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Decoding the rhetoric of images. Image by Panzini

Roland Barthes: Decoding Images and Image Rhetoric — Explained

Lesley Lanir
Jul 11, 2019 · 4 min read

Author: Lesley Lanir

· How do images hold and convey meaning?

· How do we understand them?

· What are they trying to say?

· How do they persuade and influence us?

Roland Barthes deconstructed a Panzani advertising image and extracted the types of messages contained within it in order to illustrate the ‘rhetoric’ of the image. Though advertisements have a deliberate ‘signification’ or meaning generated in order to sell a product, Barthes’ analyses can be used to understand how messages are conveyed in other types of images.

Decoding the Image

When looking at the overall sign of the advert, the reader understands from its composition and its placement in a magazine that it is an advertisement. However, beyond this, the Panzini advert sends three types of messages: the linguistic message and two types of iconic message.

Linguistic Messages: The Text or Captions

Within the linguistic message, which is the caption, the copy, or the title, are two types of messages at work:
a) The denoted message, which is the literal meaning of the labels on the produce — in this case the name of the company, Panzani.
b) The connoted message, which is the sociocultural and ‘personal’ associations drawn from the label or text. For example, the word ‘Panzani’ in the illustration connotes Italianicity.

The linguistic message here is — this advert is for an Italian food company.

Iconic Non-coded Messages: The Literal Image or Denoted Message

When the viewer looks at the advertisement, the visible items (the signifiers) represent what they are signifying in reality. The signifier and signified are one and the same, thus providing a non-coded message, and the “realism” of the image makes it appear to be a ‘natural’ scene rather than ‘socially and historically’ constructed. Paradoxically, there is no code to decode at this level because a photo of a tomato represents a tomato. As Barthes says in his book, The Rhetoric of the Image, “We need no other knowledge than what is involved in our perception.” Once you recognize the iconic sign (the signifier) or object in the picture, you understand its meaning from its similarity to its visual reality — the signified item. The items provide an innocent, iconic non-coded message and a realistic context in which to present the overall message. The message in this case is “the scene itself, literal reality.”

Coded Iconic Messages: The Symbolic or Connoted Message

Barthes points out, when you analyze the pure image, you can distinguish four main signs that although discontinuous and not linear, work together to create a coherent message:

1. Because of the visual composition, the scene represents the idea of a return from the market. This is a ‘signified’ item — in this case an overall meaning created by a number of signifiers. The return from the market further signifies product freshness and home-made food.

2. What signifies the return from the market? We arrive at this connotation by way of a signifier — the half open shopping bag with the contents spilling out. However, in order to ‘read’ this sign, we have to understand what the shopping bag represents and the culture around ‘local shopping’, as opposed to the bulk supermarket buys.

3. The colors red, green, and white are known to relate to or signify Italy, or rather ‘Italianicity.’ They work to enforce the linguistic connotation of the sign Panzini.

4. The close proximity of the items suggests or signifies that Panzini provides a total culinary service and is your solution to a quick, fresh, home-made meal.

The viewer derives the message from the visual connotations or suggestions provided by the chosen objects, their particular arrangement, their signifiers, and what they signify. From the coded message we receive the idea that Panzini provides fresh, home-made, authentic Italian meals.

How do the Messages Work Together?

The linguistic message serves to anchor or direct the viewer away from a number of possible meanings that may emerge from the image and towards the intended meaning.

The linguistic message can be separated from the other two iconic messages but because the non-coded and coded messages have the same iconic substance, it is more difficult to differentiate between them — the reader consecutively receives a perceptual image and a cultural message.

Barthes emphasizes though, that it is important to separate the two in order to understand the final relationship between the messages and the image as a whole; in the same way that it is necessary to differentiate between the signifier and the signified in a linguistic sign.

Interpreting Images

Overall, connotation within an image has the same effect on the denoted message as the caption or written text has on the photograph. It guides the viewer away from the literal image and its message and towards the intended message of the overall image. Thus, Barthes provides a useful tool for analyzing images and for understanding and appreciating how, through forethought, the compositor sends messages that are persuasive and convincing.


Barthes, R. The Rhetoric of the Image. Éléments de sémiologie. (1964). Communications 4, Seuil, Paris.

Barthes, R. Elements of Semiology. (1968). Hill and Wang, New York.

First published on Decoded Science: December 11, 2012

Check out my site for blog posts and free resources: Turnaround Your Teaching — Solving Language Learning Difficulties

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