Smoking is Allowed : A Case Study of Poster as Counter Hegemony


Harry Jamieson defined visual communication as any visual arts on any media by presenting visual images (Jamieson, 2007 : 10). Visual communication varies from advertising on mass media, photographs, paintings, and alternative media in a form of graffiti for the example. Poster is another example of below-the-line media or an alternative media . Poster is a form of visual communication to express an idea, an ideology, or even more as a form of rebellion. Some idea of counter hegemony or counter culture  are expressed through posters on the public sphere walls.

I found a good example of a counter hegemonic poster at Gubeng Station, Surabaya. There was a poster at that train station of the East Java province capital written “Boleh Merokok. Merokok adalah aktivitas legal yang dilindungi undang-undang”. In English it says “Smoking is Allowed. Smoking is a legal activity protected by the law”. That poster is on a wall near the smoking area. Now allow me to do a cultural studies analysis in semiotic way about that poster.

Like an academic writing, let’s start this matter with a question : How the “Smoking Allowed” poster is symbolically counter hegemonic to the dominant discourse anti smoking discourse?

Why do I propose that poster as a counter hegemony? First of all, let me remind and recall you of any information we used to read and hear from common science and knowledge about smoking. “Smoking Kills” an ad says. A lot of social advertisements, articles on print media, and programs on TV say how smoking is dangerous for our health. Many medical reports say that smoking causes cancers and becomes a catalyst of death. Those are popular information we get. That’s what we call the mainstream discourse. Foucault said that science and knowledge productively, actively, and more over subconsiously  become a controlling power inside ourselves. Common science and knowledge regulate our comprehension and our behaviour then we become disciplined for that discourse. That’s what Foucault said as disciplinary society (Eriyanto, 2011 : 66 – 67). We become disciplined about the restriction of smoking. Our lovers and family would say “Hey, smoking is not good. Watch that from the TV health program”; “Read this articles. Smoking will weaken your sexual performance”.  Those discourse in media become a hegemony of anti-smoking ideology from the power of health experts, medical institutions, and celebritious doctors.

While there are some individuals and communities that is contrary to the mainstream hegemonic culture. Their interests are oppositional to the dominant ideology. The counter hegemony  work is a struggle to the popular and existing dominant discourse (Louw, 2001 : 23). James Lull said that counter hegemony is a resistance to hegemony and opposing the ideological conversion through the alternative media with resistant or contradictory messages (Lull, 1995 : 39 – 40). The “Smoking Allowed” poster is a resistant expression to the dominant anti-smoking discourse.  So that poster is a counter hegemonic work.

I tried to do a simple visual methodology here. Visual methodology is a theoritical method to interpret visual images (Rose, 2002 : 2). There are two methods to explore visual images : quantitative method using visual content analysis and qualitative method using semiology/semiotic or discourse analysis. I choose to use semiology/semiotics way to describe and to interpret the “Smoking Allowed” poster. Semiology/semiotics is an examination of how meanings in texts are constructed through the arrangement of signs and the use of cultural codes (Williams, 2003 : 155). For the sake of “Smoking Allowed as a counter hegemony” to be the ideological base for the symbolic interpretation, I use Barthes’ semiotics as the visual analysis. Semiotics of Roland Barthes reads signs and texts by denotation (a pure readible or visible signs), connotation (wider and unseen meaning), related to social and cultural meaning (myth) (Laughey, 2007 : 58). Further more about the myth, Willams mentioned that as an ideological representation (Williams, 2003 : 154).

Visual Method A

Here is the visual analysis to the “Smoking Allowed” poster. Interpretation by numbers :

  1. Denotation : Tobbaco leaves, clove flowers, “Komunitas Kretek” text, all in white colour. Connotation : The identity of the community with the sign of tobacco leaves and cloves means defining the word ‘kretek’. Kretek is a cigarette type that is made by the mix of tobacco and cloves. White colour represent the community is holy and clean. Not as dirty and sick as described in the mainstream anti smoking discourse.
  2. Denotation : Green colour poster background. Connotation : green represents natural, fresh, and environment-friendly.  The philosophy of cigarette and smoking comes from the product of nature that are tobacco (and cloves for the kretek cigarette). Tobacco leaf is green. Maybe this is what the smokers feel when they smoke. They get a refreshment cognitively and affectively by smoking.
  3. Denotation : A burnt cigarette and the smoke in white colour. Connotiation : Burnt cigarette and the smoke describing the activity of smoking. It represent the relation with the word ‘merokok’ which means smoking as a verb. It’s white means smoking is clean or OK or good. Not as dirty and sick as what the common science and knowledge talk about the dangerous smoking activity.
  4. Denotation : “Boleh Merokok” headline text , in white colour. Connotation : “Boleh Merokok” (Smoking Allowed) represents an advise to smoke. It’s white means smoking is clean or OK or good. It is a from of head-to-head message to the common “Smoking Kills”, “Smoking causes cancer, heart attack, impotence, and endangers pregnancy”, “Smoking is destroying your lungs”, and any other titles or headlines about health advises. The headline “Boleh Merokok/Smoking Allowed” is a counter hegemonic message that opposes the anti smoking educating messages.
  5. Denotation : “Merokok adalah aktivitas legal yang dilindungi Undang-undang” subheadline text in white colour. Connotation : The subheadline sentence “Merokok adalah aktivitas legal yang dilindungi Undang-undang” means “Smoking is a legal activity that is protected by the laws”. The community proposes the strength of the law or regulation about tobacco , tobacco industry, or the regulation about smoking area. Law and regulation are stronger and higher in the system of laws than just advises or health program socialization about stop smoking on the mass media.
  6. Denotation : Twitter logo, @KomunitasKretek, green font on a white background. Connotation : Twitter account of the community as the existance of their identity. Written in a green letter font and a white background to describe how natural, friendly, and clean the community is.
  7. Denotation : website, white font and green background. Connotation :  website address of the community as the existance of their identity. Written in white letter font and green background to describe how natural, friendly, and clean the community is.

As the data interpretation of the poster signs, we can conclude that the green and white colours as a symbolic struggle to the mainstream anti smoking ideology. The texts are opposing directly to the anti smoking publicity. The symbol and name of Komunitas Kretek is the existing opposite to the dominant anti smoking bodies. The “Smoking Allowed” poster represents the counter hegemonic struggle to the dominant ideology of anti smoking movements.

This analysis has weakness. It might be too subjective. My analyses can be too exaggerating. I didn’t make any confirmation to the poster creator as the message producer. That’s the common limitation of classical or structuralist semiotics as the inquiry method of construtivism paradigm. By doing this small visual research I didn’t mean to make any defence to the anti smoking and health socialization program. It’s just an academic study about cultural studies and visual communication work.


References :

  1. Eriyanto. (2011). Analisis Wacana : Pengantar Analisis Teks Media. Yogyakarta : LKiS.
  2. Jamieson, Harry. (2007). Visual Communication : More Than Meets the Eye. Bristol – Chicago : Intellect.
  3. Laughey, Dan. (2007). Key Themes in Media Theory. Berkshire : Open University Press.
  4. Louw, P. Eric. (2001). The Media and Cultural Production. London : Sage.
  5. Lull, James. (1995). Media Communication, Culture : A Global Approach. New York : Columbia Inversity Press.
  6. Rose, Gillian. (2002). Visual Methodologies. London : Sage.
  7. Williams, Kevin. (2003). Understanding Media Theory. London : Arnold.

3 thoughts on “Smoking is Allowed : A Case Study of Poster as Counter Hegemony

  1. Pingback: Smoking is Allowed : A Case Study of Poster as Counter Hegemony « Komunitas Kretek

  2. baru pertama kali baca blognya mas zack secara utuh, biasanya hanya “window shopping” aza…. thanks mas… nambah ilmu lagi nih…:D

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