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CAN 4 A picture is worth 1,000 words

An earlier version of this essay can be found here: The text below is a revised version which takes account of the comments I received after submitting the original to the critiquing forum for peer feedback. That discussion can be read here:

In this essay I intend to use the system of semiological analysis proposed by Roland Barthes (1987, 1993, 2000) to unravel the layers of messaging contained within a print advert created for McDonalds in 2017 by Vienna-based agency DDB, which I examined in an earlier exercise and have decided to investigate further for this assignment because I was impressed by the extent to which the various signs communicate different messages to different audiences based on the different lexicons employed by each audience.

I shall break the image down into Barthes’ three categories: linguistic, denoted and connoted, and examine each in turn.

The linguistic image

It is striking that this image includes no linguistic message and the only thing even approaching the status of text is the letter M formed by McDonalds’ Golden Arches symbol. Also notable is the fact that a copywriter is credited by DDB, indicating that specific consciously created non-linguistic messages are present in the image.

The denoted image

On a denoted or literal level, the image includes three main signs: the yellow M shape in a green frame on a red background, a hand with three chips inserted between the fingers, and a lighting effect that produces strong contrast in the central image area and a vignette towards the outer edges, particularly at the top.

The connoted image

The three signs in the denoted image act as signifiers for several layers of signifieds, or connoted messages, and each viewer will receive the message or messages that their personal lexicon allows them to perceive.

Sign 1: The yellow M shape is almost universally recognised as fast food giant McDonalds’ Golden Arches monogram (Schlosser, 2001). Its green frame denotes its use here as a company logo, and the combination of logo and red background indicate that the image’s whole subject is McDonalds, these being the specific colours of its branding. The positioning of the logo neatly in the bottom right corner defines it as a kind of signature or seal, implying that this is an official communication from the company, and not, for example, a generic picture of McDonalds packaging.

Viewers with a lexicon that includes an understanding of the business context affecting the company at the time of the advert – which included falling sales, franchise closures (Thomson Reuters, 2017; The Economist, 2015; Corbett, 2017) and criticism of the nutritional content and environmental impact of its products and production methods (Super Size Me, 2004; McSpotlight, n.d.) – might read the very fact of the advertisement’s production as a statement of defiance signalling the company’s determination to remain in business. Such viewers could include franchisees, detractors, journalists, business analysts and informed members of the public.

Sign 2. The hand with chips acts as signifier for a number of signifieds, with apparently contradictory moods. The hand is firmly clenched, and can be read as clean, strong, reliable and paternal – or alternatively as threatening and aggressive. The former reading indicates that McDonalds is a place for dads, and by extension their kids, to visit – a message reinforced by the insertion of the chips between the fingers in a mirroring of the Golden Arches symbol, which suggests a social-media-friendly game they could enjoy and introduces a mood of light transgressiveness in the idea of playing with your food. This is perhaps the image’s key message – the idea that McDonalds is “naughty but nice”, a message that picks up on parents’ doubts about whether they should be feeding McDonalds’ products to their children, and relocates and diffuses that unease.

Parental concerns are further dispelled by the bends and cracks in the chips, which signify that they are natural and not some kind of reconstituted goo as has been rumoured (Mashable, 2015). In a further layer of messaging, the hand with chips resembles the hand of Marvel Comics superhero Wolverine (Marvel, n.d.) – an intergenerational reference shared by dads and kids which was not present in my own lexicon until I investigated the meaning behind the ad agency’s working title of Wolverine, but which offers McDonalds as both an entity that “understands” those who can read it and a location for intergenerational sharing.

My lexicon does, however, allow me to read the clenched and weaponised fist as a knuckleduster and as Satan’s trident, which brings us to the darker signified – a pugilistic statement of defiance that stops just short of outright threat and can be read as mere laddish fun, feeding in to the “naughty but nice” transgressiveness already discussed, but which is nevertheless also present as a sinister undertone, perhaps intended to speak to customers who found the saccharine Happy Meals campaigns alienating, while also hinting that McDonalds is not to be messed with.

Sign 3. The high-contrast lighting emphasises and in some areas directly conveys the dual mood tones of the advert and thus signifies both the “naughty but nice” narrative and the “up-yours” message of defiance. The heavy vignette at the outer edges of the image signifies a dark aura around McDonalds and is an acknowledgement of the chain’s bad press, to which the advert is a direct riposte. Together with the Satanic trident it offers a light-hearted take on the idea of burning in hell which lets detractors know that it doesn’t give a damn. The high contrast of the central image area reflects and magnifies the theme of good vs evil that runs through the layers of connoted messaging – the dark shadows on the left of the hand conveying a sinister undertone, while the golden light on the chips leads the eye to a punctum in which they look crisp and heavenly just as the weaponised aspect of their sharp tips is highlighted.

Using Barthes’ schema to unpack the advertisement in this way reveals a change in McDonalds’ strategy for dealing with detractors since the late 1990s when it would challenge their claims on the basis of fact, an approach that created a huge PR own-goal in the McLibel trial (McSpotlight, n.d.). Today it seems happy to concentrate its energies on managing its image in the eyes of its target market and respond to critics with a raised middle finger.

Reflection before tutor feedback

I have found the exercises and assignment on interpreting and deconstructing images more enjoyable than I expected. I was initially very intimidated by Roland Barthes, mainly because I had a strong preconception that his writings were nearly impenetrable, but as soon as I started reading Mythologies I realised that he has a wonderful sense of humour and an aversion to pretension, and that made me warm towards him. And when I moved on to Camera Lucida I felt I understood where he was coming from, so felt interested in his attempts to construct a framework for his responses to photographs and his relentless seeking for meaning and truth.

Although it didn’t take me very long to unravel the layers I found in this image on an intuitive level, I found the task of organising these insights and expressing them using Barthes’ terminology much more difficult than I had anticipated, finding myself repeatedly getting muddled and having to refer back to his texts, in particular the chapter in Image Music Text entitled ‘Rhetoric of the Image’. Several times I had an “a-ha” moment while I was out on a longish solo walk, which seemed to provide the thinking space I needed, and pulled out my phone to make notes.

Eventually I got my first draft completed and posted it to the critiquing forum, where I received some valuable feedback and advice that I integrated into this revised version of the essay, which I now feel ready to submit to my tutor.

Reflection after tutor feedback

My tutor’s feedback was essentially positive and highlighted just a few minor points for clarification. Having taken these on board I laid the essay out in InDesign and printed it onto A3 plain paper with a mounted photo print of the image. A pdf of the final layout can be viewed here.

Fig. 1: Wolverine (2017) © McDonalds, created by advertising agency DDB ( Creative directors: Andreas Spielvogel, Thomas Tatzl. Art director: Julia Reischmann. Copywriter: Jakob Paulnsteiner. Photographer: Viennapaint.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (1987) Image Music Text. London: Fontana
Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. London: Random House
Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage
Corbett, J. (2017) The Continuing Decline of McDonalds. Available at [accessed 18.09.18]
The Economist (2015). Why McDonald’s sales are falling – The Economist explains. Available at…/2015/…/why-mcdonalds-sales-are-falling [accessed 18.09.18]
McSpotlight (n.d.). The issues: introduction. Available at [accessed 11.09.18]
McSpotlight (n.d.) The McLibel trial. Available at [accessed 18.09.18]
Mashable (2015). McDonalds reveals what goes into its french fries. Available at [accessed 11.09.18]
Marvel (n.d.) Your Guide to Wolverine. Available at [accessed 18.09.18]
Schlosser, E. (2001) Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Super Size Me (2004) Directed by Morgan Sherlock [film] US: The Con Presents in association with Studio On Hudson
Thomson Reuters (2017) McDonalds US restaurant sales fall after five quarters of gains. Available at [accessed 18.09.18]

CAN 4 self-assessment

I feel I got to grips pretty thoroughly with both the theoretical underpinnings of this assignment, specifically an appreciation and (sufficient) understanding of Barthes’ schema, and its application to the image I chose to analyse for the assignment. I enjoyed discovering that Barthes is not as inaccessible as I’d believed him to be and is actually very funny, and that his intention is not at all to mystify but the opposite: to demystify and thereby deflate the pretensions and pomposities of cultural communications.

My self-assessment ratings for this assignment are as follows: