which the men marched in the opening scenes were mentioned 33 times (16.5%) by the viewers. These sets were both iconic and symbolic. Clearly they were environmental structures through which the inmates were marching, however, they were ambiguous enough in their presentation, that there was some confusion as to what they made of and what they represented. Their iconography, in other words, was not as clear as might be expected. In terms of symbolic meaning, 21 of the viewers saw these structures as symbolizing control or conformity. Another three people thought the setting symbolized a futuristic or science fiction world.

Most of the descriptive phrases focused on the construction: metal setting, steel, steel floors, concrete halls, enclosed walks above ground, and grated floor. Several people described the setting as prisonlike or dungeonlike. Judgmental evaluations were found in such adjectives as dull, drab, grey, morose, and gloomy. One of the more unusual idiosymcratic descriptions was from one person who described the tunnel as a "glass bridge."

The room in which the inmates were sitting was also mentioned by six people. The scope and scale of the architecture most have been noted by some of these people as they describe it variously as a theater, church or auditorium.


In addition to the message elements on Table 1, there were some other categories of symbolic elements that clearly were important to the viewers. Color, for example, was mentioned by many people in a variety of different ways. Table 2 summarizes the color imagery used in the viewers' repsonses.

Table 2

Color Imagery

color notation n %

white/bright 55 27.6

colorful 43 21.5

red 39 19.5

grey 57 28.5

dark 34 17.0

blue 3 1.5

Usually the color was associated with either the woman, the men, or the surroundings. Overall, 58.6 percent of the viewers mentioned the colors associated with the woman and 45.5 percent mentioned either dark or grey, the color scheme associated with the men and the surroundings. In other words, half of the viewers were sensitive to the impact of the color--or lack of it--in terms of cueing the commercial's message.

Colorful and colorless were the primary terms used to describe the woman. Other descriptive phrases relating to color were contrast, vibrant, and monotone. Several people also saw the woman as wearing the colors of Apple. It is interesting that several viewers noted the woman as wearing red, white, and blue, which is a clear association with American symbolism. It also didn't appear in the commercial, so this is an example of the operation of a personally driven symbolic system that overrides the actual presentation and creates imagery that didn't exist in order to make it fit into the schema.

Sound and Motion

Two of the peculiar characteristics of television advertising are sound and motion, so this study also looked at the interpretation of the dynamic, as well as the audio elements. Action and sound could be iconic, indexical, and symbolic. Table 2 summarizes these findings.

The actions roughly group themselves into three sets. Running and marching are clearly the two actions that were the most likely to make an impression with roughly two third sof the viewers noting these dynamic elements. Next were breaking, throwing, and chasing, which grouped around 12 to 14 percent responses. Talking, staring, and sitting received some mentions but they were few. Other action terms used descriptively include

woman: bouncing, carrying, destroying, jogging, outrunning, swinging

inmates: following, walking, goosestepping, listening, watching

Big Brother: barking orders, directing, lecturing, preaching, sermonizing, speaking

hammer: shattering, smashing

the explosion: exploding, blown away, flying, flying dust,

Only one person mentioned slow motion, a technique used at the end to dramatize the flight of the hammer. Note, also, the Nazi imagery creeping back in with the reference to the inmates as "goosestepping," once again an idiosyncratic interpretation of the way in which they were marching.

In terms of semiotic meaning, on one level such activities as running, chasing, and smashing carry obvious iconic meaning. On another level they are symbolic; the smashing of the screen, for example, was described by 97 of the vieers (48.3) as symbolizing the destruction of the totalitarian order.

Table 2

Sound and Motion

element n %


running 70 35.0

marching 65 32.5

breaking 29 14.5

throwing 28 14

chasing 23 11.6

talking 18 9.0

staring 5 2.5

exploding/flying dust 4 2.0

sitting 2 1.0


words and phrases:

"1984 won't be like '1984'" 137 68.5

Big Brother's ideological rhetoric 20 10.0

"We shall prevail" 18 9.0

"On January 24...." 17 8.5

explosion 14 7.0

voice 9 4.5

marching sounds 4 2.0

singing 2 1.0

In terms of audio, the phrase, "1984 won't be like 'l984'" was mentioned by more than half the viewers (68.5%) and clearly made the most impression. In terms of sound effects, the sounds associated with the explosion made the most impression (7.%), followed by the voice of Big Brother (4.5%). Other sounds which had some small impact were the marching sounds and the metallic sounds that accompanied the marchers which were noted by four people. Singing was mentioned by several viewers, an audio element that didn't occur in this commercial. Background music was also mentioned by several viewers and, since there wasn't a music track, one can only assume that was a reference to the metallic sounds accompanying the marchers--interpreted as new age heavy metal music, perhaps.

While most of these sounds carry iconographic and symbolic meanings, the hissing wind that accompanied the explosion of the screen moved into indexical meaning in that we have learned to associate such sounds with a cause/effect situation. This particular sign, and the flash of light that accompanied it, also carried other more complex symbolic meanings. Several viewers identified it as freeing, refreshing or revitalizing the inmates. One went so far as to identify it in religious terms as a "cleansing holiness."

In terms of this analysis of the viewer's responses, certain message elements were more inclined to be noticed than others. The most dominant elements--those that were mentioned by at least half of the viewers or more--included the woman runner (92%), running and marching (77%), the hammer and TV screen (both at 69%), the 1984 phrase (68.5%), inmates (61%) and the colors associated with the woman (58.6%). Other elements that were noted by at least a third of the viewers include the grey/drab colors (45.5%), the clothing (36.5%), the police (34.5%). The least noted elements include the tunnel (16.5%), the logo (12.%), and Big Brother's spoken political rhetoric (20%) and his message on screen (8.5%), as well as all other phrases and all other actions.

Overall, it can be said that, with the exception of the 1984 line, people and objects seemed to have more impact on the impressions of the viewers than did dynamic or audio elements.

Semiotic Meanings

The previous analyses have been conducted in tems of the percentage of the viewers giving certain categories of responses. For an analysis of the intricacies of the semiotic meanings, a different type of compilation will be created based on the various phrases used to identify message elements. In other words, for each message element, all of the phrases used to note, describe and explain their meanings, will be compiled. Since one viewer may refer to a message element several times in different ways, the base for constructing percentages will be the number of mentions, rather than the number of viewers.

As we have seen, a variety of message elements were embedded in the "1984" commercial and they also carry different levels of semiotic meaning. For example, the woman runner is an iconographic element at the simplest level of reference (as woman/lady/girl runner, etc), but at a more complex level she carries a rich variety of symbolic meanings (change agent, revolution or rebellion, metaphor for Apple or Macintosh, feminist symbol, mother figure, etc.). For this analysis, the phrases used to note the various message elements were categorized as being iconic (mostly representational such as a label or description), indexical (a signal of somthing in nature or an event), or symbolic (something that stands for something else--a meaning assigned by convention). Table 3 summarizes the number of viewers noting the various message elements and the level of semiotic meaning associated with each element.

Table 3

Semiotic Meanings

total symbolic indexical iconic

Message Element mentions n/% n/% n/%

actions 242 4/2 3/1 235/97

inmates 212 109/51 0/0 103/49

woman runner 205 173/84 0/0 32/16

total color mentions 185 16/9 0/0 169/91

woman's colors 94 11/12 0/0 83/88

men's colors 91 5/5 0/0 86/95

hammer 138 63/46 0/0 75/54

TV screen 138 30/22 0/0 108/78

1984 tagline 137 137/100 0/0 0/0

Big Brother 104 46/44 0/0 58/56

police 69 32/46 0/0 37/54

clothing 73 4/5 0/0 69/95

other words 69 38/55 0/0 31/45

tunnel 36 21/58 0/0 15/42

other sounds 26 0/0 3/12 23/88

Apple logo 24 24/100 0/0 0/0

In general, one might conclude from inspecting such an array that the iconic meanings tended to be noted more since nine of the message elements were identified predominately as iconic in meaning and five were identified as symbolic. By this we mean that the phrases used to note the iconic elements in the viewers' responses were either obvious labels, or more descriptive than symbolic in their meaning construction. Certain message elements--actions, colors, clothing, and sounds--were treated predominantly as iconic signs in the viewers' responses. The TV screen was also recognized as having a high level of iconic meaning, although not as high as the other four.

Several others--Big Brother, the hammer, and the police--tended to be more iconic than symbolic in the viewer's interpretations although the difference was not as great. In fact, one might conclude that a range of interpretative levels are operating with these elements and that meaning construction might be both at the iconic and symbolic levels. For example, a viewer might note the hammer, in one comment, simply as a hammer and then in another comment refer to it as a tool of change. One might conclude that these message elements are less rigidly structured in their presentations which allows for more ambiguity and idiosyncratic interpretations.

Six message elements were found to be predominately symbolic signs--the inmates, the woman runner, the tunnel, the 1984 verbal tagline, other words (such as Big Brother's rhetoric), and the Apple logo. It should also be noted that of the three elements receiving the most mentions on the list, two of them--inmates and woman runner--are heavily symbolic in meaning. In other words, while more message elements may have operated at the iconic level, the ones that had the most impact were more likely to be symbolic.

It should also be noted that there were few mentions of indexical signs and where they were mentioned, they were used to refer to sounds and actions signalling the explosion.

In terms of sheer quantity, there were more iconic message elements noted than symbolic. The most frequently mentioned message element, also an iconic element, was action, which attests to the power of dynamic elements to create impact. Even though symbolic message elements were not noted as often as iconic, several of the ones that were mentioned were also high in impact.

Why would the symbolic meanings noted in reference to the inmates and woman runner tend to carry this much impact? The answer to such a question, of course, demands more qualitative investigation than this study provides. One might speculate, however, that the symbolic meanings of these message elements are more ambiguous and less predictable than the iconic elements and could be seen as more interesting. They are also more complex and demand more involvement of the audience to interpret the meanings, therefore, they may need a more emphatic presentation, at the same time they stimulate more effort in interpretation.

In terms of advertising objectives, it is interesting to note that none of the more highly noted message elements carried direct reference to a sales message. However, the significance of the colors and the identification of Apple on the woman's clothing, as well as the Apple logo, apparently provided the brand identification sufficient to create the stampede which was reported by Apple dealers on the following Monday after this commercial ran.


In conclusion, this study demonstrates that a semiotic analysis of visuals can be tested against viewer responses to identify patterns of meaning construction. It also found that visuals carrying different types of semiotic meanings elicit different levels of response from viewers. In general, more viewers note iconic message elements than symbolic or indexical elements. In terms of sheer frequency of mention, there were more iconic message elements on the list than symbolic, at least in terms of this particular commercial--and it should be remembered that this advertisement has generally been described as being a highly symbolic commercial. However, those elements with symbolic meaning--fewer though they may be--can create great impact. In other words, several of the elements with high levels of symbolic meaning were referred to more frequently than other elements that were higher in iconic meanings, perhaps attesting to the power of ambiguity to create interest.




How is meaning produced and conveyed in messages that are primarily visual and how do viewers construct their own meanings from visual communication cues? This study investigates the production of meaning from visual messages in advertising, a visually intensive area of communication. In order to investigate the production of meanings from visuals, this study looks at one particular advertisement--the "1984" commercial produced for the introduction of Apple's Macintosh which ran during the Super Bowl in January of that year. The study investigates the meanings of the images in the commercial as produced by a group of viewers and analyzes their readings in terms of a semiotics analysis of the visual text.

This study demonstrates that a semiotic analysis of visuals can be tested against viewer responses to identify patterns of meaning construction. It also finds that visuals carrying different types of semiotic meanings elicit different levels of response from viewers. In general, more viewers note iconic message elements than symbolic or indexical elements. However, those elements with symbolic meaning, fewer though they may be, may create greater impact than message elements with high inconic meaning.

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