Archive for the ‘Consumer Culture’ Category

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How Brands Protect Us

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Preface

The level of anxiety is becoming higher in the world today. It was traditionally high in Russia. It looks as if 20th century Russia lived under the motto “may you live in interesting times”. The country has gone through several wars, bold social experiments, dramatic changes and crises[1].

How did all this influence the lives of average Russian citizen and Russian culture overall? It became habitual to anticipate that unexpected disaster might happen. That families might lose all their savings. That social status might change from high to low and vice versa in several months. That results of planning and strategic thinking might turn into a joke. That it is important to value the current moment, to live here and now. It also brought a kind of tolerance of stress. Strength to overcome difficulties, durability and fortitude. Inventiveness and resourcefulness. Low trust in relation to state and government, the habit of relying on oneself.

After a relatively calm period between 2000 and 2013, negative events started again in 2014: the annexation of Crimea and economic sanctions from the West that followed; the collapse of the rouble in late 2014 (real incomes halved); the decrease in oil prices (the Russian economy being built on oil); two wars (Ukraine and Syria) – these have all had an impact on social mood and contributed to increasing anxiety.

On Сhart 1 we can see represented the dynamics of social mood from 2010 to 2017[2]. The level of anxiety is very high during all periods: it ranges from 36% to 49% of respondents, with the lowest average degree in 2013 and 2014 (after a calm decade), reaching the highest levels in the 1st quarter of 2015 (after the events of 2014) and the 1st quarter of 2016. In 2017 the crisis is still here, however, the social mood has become calmer. Citizens have adapted to the situation. Still 40% of people believe that in their environment anxiety prevails over tranquility.

The cultural peculiarities related to such high levels of social anxiety are manifested in several tendencies in consumer behaviour:

• Russian consumers prefer to spend rather than save. In the good times, they are very receptive to novelties and brands communication in general;

• Risky consumption is popular. Adventures, speed of life, self-indulgence – everything that helps take the most from the current moment.

• External signs of status and strength are very important in the dominant culture – rich and powerful are less vulnerable.

• Controlled consumption, attention to brands, reading packs before purchase. The belief that it is impossible to control external factors, but possible to control what one eats and buys.

In this article, we will analyze how the last two tendencies are represented in marketing communication and branding. We will show how brands in Russia help consumers in building personal strategies of safety. We will also provide some examples from the cultural and media fields.

Semiotic Codes of Protection in Branding

There are various ways in which brands in Russia are connecting with meanings of protection and safety:

One way is through a literal interpretation of the theme in the form of protecting borders, or products that provide strength and may help even in a physical sense (numbered below 1.1.-1.3.).

Another type of code utilizes topics that are not directly related to protection, but can decrease consumer anxiety in a subtler way: associations with kind nature, trusted traditions, or wise technology (see codes 2.1-2.3). Such codes describe sources of protection that exist in the outside world.

The third type of interpretation goes deeper to the understanding of safety and what it means to consumers. Such codes refer to signs of comfort, care, support of the community and control over personal choices (3.1-3.3). This group of codes speaks about human input in creating the sense of security: relationships and personal responsibility.

Some of the brand examples we provide for the second and the third group of codes probably were not aimed by their designers to communicate protection (or only protection). But they do so on the connotative level. They also show possible indirect ways of presenting safety, that may be used by other marketers.

On the Chart 2. we have summarized the main semiotic codes of protection observed in communication materials representing brands in Russia in the recent years. This chart describes the dominant semiotic field, the signs that are common and universally understood in Russian culture. Although the codes were derived from Russian material, we believe that some of them could be successfully integrated in marketing communication in other cultures or in global campaigns. Below is a description of the main codes.

• Protecting Barrier

This is one of the most popular codes in communication of safety and protection. “The barrier” speaks more about prevention of a problem, rather than relief. By using the code a brand becomes associated with a reliable partner. The border prevents a problem from intervening in the consumer’s life, be it insects, infection, dirt, or computer viruses. Very important here is the dichotomy “me-others”, or “a person – an outer world”, “friends – enemies”.

Symbols of barriers are often combined with the signifiers of efficacy and power: red, bright intense colors, images of heroes, strong animals. That is a kind of militant protection and it is usually used in communication of products which serve “against” something: medical remedies, insecticides, cleaning products, information security and such. Sometimes the product itself is portrayed as a barrier: for example, an SUV car or an IKEA home which hides its owners from the disasters of the world outside.

The code is almost never used in communication of “peaceful” products, which do not fight with the problem, but protect the consumer from it in other ways (vitamins, ecological food, gadgets).

Signs: shield, protecting circle, wall, shell, black color, thick and hard substances, etc. Also, metaphors of safety belt, lifebuoy.

 Image 1.1.                                                                                                                                           

• Handy tool 

This code is close in meaning to the previous one. It also speaks about fighting the problem. The “me-others” dichotomy is strong in this code too. Here, however, consumers are portrayed in a more independent and powerful position. They do not hide behind a shield; they take an active role in dealing with the situation. The product in the hands of a user adds strength, power and reliability. This is a predominantly masculine theme. Even in communication of unisex products, when a human character appears in the context of the code it is usually a man.

This theme is frequently used by companieswho associate their products or services with provision of safety: insurance, banking, pharma, food (security from hunger and lack of energy), household cleaning, personal hygiene.

Signs: firm and solid shapes, convenient to hold in the hand; a fist; dark colors, non-transparent surfaces; seriousness.

 Image 1.2.

 

• The Hero

Personification of a protecting figure. This appears in the three different forms: “Real man”, “Magic Helper” and “Strong Animal”.

“Real Man” – physically strong, big, usually serious. Patriarchal dream. He can be presented as a portrait of the consumer, or a man who protects the consumer. In the latter case, consumers are usually women, children, and more rarely other men (not as strong as the Hero).

“Magic Helper” – popular characters of superheroes (Spider Man, Super Man, Russian bogatyrs (knights)); animated characters, usually masculine; the product itself as a magic helper. The difference from “The Tool” is that in this code, the product acts itself. It is not a tool in a hand of a user, it is an independent character.

“Strong Animal” – lions, tigers, bears, horses and others. Brands are associated with the power, energy and aggression of these animals. The consumer is usually described as a handler. Sometimes animal energy is attributed to the consumer. Connotations of paganism.

Signs: powerful actions and actions above human abilities (flying, breaking walls); loud sounds, roaring; big muscles. The consumer is behind the hero, under protection of it. When the product is shown alone: camera angle down-up, light on the “hero”, central position in a shot, big size.

Image 1.3.                                                                                                                

• Calming Nature

Nature is a powerful resource for lowering anxiety. Green fields, blue sky and still water are well-known signs of calm. Calmness in its initial, clear form. These signs are widely used in marketing communication, especially in the food category, cosmetics and hygiene. The code connotes that the product protects consumers from threats associated with modern technologies (including chemical poisoning).

This code exists in the two main forms. The first is about the origin of a product: an ecologically clean region of Russia, a farm with eco-style production and so on. The second form speaks about one or more natural ingredients within a product.

Both versions are mainly used in branding for female audiences. Within this code, women are portrayed as tender, fragile and beautiful in a classic way.

Signs: green, beige, light-blues and other neutral clean colors; images of plants (flowers, herbs, berries, spices); little cute animals (sheeps, rabbits, birds); slow pace; static images. Text: “bio-…”, “eco-…”, “chemical-free”, “no additives / preservatives / GMO” and etc.

Image 2.1.

• Authority of Science

Although “Science” is not necessarily about protection, the associations with it are often used to communicate safety (“Rexona men – maximum defense”). Science provides safety from failure. It guarantees quality. The choice is supported by data and expert opinion. Scientific protection is advanced, precise and proved.

The code is mainly masculine, as it is based on the rational perception of the world (in the dominant cultural field in Russia rationalism is associated with masculinity – irrationalism and intuition with femininity).

One of the interpretations of the code is futurism – faith in a better, smarter future and new ways to provide security.

Signs: metal colors, smooth surfaces, formulas, figures and charts, micro-elements, scientists and experts, computers and robots, industrial images, futuristic factories and machines. Text: scientific terminology, abbreviations, names of chemical ingredients (Zn).

Image 2.2.

 

• Safety in Traditions

Safety sometimes lies in things proved by experience over several generations, well-known and habitual. Childhood memories, fairy tales, common food and recipes.

The popularity of symbols related to national traditions in culture and in branding has been growing in the recent years. The Russian Federation has a long history, although in its modern form, as a capitalist republic, the country is just about 30 years old. Russia is in search of its national identity.

There are several types of codes within this theme. Each of them idealizes a certain period of Russian history:

• Old Slavic traditions. Living in harmony with nature, brave souls, beautiful people

• Russia of the 19th Classic literature and music, aristocratic life-style

• Early USSR. Despite all the terrible events of the early decades, for many people it was a romantic period which provided several great stories in art – architecture, design, cinema, poetry

• Heroism of USSR in WW2. The nation that defeated fascism is strong and can protect itself in the future

• USSR of 1960s. First man in Space. Rock-n-roll. Retro style. “Thaw” in political system

• Late USSR. Good quality of some products, protected by government standards of production (GOSTs). Order and safety. Taste of childhood

• Present time. Russian soul. Local products.

Sometimes all these types are combined in the same communication campaign, showing the  rich history of the country.

Signs: historical elements, documentary style, stylizations, national symbols (such as birch).

 Image 2.3.

• Supportive Community

Protection may come from those who surround us. In the Russian collectivist culture, it is normal to expect support from family, friends and even from a stranger on the street (but citizens rarely expect help from the state and government).

The code is often used in marketing. Brands are trying to get the role of a friend or create an image of a supporting circle. For example, in the IKEA ad below, a group of strangers came to the NY party. The hosts invited them in friendship and did not show their surprise. Slogan: “Make yourself at home!”

Signs: holding hands, parties or family gatherings, domestic atmosphere (calm light, relaxed poses), friendly smiles and actions of help, support. Text: “always here”, “friends recommend”, “one of us”.

Image 3.1.

• Tender Care

This code is about soft and caring protection, which in Russian culture usually comes from women. Women feature in the majority of ads in pharma, food and household products categories. They are presented as experienced consumers, who know the available options and make the best choice for their families.

It is interesting that women are both the most frequent subjects of care and recipients of it. When brands communicate safety from anxiety through care, they usually show women as the consumer. In the second place – children and older people. Men are represented as recipients of care in the family environment, with children, at home. Very rarely are men shown receiving care in other circumstances.

Signs of caregiver: confident smiles, important, authoritative position in the shot, hugs and kisses. Signs of care receiver: relaxation, happy smile, images of enjoying (product, service). Serenity and calmness.

Image 3.2

 

• Informed Control  All the previous codes contained the idea of controlled consumption and personal responsibility. However, there are branding concepts in which this idea becomes central. The code is rational and it is based on informing consumers about possible threats and giving instructions on how to avoid them (or life hacks).

The theme also concerns the accessibility of information. Constant access to mobile and internet connection is the necessary attribute of safety today. Knowing the sources of trusted information is the way to feel protected in a world when media are full of lies and propaganda. Consumer online forums, recommending services, independent check-ups of products (RosControl company).

Signs: instructions, rules, schemes, long texts, explanations, information about details.

Image 3.3

Conclusions

In the article we described the most visible dominant codes of Protection in Russian marketing communication. These are often used in combination with each other, providing a complex image of safe and reliable brand.

We can see that the prevailing safety and protection themes in Russia tend to be rather patriarchal. Protection usually comes from masculine characters, or products that have masculine elements (the codes “Barrier”, “Tool”, “Hero”, “Science”). However women too can be protective figures (through “Care” or “Nature”) but most of the codes portray women as the recipients of protection.

The source of protection can be in the future or in the past. References to the past are more often used in brand communication in Russia. It seems that Russian marketers perceive technologies and futuristic dreams as great, but as the future is uncertain, they choose the symbols of past achievements and local traditions.

The analysis shown that there are many possible ways for a brand to communicate the meaning of safety, both direct and connotative, and thus help reduce anxiety in Russian society.                      

Footnotes

[1] The revolution of 1905; World War I; the Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of USSR; Civil War, hunger of 20-s; Stalin’s repressions of 1930-s; World War II, during which USSR lost from 20 to 40 million citizens (by different estimates). Pavlov’s money reform of 1960-s, war in Afghanistan in 1980-s. Gorbachev’s Perestroika, leading to the breakdown of USSR in 1991. Economic collapse of the 1990-s.

[2] FOM, Omnibus survey. Sample: 207 cities and villages, 73 regions of Russia, 3000 respondents. http://bd.fom.ru/pdf/d05no2017.pdf

© Maria Papanthymou 2017

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Keeping the difference

Monday, November 28th, 2016

 

Desigual, the Spanish fashion brand launched in 1984 by Thomas Mayer, has always had a close relationship with its customers. Although it’s not completely mainstream (in terms of design and proposals), their communication strategy has been based upon the same spirit, all over the world: let’s keep (really) close to our followers (and avoid the distance with customers high fashion brands usually impose). They have expressed this in many ways: Kiss Tour is a concept that includes their events and shop openings/parties, which have nothing to do with the front row of most Fashion Weeks; “La vida es chula” (“Life is cool”), their slogan; feeble activity on social networks, sharing their backstages and some other insider details; keeping the conversation with the audiences and publics; asking their clients to become fashion models for a day; the Seminaked events and the Undie Parties

Nevertheless, and with the amazing growth they had in the last 5 years (which is clear to local customers due to the quantity of shops that have been opening in Spanish cities lately), there has been an ongoing comment: Desigual (which can be translated as “different/irregular/not the same”) is becoming really similar… to itself. There was a certain belief in Spanish society that some of the designs were quite repetitive and the core consumers of the first moment started to be a little disappointed. Yes, the brand celebrates life but it also used to be a unique style, not easy to find at the beginning and which gave wearers a certain urban-style distinction. And all that was starting to evaporate.

To make things worse, there was a lawsuit from Custo Barcelona in 2008; this brand said Desigual was getting “too much” inspiration from their designs… The buzz was starting to get louder and it was defying the fresh relationship Desigual had with their customers; moreover, its originality and uniqueness —the core values of the brand— were being questioned.

The campaign

So in answer to this they resorted to good old advertising, on YouTube and television. They launched their first ever audiovisual campaign in 2012, which also included a hashtag, in order to encourage conversation in social media.

But why did it work? Just because it was on TV and it sent a clear message? Not at all. A brand that had distinguished itself for being so unusual had to go beyond that. They still needed to keep it different and also maintain the fresh relationship with their clients.

The spots

The late 2012 campaign included 3 spots under the same spirit, which was expressed in the hashtag #tengounplan (“I have a plan”) for the New Year. The three young women that appear in each of the ads are quite daring in their own way: one —probably the less interesting proposal— was going to drop everything and travel around the world, taking a break from the financial crisis in Spain, from her life and boyfriend, because she wanted to take pleasure in living; another one was going to tell her boss she liked him and she wanted to have sex with him, “whatever the girls from the accounting department say”, because “we are here to enjoy life”; and the third one was finally going to introduce her female partner —the love of her life— to her family.



Sex and tolerance, the culture codes

Why where these ads appealing and not rejected as they would have been in other societies? Because Desigual knows its customers and the culture they live in. The two last spots invoke an attitude that represents a strong culture code in Spain: although it is quite a traditional society in many aspects —and being “traditional” in Spain has mostly good connotations—, in terms of real acceptance of diversity (in this case, gender roles and identities), it is quite open and respectful in daily life, something that was formally expressed in the same-sex marriage law in 2005 and in the law about gender equality in 2007.

They also appeal to another culture code related to enjoying life —which is a feature of the Spanish way of being/living­—, that went on in the two following campaigns, under the #hazloporlamañana (“Do it in the morning”, 2013) and #yomeatrevo (“I dare”) hashtags: sex is lived as something joyful and enjoyable by most of Spanish society, something that is openly talked about and referred to. (Other campaigns that represent this clearly in Spain are the ones from Durex: they focus on sex as a pleasurable activity, and they don’t talk about contraception at all, as they do in other countries). A recent and successful book by Roser Amills also reinforces this idea: its title is I like sex, and its author is a female journalist who also writes about technology in one important newspaper. This could be something shocking for other cultures: in Spain, you are who you are, and this is not necessarily determined by what you do. And of course, you are allowed to do as many things as you want, without being too judged by society in daily life.

The challenge and the shift

Through a deep understanding of the society and the core codes/values of their brand, Desigual re-thought the meaning of being different, fresh and daring: they lifted it from design to the people they dress. This was a smart move: there are still many brands that get mad at their audiences because they “don´t understand” what they are conveying and get stuck with the same message and tactics. Thinking over the core brand meanings and developing strategies to express them in new and appealing ways is a great way of keeping your followers next to you and of showing you care and hear their complaints, something essential in the era of social media. This negative buzz was transformed into something else: being fresh and different it’s not only about the design, it’s about you and your attitude in life. And Desigual is (still) by your side, celebrating distinctness.

And now?

Although there was a different turn in the ad they launched for Christmas 2015 (which was so general it could have fitted any other brand, such as H&M, Zara or Mango), they’ve kept the essential spirit about attitude in the early 2015 campaign with #queves (#whatdoyousee) proposal, which features Chantelle Winnie, a model with vitiligo —challenging traditional and mainstream ideas about beauty—, and the recent 2016 “Hundred miles”, which also includes older women. So the “Desigual” spirit is still alive, breathing and working well.

© Gabriela Pedranti 2016

 

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Creolised Fashion

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

 

Creolised fashion: Chanel, ChiChiA, Guinness

I’ve recently become obsessed with gorgeous clothes from a fashion brand remixing African fashion with western elements. ChiChiA presents Tanzanian khanga cloth with an East London edge: rips, tailored and boxy shapes. The clothes are glorious – and their marketing reminded me of Guinness’ 2014 ‘sapeurs’ ad, featuring Congolese men who compete to be the most snappily dressed in smartly tailored suits. ChiChiA’s work made me realise just what worked about Guinness’ ad, and gain insight into the dividing line between cultural homage and cultural appropriation.

okayafrica1

The difference between fashion and costume is incomprehensibility. If an outfit is full of recognisable signs pointing to a single meaning, it is costume, with a meaning clear enough to take over the wearer and erase her. If its signs clash, it isn’t immediately comprehensible to anyone except the wearer – and it’s fashion.

A full skirt worn with peeptoe heels, a twinset and hairbow is a fifties costume; a full skirt worn with a leather crop-top is fashion.

This dependence on mixed signs is similar to creolisation, in which associations from multiple heritages combine to create a cultural fusion defining itself spatially instead of historically: a country, city, or in the case of fashion, a human body.

Desirable modern personalities are often creolised: either literally, as in the desirability of ethnically mixed bodies in culture (think Rihanna with her green eyes, Chrissy Teigen or African-American albino model Shaun Ross), or in their awareness of many different cultures and aesthetics. A lack of easy comprehensibility forces attention to the person who is the site of creolisation, giving them the authenticity of fashion rather than costume.

fashionista1

Brands often aim to demonstrate creolisation, and land at cultural borrowing. One of the most woeful examples is Chanel, which tried to remix the traditional feathered Native American headdress as a symbol of ‘craftsmanship’ in 2013, and was confronted with near-universal accusations of racism and appropriation. Ultimately, Chanel’s whole show was associated with the ‘basic bitch’, a white girl wearing Native American headdresses to festivals: someone who clings to signs which are both hollow and obviously comprehensible.

This self-presentation lacks cool because it lacks incomprehensibility. The individual basic bitch is not a space where fashion and personality are created, but a wearer of borrowed costume: on a non-Native American, the headdress is a loud failure to be fashion, and a less resilient or smaller brand than Chanel couldn’t have recovered from it.

telegraph1

ChiChiA escapes inauthenticity because its non-western influences come from the designer/founder’s own heritage, in contrast with Chanel’s, but that isn’t all; Guinness’ Irish roots couldn’t be less relevant to the Congo, and their ad was still well-received, seen as expanding rather than devaluing the drink brand. What works is that these brands are reflecting already-creolised cultures: sapeur fashion arises from a long history of cultural crossover, and ChiChiA evokes London’s status as one of the world’s most powerful creolising societies.

In both examples, signs from different cultures are translated by and into each other in fashion, as in creolisation. Elements which resist translation come to signify their own origins, often over and above their original culture-specific meanings.

ChiChiA’s marketing towards creolised cultures, as well as around them, is reflected in its founder’s summary of Tanzanian-heritage women’s reactions to her fashion: ‘You wear a khanga at home to clean the house, not to a party.’ That’s why she doesn’t make khangas: she mixes the khanga cloth with western structures like crop tops, shoulderpads and pencil skirts. Sapeur fashion also mixes classic European tailoring with bright African colours, making the resulting outfit an embodied assertion of creolisation. Creolisation’s ability to give khanga the higher-level sign of Tanzanian-ness, and erase its culture-specific meaning of casualness, is like the three-piece suit’s ability to signify European-ness rather than stuffy formality when worn, in bright colours, in the Congo.

These jostled signs, creolised into incomprehension, are the type of existing cultural interaction that brands can borrow from without accusations of appropriation. Guinness’ sapeur association isn’t a borrowing of an untranslated sign; it’s associating Guinness with creolisation itself.

Black creolisation

 For an example of larger-scale marketing towards rather than around creolisation, we can look at Guinness’ post-sapeur Africa campaign, Made Of Black, which figures blackness as creolisation itself.

This definition is common among African-Americans, whose culture is arguably the most successful of the 20th century. Made Of Black’s flagship ad uses Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’ as soundtrack, a song whose title’s creolisation is so tense that it’s almost an oxymoron, associating a punk movement with strong white supremacist undertones with black power. The song includes lyrics in praise of the main driver of literal creolisation, interracial sex, and is also a valorisation of a culture defined as ‘black’ but in fact creolised; a distinction which becomes more obvious when African-American cultural signs are positioned beside un-American African signs in Guinness’ video.

guinness1

Guinness positions its ‘blackness’ as necessarily polyphonic, presenting many different African celebrities in the ad. It also includes multiple bright colours on the face of a black model, and mixtures of various African, European and African-American influences – such as breakdancers against a background of north African/ Arabic-inspired prints. This combination invites Africans to identify themselves with the creolisation of African-Americans,positioning such creolisation as desirable: an aim with obvious benefits to a European product trying to become an important element in African cultures.

But Guinness’ blackness is not only ethnic. The ad points to ‘black’ as a ‘mindset’ or ‘attitude’ incorporating diversity, cultural rebellion and the site of fashionable identity mixing, pulling on cultural connotations of black as the colour into which all colour dissolves. This positioning of blackness as a space where many diverse associations meet has been prefigured by rappers playing with the concept of blackness. For instance, in Jay Z’s ‘Run This Town’ video, the “all black everything” lyric and aesthetic refer to clothing as well as ethnicity; to the anarchists using black as a symbol of countercultural freedom and the fashionistas using it as noncommittal catchall chic, as well as the immediate meaning of negritude or black power.

 Black as creolised space is a very powerful association. But Guinness’ discussion of blackness is made tense by its uncertain positioning of creolisation. The beer’s blackness is simultaneously portrayed as already creolised, a space where various cultures have found a home; and at the same time, allied to the extremely broad space of Africa and its multiple non-creolised cultures.

This causes uneasiness: is Guinness a site, like ChiChiA, or an element?

And that tension may be the cause of the ad’s mixed reception, as Africans remain unsure who is being ‘made’ in its tagline. Is Guinness paying homage to the role of black or African drinkers in creating its brand, or are they being encouraged to pay homage to its role in their racial/ cultural identity?

Power lines are the faultlines in any society, but especially so in creolised cultures, built at the same time by and in resistance to colonising elements. ChiChiA’s founder can own creolisation as a black woman in a way that is politically problematic for Guinness to use as a European brand. The campaign’s success will test and be tested by the extent to which Guinness is already embedded in the African cultures that ‘Made of Black’ targets.

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

 

 

 

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Creme Eggs

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Creme Eggs and the Subjectivity of Childishness

Winner of Semionaut New Writers Award 2016

Crème Egg wrappers dissolve luxury codes – the sparkle of foil, the personalisation of variable wrapping, the red and purple power colours – into luxury chocolate’s traditional liquidity paradigm. Crème Eggs are the only popular adults’ single-serving chocolate, available casually and as an individual product in a way that luxury boxed chocolates aren’t, and differing from bars because they can’t be shared, divided or saved for later. Through looking at Crème Eggs’ technique for making adults choose this single luxury serving of chocolate each year, we can find out about the liquidity paradigm’s modern applicability to the subjectivity of childhood, rather than that of female sexuality.

Creme Egg 1

Nostalgia is culturally treacherous, due to its easy slipping point into twee and the difficulty of cross-generational appeal, but childishness in its free-flowing subjectivity is always appealing. Crème Egg’s erratically folded foil and the yellow ‘splat’ – looking, as it flows over the egg’s curves, more like a spill – invites adults to assume the vision of a child who doesn’t know it is an object. In millennial terms, this is a break from ‘adulting’, a verb which openly opposes the performance of adulthood to the real, subjective self of childhood.

Culturally, the freedom of childhood is closely linked to Easter feelings of renewal. The three-month period of Crème Egg availability, like the Lenten period, mimics the pregnancy preceding the springtime rebirth of the year: a dynamic acknowledged by both Christianity and the pagan religions whose springtime rebirth celebrations it assimilated. So it’s fitting that the Crème Egg prompts associations with childhood and interiority, linking it in British minds not just with childhood Easter celebrations and holiday, but with these older, more primal senses of the rebirth of the year.

Subjectivity

Flake 1

Women are often encouraged to dissolve their everyday selves into melting chocolate imagery, entering a Cixous-inspired world of liquid, sensual subjectivity. Taste is more subjective and so more private than sight or hearing, which can be reproduced and shared by machines such as cameras or sound recorders. The privacy of taste is the secondary connotation of the typical closing of a woman’s eyes as she tastes the chocolate (with the first connotation being, of course, orgasm).

This sensuality is coded as sexual, but even as the ad presents the woman to external gaze, it insists by focussing on taste that the chocolate is allowing subjectivity. The female sexuality in chocolate adverts, though displayed, isn’t purchasable by men as many brand portrayals of female sexuality are. Rather, its transcendence is so focussed on women’s subjective experience that any chocolate brand wishing to target men must explicitly and aggressively position itself as male: in the simplest form, Yorkie is declared ‘Not for girls!’

Crème Egg’s invitation to transcendence extends to both sexes, but otherwise follows the subjectivity model. Minimal packaging reiterates the egg shape, which acts as a pointer towards a single person’s mouth (it’s impossible to eat a Crème Egg broad end first). Easily cupped in the hand, this shape gives a sense of almost weaponised purpose, borrowing from bullets and grenades. The invitation to the subjective is deepened by the variability in packaging which comes from wrapping an asymmetric egg in a rectangle of foil: it’s possible to select your egg with mostly yellow, red, purple or logo showing, according to your preference. And the non-uniform folds make the eater shy away from the ritualised process of (for example) untwisting a Lindor twist, in favour of a personalised process according to the trajectory of the wrapper of the specific Crème Egg chosen. The wavering line of the wrapper signifies the messy, fluid boundary between egg and world, or egg and mouth.

Fluid identity and pre-digital childhood

Crème Eggs offer a childish space valorised by luxury codes, not a luxury space with childish accents. This order of associations is reinforced by the anchoring logo, whose position across the lower, broader curve of the egg pushes the modern, lower-case, printed crème egg logo out further than the more traditionally luxurious handwritten Cadbury’s logo. But Cadbury’s 19th century associations are nonetheless an important part of Crème Egg’s childishness offer.

The 21st century exchange of purple for blue quirked the childish primary triumvirate on the Crème Egg packaging. It also emphasised retro luxury. Cadbury has never reacted to the post-industrial-dye devaluation of purple, which is a bold, traditional luxury signifier (as is red, to a lesser extent). These colours are pre-postmodern and non-ironic, from a time before one-note elegance became desirable. This retro flamboyance also calls on a strong, particularly millennial, association of bold childishness with freedom from the single objective self.

In an act of cultural mimesis echoing recapitulation theory, the pre-digital self often represents the childish self – gloriously subjective and fluid. Steampunk is the clearest expression of this cultural association, but it’s also seen in the adoption of over-the-top hipster disguises (most obviously Victorian-style beards) among millennials.

For a certain generation which includes myself, the pre-digital world and childhood are literally the same era, but that isn’t the only reason why subjective freedom, pre-digital culture, and childhood are allied for us. Childish games of disguise and dissolution are the target of cultural hunger for a pre-internet world in the minds of people whose digital personas are fixed and tracked by everyone from school friends to advertisers. In Crème Egg packaging we see how childhood fluid subjectivity mingles with the hunger for pre-digital subjectivity, using bold colour codes which are at once retro and toddler-like.

The wrapper’s white line, dividing the 19th century red and purple, suggests the separations and enforced categorisations of everyday life. But Crème Egg eaters aren’t encouraged to think about the quirkiness or ‘wackiness’ lying in this liminal line, as they are in many products promoting childishness in adults. Rather, the liquid freedom of childhood obliterates categories and liminality at the same time (as the yellow splat and logo override the white line on the egg wrapper), inviting the eater to ride roughshod over the entirety of the objective world. This letting-go, coded as childish by other signifiers, makes the Crème Egg a space of release – pre-digital, pre-adult, and fluid – for all.

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

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Coming of Age

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Malcolm Evans and Peter Rock have been collaborating since September 2015 on a project to database semiotic & cultural data & insight into themes influencing people aged 50+, a demographic with whom advertisers and marketers could profitably improve their communication. This is an initial look at the UK leg of that work in progress.

In March 2013 Sraboni Bhaduri looked, for Semionaut, at changes in representations of older people in Indian advertising. Here we do the same for UK. This comes at a time when popular culture, especially film, is very much involved with themes around ageing and mortality, and a series of high-profile celebrity deaths have prompted a time of reflection. We give below the headlines on the Ageing theme in UK advertising’s Residual (dated), Dominant (mainstream) and more emergent (dynamic, forward-looking) codes – and say more about representative campaigns and executions.

AgeRDE

The Residual codes are partly based on cultural memory and nostalgia: Dame Thora Hird’s ticket to ride on the patriotically-named Churchill Stairlift in the 1990s (how different in her ageing aunty persona from our 2016 dames, Judi & Helen); the forlorn J.R. Hartley haunting second hand bookshops in the 1980s in search of a volume he once wrote on fly fishing, before finding it via Yellow Pages; the Werther’s Original kindly grandfather, updated and professionalized as an older male confectionery chef in the most recent TV execution.

Our example here of how the codes of the past can endure into the present is Michael Parkinson for Sun Life insurance. This plays on an ancient formula in which the older celebrity male twinkles to camera and takes the “If you’re like me…” mature market into his confidence. Parkinson talks directly but discretely about death and how to make provision to avoid inconveniencing those we leave behind. In the past, on these relatively unsophisticated 50+ communications, a free biro might be thrown in at some point as an incentive to respond for the frugal pensioner. This has been updated today to a choice from an attractive range of higher value gifts for anyone who signs up. With the pen, going to anyone who even applies for details, upgraded to a Parker – once a near-luxury marque for this generation. A result all round, one surmises, with Yorkshireman Parkinson (knowing what’s what, calling a spade a spade etc) belying his super-rich status and standing up for the canny consumer.

specsv

The Dominant codes are more complex. Some of that Residual harmlessness and eccentricity lives on – in the comic catatonia modulating to Dionysiac frenzy of the old men and women in the Specsavers Aerobics Instructor ad, for example, and the toe-curling sentimentality of the 2015 John Lewis Christmas ad, which took viewers into the darker area of isolation among UK’s elderly population: “Show someone they’re loved this Christmas”. This ran in parallel with the charity Age Concern’s awareness-raising campaign (“No Friends”) with its ironic Facebook generation echo – and soon-to-emerge connotations of exploiting the vulnerable when press headlines appeared in February 2016 alleging that the energy giant E.ON “paid £6m to Age UK in return for the charity promoting expensive tariffs to pensioners”.

There is a stark contrast in this mainstream area between recent still glamorous endorsers of anti-ageing products (for l’Oreal, Jane Fonda, at the time of writing, is 78, Helen Mirren rapidly approaching 71) and the shambling objectified old geezers in the Barclays Digital Eagles ad about Walking Football. As this game, designed to ensure that the infirm can still compete and have fun, explicitly targets men of 50 and over (young enough for Jane and Dame Helen to be their mums) we have some dissonance here between how 20- or 30-something ad men see their older co-genderists and how the 50+ male nowadays sees himself. This is profoundly stereotypical and non-aspirational mirroring.

Barclayswalk

An older colleague suggested chirpily to me that the walking game should be staged in a Shawshank Redemption-style prison yard where crowds of football lovers now in their eighth year of austerity cheer on the guilty (yet uncannily plucky and somehow sympathetic) bankers, with their balls and chains, as they drag and dribble along. Because they’re worth it. A quick antidote for the agency – watch the first 15 minutes of Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day 2007 reunion concert film (Robert Plant was then 59, Jimmy Page 63, John Paul Jones 62– all on top of their game and some). That’s a bit closer to how the inner wrinkly, as you see him, (AKA a grown-up) likes to see himself. Even next generation drummer Bonzo Jr., currently 49 (June 2016), will qualify for his Walking Football permit soon.

CelebrationDay

More needs to be said about the anti-ageing codes. Keeping a questioning of self-worth on the agenda for women (even by explicitly affirming you are worth it) is at best a questionable activity. Are you planning at any point to suggest overtly to Sir Ian McKellen that he might be worth it? Or maybe Charlie Watts? One of our most insightful critics of these cultural representations wrote recently that the time has come to move on from anti-ageing to pro-ageing. The fact is, if you deconstruct the codes and signifiers of this category carefully enough, that this shift, very subtly, has actually already begun.

The trajectory overall so far is: from gentleness, eccentricity, common sense (with a twinkle); to pathos, humour & ambivalent empowerment, with occasional lapses back into a grotesque objectification that would never pass today in relation to ethnic, religious or gender differences but is still alive and well in the world of ageism. All the more alarming because (unless we are negligent or unlucky) we will, as is not necessarily the case with other forms of diversity and otherness, be there ourselves one day. The apparent ease, culturally, with which one may become a self-hating ageing person, for we all age from the moment we’re born, is just wilfully storing up even bigger problems arising from ignorance and prejudice for ourselves later on. Having reached 80, on his birthday, the late great Acker Bilk said “By the time you get to my age you’re either 80 or you’re dead. And on balance I’d rather be 80”. Obvious but worth saying. Just what mortality said it would do on the tin.

blackstar7
David Bowie, Blackstar

So to the Emergent zone in ads.

Contextually what’s happening, with regard to ageing, in popular culture in UK (and arriving from the US and/or mainland Europe) is amazing. The generation after the first teenagers (the ones who perfected youth culture), the ones who were hippies, mods, rockers, all that, who were the puppet-masters of punk, are now in their late 60s (a magic second coming-of-age decade which shares its name with a magic historical decade) or 70s and… guess what… promise you won’t laugh… ageing and death have become cool. Now who would have guessed the Boomers were going to make that happen? There are some quick tasters in Paolo Sorrentino’s sublime film Youth (starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda), in The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, in the devastating Still Alice, of course, and in the very private yet transcendentally public death of David Bowie (a brilliant business model – enjoy your post-death royalties from investors up front while you’re alive, then pay them back with knobs on by staging the most charismatic and commercially astute exit in almost two millennia – nice one – you’re definitely worth it, Ziggy!)

And the ad men are beginning to respond with an emerging light-touch mix of wisdom, love, compassion, kindness, integration, strength, the spark of life and shared mortality. A lot to ask, perhaps, but it’s all there when the fear, denial, objectification and stereotyping are suspended and the authentic values of the return half of life’s journey gain expression.

The examples:
DoveGreyHair

Dove celebrates the beauty of grey hair, tapping into a cultural trend, making a point to do so in the context of hair (and people) diversity rather in a cultural ghetto specific to Oldies. Being addressed as a semiotically ‘unmarked’ person (rather than specifically as old, gay, black, Muslim etc) can occasionally be heartening and on the side of life. Then how to showcase perfectly in a branded commercial format the elegant understatement and ever-present latent menace of Harvey Keitel, ironically morphed into a kindliness which allows Direct Line to bring their edgy transposition of Werther’s Original-style warmth and security to the emotionally fraught and inherently uncertain world of car and home insurance.

WonderfulLife

Finally two ads which touch on the highly topical dominion of death, the ever-present, however shadowy at times, elephant in room 50+. IKEA follow the happy memories of a couple, as boosted by love and imagination and as seen more realistically in the family album – and poignantly as the woman, now older, sits with her granddaughter and glances over at the empty chair. A brand which specialises in feet-on-the-ground democratic excellence and understanding life’s transitions just about rescues the execution from the semiotics of non-ironic greetings cards.

FirstChoice2

In The First Choice all-inclusive holidays “Seeker” ad, where the music track (The Who’s 1970 single name-checking the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary – it only reached number 19 in the UK charts so still has freshness and cultural discoverability) is, subtly supported by vintage styling and aura, the only thing that explicitly interpellates UK youth culture’s greatest generation. While an underwater sequence cues in dream imagery, the unconscious, a wandering through one’s personal avatars of male or female, youth, childhood, middle age and what may be to come.

It’s clear from this execution that it doesn’t take a representation of an older person (whether IKEA’s glancing soft-focus emotion or documentary observation of physical decline set off by jaunty comic music Barclays-style) for the 50+ target to empathize and identify. They have a fluid lifetime of those avatars to tap into. And no one can know better the import of this First Choice execution’s joyful, impulsive take on carpe diem. Seize the day, nurture and harvest the time. Don’t always mirror what the sceptic, with a jaundiced unloving eye, sees on the outside. If ever the person inside becomes an old codger, he or she’s already dead. And you’re not going to sell them anything. No one knows better that you have to be mindful, active, fully in the moment. The sound track keeps stopping just before “The Seeker”s punch-line and jump-cutting to later in the song. This is the ad’s lyrical absent presence: “Don’t get to get what I’m after/ Till the day I die”. But you do. You will. You can have it now. It’s already well past the point where you still have to pinch yourself and remember that this is not a rehearsal.

FirstChoice

© Malcolm Evans 2016

With heartfelt thanks to the UK MRS Advanced Semiotics class of May 2016 – Elisabeth Bennett, Sarah Hall, Lyndsay Kelly, Tom Pattison, Laure Payen

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Network: Marc

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

 

 

Your experiences in education – did you encounter semiotics? If not, what difference do you think such an encounter would have made?

Although not taught as semiotics, there used to be huge focus on textual and visual analysis throughout primary and secondary education in my native Bulgaria. Thinking about it now, it feels like it was often a necessity. Each year, the list of mandatory summer reading books was invariably dominated by authors such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, whose works always inevitably required deeper analysis back in the classroom. The constant nudge to look for the deeper meaning in texts and signs quickly evolved into a favourite pastime. So, when I heard about commercial semiotics as a research methodology, I instantly wanted to know more. Luckily, with the international research I do, I often have the opportunity to use semiotics and those early lessons are certainly coming in useful now.

How does it feel being the first (and currently still only) adopter and main spokesperson for semiotics in a business employing over 100 people? What are your best soundbites for catching colleagues’ attention, encouraging them to get involved in semiotics?  

I’m lucky to have a very supportive network of colleagues who are constantly looking for new ways of enhancing our offer and openly welcome new ideas. When I came back from the semiotics training course, I didn’t expect there would be such an appetite for semiotics in the business, but it quickly transpired that a few colleagues had worked with semioticians in the past and their experiences were overwhelmingly positive, so it wasn’t a difficult sell at all. Looking at where we are as a business now and how our offer is evolving, it makes a lot of sense to integrate semiotics and make it a de facto methodology for certain types of projects.

For those colleagues who are less familiar with semiotics, talking about going beyond the obvious, unlocking deeper insight, and gaining an understanding of how their categories are structured symbolically seems to have particular resonance and stopping power. For those working on international projects, the hook is ‘cultural insight’ and help in understanding the subtle nuances that drive different interpretations, attitudes and behaviours across different cultures.

Elevator pitch – what would you tell a prospective client about semiotics?

The way I see semiotics is as a higher-gear research methodology that can help you quickly get to the nub of the matter and harness emerging trends. Particularly useful if you’re looking to solve long-standing puzzles, find the edge in crowded categories and/or scale a brand internationally.

The picture you have chosen to illustrate this interview – your thoughts about it, why did this come to mind?

I came across this print ad from Hut Weber (German hat manufacturer) fairly recently and thought it beautifully summed up in 2 simple images and 3 words what semiotics is all about, i.e. understanding how subtle signs, which our brains process intuitively, work to change our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

Hut Weber

For me, 3 distinctive elements in this comms piece exemplify what semiotics looks at and why it is such a powerful methodology for unlocking fresh insights:

OBJECT: the presence of a simple object – that of a hat – completely changes who we see and what we associate that image with. The hat changes the image of the man from the evil, sadistic Adolph Hitler to the charming, fun-loving Charlie Chaplin. The echo, in the Hitler image, of the cover of Timur Vermes’s satirical novel Er Ist Wieder Da (translated as Look Who’s Back) adds a reflexive twist to this transformation. Vermes’s Hitler, having woken up in Berlin in 2011, reinvents himself as a  TV comedy star.

HISTORY: if this same print ad had aired 100 years ago when both Hitler and Chaplin were 25 years old, but certainly not as well-known as they are today, it wouldn’t have carried the same meaning as it does today.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: looking specifically at how the two images are positioned in relation to each other, we see a positive progression from left to right, which is how the encoder of this message intended us to interpret it knowing that the convention in the Western world is to read from left to right. But this subtlety in interpretation can easily be lost in Arabic or certain Asian cultures for example who don’t read or decode messages in the same way. There’re bound to be some differences and from a research perspective, it’s great to know that this is something semiotics can help with by bringing deep cultural insight to the table.

© Marc Dimitrov 2016

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Homes in India (3)

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

 

Objects and symbols in the Indian home space

Typical objects found with uncanny regularity across homes, trace the strands of the narrative that runs through the idea of home in India. It is a space that belongs to the familial collective rather than to the individual and therefore carries the responsibility of representing the family to the larger collective. As soon as he walks in, the visitor is sure to run into the great Indian ‘showcase.’ It is a glass fronted cabinet which typically contains trophies and medals won by the children, toys evoking memories of their childhood, wedding pictures, fifty year old pictures of parents in the early years of their marriage and sundry objects that represent the bricolage of the family’s pride & joy.

The home belongs to the familial collective and everyone & everything contained in that space is jealously guarded. Guarding against the evil eye and ushering in prosperity is a theme that underlines the divide between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ Feng shui Buddha and the Ganesha will sit on the same shelf, united in their endeavour of securing the auspiciousness of the home space.

baby pic in drawing room pg21

There are some decidedly intriguing objects like soft toys, artificial flowers, posters of babies and ingenuous ways to install covers on all kinds of objects that mark Indian homes. What do these things mean? Why are medieval locks sitting alongside modern security measures? Why do plastic chairs find favour in rural homes as well as in modern urban homes? The shift in identity from the familial collective to that of nascent individuality has heralded the idea of décor; but the unique collection of objects still makes it an unmistakably Indian home.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2016

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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/

 

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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

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Retrospective Love

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.  In this context, post-communist Bulgaria met the date with a brand new generation blind to the past, as well as with an economy and society connected with the Western world more than ever before. A reputable sociological agency (Alfa Research Ltd, Nov. 2014), however, published a report that aroused the spirits.  It showed that more than 50% of the sample expressed a clear nostalgia for the ‘old times’, caused mostly by being tired of waiting for some ‘better future’ which never happens.

Taking a look back at the history, the first elections after the changes – those in mid-1990 – were won by the Bulgarian socialists, the nearest heirs of the former communist party. That made Bulgaria the only country among the others from the former socialist block giving the power to the same body of politicians as before November 1989. Moreover, it revealed that obviously the ordinary people had not been prepared for these significant changes, as had happened in most other central European countries, either in terms of institutions or everyday life.  People tried to maintain the status quo probably because they didn’t know anything else as a political program at that time, except for some vague idea of privatised economy – and the future seemed too unclear.

The data in the report also demonstrated that a positive attitude towards the former communist leader, previously an object of comedy and of fear, increased threefold between 1991 and 2014. The sectors showing remarkable decline during the transition period were health, education, and security systems as well as the economy in general. Only the freedom of the media and infrastructure improvements were perceived as positive outcomes of the new political and economic direction. Generally speaking, exactly half of the respondents, both from the left and the right wings of the political spectrum, considered the transition period so far as unsuccessful.

All the findings in the report in question were more than curious and in cultural perspective it seemed useful to put Lotmanian semiotics into action (also known as the concept of the semiosphere) to try to reveal how the former socio-economic regime in Bulgaria and the way of living attached to it are presented in the cultural landscape of today. In brief, leading principles of the model include the dynamics within the system which bring about asymmetry and some kind of a constant (collective) memory play. Its main elements are the core of the dominant cultural paradigm (grammar) and periphery (or the sum of weaker, subordinate fields in the cultural system). Since in the first decade of post-socialism no new strong ideological center appeared and the logical outcomes were were the disunion in local culture (values, heroes, goals, aesthetics, etc.) and a constant collision between the peripheral zones, on the one hand, and a need to re-read the near past on the other. At the same time the boundary (i.e. borders of the semiosphere) was too permeable, and  thus it supported not one new core formation but, rather, several different potential formations – which rendered the system as a whole unstable.

Fig_SocialsiticNewspaperWeavedIntoBag_DTrendafilov2015

Front page of Communist party newspaper, from late 1979, woven into urban lifestyle bag.

Nowadays the set of sign systems created within Bulgarian socialism – especially in its late period – lives a new life in various forms, in various places, bearing some new meanings which represent it as a semi-imaginary/semi-real cultural construction. The complex and simultaneously obscure system of meanings and influences of this heritage could be ‘read’ in different pop-cultural visual, musical, architectural and verbal texts – literature, music, films and even bars/restaurants. The elders may perceive the pop-cultural referencing of socialism as offensive and partial, while the youngsters have highly mediated impressions of it. In their eyes it is a set of texts which seem more like a mosaic resulting in a form of fairy-tale of how the anachronistic evil got beaten by the progressive part of the people and the logic of freedom of choice, speech and consumption took over.

Alongside some retrospective commentary web-sites (for instance http://socbg.com/) in the capital Sofia recently have popped up places like rakia bar Raketa” (=Rocket), its  interior stocked with emblematic products from socialist every day life (even a vacuum clearer) and the Museum of socialistic art, which collected political signs, small monuments and other propaganda artifacts. In this perspective socialism may be seen as a good business/marketing tool, recycling material culture from that time – which may still be sourced relatively easily which is partly why it can connote authenticity) in a harmless and strongly contextualized ambience (see the illustration). The past is displayed as stripped back to essentials.

Eventually, some paradoxes do become apparent in the social-cultural mix. Parts of the population do not want to remember Socialism at all, while a lot of people want it back, even if not exactly in its previous reality. But for those who barely knew it, socialism comes back via its material and commercial face (we could add here T-shirts with signs such as ‘USSR’ and ‘KGB’ on them as well).

This case is an example of how old cultural texts can come back re-coded (from the periphery) and demonstrates how tricky the culture, in terms of ‘common memory’, actually is.  Culture, just like its non-semiotic opposition – Nature, does not support empty spaces, except for perhaps some some thinner zones from time to time. When certain myths disappear they should be replaced, otherwise history come back through a boomerang effect in different and very often crooked forms.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2015

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Linguistic localization of cross cultural foods

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

In an October 10th BBC article about the artist Alex Chinneck, the writer refers to an art piece as being located in a “London Piazza”.  The sentence gave me some pause, largely because I agree with the sentiment of the American author Alfred Bester when he said “for me, there are no synonyms”.  What was it about the place mentioned in the BBC article that makes it a piazza, and not a square?  In turn, how would one differentiate a square from a plaza?  That word was so long ago reappropriated into the English language that it appears all but divorced from its original Spanish roots..

But this isn’t mere nit-picking of writers and their euphemistic language.  Over the past decade or so the United States has inserted two other words into its collective lexicon; Paninis and Gelato.  Here there is room for even larger reflection; for these two words do have rough equivalents (or perhaps we can simply say synonyms) in the English language.  Namely, Gelato had for many years prior been called Ice Cream, while Panini had for likely as long been called sandwiches.  But ask anyone on the street and they will passionately proselytize that the one thing is not like the other.  Gelato, people will claim, is as separate a product from Ice Cream as Paninis are from sandwiches, and thus a distinction is necessary.  The inverse does not always occur.  Italian tourists visiting the US, speaking among themselves in Italian, would feel no need to code-switch into English if they stopped off for some ice cream.  For them, the product they purchased in the US is merely a regional variant of what they know from back in Italy, and no real distinction needs to be made.  And this begs the questions of where such distinctions, if necessary at all, come from.

Panini

One of these things is not like the others: tramezzini (top), porchetta panini (middle), American Panini (bottom).

The biggest problem with this seems to be from confusing a very generic term for a very specific one.  In Italian the noun gelato takes its name from the adjective for frozen, from the past participle of the verb gelare, and refers to any variety or the snack anglophones would call ice cream.  To say, as certain proselytizers in other parts of the world might, that to be considered gelato the product must stand to the rigor of being organic, or made with whole milk, or churned at a certain speed or at certain temperatures, is in a respect denying the monumental variation of the product you find in Italy itself.

Most products do not going under the incredible rigor of control that pharmaceuticals suffer from, where if something is to be called Aspirin it must have certain properties in certain quantities, or you will not be allowed to market it as such.  Instead, as with any other product going under any other generic label, you find a massive variety from seller to seller.  Were one to go from place to place in Italy, stopping for gelato at every occasion (recalling that the term not only refers to the gelato of the gelaterie, but as well the prepackaged ones sold in bars and super-markets ), one could create a periodic table of sorts from the varieties encountered; some places would sell creamier products while others might sell a more watery product (which works better for certain fruit flavors). Some would strive for the use of fresh ingredients while other would use chemical flavorings (the often taught trick is to look at the color of banana ice cream – bright yellow if made artificially and dull grey if made fresh), and some would experiment with flavors and combinations while others would rest with the tried and true.

On completion of this trail of type two diabetes, one would come to see just how far this umbrella term can stretch.  But a last point to consider with the ice cream/gelato distinction is that this said same distinction exists in other places as well.  A walk down the frozen aisle of a US supermarket will yield a cornucopia of products, no two exactly alike.  A look to the packaging alone will illustrate many of the same distinctions mentioned previously; here one makes mention of being creamier than the cousin it shares a shelf with, there another makes mention of how this one is slow-churned, elsewhere the product made from fair trade and organic cocoa beans stands proudly along with its exorbitant price tag.

Gelato then, is something of a paradox.  While the name seems not to refer to anything that needs to be differentiated from ice cream, applying the label is not in any way false, it is simply replacing one vague signifier for another.  Certainly, the makers and marketers of gelato all over the US do much to add certain signifiers of Italianness, and many of the already ingrained preconceived notions of what ‘gelato is’, to the product – but as far as claims of legitimacy are concerned they could just as well not.

The term Panini[i] is the plural of the Italian word panino, being itself the diminutive form of the word pane, meaning bread.  Even in Italy the terms panino and panini have come to mean refer to sandwich and sandwiches, though both the Italian words have retained their residual meaning of ‘small bread’.  And just as we found with Ice Cream/Gelato, both sandwich and panino are rather vast umbrella terms.  The hiccup comes when considering the new word Panini, which does not function as an umbrella term in the English language but refers specifically to a determined variety of sandwich heated with a sandwich press, and filled with certain meat (usually salami, ham and mortadella) as well as cheese and vegetables.  This distinction is of course non-existent with the Italian counterpart; panini may be heated or not, pressed or not, and can in fact be plain pieces of small bread.

There is then a distinction between the ice cream/gelato case and the sandwich/panino/Panini case; and that is that the Panini is more rigidly defined.  The confusion here can be immense, though with the right mindset playful; a Rueben, a Cuban, a burger and a BLT are all sandwiches by American classification, panini by Italian classifications, but not ever Panini (and no one has any idea where a hotdog would fit into any of this).  Not everything that would be called a panino in Italy would be called a Panini in the United States, though everything called a Panini in the United States would be called a panino in Italy.

Gelato, as sold in the US, as well as Panini, exists mostly as marketing terms.  An ambitious and industrious individual, nostalgically fuelled by positive experience overseas, attempted to recreate what he considered to be the superior products he experienced there.  But to survive in an already competitive market of sandwiches and ice cream, a powerful distinction had to be made.  If one considers just how many places now sell gelato and Panini, it becomes clear just how successful this campaign has been.


[i] The appropriation of the term Panino into the English language has unfortunately created a lexical confusion that makes it difficult to discuss without a certain uncluttering of terms first.  The Italian terms are panino (singular diminutive of bread) and panini (plural diminutive of bread), while the English terms are Panini (singular) and paninis (plural).  For the purposes of distinguishing the plural Italian term from the singular English, in the above paragraph the English term is always capitalized.  

© Matthew Campanella 2014

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Ribbon of Victory

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Newspapers around the world today (9th May 2014) feature images of the Russian military at yesterday’s Victory Day parades displaying prominently, among other insignia, an orange and black ribbon on their tunics. This piece by Marina Simakova explains the historical and acute current significance of this symbol. (Editors)

St George ribbon – a piece of striped orange-black cloth – for many years has been a Russian symbol of military heroism. This started long ago at the end of the 18th century when The Order of St George, the highest military award, was established, and signified by the ribbon around the hero’s neck.   Later on it was attached to different kinds of awards named in honor of  St George, every time signifying bravery and courage. It is considered that the orange stripes symbolize flames of fire, while the black ones remind us of gun smoke.

In May 2005 the orange-black ribbon could be noticed on the streets in the hands of volunteers for the first time. They gave it free to anyone, who wanted to demonstrate that they honour memory of  World War II and want to express their respect for Russian veterans. The latter responded very positively to the idea of symbolically commemorating victory over the German invaders and the ribbon gained its extensive popularity across the country.  Every year a month or so before victory day (May 9th) thousands of ribbons have been distributed. People fix them on cars, bags, or jackets – or simply wore them around the wrist or in their hair.

In 2010 orange-black ribbons were sent to Russian embassies abroad and in 2011 a giant kite made of St George ribbon fabric was sent flying in the May sky as part of a flashmob event. However, despite its success, the meaning of St George ribbon is ambivalent, and there are people who choose not to wear it.  From the very beginning they found it to be undesirably ostentatious and a sign more of patriotic bravado than true homage to the victory or gratitude to the soldiers.  The was also a concern about the symbol being, on the one hand, commercialized, and on the other, actively used in ideological work of the state. What happened next is even more worrying.

GeorgeRibbonPacks

In December 2013, during the protests in Ukraine, the ribbon was used by pro-Russian activists and counter-revolutionary forces to differentiate themselves from others. This might be regarded as expressing a certain logic: in the period of World War II Russia and Ukraine still were united in one country, and its soldiers fought on the front line together. But this logic doesn’t consider the fact that the ribbon of St George is a shared symbol, a sort of mobile war memorial.  It constitutes inclusive collective memory and belongs to all who want to express their solidarity. Using the ribbon as a point of difference in a political standoff is simply unjust. The ribbon as an object, a mere thing, becomes an attribute of segregation and the ribbon as a symbolic figure extends its meaning. Lately on the territory of both Russia and Ukraine the ribbon has acquired rather fresh but often polarizing and negative connotations – from Slavic brotherhood to collaborationism, from tradition to reactionary and imperialistic views. Ukrainian nationalists invented a humiliating nickname for a ribbon – ‘coloradie’ and for those who wear it – ‘colorados’, as the orange-black color mix reminds them of a Colorado potato beetle.

GB_Manicure_Ad[1] copy

This example shows that once the sign becomes subject to chaotic exploitation, the gap between the signifier and the signified is filled in with contradictions, which may lead to alienation of the initial sense. And now, when the ribbon’s meaning is so procurable, it is of course, regrettably, getting heavily commercialized, while the effect of such marketing is rather unpredictable.

© Marina Simakova 2014

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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

 

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Diversity Act IV

Friday, April 4th, 2014

“And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at at them
And fishermen hold flowers”

(Bob Dylan, Desolation Row)

My three earlier Semionaut posts on Diversity were preparatory work for an article on “Diversity, Culture and Semiotics” subsequently published in the online version of ESOMAR’s Research World journal, which I link here as part 4.

ActIV.1

That piece includes a number of case studies first published in articles written with Michael Harvey, Hamsini Shivakumar, Katja Maggio-Muller and Marina Anderson and referenced in the bibliography. It also gave me the opportunity to acknowledge two decades of inspiration working in proximity to Steve Seth, who I first met at what was then known as The Added Value Company where we shared an office resembling a converted broom cupboard (‘converted’ in this instance being something of an exaggeration). My draft referred to Steve as ‘il miglior fabbro’, T.S. Eliot’s dedication to Ezra Pound in The Waste Land. I removed this in case anyone took my literary pretentiousness at face value rather than ironically.  Also because mentioning the anti-Semite Eliot and fascist Pound in a paper on diversity would be a bit like mentioning Baudelaire in the context of wellness-related consumer lifestyles or Toulouse Lautrec in relation to basketball.

Please don’t take that last remark as being in any way heightist – there is no such intention behind it. The only slight prejudice I’m feeling today (writing this in Spring at a cafe in Montmartre) is against the marginally shabby yet vaguely dandified French male of a certain age, the would-be flâneur, who still looks as if he left the house this morning dressed by a doting but mildly inebriated mother.  His authentically bohemian equivalent in Prague, with leather hat, waistcoat and pony tail, looks infinitely more robust and credible. You know what I’m talking about.

We already have some fascinating inputs for the impending co-created Act V of this sequence which will inspire a paper at the Shanghai Semiofest in May 2014.  Please keep them coming by email to editorial@semionaut.net  Here again is the briefing.

ActIV.2

The acknowledgment I finally arrived at for Steve Seth was friend in diversity and true global soul – The Global Soul, by Pico Iyer, still being one of the best introductions I know to the interplay of human commonality and all sorts of diversity today.

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

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Three Levels of Seeing

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

‘TRINARY VISION’ & EVERYDAY BUSINESS ETHICS AMONG INDIAN RETAILERS
 

I recently had occasion to interact closely with a number of wholesalers and retailers in textiles, a very old and established trade with business relationships going back three generations between textile mills and retailers.  I then used a semiotic perspective to analyse some of the discussions that had taken place with them on the phenomenon of knowingly selling fakes from their stores to their customers.

Trinary

 

 

I started by looking into the context of everyday business operations in India.  While there are laws, rules and regulations, actual business practice and everyday business ethics are more governed by social regulation.  By social regulation, I refer to the voice of social and community authority, viz, elders and the collective consensus on an issue as  to its ethical rightness or virtue.  Social regulation works through evoking three kinds of fears – divine retribution when the Gods are displeased, offending and hurting elders and thus inviting their wrath/ punishment and finally, offending the community, resulting in expulsion and exile.

Working every day within the context of social regulation, every businessman sees three levels of behaviors and practices in any given moment as being available to him.  These may alternatively be seen as three paths on which he can walk.  At the top one path is the path of virtue – virtue is also strongly linked to ideas of purity of intent/motive and non-self interested action taken vis-à-vis the other party involved in the deal.  While this is the zone typically assigned to saints and mystics, even business people are capable of acting at this level.  Those who do so command a huge level of spiritual power and moral authority over their fellow business-people.  For the sake of alliterative labeling, we can call this the zone or path of purity.

At the next level or second path is the zone/path of pragmatism and permission.   This route evolves through a collective consensus among the members of the local community and it refers to the extent of permissible deviation from the path of virtue.  In the case of fakes, it could be the extent of stock that retailers would carry of fabrics with a fake ‘Made in Italy’ label that are actually manufactured in China or elsewhere.  When they sell this stock, they knowingly mislead the customer that they are selling them fabric that they present as being genuinely made in Italy, when it is not.  Or it could be to do with the extent of dilution of a quality standard in manufacture.  As long as they stay within the ‘permissible’ range as understood through collective consensus, they have safety in numbers and they know their fellow business people will not lose respect for them.  Also, they are not compromising their longer term agenda or reputation as good people to do business with – either among customers or among the business community.

At the bottom the third path is the zone of villainy.  Acting from this zone or walking on this path will surely invite curses (gaalis in colloquial Hindi) and calumny from fellow business people.  Actions in this zone would include resorting to out and out cheating, violence, threats, treachery, blackmail, reneging on agreements (not necessarily the contract in its legal details) as well as reneging on financial dues and settlements.  When a business man acts from this zone, he has either compromised his ethics beyond repair or is risking doing so.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik in his book, “Business Sutra – a Very Indian Approach to Management” also makes reference to this simultaneous seeing of three levels of action choices.  He describes the three levels as Bhagawan, Deva and Asura.  Asura (which loosely translates as a demon) signifies actions that arise from the zone of villainy.  Deva (which loosely translates as a B-level God) indicates actions arise from the zone of awareness.  Bhagawan (which loosely translates as a truly Divine being) signifies actions that arise from the zone of a higher spiritual being.  Bhagawan actions are those that are worthy of emulation and worship.

The Indian Eye often sees presence and absence in objects, entities and phenomena not just in terms of dualities or binaries but as ‘trinaries’.  They could be three columns (parallel vertical paths to walk on) or three levels (parallel horizontal paths to climb up from level to level).  The eye spots the co-existence of A, B and C as three distinct possibilities in the same realm.  So, in the realm of ethics, there is the co-existence of God-like, Human and Demonic behaviors.  In other cases, the hybrid of A & B is seen as a distinct path in itself.  For example people may be solo Christians, solo Hindus and hybrids – also worship in Churches while following a specific Hindu God or a Sufi Saint.  They can be strict vegetarians, strict non-vegetarians and hybrids – vegetarians at home while being meat-eating outside the home.  There are combinations that are valued as a valid third element e.g. sweet-sour, bitter-sweet.  There is a valid space for ambiguity, the grey zone, the ‘third-way’, the ‘nuances and shades’.  The eye sees all three as valid vs. seeing the third as a negotiated compromise or a dialectic synthesis of hard oppositions, viz operating from a binary vision?

Does this simultaneous ‘trinary’ vision call for the development of additional tools of semiotic analysis specifically applicable to some forms of categorization in Indian culture?  Looking beyond Indian culture to global culture, the growth of the internet, social media, gaming and digital interfaces are blurring the lines between real and virtual and creating a third zone that exists simultaneously.  The development of robotics and artificial intelligence is doing something similar to the human and machine binary.   Has the time then come for a new semiotics of the ‘trinary’?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

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Word Pairs

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

WORD PAIRS – CONCEPTS OF CONNECTION VS. CONCEPTS OF DIFFERENCE

Effective cross-cultural semiotic analysis ought to reflect the diversity of cultures.  It is now accepted even among psychologists that there is no universal and standardized human psychology, rather individual and group psychology is itself hugely influenced by culture.  The American psycho-analyst Alan Roland wrote about his experiences and theorized a different model of the self for his Indian and Japanese patients vis-à-vis his American patients.  Richard Nisbett in his book, the Geography of Thought provides ‘research study-based’ evidence of the differences in perception between Americans and Chinese.  And Devdutt Pattanaik, Indian mythologist draws attention to the differences between the core belief systems underpinning Western, Chinese and Indian thought.

How might this perspective be applied to developing new semiotic tools for India/other Asian cultures?

One of the key principles of the semiotic analysis of meaning is the idea of difference and how that difference is dealt with, to create meaning.  The distinctions of ‘is” vs. “is not” and “oppositions and contradictions” is a key part of the way semioticians analyze concepts and ideas to arrive at territories of meaning.

However, there is another way to look at binaries and that is through the lens of presence-absence for a sense of completion of meaning.  The central idea here is of “completion” that goes with pairs of inter-twined entities.  One cannot exist without the other.  Both must be viewed together for the meaning to result.  The separation of one from the other, distorts the meaning.  To understand the essence, they must be viewed and understood in the pair, so deeply are the concepts inter-woven and inter-twined.  The underlying cultural code here is not that of individuality or autonomy but of essential dependence and co-existence.  It arises from a relational definition of society and culture vs. a transactional and contractual definition of society and culture.  Separation would create a feeling of tremendous loss and desolation, not a celebration of individuality.

HS1

For e.g. in Hindi, there is a central idea of a “Jodi” or pair.  Jodis would be concepts such as husband-wife, father-mother, brother-sister, hero-villain, sidekick-hero, master-servant, politician-media (recent), food-drink (khana-peena), hardware-software etc.   The central premise can be extended to a range of entities.  Is a city possible without citizens?  Can a movie Star be a Star without a multitude of fans?  Hindi pairs:  pati-patni, mata-pita, bhai-behen, raja-praja, guru-shishya.

Applying this thinking to defining category meanings would imply that even though the product categories that are bought and sold are objects, they should be viewed and understood by combining them inextricably with the users who have the closest relationship with the object.  To illustrate, cars are not cars without drivers (though new driverless high-tech cars are on the design table) and medicines are meaningless without doctors/healers/medicine men.  A semiotic study on the category meaning of cancer treatments would start by looking at cancer drugs and oncologists together or at doctor-cancer sufferer as the single and complete entity rather than separating the patient, the cancer, the doctor and the medicine into separate entities that are placed in varying individual positions with respect to one another.

Could the consideration of inter-twined pairs be a new tool added to the semiotic tool box for Indian and Asian markets?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

 

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Short List – Taras

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Every day millions of people all around the world use railway transport. For many passengers taking a train is an everyday routine, since some simply commute day to day  to/from work, others must travel as a part of their job etc. However at the same time for many of us taking a train is perhaps not such an ordinary experience. Imagine a student on a train finally returning home after a semester of study abroad, or maybe grandparents paying a visit to their (grand)children in a far away megalopolis, or just a tourist who had to save money for a number of years in order to travel around Europe with hop-on hop-off rail pass. For all of them taking a train becomes THE travel experience – in some sense unusual & promising, for some perhaps even a bit nostalgic.

On the other side of the fence – in the world of rail companies – it is all about constant, sometimes even aggressive, competition for passengers. And such state of affairs is not surprising, because the rail operator success formula is relatively easy (and obviously not very unique) – bigger passenger flow brings higher profits. That is the reason why each and every rail company tries to search for the best ways and channels to communicate with their potential passengers, to persuade you and me to use their services.

 Language and Codes of Argumentation

If only a few decades ago railways had more or less monopolistic position in a niche of passenger logistics, nowadays they have to fight with aviation (especially low-cost airlines), bus companies and private auto transport which all, just like mushrooms after the rain, became widely spread over recent decades. As result the first line of combat is about the fight between trains and other modes of transportation. In this battlefield rail companies usually fight together, on a sort of joint front, while sharing a common discourse. Their language of argumentation gets constantly perfected and as of nowadays usually includes:

a) An argument of eco-friendliness. Trains being presented as more energy-efficient (per passenger) and polluting far less compared to airplanes and cars.  The slogan “go green – take a train” (or such like) can be found in the arsenal of almost all rail companies. Probably one of the best examples here is the EuroStar Group (running high-speed trains from London to Paris & Brussels), among the first heavily relying on environmental efficiency topics.

b) City-to-city easy access with no hassle. Historically train stations tend to be located in city centers, thus taking a train promises passenger departure and arrival to the city center, no need to travel to the distant airport, spend time for check-in, security checks and other air travel related nuisances. The overall practicality of choosing rail transport is widely stressed.

c) The promise of comfort. Traditionally train seats (and especially berths) tend to be more spacious and comfortable compared to bus or airplane seating. Train passengers also can always easily stroll around the carriage, stretch, visit the dining car etc.

d) Beyond just transportation. Rail companies tend to advertise scenic views from the train window as something totally different than clouds seen through plane windows or highways with cars passing by. Train passengers are often promised to expect spectacular scenery. Probably the most successful examples of such branding of train trip can be seen from Swiss private railways running touristic trains (Glacier Express, Bernina Express and the like). Rail journeys just for the sake of enjoying picturesque natural beauty.

e)     Old-fashioned charm. The globalized world is usually about speed and air travel, so rail operators came up with a sort of contrasting idea to sell – the train journey portrayed as something refreshingly traditional. The passenger is offered not just a ticket from destination A to destination B, but the experience of the journey. An experience like a trip taken from a movie script of the old film or a diary of someone who travelled on the late 19th century Orient Express.

 Branding Unique Experience

The general argumentation behind taking a train is obviously only a tip of an iceberg, basically a shared visible ‘flag’. While at the end it inevitably comes to promoting only your company or your train, and here examples and possibilities are definitely much more diverse.

NTV-NOLA070

http://www.flickr.com/photos/trenoitalo/6652720499/sizes/m/in/photostream/

For instance just last year Italy witnessed an arrival to the domestic market of the new private rail company Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV). One of the main shareholders in the company was well-known Luca di Montezemolo (Chairman of the Ferrari Company). NTV’s initial project was to introduce totally novel high-speed train service (brand ITALO) between major Italian cities and, obviously owing to the persona of di Montezemolo, the new trains received the nickname ‘Ferrari of the Railyards’. Keywords like ‘Ferrari train’ appeared in the reports of all the major media (CNN, Spiegel, The Guardian, Forbes etc.) describing the new rail service. Italo trains were almost instantly praised for the level of comfort and service never seen in Italy before. As result nowadays even ordinary passengers, and especially visitors from abroad, would refer to the NTV rail service as being associated with the Ferrari brand. And definitely in this case the reference to Ferrari is rather symbolic and brings along quite obvious connotations and meanings favorable for the company exploiting such branding. However the funniest thing in this story is that NTV-Italo trains actually have almost nothing to do with Ferrari (maybe besides the choice of color and the persona of di Montezemolo). They were produced by French transport corporation Alstom. But does it really matter if NTV managers can maintain the Ferrari connotations?

Red Arrow

http://periskop.livejournal.com/464165.html

Another case concerns a train from the other side of the European continent – USSR/Russia. Probably almost everybody who lived or traveled by rail in USSR/Russia will know about the famous Red Arrow train from Moscow to Leningrad/St.Petersburg. It is a case where one particular train became a brand and an easily recognizable symbol. For a start, all the carriages of the train historically were painted in a unique dark-red livery, plus every carriage has the name of the train written on the side, so that anybody who sees this train even from a distance will be able to recognize it  (a sort of Jakobson’s visual sign denoting a particular train). Secondly, the Red Arrow train has a rather symbolic train number – 001/002, in a way symbolizing importance (i.e. being the first) of rail connections between two Russian capitals. Thirdly, during the departure of the train a special song is played throughout the station, so it is not just about livery, color or number, but also about auditory signification – letting everybody know that it’s time for the departure of train #1.

There are dozens of examples from all over the world illustrating rail companies’ deliberate branding of some of their products (like a particular train or high-speed service), branding which in a way creates a recognizable symbol, a sort of assurance of the very special travel experience a passenger will get the minute he or she boards the train. So next time you plan to travel by train make sure you pay attention not just to your ticket and departure time, but to a ‘story behind your train.

© Taras Boyko

 

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Short List – Matthew

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

PLACES, COGNITION AND ADVERTS

If advertising were a singularly effective form of communication, opinions about products and services would be homogenous across the audiences that viewed the advert.  This does not seem to be the case; likely because there are forces (in the form of opinions) working outside/against those very adverts.  Advertising must constantly work to combat these outside forces in order to homogenize the opinions of the audiences it works on.  The place where we can vividly see this at work is in tourism advertising.  This is because it is in consideration of places that people, for better or worse, tend to have and hold a largely monotone opinion – a sort of synthesis of various opinions and stereotypes that one collects when exposed to information of that place.

Very often advertisers of place must combat this barrage of negative opinions.  We can imagine that in light of the recent knot of political circumstances the country has been in, it would be very hard for any marketer of place to create an effective campaign for Afghanistan, despite the fact that (surely!) the country must have a certain degree of natural beauty and charm to it.  Such a person would have to create an advertising campaign that in some respect could combat all the negative associations of that place; near ten years of war, a link to terrorism, a key component of the opium trade, internal strife, and very oppressive members of their society.  This extreme example very clearly illustrates the problem in marketing place, but what about a potential solution?

Italy has not in the recent years held the countries that formed Yugoslavia in highest regards.  It might be that the proximity allowed Italians to witness the worst of the eastern bloc without being in it, or it might be that the very same proximity brought many Yugoslavian immigrants to Italian shores.  How this came about is not terribly relevant; what is to the point is that Italians still associate some of the countries with that rather bleak period of their history.  It is sad to say, but to a certain extent the rather vivid memory of Tito and ethnic tension still lingers in the memory of many Italians.  Such opinions disregard how very much those countries have changed since 1991.  It is the responsibility of these countries and more specifically of the marketers of place responsible for the tourism therein, to attempt to change the opinions therein.

Fiume

Carnival at Rijeka, Croatia, spectators included

Let us for a moment consider just a few opening shots of a video that, although not geared specifically towards Italians, is still used to promote Croatia to an Italian audience.  The video is in fact a part of Croatia’s official Italian language tourism page.  The video begins in a rather straightforward manner; a few opening shots of the sea by which many tourists will arrive; the very same sea, we are shown through the images of people in seemingly traditional dresses working on boats, that seems important to a Croatian identity.  It is interesting to note the presence of a white and black stripped shirt; an object often associated with Venetian gondoliers.  We are soon shown the eagle’s eye view of the city, and from their we know we have arrived.  The next shot show a gate, presumably a city gate, opening to release a group of tourists.  It is at this scene where the video becomes rather interesting, for it continues to follow this group of tourists around as they explore Croatia.  This is a splitting from a normal stylistic point of tourism advertising.  Normally in tourism adverts tourists are expunged completely; in that people consider tour groups to be a nuisance in real life, in most brochures and commercials they are either removed or kept to a minimum as not to detract attention from the monuments which are meant to be exhibited. In fact, much of the rest of this commercial has the figures of tourists expunged in a similar manner.  As an occasional alternative, certain tourism commercial will prominently feature one tourist from whom the viewer can, for those few seconds, live a brief vicarious vacation meant to form an appetite for that place.  This, however, is different; the next few shots are littered with dozens of tourists engaging in what are very obviously tourist activities.  For the most part, they herd around in groups and take pictures of monuments.  So if the conventional wisdom argues that the opposite should be done, why has Croatia chosen to do this?

The answer would appear to be to convince the viewer that Croatia is indeed a place where a multitude of tourists visit.  Showing the city devoid of people would perhaps showcase the beauty of the city and its monuments in a certain light, but it would as well make it seem abandoned and thus somewhat eerie.  This of course would not be a very good marketing point.  Doing it instead in this manner showcases the liveliness – and at the same time showcases the safety – of tourism in Croatia.  When a person cognizes a place it is difficult for them to do such in any form that resembles a totality.  Places, complex as they are, do not sum up easily; thus a person is obliged to think through the catalogue of opinions she or he may have of a place.  For this reason, it becomes rather beneficial for the marketers of place to constantly insert new and fresh opinions into a cultural understanding.  This both widens the catalogue of impressions a person may have of a place while perhaps diluting away the negative understandings that have been unfortunately maintained throughout the years.  What the advertisers of Croatia have done in the commercial done is beneficial; in a country that still tends to bear the burden of an unpleasant recently history, such a demonstration seems absolutely necessary.  The effort is certainly laudable.

© Matthew Campanella

 

 

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Semionaut Award Winner 2014 – Hannah

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

 

IS THIS HEAVEN? REFLECTIONS ON BARTHES AND FACEBOOK

It was before Photography that men had the most to say about the vision of the double. Heautoscopy was compared with an hallucinosis; for centuries this was a great mythic theme. But today it is as if we repressed the profound madness of Photography.[1]
                                                     Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1980)

 Never before could we see ourselves at a distance so accurately until photography. Seeing double was a great gestalt and heautoscopy was a great mythic theme that has since subsided with the rise of the photographic image. Barthes wrote Camera Lucida a hundred years after the rise of photography and now, in 2013, mirror images of the world and of ourselves are everywhere. Second Life boasts actual avatars while Facebook is more popular and heavily relies on photography. Perhaps now that the Internet and social media have taken photography to new heights, “the vision of the double” as myth should rise out of repression. The “profound madness” of photography graduated into a mere age of appropriation with its mythic heritage extraordinarily passé. However, Barthes’ admonition is just as powerful in today’s image-based culture.

HoelGraphic

Facebook

 Facebook launched in 2004 as a reservoir of digital people—essentially doppelgängers. A year ago, there were just under a billion Facebook users.[2] That’s a lot of phantom images and biographical info that contribute to this online analogue.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder, stated a rather jarring proclamation: “You have one identity […] The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly […] Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”[3]

Facebook has become a necessary evil. Those with the most integrity refrain from the social network altogether. Zuckerberg’s idea of branding the person may be the modern way but this does not disarm Zuckerberg flipping what is madness into its opposite, a mark of integrity. It’s no secret that those not so discerning (myself included) give something away when we use it. “I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing.”[4] Everybody knows we are posing. What we give away is more than biographical information and family photos. It is the stuff of family albums. We all know that it is “imaginary” but we don’t just lend ourselves to the social game, we place our lives in an open market, making them incredibly vulnerable.

I depend on Facebook for evidence. A moment happens and if it’s not there amongst the relationship statuses, events, and photos, did it happen? “No doubt it is metaphorically that I derive my existence from the photographer,” writes Barthes, who admits his metaphor but where he nonetheless experiences “the anguish of an uncertain filiation.” An unknown person is prying and will use the tentacles of my (profound) self as bait. Facebook and real life are too often mutually informative, making Barthes’ use of ‘metaphorically’ wrought with slippage.

Zuckerberg’s admonition that we should all have only one identity is absurd and illogical. I funnel a portion of me online, my “one identity” by siphoning off myself into the Internet where it sits like a phantom limb, “but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from any effigy.”[5]

Facebook presents a completely schizophrenic paradigm: a digital medley meant to comprise a whole, the newest gestalt: biographical statistics, thoughts, geographical locations, media, the timeline, and of course photographs and selfies—all meant to comprise my singular identity while hopefully safeguarding my profound self.

Death by Instagram

 Instagram (bought by Facebook) places me into historical context as if I belonged there. Twenty vintage hazes offer my everyday digital images the antiquated appeal of the good old days—back when we used film and color saturation faded from time. Instagram mocks today’s nostalgic longing by suggesting that we are all old souls and that our quotidian snapshots were already remembered and safeguarded as familial relics—just as our grandparents were. Facebook may be mad but it’s lost its sincerity, making it less virile to our psyches. Instagram barely clings to sincerity, mythologizing our image in the way a painting once could.

The camera trespasses upon the living and the photograph lingers as a ruin. In a search for something authentic, the Millennials made themselves more dead—the photograph with a vintage haze. Furthermore, a posed photograph boasts the anticipating subject, one who opts for paralysis. By these terms, today’s selfies are none other than metaphorical public suicides.

Facebook’s white glow, timeline, news feed, and updates volunteer the artifice of life while the “home” button is a click away, a digital Oz. Is this heaven?

© Hannah Hoel

 

Footnotes

[1] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. 12-13. Print.

[2] Yung-Hui, Lim. “1 Billion Facebook Users On Earth: Are We There Yet?.” Forbes. 9 30 2012: n. page. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

[3] Zimmer, Michael. “Facebook’s Zuckerberg:”Having Two Identities For Yourself is an Example of a Lack of Integrity”.” 14 05 2010: n. page. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. 

[4] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. 11-12. Print.

 [5]Ibid.

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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.

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Semionaut Award Shortlist

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

We start publishing in this coming week the shortlisted essays contesting the Semionaut Award in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding. Fascinating work has been submitted by applicants variously located around the world and of many different nationalities.  The judges’ panel considers those you will see before the winner is announced as standing out in the context of competition as a whole. We will publish other commended pieces later.

Watch out for a range of topics from how photographs signify in the context of social media, to the contradictory cultural nuances of Lady Gaga, to selling Croatia as a tourist destination. We also have pieces on trains, cityscapes and advertising campaigns for eco awareness which, coincidentally, hit on two paradigms of special interest to biosemioticians at the moment – to represent nature as something people can observe as if from outside versus nature as something in which we are inextricably implicated.

Big thanks indeed to everybody involved, shortlisted or not, for your impressive contributions and for your enthusiastic interest.

The 2014 Semionaut Award is sponsored by Space Doctors.

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Diversity Act I

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Act I: Diversity Meets the Semiotic Monkey

When I’m training people in commercial semiotics I use as an imaginary prop a character called the Semiotic Monkey, who sits on your shoulder and lets you be the virtual consumer or sample cultural superbeing to whom he has total telepathic access.  So while you walk around being your normal self – interacting, working, playing, falling in love, getting cross, running your culture’s cognitive, communicational, behavioural and prejudicial software – the Monkey looks on dispassionately gathering data, doing pattern recognition, thinking about theory, being relatively objective about the things you tend to get worked up about, and scratching her/his fleas.

I say ‘her/his’ because your own Semiotic Monkey can be configured as you will in terms of gender, ethnicity, cultural orientation etc. and in essence is inherently and ineradicably diverse, defined by inbuilt difference in motion rather than static unitary identity – in all things, as in its defining sexual preferences, Bonobo-like by virtue of an enthused (not to say crazed) plurality of tastes and practices.

As an expert in meaning, connotation, context (Hamsini Shivakumar, citing conceptual sources deep in Hindu culture, calls context “the meaning behind the meaning”) and in culture itself, the Semiotic Monkey is naturally drawn to the word ‘diversity’ today.  Diversity, like sustainability, is one of those resonant abstractions that capture the flavour of our times. Rarely heard in everyday usage 10 years ago it’s a word, in polite company, we all now have to at least pretend we understand.

It is a term with wide-ranging connotations which tend, on most occasions, to be emotionally charged because diversity sits on an ideological fault line (or, across cultures, a variety of them). For an instinctive conservative, an aficionado of tradition and clear-cut identities, talk of diversity can trigger anti-liberal and anti-PC warning lights. These in turn prompt a girding of the loins to combat perceived social evils such as out of control immigration, people being encouraged to say ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’, or the spread of same sex marriage. As I write an anti-EC UKIP (Independence Party) politician has been holding the spread of gay marriage responsible for the divine retribution visited on the British in the floods and storms that ravaged the land like a plague at the end of 2013. While others, of course, are more inclined to attribute this to climate change or the notorious vagaries of the weather in this part of the world.

SemioticMonkey2

Conversely the d-word becomes a rallying call for tolerance, openness, equality, community and collaboration – for a warm liberal construction of humanity. An anthropologist from planet Zog would need only to search ‘diversity’ on Google Images to download that chunk of our global cultural software instantly. Try it, but don’t OD on benevolence and goodwill – and may the exercise help you on your personal journey towards effective cliché management.

Locally that visual and verbal language of positive diversity will have, at any point in time, its own rash of bugbears. In UK as I write media are engaging variously with: a need for affirmative action to recruit black and minority ethnic (BME) officers to restore balance to a police force increasingly seen to be out of tune with the communities it serves; the Liberal Democrats’ apologies to female party workers alleging sexual harassment over a number of years by a senior organization figure, Lord Rennard; a premiership football’s team’s sponsor withdrawing its financial support because of a supposedly anti-Semitic celebratory gesture by French striker Nicolas Anelka; and President Putin’s assurances, ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics, that it’s not gay people themselves the Russian authorities object to (in English ‘gay’ is semantically a fascinating signifier to unpack) but the activity of  promoting homosexuality among young people.

It’s a sign of how times change that this ‘promoting homosexuality’ argument, now decoded by UK media as a sign of a culturally neanderthal homophobia in Russia, was itself deployed by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s in Section 28 of the Local Government Act designed to combat the activities of teachers intent on upholding diversity (or whatever they called it in those days) as an alternative to institutional heterosexism in schools. I felt at the time that the Thatcher regime may have been secretly getting a little warm under the collar about school teachers and polytechnic lecturers in places like Camden and Islington having plans to try to make homosexuality compulsory. They had to be crushed by any means, as did the miners. One great Margaret Thatcher myth was that of the greengrocer’s daughter, with all the sentimental petit bourgeois ideological baggage that entailed. If we perpetuate that unitary myth in any form today we overlook a great diversity opportunity to also acknowledge that Mrs Thatcher was the property developer’s wife and the arms dealer’s mother.

All this is just in the last few days, a fraction of the corpus that would need to be looked at for a current semiotic and cultural analysis of the diversity theme in UK media alone – with Nelson Mandela’s funeral and its reprise of history still recent news, trials in progress in the background of once loved TV and radio personalities for sexual abuse committed many years ago when standards were evidently perceived less stringently than they are today (is a future time imaginable when paedophilia will be normalized again, perhaps as part of positive diversity, as it was in classical Greek culture?). And the arrival of blockbusting Hollywood movie 12 Years a Slave directed by black Briton Steve McQueen. Why do black British actors have to go to America to succeed? Why aren’t they being spotted by the BBC. for example? Are their parents sending them to the wrong schools by any chance? Could they perhaps be exercising their freedom of choice in education a little more responsibly?

Meanwhile still in the background there rumble on in the Anglican Church, that relic of an earlier imperial phase of globalization, corrosive debates around the ordination of female or gay priests and bishops that stretch to near breaking point the ideological bonds that can link places as diverse as the West coasts of Africa and the United States through the historical mediation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To say nothing of Islamophobia or what’s coming out of the Roman Catholic woodwork, the discussion around holding the Church and its sexually predatory priests accountable, and compensating their victims.. Who knows ultimately the truth behind any of this diverse traffic of culture and semiosis?  Not the Semiotic Monkey, that’s for sure. He observes, reports, keeps an open mind.

Act II will follow shortly

© Malcolm Evans 2014

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Day-Glo Love RIP

Friday, January 17th, 2014

DayGlo1

I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, IT’S JUST THAT THE ANTIPODES ARE EMERGING FROM SOMETHING OF A FLUORESCENCE FEST; a cavorting carnival of day-glo where, around every corner, something harmfully orange or green lies in wait to colourfully mug you.  But, scratching beneath the surface, this brash urban grammar is semiotically rich. Ramrodded into a semiotic square, it might look something like this:

DayGlo2

OFFLINE NOTORIETY:  With the likes of Tumblr elevating fashions and personalities out of obscurity, fluoro is the offline equivalent.  Just as night athletes and workmen leverage fluorescent strips to achieve high vis standout, and a highlighter pen is used to illuminate valuable text, fluorescent fashion and goods yield instant personal notoriety in a culture that is saturated with aesthetic noise. A little bit loud, a little bit lary.  This power of saliency was recently exploited by Australian Aboriginal artist, Reko Rennie, who covered the façade of a prominent Sydney building with the traditional geometric markings of the Gadigal people.  Using a strikingly fluorescent colour palette he defiantly foregrounded the issue of Aboriginal land rights and more broadly re-illuminated the ongoing suppression of Australia’s first people.  Widespread embrace of fluoro by youth may also reflect a generational chink in the armour of Antipodean Tall Poppy culture.  A recognition in youth circles that individualism, entrepreneurialism or overt displays of success no longer contravene the right to belong.   Here fluoro codes a kind of collective individualism.

DayGlo3

MANIFESTO:  The conspicuous absence of fluorescence from classical art (to be fair, fluorescent paint was only conceived in the 1930s), and its growing incorporation into the contemporary scene (e.g. Archibald prize winner, Adam Cullen’s controversial work) highlights the power of day-glo to disrupt convention and to earmark acts of transgression.  This is rooted in a historical association between fluoro and rebellion: 90s rave party glow sticks, the death-head lunatics in Batman Forever and the anarchic punk of Rubella Ballet, all delivering fat doses of day-glo and inciting us to rise up in the urban malaise.  In this light, fluoro is a handy visual mantra for youth agitators, serving as muse, catalyst and weapon.  In rude health, an orange fluoro blouse phatically arrests the gaze of innocent bystanders and, on a good day, conatively precipitates protest (averting the eyes, mental scorn, polite tutting, wild sarcasm …).  This consolidates the wearer’s role as outlaw and plots them in opposition to conservative aesthetes, critics and would be oppressors.

DayGlo4IRREPRESSIBLE VIBRANCY & A MATURING RELATIONSHIP WITH REALNESS:  The sheer visual physicality of fluorescence – its uncompromising capacity to excite the eye – can also lend brands and consumers brutal cut through in an era where bland Apple minimalism and the dull, earthy tones of the organic and real food movements dominate the aesthetic register.  Shopping for natural or healthier alternatives in the supermarket, we’ve been bogged in a pious quagmire of squalid browns, reproachfully scratchy cardboards and the wiry evil of burlap (a hair shirt for your sins?).  However, brands like Kiehl’s and Nudie successfully leverage fluorescence as an index (and icon) of the vitality of nature, transmuting some of its raw photosynthetic power or feel-good emotional vibrancy.  Emitting radiation (light) at a higher frequency (energy) than that absorbed, fluoro packs literally bombard the eye whilst promising to wake us up with a natural burst of energy.  In the wake of brands like these, the discourse of natural emergently shifts from atonement, renunciation and miserliness to exuberance, vitality and abundance.  Fluoro packaging has a semiotic field day, symbolising rebellion against the worthy brown dogma, whilst channelling its alternative via mimicry and direct action.

DayGlo6

PRO-ACTIVITY & BLINDING OPTIMISM:  The earlier onset of fluoro culture in New Zealand relative to Australia mirrors the economic gap between the two nations.  Hit harder by the latest wave of economic turmoil, New Zealand youth appropriated fluorescence en masse as a symbol of counter-cultural optimism and proactivity in a climate of fiscal nay saying.  Fluorescent goods helped them to summon the playfulness, excess and abandon of 80s day-glo fashion or the gay naivety of fluoro kids toys, carving out an emotional solace beneath dark economic clouds.  Merchants also got in on the act by daubing shop fronts and interiors with day-glo paint, unwittingly evoking corporate neon signage that blazes from the high rises of urban power centres; a message of economic might to quell consumer jitters.  

DayGlo5CHROMO SOLIDARITY:  Social media has undeniably fractured the consumer landscape, empowering a degree of personal experimentation that was hitherto inaccessible to the herd.  An infinity of digital blogs feed a kaleidoscope of hyper-personalised pursuits: from tea ceremony to dogging.  But fluorescence entered this heavily splintered world and brought a lick of agreement.  Appropriated by legions of youth, fluoro fast became a signifier of tribal solidarity, not dissimilar perhaps to the visual language of bioluminescent jellyfish.  Summoning a heady mix of optimism, transgression and unabashed playfulness, day-glo love united a generation coming of age.

© Rob Engels 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Pretty in Scarlet

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

While having the reputation of a timeless classic in the Western world, red lipstick was considered outdated by Russian females for a long time.  But new generations grow and times change. According to street fashion pictures and cutting edge beauty blogs, red lipstick has been getting back in fashion. However, unlike the 1920s (the triumphal age of red lipstick) a woman with scarlet lips is not trying to convey the image of a femme fatale. Hip youngsters combine it with old-school eyeglasses and skinny jeans and manage to maintain the status quo of  infantile Millennials. What’s behind this emergent trend?

A kiss from the USSR

 Red is a well-recognized colour of communism and the Great Socialistic Revolution – it has a very strong cultural legacy

• The younger generation (18-24) tends to romanticize the Soviet period as an epoch of utopia that they’ve heard a lot about but never consciously witnessed

• Young people’s attraction to the the utopian ideals in Russia matches the Western vintage mania and this combination results in imaginative nostalgia

• Being a reference to the Soviet past, red lipstick has become a clear symbol of this artificially created nostalgic play

RedLipstick2

Reverse femininity

• The traditional idea of femininity is based on tender (in most cases pinkish) shades and is rooted in such image attributes as modesty and fragility. This is determined by the submissive character of a woman in patriarchal Russian society

• Red lipstick is connected with the active role of a woman and at the same time is a typical womanish attribute: unlike neutral make-up it doesn’t make women closer to men to demonstrate the gender equality. On the contrary, it becomes a manifesto of the female identity without connotations of submissive femininity

• Gradually and slowly the role of a woman in a modern society shifts, and red lipstick becomes a statement of emancipation and independence

Passive aggressive

• Spending their teenage years in a time of relative stability and booming consumption, younger urban females are the children of plentitude. Satisfied with their life opportunities, younger Millennial girls were never forced to become go-getters and are rather passive in their social communication

• Looking prominent and aggressive, red lipstick enables young females to beat their fear of going unnoticed and increases their self-confidence

• Red lipstick is a code of libertinism and sexuality. Consumers feel no longer obliged to act and to speak: red lipstick speaks for them and reveals their desire to participate in dialogue with the opposite sex

RedLipstick3

Opposing the dominant ‘natural’ trend

• The natural look is a dominant beauty trend, recalled by the vast majority of female consumers and socially approved due to its neutrality

• Unlike previous generations, for whom communal ideas (and social approval) were always much more important than personal preferences, young females see themselves as individuals and look for the instruments to communicate their unique choice to the public

• Young beauty trendsetters, who are especially driven by the idea of distinctiveness and WOW-factor potential, want to oppose the popular conventions of natural make-up and choose exactly the opposite

In  conclusion and in summary, the red lipstick trend is determined by relatively new need states relevant to leading edge female consumers, the younger representatives of Generation Y.  Though showing some similarities to their Western peers, Russian youngsters are special. The particular character of their consumption drivers is obviously rooted in Russian culture and local specifics. These include such phenomena as utopian imagination, the shift in gender roles, and an individualism which, in contrast with an earlier generation of go-getters, combines for Millennial girls with a new kind of passivity.

© Marina Simakova 2013

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Semionaut Award

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

The editorial team is pleased to announce the Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding.

The winner will receive a prize, sponsored by UK based marketing semiotics consultancy 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, with deadline for entrants of 30th November 2013.

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 fresh 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 market research 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.

If you are a potential candidate for the Semionaut Award  please email awards@semionaut.net for the rules and registration.

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Experts & Agencies, Network, 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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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

Beauty Serums

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

 

Serums have become the new elixir of beauty. Almost every brand has a serum product and they seem to be the staple of many a beauty regime. The semiotics of serums reveals a very skilful blend of semantic, packaging and product formulation codes. Serums tend to retail for over £30 for a tiny bottle, so how do the manufacturers justify the high price point? I would argue that it is a combination of factors.

First the semantics of the word serum itself is replete with positive connotations. It is a word that sounds smooth, it is onomatopoeic in the way that vindicates Jacobson’s critique of Saussure’s contention that all language is arbitrary. The sibilant ‘se’ leads into the cossetting cosiness of the ‘rum’, sumptuous to pronounce and to countenance.

Secondly, serums play upon the two sides to the beauty industry. On the one hand there is the perpetuation, and petrification of good looks. On the other side there is the fight against the onslaught of attrition, derma-abrasion and of course anno domini too.

So the positioning of the serum is essentially Janus faced. It promises to immortalize your beauty via the alchemy of the mythical elixir on the one hand. The clues are in the brand names of Elixir, Immortelle, Forever Young and Ageless. The truth of this proposition is reinforced by the idea of a truth serum, something that forces us to be sincere and the connotative links between beauty and truth traced back to Platonism and notions of Platonic forms – serums, it is insinuated help you access this deep ontology of truth.

On the other hand, serums are also a form of vaccine, or an anti-serum used for inoculation. In the case of serums on the market they are inoculating against the disease of decay and entropy. These underlying discourses are reinforced by the packaging codes in the sector. Serum packs tend to emphasize the preciousness and daintiness of the products as beauty unguents but also stress the concentrated nature of the contents, as if nutritional value had been crammed in with geological force. Serums are the royal jelly or caviar of the beauty world and packaging cues this in spades.

Analysis of serums packaging is as indebted to design thinking as to semiotic thinking. Serum packs draw upon such tricks as symmetry, golden ratio, contour bias and emotional design in order to attract customers and to buttress the high price point. There is also a subliminal link between miniaturization and premium technological efficiency that is coded through designs. As research pioneer Louis Cheskin discovered, customers tend to transfer the forms and meanings they encounter in packs to expectations of the contents. This is more important as ever more time poor consumers ruthlessly scan shelves for brands that catch their attention.

There is much to admire in serum packaging Just in terms of outward sculptural form serum product packs brands inflect category codes in a plethora of ways, some borrow from the perfume, food or technology categories or mimic objets d’arts. If you are a ‘pack rat’ (as they say in the US) or just fetishize packaging, then you’ll want to feast your eyes on some of these examples above. These packs are not prototypical of the category norm but I think do represent the variety and the imagination placed within this category. They are also a good showcase of why the siren call of beauty serums has been answered to such lucrative effect.© 

Chris Arning 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Categories, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Theorising Cricketainment

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

A critical semiotic analysis of the IPL-cricket brand and its implicit code of engagement with its audience/consumers throws up interesting perspectives. IPL was conceptualized by its creators as a hybrid concept for a country and audience that is very open to hybrids that mix up very different elements into interesting mixes and cocktails. So IPL was a version of the T-20 format of cricket that blended cricket with Bollywood style entertainment and American sports management concepts of league teams owned by business people, with the cheerleaders thrown in for good measure. With the scandals and excesses increasing year by year, after the sixth season, it might be helpful to use semiotic thinking to decode the very identity of IPL that lends itself to such; more importantly, how would audiences and fans be impacted. Can semiotic thinking shed some light on these aspects?

From the mass Indian audience and fan’s point of view, what is IPL-cricket? Is it a sport, a game viz cricket? The implicit but well understood culture and category code of a sporting fan’s engagement with the sport of his choice is of fair play and faith that the game is not rigged in any manner. In any sport, the rules of play are well defined, there are rule-enforcing policemen viz the umpires and within that framework, the contestants – the top sportsmen, high performers that they are, play to win. So, from a ‘sport’ framework, spot fixing and allied match fixing with the brazen involvement of the underworld and cheating sportsmen are anathema. All sports, everywhere, have their scandal stories when big money is involved, along with the fallen idols. But it is understood that the ‘governors’ of the sport will do what it takes to clean up the game of the ‘sleaze’ so that the sports’ fans and sports lovers can enjoy their beloved game without loss of faith or doubt. The credibility of the sport cannot be compromised, else all will be lost.

Or is IPL-cricket, cricket really? If it is cricket-ainment, then does it belong with other forms of televised entertainment and thus virtual realities? In the world of entertainment, everything is make-believe anyway. Even ‘reality’ shows are staged and ‘live’ performances are pre-recorded. The audience knows this and aligns their expectations accordingly. In the ‘entertainment’ frame, everything is staged and created for effect. Why not the matches too? Why not have the matches strategized and co-ordinated to keep the audience guessing and waiting for more, like the script writers do for TV content? And if the sportsmen are akin to actors and stars performing their part in a pre-arranged script, then how does it matter if they cut a side deal for a little bit of spot fixing, for some thrills and extra cash? In a strange way, there is no cheating or dishonesty or problem with the brand, because the brand is delivering what it promised to its audience, viz, entertainment to the max – with sideshows of scandals, controversies et al to add masala and spice to the entertainment. After all, it is showbiz and in showbiz notoriety and infamy sells as much as genuine performance.

Or as a hybrid – that is a mix of both sport and entertainment – like cross-cultural marriages, fusion food and fusion music, does it have its own rules that it should be evaluated against? Then what are those codes and rules of engagement for a hybrid? Clarity of identity and transparency in rules create simplicity of understanding and consequently trust. That the transplanting of American concepts into the Indian soil creates all sorts of confusion and unanticipated outcomes is clearly evident from the six seasons. Cheerleaders become equivalents of item girls in movies, but when required to perform live in public, need to adopt public behaviors that fit in with Indian cultural standards of modesty in public places.  American style free market capitalism in the management of the economics of IPL-Cricket, when transplanted into India’s unregulated or lightly regulated sports market has led to visible and gross excesses of cronyism that gallop unchecked.

In economic terms, clarity brings efficiency via simplicity. The first value add of branding to a marketed product is to create a trust mark that its consumers can rely on to define their expectations so that they can know for sure that they have got their money’s worth. Or as a TV audience, they have got their time’s worth.   In a world of consumer choice, when the consumer-audience wields the power of the remote control, clarity in defining the brand’s identity, the category classification that it belongs to and hence the codes/rules of engagement with its consumer become a necessity, not something that can be denied, overlooked or glossed over. Declining viewership ratings may be the first sign of an underlying, fundamental identity issue which has not been addressed. Semiotic thinking can lead the way to strategic brand management.

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2013

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Vodka’s Enfant Terrible

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

A new interpretation

For a long time, Absolut Vodka dominated the vodka category. Eventually Grey Goose found a gap for innovation. Analysis of the vodka category enables definition of the following Residual, Dominant, and Emergent visual codes:

To keep this analysis concise only the leader of each category is shown below:

Originally, the vodka category drew on Russian and East European dynastic aesthetics and cultural cues to convey tradition and massivity/bulkiness (the Residual codes of vodka). There was then a period where Absolut focused on purity, which was symbolically prominent (the Dominant code). Grey Goose signalled a rupture by opening up the vodka category to a characterful interpretation (the Emergent code).

Tradition versus Character

Sobiesky (Residual) and Absolut (Dominant) packaging can be organised according to their signs into two main poles. On one side is the pole of tradition, which claims vodka as a national treasure, and on the other side is the pole of purity, which stresses vodka freshness and transparency.

Whilst textual codes, the Slavic writing on the Sobiesky bottle and the long text of Absolut, characterise the traditional category, Grey Goose subverted this by using image-based signification: a vivid interpretation of Frenchness communicated through the Tricolor colour coding and a drawn illustration of flying geese above a moving sea (the grey geese of foie gras and the nationally typical coastal/ maritime associations).

As such, the move from emphasis on textual to more arresting visual codes enables Grey Goose to keep the codes of purity – the use of the blue, the fresh air of the sea – whilst freeing it from the traditional cultural cues in order to create a characterful interpretation. Relieved from vodka’s historic heritage, the bottle shape moves from the established sense of the massive and substantial to a more refined wine bottle shape.

Purity versus Craftsmanship

Purity is a current cliché of the vodka category and the key feature of Absolut’s brand differentiation. Yet Absolut’s purity is of a particular type, an intrinsic one. The bottle’s connotations of chemistry symbolize the concentration of an extremely sanitary liquid.  In contrasting with this intrinsic purity, Grey Goose cues an extrinsic, ‘crafted’ purity. Drawing on a sophisticated version of the codes of purity, Grey Goose displays a refined artistic graphic, a delicate alliance of blue and grey tones, and the aforementioned elegance of the wine bottle.

As a result, Grey Goose brand differentiation could be summed up by the semiotic square below:

Some thoughts on further innovation…

The theme of purity could be revisited through the use of raw material culturally encoded as ‘noble and pure’, such as organic white roses, to create an ‘ultra pure’ vodka and step even further away from the Absolut chemical purity.

Cueing on the precedent of Lady Gaga’s first-ever black perfume, the purity of vodka could also be distorted into innovative dark vodka.

Powerful, the theme of craftsmanship is opening the way for more global interpretations. One might imagine a Brazilian vodka made from Amazonian fruit. 

© Sophie Gomez 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Categories, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Rediscovering Old Age

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

 

Whenever you meet clients in India, it seems that every brand is striving to be youthful and wants to target 18-25 year olds. The rest of us on the wrong side of this age divide might as well make ourselves scarce. Any ad review over the last ten years will only showcase young people and older people, if they exist, will at best be middle-aged parental figures, representing irritant authority against whom the youth kick off to make a point. They were either judgmental mother in law like figures, inspecting the home of young couples to see whether their kitchens and bathrooms were being kept up well or simply uncomprehending of the ways of the young generation.

In the past couple of years, there has been an interesting shift. Old people have made an appearance, first in advertising for financial products such as pension plans and now making inroads into sectors such as telecom which were bastions of youth. The old people are emphatically old – very wrinkled and proceeding towards being bent as well. The physicality is where the archetype parts way with the character. They mostly do not conform to the archetype of the wise old man/woman and nor to the covert social take of being strange and cranky.

This is a significant shift in a culture that is beginning to idealize youth. The balance of power has tipped in their favour of young people as they are more economically empowered, making more money than their parents ever saw and also being inherently tech savvy and therefore better able to negotiate the world today.  Traditionally, moving towards maturity and old age was revered and somewhat eagerly awaited. With advancing age came all the privileges of enhanced status and authority reflected in being consulted by the young on every decision and putting the seal of approval on every purchase. Advancing old age meant that it was pay back time for the young, where any good kid was going to dutifully serve and put the elder’s wish before his while the old cultivated a detachment from worldly affairs and a move towards spirituality.

Against the backdrop of this shift, advertising’s sudden engagement with the old and this moving into the foreground of collective consciousness is intriguing. Post tipping of balance of power, what codes govern old age? Perhaps when there is an ambiguous space the imagination runs free. Collectively there is a need to re imagine old age. The contours this reimagining has taken are interesting.

In this imagination, as reflected in advertising, the old are not moving towards either detachment or spirituality. The mood is light, marked with merriment. While the physicality is exaggeratedly old the behavior is emphatically like that of a teenager.

Portrayal of the old as carefree and a tiny bit irresponsible is reflected in a health insurance ad where the son is evaluating a policy and wants his father’s opinion but the father is too busy listening to rap on his iPod and would rather talk about the music than insurance. Or in a bunch of oldies giggling like school girls, cheating at cards and planning a birthday surprise for their brother; again from an insurance ad.

Another theme that gets repeated is that of romance between the old, which is particularly interesting as old couples in India are expected to be done with overt expressions of romance by the time the children come along. Buying diamond rings for your wife in your old age especially when it is preceded by a lifetime of restrained consumption is  intriguing; as is an awkward old man giving his dour wife a rose on Valentine’s day when the cultural norm is one of functional choices and practical transactions between couples.

Reimagining old age is fertile creative territory for the agencies in India and perhaps it is media validation and way forward for those living in changed times. Or maybe an acknowledgement of those who have the big bucks and a history of being consumption deprived.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqg8pVOTooY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N2PRuuYVsA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lb6Ky4PdHw

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence | No Comments »

Hedging semiotic bets

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

 

I was lucky enough to be commissioned to do a project on premium beauty last month. This involved a field trip to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (still colloquially known as Saigon). While analysing beauty archetypes and immersing myself in glamour magazines and visual culture I was struck by the creeping influence of an array of new beauty looks which play with mixed racial identity in an ambiguous way. This is a semiotic hedging strategy for a region which is becoming increasingly sure of itself and aware of its growing hegemony, whilst still vestigially in thrall to the West.

Those who track such things know that the beauty archetypes have been becoming more Asian for years. In 2006/07 Shiseido launched Tsubaki in a lacquerware looking bottle touting the uniqueness of Japanese beauty. A brand called Ichimaki did the same thing. At the same time the Kao brand Asience released a cringeful and starring actress heavily insinuating the superiority of East Asian over European women. No longer are leggy blondes fawned over in quite the same way as they used to be; except perhaps in hostess bars! Far from seeking to be European, the pellucid, almost sepulchral North East Asian look seems to be favoured. Cosmetic surgery is booming and generally deployed to widen eyes, mitigate the epicanthic lid and lengthen the nose bone. Whilst this may have been originally motivated by a desire to emulate Westerners, this has been appropriated as an East Asian look in its own right.. This represents a paradigm shift from the round faced and fatter cheeked Vietnamese beauty of the 1980s and before. In Vietnam this is being driven by Korean (and to a lesser extent Japanese) visual culture with slick premium beauty brands such as Ohui, Lenarge and others. In this, Korean K-Pop, soft power and brands work hand in glove with one another.

Anna Truong

So, we have this general drift towards celebration of East Asian beauty. At the same time there is this penchant for mixed race models. I conducted a similar project in Japan 5 years ago and was struck by the popularity of so called ‘haafu’ (Eurasian half Japanese, half European models) even though they were still exotic  and marginal curiosities it seems back then. In Japan the stigma of not being totally Japanese is gradually falling away. There are now famous ‘post race’ tarento such as Rora who are a Japanese, Russian, Bangladeshi mix. In Vietnam, a more conservative less ‘postmodern’ society, Anna Truong is a popular half Vietnamese, half German model and daughter of a famous singer noted for her warm and classy Eurasian beauty. Now what we see is the so called the Eurasian look being used alongside the more refined, more racially distinct and paler Korean look.

The mix is becoming hard to trace. Asian women who have been enhanced or are made up to have a more European look jostle with Europeans with black hair and the sort of skin that approaches a pallor of Japanese skin along with genuine Eurasians. This places the latter group – perhaps previously ostracised – in the ironic position of now being able to accuse ‘full blooded’ models of seeking to ‘pass themselves off’…

Za advertising

So, if we consider some of the images chosen here we can see how this shift is playing itself out in practise. The Za cosmetics print ad features two models dressed as flower power exiles. They have the rosy pinkish complexion and broader cheekbones and the auburn highlights popular in East Asia but note their Amazonian stature and cosmopolitan aura. The ad perfectly captures the vanillarized ambiguity of these looks – impossible to pigeonhole, easy to accept. They paddle off a miscegenated atoll somewhere in the territorial waters of ‘Ocean Eurasia’ but refuse to be pinned down or reveal their definite co-ordinates. Occidental Caucasianness is becoming a twist or garnish to spice up looks, rather than adopted wholesale.

This Lancome ad I saw outside a shopping mall in Saigon and in a fashion magazine is another significant cultural text. The two models adopt an identical gaze, as if the art director could not decide which to use. The double appeal of Caucasian and East Asian is the key here. This is also what all mixed race people have always known; we’re always ‘double’ in consciousness and heritage, never half. The beholder is meant to mix the identities in the mind like colour palette on an easel.

Lancome advertising

An experiment by Gillian Rhodes a psychologist at the University of Western Australia in 2006 found that when Caucasian and Japanese subjects were shown photos of Caucasian, Japanese and Eurasian faces both groups rated the Eurasian faces as most attractive. A hypothesis from evolutionary psychology is that these faces are preferred because they signal genetic diversity, a vital marker of reproductive health..

As someone of Caribbean heritage who lived through the 1980s in the UK when being mixed race was not embraced in the quite the same way it is now, I am stunned at the ubiquity of mixed race models, particularly Caribbean/white mixed in UK advertising and on TV by mainstream brands like M&S. Miscegenation has become the darling of brand guardians who seem to think this ethnic daring boosts credibility with a progressive population, who may have their prejudices (and as we know from the muppet opera Avenue Q ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’) but who want to believe in a world where exotic beauty trumps race. Of course the Obama phenomenon would have fed this trend. In East Asia the decision to use these models seems less political than strategic. From the semiotic perspective, this reveling in gradations is a sort of aesthetic rapprochement. The Eurasian look seems to square the circle, blending proud celebration of Asian skin with a dash of Caucasian exoticism. This also helps manage the tension between the desire for cultural capital and class mobility and the need to be anchored to an East Asian root. 

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

The truth is out there

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 

For almost a century Russian society lived in the sweet dystopia called Soviet communism. No private property, no economic choice, limited contact with the world outside created a feeling that there was one kind of reality, the one Soviet people lived in, and no alternative to it.  Even those who refused to believe in Soviet ideas and opposed state ideology faced a total absence of choice in their daily lives. There were ’bread’, ‘milk’ and ‘vodka’ – commodities rather than varieties or brands. Back then it was as if Individual preferences did not exist. 

Then came the collapse and a new era began. The Russian market burst out with foreign brands and products – and Snickers, along with many other sisters and brothers from the US and Western Europe, conquered the local commodities. This led to a massive and fundamental change in consumers’ mental and visual representation of product reality. With the fall of the Iron Curtain also came a loss of the connection between signs and their hitherto inherent meanings.

Previously ‘milk’, for example, had been a universal signifier that mirrored what was perceived to be the true nature of the signified, or at least the mental representation of the thing called ‘milk’ had never been diversified into branded ‘Danone-milk’ or  ‘Country House-milk’. It stood as the one and only ‘milk’ – as a category, as a product, as a substance, as a word.  With the emerging brands and varieties a tempting world of alternatives opened up to people, now consumers. As we all know, the fruit of temptation can make the gates of Eden close forever.

So gradually Russian consumers got used to the market economy and consumption became one of the most common and pleasurable vices.  There is, however, something that makes the satisfaction of ownership incomplete – a longing for true meaning. 

Through past experience the majority of Russian consumers learnt that there could be only one true product, unbranded, the one that actually gave birth to the whole category. The situation where the product on sale coincided with the generic notion of milk by name, along with a general absence of alternatives, coincided with a pervasive perception that somewhere there is  a certain space of ‘truth’. In this space any meaning ideally matches the sign – they are a priori linked with each other and there is no way to detach them.

No need to say that Roland Barthes’ theory of simulacrum is not taught at schools. Most people think that the idea of a thing is the thing itself and this thing has it’s one and only essence. The one and only name of the thing is treated as the part of its one and only identity. In this case everything is measured in the grades of ‘truth’: the closer a branded product is to the ‘Milk’, the more truthful and the better it is (since ‘Milk’ itself is the absolute best).  

When buying a pack of milk, the Russian consumer always tries to estimate whether this product is true or not. He makes the choice hesitating and continues to hesitate while drinking it. Every new product gives a glimmer of hope that finally this is the one, the true milk, but unfortunately there’s no proof.

Again and again consumers search for the true and the criteria of truth vary from person to person. Consumers try to remain ‘true humans’, ‘true men’ and ‘true women’, ‘true friends’, ‘true lovers’ and to choose the ‘true product’. Producers struggle to fit consumers’ image of ‘true’ and construct a system of signs and symbols that could be decoded as the elements of true nature.

This situation determines the success of the private labels available in retail. Signs that connote to Soviet times are also perceived very positively. For example, one of Valio’s campaigns was completely based on the idea of truth: big sky blue stickers in metro announce ‘Pure truth. Pure milk’.

Claims about real, authentic, essential, pure, natural products from childhood are everywhere. Yet, in consumers’ minds there’s always a seed of doubt: what if in the today’s market reality there’s no truth at all?  

© Marina Simakova 2012

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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 »

Silencing the shout

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

 

A Hindu parable:

A saint was bathing in the Ganges when he came across a group of family members on the banks, shouting angrily at each other. Smiling, he turned to his disciples and asked them why these people should be shouting in such a way. Nobody could provide an answer.

"But why shout at a man who stands just a few feet away? One might just as well tell him what one has to say in a more gentle way", the saint went on. "When two people are angry at each other, the distance between their hearts grows. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the louder they will have to shout in order to bridge the great distance between them. And what happens when two people fall in love? They don't shout at each other but talk softly, because the distance between their hearts is very small, or does not exist at all."

When I was growing up in the UK, there was a series of ads for Safestyle Windows in which a nattily dressed and strangely ageless gentleman would puncture my enjoyment of Countdown to tell me that I would be just mad to pass up his unbeatably-priced uPVC double-glazing. Eagerly awaiting the next numbers round and less than convinced of the functional and emotional benefits of purchasing such a product, I would wisely turn a blind eye. Besides, the guy was always shouting at the top of his voice and didn't come across as a wholly credible recipient of what would have been nearly an entire month's pocket money.

Source: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2005/11/prweb314653.htm

The Safestyle ads have recently returned to our screens in UK, but alas they now lack bite in comparison to the operatic excesses of Go Compare's Gio Compario. For several years now, UK television audiences have been bombarded by this masterpiece of the irritating squall, arguably the single most annoying campaign of the century so far. To those readers in other parts of the world who remain ignorant of Gio's decibel-crunching vocal delivery: how we envy you. For heaven's sake, don't follow this link.

But the Comparioseries is not merely annoying – it actually sounds louder than the ads which show before and after it. It literally shouts over the top of anything you might be doing, saying or thinking. Online sources suggest that the series has been a resounding success for Go Compare, as hapless audiences struggle to rid their minds of that refrain. As ever, the lack of a control makes it impossible to measure how much of this success is down to the intricacies of the campaign rather than the huge media spend itself, but brands looking to follow suit would do well to think twice before reaching for the megaphone.

As our Hindu saint divines, shouting is inherently antagonistic and alienating. Few things say 'I don't care about you' like a raving monologue. Indeed, as if to illustrate the metaphor, a new instalment in the Compario series sees a vengeful neighbour (played by the nation's own Sue Barker) blowing up the protagonist, as the verbal aggression of earlier episodes inevitably escalates into actual physical violence.

No doubt disciples on the banks of the Ganges were at some point also schooled in the other great signified of the shout: madness. If not, they need look no further than the sports betting category, where the shout is fast being adopted by all-comers as the register of choice. Ladbrokes leads the way with the grotesquely exuberant wails of real-life football commentator Tiziano Crudeli, whose screams of "2:1, 60 minutes, 2:1!!" understandably leave fellow match-goers perplexed. In my Countdown days, I could sleep easy in the knowledge that Safestyle were the crazy ones – for offering such recklessly low prices. But in this latest series of ads it is we the public whose madness is presupposed and indeed encouraged. Without any intrinsic benefits to communicate, the plan boils down to this: act crazy and hope it starts to rub off on everyone else, in an open invitation to us all to lose our minds in a great, mad carnival of negative-gain consumerism. Technically, one might say that the shout serves as a means to disavow the voice from the message it delivers, cleverly diverting the audience's attention away from the impotency of the latter in the process. One might also suggest that for all their bluster, there is a certain desperation in these ads, as they make a tacit (well, actually very noisy) confession of their own absurdity to the high priest of advertising.

Source: http://www.prweek.com/uk/news/1084440/Ladbrokes-game-on-SapientNitro/

 © Tom Lilley 2012

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Network: Jonathan

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

 

Where are you, what are you doing?

I am based in the city of Nottingham, where I completed my PhD in Art and Design in 2008. I currently have an eclectic mix of work, which includes Nottingham University Bookshop, public art projects, professional research and writing in art and design practice, publications, teaching and conference papers, including Unmapping the City (2008), and a paper for an Art and Politics conference at the University of Nottingham in May of this year. I also do commercial projects for Create Research (most of my recent publications are on the site), a collaborative platform for investigating the cultural dynamics between research, learning, knowledge and networks [Please add your comments to the current material on the site, which in a nutshell is designed to evolve into a creative ecology or assemblage via the connections and interactions between all four platforms] 

                                                                            Freeze (2006)

What attracted you to semiotics and why did you move on?

The attraction of semiotics was its capacity to analyse, diagnose and above all create meaning(s) through different cultural registers, something which I first encountered, albeit briefly, at Semiotic Solutions in 1998, when I was asked to identify emergent codes with the potential for overcoming strong resistance in 18 – 25 year olds to investing in pensions, the problem being that there was a high level of distrust in financial institutions due to media coverage of bad practice in selling pension products (sounds all too familiar). The experience of Semiotic Solutions was to expose me to the potential of creativity per se, which subsequently led to a move into more overtly material forms of practice in art and design, and by 2002 I was embarking on my MA in Contemporary Art. As my visual practice evolved I became interested in what is problematic in representation and resistant to definition. The dynamism of Deleuze's 'materialist semiotic' offers a 'new image of thought', which for me opened up the possibilities of the sign's materiality as event – things made a come back so to speak, and the non-discursive field of practices, actions, materials and techniques came to the fore. 

Why should semioticians read Deleuze and what should they start with?

I would be reluctant to say should, and with Deleuze it's more a case of do, hence his appeal to artists who aim to critique rational systems in and through their practice. I would say that Deleuze is worth reading if you are a semiotician who is open to the possibility that there might be a different kind of mind independent sign, that is, the material expressions of things themselves. In this respect, Deleuze connects expression to firstness in Peirce, and proposes that affects have a real and autonomous existence. What this requires us to do is encounter the sign as event, a lighting strike, a peacock's feathers, a sunrise, a movement from one state to another, hence Deleuze's recourse to experimental cinema as a technology for expressing the affectivity of the non-human perspective. Try A Shock to Thought; Expression After Deleuze and Guattari (2002), or Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed (2006) by way of an introduction.

What are you currently working on?

An essay for the Wellcome Trust, which develops an art historical and cultural context for the artist John Newling's Moringa Trees project (commonly known as Miracle Trees). The essay will deploy an early translation of miracle as semeion 'sign' in the bible, as a basis for situating the materiality of the tree as a thing with a life of its own. Arboreal thinking lies at the root of representation of course.

Materiality, Objects, Stuff; describe your current involvement to someone who didn't know anything about philosophy?

It's about not thinking too much, get in touch with things, pick them up, feel them, experience texture, sensation, weight. Take up cooking, I used to work in a patisserie and still bake cakes every week, and sometimes to order for friends weddings and the like. Go for a walk but make yourself look in unusual directions, or simply write more often with a pen or pencil, make marks and forget about their meaning. Call me old fashioned but I am weary of information overload and find reassurance in the immediacy of things (maybe it's because I just turned 40). The more I encounter the world of stuff the more I edit out the virtual detritus of everyday life, and in turn I appreciate computer time as a higher quality of experience. If all else fails read The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, it's full of meaningful work, and semiotics doesn't get a mention.                                                                                                              

Final thoughts?

Technology is an overused word and often overrated and yet why do we hear so little about the application of technology to non-technical things? A problem we face as a culture is a severe lack soul technology. Or maybe we should not be making the distinction between the traditional or emotional and the technical. What gets lost in a means to end culture, especially one fixated on consumption, is the ethical constitution of aesthetics, that is, the time honoured philosophical question of 'How to live?' There is a certain craft involved in approaching this question, a technique perhaps, one which entails the re-combination of all that was fragmented by the shift toward a modern, industrial society but in radically different As Marx once said 'We erect our structure in imagination before we erect in reality'. Could a materialist semiotics have an important role to play in reverse engineering the established dialogue between reality and imagination? In other words, given the infinite possibilities for creation, why is there so much stability of form?

© Jonathan Willett  2012

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Pretty in pink – on steroids

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Queer femininity is now claiming a major place in popular culture, with stars like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj rising to quasi-messianic status with their millions of fans.

So why are they queer? It’s not just the obvious: that both leave their sexuality open and ambiguous, with Nicki Minaj even accommodating a gay male persona, Roman, amongst her host of alter egos (her animus, Jung might say).

It’s also that they’re both female drag queens – who push the constructedness of femininity to the point that its artifice becomes the main feature, rather than behind-the-scenes scaffolding.  The idea is no longer to be pretty or sexy. Both Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga venture way beyond pretty – going into the domain of the comedic, the silly and the outright monstruous in the name of image construction and performance.

But the statements both artists perform under the banner of femininity go even further in troubling cultural norms. Neither rebel against femininity in a simple sense. We could instead call them ‘hyper-conformists’ – obeying cultural pressures on women to be glamorous and sexy, but taking those norms so literally, and carrying them so far, they end up imploding.

It’s interesting that both stars are loved by little girls. The Barbie-loving girls (Barbs) who follow Nicki Minaj get to see the ‘pretty in pink’ fantasy culture sells them – but steroidally pumped-up and overblown. It’s a queer aesthetic opening doors to the fantastical and rebellious possibilities at the heart of conformity itself.

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Child’s Play

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Lately, it seems as if there’s been an increased blending of ‘child’ and ‘adult’ worlds, particularly in health and personal care, entertainment, and play and gaming.

 

But this blending is not complete- across categories there’s a membrane between what’s considered ‘adult’ and ‘child’ territory, and this membrane has become more permeable- at least in one direction.

Consider the trend of juxtaposing the simple joys and iconography of childhood with products purchased by adults. Target, JC Penny and other brands have recently tapped into the sweet simple pleasures of play and discovery, presenting candy-colored worlds full of lightness and surprise.

 

There are also Tide Pods, which are brightly colored single dose pods of Tide laundry detergent housed in a ‘gumball’ tub. Unfortunately, young children (who are cultural decoders in training) are reading these codes and mistaking the detergent for candy. But, there is no mistake in terms of how this is branded for adults. The advertising, form factor and color of the product lead us to the realm of the child. Infusing childlike fun and wonder into an adult realm defined by efficacy can be revolutionary- Tide Pods are a runaway product.

This approach dimensionalizes brands and offers up resonance in a consumer world where adults now have more permission to engage with ‘the child inside’ (albeit within the loose retro construct of an uncomplicated idyllic past and aesthetic). But, expressing the child in the adult feels more comfortable than accessing the adult in the child; it’s important to remember that the membrane still exists and the permeability feels more appropriate when it’s unidirectional.

For example, for a long time social anxiety about this has bubbled up in the realm of cosmetics. Children must remain a bit innocent of the trappings of culture. This links to key cultural beliefs about the sacrosanct nature of childhood prevalent today. Children must be children, and even in our evolving world of kidpreneurs, child activists, artists, family decision-makers and child transgenders, childhood is still a very defined state of being with key emotional resonance for adults.   Even without the danger of product misinterpretation, the idea of children tapping into ‘adult’ territory is more squirm-worthy and often relegated to the space of play or humor to remain palatable.

 
© Ramona Lyons 2012
 
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Beauty Calls

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

 

“Vicky knows that she has only three seconds to make a good impression”. This is what one of the Head & Shoulders ads says and stunning brunette Vicky shakes her hair in front of the young handsome guy’s face. The voiceover continues to persuade us that her hair is beautiful and healthy.

The perception of beauty is like a religious sense – everybody has it inside but few could define it straight away. It embraces philosophical notions and varies from culture to culture. One thing that seems stable is that beauty is perceived to provide pleasure – but it is not taken for granted that it is something ‘good’. In this regard, the most significant thing is that advertisers and mass media constantly compete to display and represent beauty in better ways. They use art, top models, different inspirational metaphors, slow motion effects, show some elements of nature etc. in order to impose themselves on our perception of ‘beauty’ or (if we can signal and elevation of individual physical manifestations to a higher level of abstraction) of ‘beauty-ness’.

This topic becomes increasingly dramatic when the ‘beauty’ is turned into a focus for social and even political discussion. Last year a renowned Bulgarian plastic surgeon met wry face of the local authorities demonstrating social consequences of his work. He had started a billboard campaign in spring – it was not his first but it was in a different style to previous ones – including a number of different images displayed in the city center of Sofia and other big towns in the country. The images portrayed various good-looking girls drawn in American 1950s style, looking much like Coca-Cola imagery, for example, from that time. The connotative meaning seemed to be deliberately chosen because in the epoch in question American women were mostly housewives whereas Bulgarian women worked on equal terms with their husbands to build together a future Socialist Eden. But the more curious thing was the headlines accompanying the beauties on the billboard, such as “I’m in love with myself” and “I’m too beautiful to get a job”.  All of them had  the same tagline – “Thank you, doctor Enchev!”.

At the beginning of June 2011 the ethical board of National Council of Advertising Regulation denounced the whole campaign as ‘uneducative’, ‘offensive’ and an act of ‘discrimination’. Naturally, quite a few bloggers and concerned citizens directed some peppery remarks toward the doctor’s message, and even named the pictured women as the ‘jobless ones’. As a result the authorities pasted yellow patches on the second half of the poster headlines with a black ‘censored’ sign on it. This was the first example of overtly banned advertising in Bulgaria for many years – except for the usual issues around tobacco and alcohol ads placed near by schools, or TV spots screened at inappropriate times of  day.

The story did not end here. The free market had its say as the surgeon had paid in advance for several month of billboard exposure and the images stayed around until October. Thus the censorship sign served only to enhance the impact of the advertising and attract the attention of passers-by. There were some who even thought that the ban was an ad agency’s trick and pointed to the billboards as a clever promotional plan.

So, the social perception of ‘beauty’ turned out to be a tricky matter.  Obviously everyone rejected the idea that there was no link between work and looking, maybe because even models sell their appearance as ‘labour’ in a sense. The campaign, in fact, was justified by the doctor as “jest”.  But eventually the jest doubled up its effect. The sluggish efforts of the authorities at censorship only increased the buzz around the ads. There were several articles in the media dedicated to the case and widely publicizing the phrases hidden bybthe censorship stickers. As to the ban itself, it attached different kind of connotation to the main message and in extremely high degree brought the much-hated times of socialistic censorship back to consumers’ mind instead of, as intended, protecting his and especially her best interests. 

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012            

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Japanese language comes out to play

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

If the kanji script can be said to be the heart and soul of the Japanese language, and the socially contextual honorific language its social conscience, then gitaigo would be the funny bone or at least the limbic system!  Gitaigo (literally meaning onomatopoeic expressions) are doubled syllables such as puru puru, giri giri, tsuru tsuru or kira kira. These words, which can sound like names of Chinese pandas or Thai gogo girls, are used liberally in daily conversation by all Japanese people and appear in manga and in Twitter feeds.

Gitaigo act either like adverbs letting us know how things are done, how someone feels or the general atmosphere feels. As Seizo Terasaki puts it: “After all, onomatopoeic expressions are not really language; they are in a sense raw. Moya moya, doro doro, gocha gocha, bara bara, fuwa fuwa – no other words can describe these expressions. They represent a world of their own…” (Nihongo Gitaigo Jiten: An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, Tokyo: Plus Alpha, 2004).

They introduce a disruptive emotional component into Japanese. Depending on the context, this can be a sense of whimsy or a brutally direct and visceral rawness. For instance uki uki means a sense of excitement and the hard k between the two vowels seems to convey this. Beta beta means sticky and the hardness of the t seems to convey that sense of icky glueyness. Mecha mecha means messy and seems to convey this sense of disarray, particularly when contrasted with a mellifluous gitaigo like tsuru tsuru meaning smooth. Chiku chiku describes something prickly, and lo and behold is spiky to pronounce too. Niya niya means to smirk and there is something distinctly smarmy about the sound too.

This is because these are all examples of what Roman Jakobson called the iconic in language. He claimed that Saussure’s vision of arbitrariness missed out on the aspect of language that words such as smash, svelte or staccato evoke. They somehow innately resemble the concepts that they refer to through their sonic attributes, so are not totally arbitrary.

Gitaigo also confound expectations about Japanese being po-faced and serious in the sense that they are emotive (in the Jakobsonian sense) words, conveying in a very direct image the addresser’s feeling about something. Superficially, this seems at odds with the highly context dependent and often subtle, euphemistic way the Japanese usually attenuate emotions in language.

In this sense, gitaigo can be likened somewhat to the imagist epiphany meant to be elicited by the best haiku – evoking an emotion with a jolt in a matter of syllables…

As with much in ambiguous Japan, there are many potential interpretations and the use of gitaigo can seem also to be a phenomenon related to the love of children and the basics of childish nonsense language. After all, we start our journey towards mastery of language through baby talk such as baba, mama and the like and then move on to more complex syntactic constructions. Perhaps Japanese reveling in the gitaigo is also (just like the mania for kawaii, regressive fantasy, widespread desire for childhood regression and doting on kids) a facet of this desire to leave adulthood.

In advertising, gitaigo are widely used to convince the Japanese that they will feel a certain way or think a certain way if they purchase a certain good or consume a certain experience. Strawberry juice will be tsubu tsubu meaning pulpy and natural.  The beauty and skin care brands promise a brand that will leave your skin feeling puru puru (plump) and tsuru tsuru (smooth). Pillows, bedspreads or female breasts (depending on the magazine) will be fuwa fuwa (soft). Mobile phones designed for older people, with large displays and buttons, are called raku raku (meaning leisure).

the raku raku phone

To summarise, gitaigo are a vindication of Jakobson’s insistence on the importance of the iconic in language, an example of the whimsy, play and ingenuity at the heart of Japanese culture, and proof of how visceral words can give brands a rhetorical flourish.

© Chris Arning 2012


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Always moving, going nowhere

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

“Familiarity doesn't breed contempt…it can breed love and comfort and adoration”, said minimalist composer Philip Glass recently on BBC radio in a discussion on how his music is used in the media. Listeners had commented on the frequent use of his piece 'Façades' in a wide variety of radio programmes.

Minimalist music is characterised by repetition, usually with evolving change over the course of the piece. Advertising has always known about the power of repetition to sell products.. Now ads frequently use music that can be described as minimalist in tone or form, but why?

Music in ads usually lasts less than a minute so there is little time for development. But it is possible to harness the minimalist mood by using musical extracts that characterise the style.

Glass further commented: “People don't know what they like, they like what they know…the more people hear it, the more people want to hear it… it's something about the way we are wired as human beings”.

Composer Elliot Carter offers insights in opposition: "one also hears constant repetition in the speeches of Hitler and in advertising…We are surrounded by a world of minimalism. All that junk mail I get every single day repeats; when I look at television I see the same advertisement…I cannot understand the popularity of that kind of music, which is based on repetition. In a civilized society things don’t need to be said more than three times."

Clearly repetition is effective, whether you like it or not.

Japura River by Glass has directly been used in advertising by Nokia for their N95 mobile. Supporting the ad’s representation of globalized and shared urban modernity, the music suggests constant motion in its repeated arpeggios played on tuned percussion.

 

Instrumentation and rhythm similar to the Nokia ad is seen in Subaru's film for its Boxer Diesel car. But the mood here is calmer – there is still motion but Ryan Teague's music instead offers a sonic backdrop to an expectation fulfilled. It's a typical example of how minimalist-style music in ads can serve to cradle and reassure the consumer.

 

In an ad for Sky HD reassurance is offered by the presence of distinguished actor Anthony Hopkins reminiscing while Vladimir's Blues by Max Richter plays. Using simple, undemanding harmony and the common minimalist technique of repeated alternation between a pair of notes, the music hints at subtle emotions. In the presence of achieved greatness, there is no need for passion.

 

In fact, passion and drama are avoided in ads that work with the minimalist palette. Lloyds TSB offer customers unobtrusive support through life to the soundtrack of Eliza's Aria by Elena Kats-Chernin. The music uses a vocalized melody characterised by even, classically pure rhythm and timbre. With this music, the brand has the personality of a discreet butler. Polite assistance is provided, but always in the background to the consumer’s own life story.

 

The ideological and cultural implications are clear: narrow dynamic and emotional range, largely unbroken continuity and forward motion, neutral movement between simple major and minor harmony and a purity of tone. There is no final goal to this music or need for a narrative. Consonance not dissonance is emphasized and tempi are usually medium fast – we are moving, but never out of control.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Of Marriages & Products

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

 

I love our Big Fat Indian weddings. The colourful mandaps and the phera-chori, the mehendi and the mithai, the glittering bridal nathni and the bridegroom’s shehra, the kanyadaan and the bidaai – all of these are exciting yet intimate moments shared between family and friends.

Does the rest of India also love it? Perhaps it does, both in real and reel life. The two-decade long obsession and popularity with the elaborate Indian wedding is easily apparent in Bollywood movies and satellite television, attracting audiences by the millions. The import of this is not lost on the image-makers branding the Wedding as a luxury product to be consumed in vast proportions.

One often sees advertisements using the backdrop of the Indian Wedding against which to position their products. From sarees, jewellery, suit materials to bank insurances, from lifestyle accessories to food items – Indian weddings have them all.

Let’s do a flashback scenario in a stereotypical context where a young couple is shown nodding to the formalities of the insurance policy. It is almost impossible to get anyone on a rational platform today, leave alone explain benefits! It is, after all an image driven society! Today, many related products with or without any matrimonial implication ride on the Indian wedding as a backdrop. The question is not whether these ads are successful or not, but how marriage as a sign helps connects people to products and brands.

Other products like the fairness cream; – e.g Vicco turmeric or the Raymond suitings too have explored the wedding themes. For example the jingles of “banno teri ankhiyan” that were played in the oldest Vicco ads were an anthem in those days and all one could remember were around twenty women applying haldi to the bride. Also, the Titan ad showing a young girl playing piano for her sister was designed along similar lines. More than the brands, the jingles; the context; the gaze; the expressions have not been forgotten.

A recent survey shows that there is an increase in the new age ‘live in’ relationships. Well, our advertising certainly seems to be replaying the good old stable institution of marriage. One wonders if marriage has become as much of a ‘product’ as are the brands themselves. Either ways, the brands are laughing all the way to the bank! Marriage anyone?

© Heta Trivedi 2012

Links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz3o1PS7IFo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BRYGTqouuE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvx8pB9Ivoo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZq10WlFQlk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3jEffr4mWQ&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg_As8OycpY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOeUssxuz5U

 

And brush up your wedding vocabulary:

Phera – Rounds taken by husband and wife around the sacrificial fire

Chori – Structure made of wood or steel under which the rituals of a Hindi wedding take place

 Sehra – Garlands of flowers covering the face of the bridegroom

 Mehendi – Henna applied on hands and legs of the bride during wedding

 Kanyadaan – the ritual wherein the parents of the bride give their daughter to her husband

 Bidaai – the ritual where in the girl says good bye to all her family members while leaving from her home after the wedding

Banno teri ankhiyan – a famous song in Hindi language that is sung during weddings

Haldi – Turmeric

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

The return of trivia

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

In the late 20th century, postmodernism made a big deal out of small things – turning trivia into an object of cultural fascination in its own right.

One reference point in the postmodern rise of trivia was the ‘Royale with cheese’ scene in Pulp Fiction (1994). Here, the characters played by Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta take a break from plot-orientated dialogue to discuss the right European name for a quarterpounder.

In many of Richard Linklater’s slacker films of the same era, characters also constantly drift into talk that has nothing to do with action. It’s talk for the sake of talk: chit-chat, trivia – untethered from any bigger meaning, action or narrative.

This fascination with trivia led to one of the defining ideas of postmodernism: the end of the ‘grand narrative’ – the big story which subsumes trivia rather than letting it wander free.

But moving into the 21st century, and trivia was supposed to have died a death. The momentousness of 9/11 and a new climate of seriousness put paid to this dalliance with the untethered nuance.

But could it be making a return? A number of cultural products now seem to be rejoicing in the trivia that surrounds us – especially, just like postmodernism, in the micro-ebbs and flows of language.

First, we’ve got the youtube meme ‘Shit girls say’, which has now spun off into ‘Shit guys say’, ‘Shit New Yorkers say’, ‘Shit Scots say’, and many many many more. These clips are collections of linguistic mini-tropes – closely observed inventories of the tiny turns of phrase people use.

Then we’ve got the cult site STFU, Parents – which simply inventories tracts of parental discourse on Facebook (organised into codes like gross-out, sanctimony and so on), each accompanied by an ironic commentary.

There’s also the popular UK blog The Middle Class Handbook (featured on Semionaut here), with its eagle eye for linguistic trivia and tiny turns of phrase. For instance, did you know the correct middle-class way to get someone off the phone is to say ‘I’ll let you get on?’ And that people are now ending emails with the single demand: ‘Thoughts?’

This return to trivia has a lot to do with the rise of social media. With vast tracts of trivial discourse coming our way each day, it makes adaptive sense for culture to turn it into fodder for analysis, copying, recontextualising, pastiching and interpreting.

And as high-concept advertising surrenders some of its supremacy to social media, it’s also likely that semiotics as a discipline will need to turn its attention to tiny details of discourse and language. Clients may increasingly want interpretive keys to the micro-tropes flooding Facebook and Twitter.

An outstanding lineage of famous detail lovers can show the way. Flaubert copied the micro-tropes of the 19th century bourgeoisie into his Dictionary of Received Ideas. Proust was another close observer of tiny nuance. Benjamin too was a lover of details – wrenched out of context and interpreted in startling new lights.

As social media counters the big concepts of traditional branding with its welter of discursive fragments, these writers may well have something fresh to say to us.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Middle-class life in detail

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

What does it mean to be middle class in Britain in 2012? Does it mean that you earn more than £30,000 but less than £200,000? Does it mean you read the Mail on Sunday and watch the Antiques Roadshow on Catch-Up? Does it mean you call dinner “supper” or lunch “dinner” or supper “tea”? Do you even drink tea anymore, or are you a flat-white type? Do you have your hair cut at a hairdresser’s, by a hairdresser, or in a salon by a senior stylist? Is M&S for sandwiches and basics, or is it your preferred outlet for formalwear? Is Heal’s posh and IKEA naff? Is it important to own “designer clothes”?

All these are vital ‘micro-signs’ of class status in UK life today. And putting them under the microscope is The Middle Class Handbook, –which started life in 2009 as a simple blog dedicated to exploring the stuff modern British middle classes say, do, think and buy.  Since then, it has grown into a vibrant hub and community for all things middle class in Britain today, spawning published books, a buzzing online network, one-off events, flagrantly middle class merchandise, as well as services like specialist middle-class brand consultancy.     
 
Our purpose is to uncover, interpret, debate and, ultimately, celebrate micro-aspects of the tastes and behaviours of the modern middle classes, across fashion, design, food & drink, travel, relationships, motoring and endless other subjects.  We bring tips and how-to guides to  soothe their worries, give a heads-up on brands to watch, inspire talking points, identify trends, provide the inside track on stuff they need to know and, when necessary, settle questions of etiquette.  

We think it’s the small things that people do and say that reveal the most, which is proved by long and passionate debates about important subjects to the middle classes such as muesli, the peculiar attraction of other people’s shower gel, and how much one should tip a pizza delivery person.

These subjects are not glamorous – not usually, anyway – but people have strong feelings and ideas about them, and they enjoy sharing those feelings and ideas with each other. The more we uncover as we look close-up at these minutiae, the more we see there’s wonder in everyday experiences. The small stuff is often the most meaningful of all.

The vital point is that the conduit between the small things and the big meaning is people. It is people alone who can transform the mundane into the momentous and, as the Middle Class Handbook seeks to show, this is something we are all trying to do, in our own way.

The Middle Class Handbook is maintained by independent creative practice Not Actual Size, who, as their name suggests, are all about finding big meanings in small signs.


Enter the wondrous world of the British middle classes here.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics | No Comments »

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

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

Tell no-one

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Secret cinemas, secret restaurants, secret supperclubs, secret guerrilla cake sales, underground knitting networks….the language of secrecy pervades British culture at the moment. Even chains like Starbucks have their own secret menus known only to the few.

The question is: why the emergence of this craze at a time when the predominant cultural ideology is openness and sharing?

The easy answer is that it’s a backlash. We’re sick of having privacy invaded and ‘specialness’ undermined by everything being visible all the time. So the cult of secrecy comes in as an antidote to all this over-exposure.

Even so, the paradox remains. If you look on the Secret Cinema website, you’ll see its strapline is ‘Tell no-one’ . But the navigation menu then invites us to sign up on Twitter and Facebook, and read the latest press coverage. So someone’s clearly telling someone.

The paradox intensifies when we note that it’s usually sharing on social networks that makes these secret clubs possible. Often you can only find out about them on Twitter or Facebook.

This suggests that social networks create symbolic value by hiding information in plain view, as well as by offering opportunities to share. The quantity of data they offer has become so vast that only those who are truly ‘in the know’ can reach what really counts.  The fashion for secrecy reflects the fact that there's now a new elite – those who can find their way to the information with the highest symbolic value. He or she who knows, wins.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | 1 Comment »

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 »

Vehicle body art

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

Vehicles on Indian roads talk. Almost every vehicle is embellished either with images on the body or with accessories within. There is  general disapproval for the plain vanilla factory made look. It is a rather inviting tabula rasa on which story of one’s identity must be etched. After all, buying a car is a milestone and historically it does mark the class transition from belonging to the plebian crowds who access public transport to becoming somebody who can afford their own private means. The nature of the images and the embellishment do tell you many stories. Stories about the life journey of the owner; how they got there and what they feel about it. How space is shared or rather grabbed on the road can be read as a mini snapshot of the class dynamics of this society.

I will pick up two sets of vehicles and two popular images and embellishments typical to them. Privately owned cabs which are leased out to the driver and the mid range sedan which are favored by those who have recently risen above the harried middle class.

 Privately owned cabs for all practical purposes belong to the driver who works them hard so that he can have money left over after paying the daily lease sum and the fuel & maintenance costs. While on the face of it he can pull off a certain amount of status & posturing within his community about practically being the owner, the joy runs a bit shallow. He finds himself working harder & harder to beat the terms of the lease and save himself a respectable income. This pseudo ownership is nothing but a cuckold. The vehicle being experienced as a cheating girlfriend rings true at many levels. In a society where ‘ownership’ of a heavily bedecked woman lends status gives further credence to this parallel. Each cab is lovingly decorated with colorful tinselly frills and the stickers with sad romantic couplets complete the story of the driver being the jilted lover – all because he spends such long hours on the road. A pair of heavily made up blue eyes painted at the rear of the vehicle is significant at many levels. It is blue signifying the much desired white woman fantasy complete with all its loose morality associations. It is placed at the rear where it is looking on at the vehicle behind – at the ‘other’. The eyes seem to guard the rear alluding somewhere to the vulnerability experienced on the road. Is it the vulnerability of the pretender?

In contrast the theme of embellishment of the sedan alludes to the sense of snug security of those who have just arrived. The car is a protected cocoon, sealed off with its rolled up windows & tinted glasses warding off unwanted eyes looking in. Comforting softness of this world is further accentuated by velvet cushions and soft toys placed on the parcel tray, looking out at the world through the rear windscreen as though mocking the sweat, dust and grime of the road. It mimics the untouched innocence and hyperbolic snugness of the nursery.

When these worlds come together, predictably there is mayhem which is known as Indian road traffic; also known as the most dangerous sport in the world! [Apparently it is drawing visitors from round the world as an extreme sport.] When the soft, pink cushioned world of the sedan mocks the violated fantasy of class transition, testosterone is bound to flow. The rash and aggressive driving of the overworked cabs in turn mocks the fragility of the cushion & soft toy brigade. And the troubled co existence of the classes and masses that have been denied transition continues.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Semiofest 2012

Monday, April 16th, 2012

The inaugural Semiofest will be taking place on 25th and 26th May in Westbourne Studios London; it is being organized on a shoestring budget and has been variously billed as an experimental learning event, symposium, swap meet for semioticians.

I believe that Semiofest, “a celebration of semiotic thinking”, is not a radical idea, it is simply an idea whose time has come…The key to this from my perspective is to have an informal space to share and celebrate semiotic thinking. My observation would be that not only does commercial semiotics have no formal representation but that there is a gap between applied marketing semiotics which is usually hidden and proprietary and academic semiotics which in print and at a conference is usually geared towards rehearsing the validity of a theory and name checking hallowed academic authorities.

Semiofest is first of all created to fill this gap, to give a formal space to commercial applied semiotics across the gamut of its applications from design to social media.

The ethos behind Semiofest is essentially the same as that behind the Semiotic Thinking Group on Linked In. the STG was launched with no fanfare and a rather dodgy logo in March 2010. From inauspicious beginnings it has since grown to a group of over 1200 members hosting lively debates on the meaning of Britishness, the latest Cadbury’s ad, the difference between premium and luxury codes, online social networks and hidden signs on Facebook. It is a group comprised of an eclectic cohort of market researchers, academics, brand consultants, students and hobbyists. 

The Semiotic Thinking Group was set up to share idea about semiotics, to network and start to build a bit of esprit de corps amongst semiotics practitioners. The most common posts seem to be aimed at debating ideas, sourcing strategic partners in obscure markets and posting content, either texts or blog posts for comment. Several practitioners have messaged me privately to praise the quality of conversations on the STG and to say that it is the most zestful and exciting group they belong to.

The germ of Semiofest was planted when a Canadian collaborator Charles Leech mailed me to say that he felt that his semiotic arsenal needed updating, that he did not know where to go to feed his mind and why didn’t we do some kind of meet up. I agreed it was a natural progression to create a physical manifestation of a successful online community. I was volunteered help by an informal organizing committee of collaborators from LinkedIn: primarily Hamsini Shivakumar, Lucia Neva, Kishore Budha and Sandra Mardin. We posted a short announcement of intention with invitation to express interest back in June 2011 and we got an immediate and enthusiastic response. We quickly received up to 70 ticket purchases on Event Brite and then set up the website and have been receiving bookings since over Paypal.

\At the time of writing we have over 20 presentations planned – one being done remotely from Singapore, as well as over 50 tickets sold for the event. We have participants coming in from Brazil, Japan, Estonia, Australia, North America and all over Europe. Presentations are varied and represent the cutting edge of the field. They are on topics from text mining to design rhetoric to advertising to the semantic web. We have two keynote speakers, a co-creation slot and even some semiotic art.

The other important facet is the educational halo that the event will hopefully create.

We plan to post up presentations and disseminate learning post event through the semiofest.com site. Inaugural Semiofest in London 2012 is an experimental event. We do not know how it will end up going but we are confident that it will give those attending a chance to enrich their perspectives, network and to enjoy a fun event.

We have planned for it to be a convivial event with a Cultural Programme in the evening and hopefully the London weather will deliver balmy summer evenings.

We still have a few tickets left so if the above sounds of interest you should quickly go to semiofest.com, go to Payment page and claim your ticket to this special event.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Escape the Map

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

 

There's always been something slightly sinister to Google Street View and it isn't just the surveillance aspect. Perhaps it is the perpetually sunny sky (Street View vehicles cannot operate in the rain) or maybe the navigation commands that never quite feel intuitive. Google Street View makes no effort to replicate the motion of how we typically experience the city — on foot or by car. A mouse click to the arrows on the ground jerks you forward at a distance far longer than the average stride. With a gravity of its own, impossible weather, and a population of spectral faceless beings — blurred to protect their identities — it is not a world anyone would ever like to live inside.

Maybe your image exists in Google Street View already: blurred and frozen in time. "We call them echoes," says the mysterious woman in Escape the Map, the interactive video produced by Mercedes-Benz. She warns that "time works differently here" — you might find an image of yourself from four days or four years ago… but "relax."

In the film, you are navigating a vehicle through a representation of Hong Kong on Google Street View. The woman — Marie — has just removed a mask that disguised her to look like the other blurry-face people outside. Now she sits in the passenger seat, offering instructions to "escape the map." You risk getting captured by the camera, which will turn you into one of the hopeless blurred people on the streets — faceless and trapped in motion like the victims of Pompeii. Google Street View is never named, but director Carl Erik Rinsch (soon to make his feature film debut with 47 Ronin) exploits all its familiar quirks. A character appears badly rendered and you instructed to "put him together" to advance. Giant red pins that look like Google Map markers come crashing from the sky.

Google Street View could be a geospatial corollary to the Uncanny Valley hypothesis (which suggests that as artificial life grows more lifelike, it also seems eerier, more "uncanny"). In the Mercedes-Benz making-of video, the team explains how they mimicked Street View's aggressive navigation and used green screens to replicate its world. Interestingly, they point out the final touch was to "recreate the harsh midday light of the application." How ironic that advanced technology was employed to create the appearance of sunshine in Google Street View. It is unreality presented on a computer screen as the world outside our window.

 

 © Joanne McNeil 2012

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

Luxury: a journey of discovery?

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

I recently watched a lengthy spot for Cartier, 'L'Odysee de Cartier, that made me consider what luxury brands are trying to tell us today. 

In the Cartier piece, a leopard/panther avatar breaks its carapace of diamonds, journeys through time and space, and explores a magical, bejeweled world. This world is marked by a seemingly omniscient and global view of Cartier’s past: horse drawn carriages, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal (balanced on an elephant’s back), vintage airplanes, and iconic French architecture. Interestingly, these spaces are populated with jeweled exotic animals- magical living entities hidden from common sight. The leopard’s tour of these spectacles is drawn together in a loose narrative ending in communion with a woman gowned in red. She strokes the leopard, and diamonds gleam where her hand has left its fur. They’re old friends, it seems, even lovers.

But ultimately, what does all this tell us about the world of Cartier? This world is defined by selective provenance; it claims cultural authority (to say what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) from a mythologized history of exotic lands and treasures drawn from both mysterious natural phenomena and the heart of culture. Importantly, it’s a place where the unknown, secret life of these things is revealed to those in the know.

In this world, luxury is the experience of discovery driven by a specific kind of knowledge. This knowledge is presented as secret knowledge, and the journey to discover these things a heroic and even sacred one (the musical theme has a hand in this, as the tremulous violins in the beginning tell me to anticipate something revealed, the mournful cello later underlines the arduousness of this journey, followed by a children’s choir soaring above).

And, what’s the role of the consumer in relationship to Cartier? Through Cartier, the luxury consumer is cast as a cultured explorer, a person who enjoys confirmation and articulation of their particular strain of cultural capital, but also strives to transcend a conventional understanding of these things. However it is really more ‘armchair explorer’ – the consumer is not necessarily an intimate, the leopard roams alone (despite its affection for the lady in red).

The sheer grandeur of the Cartier spot (one cannot ignore the grand format brand statement) reminded me of another spot by Louis Vuitton launched a while back, ‘The Spirit of Travel.’ In deep contrast to Cartier, the LV piece locates LV’s authority (to establish what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) in the brand’s ability to articulate the subjective nature of discovery. Also shifting through global time and space, LV represents its world through fine details: the glow of light through the pages of a book, the shimmer on a water’s edge, fog flowing over an ‘Asian’ waterway- all through impressionistic photography implying individual sensory experience. Here, sensory and personal experience clearly trumps externally constructed experience and spectacle (though of course it can be argued that subjectivity at this level is still just another trope, box and definition to be checked off).

So what’s luxury in the world of LV? Being able to discover your moment ‘in the moment.’ Importantly, LV tells us quite directly that it’s an experience of discovery driven by self-knowledge. Here, the LV consumer is a devotee to this pilgrimage and escape into self. 

Both Cartier and LV instruct luxury consumers on the importance and nature of discovery and how to, well, discover it. Despite its ‘wild’ leopard avatar, Cartier is more the starry eyed curator at the Louvre, lifting the curtain just a bit for a special glimpse of wonder. In comparison, LV is a spiritual guide, a more intimate relationship to consumers overall.

But this is not to say there aren’t real commonalities here- each brand highlights a particularly western (post-colonial) politic of desire- since part of this ’journey’ is an exotic experience that speaks to the ‘foreign,’ the strange and other. 

And, ultimately, both tap into fairly residual themes (the ‘cultured’ connoisseur and imaginative adventurer, the spiritual-Buddha traveler) and leverage the journey metaphor to frame a foundational perspective on luxury present within contemporary cultural consciousness. Both brands tell us that luxury is part of a noble and meaningful adventure, and that discovery- wonderful, fleeting, and rare- is an emotional space attainable through each brand’s distinct exploratory path.

© Ramona Lyons 2012

 

 

 

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

A bag is a bag is a bag

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Handbags are mysterious to men and profane to their mistresses. They are an accessory for almost every woman, whether young or matured, Christian or Buddhist, rich or poor, modern or conservative.  They are universal and at the same time very personal, even intimate. Peeping in one’s bag or borrowing might be acceptable but not encouraged and only trusted friends and close relatives are allowed to do so, mostly under the owner’s control. Handbags are powerful icons and heroines of modern times stand behind ‘IT bags’ as godmother.

Why are handbags so important?

Many women strongly identify with her handbag and some develop an almost symbiotic relationship with the bag and its content. Others have a more playful and flirtatious relationship with it. They change their leather or linen companion according to season, occasions or mood. The bag bond can be born when falling in love at first sight of blinking sequin or playful fringes or result from a more rational strategy of comparing sizes, materials and styles.

Certain items such as keys, purses and care products can be found in almost every bag, other personal items such as breast implants or a fruit knife might be a surprise to an indiscreet viewer. A bag is a bag but is also unique at the same time: “My bag reflects who I am and what is important to me.” A bag can match your dress – but first of all it matches yourself. Bag owners can be characterised regarding what their bag contains inside and what they express outside, what a bag tells about their personality and their social identity.

The ‘mistress of the bag’ is in a power position and in control of her bag and its content. She highlights the non-emotional character of her relationship with the bag and treats her bag as her property that often feels neglected or even maltreated. She doesn’t want to compromise and demands a lot: ““I like to be in control and must admit that I treat my bag like a slave: it’s always with me and has to do what I want it to”.

The ‘expressive hedonist’ enjoys her ownership of (often many) bags. The bag represents her style and fashion consciousness – whether in the form of prestigious luxury shoppers or the latest must-have bags. She feels reassured and entertained through her steady companion: “One may understand who I am from both my bag and by its contents. My bag is the mirror of myself”.

The ‘protective dependent’ has a strong and very emotional relationship with her bag.  She is in need of comfort and security. Her bag looks individualised, caring and exciting from the outside and often chaotic in the inside caused by various layers of more or less helpful tools, notes, souvenirs and good luck charmers required to be next to her at all times: “If my bag gets lost my world would tremble.”

The ‘capricious passionate’ wants her bag to make her happy and light-hearted. She has a rather flirtatious relationship with her handbag although she might be looking for ‘real love’ in her very heart. She can fancy the pink patent leather shopper during the day and the golden clutch in the evening: “I bought this bag because it makes me feel good”.

Every bag has its own character and reflects the character of its owner. A bag is nothing less than a practical container filled with helpful tools and personal treasures and a mobile miniature version of a woman’s world at the same time. The bag is the steady companion who never lets you down, supports you to deal with any eventuality and allows you to either hide or to make you noticed. No wonder women can’t do without it. 

 © Ute Rademacher 2012

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Print is dead, long live magazines!

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

 

We all know print is in decline and as a medium it is unsustainable.

However, these days the business of newspaper publishing comprises print, web and apps, and it is a tale of two trends. Whilst the US and Europe are experiencing a decline, the emerging markets are showing signs of growth with LatAm expecting the largest increase of 4.7% over the next 4 years. The burgeoning free newspaper market is also seeing growth in the Asia Pacific and Latin American regions.

Talking of free, paywalls, or ‘value gateways’ as News International calls them to sweeten the pill, haven’t proved to be the most successful model for online news as people expect their information from the internet to be free

But interestingly people do expect to pay for their mobile sources of information and entertainment. Apps like Flipboard aggregate news from multiple publishers where you can build your own ‘news playlists’. Apple has launched Newsstand on the iOS 5 (although typically they retain all the data). The new Facebook apps allow publishers to be exposed to a wider audience via exposure in the Ticker and on your newsfeed; The Guardian app gets over 1 million page views a day from Facebook. With the increase of information sharing editors or curators are being superseded by friends or ‘people like you’.

Ever since Esquire launched its Augmented Reality enabled edition 2 years ago, magazines have been looking for different ways to engage their readers on multi platforms by innovating and diversifying their offer.

Vice started life 17 years ago as a niche free magazine in Canada and now has over 30 local editions, it runs an international creative agency, an IPTV channel and even a pub! The Reader’s Digest meanwhile makes only 20% out of actual publishing – the rest is from financial & other services. Meanwhile in China, Vogue and local women’s fashion glossy Raili regularly publish editions of 350 pages and have even created TV shows.

Contract and niche magazine publishing are thriving. British photographer Rankin has just launched a new bi-annual, Hunger, whilst ‘We Love Pop’ is a new title from Egmont. Even Conde Nast’s Style.com has launched in print and the BBC has just sold all their titles to a Venture Capitalist so business can’t be all bad.

Magazines are often regarded as an indulgence, a private time away from the glare of the screen. But there’s another reason why magazines may survive. Increased micro-targeting online from both editors and advertisers doesn’t allow for serendipity – as this respondent (IPSOS 2011) research recognises:

 “with magazines, you might stumble across an interesting article or an amazing image that you wouldn’t have seen online”

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at MIT, an internet advocate, agrees that the internet doesn’t match the ability of printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. This presents an interesting argument in defence of ‘stumbling across’ the printed page.

Ultimately, the media owners who survive will be those who offer a unique service to brands, enabling them reach their discrete communities of loyal readers. With insights into their readers, publishers and brands can partner to co-create impactful content with the resources of editorial and in-house creative teams.

© Jo Peters 2012

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Technology | 2 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 »

6 Theses on Pinkification

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

 

Don't know if you’ve noticed but pink is everywhere in the semiosphere at the moment. There is a glut of lurid slap on every merchandising surface. It hides in typography with grey blue tints and appears as blocks of background colour.

Here are 6 theses on pink:

1.    Pink is the new orange. If the 1990s heralded Orange as the colour of the growth decade and a shorthand for progressive premium quality, is pink the more knowing and complicated hue for an era of sluggish consumption, a less optimistic more jaded shade of the future? Are we following Japan where pink has been the colour of kawaii in a country in hock to saccharine tweeness and where femininity combines the soft mothering and sexualized within broadly the same colour palette?

2.    Pink is the new solicitude. The colour has become a lazy shorthand for cordiality and attunement to customers. It says: ’We are clued in and brand-conscious’. Interesting for me in this context is the dramatic shift from red to bright pink in “For sale” signs in Central London for the post Christmas sales, almost as if the frequency with which struggling retailers place items on discount makes the less shrill and aggressive pink more apt. Pink, shorn of purely girly connotations, is in a very strong position as a default colour; it has arrogated to itself a whole range of communicative contexts. If we use the Roman Jacobson communicative functions framework, currently pink seems to have a footprint that covers the referential (to all the pink connotations of femininity), the conative (hedonistic prodding) and the emotive (the desire to be playful on the part of the communicating entity). It is also very phatic (gregarious contact with the viewer) holding the attention.

3.    Pink is infinitely adaptable. Pink bends the communication context to its corrosive will. It is the dominant colour for the 2012 Olympics where it is used as a neon substitute to signify the electrifying, youthful energy. It is used in other government communications where it would have been frowned upon in previous years, notably in Community Alcohol Partnership, Business Birmingham. It seems to have become the hue of young, consumerist exuberance hue alongside bright yellow for music media titles such as We Love Pop to Viva but is also the colour of choice for magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall uses the same yellow pink colour scheme for his new vegetarian cookbook. Brands such as HMV and T-Mobile use it as their signature colour but it is also becoming more acceptable for luxury brands to use with marques such as Swarovski and Storm using it prominently in recent print advertising Professional services have also fallen for the lure of pink with even upstanding legal firms such as Maitland Walker opting for the colour. Pink seems to be all the rage at the moment – the ultimate backlash against all types of chromophobia.

4.    Pink is becoming more variegated and nuanced in its sub codings for femininity. There is the lurid bright pink of Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and Jordan. In this context, pink is the burlesque of knowing, self-parodying play with an alibi and self-empowerment to the earnest livid red of the Mae West striptease. It has become the colour of giddy hedonism. An event called Ultimate Girls’ Day Out, a jamboree of fashion, giggles and make overs – a sort of hen do in a marquee – uses the colour on its website. Then there is the rose coloured pink of vulnerable matronly femininity of such as sanitary towels, pregnancy tests and pessaries. In the UK, Superdrug seems to use pink to position itself as the more girly and accessible alternative to Boots through use of pink. This is pink as squeamish and vulnerable. Then there is the lavender of purple shades of more mature womanhood such as used in the film poster for the Iron Lady. This is pink as imperious, sagacious womanhood, Laura Ashley without the chintz. Again, this is not all startlingly new but as pink becomes more prominent coding of meaning becomes more explicit.

5.    Pink is both the sign of soft, emotionally intelligent masculinity as much as it is aggressive femininity. In terms of the latter, pink has become the testosterone wash of emasculation in a culture of ‘misandry’. In Katie Price’s TV show, one scene showed her forcing male contestants to strip down to lurid pink briefs. The loud, pink office shirt has long been a sartorial signifier of what could be called ‘brave intimacy’. An emergent male quality. Interesting in this connection is the recent emergence of pink as sports strips. Everton FC now have a pink away strip. The Juventus away kit and Stade Français’s rugby team’s shorts are also pink. Does this indicate that pink is on the one hand becoming the new grey and not worthy of notice, on the other a sign of strength?

6.    Pink is contentious and ambivalent in the context of feminism and femininity. It is both the cladding of the new Amazonian media monstrosities mentioned above and the wry, scurrilous spray paint of their detractors. A range of recent books decrying the state of womanhood all use pink – presumably ironically – in the cover art. Living Dolls by Natasha Waters, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Power and Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy all use pink either as the typeface colour, background or as an accenting colour in their paperback editions. Is pink double coded, or even polysemous or are these authors thwarted by their desire to position their books as current and funky? I fear they’d be upset by the insinuation. There is certainly great ambivalence towards the colour. PinkStinks.org.uk has been set up to expose and excoriate the prissiness, princess culture. Recently on Facebook, there is a popular video showing a little girl astutely decrying the marketing of pink to girls. 

 © Chris Arning  2012

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

The engine electric

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

The rise of the electric car is reinvesting the modernist symbolism of electricity with new meaning.

For example, electric-car symbolism (e.g. Renault, BMW) often uses illuminated urban landscapes to reconnect with the optimism and exhilaration that surrounded electricity in the modernist city.

In the late 19th century, electricity replaced gas lighting in cities, symbolising the urban conquest of night, darkness, and the limitations of nature. It freed city-dwellers from the cycle of day and night which dominated the daily rhythm of their rural counterparts.

Until now, codes of sustainability have largely urged a return to natural finitude. They’ve been all about ‘knowing our limits’, understanding that nothing is endless, and returning to natural, seasonal cycles.

But with electricity promising potential renewability, and thwarting the whole principle of finitude, electric cars are going back to modernist meanings of electricity as infinite and limit-transcending. Ads for electric cars often show glittering cityscapes, or neon signs, rather than the natural environment that’s being ‘saved’.

The cultural interest of this story is such that ‘electricity’, as a theme, is now spilling into other sectors beyond cars. Blackberry’s night bikes campaign

the recreation of the Tron bike

 

and Beyonce’s perfume Pulse

all show that electricity is an idea that’s very much in vogue.

The symbolism of electricity today gives us a 21st-century twist on the 19th-century story of emancipation: a return to a world in which resources are limitless, the lights don't have to be turned off, and there need be no end to the story of modernity and progress.

In The Great Gatsby, the narrator describes Gatsby’s house, ‘lit from tower to cellar’ in the middle of the night, as being ablaze like the World’s Fair. This modernist dream of transcending the night – through spectacular and limitless expenditure – seems to be returning in the new cultural centrality of electricity.

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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 »

Private Dancer

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

 

As a teacher I dreamed of starting lectures from 2 or 3 different places simultaneously. Then converging in the middle and stopping.  A different approach from beginning, middle & end. Having never followed through then I will now – starting with the Beatles, Kant and cultural materialism.

Last weekend I watched Scorsese’s film Living in the Material World.  With no professional detachment. I grew up in North Wales (not far from Liverpool) to the sound track of the early Beatles so there was emotion & recollection at every turn in the story. Next morning, I woke thinking about: the huge cultural influence of India on the Beatles, especially George; Olivia Harrison’s words on what makes a marriage last (mainly not getting divorced but more, worth hearing), inspiring anyone with bodywork dented by life’s ups and downs; how George, recovering from cancer, survived an assassination attempt more savage than the one on John Lennon. The casual honesty and integrity of the Beatles in their early days.  Viewing media constructs of themselves detachedly as almost autonomous, with puppet lives of their own. Their ability to be themselves and say what they thought (Lennon’s spontaneous comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus).  And in UK today a certain timidity, conservatism, young people constrained again to fit a mainstream ideological mould.  It was also Remembrance Sunday here last weekend, when a minority wear artificial poppies to commemorate UK military deaths. I don’t remember ever wearing one, nor did my older sons (now 25 and 30). But school pressure this year on both my younger children (aged 9 and 11) to wear the symbolic poppies. Pressure also on FIFA from the English football authorities that England should do likewise in their international against Spain at the weekend, with UK government insistence that the poppy was not, as FIFA maintained, a political symbol. How about your own symbolic flower, FIFA, commemorating deaths of civilians globally at the hands of military forces, including British bombers and invaders? I guess, from the official UK viewpoint, that wouldn’t be political either? Enlightenment trajectories in reverse – kids pressed to wear poppies, musically abusive X-Factor culture, pop controlled again by formulaic, super rich middle-aged impresarios as before the Beatles. Slavoj Zizek would say: “It’s ideology, stupid!”

Second point of departure is Zizek’s 2011 discussion with Julian Assange about democracy today. No better antidote to the eroding ideological drip. Zizek’s abnegation of postmodernist jiggery pokery in his endorsement of Wikileaks whistle-blowers risking torture and death to publicise war crimes and human rights outrages.  Done by ‘us’ (from the viewpoint of the US-UK-Israel axis) not by the more familiar manifestations of ‘them’ – be that 24-hour rolling Nazis on the History Channel, historical communism, Islamic extremists or the human rights neglecting contemporary Chinese (let’s occlude Guantanamo and Wikileaks-disclosed outrages for another self-righteous moment).  Zizek and Assange’s clarity about the distortions and cover-ups by mainstream media. What happened to relativism and living with contradictions? Assange’s identification of potentially powerful agents of disruption and change in digital specialists mainstream institutions depend on to implement their strategies and who, informed by online sources and their own networks, don’t share the official media values and ideologies disseminated by and in the interest of those very institutions. Finally, Zizek quoting Kant on ‘public’ versus ‘private’ uses of reason. The ‘public’ being a quest for understanding in the human interest as opposed to ‘private reason’ in which expert knowledge is put to the service of private interests or existing power structures (e.g. expertise in crowd behaviour deployed for controlling demonstrations). Zizek makes the point that the biggest threat to the Judaeo-Christian heritage/Western civilisation today is not, as received wisdom avers, Islam, but. the silencing of public reason – via an assault on disinterested education and research, and increasing emphasis on knowledge/expertise dedicated solely to helping established power and interests work more effectively. Listen to Zizek (about 70 minutes into the film) – he makes this point much more eloquently than I can.

Third point of departure – cultural materialism, specifically the work of Raymond Williams. There’s a potted history of the current commercial application of semiotics originally developed in UK in the early 1990s, where the author introduces Williams's Residual-Dominant-Emergent mapping to the team at specialist agency Semiotic Solutions as a way of analysing trends in brand communications viewed in cultural context  – into what looks dated (Residual), what’s mainstream (Dominant), and what’s new & dynamic (Emergent, with its predictive power to help brands future-proof their advertising and other communication). This became perhaps the most familiar ‘tool’ of the current iteration of brand semiotics. Raymond Williams, a Marxist cultural critic, must have turned in his grave at this piece of conceptual hijacking.  Now something springs from the earth like the hand at the end of Carrie. Added Value’s Sam Barton has sent a preview of his fascinating Masters thesis in Material Culture, on the business of brand semiotics. One of Sam’s many inspiring insights comes from going back to what Raymond Williams actually wrote. In context. the dominant culture “selects and organises” information that comes from outside itself in such a way that it remains current, making it difficult for anyone to think outside its parameters.  The emergent represents new practices outside the dominant, which the dominant will assiduously attempt to transform and assimilate into itself for as long as possible – to arrest the breakthrough into more progressive forms of social and economic organisation. So the applied commercial ‘tool’, as Sam Barton argues, is actually a “brutal inversion” of Williams’s original Residual-Dominant-Emergent formulation – a case study in how the dominant works to arrest a movement towards the emergent. And, one might add in support of public reason, a beautiful and symmetrical example of an ideological appropriation springing around to bite itself in the backside.

Midnight approaches for Faust. “O lente, lente, currite noctis equi”. The show must go on.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Ballad of a Thin Man

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

 

Who is this guy? What’s he doing on the front page of the Financial Times (29 Oct 2011)? Do look at him in context but please don’t tell me the answer. My inquiry is a rhetorical question in the manner of Roland Barthes's “Who is speaking?” and Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain" or "Ballad of a Thin Man".

Why so miserable, mate? Don’t worry, we say idiomatically in England, it may never happen. Sure Zegna’s an Italian brand and the main front page headline on this day (“Italy spoils mood after EU deal”) concerns the threat of the nation joining Greece on the slide to Eurozone default. But even that wouldn’t be as bad as the facial expression suggests. Is this the absolute end of the road for European serotonin depletion culture as a whole, the worst case payback scenario made flesh for all the serial Ecstasy poppers from the old Rave days? Or is Zegna working on a new migraine therapy? Is this what you hold in your bag, so gingerly distant from your new tweed slacks – as if the brown polish that made the shine is as yet imperfectly dried, might still come off and leave a nasty stain? In this same week it was announced that because of Italy’s debt crisis the launch of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s new collection of Neapolitan love songs would be delayed (Silvio famously claims to have learned everything he knows about working a crowd from his time as a singer on cruise ships). Are you an executive at Berlusconi’s record company by any chance? Is that bag full of unmarketable CDs?

Does the seriousness underwrite a Northern rather than a Latin Italianness – Protestant Ethic 24/7 Zegna as the most understated of the Italian luxury brands, safe for the undemonstrative middle-aged business male (NOT Gucci or Versace, almost Jil Sander-like, capable of just about of passing for German if Italy did collapse into chaos and one needed to get across the border quickly)?

Or is this just romantic melancholy/agony, eyes fixed half focused on a lost love, quest, formula – whatever the Absent One is which inaugurates the movement of desire. Out of this torpor is something about to stir and twitch to life? Meanwhile does your resemblance to posh English actor Jeremy Irons when he was younger trigger a protective response in women? Is this why you look like your mum just dressed you, brushed your hair, put the stuff in your hands that looks as if it didn’t belong to you and you’re pretending for some reason it’s not there? Under the coat with solicitously upturned collar (lapel then firmly patted down by maternal right palm) and under the cardigan is there another jumper, this last one tucked neatly into the top of your trousers?  Layers. Jacket belt tightened snug across your tummy. To make sure that nasty headache isn’t made worse by a snuffle or a chest cold? Did they send you away to boarding school too young? Is this mood all about the recoil? Will you show them?  The other front page story, to the left of this picture, is “Cameron argues more women in the boardroom would lead to a curb on pay”. So what’s the game? Does your appealing helplessness qualify you as some kind of feminist icon?

But hold on. There’s a retro vestimentary code working here – an incongruously pristine version of old-style adventurer, explorer, robust masculinity conquering the worst nature can throw at it. Banker as hunter – as here below in a preposterous (are the people this is talking to on mental life support?) FT ad from the same day. Is this what that Zegna far away look’s about? New frontiers, challenges, horizons. Perhaps not. Just a touch too sad, sulky, depressed for that. Did your friends and colleagues stop sponsoring your heroic exploits for charity?  Did they start clicking the button that says “Pay for your own extreme sports holidays and redirect me to where I can donate for social inclusion, fairness and redistribution”?

The branding and the end line: “Ermengildo Zegna – Passion for Life”. So where’s the passion? Are you a metrics consultant? Is this about calibrating intensities of apathy or misery?  Nothing that can't be measured is worth tolerating, remember?  Or is this the contradiction that will spark a new Zegna brand myth? Abject machismo? Eternity measured out in coffee spoons? The effable ineffable? Is this deconstructing how business jargon has battered the word ‘passion’ to an entropic emotional and semantic pulp? A plea to divert the energy out of stereotypical hyperbole and back where it belongs. Give unto the corporation what is the corporation's. Passion for life.

Finally return to look at this in its media context, the front page of the FT. What does it look like? Different there – like an energy oubliette in the bottom right corner, a discordant slate tombstone. A contemporary visual echo of the obituaries that used to appear on the front page of the London Times in the days when today's great private media monopolies were just a glint in Satan's eye. Obituary for what? A way of life? A brand? What is the meaning of this thin man?

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | 3 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 »

When products speak

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

 

The Alpha Romeo Giulietta tells us ‘I am Giulietta’ at the end of its ads. French Connection’s blouses and bags proclaim ‘I am the blouse’ and ‘I am the bag’. Nikon repeats the trope in its current campaign. And a recent ad for San Miguel lager reveals its narrator, at the end, to be the beer itself. They’re all examples of the rhetorical device prosopopeia – in which inanimate objects are given a voice of their own. 

A similar case is the Peugeot RCZ which ‘chooses’ and ‘owns’ its drivers rather than the other way round. It’s not strictly prosopopeia, as the car doesn’t speak in its own voice. But it’s in the same conceptual ballpark: the object or product becomes a living thing with subjectivity of its own.

Of course, talking, animated products have been bouncing around at the ‘fun’ end of advertising forever – think M&Ms, Cheestrings and Peperami in the UK. But to find this trope in the serious register of high-end advertising might signify a bigger change.

It could signal a break with the consumer-centred brand-led advertising of recent years – in which the subjective experience of the consumer is symbolically central. We know the story so well. Consumers are offered not a product but the return of their own authentic being: a chance to overcome alienation and find themselves in the brand – as in Nike, Dove, Coca-Cola, and countless other examples.

But Peugeot, Alpha Romeo, Nikon, French Connection and San Miguel have all transferred subjectivity from consumer to product in their ads. San Miguel plays on the shift with particular awareness – leading us to expect from the ad yet another tedious and portentous first-person self-description, yet another expression of ‘who I really am’, before surprising us with its relocation of subjectivity in the beer itself.

Perhaps what’s happening here is a reflection of technological advance – and the fact that products are becoming smarter, more intelligent and more sentient by the day. We’re already used to cars and devices that speak to us. Maybe we’re seeing the start of a new relationship between humans and products – in which we need to start listening to what they say.

 

© 2011 Louise Jolly

Posted in Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe | 1 Comment »

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

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

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 »

The politics of friendship

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Google Plus, posing a challenge to Facebook, puts a different cultural model of friendship centre stage – highlighting the political and constructed nature of friendship itself.

Facebook, broadly speaking, applies a democratic model of friendship. As with democratic politics, the idea here is to accumulate friends (read ‘votes’): the more, the better. Number is important – as with the democratic politician who needs to win elections. And friendship is about the crowd or network: the critical mass that brings power, recognition and validation in a democratic society.

As part of this system, all friends are equal. There’s nothing to distinguish the best friend from the long-forgotten acquaintance on a person’s Facebook page. The friendship group is an abstract accumulation in which every name carries the same apparent value.

But friendship isn’t always a classless society. What about the rigorous hierarchy children introduce into their friendship networks – where there’s a ‘best friend’, a ‘second-best friend’ and even a ‘third-best friend’? These intricate distinctions may fade as we mature beyond the age of five, but friendship remains tiered.

Aristotle believed that friendship involved inevitable acts of selection, inclusion and exclusion – and that true friends are rare. He also described the principle of ‘testing’ in friendship, which, to prove itself, has to survive ordeals and difficulties over time. It’s a minimising way to approach social life, at odds with Facebook-style accretion.

In fact, set against these ideas, the quantitative perspective on friendship tends to cancel itself out. Paradoxically, ‘many friends’ can end up meaning ‘no real friends’. According to this political view, a long list of Facebook friends would symbolise not strength but a weak, diluted social base. Friendship is instead signified by rarity and scarcity – the ‘select few’.

In democratic societies, however, there’s an in-built suspicion of the idea of the ‘select few’, which tends to be denigrated as the clique, coterie or cabal (all coded ‘aristocratic’). But it’s back – in Google Plus’s alternative take on social networking which applies just this model.

With its Circles and Huddles, Google Plus puts the selectivity back into friendship. And while its overt discourse centres on privacy – different audiences for different information – its boundaries also bring with them the more troublesome ‘unspoken’ of preferential hierarchies and exclusions. Do classical friendship structures inevitably end up conspiring against the codes of democracy?

Title and Aristotle references from Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship (1994)

Mark Vernon's essay on the uneasy relationship between friendship and democracy

Marmite plays with the idea of the 'select few'

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Technology | No Comments »

Decoding Reality TV

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

 

Where did the Animal Planet network get the idea for Pit Boss, a series about little people who rescue mistreated pit bulls? According to a 2010 Multichannel News story, the network relied on a study, titled Truth Culture Decoder: Inventing Reality, which "uses a research methodology called semiotics — mostly used in consumer product development to study cultural trends — to help networks better predict the chance of success or failure of reality shows."

The Truth Culture Decoder was the brainchild of brand strategist Linda Ong (a former senior vice president of marketing at Oxygen) and semiotic brand analyst Scott Hamrah, who together form Truth Consulting. Ong tells Multichannel News that the TCD can be "a tool for networks to better hone into the trends that consumers are gravitating to on the reality front." (Full disclosure: The author of this post is a former colleague of Hamrah's.)

In the case of Pit Boss, which will return for a fifth season (at a rate of two seasons per year) on January 2012, the insight gleaned from the TCD, says Animal Planet president and GM Marjorie Kaplan, is that "people are looking to reconnect with their deeper, truer selves through the natural world, and animals are a medium for that." This summer, Ong and Hamrah released a Summer/Fall 2011 edition of the TCD. Its tagline: "Analyzing over 600 Unscripted Shows Across 40+ Networks. Now with NEW Decoder Index Scoring System."

For more evidence of the TCD's influence on reality TV, read Linda Ong's Simple Truth blog. In a 2009 blog post, she announced:

"Parts cultural anthropology, trend forecasting and cool hunting, semiotics research has long been used by consumer product behemoths to guide product development and package design. But media companies have yet to embrace this methodology. The ones that do will build their brands and drive programming, marketing and sales – because they'll know what consumers are often unable (or unwilling) to articulate via traditional methods.

We may not be able to read minds. But we can see the signs."

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | No Comments »

For the love of lycra

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Superheroes, cyclists and Trekkies all have one thing in common. Spandex. An inconspicuous anagram of ‘expands’ (though rightly so, since the fibre can reportedly stretch – prepare yourself – up to six hundred percent!!), spandex was invented by a man called Joe Shriver at DuPont in 1959. In the UK, it is almost generically referred to as Lycra. But the assumption superheroes wear spandex isn’t quite right. And that’s not because Batman, these days, wears Kevlar.

The earliest superhero comics (such as Superman in 1938) actually pre-date the invention of spandex by two decades. Dupont did, however, have a nice line in nylon stockings round about that time. Captain America’s patriotic array (1941) perhaps owes more to the tradition of hosiery than even he’s been told. Along with super-heroes and heroines, glam metal bands (Queen, Van Halen, Bon Jovi) and travelling contortionists have all helped stretch and sling spandex and its (usually aggressively trademarked) sibling incarnations off the historical trajectory and out towards the wastepaper basket of clothing history.

Except they haven’t. Not nearly. The re-birth of the contemporary Flandrien (or so s/he’d like to think) and its brutal alter-ego the ‘lycra lout’ has anorak-flashed spandex into the eyeballs of an unsuspecting British public once again. What maddens so many people – cyclists and non-cyclists alike – about this trend is the ludicrous aroma of accomplishment that somehow wafts from inside a vacuum-packed bicycle tight out on public parade. Men in Lycra will limb around art galleries and buy sandwiches ‘to stay’ and fetch kittens from trees and they’ll do it all wearing groinal cling-film that manages off-puttingly to show precisely nothing and absolutely everything at exactly the same time. It’s hard to launch a complaint against that kind of contradiction.

But the world of spandex is a wonderful and diverse place. Spandex also lies at the apex of contemporary culture’s anxious compounding of sex and idiocy (Diesel and American Apparel ad campaigns are a case in point), and the normalisation of the fetish that underlies the strange success of Zentai (full-body, skin tight garments that will help you look like Morph from Take Hart without the eyes). There’s a video out there that shows a pitch-invader in an all-green Lycra bodysuit outrunning six lunging security guards and escaping through a small panel at the side of the park held open for him by – wait for it – a compatriot dressed in an all-yellow Lycra bodysuit! I don’t advise you look it up, but I expect you will anyway.

The most interesting examples of contemporary spandexification, though, are those where the material breaks free of its functional imperative and holds its easy-on-easy-off knickers up to the wind. Spandex (or something like it) overlaps with art and architecture in Ernesto Neto’s colourful, tensile installations and Agata Olek’s crocheted fibre-art. Jean Nouvelle’s Serpentine Pavilion (2010) ended up as a sort of three dimensional awning, and solar canopies have an important role to play in the future of squeaky green dwelling. There’s Richard Serra’s wafer-thin boundary installations, too.

So we’re in for a stretchy future, and I for one am bloody excited. Not that I want city folk on their way to the office to carry on dressing like Alberic Schotte. I think they’ve met their match in the Zentai warriors anyway. The Zentai don’t take themselves too seriously, always seem to have anonymous pals around the corner, and are surprisingly sneaky considering how conspicuous they really ought to be. Practically the opposite, then, of Mr Specialized Allez. I’d call for a public ruckus, but a skirmish with so little friction would be too unsettling to properly enjoy.

© Gareth Lewis 2011

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

Kiwi Vegas – “Bloody Pointless”

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

 

This is about seeing Las Vegas through Antipodean eyes. I grew up in UK and I’ve been in New Zealand for thirteen years; I have bias. My move to New Zealand gave me new software. I’d like to show you the value, often overlooked, of reading culture ‘superficially,’ to deconstruct and then take the ‘superficial read’ more seriously.

Kiwis (New Zealanders) have a phrase ‘it’s bloody pointless.” They use it with gusto and pride when laughing at what they perceive as pretence. (For example excessive displays of wealth or the sight of an LA woman carrying a dog in a handbag.) New Zealand’s early pioneering history was all about celebrating being canny, frugal, cunning and almost mean. It took three months for ‘the boat’ to arrive in New Zealand from England with supplies. Being adaptable and making things work was an essential life skill. New Zealanders are uncomfortable about shows of wealth or excess – even today national heroes are understated and All Blacks (the iconic New Zealand rugby team) are often seen as ‘wooden’.

So as a by now cultural if not ethnic New Zealander, I look at Vegas for the first time and say “ it is big and mad, a party town designed for no reason in particular.”  I say the casinos are insane and all those clichés seem true. The place is like the postcard – what a pleasant change. In fact, it is more extreme when you get there – the signs are bigger, the scale is bigger and there are more people. A Kiwi read would be: “it’s even more flash than I thought””. To the average New Zealander the excess compared to the down to earth nature of home seems unnecessary, ridiculous, alien – yet irresistible.

As a semiotician one looks at Vegas and quickly makes some simple observations. I am not going to say anything revolutionary or challenging, Rather I want to remind us of what Vegas means to many of us.

Vegas is magic at many levels: money magic, impossible civilisation, the deification of money and the cult of the celebrity. We are used to working for money; as a result instant wealth is magical. Vegas means impossible civilisation, an ‘unplace’ place – an urban oasis in the desert. Vegas means everyday opulence. The sheer scale of the copies of global symbols (e.g. a third scale model of the Eiffel Tower) and the size of the casinos is abnormal and yet I got used to it. Vegas appears to deify money. The casinos use signs that remind us of Greek temples. They mimic an archutectural design language of authority. Vegas is also awash with celebrities and celebrity status. An anchor for all of this is gold – as internal decor signature for casinos and symbol for winning big.

For New Zealanders gold has different cultural connotations, which can help us understand their perception of Vegas as “bloody pointless”. “Good as gold”, for Kiwis, communicates the trustworthy, steady, everyday nature of gold as something that was part of the early society of mining towns. The phrase is often to compliment someone who does what they say. “I’ve done X”, reply “Good as Gold.”  New Zealand, like parts of the West Coast of America, had a gold rush.  In the early mining days gold was to be trusted in a hostile world. Early mining museums portray the extremely difficult circumstances early miners endured in mining settlements in and around Arrowtown. It appears the idea of gold as glamour or striking gold never took hold as strongly in New Zealand society. (Look, for example, at http://www.destination.co.nz/arrowtown/)

Hopefully the superficial Kiwi response “it’s bloody pointless” has more significance for you now. At the same time this short phrase summarises so much depth for New Zealanders, who communicate much with so little. Kiwiss aren’t ones for complex wordplay which can be taken to indicate that they aren’t as ‘deep’. it’s fair to say this stereotype of Antipodeans as more basic, at some level, holds true for most Western cultures. And the male language of behaviour in New Zealand is indeed about a doing which is much more important than saying. Many New Zealand men, for example, ‘do friendship’ rather than ‘say it’ – more Peircean groundedness than Saussurean arbitrary signification.

Western culture encodes at many levels an insidious mutually exclusive opposition between the ‘basic’ and the ‘deep’, privileging the latter term, But ‘basic’ or ‘superficial’ is a different kind of semiotic language – and it takes a time to understand.

Winner of the Hugo Boss Art Prize Hans Peter Feldman standing in front of $100,000 pinned to gallery walls

At a macro level, I have a hunch that the meaning of money is evolving as it becomes less tangible. So the idea of Vegas being pointless, at some level, means money is pointless. (Vegas = Gold = Money.)  George Ng commented on the Linked In Semiotic Thinking Group that Graeber turns the history of money on its head. Unlike the way economists view history, where most accept that first come barter,then money, and later credit, Graeber's contention is credit existed first then came money as a means to break up credit into smaller parts, which then led to social practice of bartering.

Since first developing these thoughts I’ve become aware of a company setting up a global barter system (http://www.recipco.com/) to make use of the idle excessive resource available to companies globally. It could be said that if they succeed they are changing the meaning of bartering from something done in Moroccan markets to something more corporate and respectable. Money will be replaced by the true direct measure of the resources themselves. If that happens, we face a new world order and money, truly will be pointless and perhaps Kiwis will have the last laugh on Vegas. “Money will be bloody pointless”. But what resource will winning casino chips get you there? Don’t we just replace one currency with another?

© Jake Pearce  2011

Posted in Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Global/Local, 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 »

Changing realities

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

The latest genre to send ratings soaring on British TV is ‘structured reality’ – often described as an amalgam of reality and drama. Series such as The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE) and Made in Chelsea feature people playing themselves, but in scripted or semi-scripted scenarios.

The emergence of structured reality marks a response to the cultural pressures and contradictions which sank the earlier reality landmark Big Brother.

When Big Brother was first screened on British TV in 2000, it was partly rooted in the slacker genre of the 1990s. Reality was represented as baggy, loose and unstructured – about endlessly hanging out and discussing trivia.

Although housemates did face the occasional task or challenge, the idea of reality here mostly opposed narrative structure and dramatic action. It enacted the postmodern undoing of ‘plot’: the liberation of trivia from over-arching narrative.

Also in keeping with the slacker genre, early Big Brother represented people in an ‘off duty’, function-less state. The house was a suspended, abstract environment, which cut its occupants off from the personal or professional identities they held in the outside world.

But as the years rolled on and slacker culture waned, Big Brother found itself unable to maintain the loose and non-prescriptive reality it staged in its first season.

Levels of intervention, manipulation and narrative twists increased – clashing with the idea that the house was meant to offer an open-ended, experimental environment in which outcomes would be unpredictable (although ideally involving sex of some sort).

Last year, the programme finally did collapse under the contradiction, as ratings fell and Channel 4 announced the 2010 season would be its last. Big Brother lives on, but only just – having been bought by a smaller channel.

And as its popularity waned, so structured reality rose to take its place, bringing in a new idea of reality compatible with overt scripting and management.

For example, in contrast to the ‘off-duty self’ represented in early Big Brother, structured reality gives us the professionalised ‘always-on self’. Coherent and self-coincident, the ‘always-on self’ flows seamlessly between on and off-screen life, reflecting the way social media are undoing the boundaries between private and public identity.

The stars of TOWIE and Made in Chelsea are, effectively, specialists at being themselves. And there’s a clear connection here with the quasi-professional identity management encouraged by today’s social-media discourse.

11 years ago, Big Brother represented reality as an experiment. And, of course, the idea behind an experiment is that no-one knows what’s going to happen (however much manipulation was going on behind the scenes). It was the possibility of surprise and inconsistency – best of all, lapses and slips of every kind – that kept viewers interested.

Structured reality expresses the opposite: a managed vision of reality and identity that reflects wider cultural changes – in particular, the rise of the transparent, ‘always-on self’  that’s the same at work, at home and at play.

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Some Futures for the Logo

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

Having recently written a paper on semiotics and digital for a conference, i have started to consider the future development of the logotype. Logos are neat condensations of meaning, that have always been of interest to me. Sad that there is a curious paucity of good books on the subject. Coffee table compendiums packed with examples abound but little analysis of meaning. Marks of Excellence by Per Mollerup is the exception and it contains a good dose of semiotic theory. In it he writes: “identification, description and the creation of value are just some of the possible functions of a trademark”. It is my contention that creation of value will increasingly play a greater part in logo futures as they become a more active currency in the digital economy of signs. One reason for this is that the original identification function of logos may be rendered superfluous by a policy aware web in which digital authentication widgets, designed to cut out impostors and spam, do it for us.

So, what possible future scenarios can be imagined for logos? Well, looking at present trends, corporations are already commissioning redesigned collateral to cultivate more biddable, agile, responsive and less monolithic identities.

It seems that logos are gradually becoming more metaphorical and less metonymic (a radical aspect of the London 2012 Olympic logo, for all its sins).

This has meant evolving logos that are both more diffuse and more multi-faceted. Witness the diaphanous new Mastercard logo and the recent re-branding of Tassimo with faded petals. These are rudimentary harbingers of less condensed and more diffuse logos, dispersed across space and lattice strut. An extreme version of this is the MIT Media logo that features 3 intersecting spotlights which can be arranged into 40,000 potential permutations with 12 colour combinations. This is a facet of de-materialization – from the Marxian perspective it parallels the more fungible, quicksilver nature of financial capital and electronic flows. Many logos still hark back to their origins as either heraldic emblems where the shield motif symbolically circumscribed meanings or to monogram signatures that were often cryptic and occluding. Condensation may be discarded in favour of tessellated brand motifs that ubiquitously mark branding; running through it like a stick of rock.

Personalization may be another driver, as per the book the Filter Bubble which shows how each of us is already enveloped in a unique digital habitus that insidiously determines the cocktail of news and content they are exposed to. As digital communication feeds off a flow of real time data supplied by RFID and other sensors that pick up consumer signatures, a logo could inflect corporate identity in a more fluid way such that it could both embrace the milieu in which it appears and address prospects appropriately. I believe that logos may become interpretative actors in their own light, interacting with other digital entities around them in ways that create edutainment and more ebullience. This may mean that logos will function far beyond their originally remit of identification and more active avatars. As artificial intelligence progresses apace logos may become ingratiating envoys for digital brands.

Scott Brinker has argued that as data becomes more semantic and meaningful ‘data branding’ or the making available of proprietary company data under creative commons protocols will be employed as a competitive advantage. This is because they will be amenable to being useful mash-ups.

In this scenario it is possible to imagine the logo as pulsating with bits of data pulled from the data cloud and morphing as the data stream oscillates. This ides of real time data modeling, for instance correlating sales and trend data has already been dubbed ‘nowcasting’ in a 2009 Google white paper. The most apt application I believe would be for the logo to reflect the real time fortunes of the brand. Some formula for symbolic investment, perhaps a Semiotic Value Index metric can be implanted into the code for logos, allowing them to wax and wane in concert with the stock price, sentiment online and other basketed indices? This would be in tune with the passion for infographics, make logos more dynamic and allow for greater transparency – one for the big brave brands. Finally, another evolution for the logo might eventually be total evanescence into an invisible meme or force field that leaves engrams in the minds of prospects helping them recall brands. This would mean logos would have come full circle – literally leaving a neural mark.

Whilst all this may seem like science fiction I believe that these visions are not so far fetched because they are merely extrapolations and combinations of drivers already afoot: digital de-materialization, continuing acquiescence vs privacy intrusions, personalization of brands (Nike ID) content consumption mediated via social graphs and the filter bubble with the semantic web and cleverer data and augmented space to come, bringing a coterminous desire for cute infographics and real time dashboards to represent data patterns.

One thing is for sure, logos will be both fleeter on their feet and semiotically more active than at present. They will make today’s logos look like stodgy and archaic ciphers that petrify meanings in mute monologues. So much for my visions for the future of the logo. At any rate, I predict that logos will be active agents traversing the seething domains of the semiosphere and will start to play a role in ecologies of augmented space replete with semiotic information of all types. As Peirce said, signs have a tendency to grow or even to perfuse.

© Chris Arning  2011

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of high living?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

Mahatma Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. The design pays tribute to his life and achievements. The top of the cap and cone are inspired by the spindle which Gandhi used to spin cotton – one of the symbols of Indian independence. The colour white is a reference to truth and peace, while the Mandarin garnet represents the orange colour that is part of the Indian flag. The nib shows an image of Mahatma Gandhi, walking with a stick. In addition, the limitation of the Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000 is symbolic for the masses of people who followed him during his fight for independence.” Mont Blanc website

 

July 2011

Dear Bapuji [Bapu means father in Hindi, and Bapuji is a respectful, affectionate term for Gandhi in India], 

I would lie if I said that the first sight of this Mont Blanc ink pen did not catch my fancy. On the surface it seemed very nice and befitting…Mont Blanc, the iconic brand of writing instruments, paying tribute to your life and achievements. But that was just my first reaction. When I read further about this ‘Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000’ something did not seem right – either to my Indian heart or to my branding mind.

Mont Blanc and Mahatma Gandhi coming together?

Bapuji, you are no Amitabh Bachchan endorsing any and every product.  Bapuji, you are my Bapu, the father of my nation. Maybe I am sounding like an emotional, patriotic Indian.  Let me put on my branding hat and objectively view the case of Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi coming together. After all, there’s got to be a sync between the two brand identities to create meaningful synergies. 

Yes, I do see a basic match at the functional level.  Bapu, you wrote profusely and demonstrated the power of the pen to the world. It seems appropriate for the top international brand of writing instruments to pay you a tribute.

But what about the brand fit at the core values and vision level? Is there a match between Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi at the philosophical and cultural level?

Gandhiji, to get to the core essence of your life philosophy, I poured over your words verbatim in Mohan-Mala [an anthology of Gandhi’s thoughts and writings]. You wrote:

 “The dream I want to realize is not the spoliation of the property of private owners, but to restrict its enjoyment so as to avoid all pauperism, consequent discontent and the hideously ugly contrast that exists today between the lives and surroundings of the rich and poor.”  Mohan-Mala, 1929

 Doesn’t the very concept of a limited edition for only 3000 exclusive owners defy your dream? If I am buying an ink pen for a whopping price of Rs 1,161,145, where am I restricting its enjoyment? Am I not sharpening the contrast even between the super-rich and the poor?

I appreciate the fact that the product design for the Monc Blanc Limited Edition took inspiration from the spindle. But does Mont Blanc really know what the spinning wheel and khadi mean to the people of India?

I claim for the Charkha [spinning wheel], the honor of being able to solve the problem of economic distress in a most natural, simple, inexpensive and businesslike manner. The Charkha, therefore is not only not useless…but is a useful and indispensable article for every home. It is the symbol of the nation’s prosperity and, therefore, freedom. It is a symbol not of commercial war but of commercial peace.” Mohan Mala, 1921

How can the charkha be an inspiration for Mont Blanc whose DNA goes against entering every home. Bapu, is this not a superficial use of such a deep and profound symbol? 

I ask, what does a luxury item catering to only 3000 individuals have anything to do with your values of equality, simplicity, minimalism and economic freedom?  Bapu, you penned these words in 1921:

“Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and therefore sinful.Thus, the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. It is sinful to buy and use articles made by sweated labour.” Mohan Mala, Oct 1921

I respect Mont Blanc’s intent to pay tribute to your life and achievement. But it hurts me to see you being used as a ‘celebrity’ endorsing the epitome of opulence. You are my India. You are the universal spirit of peace, harmony and non-violence in each of us. How can the soul of my country be used as a symbol for pure economic gain?

I ask, where is the match between the ideal of simple living-high thinking and the ultimate expression of high living?

Yours truly,

Aiyana

© Aiyana Gunjan 2011

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

The six pack triumphs in India

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Karan Singh Grover

How is the male body represented in Indian popular culture and advertising today? Are there any clear patterns or codes?

The male grooming industry is booming in India, and bringing with it a definite change in the way advertising represents the male body. In general, there has been a move away from the more soft and rounded form of traditional Indian aesthetics, towards the structured, symmetrical body favoured by the ancient Greeks (and by contemporary Western codes of male attractiveness).

In traditional Indian art, the representation of male bodies left out internal structure: it was not about hard muscle and bone. A softer form meant prana – the life force which fills the body in Hindu metaphysics – could move and flow. These art representations highlighted the values of traditional Hindu culture in which the spiritual was prized over the material, and the symbolic representation over realistic depictions. There was an implicit relationship between the divine and the human, and as aligned to the Hindu philosophical tradition and world-view, the spirit of man was seen as a manifestation of the presence of the divine. 

The history of Western art represented the male body very differently, as we can see in Greek aesthetics. Instead of valuing flow and roundedness, the Greeks idealised the perfectly proportioned, sculpted male nude. Ancient Greek sculptors celebrated the spirit of man by glorifying the beauty of internal physical structure. It’s an ideal which has persisted through time in the West and entered the material and consumer culture of today.

Now it’s arrived in India too – the development beginning around the mid-1990s. Before this time, Indian films and advertising generally showed the stars as they were: neither particularly fit, nor well muscled. Their star appeal was not based upon overt display of their body beautiful or aesthetic, but on their personality and charisma more than anything else.

However, in the past decade, as the Greek ideal of the male body has entered popular culture, the stars have started working out, building their bodies up with diets and physical trainers to the Western, muscled aesthetic. There’s also been promotion of the 'six-pack abs' as a body aesthetic to aspire for and work-out towards. We find these depictions in the advertisements for body deodorant sprays such as Axe and Axe clones. Western material culture has finally conquered the whole world – all men every where, now are urged to aspire to the same template, with minor modifications allowed, to accommodate requirements of race and place.

 

What about when the male body gets really muscled, exceeding the Greek ideal, as does Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan? Does Indian culture read 'big muscles' as a bad-boy signifier, versus the more streamlined physique of 'good guy' Bollywood stars, such as Shah Rukh Khan?

Shah Rukh has a wiry and small physique, but he too worked out and has acquired this new aesthetic. In fact, the publicity around one of his big hit films of two years ago was all about his six-pack abs. 

Salman is seen as a man with a golden heart but an uncontrolled temper and a 'bad boy' in that sense…so he gets angry very easily and when he gets angry, he can get violent. But this isn’t really held against him by the public at large or even his women fans. Overall, my take is that this new body aesthetic is far more about dialling up the sex appeal and attractiveness of the man and far less about signalling a renewed focus on male physical strength and power – machismo. Instead, it signals an intent to promote the male grooming industry.

But could there be a political dimension to India’s newly muscular male body? For instance, could it be symptomatic of what’s been called India’s 'muscular Hinduism', and the recent focus on warrior heroes such as Rama?

Sociologists have written about the development of a more fierce and virile version of Hinduism in Hindutva along with Hindutva's attempt to refocus the Hindu pantheon around the virile hero-gods, Krishna and Rama. However, Hindutva's appeal waxes and wanes. It grew in the early nineties and then the Hindu right wing party lost successive elections – now they are a weak force in the opposition. Also, each state and region in India as well as each community continues to worship their favourite Hindu God and new temples that are being built also reflect this diversity. For instance, the worship of Lord Ram is particularly strong in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but far weaker in other States. So, I do not really see the depiction of this muscled male body and the new sexy aesthetic as connected to the strength, or otherwise, of Hindutva. It is far more part of a commercial attempt to sexualize the appeal of men and women via marketing.

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Global/Local, Semiotics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Rebooting

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

 

In recent years, I've stumbled frequently upon a fascinating, somewhat difficult-to-read trope in US pop culture and edgier communications. It's an expression of a peculiar attitude vis-à-vis bygone social and cultural forms and norms, trends and fashions, movements and pop culture franchises — one which was far less common 20 or even 10 years ago.

This perspective on past forms and norms isn't nostalgic — i.e., though it admires the past, it doesn't do so earnestly. Underpinning expressions of this trope we do not find the notion that we're living in the aftermath of a lost Golden Age; the present, it seems, can hold its own against the past. Nor is this perspective or trope ironic — i.e., the past isn't celebrated with an edge of mockery or wink-wink knowingness; the present isn't valued more highly than the past. Neither earnest nor ironic, this mode of grappling with and making use of the past is best described as serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious.

Call this perspective or trope rebooting. Unlike nostalgia, which puts past forms and norms on a pedestal, and unlike retro, which reanimates an antiquated trend or style and forces its spiritless corpse to shuffle about pathetically (the technical term for which is kitsch), rebooting revives the spirit of past forms and norms, trends and styles — taking them seriously enough to make them relevant and contemporary… while playfully deconstructing, recontextualizing, and misappropriating them. I've mused aloud about the philosophical implications of rebooting elsewhere; here, I'll just point to a few examples of what I mean.

1. Rebooted pop-culture franchises like Batman Begins, Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Star Trek. These recent movies aren't nostalgic, nor are they ironic. They are serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious. They celebrate the spirit of their originals, without succumbing to the anxiety of influence or seeking to establish a (mocking) protective distance. (Note that DC Comics is about to relaunch every single one of its titles — each beginning with issue #1.)

2. The artwork of Shepard Fairey, from his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" viral sticker campaign to the Obama "Hope" poster, appropriates the style of 20th-century political agitprop in way that is neither earnest nor ironic. [See images at top of post.] "I don't want to demean anyone's struggles through casual appropriation of something powerful — that's not my intention," Fairey has explained. His serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious approach is deeply unsettling; he has many critics. Like a more engaged Warhol, Fairey rejects the unspoken assumption that an artist must be original.

3. This Ben Sherman ad, which playfully references the suspenders-wearing style of the 1980s ska fad, without mocking that trend or earnestly glorifying it.

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Making Sense | 2 Comments »

Network: Sam

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?  If you look around you what can you see?

I’m at home procrastinating, my flat is messy and the walls are covered with drawings i’ve made. Its a Sunday and a tough time to concentrate with a week of work only just behind me and another one ahead ready for a dizzying ascent. My internet browser is filled with tabs with different bikes on; I have recently become a convert to the cycling faith and am falling fast and deep into an entire new world of knowledge and discernment that is available to confuse and amuse me – seemingly endlessly.

What's your first memory of an interest in semiotics being triggered in you – even if you didn't know the word at the time?

Many of my family are artists; whether full time or in the corners of their lives (as I am). My father was a painter and his vast abstract expressionist (ish) canvases were a real visual trap for a small boy. However I always remember being troubled by their abstractness, always desperate to garner some sort of meaning from them. I remember one particular painting that hung in our living room that was probably four feet wide by 3 feet tall I remember staring at it intently seeking patterns and figures in its intricate layers of brush marks and spatters.

Describe the courses of academic study that brought you to point where you could consider working professionally in applied semiotics?

My undergraduate degree was in religious studies at Edinburgh where I focussed on South Asian religions and anthropological method. My Undergraduate dissertation used popular culture as a source to explore the way that the nation is figured as feminine. In my interview for Added Value I wasn’t particularly excelling before i got all excited trying to relate of Indira Gandhi’s last speeches in which she said “Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation” and the goddess Cinnamasta (worth googling).

What practical advice would you give anyone who would like to earn a living doing what you do?

Don’t be a snob, don’t be partisan when it comes to the world around you; for me working in Cultural Insight at AV is as much about being a fan of Barthes or Judith Williamson as being curious about the way that Grazia is organised, or genuinely interested about the way that yoghurt is advertised. I once tried half seriously to let my boss tell a client that Muller Corner was a Brechtian Yoghurt – she wouldn’t let me. But all I mean to say is that the game of Semiotics is about absorbing and interrogating as much as you can from as many sources as you can.

Tell us about your current academic project.

I’m working on my M.A in material and visual culture course at UCL (definitely worth checking out the course if you don’t know it already). I’m working on a dissertation about commercial semiotics. I’m interested in the way that a discipline that had its origins in deconstruction has become a tool for the construction of meaning. The transition from a discipline that often dealt in ideology, to a commercial discipline that deals with practice. In doing this I’m looking from both a historical perspective, tracing the growth of the industry, and ethnography and interviews to explore the current ways that we relate to theory. I’m interested in the strategies that we use day to day to represent our ‘science’ of representation. What is academic theory for us and clients; is it magic, is it technology, is it pure pragmatism and common sense? If anyone would like to offer their opinions or find out more do get in touch with me, I’d be very grateful to hear what you have to say.

Tell us about the picture you chose for this interview.

It’s Ernest Hemingway. I’m new to Hemingway, shamefully. I’m reading A Moveable Feast at the moment as in a month and a half I move to Added Value Paris for a year. Here he is kicking back in Cuba, he’s probably tired from a day of game fishing. I just read him recall saying to a young upstart who was interrupting his concentration whilst writing in a cafe in Paris “At home they’d server you and then break the glass”. I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve that level of misanthropy. One of my favourite things about him was that his wife lost an entire suitcase of his manuscripts and carbon copies. Hard work never to be seen again.

What would you like to be doing in 10 years time?  How will semiotics feature in your life by then?

Truthfully I’d like for excellence in commercial semiotics not to be the sum achievement of the next ten years of my life. I’d like to have gotten to Z in the alphabetical publication that I run (www.orsomethingorsomething.co.uk) and I’d like to have had some of my writing published, I’m 24, I have a moustache – of course I want to be a novelist. 

Image from: http://matthewasprey.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/ernest_hemingway1.jpg

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Enter the Samurai

Monday, April 25th, 2011


 

Wristwatch advertisements found in glossy magazines depict their male (and, in the case of tennis players like Maria Sharapova, female) subjects as modern samurai, of the type described in H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia.

The protagonist of that 1905 science-fiction novel describes "certain men and women of a distinctive costume and bearing" who constitute an austere order charged with directing world affairs from behind the scenes. The samurai, "with faces strengthened by discipline and touched with devotion," are doctors, lawyers, engineers, authors, and other accomplished men and women; they wear simple black clothes, and travel the world lightly. In ads for watches manufactured by Tag Heuer, Bulova, and Breitling, we find today's samurai posed in airports and lofts and streets that could be anywhere in the world; they are ready for whatever happens.

Now comes a blog, Everyday Carry, dedicated to "a lifestyle, discipline, or philosophy of preparedness." EDC's readers submit photos of those small items and gadgets which they wear or carry on daily basis, whether to manage common tasks or for use in emergency situations. The astonishing panoply of minitools, cameras, flashlights, pens, Blackberries, lighters, and (yes) wristwatches on display at EDC suggest that the samurai ideal (as lifestyle, though most likely not style of life) is very much alive today.

Just don't try getting those knives through security, folks.

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

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 »

Shamanic small ads

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Korean Shamanism is rooted in ancient folk religions and dates back at least 40,000 years. The shaman has a special ability to make connections as a mediator between the human world and the spiritual world. Most Korean shamans are women and in some cases, they got the ability when they were very young. There are two types of shaman. Some are understood to inherit Shamanic skills within the family, others through a call from the spirit world. Shamans hold a special ceremony (gut) or give a fortune-telling, to deliver good fortune for their clients or heal unidentified illnesses. Traditionally the shamans also hold an annual gut to propitiate gods of the village or locality. Each shaman is a specialist of some kind. Some are good at healing the souls of the dead, for example, while others can predict the future -while others again are good at the yearly ceremony to exorcise the town.

The integration of shamanism into daily life in South Korea is reflected in brand communications and popular culture.  The image on the right is a famous comedy talk show, where the set design is based on a shaman’s shrine. The host, in costume, plays the role of a shaman and the guest acts as a client seeking a solution to a problem. Shamanism is also a widespread theme in Korean films and teledramas. The centre image was used in Compaq computer advertising some years ago, supporting the claim that the functionality matches that of a shaman.  Odd as this may seem as a hi-tech metaphor it signals the strength of continuing belief in the power of the shaman – unlike corresponding ‘magic’ hi-tech metaphors in the West, Korean shamanism in this context is still connected with a culture that maintains literal belief in the underlying spiritual forces.

For anyone unaware of this living connection with Shamanism, in the country Koreans see as the original home of shamanism, one of the most surprising expressions of this cultural phenomenon will be the small-ads offering shamanic services.  These are common and particularly in evidence in magazines targeting women of middle age. The message in one of these advertisements below reads “The shaman and exorcism are like diagnosis or surgery for your spirit. If you find a good doctor you can get good treatment. So it’s really important to find a good shaman”. 

Small ads list telephone numbers, shrine locations, and give potted histories explaining how and why this particular individual became a shaman. The personal story also supports the track record of big successes – predicting Michael Jackson's death, correctly calling the Korean presidential election, predicting the tsunami etc.  And some ads list the shaman's TV appearances in her/his professional capacity. The small-ad also tend to detail the shaman.s specialism: e.g. solving job difficulties, predicting relationships and resolving relationship problems, business predictions, working on marital compatibility or concubine problems, entrance examination predictions, property investment predictions…

In the hierarchy of specialisms, one of the things people clearly want to solve most through a shaman is the secret of material and wordly success. The shaman is the mediator or agent to satisfy such desires.   The list of problems people want to solve through a shaman leans significantly in this direction. The shaman is a mediator (or an agent) to satisfy these very practical ambitions. Here certain questions and uncertainties arise. It is in a way covetous to go to shaman since, as Koreans tend to believe, the shaman can see the future and so perhaps change it to be as a client wants it to be. There is something perceptually unrighteous and shady about this because people also understand that their future is their responsibility, something that's being made by themselves.

This ambivalence means that the shamans’ advertisements are normally located in places like the last few pages of magazines or the back of the seat on night buses – like these advertisements in the illustration above. This is also a highly commercialised activity, however much its origins are oriented towards the spiritual. There are no free shamanic services. This is a job, a drive to sustain business for the shaman and his/her divine backing. In the pictures in the Korean advertisements, the shamans wear elaborate make up and vivid colour costumes to attract attention – this is a kind of mainstream marketing. 

Koreans tend to go to a shaman when they have a problem they’re not able to deal with for some reason and need to try to find an alternative possibility for now. Although shamanism is deeply rooted in traditional culture and still very much alive today, most Koreans don’t completely trust the shaman’s ability. However we strongly believe that through the mediation of shamanism it is possible to get, at least, solace of soul and some alleviation of desire.  

© Hyaesook Yang 2011

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

Once in a blue moon

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

New Year 2010 when we celebrated the arrival of Semionaut, in Cairo and Boston, was the night of a blue moon. A blue moon, the second full moon in a calendar month, is propitious in Egypt where everybody knows about it, and throughout the world even if you’re unaware it’s blue moon or are a conscious unbeliever. Like astrology, you’re not sure you believe in it but people say it works anyway. Hitler believed in astrology. He was also an amphetamine freak, a non-smoker and a vegetarian. So watch out. And good luck.  There was luck in abundance when the blue moon hung over the Nile.

Between us (founders Josh Glenn and Malcolm Evans) we brought Semionaut to here. Malex Salamanques joined us briefly suggesting a name change to Semionaut then left to enjoy full-time motherhood. ‘Semionaut’ Malex saw in some lorum ipsum filler text for another website in preparation. It chimed with the name of one of Josh’s earlier projects, Hermenaut. I saw it in print, used by Nicolas Bourriaud in The Radicant  – semionauts as people who invent trajectories between signs, setting “forms in motion, using them to generate journeys by which they elaborate themselves as subjects”, “translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviours, exchanging rather than imposing.” More specifically the semionaut mindset, in Bourriaud’s terms, is manifest in activities such as conceptual art, cultural recycling and upcycling, sampling, co-creation, hacking, dj-ing, any form of cultural work that closes the gap between consumption and production.

Let us say that semionauts engage with the world of signs, codes, media, culture, theory, the creative industries and disciplines – in ways at once involved and detached. The detachment of the anthropologist from another planet or participant-observer aware at all times of the semiotic monkey sitting on her shoulder (invisible to others) streaming commentary literal and metaphorical, pertinent and impertinent.  Detached yes but also wholehearted, synaesthesic, libidinal, obsessive (don’t say ‘passionate’ now an empty corporate cliché denoting absence of thought or feeling), in terms of immersion in cultures, communications, how we decode them, recode them, and try to optimize how they work for the benefit and interest of a select few, many, or people everywhere.

Our core group of writers so far work mainly in the practical application of semiotics and cultural theory to further understanding of cultures, communications, trends from mega to micro and the ever evolving world of brands. Our aim was to be global. In the first year we featured contributions from 20 countries, 5 continents. Heartfelt thanks to you all.  A year ago this existed only virtually in the imaginations of two people. The actual Semionaut has been created by its network of amazing contributors.

And now…

• Making that network more of a community

• Strengthening the global with regional editors/content commissioners and special issues – e.g. India, China, Latin America, Australasia, North Africa & the Middle East…

• Moving towards more collaborative and eventually cross-cultural group work – see the recent comparison of beauty codes in India and UK by Hamsini Shivakumar and Louise Jolly. 

• Evolving more of a news and features feel around areas our readers and contributors are involved in – specifically supplying commercially applied semiotic and cultural analysis (for brands, political parties, NGOs and activist groups, architectural practices, regulators etc.); commissioning this type of work as a client; teaching, academically researching or studying these subjects; using the kind of perspectives we engage with (“Signifying Everything”) to create or innovate in whatever way.

• Finding out more about friends of friends, word of mouth, people who happen upon Semionaut. Who are you? What are you doing? Tell us, write something for us. Welcoming the type of article we published last year (old and new friends, please keep them coming!) we’re also looking early 2011 for reflection streams, starting with regular Semionaut writers, on the business of applied semiotics and cultural analysis. Bringing to the surface a core of interests more implicit up to now. And for this making it more spontaneous, personal, raw. We’ll send specific questions out to some old and new friends and ask for answers not too considered. Experience in innovation tells us the best, most original ideas emerge from a group when people are asked first to frame issues personally and not think about it too much. “How can I know what I think till I see what I say”. E.M. Forster wrote that (I thought it was Alice till I searched it).

To keep things personal there will be some specific probes: context (what’s happening round you right now, catching your attention?); big picture (what’s your day to day headline to yourself on where things are headed for the world of signifying everything?); acknowledgement (who’s helping make things work for you); sound track (what’s playing in your head as you think these thoughts?)

Here goes:

Context: first night in a new apartment with a beautiful view of the sea and a sense of arrival; a laptop lost while moving in, along with the draft of this piece, returned today by a friendly taxi driver.

Big picture headline: students in Tunisia just got rid of at least one expression of a corrupt political establishment; this summer England.

Love marks: Josh Glenn. Awesome. Really famous by the end of 2011 – put money on it. And RIP Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart, who was the Josh Glenn of the hippy days: “Beam in on me baby and we’ll beam together/You know we’ve always been together/ But there’s more…”.

Sound track: If you don't know the tune you must hear it. And Google the lyric in honour of the students. “We Can Be Together” by Jefferson Airplane. 

Let us know what you think.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics, Sequencing, Socioeconomics | 2 Comments »

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 »

Korea’s Flag of Learning

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

These are typical images about war or revolution and victory. With the drama and the symbolism of the flag they show a mighty determination to win even if the cost is death. On the left Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima (February 1945) and on the right Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Less familiar to most of us is the middle image – which is in fact an advertisement for a private education company offering extracurricular lessons for primary and high school students after their normal classes. In this dramatic Korean ad, the bold and dynamic handwriting says 'Let’s go ahead a grade' – that is to say fight, win, move ahead with a higher mark.

Private education provision always implies social hierarchy and a competitive arena in which the stakes are high. If public education aims to provide a level playing field, the private provision tilts it and sets the odds in favour of the child and the parents who give an extra push in terms of time and resource. Our featured image for this article (on the Semionaut home page) shows scenes from a Korean university advertisement. On the left, the lady proudly states “my child is studying at the university”. On the right she questions the professor about how good the university is. So this is not just about individual students but about families, not just personal striving but a kind of team battle.

“If you sleep 5 hours you will fail to enter a university, but if you sleep 4 hours, you can enter a university” is a common adage given as advice to high school students in Korea. The education system has had a strong market dimension to it in Korea since the early days of modernization in the 1970s with the New Community Movement. Investment of time and money can lead to good results which, in turn, can get the student into a good school. Images of hard work, cut-throat competition and exhausted students are already familiar from a country like Japan but the promotional rhetoric at least seems to have escalated even further in Korea.

So far we have seen one example of the family as the student’s greatest ally and another in which educational success is metaphorically linked to military triumph. This latter association is, in fact, now an expression of an increasingly familiar code. Here are two others ads for Korean universities in which the iconography of the flag against the sky depicts the triumph of the student/warrior over all opposition, while a third (right) states “Sharp intelligence conquers the world, with the sword of this university”.

With the shelling of Yeonpyeong island by North Korean forces in November 2010 the world was reminded of a military context which has been part of Krean consciousness, language and popular culture for over half a century. Wr and fighting metaphors have had positive connotations since the end of the Korean War in 1953 and through subsequent periods of national regeneration and economic growth.

In Korea, when people want to say something like 'Let's do it together' or even 'Cheer up', they say “Fighting!”  Related to this “If you feel you cannot do it you have to force yourself to do it!” is a common attitude. The language of war and military conflict is commonplace in international business discourse with its metaphors of ‘strategy’, ‘outflanking the opposition’, the ‘coup’ and so forth. What’s distinctive about this area of Korean culture and communication is the explicitness of such warlike imagery – and its insistent presence in an arena which is so central and so critical in young people’s preparation for adult life.

© Hyaesook Yang 2010

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense | 2 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 »

Cross-Cultural Design FAIL

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Cross-cultural collaboration is a trend that continues to spread and open new pathways. A wonderful example is the latest trend in world music: Afro-Cuban music. "AfroCubism" (Nonesuch, November 2010) is an album that grew out of a project aiming to find a cultural synergy between Africa and Latin America. The transnational collaboration between Malian and Cuban musicians was intended to demonstrate that music has no linguistic barriers. Alas, political barriers got in the way: a problem with Malian passports and Cuban visas meant that the collaboration was delayed for fourteen years. In the meantime, "Buena Vista Social Club" — a collaboration between Cuban and American musicians — became a global success.

Historically, Cuban music was built on the foundations of African immigration, and West African music was hugely influenced by Cuban music. It is not strange to hear stories of people in Mali dancing and singing to the rhythms of Cuban songs in the Sixties. Cuban music was heard more in the African continent than the other way round, but the connection between the two cultures was always there.

Musically, "AfroCubism" demonstrates the project's collaborative spirit and reveals the cultural synergy between Mali and Cuba.  Unfortunately, the cover design entirely fails to connect with the project's original idea. Unless you are versed in the history of Modern and African art, the primary associations derived from the design are disengaged from the emotional narrative built behind AfroCubism — i.e., the historical synergy between Mali and Cuba. The concept behind the graphic design seems intended to attract the European public, which contradicts the spirit of the project.

The semiotic genesis of this particular design — geometric shapes, modern colour schemes, clear drawings of bodies deconstructed with instruments moving around — shouts "Cubism." Although the association with Cubism can provide a multiple and constantly shifting viewpoint that could be applied to a collaborative, cross-cultural project, such association seems to be just a linguistic excuse to portray the Cuban part of AfroCubism. The immediate associations of Cubism are far removed from Cuba-ness, creating a cultural distance effect with regards to the basic associations of AfroCubism. The relationship between West African masks and their influence on Picasso’s work is clear and it helps the connection with the Afro part of the title, but where is the primary association of Picasso and Cuba?

I'm not judging the aesthetic value of the cover, nor the dexterity of its well-known designer (whose work I admire). However, the "AfroCubism" cover is a good example of the importance of design and semiotics in the portrayal of cultural identities and experiences. Graphic designers and semioticians are central in the execution of many ideas that are consumed around the globe; therefore, they are actors in the quest of the authentic. Though their background work is invisible to the public, the results of their work help to construct new cultural experiences and connect to individuals at a deeper level. The responsibility for the creation of designs that connect with people and cultural realities is high and will be higher in years to come, especially if we take seriously the spirit of collaboration.

Posted in Africa, Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Global Vectors, Global/Local | 1 Comment »

Sandy Claws

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Santa Claus? Sandy Claws. Ebullient tubster with heaving heart? Pie scoffing Bogeyman with sinister streak. Provider of pleasure? Pleasure seeker. Daft attire? Devil wear. Hilarious hat? Horny head.

Does Santa Claus exist? A quick web trawl proves indecisive. What's clear, though, is that there are more people fighting his corner than not. Particularly convincing is Henry Gee, who suggests Santa is (duh!) a Macroscopic Quantum Object: 'Following the logic of the two-slit experiment, it is perfectly possible for Santa to visit all the good children of the world simultaneously, provided that he does so unseen. If he is spotted, his wavefunction will collapse and he will be revealed as your Dad with a comedy beard after all.'

 

That solves that then. But what does it really mean to ask if Santa exists? In other words, who, or what, is Santa anyway?

There seem to be two answers. One the one hand, Santa is the same poorly camouflaged portly charmer he's always been. A figure uniquely appreciative of a child's capacity for wonder. An unfailing public servant who only indirectly costs the taxpayer any money. On the other hand, Santa is increasingly depicted as something of a liability.

The skateboarding brand Bench has an outpost at the bottom of my road. This Christmas, they're offering 25% off everything in store (unless you skateboard, and are endowed with what they call 'core muscles', I'd remain seated. This discount isn't for you). The odd, highly non-sequiturial thing is the marketing of this reduction as Santa's own 'transgressive secret'.

According to Bench, we can add Santa's name to the long list of celebrities whose careers have at one point or another veered off the sleigh-rails. Mugshots of a disgraced Mr Claus blanket the shop windows. Black eye, ripped stockings, missing hat — altogether battered. 'After too much sherry, don't rely on Santa to get your presents right', reads the website. As with clowns, and Mr Whippy van-drivers, one assumes that being Father Christmas demands regular and fairly copious bouts of liquid enhancement. Maintaining such eternal merriment must be hard work.

In fact, as an aside, the notion of a deliriously plastered Santa makes some empirical sense. Fly agaric — a highly toxic kind of mushroom with mind altering properties — is routinely imbibed by grazing Lapland reindeer. Because of their size, the fungus has no negative effect on the animals whatsoever. Although in its raw state fly agaric is potentially deadly to humans, as it passes through a reindeer's urinary system it is stripped of this fatal stripe, and emerges out the other end still retaining a great deal of its hallucinogenic punch. The piss can then be safely sampled, and fun-for-all kaleidoscopic mayhem is guaranteed to follow. The kind of kaleidoscopic mayhem, you could argue, likely to bring about visions of flying reindeer…

Aside over. An impromptu quantitative guess, based on nothing other than my own sense of statistical convenience for the purposes of this article, suggests there are at least as many bad Santas as there are good ones. A recent episode of Family Guy has Santa as an anaemic, exhausted wreck presiding over a factory crammed full of in-bred Elves. Outside, radioactive, sabre-toothed reindeer lie in wait for workers who can't hack the pace. 'Christmas', they all sing, 'is killing us'.

And it doesn't end with Santa himself. This year, why not get your hands on some Alien vs. Predator crochet danglers? Would a Death Star bauble look good hanging from a shaky limb of your tree? In 2009, consumers in the UK managed to propel Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' to the top of the Christmas singles chart. This year, a song called Liar Liar by Captain Ska, which holds a bejewelled middle finger up at the country's coalition political leadership, looks likely to find similar success. It used to be Teletubbies, X-Factor winners and, well, Love, Actually. What happened?

Sick of the sickly. Fed up with the familiar. We all got bored. Rapid commercialisation is also rabid — it spreads, neutralises, and renders redundant the energy that abounds at this time of year. That vivacity is being clawed back. It's the Christmas Spirit, but not as we know it. The human tendency towards disruption peaks when all around is soft and sparkling, shiny, precious and perfect. The antidote? Why not pour yourself a tall glass of reindeer piss? There'll be a sooty thump coming from the fireplace any day now. The source might not be quite what you had in mind. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Utopia in Movement? Or Dystopia?

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

In 2010, dance achieved unprecedented status as a cultural signifier in the UK. TV ballroom dance show Strictly Come Dancing continued to transfix viewers, StreetDance 3D came out in cinemas, while US musical-based show Glee also won millions of fans.

This new status was fully consecrated when dance was chosen as the theme of retailer Marks and Spencer’s Christmas ad — the launch of which is a major cultural landmark in the British festive calendar.

This is no longer a self-conscious postmodern idea of subjectivity as performance. Instead, it’s a utopian fantasy of unity, dance providing images of togetherness that bypass the constantly misfiring agon of language.

London choreographer Yael Loewenstein says that “mass dance scenes in advertising often offer up the dream that we're on the brink of a massive paradigm shift — something positive, something powerful, something we do together, with this phase being our warm-up!”

Nonetheless, the M&S ad offers a vision of togetherness that’s as tightly choreographed as a drill, ending with the menacing line ‘Don’t put a foot wrong this Christmas’.

Suddenly the performance looks more like a military parade, showing that glitzy dance forms may be more than escapist fun for countries at war. Is it possible that the precision of the military drill is encoded into the very homogeneity of the chorus line?

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Phone Box, RIP

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

One of British street artist Banksy's most notorious pieces shows a red phone box prone — dumped in a side street, bent as if it were the twisted corpse of a road accident victim hit at high speed. The phone box has a pick-axe through its dorsal area and its windows are smeared by its own blood and viscera. The awkward angle signifies the squalid nature of its death — as if it were running away from its assailant and halfway round a corner when it ran out of time.

In the context of the gradual privatizing of Britain this is poignant visual commentary indeed — one of several semiotic warning signs showing how far along this process is. The growth of non-spaces signify the warping of the public realm; phone boxes are a victim of this warping.

In his book Multimodality, author Gunther Kress writes about social semiotics: "It is the social which generates the 'cultural' and, in that the 'semiotic'." He goes on to write: "In advanced capitalist conditions, the market actively fosters social fragmentation as a means of maximizing the potential of niche markets… The subjectivity preferred by the market is that of 'consumer'." Like the post box and Post Office, red phone boxes used to be seen as signs of the public polity, as a public good. A call for 10p piece and the small queues you sometimes saw outside even sparked some public discourse. Alas, red phone boxes have taken a beating. First they lost their red coats and became ugly glass vitrines. Then, through the 1990s, as mobile phone penetration robbed them of their utility, they lost their clientele. It was good to talk (said Bob Hoskins in a famous British Telecom ad), but now it is good to text.

Phone boxes have become relics: crass and unsightly ciphers of the materialism of 2010-era Britain. They stand as pointless sentinels on the street ignored by all but the homeless and reckless. They are invariably empty, with the phone either disconnected or the receiver hanging  forlornly by its cord. Banner advertising (10th anniversary of Spearmint Rhino anybody?) wrapped on the outside often obscures what is inside. Invariably this will be the calling cards of the sex industry — a gallery of scopophilia. 'Busty brunettes', 'Oriental honeys' and other flotsam thrown up by the latest wave of sex trafficking direct their blandishments at the passerby. The smiles and burnished curves belie the emptiness of a transaction that costs much more than a 10p phone call. Inside they define the word insalubrious, usually smell of urine, and someone has scrawled a slanderous sexual accusations onto the phone console with a key.

Sordid, dilapidated, empty — but selling sex. The phone box is a signifier of the cheapening of life in Britain, hollowing out of public spaces, outsourcing of public services and the vacuum of a Tory cabinet bereft of ideas. It's a proxy for the triumph of consumerism over communication.

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The Spirit of Youth

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

A new film from Sao Paolo’s Box 1824 analyses three stages in the youth culture revolution, culminating in today’s utopian mash-up manifesto for Individuality, Sustainability and Cooperation.

We all want to be young, the voiceover begins. The video continues with a vertiginous collage of movies that depict the first steps in the liberation of the 1950s youth, blessed as they were by the gods of rock and roll. The film enthusiastically moves on, decade by decade, in engaging evolution.

We All Want to Be Young from box1824 on Vimeo.

The body of the film is comprised of movie scenes and numerous cultural fragments, gracefully thrown on the screen. This is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the piece. Its high energy stems from something the world's greatest DJs have been familiar with for quite a long time: themash-up. The mix-and-match overlaps of cultural fragments define a new order of meaning, because not only are the images involved illustrative, but they also have a context background in our minds and in the mind of culture itself. The voiceover creates guidance in meaning, but the side stories are created by images 'stolen' from the cultural screen.

Beyond the aesthetic purposes of a DJ’s tricks, the most relevant essence of mash-ups arises when they are used to reveal peculiar kind of ethics; in this case: the youth ethics. As spectators of the piece, we experience a sense of guidance. We understand a sequence: the birth and evolution of the 'spirit of youth' along the course of time. 

 

The spirit of youth’s firstness: 

The seed of rebellion that had been planted in the 1950s finally breaks through in the 1960s, taking root in the 1970s.  In this time, the new idea of youth is expressed in firstness, striking the world with a new order which can only be felt, not yet explained. This is the moment when the idea of the 'spirit of youth' comes to fruition and begins to grow, in power and influence. At this point, although culture bears a strong expression of the 'spirit of youth', its signified is still vague; as vague and as powerful as the words of order that mark the birth of this new paradigm: Freedom, Peace and Love.

 

The spirit of youth’s secondness: 

The 1980s introduce the imperative of consumption, fascinating young people, who become voracious consumers. Now, after winning freedom of expression and gaining a measure of power within the system, youth not only becomes consumer, but is also consumed. The image of youth is systematically engulfed by market logic, and this phenomenon expands naturally over the course of the following decades.  We may say that this new idea of youth comes into secondness with culture.  Its relationship with the cultural order is by now intense, to the point when youth and culture cannot be told apart; the two have become firmly locked into a feedback loop. The notion of tradition becomes obsolete. Everything is being recreated.


The spirit of youth’s thirdness:

The plot thickens. The 'physical' exchange between youth and culture is intensified, in the 1990s and 2000s, when technology expands at the center of this system. More than subject and spectator, the youth is now the programmer and the program of the new order. While technology appears to be an encoded system for the grown-up world, youth regards it as something simple and natural.  Far from the revolutionaries and rebels of yesteryear, we have come to identify them as the 'digital natives', almost as a form of cult or an evolution into some nearly post-human being. 'Digital natives' handle information the way we handle our biological needs: naturally. But our wonderment is merely youth deification: it essentially disregards the challenges and troubles this generation goes through, finding itself in a world that dreams of soft, but is in fact much harder than it looks.

 

The manifesto of now:

On the other hand, we do handle information more naturally than previous generations did. In a way, we are the youth (or the idea of youth) in its state of thirdness, armed with the critical capacity to look at the system and at ourselves.

We have become a kind of metaculture; one that is able to analyse itself with the materials it gets from its very culture. We are the multifacet of punks, grunge kids, skaters, surfers, clubbers, hipsters, gipsters, and so many others. We get to experience whatever we want through our individuality, but we lack the authentic, the original. We have a full range of styles laid out to our convenience, and the only originality we get to experience is mixing and matching. These mash-ups are used to create new, aesthetically pleasant hybrids, but, in order to gain critical intelligence in the face of history, we must learn how to organize them. Only then will we be able to lead mankind into an actually new world.

This video does that. Young people today think of strategies; they reflect and integrate with the framework.  I am hoping the first global and pragmatic youth is able to really cause a fissure in human culture and finally realise the founding dreams of its spirit: Freedom, Peace and Love. It seems we now understand these words not only as distant ideals, in firstness, but as ideals which are now active and alive within culture, disguised as other words. Food for thought: could it be that the good old Freedom, Peace and Love are hidden in the buzz words: Individuality, Sustainability and Cooperation? In the end, it seems the spirit of youth has been helpful to everyone. Now that it is over 40, the 'spirit of youth' may finally be old enough to take the whole world in its hands.

 

© João Cavalcanti 2010

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Office Christmas Party

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Thanks to ace cultural and semio-sleuth Stephen Seth (pardon the alliteration – a tongue-twisting test of Christmas sobriety) for the link to Adam Curtis's blog and this 1969 UK TV documentary about a London advertising agency's office Christmas party.  Try not to view this at work if anyone's watching. It's 30 minutes long.  

Go on then.

This is a fascinating piece of social history which from one angle shows our parents and grandparents involved in rituals and behaviours exactly and uncannily like what we do in UK today, but with slightly different signifiers – like an office functionary in charge of a big reel-to-reel tape recorder (which has to be switched off at 8 pm precisely) rather than a DJ.  But from another angle these scenes from a few decades ago are stranger and more defamiliarising than something we might watch in a documentary on some tribe in the New Guinea Highlands today. The past is another planet. The older Baby Boomers once lived on this one – many of them still do.

Cue The Office Party

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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 »

His & Hers

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

A recent post over at Sociological Images, a social science blog that "encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry," has some excellent points to make about how male and female bodies are represented abstractly on public restroom doors in various countries…

Almost universally, these signs depict men as people, and women as people in skirts; except in Iran, where men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts and hijabs. Some signs incorporate gendered posture: the woman is canting, or has her eyes demurely cast downward, while the man has his feet firmly planted on the ground, displaying his physical strength. And so forth. Click on the "full story" link for many eye-opening examples.

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Meet the Herbivores

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Gender relations have emerged in Japan as a topic of heated debate, not least due to the emergence of what have come to be referred to as the ‘herbivores’: a generation of young men who shirk traditional notions of masculinity in favour of a softer, more gender neutral perspective on life. If media polls are anything to go by, up to 75% of all males aged 20-35 identify with the “herbivore” mentality.

A fiercely patriarchal society, the traditional Japanese masculine archetype is physically and emotionally strong, fiercely competitive, decisive and hardworking. A man’s path in life is to provide for his family and stay loyal to his employer, making the social and financial ambitions of both his society and his company his own. The aspirational man is to study hard, enter university, find employment at a well established Japanese company and slog it out until he is either retired or dead (in more than a few cases, from overwork). Women are objects to be wooed and wined with lavish lack of restraint, the extravagance of the chase being a measure of the man’s success and masculine prowess.

Enter the herbivore. Products of the economic turmoil of the post-bubble era, employment was never a given for them and a university degree could just as easily be a ticket to NEET-dom as a door to financial stability. With the demise of corporate infallibility the Way carved out for them by their fathers has come to appear increasingly precarious and in the relatively comfortable society that is modern Japan, suddenly the sacrifices entailed pose an unattractive risk. Coinciding with this shift has been the emergence of the imported notion of gender equality, which has seen an explosion in female ‘career women’ stealing coveted corporate posts and slowly diluting the long established male egoistic culture with the aid of a fresh new batch of sexual harassment laws. A lot has changed in a short space of time and true to the nature of humanity, so too has man.

Today’s herbivore no longer craves the protein of the corporate pay packet nor the status that derives from it. He shuns both the flirtatious hunt for female flesh and the desire to lurk amidst the smoky veil of late night gentlemen’s club dens. A ‘grass-eater’, he is more cool and casual on many fronts and much less apt to go gung-ho on pretty much anything at all.

Over and above this though, the exact perimeters of herbivore-hood are equivocal and there are as many definitions are there are subjects. Some typically observed characteristics include:

Lack of sexual aggression: AXE deodorants found 22% of a sample of 20yr old Japanese males to have never had girlfriends. Other surveys claim to have found 73% to have never had sex. Women’s magazines are alive with frustrated war stories of ‘fruitless’ rendezvous and Tenga’s Egg series of adult toys are breaking all sales records as they proffer a new culture of solitary pleasure

High risk aversion: in a society where risk no longer brings surefire return, both personal and financial risk is avoided wherever possible. You won’t see the herbivore taking on a hefty loan for a sexy new sports car, or wanting to drive it fast even if he did

Domestic focus: travel is less about exotic destinations and more about chilling in one’s own backyard. Family takes priority to the company or economy, the herbivore opting to head home after work while his father stays back late drinking with clients and colleagues

Keen hobbyists: traditionally female pursuits are no longer out of bounds — Saturday night may be spent cooking up a storm rather than spending up big at the hottest spots downtown

‘No sweat’ mindset: the herbivore is more cooperative than competitive. Ambition is aggressive, sweat is smelly and exertion is uncool

A distinct sense of health and hygiene: heavy smoking and drinking is out, cosmetics and self care are in. Fragrance and freshness take on a newly heightened importance as salons emerge as the new dark smoky room.

So is masculinity dead in Japan? Perhaps. But more likely it’s just hit an extreme spot in a process of long-term social adjustment. The rigidity of the masculine archetype has felt stale for decades now and despite the frustrations of parents and female counterparts, change in this case is probably not necessarily such a bad thing. Herbivores are certainly welcome to cook for me anytime.

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East and West in Wonderland

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

It’s 2010, and Queen Victoria’s empire is still going strong. At least in Tim Burton’s film version of Alice in Wonderland. Here we have Alice falling down the rabbit hole in order to resolve a few psychological issues and find herself, before returning to the real world to set sail for China and open up some new trade routes.

So, while it only gets the briefest mention in the plot, the East is the film’s end-point and possibly its hidden meaning too. Here, the story becomes a personal-development narrative, all about strengthening its heroine for her colonial mission. Transposing this version back into the late 19th century would make Alice a Girl Guide, undertaking character-building missions aimed at forging resolute servants of Empire.

The film shows the extent to which the themes of identity and empire-building go together. Alice’s identity quest is all about working out whether she’s the ‘right Alice’ — the girl whose mission it is to fight the enemy and establish the rule of good.

Good, evil; true, false; even red and white — the film is propelled forward by pure binary logic, pitting self against other, heroes against villains, and of course West against East too.

It’s strange that this most violent and oppositional of logics should be instated at the heart of one of 19th-century England’s most deconstructive stories.  After all, when Alice meets the Caterpillar, and confronts his scornful question ‘Who are you?’, it’s to undergo the unravelling of identity — to keep getting it ‘wrong’ without any hope of getting it ‘right’ — not to start out on a quest for her true self.

In 1966, Jonathan Miller adapted Alice in Wonderland for the BBC in a version fully open to this deconstructiveness. No binary opposites or identity quests here; no colonial missions or Manichean showdowns. Instead, we have Ravi Shankar’s sitar accompanying Alice as she wanders from one mystifying experience to the next — East and West together bending sound and logic as they venture outside the conceptual structures of opposition, violence and empire.

Of course, it’s possible to read the use of the sitar in this film as a signifier of exotica, or 1960s psychedelia — keeping in place a colonial idea of the East as the West’s fantasy playground. But, interestingly, Jonathan Miller wanted to use the instrument because it was the best way to get the sound he was looking for: the buzzing of insects on an English summer’s day. What better deconstruction of the East-West opposition than that: the sitar as the very sound of the English pastoral?

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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. 

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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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Science Fantasy

Friday, November 12th, 2010

This week, Semionaut looks at soft science coding.

The third of British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's Laws of Prediction is the most widely quoted one: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. [1] In US communications, Clarke's third law is scrupulously observed in advertisements for beauty products of all sorts, which use science-fantasy imagery — e.g., high-tech products whose packs glow from within, black-box technologies emerging from a void — to bolster brands' "proof points."

Scientists and engineers surely find such romanticist, counter-Enlightenment, non- or even anti-positivistic signifiers for advanced technology laughable — or perhaps outrageous. And yet high-tech products and services from computer, energy, IT, and mobile telephony companies, among others, are also marketed, in the US, with the aid of exactly similar science-fantasy signifiers. Ads for the no-cords Powermat feature glowing black-box technologies perched atop a glowing black-box technology; ads for Sprint's HTC Touch Pro show an energy beam snaking around a smartphone. And now IBM, a brand known for its no-nonsense rationalism, has gone science-fantasy.

In "Data Baby," one of seven endlessly watchable TV spots recently directed for IBM by Mathew Cullen, data (the baby's heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, ECG, temperature) envelops and surrounds a newborn in a neonatal ward, forming a protective shell/blanket/mobile — we might even think of it as bathwater. It's magical — no, wait, it's science! It's the human touch — no, wait, it's hyper-advanced technology! What a compelling fantasy, indeed.

Motion Theory's Angela Zhu, who art-directed the spot, articulated the oxymoron at the heart of science-fantasy when she told FXGuide, "The data had to be very fragile and humane. The difficulty was to find the balance between technology and humanity… The data blanket had to feel like a mother's finger running over a baby's face — the fragile love and protection is hard to recreate with technology. Technology is informational, humanity is emotional." Meanwhile, the ad's visual effects supervisor, John Fragomeni, expressed the same oxymoron from his own discipline's perspective: "It was important to show how the data was interacting with the baby. It couldn't be threatening in any way, it had to be comforting. … The data that came off the baby was meant to be very organic, rather than like a digitized baby. In the early days we had the data much closer to the skin, but when you're working that close, we found we needed to lift it further and further off the skin because it started to feel like a digital tattoo."

Now that Big Blue's marketing has gone the science-fantasy route, humanized science coding no longer feels particularly emergent, in US culture and communications. (So what science coding is emergent? Ironically, perhaps it's what IBM used to be known for: cold, inhuman, unemotional, inorganic, even threatening science/technology coding.) However, it should be noted that there are two codes at work in "Data Baby": the baby (humanized science) and the data (patterns emerging from ultra-complex info-sets). Let's not throw the bathwater out with the baby.

 

[1] This truism may have been borrowed from "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon," a 1942 Leigh Brackett story in which a character says: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, …. Simple science to the learned" — which might, in turn, have taken inspiration from Mark Twain's 1889 time-travel novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

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Clutter Panic!

Monday, October 25th, 2010

American lifestyle magazines and reality shows are relentlessly on-message, at the moment, when it comes to clutter. Forget any romantic notions about the artist/genius whose studio/office looks like a disaster zone, or the un-uptight family (e.g., the Sycamores in Frank Capra's 1938 comedy You Can't Take it With You, or George Bailey's happy family in It's A Wonderful Life) that collectively refuses to stress out about domestic disorder. The media's message today is 100% modern, all business: Clutter is never OK.

The aesthetic of the spa, which is evoked by the layout of magazines like Real Simple and Martha Stewart's Body+Soul, is a modernist one: spartan, lots of white space, restful for the eyes because there's so little to see. Le Corbusier described a “white world” of precision, clarity, and order, and a “brown world” that is cluttered and muddled; the former is modernist, the latter romantic. But the former is the aesthetic of Dabney Coleman's evil corporate boss in Nine to Five (1980); the latter is Lily Tomlin's heroic aesthetic in that movie. The former is the Death Star aesthetic of the bad guys in Star Wars; the latter is the Millennium Falcon/Tattooine aesthetic. Which side of the Force are you on?*

 

From the dominant cultural perspective, clutter is a symptom and sign of an out-of-control, excessive lifestyle. There's also a social class angle: yards littered with rusty vehicles, sprung couches, and lawn ornaments are the first thing to disappear when a working-class or poor neighborhood is gentrified. However, in recent years, the moral discourse around clutter — it dates back to the Puritans — has been medicalized, lent a scientific aura. The title page of a feature article (shown above) found in an issue of the magazine Weight Watchers speaks volumes about the mainstream anti-clutter position. "Getting a handle on clutter is the key to living better — and losing more [weight]."

As the author of the feature shown above puts it, "in the same way we surround ourselves with so much clutter, we overwhelm our bodies with caloric clutter." I'm pretty sure that this statement is what Aristotle would call an example of ignoratio elenchi, i.e., an argument characterized by a conclusion that does not logically follow from the stated premises… but let it pass. The dominant cultural theme is apparent: Men and women whose homes or workplaces aren't spartan and tidy are fatally, suicidally self-indulgent. In an economy that encourages workers to be rolling stones, it's forbidden to gather moss.

Many other magazine features, particularly in women's magazines, link clutter to psychological stress. In the same way we surround ourselves with clutter, one pseudo-expert after another warns, we overwhelm our fragile sense of wellbeing with mental clutter. Reality TV shows like TLC's Clean Sweep and A&E's Hoarders take this meme to its logical extreme: they visit the homes of obsessive-compulsive clutterers and, in doing so, encourage the viewer to ask him- or herself, "How close am I to being one of them?"

Despite my snarky tone, I'm not opposed to keeping one's household or workspace neat and tidy. Nor do I disagree that Americans consume too much, goods- and food-wise. However, marketers and others looking for an emergent way to signify psychological wellbeing or balanced lifestyle should think carefully before adopting the usual modernist aesthetic. A romantic, cluttered "brown" aesthetic is due for a comeback any time now.

* See Gareth Lewis's recent Semionaut post suggesting that in the UK it's not necessary to choose sides in the clutter vs. order culture-wars.

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Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Angles and Bangles

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Sometimes, two wholly oppositional codes appear on the end of a semiotician’s fork at the same time, leaving the practice of coding culture neither figuratively nor literally straightforward. Indeed, one of the challenges facing commercial semiotics in a post-structuralist cultural landscape is to account for memetic intermingling, unholy copulations. I want to look at one such instance here.

The clothing, furniture and stationary shop MUJI is a fine exponent (though hardly an original architect) of a coding species that has become an alpha staple of the UK retail market over the past three years or so. Specialising in the streamlined production of minimally packaged, logoless consumer goods, the MUJI shop floor is a place of almost yogic quietude. Admittedly, there’s usually someone going berserk at the doodle-pad, but overall the place is calm and curative. Its unforced tidiness appeals to the Obsessive Compulsive in us all.

I’ll paint you a picture. In the MUJI Universe, nobody has a name exceeding one syllable in length. In fact, people answer to a single, lower case letter. Discussion is kept to an absolute minimum (banter is baggage, after all). It’s a place of flawless complexions and soothing smiles. Everybody’s outfit looks like it began life as an envelope, and will one day return to that blissful, postal state. There isn’t an Apple laptop in sight (No Logo's Allowed), but the whole experience is a bit like being sucked into an iPad down a black hole app. In the store itself, ask for help and it arrives in three neat steps: the employee calmly acknowledges the customer’s predicament, gently whispers the word “follow," then glides across the shop floor to The Point Of Desired Object. I exaggerate. But only a little.

Now, contrast this with the ramshackle appeal of a hipster café. Combination, miscellany and baroque-mockery is the order of the day. No room for a right angle. In my own local, every surface has an object nailed to it (many are oil paintings — think Robert Duncanson with a Dalek twist). There’s a wall-mounted ginger cat, a manikin sans abdomen that props up the bar, and a garrulous clientele with haircuts that would give M.C. Escher a migraine. (Incidentally, you can detect palpable and quite toxic opposition to this kind of lifestyle coding emerging in the UK. There’s nothing particularly idiosyncratic about wearing lime green Wayfarers — so the thinking goes — and nothing clever about orthodontic neglect). The point here, though, is that these two codes emerged in unison. Traditionally, commercial semiotics has tended to order and portion. It likes to sit on the stationer’s side of the divide. Do we need to adapt our methodologies to map an evolving cultural cloth?

The binary detailed here feels particularly extreme. In fact, it seems more than ever to support the argument for a neat and tidy breakdown. But then there’s always that guy at the doodle pad, losing his head while all about him are keeping theirs. And the girl in the hipster café draws Lego antlers in a plain rectangular notebook that looks awfully familiar.

Semiotic analysts need to remain open to the possibility of cultural cross-pollination, even in instances where it seems least likely.

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Moral Fibre

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

"I feel great… body and soul!" testifies Kellogg's All-Bran eater and correspondent Michele H, in the advertisement below, found in the US magazine Real Simple. "I've been surprised by how energetic I feel," another All-Bran fan comments. The latter review won't surprise anyone. In the US, as everyone already knows, breakfast is fuel for hard-working cyborgs. However, Michele H.'s review might strike non-Americans as bizarre.

How did breakfast cereal become soul food, in the United States?

For the solution to this riddle, we take you back to the late nineteenth century, when John Harvey Kellogg ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which was owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Dr. Kellogg was concerned above all with reducing sexual stimulation — which is why, at a time when his wealthy patients were accustomed to eating eggs and meat for breakfast, he fed them instead a form of dry cereal that he'd invented: corn flakes. Do corn flakes lower libido? It's doubtful: Kellogg also performed circumcisions on adult male patients, because he believed that this would help prevent masturbation.

In 1895, one of Kellogg's former patients, C.W. Post, founded a cereal company selling Post's invention, Grape Nuts. In 1908, Post started selling a rival brand of corn flakes which he named Elijah's Manna. Post was not nearly as devout a Christian as Kellogg, as far as I know, but of course manna is the food that God provides for the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. (When raw, it tasted like wafers made with honey. Some scholars suggest that manna might have been the crystallized honeydew of certain scale insects, still considered a delicacy.) Elijah's Manna was later renamed Post Toasties.

Takeaway: In America's collective unconscious, breakfast cereal connotes religiously inspired self-mortification. Unlike bacon and eggs, dry cereal is go(o)d for you.

For more examples of spiritualized breakfast cereal advertising, see a longer version of this post at HiLobrow.com.

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Package Peacockery

Monday, October 18th, 2010

As luxury scrambles to give itself an alibi, either through 'graceful deprivation’ codes, or through patronizing art foundations, the cognac category is fighting a rearguard action. The implacable stoutness of the cognac bottle's base and the haughty imperiousness of its stem seem somewhat anachronistic. Yet whilst malt whiskey in the past few years in the UK has sedulously communicated on connoisseurship and cogitation, cognac has clung stubbornly to the notion of opulence. Marketing to peacock-like young men eager to advertise their successfulness, it has also produced some of the most cringeful advertising of the last few years, including a turkey (below) from brand leader Courvoisier.

A tag line reads “Look but don't touch. Actually don’t even look” which has to be one of the most obnoxious lines in the history of advertising. They use a peacock feather in the background but suffice it to say that the effusive bottle design does not require embellishment. Do not let Judith Williamson loose on this one.

What version of male prowess can we read into cognac bottles?

Originally created in the 1700s, cognac bottles were always slightly more squat than wine but this inverted goblet-like silhouette is of more recent coinage. As the tipple of French nobility, cognac bottle design continues to encoded the sloth, rotundity and opulence of baroque court life even as the industry attempts to lighten the category image to make it more unisex. Promotional drives and cocktail mixology have been thwarted by unmanoeuvrable bottles

Like the heavy doors or the muscular ripples on the fuselage of a Bentley or Maybach, this sculptural display signifies imperiousness  and a prowess that sweeps all before it. More ruggedness in design is everywhere (baby buggies etc), but arguably, cognac bottles are better characterized as corpulent – they splurge distended bellies.

The mythology of each brand is inscribed into the bottle shape. This is a case of mythology through glass sculpture. Remy Martin favour the notion of drapery and folds to signify opulence, Courvoisier the splayed fluting of the neo-classical architectural structure that was the style favoured by Napoleon, a most infamous patron. Hennessy prefer to plump for the jowled heaviness of the absolute monarchy. (There was something very apt about Kanye West wearing black, decked out in sun shades and swigging from a bottle of Hennessy in the wings before storming on stage to tell Taylor Swift that he was about “to let her finish” at the MTV music awards last year.) Martell use the triumphal arch as the signifier of glorious wealth. It can be said that there is an edifice complex in miniature at work.

But this seems to change as you go up beyond the XO tier into the super premium category where decanters become delicate artefacts the price tags reach £2,000 and brands segue into the winsomeness of perfume codes. Remy Martin Louis XIII looks to belong in Marie Antoinette’s boudoir not in a man’s drinks cabinet. What’s going on?

There is something incongruous in the slightly effete intricacy in these bottles. On the one hand it is hard to see them working in the context of a mahogany walled room amidst macho cigar smoke. On the other hand, luxury is increasingly hybridizing with art and many of the expensive bottles look more like ice sculptures than glass.

Certainly brands that seems to celebrate gout ridden sovereigns do appear incongruous in the context of luxury which is becoming less cloying, self satisfied ad given to facilitating experiences (Hermés).

The pudgy, soft profile conveyed in these bottles is certainly out of step with the austere times. Marc Jacobs’ designers favoured a flat stomach with rippling abdominals. His new perfume bottle for Bang is the antithesis of the cognac paunch. Does this signify the need for men to be lean mean and roll with recession packed punches?

What does it say about the ferment of cultural codes when perfume packaging is getting a six pack and out muscling heavy liquor? I’d say it is time to uncork your best cognac and toast the semiotician.

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Yoga minus Contemplation

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

In US communications throughout the 2000s, images of women (mostly) and men striking yoga poses signified "wellness" — a recently mainstreamed New Age mode of existence, in which physical health can and must not be separated from psychological and spiritual health. A woman and her young daughter do yoga together in a McDonald's "mommyisms" ad; Ellen DeGeneres vamps in the lotus position for a vitaminwater ad; Christy Turlington exudes yoga wisdom in a (PRODUCT)Red PSA. The message, in each case, is: in addition to getting fit, you should practice concentration and contemplation.

Recently, however, the following ad appeared in the magazine Women's Health. Planters Nuts icon Mr. Peanut — complete with top hat and monocle — greets the new day with a Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). How absurd! What might this signify?

The ad copy doesn't mention psychological or spiritual health — it's strictly about the body. "Built for your healthy lifestyle. Mr. Peanut knows you strive to live a more active life and eat nutritious foods. That's why he created NUTrition — a line of nut mixes blended with select ingredients. Choose from Heart Healthy, Digestive Health, or Energy Mixes — all with the Planters taste you love."

If this ad is any indication, and I think it is, in the US yoga has now been 100% mainstreamed and secularized. Images of yoga no longer evoke associations with Hindu or Buddhist meditative practices. Forget abstention, austerity, withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects. Though Baudelaire claimed that dandyism is a form of askesis, the dandified Mr. Peanut isn't an ascetic: for him, as for most Americans today, yoga is simply about fitness. The New Age is over. (The new New Age is weirder; more about that some other time.)

Marketers: interested in communicating a message about concentration and contemplation? As noted, yoga imagery is starting to trend residual. Soul Cycling — intense full-body workout on a stationary bicycle, accompanied by motivational messages — is a fresher expression of the same code. What else? Hmmm. Sufism is emergent, in the US — because moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are seen as a front line against the most violent forms of Islam. So perhaps marketers should insert fakirs into upcoming campaigns? Nothing says "concentration and contemplation" like a guy on a bed of nails.

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If the red shoes fit…

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Empowerment is an essential sign of women’s emotional well-being in British culture today. TV makeover shows regularly portray women transforming their wardrobes, and themselves, from dowdy and self-doubting (invisible) to confident and empowered (bright and visible). Red shoes occupy a special place at the intersection of empowerment and visibility. Not only are they a bold and daring fashion statement — they take us into the symbolic domain of the fairy tale, a genre steeped in the empowerment theme.

Click here to view Clairol "Red Shoes" TV spot

In Clairol’s ‘Red Shoes’ ad, a timid heroine dreams of empowerment — or in fairy-tale language, becoming the princess that she truly is. Thanks to her magical helper, the brand itself, she becomes brave enough to ‘steal’ her new power (symbolised by the red shoes) from under the nose of the wicked witch (the snooty sales attendant).

Bravery, disguise, theft and flight, all the fairy-tale themes are there. So is the most important fairy-tale motif of all: the triumph of mobility and daring over determinism and fate (the cruel gaze of the sales attendant), the powerless outwitting and outpacing the powerful.

But going back to one of the milestones in the development of the red shoes symbol, we find a different story. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale ‘The Red Shoes’ uses the symbol not to empower the heroine Karen, but to push her back into the fate she’s desperate to escape (that of the poor, invisible village girl). Karen’s red shoes end up grafting themselves on to her feet and carrying her away in a dance she can’t stop or control.

It’s her own desire that turns around on her, overwhelming her will and forcing her into a parody of the mobility she wants so much. The red shoes here go into symbolic reverse: from a source of power, they become an instrument of alienation and compulsion. Magical bringers of empowerment, wilful destroyers of autonomy — red shoes fulfil both these roles in Andersen’s story.

Returning to the symbolism of shoes today, we see the same undecidability at work.

Shoes in general are described both in the language of empowerment and aspiration, and in that of alienation, fetishism and pathology. Women are often seen as being ‘out of control’ when it comes to shoes: prey to addiction, compulsion and obsession. But at the same time, their shoes seem to offer magical lines of flight out of all kinds of traps and dead ends.

And because they come with an extra symbolic helping of magic both helpful and dangerous, red shoes in particular walk the line between aspiration and alienation, mobility and repetition, liberation and compulsion.

RELATED LINKS

Red Shoes Coaching

Red Shoes Presenting

Red Shoes PR (whose employees are obligated to wear red shoes)

Click here for a PDF essay in which Kate Bush tries and fails to expel the alienation from her red shoes.

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Smart is the New Sexy

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

It is not the first time that an US sitcom has won so much popularity in China but The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) received unparalleled acclamation all over the country when Jim Parsons won the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series in 62nd Emmy Awards for his break-through performances as Shelton Cooper.

big bang

Young Chinese audiences are always big fans of US TV shows. However diversified programme types have cut the audience into smaller fans groups and only very few shows share widespread popularity across these segments. TBBT did not receive high recognition in its first season. The plot was considered a bit clichéd, centering on the relationship between a fat-witted blondie (Penny) and a group of boring, geeky high-IQ physicists. The turning point was the second season when the focus shifted away from the romance story to the geeks’ day to day life and particularly to Sheldon Cooper, a physicist with remarkably high IQ and very distinctive personality. By end of the scond season, TBBT was a huge hit and Shelton Cooper became the new role model for many young Chinese males, particularly the “home geeks” (Zhai Nan) who are characterized as follows:

–    Highly educated while lacking social communication skills especially with girls

–    Point-to-point day to day life (home – office), disconnected to the real world

–    Deeply involved in virtual communities, web surfing, online gaming, board games,
     comic books and cartoon animations. A China specific- interest is following their
     favorite US TV shows.

–    Involved and interested in IT technologies, products, tweaks and customizations.

–    Lightly obsessive-compulsive, self centric and emotionally vulnerable (due to one-
     child policy).

This generation was mostly born after 1980 and have lived through the era of the economic boom and one-child policy. They were ‘little emperors’ in childhood and have never faced any of the material shortages their parents did. They are smart, well-educated and ambitious. However when they get out of college they may encounter a wide gap between their expectations and reality. Harsh competition, soaring living costs and and an insubstantial welfare system mean they have to struggle for survival and this may consume their energy and passion for life. Hence many of them choose to immerse themselves in a small social circle with similar interests or values or escape to the virtual world to re-live their dreams. They live in a world of their own and feel happy to be seen as home geeks though the name implies a certain level of disapprobation.  

Contrary to the traditional image of geeks as boring, serious and somewhat idiotic in terms of social skills, TBBT depicts the life of home geeks as being actually full of fun, happiness and excitement. During their spare time these geeks live a colorful personal life, e.g. playing vintage games, reading comic books or doing weird and crazy experiments. They also hit on girls though often in an awkward manner. TBBT successfully refreshes the image of home geeks with which young Chinese audiences can find self-identification, while also featuring a happy, honest and simple life that Chinese viewers can long for as this has been missing from the hassle mundane life.

The influence of this TV show has already extended to multiple areas: The science facts introduced in the show have stimulated immediate Google surges, the T shirts Shelton was wearing become hot sale items, the “Penny knocking” and theme song are used as ring tones and message alarms. TBBT is establishing a lifestyle and will lead the embedded marketing among it’s followers – various props, gadgets, mugs, puzzle boxes that make appearances in the show could all have potential in this respect..

The US NBC TV show Chuck and UK Channel 4’s The IT Crowd also have similar settings involving home geeks. Chuck is more of a fantasy show in which the heroism is developed by the character’s special skills. It emphasizes that life changing (spy life, gun fighting, beautiful girls) will only happen with a huge transition from everyday normality. This small-time-people-goes-big scenario can only take place in dreams. The IT Crowd, employs extreme-sarcasm and black humor, both rarely adopted by Chinese youth.
 

 © Vivian Shi 2010 

 

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China’s ‘Fresh’ Beer Code

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

 

Why has freshness become the most familiar code in the Chinese beer market? This is an account of how bonding, brotherhood, business and cultural codes around giving face play into the predominance of these cues in current beer communication.
 
chinabeer
Beer has gained considerable popularity in China in recent decades as aspects of Western culture and taste are absorbed into different areas of life.  Freshness, purity and coolness dominate beer communication in the local market. Consequently pale beers dominate the category.  Attempts to push other types such as dark beer or ale have achieved very little success so far.
 
A common scene from beer ads is male buddies boozing up in restaurants, as can also often be observed happening in real life. A table of six Chinese guys working their way their way through forty or so bottles of beer is a familiar sight.
 
It is common in China, as in other markets, for male friends to gather together enjoying beer as alcohol is regarded as something that can facilitate bonding and strengthen brotherhood with each other. And according to Chinese drinking etiquette, how much you drink depends on how close the relationship is – and this can also be seen as a way of face-giving among friends, building relationships and group harmony.
 
Beer is used in China as a common tool to enhance relations not only among friends, but also during business occasions, where the combination of positive connotations around how much is consumed and negatives around drunkenness help make light beer the drink of choice. The lighter the beer the more you can consume before getting drunk and the more face you can give your friends – the volume consumed still being more significant as a measure of friendship than, say, the quality of the beer.  
 
However, ‘light’ can sometimes carry a negative association in the sense of “diluted or low quality”. So freshness, in terms of expression, tends to win out currently by suggesting not only lightness and purity but also a pleasant drinking experience.
 
 © Vivian Shi 2010 
 
Notes
 
For a detailed explication of face giving & key differences between high-context and low-context societies see www.beyondintractability.org/essay/face/

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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 »

Grafitti and the Grapheme

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Amble through Shoreditch or down Old Street in east London and you’d be hard-pressed not to run into one of Ben ‘EINE’ Flynn’s colourfully decorated shop-shutters. Since 2006 Flynn has been spray-painting solitary, emboldened, harlequin capitals across the rippling steel frontage of any jewellers or hardware store that will grant him permission. Middlesex Street now exhibits the entire (English) alphabet in one long back-to-back shop-front circuit. As the day’s trade winds to a close, the place starts to take on the surreally genial atmosphere of a primary school classroom. Somewhere along the line, the monadic alphabetic character has re-emerged as a significant cultural signifier.

alphabet

The 2007 paperback edition of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections features a striking piece of cover art. The silhouetted hull of a cruise ship prowls towards us. A powderblue sunset sinks low in the background. You can perceive a lone figure standing at the deck’s edge. He could be admiring the view. He could well be about to jump. Title, author and statutory critical praise are printed in vivid whites and reds inside an oily black bubble of smoke gushing from the ship’s chimney. Even by industry standards (which are generally high), it’s a tight piece of production. 

Why, then, have the publishers of the 2010 edition (released in anticipation of Franzen’s new novel Freedom) done away with it altogether? What we get instead bears a conspicuous resemblance to one of EINE’s east London shutter works. A huge purple ‘C’ all but blots out the smoky white backdrop. A thumbnail image on the back cover suggests Freedom is set to reproduce this. We see a block black ‘F’, the title stomping in white capitals down the character’s backbone. The aesthete might think this retrogressive. And yet it feels right.

The study of the relationship between the ‘part’ and the ‘whole’ (or meronymic relations) has well-trodden roots in Euclidian geometry, Aristotle’s urban organicism and Nietzsche’s political thought. Aristotle, for example, understood the relationship between the individual and the city as a part-whole interaction. For him, the city was a natural organism. The relationship between the component parts (the Grecian subject) and the urban entirety was essentially the same as that which holds between the parts of a natural organism and the organism itself. 

Returning to the present, EINE’s experiment in meronymy makes a clear and certain sense in the context of London’s own endless splicing and congealment. Likewise, Franzen’s novels deal with that other restless organism: the all-American family. An emergent interest in the grapheme – the boldly isolated character – feasibly fits into an emergent cultural exploration around this question of parts and wholes. J.S. Mill – another philosopher who has written on this tangled relationship – outlined the idea of ‘emergence’: complex part-whole systems always retain the potential to generate fresh structures. In a typographic context such as this, that might mean new alphabets, new characters, and new ways of communicating through writing.  

© Gareth Lewis 2010 

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

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

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Tom Ford

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

A major international male icon at the turn of the 2010s Tom Ford represents unparalleled design and fashion flair combined with great business acumen. His personal glamour (a focus for both the male and female gaze) and critically acclaimed breakthrough from fashion and branded commercial communication into mainstream film directing with A Single Man (2010) makes him one of the most powerful and intriguing male symbols of his time.

Tom Ford Grey Vetiver

All the more because Tom Ford a) pioneers for gay men the discrete privilege long enjoyed by heterosexual males that one’s sexuality need not necessarily be core to the definition of one’s character & identity and b) stands aside, in terms of critical intelligence and comments on public record, from an unthinking commercialism and love of consumption proverbially associated not only with his chosen métier in the fashion/luxury industry but also with the Sex And the City era’s unholy alliance of postfeminism with camp male culture (‘you go, girl’, ‘shop, shop. shop’). A 2010 US public radio interview in the link below, for example, critiques variously the vacuity of a culture in which everything has to be regarded a ‘brand’ and the excesses of a beauty industry whose ‘posthuman’ norms attempts to nurture in young women, among many other altered perceptions, a belief that breasts which are traditionally breast-shaped, rather than resembling the shape of a blown up half-grapefruit, are defective and therefore in need of being ‘fixed’ by cosmetic surgery.

As an icon of contemporary masculinity Tom Ford also signals a cultural shift from the dominance to the Alpha male image to that of a more evolved leader who incorporates positive Omega male characteristics (independence, resourcefulness, depth, a pride which can manifest itself in ways other than conventional ego gratification).

© Malcolm Evans  2010

Notes: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121405891

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Nuclear Kitty

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Cleaner, greener nuclear energy is an emergent theme in the context of growing carbon and climate change awareness.  This 2007 article from Australia's "science of everything" site Cosmos looks at thorium reactor technology.  Thorium is safer than uranium and an abundant natural resource producing no byproducts than can be reprocessed into weapons-grade material. The visual interpretation of the nuclear hazard sign here is a semiotic tour de force.  Eco-chic, greenwash self-ironizing nuclear kitsch (or all these simultaneously)?  You don't know whether to stroke it, eat it or give it a round of applause.   

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Visual Shopping

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Material culture and design are the main storytellers of our society. Design has become the common language to describe our relationship with objects and the subconscious messages they convey. Objects define us; they are signs of who we are and who we are not.  Visual shopping is a semiotics methodology that helps to shape these stories, bringing disperse concepts together and trying to make sense of a culture by analysing its cultural language. Visual shopping is about curious collecting, giving access to culture through combining theoretical approaches from material culture and design in equal measures.

Visual shoppers immerse into specific social spaces, analyse culture by collecting with a semiotic, anthropological and design eye stimulus such as images, packaging, and other popular culture materials. Visual shopping is not about – as some people might think– going out and taking photographs at random. It is about collecting, interpreting and validating relevant cultural codes, which can influence future trends in consumption spaces. Visual shopping is a process that enquires the relationships between material cultures and social environments.

Accessing and inquiring cultural spaces via visual shopping

The meaning of space as a semiotic sign is understood in relation to objects and people. The background of this thinking has been shared by Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Peirce, Debray, just to mention a few. Even Einstein contemplated the relationship between space and objects in his theory of relativity. Meaning is created when distinctions are recognised as qualities of the space, which are dependent on material and visual cultures. This is where we began to recognise space as a semiotic sign. Space creates paradigms and defines sign distinctions.

The spatial quality of material culture has a profound impact on the way we, as society, interpret things in our daily lives. Space contributes to nonverbal aspects of communication based on cultural rules, objects and images. Images and objects speak more about people than people can talk about themselves. Studying material and visual culture in specific cultural contexts opens a better understanding of their role in meaning. Visual shopping as a semiotic approach helps to understand meaning in different scenarios from design to social environments. This methodology is aware of multiple realities, and multiple interpretations, it is cautious of presumptions about a community.

When accessing cultural spaces, it is essential to identify the nature of the visual and historical context before a visit, just to determine possible cultural scenarios. A visual shopper should be aware that pre in-situ interpretations are always provisional, and they need to be validated during and post-fieldwork. It is necessary, before starting any fieldwork, to have a clear understanding of the research questions in order to identify scenarios, geographical locations, situations that are potential sources of cultural information. The process of collecting key visual information helps us to construct a semiotic view of specific cultural contexts. However, the process of understanding meanings during fieldwork requires the visual shopper to find and organise information, establish relationships, and make connections between visual signs, objects, and cultural ideas.

The most difficult part of studying cultural spaces, especially for a researcher without an orientation towards semiotics, is acquiring the habit of searching for the right signs in spatial elements, translating the visual vocabularies and sensorial experiences into categories that can be used effectively by brands in their communication strategies.

© Lucia Neva 2010

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Living Autopsies

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Once, the body was text: a second surface for the inscription and production of identity. But now, a host of technologies and practices are cutting through this outer skin, opening up the body's third interior for all to see.

While postmodern codes of the body revelled in its outwardness (its ability to encode identity through costume and appearance), we’re now delving into its inner landscape, with airport body scanners, biometric market research and even ‘neuro lit crit’ all re-framing the body as ‘content’ rather than as ‘form’.

Showing how advertising is picking up on this drive to get ‘under the skin’, a recent UK Department of Health campaign to curb alcohol abuse features scan-like images of the ‘damage you can’t see’.

Meanwhile, last year’s BBC 3 reality TV show ‘Make my body younger’ put participants through a ‘living autopsy’, scanning their insides to reveal the impact of their unhealthy lifestyles.

The overt codes here draw on the Enlightenment discourse of anatomy and dissection, in which the opening up of the body stands for the heroic scientific elucidation of its dark secrets.

But, just as the Enlightenment theatres of dissection played to shock, disgust and fear as much as to noble scientific rationalism, so today’s ‘living autopsies’ find echoes in darker cultural material. For instance, films like Hostel, Captivity and the whole ‘torture porn’ genre provide a stage for the theatrical cutting (or more likely slashing) open of the body and the revelation of what’s within.

These films may seem worlds away from a Department of Health campaign – but, like all the examples mentioned here, they belong to a context in which the body’s interior is increasingly being put on display.  The theme is even extending to the nature-documentary genre, with the UK TV series 'Inside Nature's Giants' opening up animal corpses to look at them anatomically.

© Louise Jolly 2010

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The Land of Mothers

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Is Russia really as patriarchal? Some signs from social advertising.

For almost a year Moscow citizens and it’s guests can observe this cute picture in the underground. This is a social advertising aimed at strengthening the institution of family in Russia. It quotes Francis Bacon: ‘Love to motherland begins with the family’. Matrioshka signifies both parts of the quote: it is the obvious sign of  ‘Rusianness’ and has well-known meaning of fertility.

The Land of Mothers

What is interesting here is  the gender profile of the family. The biggest, the central doll is female and there are just 2 male figures, the role of which is unclear. Is the bigger one a husband? Then he is presented in the subordinate position to his wife (significantly smaller, childish shapes, stays on the side). Or a son? In this case she is a single mother.

The picture may be interpreted as a reflection of modern life. Crisis of masculinity is a popular topic in Russia. It is usually explained by the events of 20-th century, including huge loss of male population during wars and repressions, peculiarities of communistic social system and global processes of feminism. The family picture with dominant figure of mother is almost a norm in contemporary Russian culture. 

On the other hand, old historical symbols are used in the picture. The characters are shaped and dressed far from modern standards. They are not Barbie-dolls, they are Russian dolls. This is how Russian people looked two centuries ago. The background reminds a tablecloth in great grandmothers’ kitchen. As a matter of fact, return to local traditions has been an important social trend of the last decade and national symbols have become very popular. In this context, the ad actually says ‘this is the traditional Russian family, how it should be’. Is this an example of how modern views change perception of the past? Or does this advertisement represent archetypal image of the Russian family?

Here are some links about matriarchal traditions and image of Mother in Russia:

http://eng.plakaty.ru/posters?cid=5&full=1&page=6&id=40
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Motherland
http://eng.plakaty.ru/posters?cid=1&id=773
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-66355314.html
http://www.berdyaev.com/skobtsova/veneratio_Bogomater.html

Notes:
Joanna Hubbs “Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture”
Ireneusz Szarycz “Morsels on the Tongue: Evidence of a Pre-Christian Matriarchy in Russian Fairy Tales”

© Maria Papanthymou 2010

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Double Exposure

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Middlebrow Enlightenment. Analysis of a Sun Chips print ad from U.S. showing how the ideal American woman is in search of a contemporary middlebrow version of enlightenment characterised by a clear un-anxious head, healthy heart, toned legs, tight abs and pretty toes.  How to "live brightly" according to a media version (Oprah, Eckhart Tolle) characterised here by cultural commentator Joshua Glenn. 2009 Hilobrow blogspot.

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