[Reading time: Approximately 5 minutes total]
Where would we be without signs? They enrich our lives and give meaning to the meaningless. Truly everything we do is made possible through some form of signification. From our favourite brands to our choice of news provider, the ways that people interpret signs is what creates the difference. The shoes you wear, your choice of coffee shop, whether you take the bus or ride your bicycle to work, these all say something about who you are, they communicate our social identity without ever having to say a word. Signs can come in many forms, it isn’t just a road sign or hand signal – signs are everywhere, and anything that communicates a message is a sign in this sense. Because of this, the science behind signs, semiotics, attempts to create an objective framework to understanding signs. This leads to a lot of conflicting theories and views, especially since this is a relatively new field, but it has also led to ways of understanding how people interact with signs, and how signs leave their impression on people and the culture at large.
Marketing and Semiotics: Creating Multiple Meanings
Value is placed on each object, but the individual interpretation of what these mean makes it challenging to place one above another hierarchically. This is the work of semiotics, establishing a basis for interpreting signs and their polysemic (multiple) meanings. It has less to do with the debate between Tim Horton’s and Starbucks and more to do with how culture affects individuals. We are brought up in a world awash with meaning, and as we grow those meanings are imposed onto us, we absorb them, and in some ways we define ourselves socially through these objects. It channels itself into how we perceive ourselves and others, and it comes from our educators, media, corporate and political spheres.
But to understand how this happens, how people invent themselves through signs and how marketers create their commodity-signs, it’s helpful to first know what a sign is: a sign is anything that is intended to communicate. A sign has two components, a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the symbol, the object, the thing, that holds meaning – a billboard, a hand gesture, a written word or any symbol that has meaning. The signified is what that symbol means – the written word “tree” means a plant with branches and calls to mind a mental image, whereas a waving hand could mean hello or goodbye.
While some signs have fixed meanings, others are fluid in their interpretation. Everyone can understand and agree on the meanings of a waving hand, but the same can’t be said for a book or movie. Consider your favourite film – have you ever had an argument with a friend about what the film was about, what it meant? The director’s intentions and what you take away from it are often wildly different, and many filmmakers, artists, and authors deliberately hide their intentions from the public to encourage that open interpretation. The same is true in advertising, however, the work of advertisers is to have the viewer leave with the intended meaning. The reason an advertisement can be so persuasive is because of how it communicates semiotically.
Reaching your Target Audience
Marketing professionals are often focused on reaching a target audience, but the idea of a ‘demographic’ or ‘target audience’ is more complex than simply looking at similarities in preferences – each individual is unique, no two people will interpret every sign the same way, however there are still commonalities or trends between individuals – this is the work of advertisers, to distinguish sects of people that are like-minded enough to be marketed to as a homogenous group. Because of this, common themes tend to appear in advertisements based on who they are intended for. Why are celebrity endorsements so common? Why does Jay Electronica rap for a Mountain Dew ad, and why is there a Bing ad about Wiz Khalifa’s life? The easy rationale is that their fans might buy the product if they are seen in the ad, however celebrity endorsements do much more than that. Consider why fragrances so commonly have celebrity endorsements.
The product itself is lifeless without marketing, and a celebrity endorsement brings with it an entire personality of its own without any additional work needed. The product embodies what the celebrity has created, and that is what the celebrity is truly selling when they endorse a product – they are selling the essence of their celebrity. Conventional advertising does this, however it takes more work to develop that image, more signification, more focus. Celebrities offer an easy path to the desired brand image or commodity-sign. Shortcuts still have drawbacks however, and the product is then beholden to any baggage brought with the celebrity. People might dislike a celebrity or dislike their lifestyle. By simply placing them with a product, viewers may take away unintended conclusions on the product.
Currently, there is a rise in “influencer marketing” which has a lot in common with celebrity endorsements. In the same way, a celebrity maintains a particular (read marketable) public image, online influencers show only one side of their lives to their audiences to cultivate a following. Influencers can carry massive followings on social media which offers a direct channel to users feeds. They can also be subtle in their endorsements which is impossible in traditional advertisements. In the same way, American Idol judges all have their bright red Coca-Cola cups facing the cameras at all times. Influencers can use the products they endorse more naturally than in a 30 second television ad – it ends up feeling far less contrived if done well.