Rhetoric of the Image – Roland Barthes

Barthes uses an advertisement to demonstrate an analysis of an image. The image he uses is the Panzani advertisement.

Panzani Ad used in Barthes' Rhetoric of the Image
Panzani Ad used in Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image

Coded messages are intentional when it comes to advertising. They are all pre-planned – what Barthes terms ‘a priori’ (p. 33).

Using the image above, he identifies three messages.

  • Linguistic – this deals with the caption and the labels that we read. We notice that the language in the caption is in French, yet the product labels connote a sense of ‘Italianicity’ (p. 33). This linguistic message is both denotational and connotational. The function of the linguistic message is that of anchorage and relay (p.38). When considering anchorage Barthes states (p.39) ‘At the level the literal image, the text replies … to the question: what is it?’ Anchorage is most frequently found in advertisements and press photographs. Relay is less common (see a more detailed explanation in my Contextualisation and Multiple Meanings of Images exercise).
  • Imagery/discontinuous signs – Barthes then proceeds to look at the images and identifies a signified which implies fresh produce and culinary preparation. The net shopping bag is the signifier. One’s culture plays an important role in making the first two connections. A second sign (iconic message) is identified: the combination of the colours of the produce, repeated in the label colours again help to convey the sense of ‘Italianicity’ – the same colours that are found in the Italian flag. The next message to be unfolded is the idea that Panzani has supplied all the ingredients for this delicious meal. It is further implied by appearing in a produce shopping bag that the tomato concentrate, pasta and Parmesan cheese are all equivalent to the organic produce surrounding them. The composition of the image resembles that of a still life, tapping into cultural memories of the viewer. The relationship between the signifier and signified(s) is not arbitrary.
  • Literal message – this is our identification of the items contained in the image.

Rules and methods of composition all fall within the realm of connotation. It is by using the spatial and temporal relationships within the image that the photograph can be properly understood. The denotation of an image plays a role in helping to define the structure of the coded messages within it.

The reading of an image is very dependent upon the viewer’s knowledge and cultural background. This is known as a lexicon. The more variance there is between two viewers’ lexicons, the more evident their different interpretations of an image.

A problem when analysing connotation is that there is no specific language to use – no special terminology.  Instead there is a common ideology. The signifiers within this ideology are termed connotators and the set of connotators a rhetoric (p.49). As Barthes states (p. 51) ‘it is precisely the syntagm of the denoted message which “naturalizes” the system of the connoted message.’

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977). Rhetoric of the Image in Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press


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