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 third 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 previous posts, we’ve looked at Pharmacist vs. Guru, the “master code” around which our meaning-map (of Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response”) organizes itself; and we’ve looked at Doctor vs. Counselor — one of two codes offering a contrast to our master code. The post you’re reading now explicates a third code, Nurturer vs. Visionary, which also offers a contrast to the master code. As we’ll see, aspects of Nurturer vs. Visionary also overlap with the master code.
Our audit’s fourth code, Scientist vs. Life Coach, will be the subject of this series’ final installment.
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 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 everything from brand communications to pop culture, social media, and retail spaces.
The nurturer paradigm embodies our desire to maintain/resume our daily rituals, to feel safe and sound and cared-for. Whereas the pharmacist is a hybrid paradigm — part medical figure, part neighborly peer — the nurturer isn’t associated with medical themes. The nurturer paradigm is entirely pragmatic, grounded, focused on daily life. Note that we’re not talking about any actual nurturers; we’re talking about a paradigm that has emerged from our analysis of brand communications, media, and culture.
The nurturer figure, according to Semiovox’s meaning-map, occupies a position “between” the pharmacist and the life coach paradigms. He or she is more concerned with the everyday texture of our lives than the pharmacist, but less concerned with upgrading our lives than the life coach. They are an enabling, ultimately conservative figure; their goal is to keep things running smoothly. They don’t want anything to change, ever.
We’ll look first at the nurturer paradigm’s thematic complex that we’re calling Gate Keeper; it’s the nurturer-complex also associated with the pharmacist paradigm. We’ll then turn our attention to the nurturer-complex we call Rhythm & Flow; this complex is, as we’ll explain in a future post, also associated with the life coach.
One of the two central concepts represented by the nurturer paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is the practice and precept of gate keeping. Which is to say, we want the nurturer figure to protect and defend us, to patrol our borders and police our boundaries. It’s a heimlich paradigm; brands operating here want us to feel cozy, existentially at-home, encircled within a protective embrace.
Brands activating against the norms and forms of this thematic complex offer themselves as a protective presence — watching over your family, worrying about illness, protecting and defending. Just like you do.
Our audit surfaced several source codes that dimensionalize the Gate Keeper complex. As with this series’ other posts, we won’t do more than offer a top-line peek at these source codes.
For example, here we’ll find the notion that brands are as obsessed as parents are with constant vigilance. Lysol’s social media suggests that our efforts to “stop the flu” are worthless unless we’re using their products. Mucinex’s social media feed is replete with cute images of children on school buses, at parties, and out in public… while illness lurks in the shadows, waiting for a lapse in mom or dad’s vigilance. An amusing recent Robitussin commercial suggests that any of us might be an illness-carrying monster. Of course, since COVID-19 we’ve seen an explosion in vigilance warnings, from brands in and outside of the Cough/Cold/Flu space. These brands want us to know that they’re vigilant, too.
Allergy medications were ahead of the curve, on this stuff. Brands would do well to study the marketing efforts of NasalCrom, Claritin, and others who’ve spent years making flowers, trees, and kittens seem ominous. The term “gate keeper” suggests just how zealous nurturer’s can be about patrolling the boundaries — of the home, and of their children’s bodies.
Metaphors and symbols that communicate “playing defense” are common in this complex, too. Cartoon depictions of zinc ions inhibiting the ability of the cold virus to replicate, say, or Halls Defense ads showing the distinctive Halls antioxidant lozenge taking the place of a seat-belt buckle, are examples of this sort of thing.
Emerging “COVID-19 response” source codes in the Gate Keeper complex include social-distance metaphors concocted at a rapid pace by brands, businesses, organizations, and agencies. The McDonald’s arches, no longer touching; the MasterCard logo circles, no longer touching; etc. The Ohio Department of Health released a video using mousetraps and ping pong balls to make the case for social distancing. Designers have amused themselves by recreating famous movie posters showing famous duos — Thelma & Louise, say — as solo acts. You get the idea. We also find metaphors around untouched purity proliferating, particularly from airlines, hotels, and take-out food businesses. If in the past, we wanted to see a pizza man making our pizza, now — Domino’s was among the first to realize — we want to see our pizza emerge from the oven and appear on our dining room table without any human beings involved in the process.
And let’s not forget why we’re being so vigilant and paranoid. Here, in this complex, is where we’ll find depictions of everyday life being interrupted by illness. Hilary Duff, bustling about (what’s supposed to be) her home in a Zicam ad, laments that “Moms cannot afford to be sick for long.” “Don’t let a cough ruin Christmas,” urges a Delsym ad. “Bridesmaids don’t take sick days,” insists Nyquil. “Bridesmaids take Nyquil.” Again, allergy brands have been exploring this territory for years: Think of all those moms and dads frolicking with their kids in the pollen-choked outdoors.
Emerging “COVID-19 response” communications around the theme of life, interrupted are legion. We’re all allergy sufferers, now. We’re all stuck indoors, peering wistfully out of our windows. None of us are living our best lives, at the moment.
The Gate Keeper complex overlaps with, and also serves as a contrast to the Keep It Simple pharmacist-complex, investigated in a previous post. If the pharmacist sometimes talks to us like we’re children, the nurturer is often required to play the role of a pharmacist — i.e., researching and applying the correct products at the correct moment, whether for the purpose of immunity, cold shortening, or symptom relief.
Rhythm & Flow
The other central concept represented by the nurturer paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is rhythm & flow. The nurturer figure is responsible for keeping our work routine, social life, and leisure activities on track. If Gate Keeper is a touchy-feely complex, in which the nurturer brand cuddles us, coos over us, and fiercely protects our bodies from illness, the Rhythm & Flow complex is hustling and bustling. Here we find the nurturer fretting over our schedules, the details of our days — nothing must be permitted to go awry, from morning to evening.
Our audit surfaced a number of Rhythm & Flow source codes that bring this space to life. In a top-line way, we could describe these signs as follows: Products shown shortening and hastening the progress of our illness, so that we can “skip to the good part” (as Alka Seltzer Plus puts it); workers shown suffering from sniffles, sore throats, coughs, aches and pains while on the job… and relying on a product to help them power through; people shown enjoying fun with friends, or romantic dates, thanks to symptom relief. Here we’ll also find more existential takes on the rhythm & flow concept: Being sick makes you feel out of it, exiled into a limbo state from which you can see everybody else fully engaged in life; being sick makes you feel like you’re not yourself — when ill, you’re less acute, less with-it.
Not all Gate Keeper source codes are mom- or dad-centric. Here, we also find brand mascots — one thinks of Airborne Man, say, or Tukol’s honeybee, or the blue genie conjured up by Cepacol — who offer themselves as sidekicks, or guardian angels. That is to say, they’ll hover nearby, watching over us… and at the first sign of a cough, cold, or flu, they’ll swoop in soothingly.
“COVID-19 response” communications around the interruption of our normal rituals and routines are, of course, emerging rapidly. Memes and news stories about the joys and hassles of working from home (the kids won’t leave me alone; I only need to get dressed from the waist up) are ubiquitous. Office supply companies, productivity apps, videoconferencing and remote collaboration services are communicating frantically. One also thinks of memes, brand communications, and news stories about the ingenious ways in which we’re finding ways to rejigger and kickstart our interrupted rituals and routines while still maintaining a safe distance from one another. Activision’s “Play Apart Together” tagline captures the contradictory but ingenious and resilient aspects of this sort of thing.
There are other source codes found in the Rhythm & Flow complex, here, too. I’ll just mention one other “COVID-19 response” source code, in this post. It takes the form of PSA listicles (often child-like in aesthetics), handwritten notes and drawings, and other homely notes suggesting — in a gentle, parental tone — that it’s OK to lower our expectations around productivity, efficiency, rituals and routines. Doing less really is doing more, during an epidemic. Channeling Toots and the Maytals, let’s call this sign: Pressure Drop.
So there you have it, one-half of our Nurturer vs. Visionary code. Before moving on to a discussion of the visionary paradigm, one final note. The Rhythm & Flow nurturer-complex overlaps with and also contrasts with our audit’s life coach paradigm. According to Semiovox’s meaning map, the nurturer paradigm is “between” the pharmacist and the life coach — so it makes sense that an uplifting therapeutic tonality (as seen in the would begin to creep into this complex.
If within the US Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, the nurturer is an enabler who keeps us headed to the office even when we’re feeling sick, ensures that the trains run on time no matter how busy or burned out we feel, and worries primarily about our pragmatic everyday routine and rituals, then the visionary paradigm is quite the opposite. Here we find a wholesale rejection of what — within this discursive sphere — the nurturer represents.
The visionary paradigm isn’t at all concerned with the details of our everyday lives. The visionary asks us not what we need (gate keeping) and want (rhythm & flow) but what we dare to imagine and fantasize. The visionary isn’t practical; the visionary scorns practical fretting and fussing. The visionary’s focus isn’t narrowed; their eyes are widened with awe. (As always, note that we’re not talking about any actual visionaries; we’re talking about a paradigm emerging from our analysis of brand communications, media, and culture.) The imagery here isn’t heimlich; it’s futuristic, fantastical, unheimlich. This is a far-out, fun paradigm; but please note that here is where we’ll find every sort of hoax and conspiracy, too.
We’ll look first at the visionary paradigm’s thematic complex that we’re calling Fantasy Wants; it’s the visionary-complex most closely associated with the guru paradigm. We’ll then turn our attention to the visionary-complex we call Sci-Fi Needs; this complex is, as we’ll explain in a future post, associated with the scientist.
One of the two central concepts represented by the visionary paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is fantasy wants. Brands activating against the norms and forms of the Fantasy Wants thematic complex indulge in far-out speculation about remedies. This sort of thing can be humorous or earnest, impossible or merely far-fetched. Underneath it all, one can discern a deep yearning for a miraculous fix.
The Fantasy Wants complex is “opposed” to the Gate Keeper complex, in the sense that whereas the latter is conservative, worried about policing boundaries and generally saying “no” to potentially disruptive ideas, the former is open-minded to a fault, experimentalist and risk-taking, willing to stick all sorts of things into our bodies via unusual delivery systems, and generally sounding their barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Our audit so far has only surfaced a handful of Fantasy Wants source codes — largely because this complex is not one frequented by the Cough/Cold/Flu brands we’ve included in our audit. As the COVID-19 epidemic continues, and as we expand our stimulus set to include more homeopathic and folk remedies, we’ll surely see more source codes emerge here.
At the moment, we’ve lumped most New Age, self-actualizing, pseudoscientific approaches to preventing and treating illness together under the heading “Woo-Woo.” (This is unfair, we know, and evidence of our own biases and resistance to new and different ideas. As mentioned, we’ll keep investigating this space and dimensionalizing it.) Here, we find a groovy, neo-hippie vibe; trippy, psychedelic imagery; apothecary-ish packaging and design cues. We also find appeals to both science and folk wisdom: “Moon juice bridges the world of alchemy and biology for functional benefits.” We find cool-sounding terminology: “Neuron velocity and vision are fine tuned by toning the brain waves, in particular the alpha waves that connect to creativity.” We find Brain Dust and Sex Dust.
The discourse in this complex tends to focus on self-actualization, to fixing yourself rather than the world (which you can’t fix). “This New Moon offers us a date with destiny,” we read, of the COVID-19 epidemic. “We are being called to birth new versions of ourselves, as the world morphs around us. Let us burn off resistance and dance with the unknown.”
Here, we also find a plethora of humorous memes and social media jokes about how our Cough/Cold/Flu and Immunity products should be helping us during this epidemic. “How come Lysol and NyQuil & DayQuil ain’t come out with any products together yet? Just Lazy!!!! Ummm save us.”;“I know Vicks won’t protect me from this many-named virus, but I’m choosing to slather it on thick anyhow. My therapist calls this a self-soothing behavior. I call it going to my magical menthol island.” “Wait, so my double shots of Nyquil won’t immunize me from coronavirus?” “Me loading up on Zicam and Cold-EEZE and challenging the Coronavirus to bring it on.” Etc., etc.
Silly stuff — but again, underneath the lulz, one can discern a deep yearning for a miraculous fix.
Though “governed” by the visionary paradigm, the Fantasy Wants complex is also associated with the guru paradigm, which we touched on in a previous post. The guru paradigm asks us to expand our consciousness and seek rich, deep perspectives and insights from beyond western medicine. What skeptics dismiss as “woo-woo,” the guru (and visionary) are willing to entertain as potentially much more far-reaching solutions to our problems. Which aren’t merely medical in nature.
The other central concept represented by the visionary paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is sci-fi needs. Brands activating against the norms and forms of this complex offer exciting glimpses into the world of the future. It’s a romanticized, idealized vision. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke once noted; keep this in mind when it occurs to you that the Sci-Fi Needs and Fantasy Wants complexes overlap in ways.
Sci-Fi Needs is “opposite” the Rhythm & Flow complex in the sense that whereas the latter’s frame of reference is the moment, getting us through the day, here the frame of reference is what the great British futurist/visionary H.G. Wells called “the shape of things to come.”
Our audit so far has only surfaced a handful of Sci-Fi Needs source codes — again, this is because this complex is not one frequented by the Cough/Cold/Flu brands we’ve included in our audit. As the COVID-19 epidemic continues, and as we expand our stimulus set, we’ll surely see more signs emerge here.
One source code we can point to, within the Sci-Fi Needs space, is the high-tech hoax. By which I mean: Misinformation and scams that prey on our faith in scientific, technological advances. Here (and by here, I mean cluttering up my email inbox) we find far-out coronavirus-fighting inventions, scientific-looking misinformation about immunity from and treatment of COVID-19, and paranoid conspiracy websites and videos. We also find parodies of all these high-tech hoaxes. It can be challenging to distinguish between them.
Another, less sinister — but possibly even more dangerous — source code, found in this complex, has to do with hopeful scientific reporting. Rumors and speculation, and wishful thinking, about possible treatments for COVID-19 — spread not by crackpots, but by journalists and others who are just looking for reason to stay optimistic. Here we find: depictions of high-tech laboratories — often using medical color schemes; researchers wearing lab coats, and other protective equipment; depictions of remedies — in test tubes and vials, in pill format; scientists and lab techs peering into microscopes, and holding potential remedies up for perusal. Much of this is stock footage. The headlines are what we yearn to hear: “Medical experts are turning to existing treatments for the flu, Ebola and other illnesses to save patients from the spreading pandemic amid a global push to develop a cure for the new coronavirus”; “Virus Expert: Drugs Touted By Trump Likely Won’t Cure Coronavirus, But This Treatment Could”; “VA researching prostate cancer drug as potential coronavirus cure.” Hooray?
We also should take note, while still touring this thematic complex, of a source code that we might call Going Underground — which is devoted to bunker porn. Documentary-style photos of luxurious bunkers — either forbidding/threating exterior shots, or lush, well-appointed interior shots Architects’ renderings of proposed bunker interiors (or sample bunkers, already built); these can be futuristic, far-out, like something from a science fiction movie. Disapproving journalistic tonality: e.g., “A boom time for the bunker business and doomsday capitalists.” “Personalized disaster prep.” “Billionaire Bunker Owners Are Preparing For The Ultimate Underground Escape.” “Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak” And wow-factor headlines: “Take a look at the Cybertruck-inspired, post-apocalyptic bunker designed to protect against a nuclear threat, zombie invasion, or viral outbreak”; “Real estate for the apocalypse.” Fun!
This complex, though “governed” by the visionary paradigm is also associated with the scientist paradigm. Which we’ll take a closer look at in this series’ next post.
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 (aka signs). For each of these source codes, 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 the fourth post in this series, we’ll look at our audit’s remaining code: Scientist vs. Life Coach.