In March 2020, Semiovox kicked off an ongoing audit of what we’re calling “COVID-19 response” discourse. Our ambitious analysis encompasses US-centric brand communications, PSAs, media, culture, social media, etc., related to (in a phrase) doing something about the Coronavirus.
This is the first of four posts in a series taking a top-line look at the unspoken semiotic codes that help shape and guide the way Americans are making sense of and responding to the epidemic and its ramifications.
Auditing emergent phenomena is always tricky! In this case, for example, as you already may be aware, many brands are not only saying the same things but employing more or less the same tonality and tropes. So if we were to restrict our analysis to the stimuli set described above, the resulting meaning-map would be relatively narrow, shallow, impoverished, i.e., not providing much insight and inspiration. Such an audit wouldn’t provide us with what Semiovox always aims for: A wide, deep, rich “meaning-map” revealing multiple opportunities for brands, companies, and organizations to position themselves in highly differentiated, relevant, engaging ways.
In order to correct for this inherent problem, we’ve kicked off a more ambitious, richer and deeper hybrid audit. In addition to researching and analyzing the stimuli described above, that is to say, we’ve researched and analyzed communications — e.g., advertising, packaging, social media, websites — from Cold & Flu Remedy/Immunity, Cough Suppressant, Decongestant, and Expectorant brands. (The relevance of this space to the “COVID-19 response” space is obvious.) Via an audit of 2–3 years’ worth of communications from these brands (see Audit Stimuli notes, below), we’ve identified and dimensionalized Cough/Cold/Flu Relief norms and forms.
- By norms, I mean: the ideas, values, and functional/emotional benefits expressed via advertising, pack cues, and media and culture.
- By forms, I mean: the verbal cues (language, tonality) and visual cues (color, shape, typography, facial expressions, body language, context, pack structure, retail layout, etc.) which bring this space’s ideas, values, and benefits to life in more or less relevant, engaging ways.
By comparing and contrasting the norms and forms of the well-established Cough/Cold/Flu Relief category alongside emerging “COVID-19 response” norms and forms, we’ve constructed a rich, deep, wide-angle meaning-map whose codes (including paradigms, thematic complexes, and source codes) reveal all sorts of fascinating insights into how Americans will likely construe — make sense of — “COVID-19 response” in the weeks and months ahead.
As expected, the norms and forms of the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief and the “COVID-19 response” space don’t map perfectly on top of one another. For example, while there are many Cough/Cold/Flu Relief source codes — that is, unique combinations of norms and forms, aka signs — around seeking treatment, there aren’t (m)any “COVID-19 response” source codes here, for obvious reasons. Conversely, while few Cough/Cold/Flu Relief source codes reflect a humorous take on illness and its prevention, darkly absurdist “COVID-19 response” memes have been proliferating. Which perhaps reflects our collective desire to feel OK about a situation in which we’re required to be simultaneously inactive and highly engaged and alert, paranoid and hopeful, etc., etc.
These mismatches in our hybrid meaning-map are a feature, not a bug. The gaps in our meaning-map’s thematic complexes reveal “white-space” positioning and communication opportunities, for Cough/Cold/Flu Relief brands, other brands (across all categories), businesses, and organizations. At the same time, the more crowded thematic complexes in our map help us understand current best practices, clichés, and emergent norms and forms.
This audit is a work in progress. If you’re interested in getting a sneak peek at the meaning-map, and discussing opportunities revealed by our analysis — for your brand, business, or organization — related to communicating around “COVID-19 response” in a highly relevant, engaging, and differentiating way, then please get in touch. This series will reveal the outline of our analysis, but it cannot substitute for the rich insights and inspiration produced by a customized Semiovox audit. If you’re a nonprofit, government agency, or medical institution, we’re eager to offer a free consultation.
In this post, we’ll look at the structural matrix (i.e., “master code”) revealed by our dual audit of the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief and “COVID-19 response” spaces. In subsequent posts, we’ll look at the other codes we’ve identified.
This series won’t share certain strategic aspects of our audit, including: the structure of our meaning-map; our detailed analysis of the source codes clustered within each code’s thematic complexes; and our informed hypothesis regarding the psychographic “tribes” oriented towards the norms and forms of one territory vs. another. But not to worry, we’ll share plenty.
A note on Semiovox’s unique approach: Each of our audits aims to surface eight paradigmatic figures/positions, paired into four binary codes. A semiotic code is always a binary opposition — two paradigms, each of which is defined in and through its opposition to the other. Each paradigm is composed of two contrasting thematic complexes; each of these complexes is dimensionalized by source codes (aka signs); and each source code is composed of a norm and a unique visual/verbal form which brings that norm to life. Our methodology involves first identifying source codes from within the stimuli we’ve researched, then — through our analysis of these source codes — building a theory about the matrix of meaning which, operating below the level of daily consciousness, enables members of a culture to intuitively “make sense” of things like brand communications, pop culture, journalistic features, and retail spaces.
For the audit’s initial phase, we gathered examples of Cough/Cold/Flu Relief brand packaging, advertising, websites, and social media, going back 1-3 years (including both OTC medicines and natural remedies). We included leading Cold Remedy brands (e.g., Cepacol, Cold-EEZE, Halls Defense, Sucrets, Zicam); Daytime Cough-Cold Flu Combos (Advil Cold & Sinus, Robitussin, Sudafed, Tylenol Cold, Vicks DayQuil); Nighttime Cough-Cold Flu Combos (Alka-Seltzer Plus, Delsym, Robitussin Nighttime, Tylenol Cold Nighttime, Vicks Nyquil); Cough Suppressants (Delsym, Dimetapp, Mucinex, Robitussin Max); Nasal Decongestants (Afrin, Mucinex spray, NasalCrom, Neo-Synephrine); Oral Decongestants (Claritin-D, Mucinex-D, Sudafed, Sudafed PE, Zyrtec-D); Expectorants (Mucinex, Robitussin); Flu Medicines (Alka-Seltzer Plus Flu, Theraflu Daytime Severe, Tylenol Cold & Flu Severe, Vicks Nyquil Cold & Flu).
We also included oral antihistamines, sinus products, and homeopathic remedies (e.g., Genexa Cold Crush, Defend, echinacea, vitamin C, zinc).
In order to get a handle on the “COVID-19 response” space, for the audit’s current and ongoing phase, in addition to continuing to monitor Cough/Cold/Flu Relief brand communications, we’re gathering: current brand communications from across a range of categories (e.g., 3M, Activision, Anthropologie, Budweiser, Burger King, Clorox, Coca-Cola, Delta, Domino’s, Durex, Eddie Bauer, Facebook, GE, Guinness, Hotels.com, IKEA, Jack Daniels, Jeep, JetBlue, Lysol, Mazda, Nissan, Oreo, Papa John’s, PlayStation, Postmates, Puffs, Purell, Realtor.com, Taco Bell, Uber, Walgreens, YouTube); media features and blog posts; social media posts and memes (e.g., by following hashtags such as #FlattentheCurve, #INoLongerRemember, #Lockdown, #MyPandemicSurvivalPlan, #QuarantineAndChill, #SafeHands, #SocialDistancing, #StayatHomeChallenge, #StayHome, #TogetherAtHome, #WFH); and PSAs (whether from the CDC and WHO, say, or from Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
We’re grateful to Kelly Webster and Charlie Mitchell, for research assistance. A number of friends and colleagues have also passed along helpful stimuli, in recent weeks.
As mentioned, a semiotic code is always a binary opposition. (Clifford Geertz helpfully described semiotic codes as “values and disvalues”; he also spoke of “symbolic expressions” and their “direct inversion.”) In the case of the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” spaces, our “master code” — the kernel around which our meaning-map will organize itself — is Pharmacist vs. Guru.
Why “pharmacist” and not “doctor,” you ask? It came as a surprise to us, when we first started conducting audits on behalf of pharmaceutical and OTC health & wellness brands, some 25 years ago, that the doctor does not figure as prominently — in this space — as the pharmacist.
But it tracks, once you step back and think about it. In the US, for the past couple of decades now, the doctor has been an ambivalent figure. While admired and respected, the doctor is often depicted as the avatar of a medical establishment that’s too much, in one sense or another — too authoritative (and therefore not sufficiently compassionate, sympathetic, personable, commonsensical), for example; too aggressive/forceful in their methods (not sufficiently gentle, therapeutic; too modern (not sufficiently wise, attuned to folk and natural remedies); or too deliberative (not sufficiently accessible, rapid-response, convenient). The pharmacist, on the other hand, is typically depicted — again, via brand communications, media and culture — as a more compassionate, sympathetic, personable, commonsensical, accessible, rapid-response, convenient alternative to the doctor.
Also, within the various categories of OTC (over the counter, non-prescription) health & wellness brands, you’re not seeking advice on which brand to purchase from a doctor. You’re relying, implicitly or explicitly, on the pharmacist’s advice. Even online retailers of OTC pain relief, cough/cold/flu remedies, etc., tend to design their platforms to resemble not a doctor’s office or hospital but a drugstore or apothecary.
So when we study the Pain Relief space, the Health & Wellness space, etc., we find that the pharmacist paradigm is often the dominant half of our matrix’s master code. It makes perfect sense.
Here’s another way to think about the pharmacist vs. the doctor, a perspective revealed by our meaning-map of the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space: While the pharmacist represents what I need, the doctor represents more than I (usually) need. That is to say, the pharmacist is depicted as an everyday figure, someone I can casually pop in to visit when I’m slightly unwell; the doctor, meanwhile, is a figure whose appearance on the scene suggests that I’m unusually unwell. This doesn’t make the doctor a villainous figure — there are no villains in this audit — but they’re an uncanny figure, equally reassuring and ominous.
Why isn’t our master code Pharmacist vs. Doctor, you ask? Because although these figures do contrast with one another, they don’t oppose one another. Despite the contrasts described above, the pharmacist isn’t opposed to the doctor (as paradigmatic figures, in this audit’s analysis) in the same way that they’re opposed to the guru figure. When we step back and look at the big picture, we can see that these figures have more in common than our close-up analysis suggests.
Please note that we’re not talking about any actual doctors or pharmacists, or gurus for that matter; we’re talking about paradigms that emerge from our analysis of a wide range of brand communications, media, and culture. (And we should also note that the pharmacist, doctor, or guru isn’t necessarily represented as such in every case; a stethoscope, or a sterile blue-and-white room, for example, can symbolize the doctor. Typography, tonality, shapes and colors can subliminally evoke one of our paradigms.) The doctor paradigm will get its moment in the sun, later in our analysis….
OK, let’s turn now to the thematic complexes that guide and shape our perception of the pharmacist paradigm; after that, we’ll look at the guru, too.
Keep It Simple
One of the two keys to understanding the pharmacist paradigm is the notion that this figure represents the practice and precept — within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space — of keeping it simple. In fact, our meaning-map locates the pharmacist at the center of a continuum that leads in one direction to the doctor figure (associated with hard-to-grasp medical jargon and bureaucratic red tape), and in the other to the nurturer figure (associated with pragmatic, domestic, intuitive know-how). Don’t overthink it, it’s easy to comprehend, the pharmacist reassures us.
Within the Keep It Simple thematic complex, we’ve surfaced and dimensionalized a fairly large number of source codes that I won’t detail here. It’s a crowded complex, bursting with concepts and executions old and new. Overall, I’d characterize these source codes as being educational (the pharmacist/brand is an educator, breaking down illnesses and their remedies in everyday language, employing easy-to-comprehend diagrams and instructional videos) and therapeutic (the pharmacist/brand’s remedy is gentler, less extreme/invasive than a doctor’s). So the pharmacist paradigm becomes more nuanced: we’re not merely visiting a drugstore, we’re in a classroom (elementary school, usually), a spa, a therapist’s office.
As the foregoing notes suggest, this thematic complex is about distributed authority. Contrasted with the authoritative doctor, and opposed to the all-wise guru, the pharmacist emerges as our almost-peer. This is an approachable, “relatable” figure. We seek their advice as an expert, sure, but also as a knowledgeable human willing to share info and advice learned (the way we ourselves learn) through personal experience. Our meaning-map suggests that the pharmacist’s authority derives from their position, within the matrix of preconceived notions we all carry around inside our heads, between the doctor and the nurturer: Less knowledgeable than the former, more knowledgeable than the latter; more approachable than the former, less approachable than the latter. “Keeping it simple” is revealed to be a complex phenomenon: The pharmacist knows enough more than we do to be a trusted source of advice, but not so much more that they’ve lost the ability to communicate info and advice in a straightforward, “gettable” way.
There’s a packaging-design aspect to the Keep It Simple thematic complex which we can’t get into here. Suffice it to say that a designer looking to position a product visually, in this complex, would want to avoid “doctor” cues without going too far in the direction of “nurturer” cues. We’ve identified many such cues (color palettes, pack architecture, graphic design cues, typography, etc.), over the years and in the course of this audit… but that’s a subject for another series.
The “COVID-19 response” source codes that we’ve seen emerge, thus far, within this thematic complex tend to involve brands explaining in simplified (dumbed-down, often) ways how to avoid contracting the virus. Household cleaning brands like Clorox and Lysol have taken the lead, here. As time goes on, other brands will find their way into this complex, too.
The pharmacist’s other thematic complex is: Quick Fix. The emphasis, here, is on rapid relief of pain, suffering, nasty symptoms. Whereas the nurturer can only seek to prevent us from falling ill, and the doctor’s remedy is almost too effective (too forceful, doing damage even as it provides relief), the pharmacist is depicted as the source of fast-acting relief.
Source codes we find in this complex, generally speaking, depict suffering (grimacing faces, cartoon “pain lines,” etc.) followed by rapid relief. Actors moan, groan, wince and writhe, then smile beatifically. Dark and gloomy days turn clear and bright, life’s bleary lineaments snap back into focus. Which suggests that the pharmacist is a kind of miracle-working guru or witch doctor — but a thoroughly modern one, dispensing pills, sprays, and cough drops instead of herbs, elixirs, and snake oil.
Some design-focused source codes surfaced within this Quick Fix complex lean in the direction of the medical paradigm: the frequent use of scarlet and flame-red colors symbolize an emergency response; arrows, swooshes, and purposeful vectors suggest the same thing. All of which reveals another aspect to the pharmacist paradigm: The pharmacy is a doctor’s office or hospital emergency room that comes to you, in a way. It’s a purveyor of products that obviate the need to visit such remote, forbidding, unpleasant locales. It seeks to remind us of the doctor and hospital, even as it reassures us that we needn’t go there.
We could go on — the pharmacist is a rich, complex, fascinating paradigm. However, we now have a seed crystal with which to precipitate the transition of our Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” stimuli away from a formless, homogeneous solute of free-floating molecules into a crystalline arrangement revealing how it all fits together. So let’s move on to the other half of our master code.
If the pharmacist figure represents, in this audit’s analysis, what I need — contrasted, as suggested earlier, with the doctor’s more than I (usually) need — then the guru represents what I fantasize. When it comes to responding to illness, our meaning-map leads us to understand, although I may need what a pharmacist is depicted as offering (e.g., compassion, sympathy, personability, common sense, simplified education, therapeutic, convenience, accessibility, immediate attention, fast-acting remedies), what I fantasize is something else altogether.
The guru paradigm isn’t about efficient, commonsense remedies. Instead, it’s about expanded consciousness — seeking rich, deep perspectives and insights. From the pharmacist’s perspective, illness is a problem that needs to be solved promptly and effectively. But from the guru’s perspective, illness (and the prospect of illness/death) offers an opportunity for a fresh start. The guru urges us to use a health scare as a prompt to look within, question our assumptions and attitudes, and make meaningful changes in our lives.
As noted above regarding pharmacists and doctors, we’re not necessarily talking about any actual gurus. (Though in the US health & wellness space, there are certainly plenty of gurus) Instead, we’re talking about a paradigm emerging from our analysis of a wide range of brand communications, media, and culture. Typography, tonality, shapes and colors, objects and contexts, etc., can subliminally signal this paradigm.
So what do we fantasize, exactly? According to our analysis of Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” stimuli, the guru’s thematic complexes are: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Ritual. Let’s take a peek.
The guru’s Ancient Wisdom thematic complex is “opposite” the pharmacist’s Keep It Simple complex in the following way. Both figures are educators; both are compassionate and sympathetic. However, whereas the pharmacist conveys complex, up-to-the-minute notions in simplified form while responding to your needs with chemical remedies, the guru conveys simple, timeless notions, and purveys natural and folk remedies while urging you to become more complex in your perspective.
The guru isn’t a negative figure, however. Source codes surfaced in the Ancient Wisdom complex communicate ideas, values and functional and emotional benefits around folk remedies and natural remedies. Here we find homespun recipes and grandma’s chicken soup alongside massive vitamin doses and exotic herbs and superfruits. The “remedy” for what ails you might be depicted as some combination of these poultices, concoctions, and tinctures and reconnecting with nature and folkways. Spending more time outdoors. Eating less meat. Breathing meditatively. Practicing mindfulness.
There’s more to say, particularly regarding the design aesthetics of this complex — but let me stop here, because in talking about meditative breathing, etc. we’re beginning to stray into the guru paradigm’s other thematic complex.
The guru paradigm’s other complex, Healing Ritual, is “opposite” the pharmacist’s Quick Fix complex in the following way. The pharmacist is in the service industry. They’re here to make themselves accessible to you 24/7 — springing into action to help solve your health problems efficiently. But although the guru is also sympathetic, they’re not here to enable your multitasking, can’t-stop-to-smell-the-roses way of life; instead, their role is to alert you that your way of life is itself unhealthy. Like those Zen masters who might respond to a student’s importunate question about achieving satori with a swift kick from behind, the guru’s approach to helping you deal with illness is at best counterintuitive, at worst a troubling pain in the ass.
The healing ritual is about soothing and restoring your spirit, reconnecting mind and body, getting your groove back. One Cough/Cold/Flu Relief-related source code surfaced within this complex emphasizes de-stressing. “Let it go,” urges Halls via social media. “Cold Truth: You need to relax,” agrees Alka-Seltzer Plus. Pornhub takes a less earnest approach to de-stressing, suggesting that during the Coronavirus lockdown, “It’s OK, you can touch yourself.”
We’re also seeing “COVID-19 response”-specific source codes emerging in the Healing Ritual complex. Finding small ways to “win” can be a powerful healing ritual, suggest brands like Bacardi — now featuring an online series of instructional videos from mixologists on recipes for “cupboard cocktails.” Treating yourself is another kind of healing ritual, suggest brands like Scrabble (see image below); dreaming about what you’ll do once we can re-enter the world is, according to outdoor brands like Jeep, another.
Again, the point of the healing ritual is to slow down, be more mindful, focus on what you can accomplish instead of what you can’t. This sort of thing is the inverse of what we find in the pharmacist paradigm’s Quick Fix thematic complex.
So there you have it, our meaning map’s master code: Pharmacist vs. Guru.
This has been a top-line presentation of a single code from our audit. Although this was a lengthy post, what you see here is only the tip of the iceberg. For each of the four thematic complexes (Pharmacist/Keep It Simple, Pharmacist/Quick Fix, Guru/Ancient Wisdom, and Guru/Healing Ritual) mentioned here, our full audit features multiple source codes. For each of these signs, meanwhile, our full audit features numerous examples drawn from brand communications, PSAs, social media, media and culture. It’s a massive report, and it continues to grow every day. (Note that when we present reports to clients, we create an executive summary — we don’t want to overwhelm — and we offer debriefs and activation sessions.)
Although this presentation is abbreviated and allusive, we hope you’ll agree that Semiovox’s hybrid audit of the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” spaces offers insights and inspiration that consumer research alone, not to mention other methodologies, cannot. In subsequent posts in this series, we’ll look at our audit’s three other codes: Doctor vs. Counselor, Scientist vs. Life Coach, and Nurturer vs. Visionary.