Our Research Approach


For the purpose of clarity, this glossary divides the key design features of cigarette packages into the categories of physical, textual, and visual design elements. Some elements fall more easily into a single category than others; for instance, colour is quite unambiguously a visual element. A product name, however, can be considered for its form (i.e. the way it is visually depicted) and for its content (i.e. the text, or lexical choices). We have decided to look at both aspects separately by considering the typography as a primarily visual element and the lexical items as a primarily textual element. Likewise, embossing and debossing can be considered both for its physical properties and for its visual effect. In this case, we consider it as a primarily physical element, as it is tactile and is created by altering the shape of the package.

Industry Documents

Our assertions about the connotative meanings of design elements are supported by archived tobacco company documents from the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. “The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (LTDL) contains more than 13 million documents (70+ million pages) created by major tobacco companies related to their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific research activities.” 1

Semiotic Analysis

In addition to our use of tobacco industry documents, we employ semiotic analysis, which is the study of signs and how they communicate meanings. For each design element, we look at the denotative meanings (i.e. the literal meanings of a signifier), as well as the connotative meanings (i.e. the more cultural/subjective associations of a signifier). Design elements on and inside of a cigarette pack potentially have multiple connotations (either individually or working in combination with other elements), with these connotations triggering second-order connotations. In semiotic terms, we can say that each element or sign can be interpreted through different lenses, each leading the interpreter down a different connotative chain. This results in various interpretations of the packaging and product. As some leading semioticians write, “the higher the number of connotative chains generated by a product’s textuality, the greater is the likelihood that it will appeal to consumers.” 2 As an example, consider the word “apple.” Denotatively, the word “apple” refers to the pomacious fruit of the apple tree. However, due to cultural influences, “apple” carries other meanings, as illustrated by the following connotative chains: Apple –> Fruit, nourishment –> Health Apple –> Biblical ‘Tree of Knowledge’ –> Sin, Knowledge Apple –>“The Big Apple” –> New York –> Urban Centre Apple –> Macintosh computers –> Sleek design Apple –> Teacher’s gift –> Primary school Thus, rather than having one meaning – and, consequently, one interpretation – an object/concept/design element can be associated with a wide range of ideas and can therefore appeal to a wider range of people than it would if it allowed for only one interpretation. It is important to note that the connotative chain of a sign is informed by its context. Simple signs (such as shapes) possess multiple connotative meanings and are “guided” by other pack elements.


  1. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. Available at: Accessed January 11, 2012.
  2. Beasley, R, Danesi, M, and Perron, P. Signs for Sale: An Outline of Semiotic Analysis for Advertisers & Marketers. Toronto: Legas, 2000.