Archive for the ‘Clients & Brands’ Category

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Semionaut Award 2016

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

 

The editorial team is delighted to be launching the second Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of semiotics, communication, culture and branding.

The winner will receive a prize, sponsored by Space Doctors, of $1000 USD – plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field. The prize will be awarded to the winner of a short essay contest (600 to maximum 1500 words), in the Semionaut genre embodied by the pieces on the site and the entries shortlisted for the last award , with deadline for entrants of 17th April 2016.

TarkSol

All candidates shortlisted will, like the winner, have their work published by Semionaut and receive detailed feedback from experienced analysts plus guidance on next steps in terms of Semionaut network contacts and possible career development.

The contest is open to students and recent graduates world wide.  It will be judged by a panel comprising representatives from Semionaut editorial and Space Doctors along with one of the best know names in academic semiotics internationally. The award will be based on the quality of insight, analysis and creative flair displayed in the 600-1500 word essay submitted by the successful candidate.  This may, if appropriate, be supported by a larger body of work showing evidence of the skills we are looking to showcase. All material submitted should be written in English.

Key criteria in reaching the final decision will be the accessibility of the analysis and writing, with potential appeal to a non-specialist non-academic readership, and what people in the marketing and consumer insight world call actionability – work which embodies the usefulness of this type of analysis and the things that can be done with it, in terms of brand strategy, public policy, or advancing a cause.

For full competition rules and to submit your entry please email awards@semionaut.net

Links to the papers shortlisted for the first Semionaut Award:

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-arief/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-celeny/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-hannah/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-matthew/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-taras/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-troy/

 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Award Time Again

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

 

The editorial team is delighted to flag up the imminent launch of a second Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding. This will happen early in the New Year 2016. The prize, sponsored again by UK based marketing semiotics consultancy Space Doctors, will be $1000 USD plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field.

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Have a look at our interview with the winner of the inaugural Semionaut Award, Hannah Hoel, who found out about the opportunity by googling ‘semiotic writing award’ and ‘cultural theory writing award’ – and who now works full-time in the world of brand semiotics.

The brief for entries and the competition rules will be much as for the inaugural Semionaut Award – just to give you time to think about possible topics over the festive season and/or alert any prospective new writers you know. The judging team will also be suggesting in the launch announcement, early in January 2016, some broad themes and topics that may be of particular current interest to Semionaut readers.

Nice day to start again. Watch the skies.

 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Network, Semiotics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Sound & Music Semiotics

Monday, July 6th, 2015

I am embarking on a large project on the semiotics of sound and music. I have been commissioned by the Radio Advertising Bureau in a project ran by Push Research to create an audio mood board of brand words. As I do so, something has occurred to me about the way music and sound is packaged. Sampling culture in electronic music has enabled packets of affective scripting to be condensed into breaks – this is arguably why hip-hop production has had such an influence, because the crunching beats, moody baselines and scathing guitar riffs are salient but they are also deftly combined with richly daubed musical leitmotifs often conveying exultant triumphalism or a sort of hectoring anguish.

Maximalism

“Maximalism” is vague and capacious enough to contain a whole bunch of ideas and associations. In terms of design, it is the opposite of minimalism and the famous Bauhaus Manifesto that pronounced ornamentation a crime and that exalted pared back parsimony. Maximalism in interior design is associated with unusual juxtapositions, opulent shapes, and a greater association with the baroque than with the classical. The irony now of course is that musically we live in a time of both minimalism and maximalism. Philip Glass and his ilk having had a huge influence on ambient music and on advertising too. But what is maximalism? A good example would be the TRON Legacy soundtrack composed by Daft Punk composed in 2009 which combines a full orchestra with synth and drone samples for a hybrid classical trance house soundscape.

Is the definition given by this reviewer in Pitchfork magazine: “the general slant of these verdicts is that there are a hell of a lot of inputs here, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty.” For me, the exemplars would include artists such as Rustie and Hudson Mohawke and potentially artists such as Black Moth Rainbow and Genghis Tron in its more thrash metal iterations. In classical or romantic music you would associate it with Mahler and Beethoven, lush, bombastic, majestic symphonies. And perhaps even a Richard Strauss.

Synths and the potential for layering music in production means that lushness of music can be continually added to, like thickening the fibrousness of palms in a jungle by continually adding new threads to the fibre. Music production software packages like Logic allows us to create a new track at whim.

In hip-hop too, much production favours the use of heavy strings, synths and a wall of sound, designed to heighten the tension, sense of alienation or odds. Certainly when we compare it to the stripped down beats of the mid 1980s.

This surfeit of semiotic resources, may not be a bad thing; not an accursed share but I do think it’s popularity and catchiness to the ear does owe something to the notion of Supernormal Stimuli. This is the theory stemming from the work of ethnologist Tingerben as developed by cognitive scientists.

Maximalism is the musical equivalent of a sherbet fountain, a mouthful of Cheesy Wotsits (that’s a rather arcane UK reference) or a vast arcade of instantly viewable porn MPGs or a chromophiliac colour monkey on LSD.

Maximalism has also been called Purple to describe just these synaesthesic qualities of the music – the music is so luscious you can almost cuddle it.

Physiologically, we are easily habituated to get accustomed to a threshold of stimulation and pleasure and the threshold can be permanently recalibrated by continued over stimulation our pleasure centres can be easily overwhelmed and this is arguably what much music does.  Our dopamine, serotonin and opioids.

What culturally does it mean? Is this just about the human predilection for both possibility and excess in music production (simply because we CAN do it, we SHOULD), is it just a function of the UK’s fecund underground urban music scene, or is it somehow connected to a deeper chord of ideological note? Well, Slavoj Zizek indicated in Living in the End Times the notion of neo-liberalist capitalism built on eradicating the superego.  So totalitarian injunctions against transgression have been replaced by a tyranny of permissiveness, the injunction to enjoy, consume, acquire become normative. To be hedonistic with a hedge fund spunking money created in a casino and to blow it on cocaine, crystal meth or prostitutes; go on a spree, a binge, a bender is encouraged. Frugality in consumption and to renounce is to be a pariah or at least enemy of consumerist capitalism. Isn’t Maximalism in music then an anthem for a mythical ideology? In prodigal times celebrated by those who have and craved by those who don’t.

For me the apotheosis of maximalism is Hudson Mohawke’s Fuse. Listen here:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkWmB9NIg4U

For more on Maximalism and Purple music see:

 http://www.dummymag.com/features/the-dummy-guide-to-purple

© Chris Arning 2015

Posted in Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | No Comments »

Apple’s Swift Icon

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Swift Semiotic Observations on Apple’s Swift Icon

A few days ago, Apple unveiled their new language for Xcode programmers, which is called ‘Swift’ and which comes with the following graphic visualization:

swift-larger-image

A friend of mine was surprised at the angle of the swift having been well-briefed on the semiotic implications of angle and trajectory in Western culture iconography, e.g. they generally transverse from left to right in accordance with Western reading conventions, and that ‘down’ is usually bad to the same degree that ‘up’ is usually good . . .which generally makes the upper right-hand corner the aspirational destination for most icons and logos.

But not this time.

Some semiotic observations on Apple’s icon for the new swift:

1. The downward angle of descent is important: by showing the swift moving to the bottom right, and not straight down, the meaning changes from dropping dead to controlled descent. There’s intent with that angle.

2. What are birds often doing when they’re descending with control at speed? Hunting: through this observation, the image becomes an expression of energy, aggression (strongly mitigated by the colours and the fact that it’s only a bird), confidence, and decisiveness.

3. The downward trajectory is showing the icon literally coming down to earth; perhaps being ‘down to earth’ is a desirable or even aspirational brand attribute for Apple software (especially since it’s not open-source, and it often takes criticism about this in comparison to Android)

4. Consider the opposite angle – if we dip into Greimas’ semiotic square for a moment – which would show the swift going to the upper right corner: while this is typically the direction that all positive, non-tragedy, Western-orientation narratives take, it also carries some uncertainty: by going into the clear open blue sky, where is the swift going? It would have no destination, it would seem aimless, directionless. The open sky is freedom but also chaos and uncertainty. The current downwards direction is grounded, focused, tangible, practical — everything you might look for in programming language. Some narrative systems do better with clearly delineated borders, and my guess is that programming language is one of them (make no mistake: I don’t pretend to know anything about computer programming languages).

5. Orange is cool: it’s fresh, clean, exciting, young, simple, energetic, and positive. It’s quickly becoming the dominant brand colour-de-jour . . .

6. White is also cool, and of course very Apple – they got the chromatology absolutely on-trend, absolutely emergent.

7. Knowing it’s a swift is also key: of all birds, it’s a swift. There’s such a strong, positive association with that word! Swifts are swift: small, nimble, flexible . . . Wikipedia calls them “the most aerial of birds” which is just poetry.

8. And there’s a old-school elegance to ‘swift’ that you can’t find in ‘fast’, and an accessibility of personality that you can’t find in ‘falcon’ (everybody knows falcons are arrogant, but you could sit and have a beer with a swift – if you could keep up).

9. I also feel a degree of decisiveness and accuracy in ‘swift’ that I don’t feel in ‘fast’. For whatever reason, I think of ‘fast’ as courting association with ‘out of control’ (the faster you go, the less control you have?) but ‘swift’ is always in control: there’s almost a Biblical power in the idea of swiftness, a perfectly balanced combination of power, accuracy, determination, and confidence. Control is a desirable connotation for programming language, and from what little I understand of how the Swift language compares to Objective-C (cough), it’s an apt description of how it’s supposed to work.

10. Finally, the swift also connotes lighting-fast reflexes (they eat flying insects while flying at up to 106 miles-per-hour / 169 km/hour: they’re fast). That’s got ‘computer technology’ written all over it.

Nicely played, Apple . . .

© Charles Leech 2014

 

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Brands & the Myth of the Family

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Many consumer brands these days create a human interest angle related to their brands that they think people will identify with. They give their products a character and a context that mirrors real life, and they expect that this identification will result, ultimately, in increased sales.

Flora, the margarine brand owned by Unilever, has come up with the Flora Mum, Tiffany Jones, who “lives in Suffolk with her husband Phil and two daughters Rosie (12) and Hannah (11).” Apparently, Tiff (as she’s called on the Flora website) loves festivals and Zumba and once ran a farmers market. She likes to cook everything from scratch, too.

The Flora Mum

This branding extends from the advertising campaigns and the product website, to the product itself. If you open a tub of Flora you’ll find a member of the family printed on the foil lid, with a caption about their daily life. My personal favourite is the picture of Rosie with the caption “My dad says he’s a great cook because he makes great cheese sandwiches. My mum says that’s not cooking.”

The very model of a modern family, then. Something the majority of consumers can relate to.

Or perhaps not.

According to recent research by the sociologist Sacha Roseneil, the trend for people living outside of the traditional family structure has almost doubled in the last thirty years, with the number of adults living in non-coupled households increasing from 19% in 1979 to 29% in 2004. Meanwhile, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics in 2010, the number of child-free women over the age of forty has doubled, from 1 in 10 in 1990 to 1 in 5 in 2010.

As women’s roles are redefined in society, and as motherhood increasingly become a choice rather than an inevitability, the idea of a family is changing. Access to safe and reliable contraception has combined with increased economic independence and employment and educational opportunities to give women options that they have never had before. And it seems that many of them are grasping them with both hands.

Growing acceptance of homosexuality and the legalisation of gay marriage in countries all around the world has also redefined what it means to be in a couple. The emphasis on heterosexual couples and heterosexual reproduction is no longer the gold standard. Instead, people are increasingly able to organise their personal lives in ways that suit them, rather than fitting into a one-size-fits-all model.

For all of these reasons, we can see a definite trend away from family life as it is usually understood, with mum and dad and the kids (ideally two) becoming less and less real for many people living in the UK today.

That said, whether the traditional family ever existed in the first place is debateable. Professor Pat Thane, from Kings College London, is a family historian who has discovered that the long-lasting marriages and the nuclear families of the 1950s and 1960s were actually anomalies. Instead, throughout history, single parent families and unmarried parents were more likely to be the norm. It is possible that we are just reverting to what we always had, with what we think of as “traditional” actually being a blip that is slowly fading from view.

Which brings us back to Flora. And indeed other brands too. Cars, supermarkets, food products, holidays, and lots of other consumer goods are marketed on the back of the traditional family. But why? Given that the traditional family is becoming increasingly alien to UK consumers, and given that it probably never really existed in the first place, why are brands continuing to use this myth as a strategy? It may have worked up until the 1990s, when people still had a memory of the halcyon days of family life, but now? In the 21st Century?

Brands would do much better to think of the diversity and the plurality of relationships. They need to think about how people are organising their lives in dozens of different ways, and in particular how the role of women has been  transformed beyond all recognition in the last thirty years. Instead of trying to squeeze consumers into a demographic that exists only in people’s imagination, they should think about working with variety instead.

One brand that has embraced this idea is Colmans. Their current advert for cook-in sauces shows a single dad making shepherds pie for his teenage daughter, who’s upset because she’s just had an argument with her boyfriend. It’s a far cry from the Flora idea that men can only make cheese sandwiches, to the despair of the women in their lives, but it’s all the more appealing for that.

Colmans stills.009_0

Successful advertising tells us what we already know. Familiarity sells. If the world has changed, and traditional families no longer exist, then brands need to reflect this. Sticking to the mythology of a fairytale family will, eventually, only alienate consumers – and I’m sure that’s not what brands would want from their strategy, or what consumers want from their brands.

© Alison Bancroft 2014

 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

Diversity Act III

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

Act III.  Egalité, Fraternité, Diversité

A Google search for a definition of ‘diversity’ first produces the following, from the University of Oregon, a liberal mission statement verging on a spiritual affirmation – where mere tolerance gives way to an embracing and celebration of an abundance of positive human differences: “The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. 
It means understanding that each individual is unique, 
and recognizing our individual differences.  These can be along 
the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, 
political beliefs, or other ideologies.  It is the exploration 
of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. 
It is about understanding each other and moving beyond 
simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the 
rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual”.

‘Diversity’ like ‘sustainability’, I wrote in the first part of this sequence, is a buzz word of today which was rarely heard in its contemporary sense a decade ago. In the context of commercial cultural work I first heard the term earlier, at the end of the 1990s, at a semiotics inspired workshop – as part of a Rainbow Nation related positioning opportunity for a South African drinks brand (symbolically a long way on from the still chronologically recent era of Apartheid) where a reassuring underpinning to this new pluralism and tolerance was provided by the notion of the natural gene pool’s unparalleled diversity in that part of the world.

Sanex

This rhetorical rooting of the historical and ideological in the eternal givenness of nature is a central ploy of commercial messaging and popular culture, as identified in Mythologies by Roland Barthes, the pioneer semiologist operating in these areas.  As I write a TV advertisement for Sanex Bio Response deodorant illustrates wonderfully how far this discourse of natural diversity has come in the meantime, combining with that of ecological sustainability. The visual of this TV execution is, in 2014, accompanied in UK by a different v/o script to the one in the film online: “Your underarm skin contains a diversity of natural bacteria essential for keeping skin healthy. If that diversity is disrupted it can affect your skin’s health. New Sanex antiperspirants fight odour-causing bacteria and leave a beneficial mix of bacteria keeping skin healthy”. This latter point is illustrated by a microscopic close-up revealing an underarm biosphere and hosts of beautiful naked women and men doing a Leni Riefenstahl style routine albeit more ethnically diverse, no longer in the cause of Herrenvolk or Kraft durch Freude but now, resoundingly, for personal freshness and diversity.

The prescience of semiological (or semiotic) analysis is heralded in a text by Roland Barthes from as early as 1955, in which he speaks in support of cultural diversity and specificity in a language which would chime happily with the ways in which we have learned to speak of diversity today. In his essay, reprinted in Mythologies, on a high profile photo exhibition brought from the US to Paris, where it was entitled ‘The Great Family of Man’, Barthes critiqued the whole tonality of the event for falsely universalizing a Western middle-class construction of life (received wisdom and imagery around birth, death, love, work etc.) and lacking sensitivity to the true diversity of experience and culture in these areas, notably those differences reflecting injustice and inequalities between rich and poor countries.

BarthesFamily

The myth of the exhibition, Barthes writes, functions in two ways. First the exoticism of superficial differences – the diversity (diversité in the original French) “in skins, skulls and customs” evoking a Babel-like heterogeneity. But then, beneath the surface, the essences and universality of the human condition are sentimentally and misleadingly projected – asserting a shared ‘nature’ at the cost of losing the diversity which is the true stuff of history and the differences on which an authentic rather an exploitative and sentimentalised humanism would be focusing. Barthes’s example of birth here can illustrate the general principle: “True, children are always born, but in the whole mass of the human problem, what does the ‘essence’ of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical? Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatened by a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to him: this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of an eternal lyricism of birth”. ‘Diversité’ is a word Barthes deploys in this piece three times in all, at key points in the argument.

It’s a safe bet today to assume that brands are commissioning semiotic and cultural reports on how diversity is being communicated in different global markets and cross-culturally (these three Semionaut pieces have presented a mosaic of diversity stimulus currently operating in UK culture specifically, but much carries over to or from other places of course). This kind of cultural and brand intelligence into meanings and modes of communicating diversity would be a no-brainer for some obvious candidates (Nike, Dove, HSBC, Virgin, the great metropolitan hubs like London or New York, yoghurt or beauty brands looking at the diversity of ‘good bacteria’ and categories looking to exploit other areas of scientific research in the microbiome). To some degree, as a mainstay of cultural and corporate thinking in an increasingly global market and increasing internal heterogeneity within local cultures, diversity semiotics must be, however, a topic of serious interest for all brands going forward wherever they are – impacting not only on the external consumer projection and interaction but also on internal corporate cultures. It goes without saying that digitalization and social networks, displacing the old media pillars of cultural unity and relative univocality, communicate and feed back into all the pulsing life of diversity and mindfulness around difference that we have been exploring here. And social networking tools like Facebook or Twitter are well advised to adapt semiotic methods to make sense of their own big data sets in understanding and harnessing opportunities around the same set of cultural phenomena.

Davos

Even a cursory analysis of the Residual, Dominant and Emergent codes of diversity and the main trajectories they follow would reveal one major theme, pretty much eclipsed from the late 1980s through to the 2008 financial crisis, which brings us around in some ways full circle to the values of justice, equality and myth disclosure informing the work of Roland Barthes in Mythologies. The biggest emergent theme in diversity, one which Roland Barthes would have appreciated and which is now moving into the dominant mainstream of thinking, is is about equality and fraternity, the values that seem to have been left behind when liberty was reframed (and fetishized to the exclusion of the other two) as economic and regulatory liberalization – with what appears, given the wisdom of hindsight after the economic crash of 2008, to have been a charter for the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer with social mobility, in countries such as UK and US (Brazil and some other emerging markets being honourable exceptions in this respect), virtually grinding to a halt.

On that Oregon list of diversity dimensions (above) some are familiar and in the comfort zone, especially in Western societies although globally things move in this area at different speeds, even in different directions. This liberal comfort zone embraces diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, sexual orientation, age and religious beliefs (barring a somewhat hasty default populist connotation of ‘terror’ that goes with ‘Muslim’, in which the Islam/Islamist verbal connection is no doubt a factor).

Less familiar, perhaps, therefore retaining an emergent edge, is the notion that socio-economic status, 
political beliefs, or other ideologies (all on the Oregon list) are also dimensions to be taken into account in embracing diversity. But in the wake of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, with an increasing emphasis now on inclusion, the detrimental social impact of a widening rich-poor gap, and the evolution of ‘sustainability’ meanings from an exclusive ecological focus in the past to the emerging emphasis on social sustainability (where the discourses coincide with emergent diversity concerns, as maintaining natural diversity overlaps with ecological sustainability). And this is no longer just about small groups of radical activists or semiologists sniping from the sidelines about bourgeois popular culture. These are concerns reflected in big corporations such Unilever signaling a major shift in philosophy and global activity from a bygone unmindful focus on consumerism and growth at any cost, in the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Davos 2014 agenda for “Reshaping the World” and in Obama’s January 2014 State of the Union speech touching on fairer distribution and closing the wealth gap.

As I drafted this, on the morning of  28th January 2014 the voice of Pete Seeger, who died the previous night, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m convinced that sooner or later the people of the whole world will have to do something about the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, while middle class people like me have to be concerned about the consequences of speaking up and rocking the boat”.  After a long time in the wilderness for this discourse it felt again exacty of the moment. The programme played out with a snatch of Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn adapting the words of the preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season/ And a time to every purpose under heaven”.

© Malcolm Evans 2014

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE SEMIOTIC MONKEY

I’m arguing the virtues of 12 Years a Slave, with the Semiotic Monkey, who is mischievously taking the side of Django Unchained and pretending to be a fan of Tarantino’s triviality, condescension, aestheticised violence and general semio-perversion. Comparisons like that are odious of course (we share a distaste for loaded binaries preferring on principle Saussure’s differences without positive terms or a Jungian discipline of owning one’s own shadow) but we’re having fun. Long live: realism however harrowing; Steve McQueen’s lingering moments of visual beauty (perfectly timed – slightly too long for commercial cinema, too short for art house self-indulgence); suffering and endurance; the human capacity for corruption – those Southerners are the great granddaddies of the people who won’t let Obama close Guantanamo; Enlightenment values and commitment to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; an integrity and authenticity that leaves in 12 Years a Slave plenty of room for odd chiaroscuro moments of mawkish musicality and a Brad Pitt career-low performance dispatching in one bravura gesture suspicions of any disempowered embedding of the film in Clooney Brangelina relatively cosy Hollywood liberalism.

The Semiotic Monkey switches the chatter to the Rainbow Nation and produces a battered copy of Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s What If Latin America Ruled the World from his rucksack.  He shows me the passages around page 390 showing the 2010 analysis of race and income in South Africa, and the same old same old underlying the rainbow myth: “The numbers tell us who in fact run the country. They also reveal what did not change: political liberation from apartheid in 1994 coincided with economic liberalization in 1995, meaning the wealth accumulated during or as a result of apartheid remained in the same hands. […] Those who benefited from the spoils of racism kept their profits, and continue to benefit from them even though apartheid is officially over”.

The Monkey then offers the opinion that redistribution of wealth would undo some of the socioeconomic, political and ideological diversity the Oregon definition is so keen for us to celebrate. Embracing the human riches implicit in socioeconomic diversity is what that old English Hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ is about – “The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them high and lowly/ And ordered their estate”.  Share the wealth fairly and you bugger the whole diversity beanery. End of escapade.  Ultimately ‘diverse’, he says, is just a code word for ethnic, gay, disabled – a liberal positive sounding sop to the marginalized. Like ‘community’ it’s a piece of pastoral and exoticism, a word you never hear applied to bankers or the Old Etonians who run UK Gov and local government in London.  Thomas Pynchon, Proverbs for Paranoids: “If they get you asking the wrong questions they don’t have to worry about the answers”. But we are getting closer to the nub of the right question now, and the whole diversity shadow play has, believe it or not, done a lot to help us get there. Never either/or. Always both/and.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Decoding Democracy

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Last year, on February 21 three Russian girls under the name of ‘Pussy Riot’ gave an avant-garde performance, staging a piece of radical action art. They appeared in the main cathedral of Moscow, wearing colorful tights and masks, and tried to sing their ‘punk-prayer’ or better to say punkish  pray-in  to the Virgin Mary. The action was based on using some codes of traditional prayer, combining it with typical words from left-wing manifestos – to the accompaniment of raw garage guitar riffs.

The intention of the performance was to decode the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that has recently become a symbol of corrupted clergy, who together with the state officials converted religious happenings into the kind of high-class leisure activity, half entertainment half political congress. These girls – a philosopher, a poet and a visual artist – objected against this wicked transformation. So they decided to speak, and the message was clear enough to many – from honest priests to the common people. Unfortunately the voice of postmodernity, which sometimes sounds loud enough to be heard, in this particular case was too noisy for the system. This is especially tricky since any system in essence deaf implies a serious need for amplification as well as up-to-date hearing devices.

Quite soon the girls were apprehended, brought in by the police and accused of extremism – inciting the flames of religious hostility and hatred. The Russian Orthodox Church also found that the performance art was a blasphemy. The criminal case against the three young girls was publicized all over the world, and in the West they were treated like victims of a kind of political barbarism, inherent to Russia and its rulers. Yet here, in Russia, it’s vice versa: ‘Pussy Riot’ and their action symbolize freedom. Freedom of expression. Freedom of belief. Freedom of art. Freedom of personal choice and responsibility, which is much stronger and vital than democracy. This is probably one of the universal points where democracy starts, and this is definitely the point of no return.

When people lack something – from bread to democracy, they start to search for a substitute. And if they do not find it somewhere around, they create it. It’s not that bad – at least the idea remains living. So, the Pussy Riot case inspired and fostered a fresh semiotic space, including innovative words and Internet-memes, fashion, ads and virus ads. Although an anti-capitalist and anti-hierarchical band, opposed to branding as an ideology, ‘Pussy Riot’ as a symbol got easily transformed into a myth – fashionable, popular, emotionally engaging and reflecting the needs of specific target audience. It hasn’t reached the status of the brand, officially registered as intellectual property but Pussy Riot become a cultural phenomenon, an intangible asset available for free use.

The market, actively soaking up and using available myths, had to respond, despite the fact that a lot of international corporations state that they are neutral to politics and religious issues – this is the matter of business and an element of their politics. Yet, it turns out that in some situations consumers might take this into their own hands and started to influence various markets, some even unconsciously.  This might lead to a very positive finding.

The market is obviously a system itself, having its laws and rules and existing due to the law of supply and demand, a match between opportunism and hedonism. It’s common to consider that all decisions are subject to producers. They can conduct a market research study and get closer to their consumers if they are willing to. Anyway, they are the end decision-makers – they decide what to produce, where to sell and how to promote it. However, consumers may have a great impact on the semiotic landscape. If consumers are active enough and the symbols are strong and recognizable, they can even interfere in the world of brands and products quite freely and straightforwardly.

PussyRiot2

For example, IKEA organized a contest ‘Become an IKEA magazine face’, based on a poll on-line. No need to say that the picture below gained the majority of votes. IKEA decided to excluded these participants from the contest together with the picture submitted. Certainly, most consumers were disappointed: the winner they personally chose was rejected.

PussyRiot6

Meanwhile activists have used advertising sites to display political art work possibly half disguised as intriguingly unbranded ‘teaser’ ads (see the icon image) and smaller more courageous companies decided to let it go – to satisfy consumers’ needs and play on the territory, in some sense selling the signs of democracy. The following pictures show such an attempt from SKN – a company that provides air conditioning services and installment of air conditioners. These are the images used for an on-line promotion. The slogan is ‘When things are getting hot’ (or, giving a more accurate, almost verbatim translation ‘For hot situations’). An easily readable parallel for the Air Con installers.

PussyRiot4

There is also a night club ad, on billboards, which uses the image of a girl wearing a pink mask. Kitschy enough but the interesting part is that there’s neither the name of the club, nor the contacts given – just the address. This seems as intriguing as a members only club, where Victorian gentlemen talk freely about politics and women!

PussyRiot9

Such collections are usually called collaborative and are treated as co-branding initiatives. However, they usually appear as a result of long negotiating process. These below covers for iPhones. Of course, they are available in different colors.

PussyRiot5

Lots of stores offer a variety of symbols and interpretations on Pussy Riot t-shirts. These are becoming almost trendier than Vivienne Westwood – and definitely more unique than Zara.

PussyRiot7

Quite recently a German lingerie brand uploaded a quite provocative viral video on a similar theme.  This actually contradicts Pussy Riot’s radical left and anti-sexist ideas by showing a barely covered young woman strolling along Moscow’s streets in winter. Nevertheless, liked or disliked, approved or disapproved, it was immediately spread via thousands of Facebook pages and blogs.

Who’s next in this Pussy Riot marketing quest?

The concept might ideally fit the Converse brand, to give one example – both in terms of ideology and category relevance. Let’s say, if Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo and famous Converse-lover, were alive, he would definitely agree to star in a Pussy Riot-style ad. Whatever emerges betting shops could probably earn a lot by accepting bets for the names of new players. The task seems definitely risky but worth trying.  And it’s not 100% brand opportunism: it does keeps front of mind how democracy looks in the era of information and in one particular country.

© Marina Simakova 2013

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Waffle

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

Each country or region has its own specific dish, cuisine or just product to be proud of. And it is nice to be this way because otherwise planet Earth would be the most boring place in the universe. Italians have their developed coffee culture although they don’t actually produce it, France is top-of-mind in wine industry while some other countries are not worse exporters, and in Japan together with the famous sushi they have highly venomous fish as a delicacy. The Balkan countries have a lot in common in terms of food and drink in spite of their different languages, religions, and the unequal access to the sea which characterises this part of Europe. For instance, the population consumes bread in very large quantities. not something especially significant in itself but it bread does provide some interesting cultural by-products.
 
 
One of these is represented by the furious competition in the waffle market in Bulgaria. A waffle here is not in pancake-like shape as in the European tradition, but it is made in a sandwich-like structure, in bars-like forms, with different ingredients – predominantly peanuts and a lot of chocolate, and very often consumer prefer them in bigger packages since one piece is never enough. Prices are low and the number of the brands is unsurprisingly increasing. In fact, a lot of multinational food producers have developed local brands of waffles and a lot of local producers have had in their disposal old, well-known brands targeting predominantly young people on account of their mobility and desire to eat something in a hurry which could be nutritious, ergo – the waffle substitutes for a slice of bread, a croissant or some other snack
.
What is curious, however, in the segment in question is packaging. In last couple of years the waffle business in Bulgaria has become, just like the Internet, a platform for information democratization in a highly socio-semiotic manner. Since production is relatively cheap, almost anybody could invent and launch his/her waffle brand (mainly by outsourcing) in order to say something to the world by means of packaging. Sometimes brand names are ironic and mocking (addressing particular people or a nearby town micro culture) or a modern pun, but certainly tending towards the ubnconventional.
   
The communication power of packaging nowadays is well known but we always talk about its commercial side because it is supposed to sell better. Small regions, towns or even groups of people have the opportunity to express their social or political position by waffle packaging along with funny names and frankly stupid messages. Thus, apart from waffles with local names, just like marketers name the local beer or rakia (brandy) brands, we could find waffles called “Vinkel” (i.e. Shaped iron), “Khriza” (Crisis), “Spoko” (Take it easy! – in urban slang), “Jakhuzzi” (Jacuzzi – connected with ‘very private confessions’ of one local fake millionaire and show star, calling himself Mityo “The Pistol”), “Boretz” (The Wrestler, which is a play on the name of the leading brand in the waffle sector “Borovetz” and the association of that word with “mug”), “Boiko” (which is the first name of the former prime-minister), “Svejest” (Fresh –even though there are no anyrefreshing ingredients in it), and even “Sotichgol” (Stoichgoal – reminding us of the Bulgaria and Barcelona football legend Hristo Stoichkov) or “Oralni Strasti” (which means Oral Passions and which was banned soon after its launch not because of the ridiculous name, but because of even more absurd and misleading claims on the package such as “It diminishes the stress” and the like.
 
The packaging of thee brands is accompanied by relevant images and usually very expressive colors because each brand (insofar as ‘brand’ is a correct term at all in this case) tries to compete in shouting with the others. Most of them are short-lived but the social effect in terms of buzz generated is a point to note. Considered all together everything mentioned above might remind us of remind us of the Roman principle ‘bread and circuses’ in a contemporary „micro” micro version. One reason for attention attraction is  the product’s formal difference in relation to bread itself – another, more impactful, is that the packaging serves as message bearer on an equal footing with the regular billboard.   
 
© Dimitar Trendafilov 2013

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Chocolate Vietnam

Friday, November 9th, 2012

 

This Vietnamese chocolate pack is a perfect juxtaposition of globalized visual culture and the extraction of semiotic cues of local influence. As ethnographer Arjun Appadurai wrote: “The central problem of today's global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization… What these arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or another way…” (p. 6; Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture). This dialectic drives branding and design codes.

The excellent paper by Thurlow and Aiello (National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry Crispin Thurlow and Georgia Aiello, Journal of Visual Communication, 2007) on aircraft tailfins showed how global kinetic motion vector motifs can be hybridized with local avian mythology to create national airline brands that also successfully conform to an international design idiom. A similar thing is happening here. Chocolate has for a while been becoming much less a sweet confectionary and being seen as a gourmet foodstuff. The cocoa bean usually rendered in faux naïf illustrator (as if straight off a Linaeus etching) style has become a staple image in the brave new world of bean to bar new chocolatiers. The Marou pack cleverly combines this with subtle cultural cues. The brand descriptor and historicist font used for the title is a contrivance of Gallic savoir faire. The title Faiseurs de Chocolat – is ‘made up’ French (it should be fabricants) and the square cartouche reference vaguely fin de siècle France luxury goods.

To the uneducated observer (which I still consider myself to be after only a two week stint), the main design influences in Vietnam are Vietnamese re-creations of broadly Chinese design and a re-imagined colonial France. This stunning chocolate packaging from Marou subtly references both of these traditions whilst arguably forging a delightfully charming Vietnamese confection. The building that houses the Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City would probably be a good example of this type of hybrid form. It is a pleasing mix of Chinese and French influences with the splayed eaves and roofing characteristic of pagodas, engraved calligraphic panels, and the cloud and transom patterns in balustrades, but with the shutters, balconies and neo classical influences of French architecture. This 1937 building, is an example of forging something distinctively Vietnamese out of semiotic resources available.

Museum of Fine Art, Ho Chi Minh City

The colouring of the pack is interesting too. The ochre yellow is ubiquitous in Hanoi and in the South. This stucco seems to be used on all the old French colonial houses. Significant now of faded grandeur, it is arguably used to re-orientalize Vietnamese products for the Viet Kieu, South Vietnamese exiles who crave romanticized views of Vietnam they had to leave behind in painful circumstances in the 1970s and because they do not now recognize their country.

Vietnam is a country still quite divided between North and South living in the shadow and the trauma of two bitterly fought colonial struggles. The North via photography and other elements martially commemorate their struggle and eventual triumph against massive odds. The South who lost the war – but appear to be winning the peace – are nostalgic about remembering what was interrupted and purged in 1976. Being publicly nostalgic has only quite recently become a possible trope in Vietnam. As cultural anthropologist Christophe Robert comments: “Indulging in nostalgia is akin to dilettantism and bourgeois loafing…After independence and reunification of the country had been achieved. Nostalgia for the bad old days was inappropriate. In political terms, and especially in Saigon and southern Vietnam, nostalgia could potentially open the door to revisionist accounts calling into question the brutal means- and the authoritarian governance of the Communist Party.” (Robert, p. 408)

When it comes to the luxury goods there is a demand from more discerning old money in both Hanoi and Saigon for nostalgia in art, interior design and packaging. It seems that the two Frenchmen who set up this brand wittingly or unwittingly tap into this vein whilst also auto-orientalizing Vietnam for foreign visitors. I picked this item up in the Sofitel in Ho Chi Minh –; at 131,000 dong, (about $5) it is definitely a chi chi item you wouldn’t find it in a normal supermarket. My cultural anthropologist colleague Christophe Robert believes that this pack would appeal only to the very pinnacle of the social hierarchy in Vietnam, those with both money and symbolic education to be able to appreciate the references. Aside from being beautifully and artfully put together, this pack seems to be a semiotic text that shrewdly pushes the right buttons both with overseas Viet Kieu diaspora, nostalgia craving rich Vietnamese and easily impressed, time pressed foreigners like me looking for swift souvenirs.

© Chris Arning 2012

References

Arjun Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture (1990)

Robert, Christophe ‘The Return of the Repressed: Uncanny Spaces of Nostalgia and Loss in Trâ`n Anh Hùng’s Cyclo’ Positions 20:1 (2012)

Thurlow, Crispin and Georgia Aeillo, ‘National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry’, Journal of Visual Communication, (2007)

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Reserved Meaning

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Using different drinks glasses as a way of explaining codes and cultural meanings is a well-established routine in the discourse of commercial semiotics. Monty Alexander first introduced this at Semiotic Solutions and Australia’s Jake Pearce has more recently adapted it on a short YouTube film. Pearce introduces semiotics by using an obvious everyday example – demonstrating the differences in perception that arise between witnessing sparkling wine being drunk from a beer glass and seeing someone drinking it in a more properly ‘meaningful’ way from a champagne glass. Jake Pearce goes on to argue that the confusing sensation of seeing champagne in a tankard, like seeing a mature man wearing bright red lipstick, is an error in the continuum of meaning – of the sort that semiotics can help you avoid in actual commercial communication in any form.

"I'm in the wrong place on the semiotic expert continuum"

I enjoyed Jake Pearce’s performance since nothing in the world seemed more stable than his examples. But this impression lasted only a month or two. You may understand my surprise when in at the beginning of the winter, the season when dark beer usually comes out on the stage, the local Bulgarian brand Zagorka (owned by Heineken) launched new 360º campaign promoting its variant of stout beer but with an explicitly wine-like style message. This brand new product was called ‘Reserva’, offered in a limited edition and for a limited period (“only this winter”) – and its distinctive feature was the blueberry taste.

It should be noted that in Bulgaria people involved in food and drink industry are clear (or maybe were clear) about the taste preferences of the average consumer. Everything should have a consistent, strong taste – black strong coffee, fiery alcohol, etc.  Briefly, beer is nothing, but beer, and the perception of the local consumer was seriously challenged especially by the TV commercial. In the spot we could see beer bottles put on familiar wine shelves with date plates on them displaying years in the near future – 2015, 2016 and so on. Then a hand picked up the bottle and filled a wine glass with the beer in question.

The Reserva case was made even more complex because in previous years dark beer in the local market had been rather exception rather than the rule, although with the arrival of this different kind of taste and sensory experience a few dark beers had taken their place on the shelves. The most curious fact was that the overall message put together by different channels tended to accentuate he wine reference as an interesting tool for distinguishing such an extraordinary product from the beer category as a whole – but without positioning it as wine, since after all it was actually still a beer.

I don’t know what Jake Pearce  would say about this, but I appraised this marketing move as daring and potentially paradigm-changing.  Pearce’s argument is completely supported by the U.S. professor of malting and brewing science Charles Bamforth, who dedicates a whole book to the topic of  Grape vs. Grain (Cambridge University Press, 2008), aiming to demarcate clearly the origin and cultures of the two drinks. Bamforth even aspires to give brewers and the world at large a different perspective on beer and to underline its inherent qualities and heritage, in spite of beer’s “outrageous advertising regimes” and unequal battle with the originally French and precious derivation of wine’s image.

Returning to semiotics, we should remember the principle that meaning is fluid and that nothing is ultimately stable in culture, including the world of alcoholic beverages. Semiotics also teaches us as that if you are presenting something new you should use something close and familiar as a meaning bearer, otherwise your idea will lack some kind of skeleton or face.

That is why I found the Reserva ad semiotically provocative – it positions the product not against wine, in its taken for granted sense, but superimposed on wine (working through a sort of mimicry) and by doing so it draws on the exclusivity and higher class image of wine.

Probably, in a global context, the ad is neither totally new nor original in its attempt to stir up the beer market. In the upcoming winter season Reserva won’t even exist any more in the Bulgarian market place. But in the sprit of above and potentially taking the beer-wine crossover into new diemensions, Charles Bamforth writes: “I believe that the brewer has much to learn from the winemaker”, not least perhaps in moving the beer category forward to a point where it can begin to be associated with a wholeseome lifestyle of health and longevity.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

Posted in Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Celebrating a Paradoxical Semantic Union

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Vicky Bullen,CEO of Coley Porter Bell wrote an interesting piece on the Union Jack where she looked at its use in branding and a poll on how consumers feel about it.

Refreshingly, she focused not on the cultural meanings (xenophobia, patriotism) in the flag but on the visual signs that make it up. She writes:

“In pure design terms much of its power derives from an optical illusion… this has created a dynamic, multi-layered design which draws the eye in to the intersection of the three crosses and rewards it with all sorts of interesting shapes and angles”

If you look at international flags there are some rudimentary schema through which they are arranged. For instance, many flags follow France with a tricolore schema with three equal vertical strips, others with three horizontal bands. Some flags have a central unifying area to which the eye is drawn – Japan, Korea and Brazil would be prime examples. Other flags create schema that compartmentalize information like the Stars and Stripes. Some flags have a central line and an isosceles triangle off left, South Africa, for example – there is an off-kilter messiness to these which is not really compensated for by visual complexity and involvement. I hope I do not come across as a chauvinist but the Union Jack does complexity and dynamism in spades.

What the Union Jack does brilliantly is to simultaneously combine symmetry, or at least balance, with an interesting tension. Involving a series of intersecting lines, it has both a centrifugal and a centripetal force to it. It forms a rough schematic and is segmented into four sections but at the same time these are cohesive. This connotes both segmentation and a central axis of unity.

In a sense this is visual metaphor for the reality of the Act of Union, an uneasy co-existence of identity shards. A comedian recently said that it is a country no-one really wants to be part of. The English are phlegmatic, the Welsh simmering with resentment and the Scots positively contemptuous. Only half of Northern Ireland cares about the Union and that is only really to piss off the Irish Republicans in their midst.

The Union Jack is one of the few flags that seems to disrupt its own bounds. It aspires to break through its borders and even out of the 2D flat plane, creating a sense of outward protrusion and impact. It is brilliantly centrifugal and this combines with depth of field because the diagonals are layered underneath the cross to make it a much more engrossing semiotic phenomenon than most other flags – those, for example, which direct your eye to a single symbol, divide the plane up into three equal orthogonal segments or are partitioned into stripes and carve out a special corner zone.

All of this means that the Union Jack (or Union Flag, to give it its proper title before I vex vexillologists out there and you start to correct me) has high semantic density.

“The semantic density of something is the measure of how much information it conveys in relation to its size or duration. The higher the semantic density, or the more semantically dense something is, the more information it packs into the given space or time.” (Andy Bradbury, Neurolinguistic Programming). I always like to give the examples of an average Indian street sensorially – semantically dense – also I like to think that Japanese culture is probably the most semantically dense on Earth. If you were to download the whole of Japanese culture into a digital file (with Tokyo’s dizzying annual output of magazines, films, music and books) it would be very heavy!

Without wanting to get too technical, there are different types of semantic density, pertaining to the way meaning pools on, say, a 2D frame. The litmus test is what will distort the meaning. Sometimes meaning is condensed in a cultural symbol, (symbolic density) sometimes distributed in the schema, as with the tessellations of Islamic architecture – schematic density. Sometimes meaning is distributed through the entire visual field. Where some flags have one density type, the Union Jack seems to be finely poised between density types, keeping the eye busy flipping between them.

The flag hints at schematic density via indexes of the diagonals pointing like arrows whilst also imbuing the flag with transgression through breaking framing of the flag (a mereological density), through spilling over the cordon which most flags respect.

It is also a flag brilliant suited to inflection, which brands have only just started to see the potential of. Both Innocent and Sainsbury’s have seen the explosive potential of the Union Jack to render their messages more dynamic and seemingly youthful in their thrust. To be fair, this sense of explosive potential has always lurked latent in the Union Jack and is definitely one of the reasons it has become both a counter-cultural and a xenophobic symbol. At the same time brands like Ryvita can, in this fetching limited edition pack, exploit the wrapping, ribbon-like qualities of the flag.

The closest parallel to this uptake of the national flag is that of the humble Canadian maple leaf – which becomes much less humble in the hockey team logo context! The Union Jack has almost gone the reverse route – becoming more homely as required. Bullen notes the flexibility of the Union Jack (whichever fraction of the flag used it is instantly recognizable) and its iconic density – it is a flag easily inflected and sampled from, which is also true of the Maple Leaf. As a nation we’re not as comfortable with the flag yet as Canadians are with their flag. There is antipathy towards some of the Union Jacks’ anachronistic connotations while the Maple Leaf was crowd sourced in a national competition so is more indigenous. Even so, it is worth exulting in the Union Jack’s inventive design if nothing else.

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Why all the Pinterest?

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

 

The latest online media phenomenon is called Pinterest. It’s a kind of online scrapbook where users can upload or ‘pin’ their pictures of interest, categorizing them onto boards and, importantly, share for re-pinning. Pinterest’s mission is to ‘connect everyone in the world through the things they find interesting’. Of course, the site connects to Facebook where pins are further shared, and it works as a mobile app for photographing and commentary, as well as online.

Although it launched 2 years ago, Pinterest only really grabbed the mainstream attention of its predominantly US and UK users towards the end of 2011. According to Comscore, it is the fastest site to reach 10m unique users in the US (Jan 2012). The site is also extremely influential – it is now referring more traffic to other websites than Twitter.

What makes the site interesting is who uses it and why. Interestingly, 80% of Pinterest’s users are female and the categories range from holidays to décor to apparel. Some of the most liked or most re-pinned images include step by step guides to hairstyles, sun-kissed beaches and cute baby pandas.

Brands have started using Pinterest, taking advantage of the ‘Earned’ value it offers and the buzz around it. For example, BMI Airlines ran a sweepstake style competition – they created different boards including numbered pictures showing different destinations. If users re-pinned 6 of these pictures onto their own boards, they were entered into a sweepstake to win free flights. The sanpro brand, Kotex, identified 50 influential women on Pinterest and sent them personal gifts, based on their interests expressed on their boards. The result for this low-interest category was 2,000 interactions and 700,000 impressions. A case study can be seen here.

Fashion house Oscar de la Renta pinned images from their bridal fashion show live on to the site – it has attracted almost 17,000 followers in less than a week.

The site’s appeal is its simplicity, unlike the more geeky Delicious or Pinboard. And it’s interesting that whilst every other new site or app seems to be designed for mobile, browsing Pinterest can really only be done on a desktop or tablet. The site embodies yet another way for people to express ‘Brand Me’ in the online world.

© Jo Peters 2012

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Blood on the tracks

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

 

Virgil ('Gus') Evans is a Senior Mole at a famous Mid-Eastern secret services provider. Yesterday Evans took time off from his other duties as personal bodyguard to a famous head of state N* to give us an exclusive glimpse into blueprints for his brand’s revolutionary contribution to the new generation of underwear bombs competing clandestine R&D facilities globally are racing to develop.

“Consumers are going to love the torque, elegant lines and intelligent safety features on this one”, Evans avers, “Though when you’re up against a joint venture as lavishly resourced as that CIA, Saudi and Al Qaeda double agents' innovation team nothing’s a foregone conclusion. It’s going to be a game of at least two halves. It may need to go to extra time and penalties. Only the strong will survive. The word on the street is that they also have the backing of a shape-shifting media organization code-named Viz, which has ambitions to create a global shadow state at least as evil and all-embracing as the now defunct Murdoch empire, both having emerged originally in the wake of the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident and the escape at that time of two lizard-like alien siblings known as Richard and Rupert”.

Meanwhile Semionaut has learned independently of another emerging competitor in the lingerie bombing marketplace. The legendary tensions between the Pentagon and the US State Department have erupted again with a NASA-led competitor to the CIA-sponsored device, the one which hit front pages around the world this week. The NASA version, visually directed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and based on the famous cone bra modeled by Madonna in the 1980s, has been secretly engineered by the now centenarian Nazi rocket team (led by Werner von Braun, whose death was faked in 1977) which first put the Americans into space. Our younger Semionaut readers may want to bone up on the history of this team in Tom Bower’s brilliant study The Paperclip Conspiracy (1988) and in The Right Stuff (1979), where Tom Wolfe describes them carousing with frothing steins of Bavarian beer and thumping out iconic Nazi ditty ‘The Horst Wessel Lied’ on a piano in the back room of a bar at Coco Beach Florida while the first Americans walked on the moon.

SS Major Werner von Braun models a revolutionary exploding plaster cast

Evans recounts to me the story of a night he spent in a tent at Coco Beach, in almost unbearable heat and humidity, in July 1979: “Skylab was due to crash to earth around the 10th or the 11th. In those days we weren’t as blasé about such technological detritus as we are now. Devo, who among other things accurately predicted the totality of mind-numbing neoliberal culture and ideology, had actually written a protest song about space junk. Thus forewarned I was in that tent because I thought the safest place on earth to be was probably near Skylab’s original point of departure, Cape Canaveral. Rationally this made no sense at all and there’s a mathematical tool to prove it, the Poisson Distribution. But try telling that to an intuitive creative person like me. In the end we go with the metaphors and narratives. The love marks, Flower Bombs, the loaves and fishes. Neuroscience and MRI scans have taught us that Descartes was wrong anyway and the multifarious hues revealed by brain imaging are now almost exclusively postmodern, except in the more primitive limbic area as yet properly understood only by marketing people. The trouble nowadays is that we’ve forgotten most of the important things and we’re going to need to relearn them. While what we remember and clutter our heads with is mainly diversionary rubbish”.

By now we’re nearing the last lap of our journey from my Ecole Normale Superieure HQ in Paris to the Benllech campus in Anglesey, North Wales. Our super-hi-tech Virgin Pendolino train corners steeply. I lean into Evans, who’s in the window seat, as the carriage tilts almost horizontal. “The trouble with these things”, says Evans. “is they’re like Superbikes. Soon you’ll have to wear thick leather pants with reinforced knees to ride in them. And those are going to muffle the impact even of a 4G underpants bomb. Leaving, even on successful detonation, only mild discomfort for the wearer in the trouser area and at best some minor staining to the upholstery. Given the current economic situation I think Branson should pay taxes in the UK anyway where he's from, fair play, not on Necker or whatever that luxury island's called, where he’s the emperor. Like Judge Dredd. What kind of challenger hero do you call that, notwithstanding all his look-at-me extreme sports palaver with balloons and what have you? Who does he think he is, Harry Potter?”

As we leave Stafford far behind and approach Crewe the mobile phone signal is down to a single bar. Time to file this. Better a cliffhanger than a meaningless catastrophe just around the next bend. 

© Opal Cerdan 2012

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Semiotics and the interface

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The fields of semiotics, human-computer interaction (HCI), and user experience have flourished in the past years, mostly exclusively of one another. Each has evolved into fields of study for both business professionals and academics–semiotics from academic roots, user experience from business, and HCI from a mix of both. Many thinkers have tackled the subject of semiotics and the digital experience with impressive rigor, but few have applied their insights to a strategic business setting. As user experience and interface designers focus on delivering comprehensive documentation to their clients, there is a disconnect between business objectives and how the proposed design speaks through its interface.

For the purposes of this discussion, we can define “interface” as anything that filters information and re-presents it in a meaningful way. The implications of such a broad definition are that the interface is something that both provides access and mediates information. As such, this interface is an active force and influential factor in the relationship between objects and their representations.

In the results-focused world of user experience and interface design, it is easy to forget the nuances of meaning amidst interface and experience. The end goals of user experience and interface design are to create a means by which users of software can access information in a way that is meaningful, intuitive, and serves the objectives of the software creators (or a brand). In certain cases, these two objectives can conflict with one anther.

Take for example a financial services company whose audience includes a segment with particular interest in travel. They are older, retired people with the leisure time and money to take vacations around the world. The brand’s website is focused mostly on product offerings, which are of fleeting importance if they are not linked to core audience interests. There is a conflict between the business, which wants to sell products, and this audience segment, who want to know how best to allocate funds to leisure activities. The company needs a way to communicate with its audience in a way that is meaningful for them, within the context of their interests. This is a semiotic challenge, but brands seldom think about business problems in terms of meaning production.

The company might go about solving the problem by adding some travel information on their website, writing a couple blog posts on popular travel destinations, and starting to talk about travel on Facebook. This approach is short-sighted, specifically because it does not consider is the entirety of the digital experience. It changes the interface at a few touch points but fails to positively affect the more wide-ranging brand interaction in a way that an approach informed by semiotics might. Perhaps a better approach would be to reframe certain products within the context of travel and leisure, without specific attention to a particular channel. The difference is that the second approach is integrated into all the brand’s interfaces; it’s a systemic change rather than a manipulation of limited touch points.

I see the main benefits semiotics can provide in a business setting residing in this idea of contextual manipulation. Business and design problems are rarely so singular and isolated to warrant limited solutions; however, at the same time, companies are hesitant to entertain systemic changes because of budgetary reasons or the anxiety caused by thinking about their brand as a constantly evolving entity. Professionals who are influenced by semiotics should work to better establish a theoretical framework that makes sense to clients and can be executed in a business setting. They should elucidate how their colleagues are actually semioticians, even if they don’t articulate it or even know it. The first step toward incorporating semiotics into a business setting is to strip away its esoteric qualities.

This topic will be explored further in a forthcoming essay

 © Thomas Wendt 2012

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

The death of dubstep

Monday, April 30th, 2012

I’m not an expert on dubstep, but I've encountered it out and about, and it’s been an enjoyable romp… but now I hear it’s dead.

Why? Because dub has hit the mainstream, and we know this because dubstep’s darker, discordant, bass-heavy electronica sound showed up a few months ago in advertising for Resident Evil, McDonalds… and Weetabix, of all brands. This represents a key transformation of dub style that’s been resented in some quarters- Twitter and the blogosphere have lit up with fury—dubstep is dead! DEAD I tell you!

Of course, the question is, why does an association with some mainstream brands= death for the dub sound, rather than an association with dubstep= freshness for brand executions?

Though the use of dubstep in a mainstream venue such as advertising can feel troubling to fans because it challenges subcultural ownership of the sound, this is also about the specific brands with which dubstep is being associated.

Resident Evil – well, yes. The connections between gamer culture, tech, utopia, and darkness (thus the ever-present threat of dystopia that comes with surges of innovation and technology) are all there and fit dubstep’s dark electronic sound.

But McDonalds? Weetabix? Using dubstep to represent these brands is a classic example of inverting key brand codes to disrupt and redirect consumer expectation. Each brand has varying levels of success with this approach.

McDonalds fails to bridge the gap between brand and sound

Despite their current call for adults to 'revolt and embrace lunch again', the core McDonalds brand is broadly defined by the promise of consistency, and satisfaction of simple, at times childlike pleasures and expectations. In the ad, this is manifested via easily recognizable components- a skater park shot with crystalline clarity on a bright day, and two young guys just hanging out and enjoying their Chicken McBites.

But, this execution also features a dubby remix of the McDonald’s jingle and the two guys (Bones and Aaron- ‘extreme street dance’ celebrities) in a playful dance battle over the box of McBites. The dubby McDonalds jingle sounds somewhat McDonalds, somewhat not. The ‘extreme street dance’ style can only be described as making the body move in ways that don’t seem possible for human beings- again, familiar, but different. Both elements bring an air of the extraordinary and unexpectedness to the execution and McDonalds.

But the thing is, these two components are presented as normal in this light, bright McDonald’s world, despite their unexpectedness. Even when it’s shown that the McBites inspire the street fight (essentially, the product making consumers do extraordinary things, catalyzed by the presumed deliciousness of the McBites), there is only a tenuous conceptual bridge for the viewer.

By including these elements as just another everyday aspect of brand, the ad drives cognitive dissonance. How does the multi-textured dub sound and spectacle of Bones and Aaron moving their bodies into eerily impossible contortions correlate to the home of the Happy Meal or even Chicken McBites’ ‘great homestyle flavor’? Bones and Aaron are ‘home grown’ in a sense, self-made street performers known to a specific youth target- but since street dance is already their thing, the premise of the ‘product as catalyst’ falls down.

Weetabix lets the new sound create a new world

In contrast, Weetabix maintains break-through, and skirts the dissonance caused by code inversion by framing out the dubstep moment into a more complete space of fantasy and performance facilitated by the brand.

Here, dub is used to signal a shift from the real to the unreal.  Framing, light quality, over-the top editing and the animated dancing teddy-bear crew make it clear that we’re viewing an alternate space where the rules are different and little girls dubstep powerfully. The execution is free to expose and explore new and interesting terrain for the brand (particularly energy, exuberance, joyful play), and celebrates dubstep along the way. The result broadens, rather than directly challenges brand expectations- since it’s acknowledged that there isn’t really a relationship between Weetabix and dub, but one is being created.

I do think there’s a thought and lesson for brands here- understand the bounds of brand stretch, even in the case of code inversion – don’t ‘kill’ culture –  find a way to leverage it that makes sense for the brand.

© Ramona Lyons 2012

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence | 2 Comments »

We interrupt this prose…

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

The trend for poetry in British advertising isn’t going away. It bubbled up a couple of years ago, with the McDonald’s ‘Just passing by’ ad, and the Pete Postlethwaite-voiced script for Cathedral City cheddar. Along with ads by Waitrose, the AA and Centre Parcs, this caused extensive soul-searching at the time about whether this was debasing a great art, or a welcome way to popularise the medium.

More recently, we’ve had an Ode to an Iceland Mum:


 

A poem on Premier Inns:

 

And a particularly challenging piece from Santander:

The adverts vary in quality, but it’s interesting to reflect on why poetry, at least in the judgement of these advertisers, fits with the commercial imperative.

One of the reasons must be its disruptive effect. A working definition of poetry could be ‘disrupted prose’. Which is to say, language where the conventional prosaic flow from one clause to the next is disrupted by formal elements: rhyme, rhythm, wordplay and a heightened awareness of the sound and shape that words make. Of course, there are some writers who deliberately challenge this definition, pushing the boundaries of prose to breaking point, or writing prose poems that exhibit none of the qualities normally associated with poetry. But such forms draw their power from the expectation they’re subverting.

The disruptive nature of poetry is a useful tool for advertisers, always keen to jolt a passive audience into paying attention. I’ve noticed it myself while tapping away on the laptop with the TV on in the background. You’re aware of the usual burble of commercial messages during the ad breaks, but when that burble turns into poetry, a different part of your brain responds. Despite yourself, you start anticipating the next rhyme or subconsciously bouncing along to the rhythm.

Which isn’t to say these ads are either enjoyable or effective. The Iceland and Premier Inn ads work well enough on their own terms, albeit in a fairly conventional way. The Santander ad disrupts in an unwelcome way, like someone prodding you repeatedly with their finger.

There is a craft to writing these advertising poems, and it’s a tricky thing to pull off. A Wordsworth or Byron doesn’t have to worry about ticking off various parts of the target demographic, or covering off key selling points. But the commercial writer does, and too often it shows.

Get it right and a poem can have an unusually powerful effect. Moving a step away from advertising, UK satirist Charlie Brooker recently filmed an extended rant to camera about Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. (The paper was complaining of being targeted by a witch hunt, apparently not realising the irony.)

The rant would be funny enough in prose, but Charlie Brooker – uncharacteristically for him – chose to cast it in poetry.

The sheer craft is something to admire, often relying on an unexpected rhyme rather than the obvious choice – a lesson the Premier Inn and Iceland writers could usefully learn. But casting the rant in poetry also elevates it into something more than a funny piece to camera. It becomes a self-contained piece of performance art, which predictably ‘went viral’ on Twitter and YouTube.

Again, this points to the power of the poem – its origins in oral tradition suggest that it has always been a ‘viral’ form, explicitly designed to make language more memorable and shareable. Advertisers have long understood the mnemonic power of rhythm and rhyme when it comes to the shorter form: slogans and jingles. Such slogans have gone out of fashion, seen as being crass and unsophisticated. But extending the practice into a full-length script is the acceptable modern-day alternative.

RKCR/Y&R, the agency behind the Premier Inn ad, explain on their website that they chose the poetic approach because of its power to make a ‘deeper emotional connection’. It appears that this is where poetry now sits in the popular imagination – a form of language to which we turn in times of emotional need: weddings, funerals and… selling mid-market hotel rooms. Like it or not, I suspect the trend will be with us for a while.

© Nick Asbury 2012

 

Read more from Nick on the blog of his creative partnership Asbury & Asbury.
 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Deity with a Semiotic Face

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

In the previous article on Hermes, starting with cultural origins in ancient times, I took note of the figure of the deity as a channel of communication and as a message. Here I want to focus on more recent times and ‘culture capital’ – specifically how marketing and advertising scoop up ready-to-use forms from history and universally recognised traditions as well as from local legends and myths in order to connect stories and symbols with their products (goods/services) and in such a way as to grab the attention of the potential consumers. This is clear demonstration of a principle, defined by Russian semiologist Yuri Lotman, who maintains that ‘old texts’, which circulate in culture, are there to be appropriated in terms of what exists on the surface and then refreshed by means of new codes.  

In the case of Hermes, on the basis of some limited research (which we invite Semionaut readers to supplement) on uses of the name and figure in modern trade and advertising,  it appears that in the mass consciousness in the most cases the deity remains the one who rapidly delivers messages and objects from one point to another. His most usual physical attribute – the wings (whether on his hat or sandals) is the most exploited symbol, preferred among the shipping and logistic companies. In Bulgaria we note a small difference, maybe because we here are close to the Hermes’s area of origin and operation, in that we see his attributes and name incorporated into tourist agencies and one well-known publishing house. Obviously for the locals the deity also has meaning of transfer.

But there are some curious exceptions, for example the use of the caduceus (Hermes’s sceptre) and serpents in logos as a reference to the medicinal skills of the Greek god. There is also one case from the not too distant past where a famous typewriter brand was named ‘Hermes’, clearly alluding to the god’s connection model with the invention of writing. Like the use of his name of publishing house this has a connection with transfer of knowledge and wisdom by means of some kind of medium – language and books. In a sense, time is a medium as well and as we saw in the earlier piece, time and space are mixed together when Hermes does what he does – moreover, he is among the immortals and his actions are set in the mythologically timeless.  

In contrast with all these relatively easily decodable meaning, among the richest and most eloquent examples for the use of this mythologeme in its full brilliance remains the name of the French luxury Hermès. This company was established in 1837 by Thierry Hermés and is today one of the major players in the fashion and luxury business alongside such brands as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The Hermès offer includes perfumes, jewelry and various accessories but the main products which bring the fame of the company are bags and sandals. As we might presume, the brand;’s communication deliberately emphasizes the connection between these products and the deeds of Hermes as messenger wearing winged sandals, one of whose main attributes is a bag. From this point we could decide that the company does not count only on the coincidence in the names of its founder and the one of the Greek deity. Moreover, in the creation of the visual identity (predominantly in its logo) Hermès has always been prepared to access tangentially other symbolic accoutrements of the deity. A historical execution of the logo (above), for example, puts the main element – a cab with one horse in front of it – above two images of the caduceus (placed on the left and on the right side, with wings and interlaced serpents added). In this way we have an opportunity to observe the mythology in action – in new context but with the message adapted to the perceptions of a contemporary consumer audience.   

We would love to hear comments below about any other variations on this broader theme of how Hermes symbolism has been and is deployed by brands.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

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Blue: the grown-up face of green concerns

Monday, January 16th, 2012

 

How best to banish those January blues? By tackling the problem head-on, perhaps, with a brief note on the semiotics of colour.

A recent article in The Economist makes a pertinent observation about the motor industry’s colour of choice when communicating its green credentials – isn’t it interesting that it’s not, well, green? Fiat, Mercedes-Benz and (most notably in the UK at least) Volkswagen all favour blue when it comes to matters environmental.

The colour blue has about as many direct and associative meanings as it has shades, but in the commercial world at least, one thing is clear – when it comes to corporate identity, blue is a safe bet. Among other things, it lends gravitas and austerity to Barclays and a slew of financial services brands; it connotes cool, clear thinking at IBM; and it has become the de facto colour of social networking thanks to its adoption by Facebook and Twitter. In combination, these codes help elevate the colour blue to a potent signifier of collaborative professionalism – what organisation would not want to project that about itself?

A recent brand renaming exercise at a previous agency saw a client spend tens of thousands of pounds over several rounds of research, only to pull the plug, resolving instead to “just stick the existing name in blue”. Blue, it seems, was the only thing that everyone could agree on – when making the right decision seems hard, choosing blue at least mitigates against making the wrong one. Or, to put it another way, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM, and neither did the guy who chose to write the logo in blue.

Here in the UK, boardroom scenes in the TV series The Apprentice are colour graded to enhance blueness, presumably in the hope of encouraging audiences to take more seriously ‘Captain of Industry’ Lord Sugar and his pageant of hapless wannabes. Watching the show won’t teach you much about making your way in the workplace, but it will leave you in little doubt that Blue Is The Colour Of Business.

When powerful commercial codes of blueness are yoked to the elemental associations of pale blue with the life-giving forces of water and sky, it is clear why blue should become an irresistible choice for organisations keen to demonstrate that they are serious about getting green. Perhaps the shift to blue is also a belated sign of a cultural change that has been underway for many years. The green movement is growing up: no longer the reserve of a niche of dedicated ‘cabbage patch’ activists, it is now big business, with major organisations increasingly embracing it as a core element in sustainable strategy.

Source: http://thinkblue.volkswagen.com/blue_projects/blue_symphony

 © Tom Lilley 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Extimacy

Monday, December 5th, 2011

 

 

The close-up shot is currently a popular visual trope in advertising and media, with examples abounding from all sectors. And as the camera gets closer and closer – in particular, closer and closer to the human face and body – it seems we’re dealing with a new way of saying ‘this is real’.

Brands have long sought proximity to consumers, exploring different ways to express the idea of authentic engagement. But it now seems their quest for authenticity is relying on ever-increasing levels of physical proximity and intimacy.

(Nike homepage)

So what does the physical proximity of the close-up signify? And how does it fit with today’s cultural landscape?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the cultural ascendancy of science is a relevant factor. For personal-care brands in particular, that means a shift away from images of psychological authenticity (confidence, self-expression) towards the representation of physiological detail such as cellular process and biological structure. So the camera needs to zoom in much closer than it has done before.  

This symbolic dimension of the close-up could be dubbed ‘ethical naturalism’: a representation of natural and biological processes that’s far from morally neutral. Instead it’s invested with a sense of awe, placing a burden of responsibility and care with the consumer. ‘See how fascinating and wonderful the skin is – doesn’t it deserve the very best moisturisation?’ Displayed as remarkable phenomena, bodies need to be carefully looked after: the close-up shot of skin or hair implies an attitude of wonder, care and respect.   

 Vaseline’s platform ‘Your skin is amazing’ provides a typical expression of ‘ethical naturalism’, and unsurprisingly, makes extensive use of close-up photography too.

Also driving the rise of the close-up are social media. The close-up is, in a sense, a metonym for social-media culture, symbolising the over-exposure and intimate revelation made possible by platforms like Twitter and Facebook. With brands keen to participate in this world, it’s not surprising that they’re using close-ups to ally themselves with it.

Both these approaches to the close-up – ethical naturalism and the rise of social media – can be united under the Lacanian term ‘extimacy’. For Lacan, the most intimate aspects of experience are ultimately external or other to the subject, just as the intimacies of social media and of biological naturalism re-locate inner ‘truth’ externally. Extimacy seems to be one of the key tropes in advertising today, which is finding a new aesthetic focus in the externalisation of the intimate.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

The poetry of business

Monday, October 31st, 2011

If you're searching for the sacred springs of poetic inspiration, your first port of call wouldn’t usually be KPMG, Halliburton or Pot Noodle.

But copywriter Nick Asbury has shown that poetry – hovering between the intended and the unintended – abounds in corporate and brand discourse. He's created a technique, Corpoetics, which involves replicating extracts from websites and business publications, and re-arranging them on the page to draw out their poetic potential.

Here’s an example of Corpoetics in practice:

'KPMG'

I am strong.
I am vibrant.
I am committed to a vision.

I am tremendous.
I am quality.
I will lead people to excellence.

I am delighted.
I am respected.
I am very greatly valued.

What am I?
I am the best.

Read the original KPMG text here.

While gently poking fun at the pretensions of corporate language, Corpoetics isn’t meant to be primarily critical. In fact, it’s the very subtlety of the technique that offers semioticians an interesting perspective.

These poems take existing signs and get us reading them differently, thanks to a minimal act of reframing. It shows that critical thought needn’t always look beyond the surface of the sign to find a hidden truth beneath. Sometimes all it needs to do is stay with the signifier – playing with surface forms to draw out a wider range of meaning.

‘Halliburton’, for instance, reveals a desolation that might not have come through on a conventional reading:

We operate in broad array,

starting with production –

finally to infrastructure

and abandonment.

Corpoetics is a technique everyone can try at home. Readers are welcome to share examples in the comments thread below! Here are the rules as supplied by Nick:

·     Take the text from the ‘about us’ page of any corporate website
·     Rearrange the words into a poem
·     You don’t have to use all the words
·     You can use the same word twice
·     No fragments or anagrams of words
·     Punctuation can be added as necessary

 

Links

To read more about Corpoetics, and order a copy of Nick's book, visit his website here.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Life stories

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

It is every brand’s goal to become a defining point in your, yet at the same time everyone’s, life story, in hope of building up emotional value, lifelong loyalty and becoming a myth. In anticipation of Facebook’s new profile interface, the Timeline: Tell your life story with a new kind of profile it’s worth noting how various brands have used the same strategy to creep into our lives.

One example is UK department store John Lewis's latest TV advert  that showcases the role their electrical products have played in people’s lives over the years, played against a backdrop of iconic music tracks.

The advert consists of seven scenes, each representing a different era, ending with two teenagers enjoying a performance of ‘Shine On’ by the Kooks on the latest internet-enabled Sony Internet TV. The ‘seven scenes’ also resonate with Shakespeare’s legendary As You Like It speech (Act II Scene vii): “And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages…

KFC came up with a reverse timeline of a love story for their “Love is Forever” ad. It opens with an elderly couple dancing to Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ and becoming gradually younger until they eventually waltz back to childhood.

The timeline formula has also been used in the “Time Flies” advert for South Africa’s largest investment company, Alan Gray long term investment fund, which tells the story of a girl who grows up in a hurry, realising years later that time is priceless and shouldn’t be rushed.

On celebrating their 20 years’ presence in Russia, Mars have made an advert that provides a twist on the usual timeline theme. Their campaign It’s good that some dreams never come true features a young girl wishing when she grows up to “wear pink leggings and dance in the disco with a man in a crimson jacket”. Meanwhile, in another execution, a young boy wishes to “become a businessman, drive a Lada 6 and be married to a top model”.

The adverts then show a glimpse of what that may have looked like and fast-forwards to show the less ridiculous reality, reminding us of our silly childhood dreams that thankfully never materialised.  

Another in the endless list of recycling the timeline formula attempts is last year’s Unilever campaign  for its male grooming line Dove Men+Care, based on milestones including marriage and kids, in an attempt to challenge the stereotypes around “Real Men” and move away from traditional male grooming ads. 

So, for brands, an effective way to become embedded in consumers’ lives is to act as ‘biographers’ – telling life stories and ‘being there’ at key symbolic stages. Facebook’s Timeline, giving consumers the chance to narrate and curate their own unfolding life stories, will bring further attention to these symbolic contact points between brands and biographies.

 “Advertising is so powerful that we can describe our lives with it" – that's how Romanian advertising agency Next explain their campaign Advertising is a part of our life which managed to demonstrate the powerful storytelling potential of brands in intimate everyday situations. Their award-winning ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Refuse’ ad-stories both feature a dialogue which consists of listing brands.

The ‘Refuse’ dialogue is as follows:

A woman is chopping vegetables in the kitchen, when a man approaches and embraces her sensually.

Man: “Murfatlar Wine… Relaxa… Durex?”

Woman: “Nurofen… Libresse. “

‘Jealousy'  offers a more intricate plot, as a woman accuses her husband of infidelity based on a list of growing brand-based suspicions: "Avon…Toyota…Novotel?"

What is most fascinating is that this dialogue doesn’t need translation in an age of global brands, where brandspeak is a common language. And if brands give us a way to tell our stories, from everyday interactions to overviews of life stages, perhaps one day we could even rewrite As You Like It just by listing brand names.

 

© 2011 Sandra Mardin

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Sequencing | No Comments »

Network: Kristian

Friday, September 30th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?

I am in Sofia, Bulgaria, I am teaching semiotics and hundreds of derivative matters at the New Bulgarian University.

Tell us about your course at the New Bulgarian University?

I am doing dozens of courses, the residual ones are on semiotics and philosophy of language, the dominant ones on semiotics of brands and marketing communication and the emergent ones… again on brand communication, but trying to introduce the ‘experience economy’ perspective.

How did you first get interested in semiotics?  And the relationship between semiotics and brand communication?

Around 1990 I was at Bologna University studying Film and Drama. After my Thursday lecture on Aesthetics there were always crowds of students coming to listen to the next lecture, given by a with a beard and glasses. After some time I asked a colleague of mine:

– Who is this guy?

– How ‘who’? This is Umberto Eco!

– Who the f…k is Umberto Eco?

Then, you know, the ‘immigrant’ had to show that he wasn't stupider than the natives…From that semiotics and brand communication was a natural development. I started to teach at the New Bulgarian University 2 weeks after I graduated from Bologna. The label ‘the pupil of Eco’ was applied to me and this brand extension made it easy for me to get opportunities on various study programmes. I have started many courses, but only one has survived into the next decade – Semiotics of Marketing and Advertising.  Actually before 1989 in Bulgaria there were no such things as marketing or advertising and New Bulgarian University was founded in 1991 (18th September, btw, Happy 20th Birth day NBU!) exactly to provide academic coverage to similar lacks in the social sphere, the arts and applied science. I was witnessing during these years how consumer culture emerged almost from nothing and brands were the major operators in the process. Brand communication was simply the most interesting subject of semiotic inquiry during this period and gradually I oriented almost all my interests there. My department started a masters program in Advertising and Lifestyles in 2007.

Your Sozopol summer school is one of the great events of the social calendar for academic semiotics.  Can you tell us something about that?

You got it right, the ‘social calendar! We have organised this event since 1995 and it took a lot of time to realise that academics are quite boring if they are at the centre. Creating the right social atmosphere, using as a driving force the students creativity and their drive for self-expression is the key to success for both the academic and the social part. The other key factor is international participation, which creates unique conditions and qualities, unachievable within a single university group. Last but not least, we invite semiotic professionals from the business, who are another source of energy for the discipline and add value to the ‘gross semiotic product’ of the event.

Kristian Bankov with Umberto Eco

Tell us about the image you have chosen to illustrate this interview?

My favorite semiotic brand! Of proved equity by demonstration!

What are your main ambitions professionally for the next two or three years?

To train my assistants to do all the jobs I am doing now! But this is impossible, so I shall focus on more realistic goals. Creating an international PhD program in semiotics would be great. Not the usual academic research PhD, but placing the doctorants in companies and organizations outside the university, making their research projects practical and useful for those organizations and even involving people from there in the evaluation committee for the defence. Thus we can start to export into society high level semiotic professionals, universal communication wizards…Also establishing a semiotic laboratory in our university (well, this is done), but developing unique brand research products and going in the Bulgarian market research market with them.

© Kristian Bankov  2011

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From musical score to critical noise

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Composers and sound designers have long treated commercial projects as they would film scores, but in miniature. It’s obvious to see why. Traditional scoring techniques do many things for film and other media. Scoring adds flavour; provides a sense of time and place; magnifies emotion; enhances activity and establishes mood. A mere hint of melody can even frame the present, foreshadow the future, or recall the past.

Scoring also serves the functional purpose of smoothing problematic transitions. It’s as if music possesses a sensory gravity that draws together disparate images, scenes, people and places. A deftly scored experience feels less a sequence of individual events and more like a cohesive, unified work.

Obviously, music is pretty magical stuff, and there is no question that for the modern storyteller, it remains a powerful tool.

Nevertheless, the proliferation of multiple, small portable screens, in tandem with the device-ification of all remaining objects, has changed (and will continue to change) how audiences navigate media. If our smart phones cause a distraction now, what happens when our homes and everything in them also become ‘smart’?

The primary effect is that marketers are increasingly forced to abbreviate narrative, and add brand-to-fan touch points that didn’t exist before (or if they existed, were ignored). Consequently, the notion of story has been stretched to its semantic limits.

Yet one noticeably interesting result of this tectonic paradigm shift has been the curious emergence of a new breed of sonic artisan.

The practice is called audio, music or sonic branding, and many have indeed recast themselves using this nomenclature. Others have adopted related verbal identifiers, but haven't updated their processes, because they think such phrases are simply new ways to give the same old thing a modern twist.

Personally, I believe branding with sound does require a different aural intelligence than is typically accumulated from a film or broadcast media composer’s education or experience. I frame the actual process as the development and combination of micro musical sounds into ‘critical noise’ assets. Unlike most commercial composition, the aim is not to support narrative, but to convey a message.

Rather, we employ sound to reframe an otherwise interruptive transition as an informational transaction. A navigation tone, such as a click of the mouse, for one example, confirms ‘command executed’.  A custom ringtone signals someone you know requests your attention. And a deceptively simple melodic logo has unzipped itself inside your brain. You can't really sing it, but its construction suggests it's bursting with symbolic data.

Indeed, in the same way the purpose and design of a traffic signal is different from painting landscapes, so too is the craft of sonic signification different from composing music to enhance dramatic action. Ironically, branded sound is designed to influence behavior and drive action from a potentially distracted audience, while an action score is composed to delight a passive, receptive audience.

This is why new musical solutions providers require not only musical talent but also the ability to research and analyse extra musical, culturally relevant data. Lacking these skills, we risk conceptual dissonance when our goal is immediate comprehension.

Additionally, these sonic assets are ‘critical’ because in an automated world, they are the first point of contact between a brand and consumer, and therefore increasingly synonymous with another more common signifier: ‘hello’.  

Unlike thematic material, when we use sound as a signifier, we intend to deliver a self-contained and instant communication. Sometimes, in the case of a consumer touch point, we only have seconds to do this. While that is just as hard to do as it sounds, it isn’t without precedent. But first, we have to think like a sonic semiotician.

I was fortunate to produce a 1.25 sec connect tone for AT&T. The communications company wanted to leverage the pause between dial and pick-up to identify itself using a non-verbal connection tone. Impossible? As it turns out, you can actually say a lot in 1.25 seconds. You can say: ‘Provided to by AT&T, a friendly and technologically savvy company.’

To understand how this might actually work, consider the possibility of guessing the title of a song from a snippet. Now, even more amazing, recall how a mere sliver of sound can evoke an emotional response. Anger, Love, Sadness, Joy. It quickly becomes evident that even a button-sized musical solution has the power to fulfill a marketing objective. And because branded sonic assets are often wordless, they become especially advantageous assets across a multinational customer base.

Of course, traditional film scoring techniques will continue to contribute to our enjoyment of stories. However, marketers will increasingly rely less on scoring and more on critical noise solutions that can guarantee immediate brand signification as a means to fulfilling a communications strategy or marketing objective.

In other words, the intelligent application of sound is more important than ever.

 

© 2011 Terry O’Gara

Read more about critical noise on Terry's blog.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Just Radical Enough

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

 

Banca Cívica is a recently created Spanish bank, originally an offshoot of the semi-public regional savings bank, Caja Navarra (CAN), which itself became well-known through its policy of allowing its customers to choose which charity would benefit from the interest accrued on their money (a first in Spain). However, while remaining linked to its mother institution, Banca Cívica has become a self-standing bank, which suggests that CAN is trying to expand beyond the limits imposed by its regional identity.

This (below), I believe, is a representative sample of Banca Cívica’s introductory campaign.

The campaign is mostly text-based, using messages in a typography and colours that imitate urban graffiti – so convincingly, in fact, that many people have taken them for actual graffiti. It should be however noted that this is ‘tasteful’ graffiti – words are correctly spelt, and the colours are Banca Cívica’s corporate colours – pink and purple, remarkable in themselves given their feminine connotations, quite unusual in the banking industry. This feminine connotation is no doubt connected to the way in which Banca Cívica defines itself as an organisation that is ‘different from other banks’ in its social concerns and its transparency.

In addition, the typography used to imitate graffiti does not resemble any forms usually  employed by graffiti artists, but rather is partially reminiscent of the typographies created by Spanish avant-garde designer, David Delfín, and ultimately of the source from which many Spanish designers have drawn, directly or indirectly: Javier Mariscal, well known for his thick traits and naive, child-like visual style.

Obviously, Banca Cívica’s target audience is not the graffiti artist demographic. But its target audience – 30 to 40-year-old urban upper-middle class – can aesthetically identify with a softer, more chic and palatable version of graffiti. Likewise, Banca Cívica provides a ‘non-radical’ version of solidarity and cooperation with which middle-class professionals can feel comfortable: the message being that capitalism is not incompatible with social concerns (in fact, this is the idea at the core of the entire notion of Corporate Social Responsibility).

An index of this ‘capitalistic’ conception of cooperation is the emphasis placed by the campaign on the first person singular: “I should be able to decide which charity”, “They should tell me how much they make from MY dough”. This is a trait which Banca Cívica inherited from CAN’s breakthrough strategy of allowing its customers to decide exactly which charities to sponsor. And again in Banca Cívica this trait signals a considerable difference both with respect to other banks and with respect to other organisations dealing with social problems, such as NGOs. The idea seems to be that the same individualistic, self-interested and demanding attitude that a bank’s customers have with regard to their own money can be applied to a bank’s social action: that transparency and customer choice also apply to charity. Banca Cívica’s campaign is meant to visually encode this idea by means of an aesthetic which can be described as alternative but not too much so – (relatively) innovative but not in a radical (i.e. threatening) way.

© Asunción Álvarez 2011

Posted in Art & Design, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Dynamic essentialism

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Until recently, the beauty category has been all about dualist metaphysics – constantly reworking the Cartesian opposition between mind and matter, culture and nature.

One main strand – exemplified by ‘disciplinarian’ brands like L’Oréal or Pantene – gives us beauty as the conquest of nature. Here, the brand performs the role of aesthetic policeman, whipping into shape nature’s unruly materiality.

Then there are the opponents of this approach – the likes of Dove – who flip it on its head, calling for the liberation of natural imperfection from culture’s rigid standards.

On the surface, there are two radically different stances here: the one pro-culture, and the other pro-nature. But in fact, both perspectives operate within the same metaphysical arena. Neither challenges the view that nature is raw and imperfect, while culture has the monopoly on aesthetics and form.

Today, that’s changing. Many brands now talk about continuity between nature and culture, moving towards an idea of aesthetic form as inherent to biological process – not as the superimposition of an external template.

As an example, we could take the rise of intelligent or adaptive foundations, often described as drawing out skin’s immanent beauty, rather than masking nature with a cultural overlay. Here, nature doesn’t precede art: it’s already art – just needing a little activation or elucidation.

This development sees beauty break with Cartesian dualism to find a new philosophical source in Spinoza. For this 17th-century metaphysician, there’s no opposition between nature and culture, only a single Substance that expresses itself in different ways.

Spinozan Substance can become thought or physical process: it doesn’t matter, as both follow the same patterns and dynamics, playing out on the same plane. And every mode of the Substance, whether it’s an idea, a person or a ‘skin type’, never stops trying to be itself as fully as possible, rather than pursuing an external ideal.

This idea of fullness of expression, rather than perfectionist teleology, has also become key in beauty symbolism. Beauty language now talks more about ‘revealing’ than ‘improving’ – as in the Spinozan idea that every mode of the Substance strives solely for the full expression of itself, not for externally-driven transformation.

But while Spinoza does give us essentialist metaphysics, he certainly wouldn’t have gone for Dove-style essentialism, which involves a static, anti-aspirational idea of ‘real beauty’ (self-acceptance, flaws and all).

Instead, his is a dynamic essentialism, in which essence constantly strives and aspires, but only to become more and more fully itself.


© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence | 2 Comments »

Not so innocent

Monday, May 30th, 2011

The on-going trend for Hollywood fairy-tale adaptations is unmistakable. After Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, versions of Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast and Jack and the Beanstalk are all in the offing.

The rediscovery of fairy tales clearly draws much of its lifeblood from the recent vampirecraze. But the fairy tale is as much about nature as it is about the supernatural: woodlands as well as witches play a starring role. And its revival reflects, not just an on-going taste for the otherworldly, but a change in the way we symbolise nature itself.

Film adaptations such as Red Riding Hood draw out the darker and more disturbing facets of the fairy-tale genre, moving away from Disney childishness and schmaltz into a sexualised and sinister register. In doing so, they echo the darker ‘naturalness’ coming to the fore in the wider cultural context.

When the idea of naturalness first became big in branding and marketing, it was very much about being clean and pure – no evil toxins or hidden nasties. Here, nature is sweet and childlike: an escape from the moral and physical pollution of urban life. The brand name ‘Innocent Drinks’ says it all, as does the stream of naturalness advertising that uses childish fonts and a faux-naïf copy style.

But emerging naturalness brings out a darker and more powerful vision of nature – akin to the sinister woods of Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood.

For instance, natural beauty products no longer have to be about pretty, attractive sensorials or pure, innocent symbolic framing. Extreme, challenging or even toxic ingredients are coming to the fore: snail gel, mushrooms, snake poison and bee sting venom all feature in recently-acclaimed products.

As with film’s current interest in the not-so-innocent fairytale, naturalness may well be returning to darker sources in northern European magic and shamanism. And this in turn reflects an environmental politics which asks people to rediscover their own natural environment: to stay at home, walk in their own woods, and look to their own local and seasonal traditions.

Of course, the escapist faux-exotica of brands like Herbal Essences is still around. But it now sits alongside an idea that the rotting mushroom or potent berry may be more effective and transformative still than the imported tropical fantasy or regressive Edenism.  

It’s clear that the cultural view of naturalness has taken on a darker edge, no longer just pretty and pure, but powerful and morally ambiguous. Like the fairytale, it walks a tightrope between the toxic and the therapeutic, rather than offering simplistic ‘cleansing’ from urban dirt.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | No Comments »

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

Monday, April 18th, 2011

“Who’s afraid of Twitter?” asks an anti-Mubarak sign on a best-of-protest website, “Egypt you inspire us all” says another. Social and political change is in motion. Novel political placard ideas are evaluated online as if they were new ads or brand catchphrases. 

Brands repay the compliment. A model waves something like a burning draft card. This is John Frieda’s ‘Frizz Revolution’.  We want anti-frizz serum and we want it now.  More earnestly the UK Co-op’s website bids “Join the Revolution”, with social enterprise-style community projects and a retail offer ranging from ethical fish and fair trade chocolate to funerals. Backed by a history, since 1844, of “everyday people working together to build a business that would change the world”. 

After poll tax riots and no-logo marches in the past, protests against capitalism in general and bankers specifically, current public services cuts and increased educational fees in UK are contributing to a renewed culture of protest and dissent. Will media, from the BBC to Sky and News International, regard protest by what's called a new ‘lost generation’ at home as favourably as they have that in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? How will these glimpses of activist or revolutionary codes in brand communications, echoing daringly engagé ads put out by the likes of Fuji Film and Benetton in the 90s, develop this time around?

The World in 2011, The Economist’s look ahead for this year, predicted no serious disruption in Egypt or Libya (“Qaaddafi has held power for 40 years and will certainly complete 41 … he has removed all significant threats to his rule”). The prospects for UK, meanwhile, looked more problematic: “Deep austerity, the price for bank rescues and fiscal stimulus, will raise social tensions and spark industrial action”.  But “a national sense of inevitability", the prediction continued, "means most will grin and bear it”.

In December 2010 the UK media showed pictures of a horrified Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (AKA Charles and Camilla) cowering behind the windscreen of their Rolls Royce as protestors approached chanting, according to the Daily Telegraph, "Off with their heads!".  In true press parlance and unlike their counterparts in North Africa, these protestors were characterised as a 'mob'.  Evidently an ironically detached and, in typical English style, good-humoured mob if the chant's intertextual evoking of Alice in Wonderland is anything to go by.  Anyone intent on more serious damage or cutting closer to the royal bone would have opted for "Remember the Romanovs".  But by April 2011 with a Royal Wedding impending and the prospect of streets joyfully thronged rather than unrulily mobbed these dark concerns are at least momentarily behind us.

And the spark from North Africa could yet jump to Europe.  In what form, who can guess?  Portugal’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held on May 10th this year, is ‘A luta é alegria’ (The struggle is joy) which won on the popular telephone vote after being unanimously rejected by the TV expert panel. Performed by motley collective Homens de la Luta (People of the Struggle) this invokes for today the spirit of the Summer of ’68. In Ireland, like Portugal and in its own way UK a serious casualty of the crisis, there are variously calls to go back and reconfigure the Republic along the lines of the socialist principles some of the founders advocated back in 1921 and – at the other end of the radical spectrum – iconoclastic cultural productions from the likes of Limerick's hit band Rubber Bandits, who take punk bad taste to transcendent levels of carnivalesque awfulness (with possibly unwelcome product placement for Mitsubishi and the Honda Civic). However this pans out there are clearly alternatives around to grinning and bearing it. 

Commercial semioticians have been busy in recent years helping brands understand how they might engage with a now long list of concerns that emerged and were beyond the horizons marketers and corporations had been traditionally concerned with: social responsibility, fair trade, sustainability, co-creation and the power of social networks – now the aftermath of severe financial crisis and spending cuts.  In UK specifically there is today a lower prospect of children moving during their lifetime out of the social class they were born into than has existed since before the 1960s. Which might indicate to a neutral observer either a major systemic flaw or the existence of some kind of self-perpetuating elite with its own segregated health and education services and an indifference to democratic opportunities except the narrowest and most technical sense.  At which I hear a baying mob of media types nearing the street below my window chanting "political correctness gone mad!".  

We eagerly await the summer of 2011.  No predictions.  But in UK we always think it's nice if it's long and hot.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

(If you take nothing else out of this piece do check out the link to the Rubber Bandits video clip for 'Horse Outside'  (be warned it's catchy, you won't stop singing it in your head for 4 months) but I'd advise that you draw the line at 'Bag of Glue'.  Unless you like Rammstein – and if you've never heard of them please ignore this; you'll be better off for it).

Reference

The Economist, The World in 2011 (published late 2010)

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Value Positioning

Friday, April 1st, 2011

 

While North Africa was erupting, Germans were more preoccupied with the premature end to the career of he country’s most popular politician. He stepped down at the beginning of March after two weeks of a bitter media battle. Subsequently his supporters took to the streets to get him reinstated. An unprecedented affair here in Germany.

What happened?

The German Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had been Germany’s shining star of politics for the previous two years. He was hailed by many as Germany’s only minister whose hionesty and integrity were unquestionable.

Independent, young, good looking, politically very talented. he lives in a castle with his beautiful blond wife, both independently wealthy. A unique positioning in German politics. The question was not if he became Prime Minister, the question was when.

Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg had developed a personal brand with a unique and sustainable positioning in territory uncharted for politicians for decades. Fair, open, amiable and aspirational.

Even a string of very awkward looking political moves including 180 degree turnaraounds, firing of high ranking personnel in the presence of the press and lacking the usual inquiries, could not tarnish his reputation. When Karl Theodor made mistakes the electorate was kind. Better any day than the right decision by a standard boring and mistrusted politician.

Then he got caught – big time.

A large proportion of his doctoral thesis turned out to be plagiarised. Whole sections copied almost word for word with no attribution in footnotes. A Summa Cum Laude thesis awarded by one of Germany’s best universities.

The minister denied wrongdoing. With self-assurance and just a hint of arrogance. Unfortunately, however, the evidence piled up against him and many Germans were aghast at the extent of the plagiarism. This time he was dropped. Not by his most ardent fans, not by the Chancellor – but by some of his colleagues, a large part of society and by a very vocal academic community.

Finally, he tried to reposition himself.   From unique super-minister to ‚your average, power-clinging, truth-bending politician. Just like the others.  But others often got away with it in the past. Not Karl Theodor. Despite all his efforts to downplay misconduct, despite all efforts by the press and the German Cabinet to support him, he had to go. His self-established core brand values were too strong to allow for this repositioning.

© Oliver Litten 2011

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Tying the ribbons tight

Monday, February 28th, 2011

 

For brands which champion female authenticity and naturalness, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film Black Swan would be the stuff of nightmares.

The film follows popular ballet mythology in showing the fetishistic self-mutilation that lies behind the perfection of classical dance. Dancers force their feet into their shoes, criss-crossing the ribbons and tying the knot tight. They continuously stitch and re-stitch their costumes. And they starve and scar themselves in mysterious and barely conscious rituals of self-harm.

All these processes – suturing, binding, scarring – apply beyond ballet to symbolise the wider ways people cut themselves to fit the pattern of their social and economic ‘roles’. Despite the recent vogue for celebrating whole and authentic expression, Black Swan shows that the very possibility of social identity is founded upon painful artifice and elaborate construction.

The film also turns on the radical split that characterises classical ballet in popular mythology. On stage, all is perfect – ‘so pretty, so pink’ to quote a line from the script. But behind the scenes all is carnage: poisonous rivalries, vomiting in the toilet, drugs, sexual abuse, and bleeding feet.

It’s this very narcissistic divide between light and dark, ‘white swan’ and ‘black swan’, that authenticity-focused brands like Dove try to heal. By challenging the desired on-stage perfection of feminine identity, they seek to tidy up the back-stage mess too.

But the film attacks this split in a completely different way. It collapses the whole distinction between ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’, fiction and reality, into a generalised hallucination – the darkness of the ‘black swan’ breaking out of the dressing room and taking over the entirety of the film’s theatrical and psychic architecture.

So, in the end, all that binding and sewing, cutting and starving, comes to nothing. In fact, it achieves the opposite effect, triggering the complete breakdown of the stage set of subjectivity, and destroying the boundaries that separate illusion from reality.

In a way, it’s another take on the familiar idea of the ‘return of the repressed’. When the bondage of culture reaches an intolerable extremity, all hell breaks loose. But the film also plays with the boundaries between nature and culture in a more unusual way – staging a deliberate and conscious exacerbation of cultural artifice in order to unleash an explosion of natural energy.

Mainstream Western philosophy has usually claimed that nature lies somewhere outside culture – often before, as its pre-existing foundation. But Black Swan suggests that maybe nature lies at culture’s outer limit – and that we have to go to an extreme point of artifice, ritual and restraint in order to find it. So, in the film, the dancer turns classical mimesis into shamanic metamorphosis, using extreme classical perfection to invoke nature – and to call in the black swan in its physical reality.

With this idea, the film joins more marginal philosophical traditions spanning East and West, Indian tantric practice and European sado-masochism offering two key examples.

A ballet film, the tantric tradition and de Sade may sound like an unlikely nexus. But all involve using elaborate ritual and artifice – culture at its most extreme – to break through to the other side.

© Louise Jolly 2011

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Human or Humanoid?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Technology as we know it is, and will always be, lifeless. Whether it’s a household appliance or a particle accelerator there is no soul, no beating heart. It’s unlikely that technology will act as if it had a mind of its own, expanding and contracting like dendrites in the brain. Our bodies are truly remarkable. Our skin has the elasticity and resilience to conform to our changing bodies. It can heal itself when its get injured. It can acclimate to changing external temperatures by activating sweat glands or increasing heart rate.

The idea behind the Vibram Five Fingers shoe is that it enables the foot to perform better than any shoe that came before it, no matter what gel or air cushion technology any previous shoe delivered. The five toe shoe does so simply as a second skin molding to the feet and enabling the foot to flex and respond with sensory and kinesthetic awareness.  It does what shoes where originally intended to do – protect. But in this case to protect without inhibiting or undermining the action of the human feet. We place our feet down on the ground differently when we go barefoot versus when we stride in shoes – because, when we wear shoes, our foot is adjusting to the shoe, not to the ground. In a way, we truly are the technology.

On the other hand, maybe we’re not the technology.

The challenge with the Vibram Five Fingers ads and the website is that the human characters appear to be inhuman. The impression is contrary to the overture of the campaign. You’d expect that standing naked, bodies scarred for the world to ogle, would leave one feeling humiliated for life. Yet their expression and gesture indicates that they have no shame. Embarrassed humans immediately respond with downcast head and eyes. In a prolonged state of shame and embarrassment, a blank stare would result–a neurotic attempt to emotionally escape.

The decision to purchase any shoe is motivated by shame. This negative emotion is the primary motivation for willing our bodies forward and taking care. Shame allows us to evaluate our mortality and ourselves. It’s the emotion responsible for compelling us to look in the mirror and decide what steps have to be taken next. Shame is the emotion of self-improvement and dignity. It’s the emotion that tells us we need better shoes.

What separates the humanoid from the human is a light that shines brightly behind the eyes. In these characters there is no such indicator.  As the ad suggests, ‘we are the technology’ – a lifeless, shameless instrument for advertising and web interactivity.

© Michael Colton 2011

Make sure to checkout the website!  youarethetechnology.com

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Making Sense, Technology | 2 Comments »

Chinese Car Names

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

 

“How can I best imprint my brand image into the consumer’s mind?” This is currently the simplest, and yet the hardest one to answer in the auto industry in China. The competing brands are relentlessly seeking ways to create better, more appealing images than competitors in this lucrative market: going green, new value propositions such as cost-efficiency, lower-energy consumption, safety, cutting-edge design etc.
 
One of the most recent industry trends is the emergence of a new breed of bands created by Western-Chinese joint ventures that are not limited anymore in manufacturing and distributing the original western models. Many of the big JV auto companies in China have announced the creation of such brands. Our naming analysis looks prospectively into what the names chosen say about their intended positioning and the reflect of future industry trends.
 
 
宝骏 The literal meaning of this name (model to the right in picture) is fine/excellent horse, implying achievement, success in life, emphasizing the high quality of the auto and the status of the driver. Being auspicious, this name is a good fit for a car maker. Yet, it is quite similar to 宝马BMW, and lacks originality. Because of its strong resemblance to BMW’s Chinese name and its focus on status and prestige, we can expect the brand might be challenged by BMW in the near future.
 
启辰 The Chinese name chosen for this new model (left in the picture) literally means “the first light beam of a new day”, implying the new direction of the future, and also an auspicious name. Much work has been done to design this name which is a variation of the term 启明星, and it evocates the meanings such as grandeur, wisdom and in-depth reflection. This is truly a groundbreaking name.
 
理念 This Chinese name (centre model in picture) literally means “principle”, focusing on philosophy, reflection and life attitude. This name links to lifestyle aspirations and insights shared both by the customers and the auto makers. However it is not consistent with the English name and might just be a temporary project name.
 
 
From this analysis, we conclude that only Venucia (left) is showing innovation in its Chinese naming strategy. Baojun (right) is stuck in mainstream practice and Everus (centre) looks like it has yet to choose a final name. 

Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

New Home New Language

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

In Bulgaria the financial crisis has reduced the amount of advertising and encouraged an increasing focus on price and savings. However there are still strong signs of creativity in this local market, a good example being the campaign run by Baumaxx – one of the biggest retail chains in Central and Eastern Europe, which specializes in materials for construction, home repair and supplies.

Like the better known brand Ikea, Baumaxx focuses its communication on the idea ‘do it with your hands’ – but does so deploying a distinctive mix of low price messaging, a promise of shopping comfort and convenience and making it clear that the offer extends beyond furniture to a wide range of domestic goods. In Central Europe the TV spots use Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ playing behind an appropriate domestic narrative. In Bulgaria Baumaxx also uses distinctive local language and humour in its advertising.

After the summer season 2010 there was a little more time and probably some money for households to spend on renovating their homes. Baumaxx caught that wave and used it aggressively in order to respond to the increasing demand in the repair and maintenance sector in the months before winter – and to cut through the messaging clutter as there are a lot of players in this marketplace. An integrated marketing campaign deployed booklets, 7-second TV spots, radio spots, a massive billboard presence and the launch of a Baumaxx a group on Facebook. 

In the Bulgarian market the new and highly creative Baumaxx print and TV campaigns featured two young characters, one male one female, and a dynamic (even aggressive) hip-hop flavoured tonality. Such communication codes have been extremely popular in local advertising for fashion brands, telecoms and some food and snacks products – but were unknown till now in the big retail chain category. 

By way of illustration, Baumaxx advertising uses colloquial everyday phrases prominently in radio spots and as headlines in the print ads and billboards. In the print ad shown here Baumaxx points out different products which may be purchased as a good bargain, each one representing a different department of the store. The original elements in the ads are not the prices themselves but the presentation of home repair as a fun, energetic process which fits young people’s taste. Till now home repair was associated with older, family people. The whole message positions what used to be regarded as tiresome maintenance of the home as something easy and, with the support of Baumaxx, very much in the consumer’s control. Among other wordplays here deploying street metaphors, phrases taken from actual everyday language include “The prices break off” (Цените къртят), which also connotes something being ‘cool’ (Кърти мивки), and “Prices are concrete”/“Prices are iron”, i.e. the prices are low and solid and this is for sure [Нещата са бетон, железни са].

What we see here is youth codes beginning to mature and cross into categories that target an older life stage as the consumer target groups accustomed to more nuanced and culturally attuned styles of brand communication themselves grow a little older. In the case of Baumaxx a direct down-to-earthness which is part of the ‘cool’ cultural appeal of hip-hop, interpreted here through colloquial ‘street’ Bulgarian idiomatic language, skillfully combines creative appeal with a clear and hard-hitting message on value. The general principle is that at times of relative economic constraint there are ways of talking about price and value in a stylish, culturally connected, even quite edgy tone of voice – rather than having to go with just a crude, functional, stripped-down price message.

© Dimitar Trendafilov  2010

 

Links
 

http://www.vbox7.com/play:b8f69c16

http://www.facebook.com/pages/BauMax-Bulgaria/113068988755021

Posted in Brand Worlds, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Canadian Beer: Identity, Bottled

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Dionysus, the lovely Greek lad responsible for wine and madness, was what was known as a “god of epiphany” — as in, he took time out of his busy deific schedule to appear, in the flesh, to humans. And of course he would; drinking booze in correct amounts generally leads to all kinds of epiphanies.

Since 2000, Canada has had its own alcohol-incited epiphany, thanks to the Canadian division of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and its popular beer, Molson Canadian.

Molson Canadian is responsible for arguably the most ambitious campaign to create, and confirm, the Canadian identity — something that on a good day eludes easy definition, and on a bad day seems to barely exist at all. We have bland aesthetic signifiers: Our national symbol is a leaf, our national bird is the loon, there’s a moose on one side of our quarters and on the other side is the queen of another country.

But Molson tells a different story. In a series of quick, athletic cuts, the ad shows off Canada’s theatrical topographic beauty: a barren, rugged playground that only the godlike can navigate. The narrator explains, “It’s this land that shapes us.” Four ecstatic people sprint off the edge of a cliff, into a lake… “There’s a reason why we run off the dock instead of tippy-toe in. It’s because that water is frozen six months a year.” And, according to our “yeah, DUDE!” narrator, it’s not just the great outdoors we Canadians are chasing, it’s freedom itself.

It’s the kind of self-mythology one associates with America, not timid ol’ peacekeeping Canada, the country with tidy cities where people apologize for just about everything.

In fact, the ad is so concerned with kicking up some nationalistic spirit that the mention of the actual product comes at 0:47, almost as an afterthought. “There’s a beer that comes from the same land that we let loose on, and it’s proved to be as clean, crisp and fresh as the country it comes from.”

There’s no doubt that the ads have done their job. The grandfather of the campaign was the legendary (in Canada) “I Am Canadian” advertisement that depicted a character called Joe Canada doing a rant on the finer points of being Canadian. “I’m not a lumberjack, or a fur trader. And I don’t live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dog sled… I believe in peacekeeping, not policing, diversity, not assimilation and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal.” It remains one of the — if not the — most famous television ad in Canadian television history.

And, fittingly, it was announced just this week that Jeff Douglas, the actor who plays Joe Canada, will take over as the co-host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship radio program, As It Happens. Perhaps his experience in beer-based pride-mongering will give Canadians a cleaner, crisper, more refreshing  take on themselves… With only 5% alcohol, and no aftertaste.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Beauty Codes in India & the UK

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Semionaut presents a back-and-forth between regular contributors Hamsini Shivakumar (India) and Louise Jolly (UK), on the topic of beauty codes in their respective cultures.

 

***

1. What makes the idea of perfect beauty so powerful in your culture?

Louise: The idea of perfect beauty is a powerful and tenacious myth in so far as it promises immunity to the decay and deterioration of the physical realm. Succeeding in the ‘perfect beauty’ game means you appear to have overcome disease, ageing and death, which are our greatest fears. So ‘perfect beauty’ is about control and power as much as sexuality.

Hamsini: In India too, the appeal of ‘perfect beauty’ is about control, power and sexuality.  It is about using the power of science and technology in the pursuit of personal progress. Today, a woman’s face and figure are proven to enhance her earning power and her social status and esteem. Perfect beauty is an alluring symbol of women’s empowerment, to acquire the kind of beauty that can get the world to dance to her tune.

2. What are the codes of ‘perfect beauty’ in your culture?

Hamsini: The key code of perfection here is flawlessness. Skin that is flawless — no marks, no spots, no wrinkles, no dark circles, fair, perfect skin. Hair that is thick, strong, supple, flowing etc., etc. Science and technology are being used to eliminate the flaws that stand between the woman and the ideal of perfection. This is the role of products and of higher-order dermatological procedures. To support this, now all hair care and skin care products use the communication code of ‘measurable results’. All ads are full of the demos and cut-aways of skin layers and hair shafts showing the ‘magic’ of science in action, followed by the results — hair is x% stronger, skin is x times fairer and so on.  

Louise: One code that’s noticeable currently in UK culture is ‘performance’. ‘Perfect beauty’ doesn’t just mean concealing imperfections with an external layer (for instance, of make-up or face cream). Instead, it’s about bringing internal processes to an optimum level of performance: for instance, boosting cell metabolism. In this sense, ‘perfect beauty’ is like a top-performing car engine, rather than just a flawless, pretty surface.

3. What are the codes of ‘real beauty’? Is it a strong alternative or counter-point?
 

Louise: Dove has created an understanding of ‘real beauty’ that’s all about psychological authenticity — revealing the real person underneath the skin. While it’s won many fans, the code faces two conceptual problems. Firstly, do beauty consumers really go for the idea of a ‘true self’, or do they prefer the mutability that comes with the concept of self-as-construct (a ‘pick and mix’ of identifications and fantasies)? And secondly, it’s hard for brands to sell products unless they’re offering some form of transformation or improvement. So Dove is now turning to ideas of clinical efficacy and expertise — as in its new global hair platform ‘Damage Therapy’ [example above].

Hamsini:  Dove’s campaign for real beauty never really took off in India and Unilever ran it in a very limited way here. While women here always acknowledge the importance of inner beauty for a woman, meaning not losing intrinsic feminine qualities such as caring, nurturing, sensitivity, that does not make a strong selling proposition for beauty brands — which are expected to aid in visible improvement or transformation of looks.

4. Are any brands or celebrities moving into new territory?

Hamsini: In India, the movie stars continue to be the aspirational beacons and icons and Aishwarya Rai [shown above] continues to reign supreme as the most beautiful woman in India. She is herself a vision of perfect beauty. The media often presents the woman of substance as a counter-point to the perfect and glamorous beauty of the movie stars. These are high-achiever women in various fields who are not conventionally good-looking at all, but focus on presenting their own looks in the most attractive manner. 

Louise: In the UK, American celebrities like Dita von Teese, Beth Ditto, and Lady Gaga have been very influential in shaping beauty codes. These icons challenge the opposition between ‘real beauty’ and ‘perfect beauty’ by offering highly constructed forms of beauty that remain idiosyncratic and unique. In other words, they’re neither ‘perfect’ nor ‘real’, which opens up another option for women: self-construction that doesn’t aspire to perfection.

5. Final thoughts

Louise: From what you say, Hamsini, it seems that science and technology are crucial to beauty discourse in India — almost as if the role of flawless beauty is to manifest the power of the technology you can harness (as much as technology just playing a support role to beauty). It also struck me that you brought up the idea of beauty as enhancing earning power and personal progress — so contributing to women’s success in public life. Yet, in an interesting contradiction, the media still distinguishes  between ‘beautiful/glamorous’ women and their ‘intelligent/successful/substantial’ counterparts — going back to the old opposition between ‘pretty’ and ‘clever’ in femininity.

Hamsini: Couple of things struck me as interesting in your analysis, Louise. The first is just how compelling the idea of ‘perfect’ beauty is in a capitalist, consumerist society — for various reasons. The second idea is that of beauty as power, something that is as old as mankind, perhaps — but now democratized and available to all women who have the inclination and the money. The third idea is to be able to choose your own ideal of beauty and remake yourself to that — an idea which requires the woman to have tremendous confidence in herself as a social leader. I wonder if in a hierarchical society like India, women will warm up to the thought of being so singular.

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Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

NASA Scientists announce…

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

A new reason for germophobes to feel anxious!

In the US in recent years, anti-bacterial product advertising has moved steadily away from George W. Bush-style coding (military precision, a besieged mentality, the depiction of bacteria, germs, viruses as alien intruders) towards Barack Obama-style coding (efficiency, connective thinking, dialogue, reasonableness, awareness of complexity). To use language borrowed from Raymond Williams by Semiotic Solutions, in US antibac coding lately, overkill has been trending "residual" while underkill has been trending "emergent." Like the repressed, however, the residual always returns.

Purell's ad, released in record time after yesterday's announcement that NASA has found a bacteria whose DNA is alien to all other life forms as we've known them, is a perfect example of the use of satire (signaled, in this TV spot, by a tone of exaggerated portentousness) to reboot and leverage a played-out cultural or communications code. Overkill's comeback begins… now. Click on the "full story" link below to view the ad.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Semiotics | No Comments »

The Number of the Beast

Monday, November 29th, 2010

There are wolves in our midst. Earlier this year, Benicio del Toro fulfilled his childhood wish, playing a werewolf in Joe Johnston’s remake of the 1941 classic horror The Wolfman. Eristoff Black Vodka is spilling much ink trying to persuade us its origins lie in 'The Land of the Wolf’. French Connection’s current campaign [example below] presents us with a beardy Frenchman and a series of laconic (or was that endearingly mis-translated) sound-bites. One of the best simply reads ‘Feel Like Wolf’. The Grinderman 2 album cover reveals a striking, solitary, seething wolf. Somehow, it’s managed to find its way onto a beige rug in a tidy living room in Hove. I can think of more examples (and down here in Brighton, there suddenly seem to be more huskies than there are people to walk them). What’s it all about?

Wolves have meant a vast range of things to the human cultures with whom they have at one time or another been sympatric. I’m not qualified to comment on the diachronic shape shifting that has occurred here, but I am interested in the sheer range of takes on this (still very much endangered) signifier.

In the 1930s, Disney helped to curate an image of the wolf as a harbinger of dread and impoverishment. ‘Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ (the theme song to the 1934 cartoon Three Little Pigs) became a national ditty of defiance during the Depression era. The parallels with our current fiscal and climatic predicament are fairly obvious. In this instance, as Geoffrey Cocks writes in his 2004 book The Wolf at the Door, ‘the wolf retains its old European and American symbolic meaning of, originally agrarian, fear of hunger and starvation’. 

But there’s also a distinct sexual meaning attached to the image of the wolf. Cocks reminds us of the origins of Little Red Riding Hood, which began its narrative life in 17th-century France as a cautionary tale against female bed-hopping. There’s more than a hint of the randy flaneur in French Connection’s recent output. Likewise, Derrida’s bringing together of the wolf and the sovereign in his later lectures (both are outlaws: neither pays heed to the rules if a situation calls for juridical override) echoes the masculine, predatory court life that gave Little Red the heebie-jeebies (and any number of other venereal complaints).

My suspicion is that as a signifer, the wolf is too overloaded to point to anything utterly specific today. But I’m drawn to Grinderman’s lupine fugitive. There is a sense here of forced entrance, and the hitherto unseen juxtapositions it entails. We’re in the same territory as Alan Weisman’s World Without Us. Schopenhauerean creepers engulf the London Eye. Baboons gargle mohitos in the Gherkin. Earlier this year, tragedy arrived in the form of a fox that crept through an open window in east London and mauled a young child asleep in its bed. This palpable sense of savage encroachment has roots in real-world unpredictability.  

If anything, then, sentiments of vulnerability underpin the ubiquity wolves in contemporary cultural expression. From denial (with French Connection suggesting there’s no real reason to be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf) to lionization (the appeal of Eristoff being precisely its alliance with lunar mystique and, no doubt, its ability to bring about grotesque transformations in character) to a more troubling, if hyperbolic confrontation (courtesy of the Grindermen), one thing seems certain: the beast is now amongst the brethren.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Inscribed Upon the Body

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Chevron's "I Will" campaign, still going strong in the pages of doctor's-office magazines, here in the US, was designed — the company announced, in 2008 — to raise awareness of the importance of energy efficiency and conservation. In the ads, small-step declarations of eco-intent such as "I will leave the car at home more" and "I will finally get a programmable thermostat" are scrawled, in a folksy handwritten font, across the faces of regular men and women like you and me.

Cynics have sneered that the campaign's secret subtext is climate change, and that by encouraging the public to use less energy, Chevron "hopes to forestall any regulation or taxation of its carboniferous products." That may well be the case — but it's not a particularly original insight. What fascinates me about "I Will" is the campaign's neo-Foucauldian, or perhaps neo-Kafkaesque, executional cue: the inscriptions-upon-bodies that we can't keep ourselves from reading.

In Discipline and Punish, among other works, Michel Foucault suggested that the modern State's apparatuses of social control (e.g., asylums, hospitals, factories, and schools, whose "orthopedic" function is the correction, training, and taming of the individual subject) work in more or less the same way that pre-modern apparatuses of social control (e.g., chastity belts, torture devices, and branding irons) did. In each instance, the progressive effect of the apparatus is to make itself redundant — "ultimately one should be able to remove the apparatus and its effect will be definitively inscribed in the body."

Foucauldians love to use that phrase — "inscribed in/upon the body" — don't they? I wonder how many of them realize that Foucault was referencing Jeremiah 31:33: "After those days… I will put my law in [the Israelites'] bowels, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people." A law inscribed in the bowels, in the heart, or otherwise upon the body is one that has become internalized, naturalized, normalized. It cannot be questioned.

Foucault was influenced, one has to imagine, by Kafka's 1914 story "In the Penal Colony," which describes a torture/execution apparatus that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin before killing him, a practice considered humane and enlightened by the colony's Officer, a priestly figure. The sentence to be inscribed upon the body of a character called the Condemned, a disobedient soldier, is "Honor Thy Superiors" — which certainly sounds proto-Foucauldian. Foucault was a genius; but Kafka, whose story actualizes God's promise, transposes it from metaphor to fact, was a greater genius.

Unlike Foucault, whose theorizing merely condemns the orthopedic apparatuses that require us to internalize authoritarian laws and norms, Kafka also condemns the Explorer, an (apparently) truly enlightened European whose refusal to approve of the inscription apparatus causes the Officer to set the Condemned free and take his place. The Explorer programs the apparatus to inscribe an apparently anti-authoritarian sentence into the Officer's flesh: "Be Just." Exactly how, the reader wants to know, is this any better? Whether authoritarian or philosophical, religious or enlightened, words carved into the flesh (literally or figuratively) maim and destroy us (literally or figuratively).

Chevron's phrases — "I will leave the car at home more" and "I will finally get a programmable thermostat" — are updated versions of Kafka's "Be Just." It's not that I disagree with the sentiment; we should, indeed, use less energy. But when carved into our faces, by an enlightened energy company, words can hurt more than sticks and stones.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Drinking Collagen

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

In China, Japan and Malaysia women are drinking collagen to fight the signs of ageing.  Slogans in Beijing and Shanghai departments stores promise: "Take a collagen drink for 30 days and have skin as soft as a baby's".  The Gilgamesh pan-Asian restaurant in North London is also promising to introduce collagen-infused dishes before the end of 2010. 

The inside-outside beauty dynamic becomes increasingly supple as the skin gets semiotically reconstituted as a kind of sentient membrane that allows traffic between inside subject and outside object worlds increasingly to pass both ways. If this traffic has, in one sense, an almost science fictional feel it is simultaneously underwritten by codes of natural authenticity.  So authentic and natural is the DHC China cosmetic firm's pale yellow juice, for example, that it comes with an explanation that the collagen is taken from fish – and a promise that the drink won't taste fishy. 

Posted in Asia, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Technology | No Comments »

Whiskey & Wabi-Sabi

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

One of the by-products of the so called 'wa boom' in Japan is a climate that is amenable to a Nipponification of products that would previously have been considered prototypically Western. Even coffee, once ham-fistedly advertised by Arnold Schwarzenegger — is being given a Japanese twist. Coffee drinking has been considered a Western affectation since the 1920s Taisho era in Japan when it was the preserve of flapper girls sipping from Art Deco crockery. A more subtle Japanese appreciation is taking over from the tired European epicurean codes and bringing coffee closer to tea in tonality.

Now whisky is the beverage to undergo a ‘wa’ makeover. An FT article last month on Japanese whiskies trumpeted the recent triumph of Japanese brands in global tasting competitions. What most piqued my interest as a semiotician — beyond perfunctory references to the Bill Murray scene in Lost in Translation — is the bottle design of Japanese whiskies. Whiskey in Japan is shedding its regalia and going native. I was most taken by the Suntory Hibiki bottle (the name means resonance which is quite clever for a whiskey as it references not only the echoing through the distillation process, the empathy of conversations during the consumption moment, but also the many flavours that resonate like notes on the palate). The semiotics of the label on pack are masterfully simple and seem more at home on a sake bottle than on whiskey.

The centerpiece of the bottle is a worn patch of Japanese parchment typically used for calligraphy or that you might find hanging up in the tokonoma alcove of a Japanese home. Even though flecked with gold leaf (typically used in decorative poetic letters or on lacquerware boxes) the patch is humble — apparently roughly excised from a roll with the fluff and miniscule filaments of the paper visible on the border.

The deeply weathered and threadbare-looking ochre hue of the paper give an impression of craft but also of muted temperance to the packaging. The effect of the parchment and of slightly scratchy calligraphy (done in informal sosho or ‘grass’ script which is also making a comeback in Japan) communicates a meekness that countervails the elegant squatness of the beveled decanter.

The patch on the bottle could be said to tap into codes of wabi-sabi. The book Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren (Imperfect Publishing, 2008) sets out the principles of this design style as including the following: soft vague edges, ostensible crudity, a tolerance of ambiguity, and acceptance of the inevitable. Hibiki may be just a little too immaculate for this. Nevertheless, it seems fitting that in a Japan where the so-called Golden Recession has engendered a real crisis in masculinity and where geopolitical power shifts have triggered a period of introspection, Japanese whiskey should reflect this change with Suntory, one of the most design-literate companies (along with Shiseido, an FMCG company all graphic designers in Japan want to work for), at the vanguard.

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Collective Expressions

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Crowds are everywhere at the moment. Spontaneous gatherings are spreading like wildfire across advertising, cultural events, and publishing.

With social networking on the rise, there’s an obvious reason for communications companies to take an interest in the crowd. The rapid spread of viral sharing has found expression in the ‘flash mob’ genre famously adopted by T-Mobile in the UK, with the brand’s Liverpool Street station mass dance. Sony Ericsson was quick to follow with its mass procession of people on space hoppers.

It’s not just happening in the communications sector. More widely, crowds are now seen as sources of spontaneous expression, intelligence, and creativity.

For instance, The Wisdom of Crowds, a pop-sociology book by James Surowiecki, talks about how large groups of people, by providing a mass aggregate of opinion, ‘know’ more than individuals ever can.

And ‘meaning in numbers’ is even extending to the domain of personal care — previously the territory of the isolated beauty-seeker gazing in her mirror. An example is Vaseline’s global platform ‘Your skin is amazing’, with its ads [detail below] featuring hundreds of bodies intertwined into a ‘sea of skin’. 

Bringing collective expression into the domain of skincare represents a decisive shift in the way we imagine the body. For Vaseline, skin is now to be valued and loved as part of our ‘common wealth’ — a shared human treasure, rather than an individually-owned object of display and pride.

On the British cultural scene, the rising popularity of summer music festivals also demonstrates the new value placed on collective congregation and shared expression. This summer’s Big Chill music and arts festival was attended by Spencer Tunick, the photographer of vast gatherings of naked bodies — who took a panoramic shot of massed naked festival-goers. The crowd created and constructed within the bigger crowd of the festival — it would be hard to find a clearer expression of the theme at work.

Spencer Tunick’s panoramas of mass nakedness and Vaseline’s ‘sea of skin’ seem to be saying something very similar: forget the age of the ‘private’, and of individual discrimination — we’re now in an era when collective expression carries more weight. The theme of nakedness only adds to the implicit message: it’s time to strip away the illusions of individuality and separateness, and join in a shared humanity.

It takes us a long way from the 20th-century critical-modernist idea that the ‘mass’ was necessarily inert, passive, and stupid. Within this framework, intelligence or creativity lay with the ‘one’, or the small cabal: outsiders who used the margins to probe what was really going on.

But is the celebration of the crowd really such a radical departure — or does it simply reflect a new humanism? In a sense, rather than dispersing the ‘unified subject’ so heavily criticised in academia, the crowd revives it in a many-headed form. 

It’s true that the idea of humanity produced in the Vaseline campaign and the flash mob genre asks us to ascribe creativity, art, and expression to the many rather than to the lone genius. The underlying narcissism, though, remains the same, constructing humanity as a collective superstar, with powers and qualities worthy of constant marvelling.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Emergence, Europe | 4 Comments »

Show Me the Molecule

Monday, November 8th, 2010

This week, Semionaut looks at soft science coding.

In US shampoo communications, signifers of vigorous activity unseen by the naked eye are mainstream and routine. The weakest parts of hair cuticles are targeted and fortified by Aveeno's wheat-complex formula, one ad claims; as evidence, we're shown microscopic-esque Before/After images of one such cuticle. A Vive Pro ad boasts that the product nourishes hair with royal jelly — the efficacy of which is illustrated by a Table of Elements-style honeycomb, the cells of which read "Proteins," "Omega 3 & 6," "Glucose," and so forth.

Other products dive even deeper, down to the cellular level — where a shampoo's ionic, nanorobotic, or I-don't-know-whatic technology causes the cells within a single strand of hair to oscillate through rejuvenating vibrational motions. Not since Wilhelm Reich's orgone accumulator and early Cold War sci-fi has vibrational magic-science been such a popular phenomenon. One L'Oreal TV spot (here's the Japanese-dubbed version) sends viewers speeding through a hydra-collagen protein/molecule, as though we're passengers aboard the miniaturized submarine in Fantastic Voyage. (Only even smaller, since the Proteus was navigating the bloodstream.) Alas, there's no Raquel Welch along for this ride.

What's next? Spooky action at a distance? Interactions between moving charges mediated by propagating deformations of an electromagnetic field? Quantum pseudo-telepathy? Maybe — but not until science fiction popularizes such concepts. However, this spring, when I saw Iron Man 2, in which Tony Stark uses a jury-rigged particle accelerator to synthesize a new element, I predicted that shampoo brands would hasten to make similar claims.

It took them a few months, but I'm pleased to report that Head & Shoulders has risen to the challenge with its latest print ad featuring Super Bowl champ Troy Polamalu. See below.

OK, the Polamolecule isn't exactly a new element. But it's a step in that direction — so stay tuned! There are sure to be more molecular breakthroughs announced via shampoo communications in 2011.

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Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Emergence, Header Navigation, Semiotics | 8 Comments »

Check Mate

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Clever has the brains. Stupid has the balls. Smart has the plans. But stupid has the stories. Smart goes with the head. Stupid, the heart. This, at least, is how the world looks according to Diesel. Their recent campaign — prominent almost to the point of obtrusiveness — repositions foolhardiness as a virtue. By encouraging flippancy, and denouncing tact, Diesel places reason in the dock. Thing is, it’s a show trial. The jury are all wearing American Indian headdresses.

I’ve noticed a good deal of push-back against this campaign. Many of the people I speak with about it evince a kind of mild fury. At a time like this, how could a brand be so irresponsible? How could a brand be so downright…stupid?

And yet, that seems to be the point. It all fits rather nicely. For the Diesel philosophy to hold any ground at all, the campaign ethos needs to be as consistently idiotic as the message it’s promoting. Promote stupidity and in the midst of climatic and economic crisis? It’s a ridiculous idea. It’s perfect.

Perhaps, though, it’s not just the recklessness of the Diesel mentality that grinds on people. We’re being asked to admire the imprudent, to throw caution and our knickers (oo-eer) to the wind. Ads focus on reminding us of the appeal of daftness. But they steer clear of detailing the monotony of intelligence on which this endorsement relies. The elephant in the room arrives in the shape of a colossal cranium. And here’s where G-Star RAW come in.

On first appearances, G-Star’s recent output doesn’t seem anything special. Their greyscale image of a moody teenager can be routinely encountered on almost any London Underground platform. Upright he stands, hands behind back, delivering a seething screwface at anyone who catches his eye. To some, however (especially Norwegians, towards whom I’ve lately been feeling an inexplicable fondness), this figure will be instantly recognizable. It’s Magnus Carlsen, currently the world chess number two, officially declared a Grandmaster aged just thirteen.

He looks like he might have landed his first knockout blow around that time too. Carlsen’s face is wound into a tight ball of indignation. He looks about to crack. Smart — this coding is suggesting — can also be savage. This is an intelligence that spills into ire. What’s more it’s apolitical, undirected. G-Star have transposed the mindless irreverence of Diesel’s idiots and planted it on the face of one of the world’s most fascinating young prodigies.

Carlsen doesn’t clearly sit on the nerd table. Broaches, horn-rims and dynamite quiffs run up against a bruiser who looks like he eats polka-dot socks for breakfast. If Diesel want us to give the thumbs down to a certain version of nerdiness, they had better check the nerds haven’t got there first. Currently, they are relying on a quickly dating understanding of braininess to promote their own personal brand of horseplay. It’s this that makes the campaign feel so tired — not the counterintuitive radicalism that supposedly lies at its core.

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Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation | 1 Comment »

Anti-Aging Flap

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Americans celebrated the spooky-kooky Halloween holiday, yesterday. Thoughts of ghosts and goblins prompted Mark Frauenfelder, founder of the popular group blog Boing Boing to ask the blogosphere), "What the heck is this weird skin flap on Boo Berry?"

See the odd flap of skin (that's what it looks like, anyway) on the side of Boo Berry's mouth, in the illustration from a box of Boo Berry cereal (General Mills), below.

I've got the answer!

Boo Berry, who began haunting us way back in 1973, is getting a bit long (and yellow) in the tooth, these days. Also, as reported on April 1st, 2008, Boo Berry is soon going to be the subject of a biopic starring Christopher Walken. Which means he'll be making a lot of talk-show appearances. Like every other aging celebrity, he wants to recapture his youthful good looks.

So Boo Berry has, it seems obvious to me, begun using Maybelline's new product, the [Age] Eraser ("It's a new age in anti-aging!"). Which, as the advertisement below indicates, apparently works by pulling loose facial skin off to the side, where it's gathered in a drooping, pendulous flap.


 

I guess the flap then dangles from your face? I'm surprised it isn't surgically removed, but some folks would rather walk around with a pensile flap on their cheek than go under the scalpel. Or perhaps the image of Boo Berry above was taken in between his Eraser treatment and surgery? Either way, it's spooky stuff. Shades [get it?] of Katherine Helmond's endless plastic surgery in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Brrrr. Happy Halloween!

NOTE: Cross-posted from HiLobrow.com.

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Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Disciplines, Header Navigation, Making Sense | 2 Comments »

Skin Beyond the Sign

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

RoC’s new ‘Sublime Energy’ face cream introduces an electrical current into the skin, heightening inter-cellular communication, which is said to have a rejuvenating effect. With ‘communication’ the core symbolic value here, the line clearly draws juice from social networking codes. It makes communication a value in and of itself, with what’s being communicated (the message), secondary to the fact that communication is happening at all.

In its pack design, Sublime Energy represents itself as a communications ‘device’: like the devices that enable social networking, its creams sit on a base that looks very much like a charger. And its language constantly draws on social networking themes. For instance, the product is said to harness the power of the cellular ‘network’, enabling cells to ‘signal’ to each other.

In a sense, this is a new take on an already-powerful symbolic code: skin as a medium of communication. Whether through blushing, paling, breaking out in spots, or wrinkling, skin is a ‘text’ that can be read by any dermatologically-inclined semiotician. ‘Pro-age’ discourse, for instance, often talks about how wrinkles ‘tell stories’ and how you can ‘read’ someone’s life experience in their face.

But the book of skin is, strictly speaking, about expression rather than communication. In other words, it expresses what’s inside the person: emotions, thoughts, experiences and so on. For Sublime Energy, there’s no ‘inside’ or ‘content’ — just a single plane of communicational flow.

In this post-humanist model of skin as communication, Sublime Energy also moves beyond the previous difficulties and disjunctions involved in the idea of ‘skin as sign’. Along with gesture, skin is the prime example of a hysterical mechanism: displacing and betraying what can’t be said in language. Blushing and paling are perhaps the best-known examples — but skin break-outs of all kinds can be seen as hysterical forms of expression.

As one of the body’s most treacherous and hysterical mediators, skin’s relationship with the communication has previously been about the broken links in the chain, the unsaid, the blocks and repressions — rather than the seamless flow promised by Sublime Energy. It’s arguable that the more repressive a cultural system, the more it values the seeping out of the unsayable, as in the subtle eroticising of female blushing in 19th-century England.

Sublime Energy promises to lift skin out of its hysterical history, freeing up its channels of communication so that there are no more repressions, blockages and ‘unsaids’. In this post-human, post-hysterical manifestation, skin becomes a clear and purified channel of free-flowing communication, valued for its operational perfection rather than for its ability to act as one of the body’s more unpredictable and uncontrollable forms of language.

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Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Disciplines, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Unboxing

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

'Unboxing' is a viral marketing genre in which technology fans are shown taking products out of their packaging, commenting on each component as they go. There are thousands of 'unboxing' videos on youtube – all illustrating a strange cocktail of themes: the fetishism of unwrapping, the complex ethics of the gift, and the procured immediacy of the 'raw reaction'. 

See how Sony makes Christmas happen for a cool Maria Sharapova.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Technology | 2 Comments »

iLOHAS

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Linking the iEverything phenomenon to LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) here's a packaging innovation already adopted by Coca Cola in Japan.  This is said to use 40% less plastic than other PET bottles. The iLOHAS bottle, brought to us by japantrends.com

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Technology | 1 Comment »

It Chooses You

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Why Baudrillard would have liked the new campaign for the Peugeot RCZ: ‘It chooses you’. 

The new ads for the Peugeot RCZ reverse the usual relationship between consumer and product, showing the car choosing the driver rather than the other way around.

For Baudrillard, this is how things are. Our power to choose is an illusion: we’re just the playthings of the objective world. Irony belongs not to us but to the objects around us, which pretend to be mute and passive, but secretly know they have all the power.

And because objects have all the power, we’re wasting our time thinking we can stand outside them and uncover their meaning through critical analysis. The only radical way to find their truth is to submit to them, losing ourselves in their logic and obeying their every whim.

By ‘advertising themselves’ to the Peugeot RCZ and begging it to choose them, drivers are adopting what Baudrillard called a ‘fatal strategy’: an attitude of submission to the objective world.

He saw fatal strategies at work in many cultural phenomena: obesity and long-distance running, to name but two. Both represent the end of the subject’s critical, negating power – its ability to choose, stop, and say no.

These forms of hyper-passivity are far from futile or meaningless. For Baudrillard, only by obeying the world will we find out what it is – not by critiquing from a distance.  In a way he’s saying we should take the world literally: obey every ad, follow every instruction, say yes to everything, and then we may start to understand.

© Louise Jolly 2010

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | 3 Comments »

iEverything

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Have you noticed how many products have come around over the last few years sporting a tiny “i” before their names? Well, if you know not what I speak of, think iPod, iPhone, iPad, iGoogle, iMAX, etc. And these are only a few of the best known. A quick Google search returns over a thousand product names that follow the pattern of a noun preceded by an “i” that is almost isolated in its stately lower-caseness.

iEverything

Internet! Yes. That seems to be the obvious word that justifies the fame of our little “i”. That seems to be the expression the letter seeks to contract, to simplify. And the trend just goes beyond: iWater, iFood, iHouse, iCity, iTaxes, iGlasses… It’s as if, in this abstract universe that is the internet, all human creation needed to be reborn, rethought, reconsidered, to become lighter, to become iMmaterial.

The “i” initiates and hides behind its challenging and friendly humility. It wants us not to notice it and so it stands humbly ahead of what we already know — while surreptitiously changing the entire genetics of the object. This is the new life of post-internet objects. A new life, its sins washed away by the “i” — the insignia that identifies objects that have been converted to the cult of the ultimate god of objects: the World Wide Web. The object unobjectified.

Objects which operate under different laws of physics. Free of weight, free of volume, free of time. That is to say, ticking to a different time.  And all this is identified by our dearest little “i” — which is but the center of our vowels. The anthropomorphic letter that rises up to the global network heavens. But what does it want to tell us, other than "internet”?

Well… the “i” is a lonely letter. As lonely as I. The self-effacing I, that positions itself as an individual, that acknowledges its individuality, its independence. It is isolated, but adds itself to the object in order to become.

Perhaps the letter “i” has been the greatest gift the digital age has offered us: a way to restate, in a subtly stark manner, that we stand small, internet and all.

© João Cavalcanti 2010

Posted in Americas, Categories, Clients & Brands, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Technology | 6 Comments »

Chinese Bottled Water

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Effective packaging design is essential for bottled water. Codes such as mountains, lakes, human-like figures, splashes of colour, as well as shapes and lines, can all be seen on water bottle packaging. Using semiotics, the packs can be organized according to their signs into two main poles. On one side is the pole of nature which claims that the water is from a natural source, and on the other side is the pole of industry which stresses that water has to be controlled and transformed to be untainted and healthy.

Chinese Bottled Water

The pole of nature contains two visions of water: wild water and preserved water.  In China, the category of “wild water” includes products like Pepsi-owned Enchant’s (莹纯, yíngchún) purified water, whose blue package has coloured splashes to showcase wild water in movement as a manifestation of life and freedom. The message it conveys through its sign is strength, vitality, and the human being’s fusion with nature.

The category of preserved water is well represented by Aquarius’ (正广和, zhèng guǎng hé) natural mineral water with its mountain and static lines. It represents a nature to contemplate – a source of peace and quietness, a preserved nature, untouched.

In the pole of industry, the two visions of water are controlled water and tamed water.

In the” controlled water” category, shapes and lines are geometric and clean. Wahaha and Masterkong’s mineral waters, have simple blue or red colored geometric figures and lines on their packages. Their industrial-feeling design suggests that their controlled waters are totally safe and clean.

The tamed water category suggests water is adapted for consumer benefit. Nestlé’s Pure Life, for instance, uses more dynamic shapes and human figures to demonstrate its tamed water’s message of happiness, liveliness, and cooperation.

At first glance, it looks like actors exist on all possible dimensions in the bottled water market. You might think that there is no space remaining for product innovation. Yet, we can find empty territory surrounding the concepts of what we call “absolute water” and “harmony water”.

Absolute water is in a league of its own, and uses neither nature-themed nor industry-themed signs. Currently, there are only two players that convey the concept of absolute water in China – Uni-President’s Alkaqua mineral water and the distilled water made by Watson’s. The designs of the bottles are revolutionary and futuristic. Their beyond-nature and beyond-human appearance suggest that their water is extremely pure and transcendent.

Moreover, the big players in the bottled water market have yet to invent a way to combine the nature-theme and the industry-theme together to introduce the harmony between humans, nature and industry to the market.

Based on this analysis, the next steps could include product development around the two concepts: “harmony water” and “absolute water”.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2010

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Categories, Clients & Brands, Global Vectors | No Comments »

Jungle Adventure

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

 

When I was a child I wanted to marry God. As a young woman, to be a nun and a missionary, fighting misery. I went to the jungle. There in the tropical rainforest together with progressive priests, interpreted God’s word. With a mixture of catholic fervor and political naivety we learned more than we could teach. 

Some years after, I was enlightened once more. This happened on the Aztecs’ land, at university in Mexico. I was searching for a methodology that could explain why some advertisements caught my attention immediately and why some others passed by completely unnoticed. I found the answers in semiotics.

The zigzag of my life brought me to Sweden. I changed sunny México for the Swedish darkness. My world was turned around in all senses, but a girl’s dream to do something meaningful still followed me.

The message here was of course different. It was about semiotics. Being inspired by the British pioneers, I decided to follow my vocation. To introduce semiotics to market research, I spread the word through seminars.

I clearly remember my first lecture. I wanted to appear credible, so I tried to adapt myself to Swedish cultural codes. There I was, a Colombian semiotician trying hard not to gesticulate, talking in a measured way and looking calm. Not very successful – boring in fact. I decided instead to be myself and keep on going.  

I managed to introduce semiotics despite my Latin-ness (or maybe thanks to that) and the high suspicion that the methodology aroused. It was perceived to be subjective, not being based on talking to consumers. I tested different ways to break through for a period of time until, finally, the opportunity came and I took it.

An ordinary day.  A colleague who was searching for ways to interpret collages from focus groups asked me if I could see further and deeper than her own interpretations. The answer was affirmative, and the META-COLLAGE WAS BORN. Today it is one of the most popular terms connected with semiotics in Swedish market research, for better or worse.

The consumer’s pictures were transformed into visual stories. I saw an endless source of information within the images. A visual chaos lying there, waiting to take form through strong story-telling. The credibility problem was solved. The clients believed in what they saw.  The pictures were of course, chosen by consumers. They represented the emotional values of the brand, not only with words but with concepts, symbols and images. Adjustments were made on the journey. An additional collage was needed: the one that represented the optimal brand, to capture the relevant emergent tendencies.  

In some ways I’m back on the jungle, trying to convert the heathens of research.  I have already managed to saved some, but the mission is not complete yet. I carry on saying that even without the consumer’s answers a semiotician can really see beyond – into the territory of culture. I already see the signs, that the day is coming …

© Martha Arango 2010

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global Vectors, Semiotics, Sequencing, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Hilfiger in China

Monday, June 28th, 2010

In order for advertising to be effective, it must convey the intended message. Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their meaning, offers valuable tools for analyzing advertising to uncover strengths or weaknesses of ad campaigns within different cultural contexts. However, since the codes used in this example of fragrance advertising are not dominant codes in the category of lifestyle/perfume in China, there is a disconnect between the codes as they would communicate in the Western and Chinese cultural contexts.

Let’s take a look at a global advertising campaign by Tommy Hilfiger. Hilfiger promotes his cologne using the image of a rugged, handsome man driving a vintage motorcycle alone in the desert. From a Western perspective, this image expresses individuality, independence, freedom, and adventure. The codes inspired by each image, or “sign”, in the advertisement are shown below:

Let’s compare the message being conveyed in both the Western and the Chinese context.

* Motorcycle: Whereas in a Western context a motorcycle represents freedom, adventure, and speed, in a Chinese context it is considered dangerous, noisy, and low status.
* Open Landscape: For Westerners, the open landscape portrays independence and lifestyle enhancement. From the Chinese view, the countryside may be perceived as dirty and dusty.

So, in order to convey the intended message to Chinese male consumers, the following switches from Western to Chinese cultural codes could be used: (Old) Motorcycle to (New) Car/Jeep; Alone to With friends; Speed to Leisure; Rough to Smooth; Freedom to Responsibility; Satisfaction (personal) to Status (acknowledgement).

By using semiotic analysis as a tool, companies can more effectively assess whether their advertising campaigns will be successful or not in different cultural contexts. In addition, for campaigns that have already been run, they can analyze why they were successes or failures in local markets.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2010

Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Culture, Global Vectors, Making Sense | No Comments »

IPL’s Cheerleaders

Monday, June 28th, 2010

The stupendous success of IPL demonstrates the transformation of cricket from sport to pure entertainment. Every piece of the IPL mix has contributed to making it a heady cocktail of money, power, sport and glamour on a never-seen-before scale. 

IPL's cheerleaders

Into this mix has been dropped a piece of exotica imported from America, cheer leaders as an additional source of glamour and entertainment. From the moment they arrived in IPL 1, they generated controversy. Their skimpy attire and sexy dance movements, performed live and telecast in real time to millions raised the ire of the culture custodian political parties. There is also controversy around the fact that these are white American girls who have been flown in all the way from the USA, to dance and perform at the IPL matches. The Indian blogosphere is buzzing with views both for and against and every single viewer of IPL has an opinion on them. Simply put, they are a feature of IPL that cannot be ignored.

The level of controversy surrounding the introduction of cheer leaders means that what these girls signify to the average Indian viewer of IPL on TV is controversial. Clearly they do not signal wholesome fun, celebratory enjoyment and good cheer as they do in American basket ball games. Through their attire and sexy dance display, they suggest the insertion of a live version of the Bollywood “Item Number” (cabaret routine) into the game. This blatant insertion of sex to sizzle up the game of cricket in its avatar as entertainment has riled all audiences, from cricket purists and fans to culture guardians. 

What about the future role for cheer leaders in the next IPL seasons? Some predict that cheer leading as a feature will wither away as a passing fad, as they are extraneous to the game. Others wish to build a group of Indian girls as cheer leaders and recruit them through a reality TV show and contest.

If indeed, the financial and marketing might of the IPL succeeds in creating a new occupation for young women – cheer leading, what could cheer leaders really signify? In a modernizing society like urban India, would they be a symbol of empowered women who exercise their personal choice to successfully market themselves for personal gain? Or would they have traded positions from being men’s possessions and slaves to sexual commodities being provided for men’s titillation and pleasure?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2010

Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Culture, Global Vectors, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Dynasty Re-Loaded

Friday, June 25th, 2010

It’s the bottom lip that does it. The son – we know it’s his son because the evidence of inherited genes is so strong – betrays physiological and psychological traits the father has long learned to control (or suppress). Too full, sensual, prone to tantrums – the lip is already commanding. Touch, taste, speech – its right to consume and direct is supreme. We are rendered mute in turn as we witness this triumphant transition of biological property through the medium of the absent mother. Not the compassion of the Mother and Child; instead, something much harder. Not the heroism or pathos of the single parent, but an imperial re-versioning of the Self. A perpetuation moving in an ever-refining upward movement, accompanied by the discreet tick-tock of an eternal clock mechanism. The greyscale of it all, the muted fugue in fascistic elegance, the hint of panelled room (the boardroom, the hallway of the Hamptons house, the suite at the Waldorf, the reception corridor of the INSEAD business school?). The readiness of the photograph to succeed to a line of imagined painted portraits (imagined, because the stress on ‘Begin Your Own Tradition’ cannot hide the pained newness of the dynastic ambition here).

Father to Son: Protection, grooming (not in an unhealthy way, we hope), schooling (private, West of England, Swiss, East Coast – all the connotations of Privo-land), all-governing, rhizome-like networks, the senior accomplice in dealing with Mama and all her issues/pills/limited female brain, the hope that he will emulate and speculate. The unspoken expectation that the son is to be the father’s perfecting mirror.

Son to Father: loyalty (for now), admiration mixed with some useful fear (of bank accounts being frozen, perversities exposed, onerous, even weird family rituals being exacerbated), the disciplined, invisible hands and wrists (masturbation/trembling pathologies kept temporarily at bay), the still-growing boy-into-man saga (will he bypass the ‘rebel’ stage?), the binding of wills to serve one purpose (fascism).

Chronos (chronometer) kills Saturn; reborn, Saturn in turn eats his young (consuming lips) and Zeus in turn kills Saturn. The cycle is assuaged by the promise of inheritance, one that measures eternity

© Mark Irving 2010

NOTES
Image: http://www.selectism.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/patek-philippe-advertising.jpg

Recommended reading:
Pierre Bourdieu (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
David Cannadine (1996), The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

Posted in Categories, Clients & Brands, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Chinese Medication Pack

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

Bái jiāhēi 白加黑 is a popular over-the-counter cold medication in China, and its success can at least partially be attributed to its effective use of codes both on the cultural level and within its product category. The brand name itself means “white plus black”. The brand slogan is translated as “White pill for day, not sleepy; black pill for night, sound sleep.” Both the packaging and the pill colors utilize powerful and intuitive codes to communicate with consumers- white symbolizing day and black symbolizing night. Together they give a sense of a holistic treatment aligned with the natural cycle of one day. Balance and harmony with nature are important concepts in Chinese culture, as is symbolized by yin and yang. This cultural appeal most likely enhanced the effectiveness of the black and white codes as opposed to other colours such as yellow and blue.

Chinese Medication Cold Pack

Bái jiāhēi ‘s choice of codes, furthermore, differentiated the brand within the product category of over the counter (OTC) cold medications in China.  Although there were competitors with similar offers, some even using the same concept of day time and night time relief with colour-coded pills, Bái jiāhēi emerged as the market leader.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2010

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Categories, Clients & Brands, Global Vectors | 1 Comment »