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Semiotics: A study of signs

A Semiotic Study on War Posters

This report wouldn’t have seen the light at the end of the tunnel had it not been for
Dr. Seema Khanwalkar who encouraged & challenged us & settled for nothing less
than our best efforts.

The following study is set during the times of World War II when the bigger national
powers ‘sceptre’ed the world colosseum & used war propaganda to score high on
the sympathetic quotient of the nation & in turn the world. The focus of this study is
to understand & analyze this phenomenon through the U.S. war propaganda & how
the super power used it to their advantage to turn tables amongst the global audi-

The hypothesis statement for the entire study is ‘USA used propaganda posters dur-
ing the war with subliminal texts so that the civilians would get influenced, in turn
mobilizing opinion the way the ‘thought leaders’ had anticipated’.


A historical backdrop
The face of human kind got a deep ridden scar in 1945 when the universal mayhem
named World War II came to an end with the explosion of an atom bomb in the Ja-
panese territory of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. The world wide turmoil which commenced
in the late 1939, divided the world into two powers viz. Allies & Axis till the unfortu-
nate event happened in the Asian quarter of the world. The Allies emerged victori-
ous & as a result United States of America & the Soviet Union grew to be super-
powers of the world. Their quest for global dominance left their clothes stained with

Submitted by: Karan Chandna (e7019), Komal Lath (e7023), Kshitij Pandey
(e7024), Niyati Sharma (e7036), Rajeesh R. (e7041), Shradha Agarwal (e7056),
Subhamoy Das (e7058), Varun Attrey (e7062)
Semiotics: A study of signs

the blood of innocent civilians across the globe. However, in order to have an upper
hand in the political arena as well, these superpowers resorted to use of lens, propa-
ganda & dynamic war journalism in order to mobilize the masses. Propaganda
posters were deployed in order ‘to paint the town red’ so as to capture nation’s mil-
itary triumph over axial powers around the world so as to connect with the patriotic
& sympathetic side of people back home. To cut the story short, the United States of
America went in with full gusto to propagate a general hatred & an implied support
for the nation’s military forces campaign towards world dominance.

Why have we chosen this topic?

Semiotics as an application can be extended to the fabric of many…in-fact every
sphere. We decided to test waters on our knowledge of semiotics by applying it to
some very basic visual texts like posters. It is not unknown that United States of
America had been acting the Big daddy of all nations and the World War II just ce-
mented the power structure of that nation. However such global supremacy neces-
sitated mass killing in the other, poorer countries, which needed to be put in a com-
pletely different light to fellow citizens to garner political support. As a result of
which, the photographs of mass suffering in the Asian lands of Hiroshima & Naga-
saki post the ‘Atom Bomb’ incident were suppressed in the US media circles & the
triumph of their military coups were projected to a ‘Herculean’ pedestal. The means
of propaganda were many…journalism, posters, photographs etc. In our opinion we
wanted to analyze how a very basic medium like posters could also be semiotically
analyzed to convey rich, deep yet latent meanings. It was an interesting thing to
note the play of form, visual imagery and paradigms that cohesively gave way to an
altogether new construction of meaning…the way USA wanted so as to justify their
brutalities and negate Nazi Germany & other Axial powers.

The methodology adopted to analyze the posters, (refer appendix) that were issued
by the US government to mobilize the masses in their own country, would restrict
the universe of our analysis within the quadrangle of signification, paradigms asso-
ciated, denotations & connotations & finally iconification. The posters would be ana-

Submitted by: Karan Chandna (e7019), Komal Lath (e7023), Kshitij Pandey
(e7024), Niyati Sharma (e7036), Rajeesh R. (e7041), Shradha Agarwal (e7056),
Subhamoy Das (e7058), Varun Attrey (e7062)
Semiotics: A study of signs

lyzed under the lights of the signifiers in the posters & in turn what did it signify for
the general public, the paradigms associated which are communicated through the
generous use of codes & symbols, the denotative & connotative meanings of these
posters & finally the negative iconic quotient imparted upon the axial powers to put
them in the bad eye of the general public so as to justify mass killing in these parts
of the world.


This analysis concerns a semiotic analysis of posters whose similarity is based on

the fact that all concern the posters prepared as propaganda by the USA (In con-
junction with the Allied powers) to coerce the Axial powers, and all were found in
the within the textual context of war posters.

We therefore present a ‘semiotic deconstruction’ of the posters that have been

chosen (please refer to the Annexure) in terms of their status as signs, whose asso-
ciative meanings not only gave a favourable impression of the country, but also the
sublime power context in which they were situated and highlighted; thus illustrating
Umberto Eco's claim that the medium and message may be 'charged with cultural

The use of Umberto Eco’s theory is very significant in this regard as the ‘paradigm’
in which the war posters have been based, are heavily influenced by the social
paradigms (the angst against USA which was rising and therefore to mellow it, Ger-
many was made to look like a devilish country) , economic paradigms (the economic
unrest). The medium being posters used for propaganda and the message being
‘exuding power by USA among the nation and the rest of the world through sings,
symbols, iconography etc.

Iconography and Codification through symbols…Signified

and signifier

Submitted by: Karan Chandna (e7019), Komal Lath (e7023), Kshitij Pandey
(e7024), Niyati Sharma (e7036), Rajeesh R. (e7041), Shradha Agarwal (e7056),
Subhamoy Das (e7058), Varun Attrey (e7062)
Semiotics: A study of signs

Although all of the posters do not physically represent the product, they all provide
an important iconic representation of both the propaganda and what the codifica-
tion, should stand for. Thus, analyses of all the posters strongly focus upon the visu-
al imagery, and the ways in which this imagery generates the appropriate signified
concepts (or emotional overtones) which promote the image of the product. Take for
instance the colour red that has been very prominently and overtly used to signify
the bloodshed caused by Nazis and therefore mobilize opinions against the Ger-
mans who belonged to the Axis Powers.

The fonts used also have a startling impact on the way the message can be per-
ceived. Poster 3 for instance shows ‘warning, our homes are in danger now’. The
very fact that the typography and word constructions (the semantics, syntactic and
paradigmatic) meaning emerges strongly that Germany is one that is destroying the
world and that to protect your homes, you need to support your country – USA.

The visual imagery when ‘decoded’ very bluntly describes the 2 powers – Japan and
Germany trying to assert their power( the globe focusing on USA, their expressions
of complete power and disgust over the USA and the very fact the placement of the

Denotations and Connotations

The signifier Hitler with his facial expressions, hand gestures and body language sig-
nifies contempt for the world and USA in particular. In Poster 2, the shoe kicking the
white house bearing a Nazi symbol which lies in the paradigm of the social construc-
tion of the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles. The concept was to show the
‘blitzkrieg’ phenomenon and again the linguistic semiotics – ‘we’re fighting to pre-
vent this’, shows the extent to which USA went to protect its atrocities and justify
the horrific deeds.

Thus an overview of the analysis as was presented in class covered the way the
posters were designed, their historical perspective as to why each poster was made
and the backdrop of it being constructed. We then peeled the onion layer bit by bit
to unravel the deeper texts hidden within the codes of its construction like visual
imagery, fonts, colours, the people who were depicted (Eg. Poster 1 showed sur-
render by the blue collared workers post the Great Depression), the syntactic, prag-
matic and semantic meaning of the visual text, the appeal which it then generated
and the overall effect it had on the masses.

Applying the theoretical framework:

• Barthes expressed his view that a newspaper photograph, posters are, ‘ob-
jects that have been worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated ac-
cording to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms which are so many
factors of connotation

Submitted by: Karan Chandna (e7019), Komal Lath (e7023), Kshitij Pandey
(e7024), Niyati Sharma (e7036), Rajeesh R. (e7041), Shradha Agarwal (e7056),
Subhamoy Das (e7058), Varun Attrey (e7062)
Semiotics: A study of signs

• There are many decisions taken by the poster creator such as; focusing, sub-
ject, angle, that produce various representations, and readings, creating dif-
ferent connotations. From the choices made from the paradigm sets of these
signifiers, and the syntagmatic relationship between them, it is possible to
decode and compare the posters


 Writing the image after Roland Barthes – Jean Michael Rabate


Submitted by: Karan Chandna (e7019), Komal Lath (e7023), Kshitij Pandey
(e7024), Niyati Sharma (e7036), Rajeesh R. (e7041), Shradha Agarwal (e7056),
Subhamoy Das (e7058), Varun Attrey (e7062)
Semiotics: A study of signs

Annexure 1

Fig Fig 1.2


Fig 1.3 Fig 1.4

1.5 Pandey
Submitted by: Karan Chandna (e7019), Komal Lath (e7023), Kshitij
(e7024), Niyati Sharma (e7036), Rajeesh R. (e7041), Shradha Agarwal (e7056),
Subhamoy Das (e7058), Varun Attrey (e7062)