Creative Semiotics Creative Semiotics

Time of the Signs: Some Future Scenarios for Semiotics

So, we've established that an array of methodologies are ready to crowd out the semiotics approach, but that semiotics has the potential to work alongside these methodologies. Does that mean that semiotics is doomed only to work in tandem?
Is it destined to become a purely hyphenated methodology with a blurred identity?

I have been involved in a number of projects during which the client agreed that they could only have been tackled by a semiotician. The first was Radio Centre in their quest to create a common language through which to describe music and sound for planners and creatives wanting to choose the right brand meanings. The Strike a Chord research utilised both qualitative research and neuro-metrics facets. You can read about it here:

The second project, finished recently involved understanding the changing form of humour and determining which types of humour appealed to youth. This was close to an impossible challenge, but it is the sort of challenge that semiotics relishes. Semiotics views humour as an inter-subjective language that we can agree on. Jokes and other forms of humour often rely on cultural understanding. This is the very thing semiotics specialises in. Most disciplines have a narrow focus on one areas, but semiotics operates in the interstices between culture, that joins the dots between parts of culture to provide a holistic understanding of the issues. Semiotics is versatile and inter-disciplinary enough to cover all the ground and to see what is ‘funny’ within music, internet memes, drama and consumer generated content.

In fact this project highlighted many of the unique strengths of semiotics below.

The process involved hashtagging 1200 separate data points which tags to denote the humour type (pastiche, slapstick, gross out etc) accounting for its humour and then, tallying up the highest incidence of humour types into rankings. These were then plotted on a humour map of Cognitive to Emotional & Affiliative to Aggressive.
And the humour gap between the broadcaster and youth humour was thus revealed.

It is hard to see how any other methodology could have handled this question. Big Data algorithms seem unlikely to be able to pick up on something as sophisticated as humour. Image recognition technology is in its infancy: it can be too easily fooled (bagels and dogs) to deal with memes that work via inter-textual references, subtle ironic stances and ads that work through figurative rhetorics etc. Neuro-Metrics is too brittle and focus on comparative metrics not what underlies it, so does not have the literacy to crack this one. Humour is not really about decision making, but it is about impulse, so behavioural science is not relevant. Perhaps more useful when thinking about comedy clubs social norms, how laughter can be increased by social norms and phatic communication etc.. But it does not have the power of semiotics when it is about scrutinising visual texts and combining with cultural analysis. Bio-Metrics – bio-metrics could help to look at the emotional decisions off the back of showing funny videos and which perform best, but you would still need to sift and sort. Trends Syndication – could perhaps show the rise of certain types of humour savage humour, meta comedy, vaudeville. As explained above these would remain disconnected tendencies and unexplained, only semiotics can knits these together.
Implicit Response – could test the speed with which we associate various comedy programmes with the word funny, witty, comedy, amusing, belly laugh etc etc, but a very blunt instrument… Only anthropology or netnography, but it was a forms of netnography anyway that did it. We required detective work that semiotics brought.

So, in conclusion, only semiotics can really do this. Having thought a lot about what it is that allows semiotic uniquely to do what it does I have come up with 6 different sensibilities or skills that mark applied semiotics out.
Charles Peirce suggested that Firstness of sensation would precede the Secondness of perception and the Thirdness of cognition and that actually the first level of aesthetic would lead to certain types of logic and then to habits of thought leading to Ethics. This has now come to pass through the affective turn with emotion leading us to response to stimulus through reflex and this becoming habitual over time. Semioticians shoudlalso be aware of their own ideological biases so that they can make balanced . there is an acute sensitivity towards visual signs and cultural texts and a compulsive sensitivity towards it. It could even be compared to a sort of addiction to deciphering – the cathexis with the signs. This can be seen to be the form of allergy of Cayce Pollard in William Gibson’s pattern recognition who was unable to view the Michelin Bibendum without anaphylactic shock. Semotica paper on Vipassana meditation.
The mind of the semiotician is bristling with frameworks, models, heurists itching to cut into the coal face of culture to quarry insights (check out the Structure piece number 9 out of the Semiotic Shorts) The mind of the semiotician is stock full of nuggets of information often miscellanea from art theory, visual culture, advertising, and product design. But also a way of seeing (John Berger) and knack for noticing what is overlooked. The textual acuity of the semiotician is one of the hallmatks of a good semiotics. Some of the stultifying and philistinic readings of popular culture want to make you weep – lazy assumptions, cliché, cultural amnesia often obtuse or myopic. You want to thrill to the deft detail – like a maestro number 10. This is something you cannot expect form the average data scientist or other proctoid. Ethnographers, behavioural scientists yes but they will have different ways to cognise it.
In creativity, selection and omission are just as important as inclusion. Semiotics sees every work as a text, a machine for generating meaning. The analyst focuses on the syntax and how swapping out frame A instead of frame B shifts visual impact or connotations of a print ad, or how a different music track might transform our interpretation of a visual montage.

Semiotics is a mix of art and science, with models that stretch from brand proposition to creative execution. and but far from just codifying creativity it should be seen is the springboard to creativity. Semiotics does not constrain creatives, but rather helps expand the spaces in which to play. Oliver Perrin, advertising creative director turned rogue semiotician, has coined the phrase non-arbitrary creativity. And this is with the bonus that you can justify every creative decision. Semiotics is a holistic perspective. Only semiotics can help you express the ‘right sort of premium’.


the concept of liminality really ought to be getting a better press. It is fundamental to understanding semiotics. As above, so below, and so on…
Definition: the quality of being liminal: from ˈlɪmɪn(ə)l/ adjective – 1: relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process, or 2: occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
Out at dinner in Tallinn an Amercian planner client said that one of the reasons she so likes and respects semiotics was what we call cultural memory. Juri Lotman talked about this being one function of texts.
Douglas Copeland et al believe that we are living in the Extreme Present. This can be filed alongside associated ideas such as Accelerationism (technology disrupting corporate and state structures and sundering social bonds at increasing rates), Hypercycling (the idea of ever swifter turnover of cultural production and shorter obsolescence cycles), The Singularity (moving backwards from some future moment when the sum total of human intelligence is exceeded by AI), and Liquid Modernity (our bewilderment in the face of social rules that changing faster than we can adapt to them)

“What we’re inhabiting is no longer in the distance but in this state of very profoundly accelerating flux” “We have more and more information and less and less memories. Maybe amnesia is at the core of the digital age and that leads us onto this paradox. Hoarding is the central impulse of our age”. McLuhan and the narcissus narcosis and anaesthetic secreted by every technology as it rearranged our senses.
A semiotician should have a well stocked archive of legacy content from the past that helps them to situate new phenomena and to inoculate us against the amnesia of the 24/7 media circus. What to a shallow trend scout is a novelty, is to seasoned semiotician simply another twist of the cultural churn.
General Patton once said. ‘if everyone is thinking the same, then someone is not thinking’. Semiotics is renowned for being ornery and to step outside dominant discourses. In Adbusters issue ‘A Spiritual Crisis of Identity’ Gavin Mueller writes that alternative media have been co-opeted with nefarious interests. Umberot Eco ‘communication guerrillas’ and the Culture Jammers ethos ‘intervene in the flow of media… to inculcate viewers iwith a critical perspective. We live in disorientating times with Fake News, weaponised memes shitstorm of polemic, claim and counter-claim online would seem to demand a proto-semiotic vigilance because’ people are surrendering to a willingness to duspeced belief and submit to confirmation bias.. In a time where Jaron Lanier and others are counselling to unplug and ditch social media, we need to guard our grills. It is the conscience of meaning..” Global semiotics has a de-totalizing function to carry out: proposing a critique of stereotypes, norms and ideology…” As per my piece on Fake news it is very
Semiotics is more of a perspective and set of methods for analysis than a unified field. Semiotics itself is an accretion of individuals working in logic, linguistics, structural anthropology, journalism, cultural studies and art theory. It is inherently inter-displinacy. Roland Posner writes that… “semiotics is a discipline which studies everything there is from the perspective of its functioning in sign processes.”

A good example would be an enquiry into the meaning in music. Ethnomusicology, cognitive science and cultural anthropology in and of themselves fail to account for aspects of musical meaning.
Semiotics is the only methodology to blend and bind them together to work out a holistic picture that includes subjectivity, cognition and our cultural conditioning. Semiotics is inherent inter-disciplinary. Semiotics research is usually bundled in with other methodologies so apply techniques of reading alongside qualitative research, or crowdsourcing and then needs to feed in insight accordingly.
Mark Taylor in his 2012 Semiofest Keynote speech complimented the openness of semiotics.

“It’s that you are quite a generous bunch. You’re quite open in your thinking, you’re very collaborative, from my experience, with other people who might be a part of the brand development process. There isn’t that preciousness that sometimes you get with more traditional research agencies and individuals. Semioticians seem to me to be quite genuinely interested in lots of things. It brokers chat and conversation, which is a real big value of a semiotic piece of analysis.”

Semiotics as Creative Agency Adjunct – CREATIVE IDEATION

One future for semiotics is as the handmaiden for creatives. Semiotics as has been covered above is the most supple and creative friendly of those disciplines that examine unconscioius factors. This is partly because it is practiced by those who have one foot in culture and are often creatives and artists in their own right. It is also because semiotic. Oliver Perrin, for one, believes that semiotics should be closer to the creative department than to qualitative research or even planning. Perrin writes: “the semiotician answers, to a certain extent, the need for systematic creativity in the crafting of meaning…they differ from creative directors, copywriters and their colleagues in one very important way: any semiotician worth the name will always be able to explain to you precisely why a given signifier is likely to work”.

When I give my semiotics seminar at the School of Creative Arts in Brixton, it is not to stultify them with a stupefying monolithic account of how culture is to inspires students to understand how many levers of influence there are to pull in their work and just how many tricks of the trade they can employ to create and manipulate meaning. My business is called Creative Semiotics so I am clearly biased in this . I have gone as far as creating 9 short animated films just to show my commitment to creativity and to show that semiotics is in itself a creative pursuit – there is a performance of intellect going on. Oscar Wilde wrote as much in his famous essay 'The Critic as Artist' "Without the critical faculty there is not artistic creation at all worthy of the name…Criticism is itself an Art.” In the future I see a semiotics app or avatar, acting as a co-creative adjutant ‘riding pillion’ during the creative process, bringing up a drop down menu for each potential colour on the palette or radio during CAD alerting the design to the various interpretive routes afforded by each of the potential choice or for each of the slots during a film edit – and this will be pulled in through semantic search and tagging of various texts.

Syntagmatic relations reflect the admissible combinations of paradigmatic sets into well-formed structures, e.g., conjunction.

Semiotics as Brand Stewardship – BRAND ARCHITECTURE

A client once said that ‘I love the provocation, but too many of you in house would make the company unworkable’. Semioticians are often outsiders because the provocative point of view they are valued for requires a level of intellectual and ethical independence. In spite of this Another potential home for semiotics appears to be in house. This is the value of semiotics to act as cogency counter glue of meaning

At Semiofest 2014 in Shanghai Martina Olbertova proposed a Brand Curation Methodology for idea managing ‘brand meaning’ inside companies. Olbertova describes Brand Curation as a systematic shaping of brand meaning on a holistic level. She argues that a “Brand’s inner clutter easily results into brand fragmentation and image inconsistency, which both drive awareness and brand perception further down the hill. When what it should be focusing on is brand meaning (symbolic value of a brand)."
This dovetails somewhat with what Chicago based brand strategist and designer Michael Colton wrote about design semioticians going in house poacher turned gamekeeper if you like, and sitting across individual design accounts in order to become more strategic Corporate Brand Guidelines champion.
Colton writes that “in addition to operating only as an outside consultant, contracted as analysts who informs meaning, the semiotician can further add value as a synthesist who curates meaning. In this form, the semiotician is not an outside consultant. The semiotician is rather an internal steward, insuring that the deployment of brand codes and signs are precisely meaningful and resoundingly desirable.”

Semiotics as Quantifiable Index – BRAND VALUE AND EQUITY

In 2008 I wrote an opinion piece for the Journal of Consumer Research entitled Semiotics: A Winning Formula? In which I explored the possibility of a metric for comparing brands using semiotics. I suggested that a working committee of semiotics practitioners should be convened to think about how to measure signifying practice and to come up with a balanced scorecard formula (akin to the NFL passer rating, working alongside a team of econometricians and financiers).

I have already wondered about the reliability and standardizability of brand indexes both overall and wondered how anyone could take seriously an index that lacks a semiotic appraisal of a brand meaning.

For instance, Meaningful Brands is an initiative from Havas Group that measures and ranks brand value. But the Havas survey for all its fanfare measures only financial tracking and brand health, not cultural connotations or emotional resonances – semiotics could certainly play

There have been attempts to quantify semiotic insights. Semiometrie’s tool developed by TNS was licensed to Channel 4 in order to match brands to relevant media programming through psychographic and demographic data was one such tool. But as covered above in the Big Data section we appear to be on cusp of being able to automatically register all sorts of text, and to dig into the detail to extract details such as connotations, inter-textual resonances and the incidence of cultural currents, genres. Once image recognition and other scraping or data mining tools manage to do the same for all proprietary (owned), earned or paid for media occurrences of brand touch points then that will be a game changer. We will be able to correlate brand material with the cultural currents within which they swim and look at the popularity, fecundity of these thus create a formula to calculate the felicity and likely future success that cleave towards resonant cultural currents and undergo with a degree of algorithmic certainty.

“The Never Ending Image Learner (NEIL) proposed in [17] is a massive visual knowledge base fed by a crawler that runs 24 hour a day to extract semantic content from images on the Web in terms of objects, scenes, attributes and their relations.”

Semiotics Guerrillas as Mental Freedom Fighters – DECODEURS

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Tim Stock said that semioticians are the ‘epidemiologists of culture’ we should be giving the early warning systems of new things happening. As Maasik and Solomon write, “the political interpretation of popular culture, even it is not conducted under the name of semiotics, is already a common practice. The semiotic method simply makes it explicit… the political values that guide our social behavior are often concealed behind images that don’t look political at all. But that is because we have to look beyond what a sign of pop culture denotes, or directly shows, to what it connotes or indirectly suggest….to its political or cultural significance”

With the proliferation of news stories and the fears around ‘fake news’ the left leaning French
newspaper has launched their own site of dedicated fact checkers, inevitably termed Les
Decodeurs in order to designate their mission to cut through thickets of misinformation
decoding the dissimulation, mendacity and sophistry to distinguish the genuine from fraud.
Barthes talked about semioclasm. Arguably semioclasm and semio-guerrillas are already out there. Street art, hip-hop and stand up are all good examples of deconstructing mores. Street art mashing together, lampooning authority through turning public space into protest, juxtaposing the, exploration of social conventions in stand up and the view from the hip-hop which is a post-strucuturalist – and hip-hop are about trashing official discourse, decodes institutional structures such as racism, prejudice and

Outsiders like comedians tend to be liminal peopein between cultures – deracinated in some way.

Semiotics as an Image Search Engine – VISUAL INTELLIGENCE

The web still struggles to pick up and classify visual content. As Susan Etlinger writes: “people no longer communicate online simply via written content…they upload and share billions of photos every day. This can be both exciting and terrifying from a brand perspective, because approximately 80% of images that includelogos do not directly refer to the brand with associated text. As a result, organizations are missing the meaning of images and are unable to act on the opportunities or risks they present”

“The opportunity for organizations to make sense of images isn’t just about recognition and analysis, however; it’s about image intelligence – the ability to detect and analyse images, develop predictive models based upon them, and use these models in context with other data sources to forecast and act on emerging trends, develop business cases, detect and mitigate crises, and a host of other uses”. In the report Altimeter identify uses such as Brand Health, Marketing Optimization and Innovation Strategy.

But the state of the art of this visual intelligence is still lamentably rudimentary and unfit for purpose. This is exemplified by mistaken ‘false positives’ for instance a ‘puppy or bagel’ error on Reddit in 2016.
It is thus only natural that Web experts are keen to explore semiotic frameworks that promise to produce better results than pure semantics to develop smarter, more intuitive human image inferencing engines.

So computational linguists are resorting to semiotics to transcend the narrowness of ontologies and to bridge the so called ‘semantic gap’ between query concepts and classifiers in terms of image retrieval. The researchers in a fascinating, if technical 2015 International Journal on Advances in Software paper Volume 8, Numbers 3 & 4 entitled ‘Query Interpretation – An Application of Semiotics in Image Retrieval’:

“In conclusion, applying semiotic relations in query expansion over an external, generic knowledge base,
contributes to a higher quality semantic match between query concepts and classifier labels, and also significantly
improves image retrieval performance compared to a baseline with only synonym expansions.”

“With the continuous effort Google is making in transitioning from an Internet of Strings (just based on the signifiers) to an Internet of Things, we should soon need to talk of the passage from Semantics to Semiotics in Search. Semiotics goes further than Semantics does, into implying how every single person may relate to signs. Semiotics is… complementary to Philosophy of Language, and collides with other humanistic disciplines that are becoming needed parts of search marketers’ cultural baggage.”

Semiotics as Cognitive Metering – SELF QUANTIFICATION

Ray Kurzweil is a techno-utopian predicting that the sum total of human intelligence will be superceded by AI some time around 2045. This will herald a world where human and machine intelligences merge. In this Branve New World we will benefit from cognitive prostheses, upload our conscious to artificial neural nets or share cognition with non-biological substrates. If we take a more optimistic view we can see an opportunity for a computer semiotics to monitor what is going on. It seems like everything is pointing to the gap between information and our brains collapsing. What happens when the interface between mind and data and external symbols vanishes entirely? We may not just want to measure the glucose and joules of energy expended in cognition but what sort of meaning has been registered there.

Jolly writes that greatly enhanced capacity for fine grained: “brings in the idea of an emergent and expanded sensoriality. What experiences come about when the senses start to work in new ways? How do things shift and change when we tune into experience more precisely?”

It is possible to see a confluence of semiotics and the self-quant movement – the link could be cyber -semiotics – the homoestasis of the future cyborg will b – a constant monitoring of bio-chemical signs, symptoms as a proxy for well being will come first. But what about empathy and our mental health?
For an example of what can go wrong, the emotional valence reverser in Black Museum of Black Mirror.
For this in order to create a truly humanistic set of wetware we need to translate from sensory stimulus into meaning. For this we can’t just rely on cognitive science, which is mostly culturally illiterate or at least indifferent. And Terence Deacon who has been beating the drum for years for a neuro-semiotic discipline believes to bring more humanity and accounting for meaning to neuroscience

We need to translate from the forms of experience into some way of classifying qualia for our mood. Or we will fall into the sort of reductionism that Facebook was accused of when creating a range of emojis. Too crude a beast – only semiotics has the finesse, ability to conjure with liminality…
Bio-semiotics and quantum computing in concert programmed to brain and body scan our organism.

Semiotics as Content Triage – MENTAL SELF DEFENSE

Semiotics is increasingly moving from analysing signs and symbols that we ponder on and where we negotiate meaning to more aggressive semiotics signals and supernormal stimuli that assault our senses. These proliferating signs, click bait like memes, viral videos, GIFs, online games, earworms and other insidious micro-texts work us over via reflex and by hijacking our reward system. The Attention Economy means that – As Edward Wilson has it – when splitting our attention online, we are like drunk people. People leave off both dating sites and gaming sites less satisfied than when they started. Social media can connect us but also gives us status anxiety, needing more stimulation, leaves us feeling more alone, and potentially feeds compulsivity and narcissism. Smartphone addiction us a thing and this does not even go into the perils of porn addiction, YouTube burn out and some even darker aspects of this.
If the shadow of the Industrail Revolution was colonialism, economic exploitation, and latterly ecological degradation, people are starting to talk about the shadow of the digital revolution being a mental health crisis. Nicholas in his book The Shallows talked about and in his latest book The Glass Cage he. Jaron Lanier in a series of the books, You are not a Gadget, Who Owns the Future and his latest, has warned about the perils of being ensnared within the

The way we interact is set to become more multi-sensorial with Visual ASMR, Multi-Sensory, Visual haptics, and the imamenses – but we don’t have to wait for this for semiotics to find its relevance.
This ties in with the Affective Turn. Paul Cobley discussed this at Semiofest 2012. Malcolm Evans gave us an updated version at Tallinn, 2016.In the Cultural Implications of Bio-Semiotics blah blah blah. And to realise that bio-semiotics incorporates the different levels at which meaning becomes embodied which lins in wththe cognitive semiotics – embodied semioticians such as Jamin Pelkey, Lokoff Johnson.
Wanting Versus Liking by Decode and Duncan berry – neurosemitics for emotional triggers.

I have long believed that semiotics has an important function in protecting our mental and cognitive well-being. I have meditated every day since the turn of the Millenium and wrote a very geeky paper entitle Into the Realm of Zeroness for Semiotica on the phenomenology of somatic-embodied semiotics. In Buddhism, signlessness, the cessation of semiosis in the mind is one of the marks of enlightenment.
Fabio Rambelli writes: “semiosis…is the cause of ignorance, attachment, illusion and suffering. [in various forms of meditation and mindfulness techniques] a gradual reduction in seed production (and semiotic activity) results in the purification of …the mind” Could be semiotics be put to reduce semiosis?

Triangulating Semiotics with Other Methodologies

1. Introduction

This piece is first of a two parter on the state of the art of applied semiotics in consumer insight. It is primarily written for practitioners of semiotics interested in the development of the methodology and for interested researchers, strategists, planners and ambitious, progressive insight specialists. So I write this piece to give my opinion on the utility of approaches to give a sharper sense of the demarcation lines between them and how they can best work together as a consolidated insight.

Semiotics has grown in currency in the last two years. It is on companies’ radars there is increasing demand for semiotic insight, however as it makes modest inroads into research budgets, another issue hoves into view: lack of clarity amongst clients on where semiotics sits in the insight suite: how it works with other methodologies.

Miscellaneous queries I have fielded recently from clients and prospective clients range from a confusion between semiotics and ethnographic approaches, uncertainty over how combinable semiotics is with neuro-metrics or with behavioural economics, whether semiotics is legitimate if it analyses consumer generated content from qualitative research, and the difference between trends findings and a emergent cultural code. There is a lot of uncertainty out there. So I wanted to address this.

To state an interest, my mission is to move upstream in the insight chain to tackle the big strategic problems facing companies and individual brands. I am a creative problem solver, not just a semiotics methodology provider. I want to become an insight broker bringing the above suite of tools to brand creation, product innovation briefs where there is a genuine appetite for a culturally sensitive approach to the big strategic choices but also a need for triangulation of results from other approaches. I would welcome views from practitioners and clients on aspect of this, in particular those who want to collaborate with and partner with Creative Semiotics on projects.

Some semioticians see semiotics as a singular cultural critique that stands outside of and can never be mixed with empirical positivist science. Some prospective clients only see semiotics as a stand alone approaches for a narrow range of applications.

I used to be Head of Semiotics at Flamingo Research so I started off applying the methodology in triangulation using qualitative research. Often a combination of focus groups, triangulated with semiotic and ethnographic approaches - that at the time seemed to be termed 'bricolage'' - were the lifeblood of my day to day work. 

a WARC Best Practice report, ‘What we know about bricolage and semiotics’ July, 2017 writes “Bricolage does not put interviewing, or any particular information-collection method, at the centre of solving the client's problem. Instead, it puts the researcher's detective and analytical skills at its core. It means treating many more things as empirical materials to be read than the products of groups and interviews.”
Vice President of ABM Research, Charles Leech, wrote at Toronto, Semiofest 2017:

"One of the challenges in the search for rich and accurate insights is the inevitable partiality of any one research approach. If you only examine an issue from one perspective (or with one research method), you end up with a distorted view of reality (a can looks like a circle, not a cylinder, from only one angle). The only way to get a true picture of reality is to triangulate: look for the same truth using at least two different methods, and see what comes up... As a result, Triangulation, or mixed methods research has become increasingly popular".

The core of the piece compares insight techniques for decision making such as trends syndication gathering, big data analytics, behavioural economics, implicit response and neuro-metrics All these approaches potentially replicate aspects of the semiotics toolkit. All of them help to highlight different facets of the unconscious factors and context that underpin and drive consumer mindsets. I believe that the simultaneous deployment of these approaches get us to a richer insight and can give a fuller picture, to eliminate blind spots and be of better service to our clients.

2. Triangulation

Semiotics has alluded to above has long been blended with other insight tools, for example ethno- observational techniques. Observational research helps to capture behaviours and patterns subjects reveal in the course of their lives in unguarded moments, things they themselves are not aware of. Semiotics can then bring the essential 'structure' and a cultural backdrop to 'amorphous' observational data.
But what about more contemporary technology and science inspired methodologies? In the below, I attempt to set out what these individual specialisms claim to provide, the insights they provide, and the types of semiotic project they replicate. For each methodology I cover what the method is, how it works, the semiotics services substituted, the threat level and potential for semiotic friendly combination.

DISCLAIMER *This is not meant to be an exhaustive account of the way these methodologies operate. I seek only sketch out their utility so as to be able to compare them with semiotics. Please comment and correct me if you feel I have misconstrued or misrepresented a methodology in which you work. Whilst I have a working understanding of these areas, my specialism is semiotics; I cannot be an expert in everything!*



Source: LSN Global website,

Trends Houses are focused on keeping in touch with the latest in popular culture, in technology and social and cultural practices. In an accelerationist and hyper-cycling culture industry where things move faster than ever, and we all infected by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), this sort of insight helps clients spot innovation opportunities and helps them see where the cultural zeitgeist is moving.

Trends in general are very well curated and smart.

Drawing on in house resources, trends are usually packaging in a very attractive way using glossy photography with examples from digital art and smart custom design infographics. trends provide a blanket, generalised market intelligence which is distinct from the specific enquiries posed to semioticians to forensically deep dive on specific cultural or category areas. I am doing a talk on hip-hop and masculinity in a few weeks and have downloaded LSN's Masculinity report, as well as Faith Popcorn's to give me a snapshot of prevailing discourses.


The only rub is that some trends (not all, but some) identified can be rather frothy,ephemeral and transient without a sense of their place in a cultural churn and likely longevity. There is also sometimes a lack of nuance towards the way culture works. An inherent neophilia with some of this work blinds us to the deeper patterns of recurrence and repetition and longer arcs and trajectories of change that the art of the long view afforded by semiotics can provide. As Rachel Lawes writes, when encountering some interesting socio-cultural change we need to ask of it: "Is it a micro-trend? Is it the start of something large? How long will it last? How can all of our business respond to it with new consumer goods and services"

Creative Semiotics recently contributed to a BackSlash, the TBWA agency thinkpiece entitled Wacko World. This is a timely exposé on the excrescence of wacky aesthetics on and offline. Semiotics added some perspective on the history of collage and randomness (Dada etc) in art and connected these aesthetics with ideologies. Semiotics need not vie with Trends Agencies on being first to unearth the super new but just needs to concentrate on their significance, placing them in wider context.



Source: Scenario DNA website:

What is Big Data? Typically it can be defined as extremely large data sets that can be analysed computationally to help us to see patterns. So for example mashing up Ordnance Survey data and Department of Transport accident data to create a map of road junctions where most accidents happen so as to improve warning signage.
Marion Tanis writes:
“The dream of accurate market segmentation and audience targeting is now a reality through the usage of these new devices and the output of big data and metrics. As a result, the industry has become obsessed with this profitable dimension of market sustainability and the quantification of consumer behavior. Spending on big data is set to reach $48.7 billion by 2019, with associated revenues reaching $187 billion by the same year (Olavsrud, 2016). “
So, what sort of problems does Big Data solve in the consumer insight realm:
If we consider a company such as Palantir. “Palantir is helping Hershey’s Chocolate better understand how and where their chocolates sell in stores. For instance, Palantir were able to mine customer transaction and store data to figure out that when Hershey’s chocolate is placed next to marshmallows, it increases sales.”
Steve Verba, in the RWC ESOMAR series on semiotics series looking at Big Data and opportunities for semiotics notes about its obsessive appeal:
“The biggest appeal of Big Data application in business is that the sheer amount of data provides a sort of intrinsic credibility. Secondly, the appeal also comes from the notion that the tools used to analyze Big Data are positioned as applying pure logic to that data to make precise predictions. This is both a great Brand Promise and a Unique Selling Proposition for Big Data.”
Marion Tanis notes, in an research proposal Big Data and the Future of Technology in which she ponders: “Is big data evolving faster than our ability to properly use it?’ asks, quoting Joe Stanhope at Forrester whether we are reaching the limits of our ‘cognitive power’ when it comes to the interpretation of digital data. Tanis writes that: ‘it is important to note that we are currently ill-equipped to make decisions on the highly advanced outputs from rapidly growing technologies. In other words, the problem is that big data is outpacing our ability to properly handle it.’
Semiotics can help to correct some of the biases in as Verba writes: “Semiotics draws our attention to the existence of an underlying code system informing the choices made within the discipline (e.g. what is ignored, devalued or glossed, or what is valorized, optimized or rewarded)”. The big issue with Big Data is the problem of meaningful interpretation, digging into statistical significance etc.
Verba challenges the axioms of Big Data as transparent logic applied to immutable documented evidence by showing the limits to the interpretive frameworks used. He gives an example of gaining competitive advantage using semiotics to reverse engineer social media data.
I recently shared a stage with the Digital Forensics team from Flamingo, my old employers showing how the Big Data can work with other methodologies which they call digital forensics which involves analysing a repository of self-ethnographic data.
There have been companies operating in this space for a while. Scenario DNA, run by Tim Stock, a previous attendee at Semiofest specialises in data visualisation based on Linguistic and Machine Learning. Previously (SEmiofest, 2012) he has tracked the spread of affiliation with Anonymous or the Raw movement in the US by detecting as is stated on the website “and tracking cultural signals to reveal critical patterns and emerging narratives that create competitive market advantage.”
Signoi have started a service called quantitative semiotics, that helps "clients quickly cut through the cloud of culture and focus on what signals are truly important for your brand or category. What’s growing and emergent, the natural meaning structures and codes within a category? How do we track their evolution and use them for commercial advantage?” Quilt AI that are seeking to pair semiotics and Artificial intelligence to create powerful synergies. Where they combine the scale of data points along with the cultural nous and interpretive skill of the digital anthropologist.
However, it is harder to see how quantitative semiotics can make the sharp, precise interventions such as are required in account pitches or creative inspiration – and if you are interested in a very specific area of culture, you need bespoke, rather than off the shelf insight combination of the weight of numbers and semiotics insights. In this case crowdsourcing and semiotics might be as good or even better combination.



Source: The Behavioural Architects website

Behavioural Economics has been bubbling under as a methodology for use in research and insight since 2010 or so. Behavioural Economics has striking parallels with semiotics. Both focus attention on context, on the unconscious factors that influence decision making and looking for patterns in order to create insight.
As a qualitative researcher colleague wrote:
"Behavioural science tends to start with a behaviour and seeks to explain it; its expertise is centred on its ability to drill into psychological process, but not so much on understanding the environment's inputs. Semiotics on the other hand starts by describing environments/stimuli and what they mean to people apprehending them."
Behavioural economics, popularised by books such as Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational, and Nudge can be used to evaluate anything relevant to where a decision is to be made – clearly relevant to buying decisions as there are many variables involved. Areas of research researched by behavioural economics is anything to do with the influence of consumer-brand interfaces, service design or consumer journey work where the principal interest is in gauging nudges or levers of engagement at every point. It is also becoming influential in understanding organizational dynamics.
Behavioural Economists apply a panoply principles such as Framing, Social Norms, Loss Aversion, Framing, Choice Architecture. Much of these have been derived from Daniel Kahnemann, a Nobel Prize winner for the book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, a psychologist who coined the term System 1, to designate the more impulsive part of the brain which works on a nonconscious/ implicit brain processing model, responsible for the vast majority of the actions and which processed billions of bits of data, versus System 2, the more reflective part of the brain which is more purposeful, effortful, but less efficient, and is easily overwhelmed.
Behavioural economics has done a much better PR job than semiotics. Rather than languish for years as an obscure backwater, it was dramatically heralded as a revolutionary technique, gathered powerful advocates and then quickly set about carving itself out a niche. It enjoys a higher profile, and perceived relevance.
For this reason some clients may, erroneously, believe that it covers off exactly the same ground as semiotics - analysis of the context of communications and decision making. The thrust of BE findings can also seem more relevant because they focus on the mechanism by which the environment cause behaviours, rather than the way we interpret visual signs in culture and how these findings unconscious influence us.

Along with ethnographic research, this is the most compatible with semiotic data. This is because though the pure academic subjects are based on different epistemological foundations, they are siblings within market research and consumer insight industry for the reasons of shared concerns and premises set out above.
I just worked with a Behavioural Economist on a project and this lens helped, along with the semiotics to explain why the category service design and packaging posed an acute Empathy Gap for consumers, involving bewildering shelf layout (-ve Choice Architecture) and created friction and paralysis in decision and Cognitive Overload and how the category needed to combat Endowment Effect with some smart heurists. The semiotics contributed sharp analysis on garish colour choice, and misconceived speed metaphors on pack. Together, the semiotics and behavioural economics was a dynamite combo in explaining why this packaging wasn't working!
As Nick Southgate writes:
"Behavioural Economics says framing works. Semiotics, commercially applied, could be seen as analysis of framing - the cultural norms, symbols, etc. that are part of the implicit message of the presentation of any decision. When BE identifies a framing issue, semiotics should be able to suggest widest array of levers to pull"



Source: Neuro-Insight website

Neurometrics techniques have risen in credibility in the eyes of marketeers and cases studies seem now to be ubiquitous at research conferences. This has been driven by the increasing sophistication in brain understanding and the decreasing cost of technology on the one hand, heightened need for data in decision-making and a greater appetite to embrace neuroscience on the other. The Advertising Research Federation in the US has embraced Neuroscience. In the UK, WARC runs regular seminars to popularise these techniques.
Neuro-metrics tend to work through either EEG or Electroencephalography which measures electrical activity in parts of the brain and fMRI or functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery which measures the blood flow to various parts of the brain. Neuro-Insight have pioneered and patented a retuned version of EEG called SST or Steady State Topography. Neuro-metrics helps clients or agencies to optimize communication by tracking the emotional intensity, approach withdrawal or long term memory encoding happening in the brain during the exposed stimulus.
Neuro-metrics claims to identify the creative factors correlated with peaks of brain response and across a range of measures. These measures can be correlated with desirable consumer responses, for instance, emotional intensity or long term memory encoding. The latter, in particular is somewhat of the holy grail amongst effectiveness metrics since it is shown to correlate very highly with ad effectiveness.

In a think piece developed for Thinkbox, the trade association for commercial television advertisers, Neuro-Insight, with whom I have worked before, present a series of elements: emotion over hard facts, classic storytelling techniques, and skilful placement of branding and music that can help to maximise the impact of communication. This clearly give another approach alongside semiotics as technique for deconstructing brand texts.

Darren Bridger in his 2016 book Neuro-Design sets out effectiveness principles – including neuro-aesthetics, gestalt psychology, behavioural economics - to help the designers of all sorts. The chapters cover such aspects as processing fluency, how first impressions work, multi-sensory design, visual saliency and persuasion and even virality of memes. The book is laser focused on distilling techniques that will help to move the needle on work in fields like advertising, architecture, UX design.

Semiotics, on balance semiotics tends to operate at the level of big creative ideas, their cultural resonance. Semioticians tend to do so by delving into the detail but we seek to connect these with the bigger picture. Semioticians in creativity know that what is left out is just as important as what included. The semiotician would start with the question: what meanings are you trying to convey and through what signs?
Starting from the perspective that all branded signs are freighted with cultural meanings, the semiotic will change the meaning, for instance, how swapping out frame A instead of frame B shifts visual impact or connotations of a print ad, or how a different music track can transform our interpretation of a visual montage.
Neuro-metrics is more tactical; signs (shots, frames, scenes within a video or ad) is about the optimization. This leaves untouched the more upstream brand ideation, positioning and brand proposition studies which semiotics specialises in. Neuro-metrics tends to be more developmental, not inspirational.
semioticians, when working with neuro-metrics specialists can bring heightened awareness to analysis of visual features, their potential connotations, multi-modal aggregation of meaning (for example the likely effects of types of music or sound used). Semiotics can create testable hypotheses for alternative approaches, via commutation test tweaking of different meaning units to optimise performance.



Source: Affectiva website

Bio-metrics is not just about market research.
It is a technique used to detect, sense and measure the unique biological signs or even features of human beings for some purpose. In a blog post about this area of research within consume insights…Are Implicit Techniques the Future of Market Research?, Neal Cole writes: “Biometrics are implicit research techniques that measure the body’s physical response to a stimuli. Biometrics monitor bodily functions such as heart-rate variability, skin conductance, respiration and eye movement. This allows researchers to identify unconscious responses to marketing activity that self-reporting would never be able to accurately measure.
Companies like Affectiva, Imotions and Real Eyes use software recognition hyper sensitized to facial micro expressions on a second to second basis in response to video and other types of visual media, and who can report on the emotional responses moment to moment to stimulus, this very much like neuro-metrics.
Emotient writes: “Emotient software translates facial expressions into actionable information that helps companies make better decisions based on audience response to media, products and experiences.”
Bio-metrics is clearly more of a developmental rather than an upstream strategy tool. It is not going to threaten the ideating, provocative side of semiotics, but it will certainly be a threat to the evaluation of multi-media, traditional TV ad, music video and other moving image artefacts. This is a parallel threat to that posed by the neuro-metrics agencies. The threat may be greater in this case however as the availability and the accessibility of the desktop cam technology can make it scale faster and the emotional pull of the tests might help reduce any resistance.

So for bio-metrics like, neuro-metrics, tests require the textual literacy needed to dissect and pinpoint what elements in the given stimuli which spark meaning. A classic example of the sort of study that might eventuate a blended bio-metrics, semiotics study would be a recent enquiry from a qualitative research agency who had commissioned a Galvanic Skin Response study and wanted a semiotic facet.
For example, a recent enquiry for some semiotics read:
"we are exploring the moments of high arousal and aggravation when shopping in a co-op by combining eye tracking and GSR data with qualitative questioning and observations. We’re interested in adding a semiotic layer of analysis to the outputs"
In this case, the semiotics brings interpretive skill and would review the footage of the respondent, or photos, the ambient media other sensory elements respondents are being exposed to at key points when a spike or dip occurred in measurements.



Source: Vision One website

Branding is based on associative thinking. This is clearly very enticing for clients, in 2018 since it chimes in with the focus on distinctive assets as driver of brand choice - as promoted by Byron Sharpe in his book How Brands Grow so it is about owning equity irrespective of whom else does. Van Praet in his book his book Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience can Empower and Inspire Marketing writes:
“when a brand consistently repeats a coherent, compelling message over a period of time, the net result is…a physical change in the brain’s circuitry at a cellular level.”
Implicit response typically measures the relative speed of response to different types of stimulus to determine how closely associated a given brand or visual brand asset is with a desired brand value. The respondent is asked to rate something that is either congruent or incongruent in 500 – 600 milliseconds. It is based on associative and semantic priming, which typically involves – 2 or 4 different concepts and attributes. As Andy Dean from System 1 Insights whom I spoke with explains, "by triggering concepts in consumers’ minds, requiring them to respond indirectly within a very short time window, tests measure precisely the strength of association between a brand and a fragrance / packaging / ad / taste and related concepts it evokes. The idea is to circumvent an individuals' conscious mind, to do this they are confronted with alternatives and purely react to how they see on the screen."
Implicit seems to be most useful when you are considering how closely brands or commercial entities match up with various desire values - and this clearly has very wide application. It seems to be best at working with static imagery, so brand logos, packaging that can be flashed up and registered instantaneously. The main areas of usefulness for implicit being Brand Category Positioning, Advertising Sponsorship, Product Placement, Celebrity Endorsement. It also helps in Sensory branding too.

Brand value is said to reside in the neural networks in the brains of consumers. Brand equity is at least partially built via the associations and values accumulated by brands through their identity and communications. Both these methodologies help in understanding associations, semiotics through dissection the culture to see what associations are encoded in the culture within which people are conditioned, it is a rich, and suggestive technique. Implicit response tests how tight associations are.
Semiotics focuses on how these associations work through the web of culture and how they are reliant on cultural codes and can be complex and multi-layered and inter-textuality or work through disentangling subtle metaphors or allusions.
Implicit response cuts through the speculation by simply assessing the speed of reaction time as a proxy for the gross relative tightness of association between values. This is great for comparison and selection, but as Darren Bridger, a lead Consultant at Neurostrata recently wrote, “I think that Implicit Response could work very well in tandem with semiotics. With semiotics covering the ‘why’ of iconography triggering associations, and implicit measuring the ‘how much’ of particular designs”.
A brand audit by a semiotician would pull out the various cultural and inter-textual references giving a rich account of the meaning potential in each alternative. And then when determining which of a series of strategic options generated by semio, most closely associates a given value needs the failsafe arbiter of implicit response.
Semiotics can be used up front to sift brand or design alternatives and to build justified, non-arbitrary creativity in , generating a palette of design sample of alternatives into an array of prototypes. Semiotics can helps in post rationalisation of implicit results or help provide interpretive guidance to development pointers.

We can see a summary of the above below along with the aspects of semiotic services substituted as well as threat level to these services:


3. Conclusion

What I have attempted to do in this piece is to set out pragmatically the place of semiotics within a suite of other insight techniques. I look at the burgeoning area of neuro-metrics and behavioural science and show the facets of semiotic applications that overlap with or are infringed on by aspects of methodologies, but argue that this should be a cause for celebration not trepidation on the part of semioticians. It should also be fertile fishing ground for companies and agencies interested in best in class insight – offering cross-fertilisation of perspective and valuable synergies too.

Semiotics can bring valuable interpretive nous and textual awareness to the stimulus and cultural materials studied by these other disciplines. Moreover, it brings humanist instincts, hyper vigilance, ornery counterblast, to fast changing, accelerationist, confusing world. I am however keen to 'right size' semiotics amongst in the world of insight. Semioticians need to respect and gain respect from neighbouring disciplines. Semiotics in and of itself is not a panacea, and is not appropriate for all research problems. However, neither some of the other disciplines mentioned here catch-all solutions. There is often a fetishization of Big Data for instance without adequate attention paid to hidden assumptions and interpretive nuance.

Triangulating approaches afford rich potential for inter-disciplinary blends that generate more than the sum of their parts. Firstly, because the triangulation principle allows you to layer perspectives to give a fuller picture to more confidently iterate towards the true state of affairs as well as throwing up anomalies that are actually opportunities to dig deeper or are themselves commercial opportunities. Secondly, because there is invariably rich corroboration between the findings of independent work stream and that gives added confidence to clients through reduced risk of skews. Thirdly, because shrewdly planned interventions across methodology can be more cost effective than splurging on a single methodology that is brittle, and does not optimise ROI.

For example, the below diagram shows how semiotics could work alongside the other methodologies in part of an insight suite in comprehensive brand development and communication projects that run from the Exploratory, Analytical and Developmental through to Evaluative phases. Please contact me if you’d like to pilot such a project.


We live in a complex, fasting moving and joined up world and the most intractable and interesting communication, insight or behaviour change projects require multi-faceted solutions with imaginative inter-disciplinary teams covering each others’ blind spots. These solutions are available, we need to be bolder in utilizing them. This is a Brave New World and a very exciting prospect for us all. Ideally, more research commissioners would have the confidence to green light these multi-methodology, blended approaches.

I would welcome views from semiotics practitioners and those involved in related fields and clients on aspect of this and in particular those who want to collaborate with Creative Semiotics on projects or who want to partner on methodology development.

Semiotics and Stand Up Comedy



I have been thinking  about the parallels between semiotics and comedy a lot recently. This is partly because I have just finished a mind blowingly interesting project on the semiotics of humour. And partly because, having done poetry open mics for quite some time, I have started a stand up comedy course recently too and am immersing myself in the world of what makes things funny.

It is definitely out my comfort zone. Building rapport with the crowd draws more on qualitative research chops for connecting with a bunch of randoms in a focus group than the ivory tower seclusion of semiotic thinking. But the writing itself is highly semiotic – it is all about what you have noticed, that others probably haven’t noticed, its uncanny connections to other things that have kernel of truth to them and deconstructing social mores, in and out group distinctions and social etiquette and the rules we have have.

At the superficial level, semioticians and comedians have something obvious in common. Both are outsider figures who work at the margins of culture and are often seen as eccentric provocateurs. Greg Rowland in his paper the Slag of All Semioticians said his clients seemed to view and treat somewhere between Moses and an idiot savant. And semioticians study humour too. Canadian Paul Bouissac, who gave a Keynote on Catchy Memes at Semiofest 2017 has written extensively on clowning and the circus, a highly semiotic entity. Malcolm Evans deconstructed the idea of the 'fool' in Shakespeare as a sort of carnivalesque sage / prophet.

But if we look closer we can see more parallels. Both of them are disciplines that rely on:

1. Observational detail

2. Surprising connections

3. Revealing cultural norms

4. Insight and epiphany

5. Subverting the status quo


1. Observational Detail

in an interview recently a comedian wrote that comedy was about seeing things in a way that Michael McIntyre - naming something that has not been named, which leads to a relatable insight = funny. This is something we need to be alive to and skilled at as semioticians in order to meet the clients's brief.  Or Mo Gilligan pastiching different types of rapper in his routine - something others vaguely note, but don't see with such clarity. Pastiche and parody in general are based on keen observations.

2. Surprising Connections

One of the comedians I spoke, Stuart Goldsmith who runs the excellent Comedian's Comedian podcast waxed lyrical about the imaginative and lexical brilliance of a comment once made by Charlie Brooker to describe a contestant on Big Brother. "Dot Cotton as reflected in a dented kettle". Making these surprising connections show the genius of vision and insight and is common to both disciplines. And so called 'benign violation' is the basis of the way most jokes are said to work. The listener's expectations as they listen to the set up are violated, benignly in the punchline. When we think of imagination we think of an Eddie Izzard talking about how Darth Vader would negotiate the canteen at the Death Star - cramming together the fantastical and the mundane to create funny incongruity. A main school of humour theory holds that surprise and resolution of that surprise by a satisfying punch line are absolutely key to humour.

3. Revealing cultural Norms

So much, too much to mention in this section- comedians are constantly naming culture and showing up its flaws. Comedy of Manners and social satires as well as pastiche and The Two Ronnies in their famous class sketch.  Dave Chappelle’s or Key and Peele’s soisticated deconstruction and multi-layered – and Ali G’s ambiguous minstrelry and playing with social taboos in the US for instance. And Ricky Gervais and Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm scurrilously plumb the depths of awkwardness. Indeed in the book Awkwardness: An Essay – Kostko writes about the penchant for awkward or cringe humour being about social rules. He gets quite technical when he talks about awkwardness as the social tension that eventuates when we or others transgress or are unable to properly negotiate cultural or social norms. Which, let's face it, in the hyper cycling, accelerationist, liquid modern world we live in nowadays, is pretty endemic for anyone who doesn't live in a cave. Social norms and mapping and understanding their limits is inherently semiotic. And in the hands of someone like Azeez Ansari, in Master of None it becomes the wellspring of great humour.

And when we talk about humour. What about the UK?

Humour has long been an inextricable part of Britishness both in terms of wit and word play but also British traits such as phlegmatic pluck in the face of adversity, a taste for piss taking and sharp satire, puncturing pomposity and comical nihilism.

The culturally omnivorous demonstrate cultural capital through appreciation of more sophisticated comic styles on social media. Arguably its technocratic humourlessness and the faceless arrogance this represented was a fatal blunder for the Remain campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK. Donald Trump’s mock indignation, clown like celebrity demeanour though appeared more likeable than did Hillary Clinton's. Though, it seems that no-one is laughing any more!

4. insight and epiphany

Andrew Stott writes in the book Comedy: A Critical Idiom:

“Jokes therefore emerge from within the social framework and are necessarily produced in a relative relationship to the dominant structures of understanding and epistemological order. Despite the violation of the social order implied by joking, the joker enjoys a kind of immunity through the belief that his or her wit represents insight into a different type of consciousness… the joker appears to gain privileged access beyond the social construct... Joking reveals the practical limits of cultural structures…” 

This is where humour gets dangerous. We would normally think of Richard Pryor and his meditations on race, Bill Hicks’s mordant take on politics and religious in the 90s US. Chris Rock’s broke through ‘black respectability’ and intra-racial taboos with his famous N word routine. And in the UK someone like Paul Chowdry deconstruction of acceptable racism in his shows What's Happening White People ? and Political Correctness in PC's World or Hannah Gadsby looking at rape culture... And Jess Thom who has Tourette's and others with disabilities foregrounding of societal blind spots in being unable to deal with someone's unique needs.

5. Subverting the Status Quo

Andre Stott, in his book Comedy: A Critical Idiom, writes:

“Instances of humour, joking or irony invoke a separation between ‘authorized’, egocentric or rational versions of the world and revealed alternatives, commenting on established conventions as they go.”

Comedians are often troublemakers. Dissident anti-Assad Syrian theatre group Masasit Mati  for instance. The Five Star Movement in Italy was headed up by a stand up, Beppe Grillo. Soviet Union's collapse was said to have been heralded by the emergence of scurrilous and subversive jokes. These are more blatant examples. My Jeremy Corbin comic book is my favourite example of this.

But comedy can also be lethal. I once met the Colombian radio satirist Jaime Garzon through friends on a trip to Bogota in 1995. I was later shocked to hear he had been gunned down in 1999, because of his mockery towards political figures on his radio show.

So yes. Comedy can certainly be dangerous.

But with the so called Culture Wars, comedy has become increasing political. Of course we also see an emerging hybridity between humour as politics, the need for satire in a world going mad and where any covert ideologies are increasingly being called out. We know that a shared joke is the quickest ways to build rapport. And to determine shard views 4Chan, Breitbart and Black Twitter shared very different forms of funny! The Left laughs at the Right for being out of touch, privileged and unaware and the Right scoffs at the Left for being up tight, sanctimonious and oversensitive. As do The Spectator and The Canary within UK politics for instance. Political scientists have even coined the term ‘Unlaughter’ to describe conscientious withheld mirth because of not 

The semiotician is often the provocateur in the room, allowed to play the fool – as Malcolm Evans has said in order to challenge received wisdom. And as in King Lear to – a semiotician I was once told by a US client that he admired my ability to be provocative but said that too many of me in an organisation and it would fall apart – which I took as a (sort of a) back handed compliment!


So what are the overall take outs here? Well comedians could probably learn from a semiotic breakdown of comedy for sharper cultural understanding. Some rare comics like Stewart Lee deconstruct their own routine and its scaffolding of meaning, ‘meta comedy’ but that is not the norm. The laughter is usually the signal that insight has landed, and the joke suffers through added explanation. But there is no doubt that doing a deep cultural analysis yields jewelled nuggets of great value for any stand up.

And education and edification is becoming a bigger part of comedy as humour becomes the palatable way to deliver difficult truths.

And semioticians could learn from comedians in terms of how they communicate their insights. Ricky Gervais’s subtle inflections of UK class and post colonial melancholia Simon Manford on class. Bill Bailey does very clever things with the meanings in music and connotations of different genres as well as the tonal character of minor and major chords. Noel Fielding’s flights of fancy draw on surrealism and confounding expectations. But they all do it by and large by hiding the working and presenting only the juice.

As Chris Head – a stand up comedy coach (and tutor for my course), who gives courses to creative agencies - said recently in a recent issue of Creative Review, he suggested humour is a just a way to make a point more memorably. "Essentially, comedy is communication messages, ideas, opinions and thoughts in an appealing way that the audience can understand and buy into"

And there is of course a close link between comedy and brand communications.

Stand up gigs in the 1990s in the UK famously used to be full of ad execs hoping to nab an award winning catchphrase for their new ad campaign. But more recently corporates have cottoned on to the more subtle use are using it to create empathy – the think:  the visual wit of Pret-a-Manger bags, TfL with their tannoy announcers. Humour is now for creating empathy and rapport. 

Both comedy and semiotics are critical perspectives that help us see prevailing social or cultural norms and to help us imagine alternatives. Both show up incongruities and break codes and lead to epiphanies. Both can be used to cement or to challenge the status quo. After all, we only have to recall The Name of the Rose, the Umberto Eco novel in which mysterious murders committed in a monastery are finally revealed to be buy a monk trying to prevent the discovery and dissemination of a forbidden manuscript, a treatise on comedy. In the murder's eyes it was highly threatening since ridicule can shake the foundations of one’s solemn faith.

Both semioticians and comedians are somewhat like Socratic gadflys that are there to provoke us to question the Establishment. Or like Gramscian 'organic intellectuals' keeping tabs on power as it mutates and challenging narrow, hidebound technocracies.

I see semiotics as akin to other critical and subversive perspectives such as hip-hop culture, street art as well as stand up. They all foreground are all about inter-textual linkages, witty one liners, outrageous metaphors, pastiches, parodies, and the like.

As scholar Stephanie Koziski noted, comics have more in common with anthropologists than either group is willing to admit: “The comedian and the anthropologist share a way of seeing. This involves the capacity to stand outside themselves and to empathise with people who are different in order to more fully understand their actions and beliefs”. This is why both anthropology (for which read semiotics) and comedy tend to be the refuge of cultural outsiders and those with “double consciousness”. This is taken from The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny. Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Notice the use of the word 'code'!

Like this middle class precariat, mixed race Londoner! 

So, I'm not promising to inject more gags into my presentation but I do see rich cross-fertilisation here. I have in a mind a one man show. Semiotician Impossible. One man’s struggle to make meaning out of a firehose of visual culture… Would you come? In the mean time I'll shortly be presenting Sixty Seconds of Semiotics – a time compressed humorous take on ads and visual culture.

And semiotics related joke. Well, I quite like this one:

Why did the semiotic architects firm go bankrupt? Because they kept de-constructing their own buildings. 

This was a joke curated, ironically enough by Thierry Mortier, a Semiotic Architect and regular attendee at Semiofest Tallinn, 2016.


Mind the Empathy Gap



I have been thinking about Empathy a lot recently. In my work as a semiotician I have recently had two projects related to empathy. In both cases, empathy was key to a big brand relating to its audience. One was about ‘democratising’ the value proposition of a brand through communications, a brand anxious that it was losing its franchise to more agile and nimbler, niche brands, the other one wanted to ‘humanise’ and empower their brand personality through revamping the brand language of on shelf packaging. In both of the projects, it felt as if there was a significant empathy gap between the client and customers.

Semiotics as Creative Science (and Art)


I do semiotics. "What’s that?!" I hear you choke. Er, semiotics. Semiotics derives from the ancient Greek word semion, meaning sign and is a subject devoted to evidence based analysis of signs and meaning.

It is a field that encompasses, culture, communication and meaning including logos, branding and street art. Semiotics is used now as a powerful insight tool brand strategy and communication.

The Streets is Watching: Blood on the Walls of North Kensington


Street art is the medium of anonymous resistance, messages of resistance. It is done to show that whatever the official story, the streets is watching and people know what is going on – sgraffiti means ‘scribblings’ (from the Italian sgraffio, to scratch) something that goes back at least to ancient Rome. On the streets of my home town, London aphorisms such as ‘Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight’ and ‘Contentment is a Valuable Life Skill’ challenge dominant consumerist discourses and provoke us to think.

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