Visual communication across cultures : a semiotic study of the interpretation of Western brand images in China

  • Linda Fu

    Student thesis: Master's Thesis


    This thesis seeks to shed some light on the study and practice of visual communication across cultural boundaries. Using a semiotic approach, it examines how a selected range of Western brand images that are promoted in the People's Republic of China are 'read' and interpreted by the local urban population. The case studies include symbolic images, such as logomarks and logotypes, as well as iconic images such as photographic material in advertisements. The political, economic and social context, and cultural aspects, such as attitudes, values and various cultural codes, are considered as influencing factors that affect the decoding of the meaning of visual unages. The research indicates that the intended and perceived meanings of a branding image rarely match when there is a significant difference between the cultures in which the image is encoded and decoded. While in a few instances the local population interprets the Western brand images in the manner intended by the Western communicator, most are interpreted differently. Some images are interpreted with a positive, albeit different, connotation, others are seen as rather negative. In the worst-case scenario, the messages are severely misunderstood and totally rejected by the readers due to cultural incompatibility. Rather unexpectedly, symbolic images, acknowledged as arbitrary and culture-specific in nature, are more readily interpreted in a positive way and close to the intended meaning than are the iconic images. The latter tend to be interpreted almost exclusively in the reader's (rather than the author's) cultural context and thus may be prone to misunderstanding or even rejection. The thesis concludes that the challenge in communicating visually across cultural boundaries is to recognise cultural differences, and draw on cultural compatibility to generate shared meaning and avoid cultural clashes that cause negative interpretation
    Date of Award2000
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorElizabeth Patz (Supervisor)

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