So, I have just (two weeks ago, but it has taken time to get the time to write this blog post!) finished teaching a module entitled Brands and Meaning at the University of Warwick for the 2nd semester running. This is prototype number 2 of a work in progress. Last year I tried to pack in other methodologies along with semiotics and the curriculum was too packed with neuroscience etc. The students were exhilarated but frazzled by the end of the two weeks and there had not been enough time to consolidate learning on the semiotics. One of my favourite students described the course as “one hell of a ride”… So, while the feedback was positive I was asked to create more focus and concentration on semiotics so as to create a more manageable learning road map for students.
My mission with this course then was to convey the main principles of the semiotic perspective, its provenance and to drill specific techniques (mainly digging for connotations, making inter-textual links and code mining). To instill students with the confidence to make bold interpretations without the fear of getting things wrong. The spirit of the semiotic enterprise for me is to simply look critically at cultural texts and visual culture and to make connections. Yet this is sometimes scary for some even post grad students. The idea was to teach them the basic aptitudes of semiotics rather than bequeath a creaking rubric of theory from Althusser to Zizek (as Virginia Valentine once quipped).
So, the course culminated on Friday 15th in a series of group presentations. Students were given an Apprentice like task which counted towards 20% of the total mark. Their challenge was to use semiotics to create a brand from scratch. They could chose any category and address any target group. I guess this is all to say that I was curious to see how well-equipped students were on the basis of 9 weeks of some fairly basic theory and limited practice.
Five groups of 5 students each presented to me and a couple of guest judges (Chris Bilton and Sophie Gomez) two weeks ago. It was fun, enlightening and I think showed how close attention to signs does result in intelligent meaningful brands. This was quite heartening for me as I sat on the panel 2 Fridays ago.
We had, in chronological order, 1. rebranding Manila as city brand, 2. creating a new ethical certification brand for clothing, 3. a new organic fast food brand in the UK, 4. the branding of the de-militarized zone on the 38th parallel between the Koreas (yes, you heard right!) and last but not least 5. a new travel brand called Jaunt. Groups 1, 4 and 5 delivered the best work of the 5.
Firstly to the re-branding of Manila which was the choice of the interpid Group 1. Great task but a tough task, I notice the Phillippines have been advertising a lot recently inviting us to have fun in The Phillipines but I always thought of Manila as a dirty, forgettable metropolis that lacked character. When I was at Flamingo people would always complain about this city and say it was grotty, stressful and offered no perks. One was even stranded ther during the cell phone revolution in the mid 2000s. The group started off talking about Manila placing 16th and last in a ranking of Asian cities in terms of brand value. The group used Umberto Eco’s notion of the open text (interesting gambit!) to position the city as about its people and colour rather than about tangible assets (c.f. Hong Kong). They argued that foregrounding the very chaos and rumbunctiousness as well as the culturally hybridized Manila experience and addressing this head on was the way to go. As such, and having studied the visual codes of other Asian city logograms, they devised a logo centred around a Jeepney, the distinctive Jeep fronted jalopies that ply their trade around Manila. There was something bold, brazen and cheeky about using this symbol that curs through the slightly Confucian po facedness of some of the other logos. And remember we live in the era of Pandbassadors (the clever promotional campaign run by Shandong City) so this is potentially also riding the crest of emergent codes. I thought that this was a good and clever task and well executed too. They only narrowly missed out on a Distinction for this.
Group 4 surpassed themselves. This was a tough task that was executed with great panache. There was a good deal to enjoy in this group’s work. Firstly there was the breathtaking chutzpah to decide to brand and market the de-militarized zone on the 38th parallel between the Koreas particularly at a time of increasing diplomatic tension between both sides. They showed good strategic awareness in how they were funded (private art foundation etc).
Secondly there was the three way category analysis of art workshops, memorials and nature sites / parks and the extraction of the relevant insights. In their analysis, which could admittedly have been a little bit more rigorous, they did succeed in extracting the salient learning from each category that they then injected into the DMZ brand. Finally, there was the creation of a brand concept that combined artistic immersion with nature conservation. They represented it in a spectacularly visceral logo that somehow managed to express the concept in condensed form almost better than the presentation itself. The logo was extremely well thought out packed with clever symbolism and colour meanings too. Firstly the shape of the reversed Z was designed to mimic the shape of the parallel. The lettering of the DMZ work mark carried c the flair and power of the Chinese calligraphic tradition but rather than the measured, clipped and ordered strokes of conventional calligraphy it utilized the edgy, fretful and scratchy form of the avant-garde. This also would have connoted the street art genre – (refers to the thriving street art scenes in both Berlin and especially Paris – the MURS project space). The logo seemed to sum up both the horror of war, the nerve shredding tension of the phony war between the Koreas and at the same time the counter cultural force of street art and passion to defuse this tension. The logo itself contained a number of colours which were extremely well thought through for their connotations. The colours (grey for the history of conflict, blue for the sky, sea and wisdom and the orange as a progressive and hopeful colour). The butterfly wings on the left of the logo – symbols of the fragility of nature but also light symbols of abstract art, helped to balance the logo out. If I had a quibble I might have wanted to incorporate the ovals in a way that made them more closely a part of the logo as a whole but this is me being picky and pedantic. This logo was a triumph both stylistically and semiotically and was spot on for the brand launch…They went beyond the call of duty too in devising communication for a vernissage scheduled to happen on the symbolic date of 25th June 2013. Sterling work and the litmus test is that it felt plausible and monetizable. This group received a high distinction for their work and came top of all the groups.
Group 5 tackled the budget traveller market with a brand concept they called Jaunt. Like the Buff brand of Group 3, this was a brand moniker that retrieved a very little used but well recognized English word. The connotations of the word are that of something fun and relaxed and not necessarily taken too seriously. The category analysis was astute and whilst (like all other groups), they only looked at logos rather than other forms of communication, they did a good job of pulling out the relevant features. It was particularly shrewd of them to pick up on the use of tightly packed squares and triangles and their use in budget traveller and hostel communication. They drew upon the more elegant and open iconography of posh packer and experience traveller categories for the Jaunt brand logo. The brand logo itself was packed with interesting meaning and conceits. It was a word mark incorporating iconic elements (with the letters u and n connected to represent a winding road). The use of black and orange (witness the Creative Semiotics website), is a popular, but still effective, gambit to combine stature and a sense of solidity and expertise with a progressive spirit. The tagline logo with the 1950s American diner connotations and ligature to connote a joined up and smooth experience was also redolent of American road movies and Beatnik counter culture. Although this may or may not have been intentional, it certainly connected with the promotional film. A lot of thought was given to the elaboration of materials to express the brand identity. This group gave more thought to these elements than any other group. They uniquely also created a sub brand architecture with five separate themed jaunts complete with their own coloured iconography. Each of these came with its own name (Bombora and Beat) which retained the quirky and slightly poetic aspects to the brand identity.
The website – complete with navigational icons and some of the elements of a visitor journey already built in tapped into contemporary trends in web design, stripping out thick oblongs in favour of glossy photos that envelope the user in the spirit of enterprise. Putting together a promotional film should give them extra credit on this task as they really went the extra mile to make a good impression on the judging panel. My only quibbles with this presentation was that they did not really anyway state what the brand proposition actually was (what were they providing to the marketplace?) - just a winnebago or a guide or were they going to organize or the stops and provide activities along the way?? which made it more difficult for me to gain a solid sense of the tangibles around which the Jaunt brand was wrapped. Nevertheless, an extremely slick and accomplished, well written, presented and branded presentation which was in contention with Group 4 and only just missed out on the number one slot for this task. It received a high DIstinction grade.
What became clear on reviewing the presentations was that being immersed in a semiotic milieu achieved a number of things for the students. Firstly, it opened their eyes to the amount of information to be gleaned just by being more alert and looking that much closer at a signs in commercial artefacts.
In terms of brand creation it helped remove the conceit that new brands can work in a vacuum. the category analyses the students were exposed to were designed to show how every brand is not only embedded within a cultural context but is also enmeshed in categories that influence its cpositioning.
Secondly, it taught them that semiotics is a useful tool and that armed with detailed knowledge of how meaning is constructed it is possible to go on to create new and fresh meanings with more confidence and with a rationale for each creative decision from naming through to logo and branded materials. It enables a ‘red thread’ of coherence through all elements of the marketing mix.
The best groups ran with the spirit of the theory and applied the principles without getting too caught up in the minutiae of the theory. Some quoted theorists the start of the presentation (Saussure, Barthes, etc) but most eschewed proper referencing which I had said it would be fine to do. My one quibble with the way things went was that most groups skipped rather too quickly over the fulcrum point between the findings of the category analysis and the proceeding into new brand creation. Nevertheless, in 20 minutes they did a pretty good job and it was gratifying to see how much they enjoyed it too. The course received another ringing endorsement from the students with an average score of 4.1 out of 5 across all categories. I also received this sweet missive from a Korean student: “it has been a pleasure taking your class. After 10 weeks wherever I go, everything seems like signs or codes.” So, next year looms and I want to make prototype number 3 even better…
I was planning to write something on the Superbowl ads but having viewed them I really don’t know what to say - as usual cheap humour, throwaway gags. I don’t know I was expecting really - Hitchcock! i guess i still hold out some hope that one day a 1984 ad will come out of the blue. To no avail so far. I guess we have to take into consideration that the US is a multi-cultural audience and so pop culture reference and twee storylines help maximise appeal. The Superbowl is, more so than Inauguration and other communal events, one of these moments where America says I love you to itself.
it seems to me that the last few years has seen a ramping up of the schlock value. Advertising, when it wasn’t just promoting a film seemed divided between entertaining and galvanising Americans. I guess the Superbowl isn’t really about incremental brand building but about gaining fame, goodwill and awareness. Not worth going into the ads individually except to say that there were a few slightly sharper cleverer, more salient spots in the dross…
1. Ram Trucks – the fitting inheritor of the It’s half time in America slot from the Chrysler ad from last year’s Superbowl slot. God said I need a caretaker, so said I need a farmer, stay past midnight, God said I need somebody to stay up all night with a new born colt and then watch it die and dry his eyes and then say maybe next year”. Redolent of the 1930s photos of the Dust Bowl storms and the Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath…Very powerful and culturally charged, homesteading, Depression etc. God said I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bails yet gentle enough to feed lambs and ween pigs… So god made a farmer. To plough deep and straight and not cut corners… To the Farmer in all of us. Guts Glory. Ram Truck.
2. Tide Montana Miracle Stain: clever and funny as well as rich in inter textual references to Montana’s mythical reputation – link with Hail Mary pass and coming back in games, American hysteria over religious fervour and the wife getting her own back. Clever denouement.
3. Go Daddy – Put your Idea Online: The idea of ventriloquizing people around the world cleverly dramatizes the idea that the World is Flat. Now that co-creation, crowdsourcing is on people’s radar in the US could be quite an effective call to action
4. Soda Stream: “We could have saved 500 million bottles on game day alone we could’ve saved If you love the bubbles set them free” – great as challenging heart of capitalism – that of CSD drinks / Pepsi and positioning themselves as progressive and enlightened brand that saves packaging…
5. Hyundai Turbo – just a simple, straightforward ad that just communicates a benefit simply through creative execution of an insight – that of being stuck behind dangerous, unattractive vehicles – nice story well told and perfect for the product benefit
Honorable Mentions: Doritos Goat, Got Milk, Samsung, Budweiser Clydesdales
I am teaching a course on semiotics for the second time this year at Warwick University. It is called Brands and Meaning, an exploration of the semiotic status of brands. It starts with equipping the students with the concepts and then applying them to brands. Never was the adage about only truly understanding something when you have teach it truer. i have been thinking quite hard over the last few weeks about how to best impart what is essential to know about semiotics and what’s superfluous.
Semiotics is hard to teach I think for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there is the paucity of clearly written introductory texts. There are some average to decent ones, but there seem to be issues with most of them. Some are too technical and festooned with too many academic digressions, some use anachronistic examples, some are just visual and too light on theory. Books like Asa Berger are good but again, very US skewed and a bit simplistic. Probably Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler is still a good introductory text, but for 2013 seems a little stale. Someone should fix this situation, maybe I should think about writing a book?
Secondly, there is the decision as to what you need to teach and what is surplus to requirements. Obviously you need to go into sign theory and to show how a sign is a relation (something emphasized by Kaie Kotov) but how many to define? Peirce’s trichotomy or into Sebeok’s 6 signs? Do you go any further with Peirce and risk bamboozling students? Or just take his three way sign referent typology out of context? I’ve opted to pay homage to his legacy and incredibly precise definition of the word sign: “Something that stands to someone for something in some respect or capacity”. Then when you talk about texts and codes, somehow this is a tangle area. In one definition of the word code (system of signs), it has a big overlap with the idea of texts. If you define it as a translation mechanism for extracting meaning then it is more distinct, but there is more of an overlap. Is it needed to teach syntagmatic and paradigmatic. I think that this is actually quite an important concept, but again, this all takes time. Then in terms of codes, how many sort of codes to mention: narrative, knowledge, visual culture, behavioural? It can really become overwhelming. Then there are the techniques and how many to include. Notness, metaphor mining and then sensitizing students to certain visual elements such as typography, colour, framing etc. Again always a value and percentage decision on what to include and what to leave out.
Thirdly of course what contributes to confusion is the multiplicity of schools principally Saussurean, Greimassian, Lotmanian and Peircean. Semiotics, as a trans-disciplinary perspective is replete with doctrines and theory fragments that makes for a very messy and potentially very confusing terrain. There are books (for example the Jean Marie Floch books such as Beneath the Signs the Strategies) that i would ideally like to set as reading but the prerequisite for grasping the arguments is ingesting the whole Greimassian edifice, modalizations, semio-narrative layer cakes and all. It is not so much that I am under estimating the intellectual capacity of my students but the time it would take to explain would warp the whole course. This applies equally to Peircean thinking which is hard to apply anyway without deep immersion in his underlying philosophy. Even though it is an MA course the mutual untranslatability of the theory (which unlike other subjects seem to be enclaves of doctrine, and not to build upon each other) makes it hard to get your head around.
Elsewhere, in academic papers I have advocated the toolkit approach of simply looking at the theories as tools to be applied pragmatically according to circumstances. So, for example Jacobson, design rhetoric or semantic density for product design, Peirce for logos or Lotman for a look at cultural codes. I would say however that this would be for a more advanced course with more time for foundation, as we would have to go into more detail and then drill application of the approach with examples.
What results therefore is a necessary bowdlerization of the canon. I have decided to break down the course into Week 1, Definition of semiotics, and what it is; Week 2, Cultural texts, denotation, connotation and inter-textuality, syntax and paradigm, open and closed works and Week 3, Codes (in art, music, commercially) and genres using Film Noir as an example of genre, residual, dominant and emergent codes. From the next week we go into getting the students to apply theory. in a sense it is much theory than I would ideally like but actually I believe that in this course I need to free students up to develop their interpretive instincts.
Semiotics i think is as much about creativity, permission to make daring interpretation and about abductive leaps of logic as about reading the theories of others. Equipping the students with new ways of seeing, some examples of the ways these have been applied before and then letting them loose on new materials is a sound aptitude led approach.
Of course I have a range of students - i know this because I ask them in the first day of my course why they are doing this. Some of them are more into the theory having studied aspects of post structuralism and critical theory, some want to know why brands are more popular than others and how semiotics can help explain the differences, some were just intrigued by the title and think it is the intellectual, philosophical side to marketing. I make a point of asking my students after each class what one thing they have learned that day (apart from that I should have checked to make sure the audio visual equipment was working). It is always gratifying to find that something has sunk in no matter how fast I have gone or however crazy questions and blank looks I have had over the course of the class. This is what makes the teaching worthwhile. That and being able to get another cohort of students interested in semiotics!
Django Unchained. Great film I thought and can be read on a number of levels. Of course on a superficial level, it was just another Tarantino splatter movie. I went really out of prurient interest to see how it treated the question of slavery. I feared that it might run roughshod over sensitivities, might somehow misrepresent, or in some way end up justifying what has been euphemistically called that ‘peculiar institution’.
The lead up to the film in the US was punctuated by a furore over the extent to which it was kosher for Quentin Tarantino, a white American, to pepper his screenplay with characters mouthing the ‘N’ word with abandon. Underlying this really was outrage at him having the temerity, in fact, to deal with such a ticklish and polemical subject of slavery at all. This in America, where despite the Obama effect, inter-racial couples are still considered noteworthy and racial tensions are bubbling under the surface.
An African American friend of mine who saw the film somewhere in the boondocks of rural Florida said that while he found it powerful said that you could feel the tension in the cinema and that he feared inter racial violence. Obviously, there is much less fear and trembling in the UK. Nevertheless I found it very powerful. Having read Spike Lee’s comments - he refused to see the film on principle - I was a little bit dubious. The relish with which Tarantino portrays African Americans has made slightly queasy viewing for me, but my discomfort if anything has been due to his adulatory attitude rather than derogatory disrespect. His fascination with the Blaxploitation genre is well known. In my opinion, he could be held guilty of fetishizing black youth and hipness in the Mailer mode but I don’t think he can be indicted for lack of research, or disrespect.
Tarantino has been criticized, for glorifying violence in particular and in this film there is no shortage of blood. His blow up in the Channel 4 news interview with Krishman Murty here did not show his best side:
I do think that he made a good point about the cathartic effect of violence of revenge fantasies though and you could say that this was perfectly teed up in a slavery context. What Tarantino captured quite well I thought was the little violences, Foucault’s idea of coercion and the every lingering threat of rape, castration, whippings, the indignities of the system that created the rage unleashed by Django in the second half of the film.
Those that criticize the film though should keep in mind that this was not Roots or a filmic Sacred Hunger. This wasn’t meant to be Primo Levi on celluloid. This was not a historical document. It was a spaghetti Western Splatter flick narrative that happened to use slavery as a backdrop. Whilst there was melodrama and some historical inaccuracy (was 1858 two years before the Civil War, I though Fort Sumpter was stormed in 1861?) I thought it struck a good balance. What most inoculated the film from more criticism for me was the thick level of irony that ran through it. In his Anatomy of Criticism Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye described satire as ‘militant irony’ - irony that wants to bring about change through its venom, and that was what this film was for me.
I thought it was a clever film, for showing through melodrama and via inversion (in this case sympathizing with the black hero) one of the big fears of white America - an armed Black uprising. In doing so the film was vaguely allusive to the racist polemic and deliberate paranoia whipped up by D.W. Griffith’s disgraceful 1915 film “Birth of the Nation”. Birth of the Nation, that I had to sit through in History class, was effectively a recruiting video for the Ku Klux Klan. In DJango Tarantino sublimates white hysteria into black catharsis mollifying the audience through a sense of indignation. This bitter pill is shrewdly sweetened through a love story and sanctifying grace of a benevolent German bounty hunter. The most palpable ironic streak is to be seen in the hyperbolic rendering of Southern gentility and its underside, vicious punitive to keep black people in check.
For me this started early in the film with the extreme almost absurd gentility of Dr. Schaltz’s (Don Johnson’s character) rejoinders to the two slavers at the beginning in the meeting in the forest before executing one and maiming the other to the mercy of his retinue of slaves. Whilst you could argue this was just part of the gentlemanly discourse of the time, I would argue that Tarantino, who anyway revels in nailing the vernacular of the time sought to accentuate this gentility to breaking point to highlight the irony.
Tarantino likes to unleash violence during banal dialogue (gun going off in the back of the car during Pulp Fiction etc) but from a semiotic point of view violence and gentility was a strong binary opposition running through the work. For instance, later in the film Dr. Schaltz is unable to restrain himself from jumping up and stopping the harpist from playing Beethoven whilst in reverie about a slave being torn to pieces by hunting dogs. This was after reminding Di Caprio’s character that Alexander Dumas was black.
As a direct German he could not stand the patina of Gallic sophistication being draped over the social setting to efface grisly deeds. The staging of mandingo fighting and the sound of snapping limbs whilst ivory cigarette holders are being twirled and mint juleps or equivalent were being sipped. The sending of Broomhilde to converse in German and the easy conflation of this with sexual services, the insistence on eating dessert (of course, it had to be the symbolically charged, sickly looking, ‘white cake’) and the tussle over Dr. Schultz’s hand shake: all this was linguistic politesse that Django appropriated during the culmination of the movie as he run amok to a gangsta rap soundtrack.
As he found his voice and his language became more refined and less monosyllabic, the violence became more sickening. He invites the scullery maid and housekeeper to bare farewell to the mistress of the house with exquisite courtesy before he unceremoniously blows her out the door with his Smith and Wesson. Role reversal was often part of the minstrel genre, but this time, instead of ridiculing blacks, the fake gentility of slavery was the butt of the joke. Again, my reading.
I did not think DJango’s Tupac Shakur accompanied rampage sequence at the end of the film in any way ridiculed him or made light of the situation. As with many of the musical signifiers in Tarantino, it is half homage to the genre, part emotional mirroring. Was there some sort of parallel between Tupac as outraged, oppressed outlaw and the Django character and between the oppression of slavery and rage of hip-hop? Well of course, but such inter-textual linkages are also what you’d expect from Tarantino.
The final scene with Django coaxing his horse into pawing the ground in the classical dressage Lippizanner style whilst the plantation house burned was perhaps gilding the lily. It did underscore the hijacking subversion of grotesque gentility by the oppressed.
Interestingly, though many black commentators have sought to distance themselves from Tarantino and to decry the work, there are strong parallels with his treatment of slavery and the work of other artists. The one I want to mention in particular is the vivid silhouette art of Kara Walker. Like Quentin Tarantino, Kara Walker has sought, when she isn’t straightforwardly presenting grim acts of genocide, to subvert and parody the aristocratic pretensions of the Southern plantocracy through her art. She shows sex acts on the porch amongst the Palladium columns in perfumed drawing rooms and sketches the nefarious goings on, the rape, castration and brutality happening behind the scenes.
Walker often accompanies sketches with quotes oozing with sarcasm and often with the argot of the time “I’d just like to thank you for taking hold of the last four years of my life …I’d like to thank you for giving me clothes when I needed them and food when I needed it and for fucking my brains out when my brains needed fucking. I hope that the time we spent in the Quarters with my family sleeping nearby quietly ignoring what you proceeded to do to me… was worthwhile for you, that you got the stimulation you so needed…” Kara Walker shows blacks prancing around in period costume and putting on the airs and graces of their masters. Of course, this pastiche is signifying on the genre of minstrelry which has been so damaging to the African American dignity since the 1890s – another way of keeping freed blacks subservient, ridiculed and undermined. Walker herself has been the subject of controversy for even broaching the issue of slavery, and she’s black so Tarantino was always going to receive flak for doing so.
In fact, Tarantino steered clear of the ritual molestation that was such a part of the ‘peculiar institution’ (the rape accusation that he was so vehement in denial of in the Channel 4 interview) and soft pedaled this aspect which – given the reality of slave masters’ humiliation of female slaves – could have been given salacious treatment.
Of course the ‘N’ word was used and the frequency of its use was entirely historically accurate. Again, rarely was it used directly as an epithet of hate. Where it was used with venom it was amongst slaves as a term of reproach in particular by Samuel L Jackson’s character with his fellow bondsmen and women. This of course referenced the vicious hierarchy, self hatred and internalized inferiority; another pernicious legacy of slavery. Again, not historically inaccurate, and adding depth to the work.
As Jabari Asim comments in his book “The N Word” ‘only when we know its legacy can we loosen this slur’s grip on our national psyche’. At the time it was used as a casual way of justifying the apparatus of slavery by both intimidating and ridiculing blacks in equal measure, underpinning phrenological nonsense: that of people barely descended from a “quasi simian jungle past”. I would say that Tarantino’s seeding of the ‘n’ word in the mouths of white Southerner impervious to black suffering does ample justice to this principle by showing how the epithet buttressed systematic dehumanization. Of course this is my reading and the film is subject to many readings and I can understand why it is a polarizing film and why descendants of slaves would be upset that cathartic discussion about slavery should be provoked by a money making Hollywood splatter movie rather than a more serious art work (such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or perhaps a consciousness hip-hop album) but I still think there’s much to admire in Django.
So I thought this was a brave film and the militant irony and deliberately exaggerated collision of brutality and gentility for me was in itself ample evidence of the satirical mission of the piece; something which Tarantino’s raw interview - in spite of his silly refusal to answer questions about the influence film of violence - also underscored.