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., etc., related to (in a phrase) doing something about the Coronavirus. It’s a hybrid audit; in order to make it richer, deeper, and more useful, we’ve also analyzed recent Cough/Cold/Flu Relief brand communications.
This is the second 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.
In a previous post, we looked at the code Pharmacist vs. Guru. Pharmacist vs. Guru is the “master code” around which our meaning-map (of Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response”) organizes itself. The codes Doctor vs. Counselor and Nurturer vs. Visionary offer contrasts to the master code that sharpen our understanding of all three codes. At the same time, aspects of Doctor vs. Counselor and Nurturer vs. Visionary overlap with the master code. Our semiotic model of this space is complex because reality is, too; like all models, though, it simplifies reality for clarity’s sake.
The codes Nurturer vs. Visionary and Scientist vs. Life Coach will be the subject of this series’ third and fourth installments.
A note on Semiovox’s unique approach: Each of our audits surfaces 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 meta-analysis of these signs — 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 everything from brand communications to pop culture, social media, and retail spaces.
As mentioned in this series’ first post, in recent decades the doctor has become an ambivalent figure, here in the US. The doctor is admired and respected, but they’re also perceived as too authoritative, too aggressive in their methods, too modern, and too deliberative. (Note that we’re not talking about any actual doctors; we’re talking about a paradigm that has emerged from our analysis of brand communications, media, and culture.) The pharmacist, by contrast, is depicted as a more sympathetic, personable, commonsensical, accessible, and convenient/rapid alternative. TV medical dramas — E.R., say, or House, M.D. — frequently depict doctors struggling to reconcile their authoritative/forceful sides with a sympathetic approach.
The doctor paradigm, in our meaning-map, occupies the position where — in a semiotic analysis of a movie, say — we’d typically find the villain. I hasten to add that the “villain” isn’t necessarily a malicious, evil figure; they might, instead, merely represent an Establishment that is perceived by some as oppressive, hegemonic, or at the very least bureaucratic and inhuman. It’s also important to add that, in general, and particularly during this epidemic, doctors are perceived as heroic figures. However, having added these caveats, let’s not flinch from our audit’s insight: In US culture and brand communications, the doctor is often depicted as an authority figure whom we might respect, and whose expertise we might need… but whose authoritative manner and forceful treatments can seem villainous.
Context is crucial. We’re talking about Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response,” in this series; extrapolate from that space at your own risk. In the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief space (among others that we’ve audited), the doctor is often an ambivalent figure. However, in audits we’ve conducted on behalf of medications treating chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, the doctor is often depicted as a more heroic figure. The applicability of the insights revealed, in this series’ posts, about (paradigmatic) doctors — not to mention counselors, pharmacists, scientists, nurturers, life coaches, gurus, and visionaries — is limited.
We’ve previously unpacked the pharmacist paradigm’s attributes. Here, we’ll take a closer (though top-line) look at what our analysis reveals about the doctor paradigm’s attributes. We’ll look first at the doctor paradigm’s thematic complex that we’re calling Forceful Remedy; it’s the doctor-complex most closely associated with the pharmacist paradigm. We’ll then turn our attention to the doctor-complex we call Infallible Authority; this complex is, as we’ll explain in a future post, associated with the scientist.
One of the two central concepts represented by the doctor paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is the practice and precept of strong medicine. One of the two key things we desire from the doctor figure is a thorough, powerful medicinal treatment guaranteed to knock out whatever ails us. There’s a zooming-in of perspective associated with this discursive complex: We’re not thinking about getting back to our everyday routines; and we’re certainly not thinking about the big picture — the purpose of our existence. We want the illness eradicated from our body.
Our audit surfaced several source codes within the Forceful Remedy complex. What these have in common is an objective view of the body, as a site of treatment by medicine. This is not an empathetic complex; it certainly isn’t holistic. The body is a battlefield; an enemy has invaded our territory. It’s all about mode of action — not what the brand means, but how the product works. Does the product release innumerable tiny bubbles/molecules which effervesce within the body in some quasi-intelligent way that aids healing? Does a vapor or cloud emerge and penetrate every fiber of your physical form? Perhaps the product is so power-packed that its force can barely be contained within the bottle or pack, not to mention within the pill or liquid?
Forceful Remedy source codes are to be spotted in two places, typically. On the pack itself, where one finds a depiction of the pill/liquid (or its all-natural ingredients) surrounded by swooshes, bursts, rays, swirls, splashes, and emanations. And also in those Phantom Tollbooth-like moments during advertisements, wherein a naturalistic scene — a person at work, say, sneezing and coughing; a mother trying to do laundry and run her business, through crippled by a cold — gives way to an animated sequence in which we are treated to a demonstration of the product’s powerful, efficacious mode of action. If these too-often cheesy sequences remind you of Donald in Mathmagic Land and other educational featurettes (e.g., The Story of Menstruation, How to Catch a Cold, or Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom) produced in the ’40s and ’50s for schoolchildren, that’s on purpose. We’re being talked down to, by medical authorities who know what’s best for us.
The Forceful Remedy complex overlaps with, and also serves as a contrast to the Quick Fix pharmacist-complex, investigated in our previous post. The complexes overlap insofar as both are concerned with efficacy above all. The source codes within these complexes tend to be more functional than emotional. Graphic design cues in both complexes signal urgency; the color schemes are dramatic. But the complexes offer a contrast, too. What the pharmacist offers is a fast-acting remedy that you can gulp down on the go, never missing a step; the doctor offers a thorough, powerful medicine that scours your insides, seeking and destroying the unwanted virus/germ.
We heard President Trump use Forceful Remedy language in April, when he suggested at a White House briefing that an “injection inside” the human body with a disinfectant like bleach or isopropyl alcohol could help combat the virus. (“And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute,” he said. “One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.”) Meanwhile, Stephen Miller — Trump’s chief adviser on immigration — has tried to use an obscure law designed to protect the nation from diseases overseas as a way to tighten the borders since before this epidemic; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has backed Trump’s assertion that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory, though our intelligence agencies offer no evidence of this.
This sort of malarkey, in the White House at the moment, helps us understand Americans’ love-hate relationship with the doctor paradigm. We fervently desire a forceful, even militaristic approach to ridding our “territory” of invasive aliens … and yet, a more rational part of our brain recognizes that this sort of approach is too punitive, too merciless. It destroys what it would save. We struggle with this sort of existential issue individually, as well as collectively — never more so, perhaps, than during an epidemic.
PS: Except for the sort of discourse noted above, there aren’t any “COVID-19 response” source codes emerging in this complex, just yet. Why not? Because much as we may desire a medication that can overwhelm COVID-19, seek it out and obliterate it within our bodies, we don’t yet have one. It will be fascinating to see what signs do emerge in this space, in the meantime.
The other central concept represented by the doctor paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is infallible authority. The doctor figure is a source of hard-won expertise and know-how. More so than the pharmacist, while perhaps less so than the scientist, the doctor is a figure whose opinion and judgment — about the health and efficient functioning of our physical bodies — we are encouraged to trust absolutely. It’s not sufficient to have a good attitude, to get our minds right, to dig deep and summon up the emotional and mental wherewithal to fight illness; according to the Infallible Authority complex, what’s most important is placing your faith and hope entirely in the hands of the medical authorities.
If that last sentence rankles, it’s because Americans are Emersonian individualists. We prefer to trust in our own intuition, abilities, and know-how; we instinctively resent being required to rely on expert judgment. As in our discussion of the Forceful Remedy thematic complex, it’s clear why the doctor paradigm — specifically, that is, within the US Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space — is a powerfully ambivalent one. Faced with the prospect of illness or death, we eagerly seek out the doctor’s diagnosis and prescriptive advice. But at some level, it galls us to do so. We’d prefer to believe that our own positive attitude plays a crucial role. Intuitively, we believe that a grown-ass person should take an active role in fighting against an illness; but visiting the doctor makes us feel passive.
Our audit surfaced a number of Infallible Authority source codes. Within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief space, we overwhelmingly find medical and quasi-medical visual cues stamping a brand’s message with a doctor’s authority. Here we find men (less often, women) in white coats; often with a stethoscope around their neck. (Cepacol InstaMax’s mascot — a blue genie wearing white, carrying a kind of emergency kit, and dangling black-rimmed glasses from a shirt pocket in a way that suggests a stethoscope — is ingenious. A quasi-medical avatar that pays miraculous house calls.) Here we also find innumerable blue-white, blue-red, red-white color schemes; not to mention (less often) crosses, caducei, badges, and other “medical” icons. TheraFlu’s man in blue, who mansplains flu relief in a stark white space, is a fine example of how a brand can activate against quasi-medical coding without depicting a doctor.
Within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief space, we also find language urging us to trust the experts. Such language is often found coming from VMS (vitamins, minerals, supplements) brands, precisely because these products are not FDA-tested and approved. “Experts believe the common cold is caused by the cold virus replicating in your upper respiratory system,” intones a Cold-EEZE commercial. We also often find the pharmacist — not the doctor — referenced as the expert whose opinion you should trust. “#1 Pharmacist Recommended” boasts Vicks NyQuil, Cold-EEZE zinc lozenge, Sudafed. This should come as no surprise, since (as we’ve discussed) pharmacists are willing to endorse one Cough/Cold/Flu Relief product over another while doctors are not; and because VMS products in particular are associated with pharmacy shelves and not doctor’s medical prescriptions. However, note that even while brands point to the pharmacist as a source of expertise, they often employ doctor/medical visual cues (e.g., blue and white, white and red, a man in a white coat) in doing so, thus subliminally suggesting that trusting your pharmacist is the same thing as trusting your doctor.
“COVID-19 response” source codes are rapidly emerging within the Infallible Authority complex, at the moment. One such sign, which we might as well call “We Got This,” has been activated against by scores of brands already. Here, we find earnest experts and authorities reassuring us that the companies, brands, agencies and institutions in whom you’ve placed your trust will not let you down during this time of crisis. “We are here. And we are ready,” Verizon announces after a montage of Verizon Engineers soberly explain what it is they do for a living. “Here to help,” says an H&R Block spokeswoman dressed in the logo’s green, and standing in front of 3D versions of the logo’s green blocks; she is H&R Block, is the unsubtle point. “As one of the world’s largest producers of toilet paper,” Cottonelle intones, “we assure you there will be enough to go around.” “When it really matters,” Clorox — whose logo is quasi-medical — insists, “Trust Clorox.”
Another emerging “COVID-19 response” source code within the Infallible Authority complex has to do with hard data and true facts. There are a lot of rumors floating around, we’re given to understand; rely on experts for information. “It’s hard to know what to believe,” sympathizes a CDC PSA (“COVID-19: Who’s At Risk”). “We have answers to your questions.” “Spread facts, not fear,” a Mucinex PSA urges. A Smithsonian headline reads “How to Detect the Age-Old Traditions of Folklore in Today’s COVID-19 Misinformation.” (Check it out, an interesting essay.) “Committed to keeping you informed,” pronounces Delta Airlines. (“Your Update from Ed” — that is, Delta CEO and authority figure Ed Bastian.) At a time in history when our president is actively spreading misinformation about this epidemic, social distancing, possible tests and treatments, etc., one might expect this source code to become extremely relevant and engaging, for Americans. Alas, Americans also love to be humbugged… so we’ll see what happens.
So there you have it, one-half of our Doctor vs. Counselor code. Before moving on to a discussion of the counselor paradigm, one final note. The Infallible Authority doctor-complex overlaps with and also contrasts with our audit’s scientist paradigm. The doctor paradigm is “between” the pharmacist and the scientist, according to our meaning-map — between pure research and service, between objectivity and sympathy. As noted above, this is an ambivalent paradigm; there’s a love/hate thing going on.
If within the US Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, the doctor is an Establishment villain on whose expertise and efficiency we must nevertheless sometimes rely, then the counselor is a rebellious hero. Whereas the pharmacist paradigm merely contrasts with the doctor paradigm, the counselor paradigm opposes it. Here we find a wholesale rejection of what — within this discursive sphere — the doctor represents.
Do we resent the doctor’s too-narrow focus on our body as a site of treatment? The counselor zooms out, considering us as a whole person. Does the doctor propose to blast, scour, napalm our insides in order to eradicate an illness? The counselor proposes that we use illness as an opportunity to reflect on what matters most. Does the doctor demand that we submit ourselves — passively, patiently — to their infallible authority? The counselor urges us instead to embrace the power of positive thinking.
We’ll look first at the counselor paradigm’s thematic complex that we’re calling Big Picture; it’s the counselor-complex most closely associated with the guru paradigm (see previous post). We’ll then turn our attention to the counselor-complex we call Good Attitude; this complex is, as we’ll explain in a future post, associated with the life coach. (As always, note that we’re not talking about any actual counselors; we’re talking about a paradigm emerging from our analysis of brand communications, media, and culture.)
A final prefatory note: Whereas we’ve (so far) found only a few source codes specific to “COVID-19 response” at the doctor end of the Doctor vs. Counselor binary opposition, we’ll find many at the counselor end. Why? Because although we can’t yet seek treatment for COVID-19, we can use the epidemic as a spur to self-actualization, a prompt to embrace new perspectives, a grim but perhaps welcome opportunity to seek meaning. Brands, pop culture, social media, memes have responded accordingly.
One of the two central concepts represented by the counselor paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is the practice and precept of looking above and beyond your immediate situation. Seeing things differently, taking stock of your life and what you value. One could regard this sort of thing as the gateway to the guru paradigm: Once you begin questioning whether you’re living a balanced life, say, or whether you’re living a purposeful life, you might wind up rejecting Western values, Western medicine, the whole “creeping meatball” (to use a Yippie term). But the counselor paradigm isn’t that drastic. It’s about taking a step back, getting some much-needed perspective, focusing on what truly matters.
Within the Big Picture thematic complex, we find a mixture of source codes specific to Cough/Cold/Flu Relief and emerging “COVID-19 response” source codes. Examples of the former include brand communications suggesting that a busy, multitasking, stuck-in-a-rut style of life is one already out of kilter — so even a mild illness can all too easily disrupt things entirely; as well as brand communications urging us to use the prospect of illness to appreciate our health, our peace of mind, and other intangibles that we take for granted. “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver,” a (pre-epidemic) social media post from Cold-EEZE proclaims, quoting Gandhi. Claritin — who for years now has conflated clear sinuses and un-sticky eyes with clarity of vision about what matters, likes to portray Claritin users gazing thoughtfully down from atop mountain peaks. “Emerge and See” urges Emergen-C’s Facebook page, suggesting that one can return from a brush with illness restored, replenished, and fortified not only physically but mentally, spiritually.
Examples of “COVID-19 response”-specific source codes within the Big Picture thematic complex include expressions of gratitude, on behalf of companies and brands, to emergency responders, teachers, retail workers, delivery drivers, and all those who serve others; and reminders that in the grand scheme of things, we’re all on the same side vs. COVID-19. General Electric’s social media feed, lately, has celebrated its employees who’ve stepped into new roles — e.g., a computer scientist who “volunteered to undergo training to help out with ventilator production on the factory floor.” “Thank you healthcare workers,” Google said, in the format of a Google search. Ford wants us to know that its trucks are “Built to Lend A Hand. Built to Do That Right Now.” “We’ll get through this,” reassures Mazda. “Together.” Budweiser: “This season, we’re all One Team.” Some of these efforts are more successful than others; however, because everyone rushed out similar messages in a similar way, every COVID-19 commercial — as the title of Microsoft Sam’s supercut puts it — is exactly the same.
Renew and refresh your perspective, insists the counselor paradigm. For many of us stuck at home right now, this is a powerful call to action. And for those Americans uncomfortable with the blinkered, take-no-prisoners, Forceful Remedy approach to illness, Big Picture offers a welcome antidote.
The other central concept represented by the counselor paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is the (mental, spiritual, but also physical) importance of developing a good attitude.
In this counselor-complex, which is adjacent to the life coach paradigm — as we’ll discuss in a future post — we find an antidote to the notion that the best approach to illness is to place yourself passively in a doctor’s care. Profound change begins with your mindset, is the message of this complex. In other words, you can actively participate in your own healing simply by training yourself to think and feel differently about life’s challenges.
The power of positive thinking is, of course, a homegrown American secular religion — one established, in 1952, by Methodist clergyman Norman Vincent Peale’s book of that title. Through affirmations and visualizations, Peale promised, one could permanently achieve an optimistic attitude — which would result in higher satisfaction and an improved quality of life. The book sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and was translated into over 40 languages; Donald Trump has called Peale (who officiated at Trump’s first wedding) his pastor. When brands who’ve committed to posting something every single day on Facebook or Twitter run out of anything else to say, their social media teams start mining Inspirational Quotations databases for Peale-esque words of wisdom about the material benefits of an optimistic outlook.
Wait, you say. Trump also served as an illustration of one aspect of the doctor paradigm, so how can he show up on the counselor side of the code, too? Good question! This series is not about Trump, so we won’t dwell on him here. But it’s fascinating (and very troubling) to watch this chameleonic figure speak out of both sides of his mouth, as it were. Trump’s public statements about using disinfectants to potentially treat the coronavirus “have put him in the company of pseudoscientists and purveyors of phony elixirs,” an April 27 New York Times story noted. “Pseudoscientist” is the key term; these are figures who cannily leverage medical and scientific visual and verbal cues while peddling “miracle cures.” They’re attempting to have their cake and eat it, too; this shouldn’t work — and yet, quite often, it does.
I don’t mean to lump everyone who believes in the power of positive thinking in with Trump. (Also, none of the brands included in this audit are “miracle cures”; for examples of that sort of thing, check your spam filter for emails that begin “Brain Surgeons can scream ‘this is medically impossible’ all they want…”) I, for one, am all for having a good attitude.
However, in our audits of the Health & Wellness space, including this one, we’ve often seen medical and scientific visual and verbal cues leveraged to promote products — for example, vitamins, minerals, and supplements — whose safety and efficacy haven’t been ensured by the FDA. (Most OTC drugs are not reviewed and approved by FDA; however, they may be marketed if they comply with applicable regulations and policies. But the FDA does not evaluate whether every single Cough/Cold/Flu Relief product complies.) It’s fascinating to see “doctor” visual cues paired with “counselor” language.
Cold-EEZE and Halls, in particular — among the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief brands included in our audit — are tireless in their rah-rah positivity. Beginning back in 2010, Halls’ “A Pep Talk in Every Drop” campaign added inspirational quotes (“The show must go on,” “Fire up those engines,” “You’ve survived tougher,” etc.) to their wrappers. Although some Halls customers have been nonplussed — “Um, why does this cough drop believe in me so much?” asked one Twitter user, in a tweet at Halls, earlier this year — it’s been a successful campaign. A key aspect of Halls’ positioning is about the emotional benefit of helping support you through your day even when you’re feeling sick; so this campaign’s longevity makes perfect sense.
Scrolling through photos I’ve taken since the epidemic began, I discover one from April 8: It’s a portable package of Kleenex, bearing the message, “Summon Your Strength.” This sort of thing shouldn’t have any effect on me, but I think I snapped that photo because I was — despite myself — moved.
The opposite of Infallible Authority, within the context of this audit, is Good Attitude. Instead of passively trusting a doctor or Western medicine, keep your brain happy. Thinking positive, optimistic, joyful thoughts, according to the counselor paradigm, will make you more creative and alert, help you solve problems faster, and gain deeper insights. Will a good attitude make you physically healthier? Although the answer to this question is more often implicit than explicit, in our stimulus set, the answer is yes. At the very least, one gathers, you’ll stop feeling like a passive victim of illness.
One of several “COVID-19 response”-specific source codes that has rapidly surfaced within the Good Attitude complex could be described as “What We’ve Gained.” As the sweet Coronavirus Lost and Found website put it, “Unexpected pleasures coexist with all this sadness, though they don’t diminish it. We find surprising things while we’re compelled to stay at home or keep our distance.” The NFL’s “Stay Home Stay Strong” PSA is adorable — featuring a panoply of tough guys playing with their kids. “Embrace your stay home hair,” suggests Great Clips. A Domino’s Pizza commercial about contactless delivery depicts a guy recreating Tom Cruise’s dance scene in Risky Business. Apple’s “Creativity Goes On” commercial is marred by the piano theme that we’re all tired of, but who doesn’t like watching people stuck at home get creative? Social trends offer more evidence that this is an emergent space: active music discovery is on the rise; Amazon can’t keep up with demand for Jenga, vibrators, gardening tools, and other products related to (re)discovering “unexpected pleasures.”
Of course, there’s a backlash to all this Good Attitude stuff. “There’s Something Spreading Faster Than COVID-19, and It’s Not Fear. It’s Toxic Positivity,” rages a headline at the science, psychiatry, and social justice website Mad in America. “We need to stop assuming that all of that suffering comes from their internal landscape while overlooking the pervasive and persistent inhumane conditions most people live with,” argues Megan Wildhood. “In case it wasn’t obvious before, COVID-19 is laying many of those conditions bare, all of which have their origins in capitalism.” Fair point. The Good Attitude mindset can go too far.
Back to the opposition with Infallible Authority. While the former thematic complex may be reassuring, the Good Attitude complex is uplifting. It’s about embracing fallibility — the human, all too human — because one thing that this epidemic mustn’t be allowed to take away from us is our quirks and preferences, our values and dreams, the things we love and which mean the most to us. I wouldn’t call this mindset “toxic positivity.”
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 described in this post, our full audit features multiple source codes. For each of these signs, meanwhile, our audit features numerous examples drawn from brand communications, PSAs, social media, media and culture.
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 two other codes: Scientist vs. Life Coach and Nurturer vs. Visionary.