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Environmentalists NGOs and the construction of the culprit: semiotic analysis

Andrea Catellani (Laboratory for the Analysis of Organizational Communication Systems (LASCO), Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain‐la‐Neuve, Belgium)

Journal of Communication Management

ISSN: 1363-254X

Article publication date: 15 November 2011




This article aims to analyse how environmentalist NGOs build the figures of guilty and evil businesses in texts published on the web sites of two ironic prizes. These texts are good examples of criticism based on reversing and analysing semiotic productions of organisations, like advertising and environmental reports, as a part of on‐line environmentalist campaigns.


The article is based on textual semiotics and a semiotic‐based approach to rhetoric; the methodology is qualitative and exploratory. A part of the text published on the web sites of the two ironic prizes (Pinocchio and Angry Mermaid) are analysed in order to identify different models and strategies of criticism.


The article identifies a series of critical strategies: semantic/paradigmatic, syntagmatic/meta‐textual, referential, narrative and inter‐textual criticisms. It underlines the fact that on‐line criticism is an anti‐ideological semiotic action, which can be compared to some forms of ecological thought. Nonetheless, it is based on some forms of rhetoric and ideology, which can be analysed with semiotic tools.

Research limitations/implications

This paper presents a qualitative, exploratory analysis of two cases: results cannot be directly generalized, but methodology and findings can be transferred to other cases (epistemological principle of transferability).

Practical implications

Methods and results of this paper can help in enriching research on the rhetoric of environmental communication, and can integrate more quantitative approaches. Results can suggest new approaches to business communicators, in order to avoid environmental criticism and “boomerang effects”.


The attempt to apply semiotics to the analysis of communication campaigns is rare and perhaps quite innovative. The approach can enrich the fields of PR and business communication studies, of rhetoric analysis and of environmental communication analysis.



Catellani, A. (2011), "Environmentalists NGOs and the construction of the culprit: semiotic analysis", Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 280-297.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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