Exercise 2 – Join the Navy, an exercise in denotation and connotation

Join the Navy semiotic analysis

Join the Navy, 1917 (colour litho); Richard Fayerweather Babcock

Fig. 1 Join the Navy, c. 1917 (colour litho)


This is an exercise on the concepts of denotation and connotation within a semiotic analysis of a recruiting poster of around 1917.


Denotation or what I can literally see:

I see a young man astride a golden torpedo. He is dressed in a blue sailor’s uniform with a white cap. His legs are wide apart, with one hand he holds what looks like a rein, his right arm is raised in the air and holds a piece of string. The torpedo barely touches the water and raises splashes all around. The colours are blue, yellow and green. In the lower part of the poster, in big red capital letters, we can read the text JOIN THE NAVY. The article ‘the’ is smaller and underlined by two wavy lines. Below follow the words, in blue smaller capital letters, THE SERVICE FOR, and underneath and slightly larger the words FIGHTING MEN with an underlining yellow straight line. The gold of the torpedo and the red of JOIN THE NAVY are the colours that stand out at first sight.



Connotation or what are the implied meanings of what I see: 

I think that this recruiting Navy poster works as a metaphor: to join the Navy will be as manly and adventurous as riding a horse in a rodeo. The young sailor is shown tense in action and clearly enjoying himself as a cowboy straddling a horse. Memories of the old Wild West would naturally come to mind to a young American man seeing the poster. The open sea is an equivalent of the wild desert and an invitation to action.

It’s true that to modern eyes the torpedo might look like a phallic symbol, as Creative Arts Today suggests, but it’s difficult to tell if this connotation was intentional at the time. However it might be inadvertently present if one considers that horses and missiles are traditionally both seen as sexually meaningful penetrating objects, or perhaps this is another modern and contemporary overinterpretation . In any case the poster appeals directly to the masculine values of fighting and strength and insinuates strongly that real men are those who join the Navy or otherwise that if you don’t join the Navy you are not a real man. Another masculine virtue which is implicit in the poster is that fighting men are in control, are able to dominate a dangerous torpedo like a wild horse, enjoy taking risks and are not afraid of war.


Analysis of a poster from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty

For a semiotic analysis I have chosen an advertising poster for Dove because some years ago it had grabbed my attention on the street and in magazines as something different.

It’s interesting to read what Unilever writes on its website about this campaign:

‘For too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes. Women have told us it’s time to change all that. Dove agrees. We believe real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages. That is why Dove is launching the Campaign for Real Beauty.’ (campaignforrealbeauty.com)



Image result for dove campaign

Fig. 2 Poster for Dove Campaign for Real Beauty


Denotation or what I can literally see:

On a white background I see on the centre left of the poster a group of seven young women (one coloured, one asiatic, one with a tattoo) in different white underwear, all smiling and looking at the camera. They look like they are posing for a photo and touching each other. At the opposite side of the poster, below right, there is a group of white and blue Dove products. Also on right, in mid air hover the words ‘For the price of 1 supermodel, / we got 7 real women’ preceded by the logo image of a stylized yellow dove. At the top right in small letters is the name of the campaign website, campaignforrealbeauty.com, to which the poster belongs.


Connotation or what are the implied meanings of what I see:

Having read the intentions for the campaign declared by Unilever, I’m going to see how the company has translated them into this poster. First of all the message communicated is hybrid since it certainly wishes to persuade consumers to buy a certain product but declares also the ambitious social end ‘to change the status quo and offer in its place a broader, healthier, more democratic view of beauty’ (campaignforrealbeauty.com).

That said, Dove products are in the low price range, are sold in supermarkets and cosmetic chain stores and are aimed at a generic consumer, so the choice of a campaign without luxury connotations seems a good and sensible one. The girls look comfortable with themselves and relaxed, as a group of friends taking a selfie, their unpretentious white underwear indicates that they show themselves as they are, feel well in their skin, are confident in their bodies and expose them without worrying about the judgement of others. So far so good even if the implicit message seems to be that real, normal women DO have doubts about how they look, DO feel insecure and so DO need to be reassured by a poster like that.

I must also say that the text ‘For the price of 1 supermodel, we got 7 real women’ does not sound particularly flattering to real women – it is like saying that they are not worth a supermodel and can be bought rather cheaply as a bunch, at a discount price – but most importantly it seems to me that it contradicts the visual message that beauty cannot be measured and assessed. So conventional beauty and being traditionally gorgeous DOES count after all and women ARE judged by their appearances which is exactly the opposite of what the visual message wished to communicate.



List of illustrations

Figure 1. Richard Fayerweather Babcock, Join the Navy, c. 1917 [colour litho] At: movedbybreath.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Join-the-Navy-1917-Richard-Fayerweather-Babcock-colour-litho.jpeg

Figure 2. Poster for Dove Campaign for Real Beauty At: http://payload163.cargocollective.com/1/7/247254/5568685/DoveOOH1_900.jpg


At: http://www.campaignforrealbeauty.ca/supports.aspurl=supports.asp&section=campaign&id=1560 (Accessed 21/02/17)



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