Visual Methods as Tool for Gauging Advertising Effects: A Semiotic Analysis of Print Advertisements Promoting Organic Foods

Sela Sar (University of Illinois, USA) & George Anghelcev (Penn State University, USA)

Summary of the Project


Within the last two decades there has been a tremendous increase in interest and demand for organic products. According to a recent marketing survey, US consumer sales of organic food and organic non-food products topped 31.5 billion in 2012. This was a 10.3% increase from 2011 (OTA, 2013). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has projected a steady 10% inclide in revenue from year to year, forecasting that sales of organic products should reach 38 billion dollars in 2015 (USDA, 2013; Sahota, 2009).

This explosion in consumer interest has generated a lot of research on how consumers respond to campaigns promoting organic foods and how organic consumption decisions are made. To-date, the research has examined consumer knowledge, understanding, and attitudes toward organic foods primarily by employing methods that rely exclusively on verbal analysis and inquiry. Typically, researchers rely on quantitative surveys in which respondents are asked to express agreement or disagreement with statements listed on a close-ended questionnaire. Such studies have been able to shed some light on the demographics of organic consumers (e.g., Thompson & Kidwell, 1998), on consumer preferences for various types of organic products (fresh produce vs. processed foods; e.g., Dimitri & Lohr, 2007) and on the broad classes of motivations which drive organic consumption (see Onyango, Hallman, & Bellows, 2007).

Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered and there are significant inconsistencies in the findings. Most notably, there is a lack of understanding of why the perception, of the features and benefits of organic food products, varies greatly among consumers, leading to a significant degree of confusion about what people should expect from a product promoted as certified organic. Indeed, although there are found main classes of benefits people associate with organic food products, what individuals define as organic can be based on any one element or any combination of them. The four categories include: health benefits (such as lower exposure to chemicals or pesticides, e.g., Padel & Foster, 2005 or to potentially harmful growth hormones and antibiotics; e.g., Harpet & Makatouni, 2002); environmental organic food practices with fair and humane treatment of animals; Harper & Makatouni, 2002) and hedonic benefits (e.g., better taste; e.g., Tobler, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2011).

In addition, there is a lack of understanding regarding the best ways to communicate these benefits in a persuasive manner. Many advertising campaigns for organic foods (with corporate or governmental funding) have relied on images to communication the various benefits and features of organic food products. It is still unclear which of aforementioned types of benefits are typically communicated or reinforced via advertising imagery.

This project proposes a semiotic approach to examining what meanings are communicated via advertising images to the targeted consumers. The emphasis will be on how visual messages promoting organic foods might be understood and interpreted. The study should also be informative for campaign strategists, by signaling currently employed visual persuasion strategies. Finally, the analysis will relate the advertising imagery with perceptions of organic foods previously identified in the literature.

Research Question(s)

In short, this project adopts a humanistic approach by ascertaining the range of constructed and communicated meanings attached to these images. The idea is to use semiotic analysis to (1) examine the denotative and connotative qualities of these visual messages and (2) determine the meanings people might get from being exposed to such visual representations.

The study is perhaps one of the first to apply semiotics as a method to improve the techniques used by advertising campaign managers in promoting organic consumption. This study adds a new dimension to strategic communication research by examining the use of visuals as signs and by investigating meaning-making practices that go beyond the manifest content of the images – an approach which conventional advertising research treats as peripheral.

Well adapted to exploring connotative meanings, the application of semiotics in this case alerts strategists as to how the same images may generate different meanings for different target consumers. The analysis of the use of images in message construction will emphasize the role of sign systems in the construction of a social discourse about organic food products, as well as potentially reveal ambiguities, inconsistencies, contradictions and omissions. The application of the semiological approach stems from the recognition that the meaning of an ad is built from the ways signs are organized and related to each other, both within the ad and through the wider general discourse about organic food consumption.

Theoretical Framework

The analyses will be based on the principles of Saussurian semiology – a framework concerned with the meaning-construction process (Mick, 1986 and 1997). In the Saussurian sense, a sign is something that stands for something else and consists of a signifier (the physical trace or expression of the sign) and the signified (the concept or content expressed by the signifier). The signifier and the signified are related in three ways: the iconic, the indexical, and the symbolic. The iconic sign is based on resemblance between the signifier and the signified (i.e., a picture of a car is an iconic sign for a real car). An indexical sign comprises a causal relationship between the signifier and the signified (i.e., smoke as an indexical sign of fire). A symbolic sign is established by sociocultural conventions and is arbitrary (i.e., a rose signifies love) (Mick and Politi, 1989). The analysis will take into account all three constructs.


The manifest and latent themes present in the advertising pieces regarding the benefits related to organic food products will be examined. The ads will be selected from top widely circulated newspapers and magazines identified by the Audit Bureau of Circulation published in the last 2 years. Campaigns featured in newspapers and magazines make for a valid sample because they provide a good representation of the imagery used in contemporary promotion of organics. The print advertisements will be collected from various sources, including archival CD- ROMs, the Greenpeace library, public college and governmental libraries, and online galleries.

Once the ads are compiled, the advertisements will be examined for their denotative and connotative characteristics. The denotative aspects include representation of elements such as product information and risk and benefits, whereas connotative aspects may be derived from the styles, ideas, and symbolic meanings, values, and ideologies expressed through visual and linguistic elements. Attention will be paid to the composition and relationship of pictorial elements in the tradition of visual rhetoric (Barthes, 1977; Scott, 1994).

Results (if applicable): The findings of this study are expected to assist those who battle for people’s hearts and minds as they design information campaigns designed to promote organic foods, as well as academics interested in testing empirically the persuasive effectiveness of the meanings and message strategies identified by the analysis.


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Dimitri, C., & Lohr, L. (2007). The US consumer perspective on organic foods. In Organic Food (pp. 157-167). New York: Springer.

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Onyango, B. M., Hallman, W. K., & Bellows, A. C. (2007). Purchasing organic food in US food systems: A study of attitudes and practice. British Food Journal, 109(5), 399-411.

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Padel, S., & Foster, C. (2005). Exploring the gap between attitudes and behaviour: Understanding why consumers buy or do not buy organic food. British food journal, 107(8), 606-625.

Sahota, A. (2009). The global market for organic food & drink. The World of Organic Agriculture, Statistics and Emerging Trends. Downloaoed January 02, 2105 from

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Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

The analysis in this study is grounded on theories of visual rhetoric (Bathes, 1977) and semiotic analysis (Saussure {1915}, 1983). These methods will provide insights that are useful to advertisers who design campaigns that use images to convey information about organic food products. Specifically, they will provide information about how consumers come to construct meanings from disparate and often contradictory visual messages.

Methodological Challenges

It is quite challenging to use theories of visual rhetoric and semiotic analysis to study images of organic food advertisements due to the lack of a unified definition and a fully-fledged analytical method and theory in semiotics. Also, there is relatively little agreement amongst scholars in terms of the scope and methodology of semiotics.

Methodological Limitations

This study will be based on qualitative visual rhetoric and semiotic analysis. Further research is needed to help us fully understand the findings. Perhaps, further quantitative test for validity of the findings might be useful.

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