It turns out #semiotics isn't about making s*** up to sound clever.
It's apparently about UNCOVERING or REVERSE ENGINEERING the way MEANING is REPRESENTED or CONSTRUCTED... It turns out that you can ACTUALLY STUDY and even PRACTISE a subject full of helpful FRAMEWORKS and WAYs TO LOOK AT THE WORLD that HELPS YOU ANALYSE CULTURE and COMMERCIAL SIGNS more rigorously focused on the ultimate MEANINGS that can be GENERALISED for people across a SHARED CULTURE. And it turns out that a bunch of people* actually DO this thing and GET PAID for it by BRAND OWNERS and associated CREATIVE AGENCIES. It’s CRAY CRAY! (bear with the sarcasm) I KNOW!!! It scandalised me too when I heard.😂
Apologies for the INTENTIONALLY sarcastic tone. But at least I got your attention. I try to alternated my blog posts by 1) educating on semiotics and 2) rehearsing a semiotic analysis on some aspect of pop /brand culture. What I want to cover in this blog post are TEN WAYS in which MEANING WORKS in culture, that EXIST, and would exist whether you'd ever heard the word SEMIOTICS or NOT
As for us humble semioticians: we didn't CREATE this and we don't CONTROL it. But neither can WE - any of us - IGNORE these meanings.
1. CONTEXT CHANGES EVERYTHING – MIXED RACE OR EGREGIOUSLY WHITE
What does this sign mean?
It's hard to tell - isn't it - it largely depends whether it appears on a radar, or a piece of tech equipment, or a women's forehead or a branding message such as the AIDS red dot.
If I was to put it into this context it might help you to determine things. What surrounds a sign or cue helps to determine how we interpret that sign or cue. This is something Marshall McLuhan understood very well - he called it Figure vs Ground - most people only look at the figure – but in order to really see what is going on we need to focus as much on the Ground. I have applied this recently to what I’ve said about mixed race in the UK identity and in general to the ‘colouring’ of our high streets, how this has become hegemonic in visual culture, and how it re-positions all white portrayals seem implicitly exclusionary by default. A parallel to this is what is called the Overton Window a term used to describe the Ground of political discourse, and thus what determines the ‘realm of the thinkable’ politically. So as the overall discourse morphs any ‘ideology’ sounds variously bonkers or entirely reasonable.
APPLICABILITY: Doing semiotics in branding involves studying contexts, tracking the category dynamics and cultural change that will impact on the meaning of a given brand
2. ASSOCIATIVE THINKING IS UTTERLY UNAVOIDABLE – EMMA ELLIOTT’S SCULPTURE
Can you look at this without thinking of something else?
I thought not. It is very suggestive! The human mind cannot avoid making connections.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, this is why you have interpreted this sculpture as you have.
Whenever we see an object, we pull in meanings from other contexts. Abstract art indeed relies on this, as Kandinsky knew. I have attempted to put this together in an animated film, pulling in the associations with a Barbara Hepworth sculpture which you can view here.
When I am asked to tease out the connotations of a particular typeface or colour in a project, I aim to trace its occurrence - where that product has appeared before in culture – since that is what most customers or people do. All the cultural meanings and baggage it has accumulated will be brought into the new context. For instance, associations of Didone type with fashion. Of the connotations of pink or purple in youth branding which I have also been thinking and writing about recently – and the now problematic meaning of gold, tainted with vulgarization.
This is what I pulled out in a blog post around Donald Trump's victory speech in 2016 – his child softens your interpretation. His innocence, his youth, his awkwardness, how this tends to neutralise negativity, and what it says about the future stewardship of the President-Elect.
APPLICABILITY: Arguably, the objective of much advertising and branding, is to trigger off a cascade of positive associations in the consumer mind, which leads to brand equity.
3. BINARY OPPOSITES STRUCTURE OUR REALITY – CANADIAN FLAG
Can you define Scottishness for me?
You almost certainly started off by positing Englishness as a foil to the Scottish, which is not surprising given the inextricable history of these two people. How about trying to define Canadianness without reference to Americanness. Pretty tough given US influence.
A whole Molson ad campaign was predicated on the indignation of Canadians who are often mistaken for American. It you look at the centralising logic of the Maple Leaf symbol it is oppositional identity to that of the partitioning, fissiparous, federal US Stars and Stripes.
How do we define the idea of blackness in identity politics, without mentioning whiteness'? It is hard to do so. Cultural critics such as Jeffrey Boakye argue that it is only ‘whiteness’ the unmarked, invisible, unquestioned hegemonic identity, that makes people identify as Black.
Arguably since both are constructs. Not even to mention male and female. Hence the idea of non-binary and the empowered assertion of a neutral position. Increasingly the fashion is liminality - the in-between, a zone which is NEITHER or BOTH - as I recently blogged on Mixed Race Identity. But even this means positing an implicit binary. Thierry Mortier has coined the equation I = f (O) Identity is a Function of Otherness. There are those who find this messy mongrelisation threatening, hence the rise of xenophobic populismbased on harking back to a nativist simplicity debunked by Akala. These are all things semiotics helps us grasp with both more nuance and with more starkness – which is a hallmark of semiotics.
APPLICABILITY: the idea of binary opposites does not just come into identity but about the way we structure brands in categories - tiers of value for instance budget vs standard.
4. POP CULTURE IS ALWAYS INTER-TEXTUAL* - LADY GAGA - ARTPOP
What is purely original? Nothing.
Popular culture is a tissue of codes and references and creation is part inspiration, part shamelessly borrowing. Lady Gaga channelled Jeff Koons for her Pop Art album. Janelle Monae channels Fritz Lang with a Afro-Futurist twist! Black music lyric based forms like hip-hop trap or grime are based on homage and thickly layered references to other lyricists, tracks or rap folklore.
When there is a cultural event such as the debut of a new season of Game of Thrones or Childish Gambino’s This is America, the internet sets about deconstructing it. Whether it is thinking up alternative endings to favourite shows on Medium, puzzling over hidden meaning in videos or films or dissecting the transmogrification of memes on Reddit or Buzzfeed or to dig into how a song was composed via Song Exploder or Dissect or how a soundtrack was chosen for a certain film on BBC 6 Music. Inter-textuality – the belief that the texts (songs, books and art) produced within culture are inherently parasitic and build on previous work.
The novel, and subsequent film, Ready Player One is premised on a quest to decode and piece together 1980s pop references.
Memes take inter-textuality to an extreme riffing upon popular culture, often invoking a film or celebrity foible or famous catchphrase and applying it to a mundane or topical happening.
Even nations have had recognise the cultural capital that comes with pop culture reference. When Israel responded to Iran during a diplomatic spat - it did so using a Mean Girls clip.
APPLICABILITY: inter-textuality is the mix of citation, allusion, and outright homage that includes parody, spoof and pastiche and that powers social media and suffuses pop culture. Netizens are increasingly interested in disentangling the embedded references.
5. CULTURE EATS STRATEGY FOR BREAKFAST – KENDALL JENNER AD
Who signed this off? How could there have been people of colour in the room!?
Just as behavioural economists have debunked the false conceits of classical economics, in the realm of decision making, semiotics offers a more realistic, realistic view of the basic messiness of human communication. Semioticians believe that far from unmediated signals that send pristine packets of meaning, a premise of classic information theory, signs are mediated by culture, which unavoidably impacts on the eventual interpretation of messages. This can include corporate culture - meaning insiders are blind to what to outsiders is common sense.
Thinkers like John Fiske and Stuart Hall warn us that when we fail to see the codes of the audience, there might be a failure of transmission. This accounts for cultural resistance to trivialising of protest leading to the demise of this solipsistic Pepsi ad. In 2019 are now operating in a MUCH more complex world and we see cultural fault lines forming not only between but WITHIN societies. The so called ‘Cultural Wars’ is creating an ideological divide to go along with the and growing stratification of generational fault lines between cohorts like Millenials and Gen X, let alone Boomers. In this context brand owners may be tempted to launch deliberately polarising campaigns to trigger controversy and this court media attention – such as was the case with the British Army snowflake campaign. Or others are deliberately ‘double coded’ to appeal to two different sub-cultural constituencies simultaneously, such as We are Not an Island TV ad for HSBC starring Richard Ayoade.
APPLICABILITY: understanding the audience and dynamics of hermeneutics on the internet is more important than ever...
6. SYMBOLS ARE MAGNETS FOR MEANING – THE 2019 UNICORN
What does this symbol mean? It’s a unicorn. I know!
But why has the unicorn become so popular amongst the young over the last few years? Which has spawned a merchandising craze too. Well, of course, there is the social norms effect that drives sharing on social media. But there are a number of elements to it. There is the fantastical, fairy tale aspect to it that helps people return to childhood during a scary time. UK semiotician Rob Thomas wrote in 2017: “Unicorns are a semi-ironic comfort blanket in a world where being a grown-up has never been harder (look at mental health stat's!)” The unique nature of the unicorn has appealed to the marginalized – unicorns used to be associated with psychologists have pointed to the symbolism of the horn on a feminine horse and that is why it has appropriated by the LGBTQ community. And the unicorn has also become associated with start ups and venture capitalists to denote those that had achieved billion dollar valuations. Aside from that, in the UK where unicorns can appear twee, kitsch and a bit naff, it has been deployed as a satirical sign of wishful thinking – around the Brexit debate with both sides accusing each other of unicorn like delusions on this political issue.
Symbols are magnets for meaning. This is just what they do. Just like physics says capacitors gather electrical charge; symbols gather semiotic meaning.,. Symbols syphon meanings up from the contexts in which they appear. Okay, I have to admit I stole this from Adam Alter's book Drunk Tank Pink but semiotic thinkers (such as Charles Peirce) long ago understood that symbols grow, swelled by habit and belied. And religious symbols are no different.
APPLICABILITY: symbols change meaning, whether the hijab or the hoodie – in an era of suscipicion towards belief systems symbolic meaning is an ever more contested quality
7. SIGNALS ARE CRACK FOR THE BRAIN
What does this say to you?
Tt says that someone is typing and I am eagerly awaiting their message. I also know that if no message appears I feel bad. This is a mild version of a notifications window once you've posted a poem on there 5 hours ago. And it has STILL RECEIVED ZERO LIKES! You feel worse.
A reminder of one of the reasons why I came off all the ‘socials’ -Twitter and Facebook. Something that Jaron Lanier says is inherent to the medium itself… These are signals. A signal is The issue with signalling is we signal all the time – we can’t help it – but also that we learn to crave the stimulus that signals provide. I am talking here about Pavlovian conditioning of the human via the variable rewards of social media, and the hijacking of dopamine levels and our reward system and its threat to our mental health through internet and smartphone addiction. And just like the detective asks us to give attention to the ‘dog that doesn’t bark’ semioticians need to be alert to the absent signal that causes alarm. It isn’t just the semioticians that study signals. Evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists and neurological-scientists are equally convinced that signalling is key and in branding implicit signalling is stronger than ever.
APPLICABILITY: signals are important because they affect us because in the digital economy people are all trying to get our attention and so we are primed to expect them and we crave them – because of this we drive addictions and compulsions
8. SOME MEANING IS UNIVERSAL– MONEY SUPERMARKET LOGO
Why has this Price Comparison reverted to a soft and fluffy logo?
Don’t they deal in hard headed calculations of financial advantage? Er, yeah! And that is just the point. Deference to consumers and disarming scpecticm and suspicion is one of the first jobs to be done by any financial institution where it be Goldman Sachs calling sub brand Marcus or Monzo using orange and other colours to brand their credit cards. This is not less true for MoneySupermarket. Which of these shapes is more likely to mean maternal? Phil Barden cites a well known experiment to prove this. Which shape below is Kiki or Buba?
Yet some people still labour under the misconception that aesthetics is entirely subjective. Really? Not the last time I checked.
Colour for instance or shape can influence how appealing we find a website. Is spite of some cultural nuances, blue remains universally the most preferred colour globally associated with the sky hope and openness – navy blue conveys stability. Some colour physiologically affects us as in Drunk Tank Pink takes its title from the shade of pink proven to subdue prisoners. In stark contrast, biophilia – use of plants, biomorphic shapes and natural light, is used in architecture and interior design precisely because it evokes feelings of nature and calm.
Cognitive semioticians join evolutionary biologists in studying the ways in which many meanings are rooted in how our very anatomy or physiognomy and how basic cognitive schema drive the most fundamental premises, or e.g. affects how we read visual images
APPLICABILITY: many meanings are pretty universal – and need to be respected – NOT all malleable – some things are hard wired. You don’t want to be fighting against this tide in branding – innovation is only effective if it’s also congruent otherwise it’s a false economy.
9. 'UNQUANTIFIABLE' DOES NOT EQUAL 'INSIGNIFICANT' – BRAND MUSIC NAVIGATOR
How do you measure the pleasure from your favourite track? Answer: you can't.
We live in a world obsessed with quantification and to believe what cannot be measured can be safely disregarded. But it's not always all about the numbers. As Rory Sutherland writes, we should not allow Efficiency Optimization to crowd out Meaning Optimisation. Sometimes it is the very irrationality of the thing that creates the most significant meaning. When it comes to product design, qualitative differences are the key drivers of appeal. Contour bias and other factors - it is hard to exactly quantify curvature and colour hue and correlate this with the reaction - with careful and nuanced study we can start to create models of meaning.
How about music? How do you quantify WHY one track hits harder than another?
Semiotics can help us to explain the hidden rules of musical meaning, something which other methodologies shy away from. As an emotional language, music is harder to pin down, but we can say meaningful things about how the choice tonal character, auralised metaphor, genre markers, instrumentation, and other variables are likely to affect overall meaning.
APPLICABILITY: specialises in the messy, inchoate bring some order, models, of course this can be determined in qualitative research, but semiotics can save
10. CULTURAL INTERPRETATION IS A SKILL THAT CAN BE CULTIVATED –
Is it really true that interpretations are all equally valid?
Not all interpretations are equally valid – you all know football pundits who convince and those who don’t.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink argued that we all have an ‘adaptive unconscioius’ that can come to incredibly rapid judgements through instinct. He argues that decisions made quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously or deliberately but that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled…”.
Some people argue that culture is a realm of subjectivity so that all opinions are equally valid. Umberto Eco once pronounced that that in the realm of culture more than one interpretation is always possible – but it is also not true that all interpretations are equally plausible. A
Semiotics is to a certain extent a case of harnessing, drilling instincts to read culture so that we produce more fine grained, nuanced, layered, insightful and convincing interpretations.
It is not just frameworks but a set of aptitudes, skills and a hyper-awareness that is cultivated as you complete not something you can do straight out the box in plug and play fashion. A semiotician is like a detective we find clues in culture, weigh up their relative weight but also must be a lawyer, making the case for a certain meaning based on contextual factors.
APPLICABILITY: - it is the experience curve of the seasoned semiotician, the hundreds of analogous projects they have done that accrues value, but always judge a semiotician on the the justifications and evidence they put together as well as the nuance and contextual richness
The label SEMIOTICS, just HAPPENS to tie all these things together - WHY? Because to account for meaning properly, it turns out you actually NEED pretty much ALL of them.
*I think it is important here to say that I am NOT dismissing valid questions about the place of the interpreter in doing semiotic analysis, that the place of the interpreter is SUPER IMPORTANT - it's really vital to check in your biases and assumptions in every form of analysis. However, EVERY SEMIOTICIAN I have met is striving to INFER meaning from the MEDIA OBJECTS, CULTURE AND CONSUMER CONTEXT and other objects of analysis that will be meaningful for a MASS CULTURE - rather than IMBUING them with fanciful subjective meaning where it did not exist. Hopefully, the 10 principles outlined above that we can agree underlie how we ALL make meaning, go some way to demolishing this argument.
what they know and have learned about culture, Actually, as another semiotician writes, semiotics is one of the subjects that best does this.
Some people still think we MAKE THIS STUFF UP... But honestly, some of the arguments against semiotics, YOU COULDN'T MAKE THEM UP.
YES, we need to improve in YES, we need to improve on and YES BUT - the above 10 are pretty hard to argue against.
That's enough CAPS for one day. Good night.