The use of polysemy, intertextuality, and symbolism in advertising
The use of polysemy, intertextuality, and symbolism in advertising

The use of polysemy, intertextuality, and symbolism in advertising


Advertising has become the most powerful tool in marketing for business and organizations. It’s an essential factor in the creation of brand awareness and enhancing trust among the consumers of advertising products.  It is the process of communicating with current customers and potential buyers about goods and services (Linda Carlson, 2007). Given that the primary objective of advertising is to make people aware of certain products within the market, different companies have various approaches to ensuring they make more profits through advertising and keep off competition (Skorupa and Dubovičienė, 2015; Hackley, 2010). 

These firms, for instance, Coca-Cola, Snickers, and Heinz -use sophisticated strategies and theories of advertising to accomplish their goals. Looking at some of the multinational companies ads, it’s easy to discern the creativity used by directors in making the commercials. Some of the concepts used by these companies include polysemy, intertextuality, and symbolism. The three concepts – as seen in some of Coca-Cola, Heinz, and Snickers advertisements and they offer strategic ways for the firms to ensure people relate well to the message put across in a simple way.

Advertising and polysemy

Advertisers and media practitioners have expressed difficulty in the interpretation of advertisement messages (Mark Ritson,Stepano, & Jonathan, 2010). More so, the current trends in advertising have focused on the ever-growing role of metaphors and its complexity. While the creators of advertisements have one or two messages to all the audiences, different people perceive the information differently (Hackley, 2010).

The perception of the adverts is associated with people’s beliefs, ideas, indoctrination, and attitudes.  Polysemy refers to the presence of varying interpretations of the same advertisement message by the recipients. While advertising meaning refers to the decoding of a commercial that is influenced by the consumer’s culture, polysemy here implies the existence of more than two interpretations in the same advertisement by different audiences over time.

It simply means that two people can consume the same advert and get varying understanding of the message put across. It is, therefore, paramount that companies understand the concept of polysemy in advertising to ensure their advertising objectives have been well understood.

The Coca-Cola “Taste the feeling” commercial is a good example of advertisements that may bring both synchronic and diachronic polysemy’s in interpretation of the meaning. The advert begins with a bottle of Coke which is already full of the product and more coke is being poured until it overfills. There is no narration but a smooth, relaxing song by Swedish musician Avicii.  We are then shown a scene of a lady with the bicycle helmet and eyeglasses.

She looks happy and gives her viewers a smile while sipping coke using a straw. After the drink, she looks even more energetic and starts playing with snowflakes. The interpretation here is that drinking coke makes one happy and lively.  Other scenes from the advertisement follow, and one can see visuals of two young ladies sharing a coke, and immediately after they start smiling. One can also see happy- looking girls taking a ‘selfie’ after drinking coke.

The advert takes the viewers to a beach where a man and a woman are carrying a basket full of Coke filled bottles. Additionally, there is a scene of two people, a lady and a gentleman, who are seen taking a product from the same bottle using straws.  Shortly after sharing the drink, they look directly at each other in an intimate manner. It appears they are going to kiss but the video changes to a different a scene.

Towards the end, viewers can see a well-dressed man using a mobile phone and holding a bottle of Coke in his left hand-likely waiting for someone. It’s then that a lady comes, and the scene again changes to a love-making part. This time the woman making love to the man is holding a bottle of coke.  The last scenes are filed with happy looking people; the lady on the beach and another scene where people are dancing after taking the coke drink. 

The Coca-Cola Anthem advertisement, used with the “Taste the Feeling Slogan,” has multiple interpretations, both synchronic and diachronic. At, first, one would believe that Coca-Cola product makes the consumer energetic, lively and happy. In another form of understanding, one would believe taking the drink makes the consumer active in love making. 

Also, the two interpretations can occur between two different individuals, resulting to a synchronic polysemy. One can also interpret that the benefit of drinking coke is enhancing a lively and happy mood, but after watching the commercial several times, one might infer that the drink enhances love making, resulting to a diachronic polysemy.

Advertisers can intentionally use polysemy commercials to appeal to different audiences.  Due to the fact that levels of understanding are influenced by variables such as beliefs, geographical location, social, and economic aspects, viewers will tend to interpret adverts differently. 

The Snicker advertisements “You are not you when Hungry” is set in the ancient Chinese context, but with characters who look modern like Mr. Bean. The story in the advert is that of Mr. Bean in the company of Chinese Martial artists who appears to be intruding a highly guarded compound at night. Mr. Beans give the impression that he is a foreigner, and the skills of martial arts do not go well with him. While running on rooftops, he regularly falls and almost makes the team get caught.

After a failed jump from one roof top to the other, he accidentally lands down on the enemy’s chamber. Its then that he gets a snicker to eat. The advert ends by saying that “you lose focus when you are hungry.” So it seems that eating snickers makes one to be more focused. This is the basic and the most common interpretation of the Snicker commercial, but other interpretation can be seen.  For a Chinese brought up into the culture of martial arts, the interpretation is that Snickers makes one an accomplished martial artists. 

According to Punton (2006), consumers of advertisement usually read things that never existed and that were not intended by the creators of the commercials. However, there is a standard interpretation in the market shared by all people, although modern day commercials will always possess difficult rhetorical devices. Also, all forms of commercials encompass polysemy concept. Polysemy can either be synchronic or diachronic. The former refers to advertising that happens to two audiences at a certain point in time. 

As such, the intended meaning is interpreted differently by different consumers. This is usually the case when the audiences have varying cultural backgrounds and beliefs. The latter, on the other hand refers to polysemy that occurs within an individual. The audience may have varying interpretations of the same commercial. The consumer sees the advert firsthand and then tries to decode the meaning, but with time and after watching the advert several times, other interpretations begin to emerge. Both synchronic and diachronic polysemy’s are critical in determining the success of an advert. 

The HEINZ Ketchup, “Game Day 2016” hot dog commercial is extremely difficult to decipher. Dogs are seen running towards a team of men and women. The animals have loads of sack, and they seem to be in a competition. The individuals who stand to wait for the dogs in a finish line, have clothes labeled Heinz. 

It’s not possible to tell whether the dogs are running to the people who have Heinz labels, or they are just competing in a race.  One meaning is that Heinz Ketchup motivates people do compete favorably. Another possible interpretation is that the HEINZ product makes collaboration much easier by triggering a good feeling. The dogs are running together, and people are waiting to embrace them.

Use of Intertextuality

Advertisers have a way of engaging consumers through the application of intertextuality. Intertextuality is an important and very useful technique in advertising that involves a combination of quotations, parody and sometimes allusion. According to Liu and Thao (2013), intertextuality “is a network of textual relation.” Jinxia (2014) defines this concept in advertising as the relations that exist between texts. It refers to how one text depends on each other.

In other words, it explains how different texts in a piece of art refer relate with each other in deciphering a message. To make advertisements effective and for the readers to grasp the meaning, Jinxia notes that “Intertextuality connection in advertising language is important to make an advertisement easy-accepted and understood by the consumers.” The three aspects of intertextuality advertising, parody, allusion, and quotations, are traditional elements of intertextuality.

Citation, parody, and allusion make the consumers relate the texts given with previous ones (Withalm, 2003). Not only do they impress the viewers, but also grab the attention of the audience. The purpose of any advertisement is to persuade the consumers of the commercials into buying the product. This cannot be achieved without relating the advert and the audience in a good manner.

More so, the advertisers always seek to arouse people’s desire for the product promoting attention.  This concentration value is made possible through intertextuality, where the consumers can relate certain aspects of the advertisements to their daily environmental conditions (Karlsson, 2007). This, in the long run, ensures that the audience remembers the advertisements. Most advertisements usually contain memes such as idioms, phrases, songs and other works that the consumers can relate to.

In the Snicker advertisement that features Mr. Bean’s, the characters seem to possess martial artistry. For an Asian audience, the advertisement uses the culture of Chinese martial arts to impress Asian audience. For a person outside China who does know of martial arts, the advert may look impossible to relate with. However, any Chinese person will always remember the commercial as it appeals to their way of living.

 “Brotherly love business”- part of Coca-Cola global ‘Taste the Feeling’ campaign uses a version of Avicii song “Hey Brother.” To people who love Avicii songs, they will more likely relate with the advertisement and end up remembering the commercial. The theme of the initial Avicii “Hey Brother” is about love among family members, and especially the one between two brothers.

The song is calling for brothers to believe in their families, as “blood is thicker than water.” Likewise, the commercial by Coca-Cola depicts a brother who is being protected from bullies by his brother. The lyrics of the song used in the advertisement are also inter-texts of Avicii “Hey Brother Song.” The concept of using two related works in ads makes it easier for the advertisers to achieve their intended objectives; creation of a memorable and easy to remember advert.

Symbolism usage in ad commercials

Advertisers convey complex meanings by the use of symbols (Homes, 2008).  Most of these symbols are visuals and they are usually are polysemy in nature. They therefore have the potential of inferring different messages to the consumers. While some are easy to interpret, others will require a comprehensive analysis (Percyand Elliott, 2009). Companies and organizations use logos as a way of branding. Symbols are things used to represent other things. They are signs and fall under the broad topic of semiotics (Holmes 2008).

In his book, “Fallibilism, Continuity, and Evolution” Pierce referred to semiotics as the analysis of the structures of meaning in verbal and non-verbal forms (Akpan, 2013). One of the most fundamental components of semiotics, according to Holmes (2008), is a sign. While a sign stands for something else, it is usually connected to an idea that it represents. This concept of the sign is interpreted by the person consuming the artwork and the sign, the object it represents, and the interpreter.

Some symbols are just simple logo-types like Coca-Cola and Siemens while others are complex like Subaru car manufacturers. The Subaru logo seen in most of the firm’s adverts contains six stars, with one bigger than the rest. The meaning of the stars requires an understanding of Japanese culture, and it’s difficult just to look at the logo for the first time and decrypt the meaning. 

The stars are also symbolic. In astronomy and Japanese belief systems, there is a cluster of seven stars in the sky that is made up of seven sister stars. They are the nearest to the earth, and one of the seven stars is invisible. The Subaru logo, therefore, has seven stars, but visually there are six since one is invisible.

There are three categories of signs, icons, index and symbols. An icon represents an object by virtue of the features it has to the object. This includes a curved a drawing of stones falling to warn people that the area has stones that fall. An index sign, on the other hand, shows the connection that exists between the object and the sign. An example of index sign is smoke that is used to represent fire.

Finally, symbolism sign represents an object with the acceptance that the individual’s beliefs portrayed in the object (Elliott, and Wattanasuwan, 1998.). One good example is the use of color to represent different ideas and agendas of the advertisers. Black represents darkness and evil, while red represents blood and danger. One of the most important types of symbols used in advertising is use of color to.

For a good advertisement, the symbols used must relate to the company’s brand (Meenaghan, 1995; Jenkins, 2008). The Coca-Cola’s “A Coke for Christmas” commercial uses a character dressed like Father Christmas to symbolize the period and event of Christian’s 25th celebrations of Jesus Christ. To the Christian audience, the colors, and dressing of the character relates to Christmas.

There are also Christmas trees, and people are seen preparing in a similar version for Christmas season. The meaning of these symbols used in advertising will transfer to a brand, and the consumers will therefore desire to purchase the goods and services hoping to experience some of the emotions communicated in the advertisements.

“The brotherly love advertisement” by Coca-Cola where an older brother always bullies the younger one is full of symbols. However, the signs are not easy to relate and interpret. The story is a conflict between two brothers, where one is using his physical attributes to harass the smaller one. In most of the scenes, the older brother is dressed in blue whereas the smaller one is in red outfits.

While the choice of the color of cloth may look unimportant when interpreting the advertisements, it’s good to understand that the branding color of coca cola is red. Consumers of the product are always aware that red is the brand color for Coca-Cola. On the other hand, a rival company, Pepsi, uses blue as its brand color. As such, the colors symbolizes lack of formality in society (Leigh, and Gabel, 1992)

It therefore seems that the creators of the advertisement had the unintended message by giving the older brother blue colors and letting the younger one have a red color. In reality, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been for years been in a conflict which is also similar to the one depicted in the advertisements. If this statement is the true, the colors used imply that Coca-Cola is a “well behaved” company, younger brother, while Pepsi is the bully.

Interestingly, towards the end, the older brother saves the boy from other bullies yet he had been harassing in the beginning of the advert. In this last scene, the color of the older brother’s cloths changes to red, while the three boys harassing the smaller one are dressed in blue. While the roles have changed and there is harmony, the idea of the conflict between Coca-Cola and Pepsi is still intact.

The antagonist in the advertisement is in blue which symbolizes Pepsi while the protagonist is in the red symbolizing Coca-Cola. Finally, the opponents are trying their best to steal the drink from the young boy. This expresses the concept that Coca-Cola rivals are always trying to steal the firm’s ideas and intelligence. The fact that the bottle of coke is worth fighting for, the young boy feels bad when it’s taken away from him, signifies the idea and belief that coca-cola is something worthy possessing.


The purpose of any advertisement commercial is to create more awareness about a product and therefore increase sales revenue. However, the messages being portrayed in the advertisements are subject to varying interpretation and consumers are likely to react differently. There are key variables that are determinants of how people perceive meaning, ranging from education, age, beliefs, location, and attitudes.

For this reason, advertisers are forced to use a combination of different strategic concepts to drive their point home and subsequently achieve their objectives (Jenkins, 2008). These strategies include polysemy, intertextuality, and symbolism.  The three strategies are meant to give the audience an effective advert that is memorable, engaging and relates to their way of living. They are used with powerful audios, a visual and technical device to sell the commodities and relate with consumer’s cultural settings. How well companies make use of these advertising concepts serves as a critical determinant of how far the advertisement will go in winning people’s loyalty to a firm’s brands.


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