A Semiotic Analysis: “There’s A Soldier In All Of Us” In today’s society, people are significantly influenced by the media. Mediated messages are often deliberate and appeal to specific audiences based on race, gender, ethnicity, social status, education level, political views, and much more. By applying semiotics to everyday life, we can decipher meaning within texts, film, and photography in a more constructive way. Here, it becomes evident that semiotics is a fundamental concept that enables better communication.
Through a semiotic analysis of the 2010 Call of Duty (COD): Black Ops “There’s A Soldier In All Of Us” commercial, it becomes obvious how and why this advertisement was so successful toward various audiences. In order to understand how and why companies are so successful in their marketing techniques, it is important to understand semiotics and its concepts in its simplest form. Although there is a long history concerning the importance and curiosity of signs and the way they communicate meaning, modern semiotic analysis can be credited to two men: Swiss linguist Ferinand de Saussure and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.
Saussure’s approach deals with many concepts of semiotic analysis that can be applied to signs. “Saussure’s division of the sign into two components, the signifier, or ‘sound-image’, and the signified, or ‘concept,’ and his suggestion that the relationship between signifiers and signified is arbitrary were of crucial importance for the development of semiotics” (Berger 4). In contrast, Peirce focused on three dimensions of signs: iconic, symbolic, and indexical.
Although Saussure and Pierce may differ in their ideas about how signs function, they both have made significant contributions to the modern science of semiology. Another important figure in semiotics is philosopher-critic Roland Barthes who describes semiology as a science of forms, since it studies significations apart from their content. In his essay, Myth Today, Barthes denotes myth as a type of speech and a system of communication. He then proceeds to illustrate his concepts of an enhanced sign system:
But myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second…Whether it deals with alphabetical or pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them only sums of signs, a global sign, the final term of a first semiological chain. And it is precisely this final term which will become the first term of the greater system which it builds and of which it is only a part.
Everything happens as if myth shifted the formal system of the first significations sideways. This lateral shift is essential for the analysis of myth. (Barthes 115) Two important distinctions Barthes makes clear in his essay is that the relationship between signifier (2) and signified (2) is never arbitrary and that the signifier is empty and the sign is full. When we apply this double system to the COD: Black Ops example sign (1) suggests that this video game can be played by anyone without discrimination towards gender, race, age, ethnicity, social status, or educational level.
The signified (2) in this example urges the consumer to “buy this game”. The relationship between the sign (1) and the signified (2) implies that if the consumer buys this video game, they will have fun just like the diverse types of characters in the commercial. This complex sign system has proved helpful in understanding meaning within a text as well as understanding how semiotics can be applied to everyday life. Semiotics can be defined as the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems (Arnold 92).
As quoted by Saussure, semiotics is “a science that studies the life of signs within society” (Berger 6). This is a concept that has enabled the study of media in a variety of aspects. One basic concern of the media is how meaning is generated and conveyed in television programs and advertisements. According to Berger: Signs and relations are two of the key concepts of semiotics analysis. A text can be thought of as a system of signs and the meaning of the text stems from the signs and from the system that ties the signs together.
In semiotic analysis, an arbitrary and temporary separation is made between content and form, and attention is focused on the system of signs that make up a text” (6). For example, in the COD: Black Ops commercial, guns, helicopters, grenades, and explosions are not seen as separate components to the commercial, but instead they are seen as a sign system that conveys meaning related to matters such as warfare. According to Saussure, a sign is a combination of a sound-image or “signifier” and concept or “signified”.
One key concept in understanding semiotics is that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is always arbitrary. But since there is no logical connection between a word and a concept, the meanings that signifiers posses must somehow be learned. This implies that there are certain “codes” that evolve within a society or culture, which help individuals generate meaning from signs. These codes influence the ways in which individuals interpret signs and symbols in the media (9). In the COD: Black Ops advertisement, one can recognize various cultural codes embedded within the commercial.
For instance, the commercial displays famous figures, such as basketball star Kobe Bryant and late night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, playing in the battlefield alongside “normal” people. These celebrities are recognizable in American popular culture and therefore appeal to the American public. Another cultural code embedded in this trailer is created by the use of background music. Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (1969), is played throughout the commercial, which targets members of older generations in America.
This advertisement also indicates that both men and women attain power and authority in this video game, just as they do in actual U. S. military matters. As a society, we carry these cultural codes and understandings of life over to our exposure to media productions, which generates meaning within them. Through the COD: Black Ops trailer, advertisers were able to transmit messages to a range people with different social classes, education levels, political ideologies, and worldviews.
Because the COD: Black Ops commercial is so rich in signifiers, it is able to appeal to many different types audiences. We can say that fun and excitement are the “signified” in this commercial and that a number of “signifiers” demonstrate this, including signs of adrenaline and smiles/laughter on the faces of different characters involved, as well as a signifier that even famous people are having fun playing this video game. Through the use of associations between signifiers and signified, consumers are encouraged to buy this video game since “everyone is doing it”.
As Berger points out, texts, such as films and TV, are like “languages”. Language applies conditioned rules that allow communication of information, ideas, opinions, feelings, and much more in various ways. Although communication is often accomplished through verbal speaking, there are many ways in which individuals communicate without the use of words. In the COD: Black Ops campaign, advertisers communicate a message not through the use of verbal words, but instead through the use of hairstyles, glasses, clothes, facial expressions, postures, gestures, ect.
These signifiers communicate meaning to specific audience members based on which signifiers they are sensitive to (13). For example, a successful business women who sees the COD: Black Ops commercial portraying a young business women dressed in heels and a nice suit carrying a gun and shooting at people, will be able to recognize and relate to it. In semiotic terms, the word connotation refers to the cultural meanings that become attached to words; this is the signified. “A word’s connotations involve the symbolic, historic, and emotional matters connected to it” (14).
Denotation, on the other hand, refers to the literal meanings of words; this is the signifier. For instance, COD: Black Ops alludes to a 2010 first-person shooter video game set during the Cold War. This would be the denotation of the video game. The connotation, on the other hand, signifies danger, violence, and warfare. However, advertisers are able to suggest that the video game should not be seen as dangerous and violent even though it depicts explosions, guns, and shooting at the enemy. Instead they perceived this video game as fun, “cool”, exciting, and entertaining.
Although this video game has generated much controversy over the years, advertisers have been successful in their attempts to appeal to a variety of audiences. The distinction between the synchronic and the diachronic is very important in order to understand semiotic analysis. Synchronic means “in that moment”, while diachronic refers to “across time”, “so a synchronic study of a text looks at the relationships that exist among its elements and a diachronic study looks at the way the narrative evolves” (14).
For example, by applying a diachronic perspective to COD: Black Ops one could focus on how COD and other video games have evolved over time. In contrast, a synchronic perspective would examine COD and compare it to other video games at that time. When a text is examined as a sequence of events that form some kind of narrative, this is referred to as a syntagmatic analysis of a text. According to Claude Levi-Strauss, this type of analysis reveals the texts manifest meaning and is concerned with what actually happens. In the COD: Black Ops commercial, the overall narrative implies “everyone (even famous people) is doing it”.
This narrative is accomplished by applying many different characteristics to many different people who are all role-playing as if they were actually in the video game. Consumers often already know that there are different types of people playing with you online, but seeing it represented visually in a commercial makes it very apparent; it’s a fact that is often easy to forget. This type of advertising is what has made COD: Black Ops so profitable. In contrast to syntagmatic analysis, the paradigmatic analysis of a text involves a search for hidden oppositions that are buried within it and that generate meaning.
Claude Levi-Strauss asserts that this type of analysis reveals the latent meaning of the text and is concerned with what the text is trying to convey to its audience (22). According to David Arnold: Texts are seen as a complex intersection of social, political, and textual ‘structures’, often expressed as two-sided or binary oppositions. These structures arise from our way of perceiving reality, and are in fact responsible for how we perceive. Meaning is not inherent in objects themselves but resides outside, in their relationships to other structures. Arnold 92) Binary oppositions are important because meaning depends on the establishment of relationships. “Thus in all texts there must be some kind of systematic and interrelated set of oppositions that can be elicited” (Berger 22). There are a variety of significant oppositions that can be found in the COD: Black Ops commercial, including men/women, rich/poor, famous/not famous, educated/uneducated, fat/skinny, tall/short, fun/serious, African American/White/Asian/Hispanic, young/old, successful/not successful, and many more.
Although many people are not aware of these oppositions when viewing texts such as commercials, it is important to understand that without these differences, there is no meaning (22). In semitoic analysis, intersexuality is a term that refers to the reuse of material from other, previously created texts. However, in order for intersexuality to be effective, audience members must be familiar with the original text. Intersexuality takes place when film directors and screenwriters create scenes that are recognizable as “quotations” from other film (24).
In the COD: Black Ops commercial, the setting takes place in a scene from the video game and at one point even demonstrates the point of view of a player in the game. Using this type of editing in film creates an illusion that allows the audience to experience the video game first hand. Advertisers also often utilize metaphor and metonymy to transmit meaning to their spectators. Metaphor represents a relationship between two things suggested through an analogy. For example, the slogan advertised at the end of the COD: Black Ops commercial states, “There is a soldier in all of us”.
The advertisers are not necessarily implying that there is an actual soldier inside of us, but rather they are implying that this video game is so much fun that everyone will become “hooked” on it once they play. “In metonymy, a relationship is suggested that is based on association, which implies the existence of codes in peoples minds that enable them to make the proper connections” (25). Using the same example, “There is a soldier in all of us”, the advertisers replace “player” with “soldier” suggesting that these terms are interchangeable in this instance.
As James Monaco has noted, “a metonymy is a figure of speech in which an associated detail or notion is used to invoke and idea or represent and object” (25). Generally speaking, metaphor and metonymy are often mixed together simply because any given object or phrase usually has both metaphoric and metonymic significance. However, in semiotic analysis the distinction between the two is important because it enables researchers to understand how objects and images create meaning.
Semiotic analysis is a useful technique that can be applied to film, theatre, photography, written language, medicine, architecture, and a number of other areas that deal with communication. Today, a great concern for the media involves identifying and recognizing relationships between objects and symbols, as well as actions and dialogues, of characters within a text. These associations create meaning and can be applied to social, cultural, and ideological concerns of everyday life. By studying semiotics and semiological analysis, one can develop a better understanding and appreciation for meaning within texts.