Marketing Coronavirus Codes

Scientist vs. Life Coach

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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 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 fourth and final post in a series taking a top-line look at the codes helping shape and guide the way Americans make sense of and respond to the epidemic.

In previous posts, we’ve looked at the codes Pharmacist vs. Guru, Doctor vs. Counselor, and Nurturer vs. Visionary. 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.

So where does Scientist vs. Life Coach fit in? The fourth installment in this series of posts concerns what the pioneering cultural semiotician Roland Barthes termed a hermeneutic code. Which is to say, we’ll now consider stimuli which raise challenging questions about the implicit assumptions surfaced and dimensionalized by our audit. The code Scientist vs. Life Coach, when thoughtfully considered, challenges the seemingly natural, permanent, and inevitable status of our master code, Pharmacist vs. Guru.

Roland Barthes

Any master code, in this case Pharmacist vs. Guru, is déjà lu — i.e., already read, presupposed, implicitly taken for granted. That is to say, when it comes to Cough/Cold/Flu, we immediately think of the simplified explanation, the quick fix, and the approachable figure who’s less authoritative than a doctor and more authoritative than a nurturer, more expert than a nurturer and more compassionate than a doctor. (Once we have medications to prevent and treat it, the same will eventually be true for “COVID-19 response.”) And when we compare this service-oriented approach with its groovy, funky “opposite” approach — one which urges us to slow down, expand our consciousness, restore balance to our lives, practice mindfulness, and tap into folk remedies and exotic mind-body treatments — we tend to assume that the latter is the former’s “alternative.” The pharmacist paradigm, in terms of the schema we’ve all been conditioned to accept as normal, is “prior to” the guru paradigm; the pharmacist ranks higher than the guru does in our implicit hierarchy.

This unspoken, hard-wired hierarchy also informs our assumptions about the codes Doctor vs. Counselor and Nurturer vs. Visionary. Just as the pharmacist trumps the guru, within the Cough/Cold/Flu space (and now, the “COVID-19 response” space), the doctor trumps the counselor and the nurturer trumps the visionary. The guru, counselor, and visionary offer attractive alternatives; the degree to which we gravitate towards these subordinate paradigms indicates how “alternative” we ourselves are.

The Scientist vs. Life Coach code calls attention to this implicit hierarchy, and in rendering it explicit causes us to ask troubling questions. Within our constructed model of “COVID-19 response,” the so-called hermeneutic code is deconstructive. Scientist vs. Life Coach demonstrates that the hierarchical opposition in which the guru paradigm is dependent upon a paradigm (pharmacist) conceived as prior, is in fact a rhetorical or metaphysical imposition; what Barthes calls a “myth.” In this particular semiosphere, the Scientist vs. Life Coach code acts as a disruptive, quarrelsome myth-buster.

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.

Paradigm: Scientist

The scientist figure, according to our analysis of the Cough/Cold/Flu and COVID-19 Response spaces, reflects our desire for scientific expertise and a targeted breakthrough solution. The scientist, in this schema, seeks treatments that are less crude and forceful, and at the same time more effective, than those deployed by the doctor. The scientist works at the cutting-edge of treatment research — and yet, they’re more sober-sided and cautious, less given to making over-optimistic predictions, than the visionary. (Note that we’re not talking about any actual scientists; we’re talking about a paradigm that has emerged from our analysis of brand communications, media, and culture.)

Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s top experts on infectious diseases, watches sardonically as the president touts an unproven drug as a “game changer.”

The scientist paradigm, in our meaning-map, occupies the position where — in a semiotic analysis of a movie, say — we’d typically find a sympathetic villain. Remember, according to our analysis, in this space — though not all spaces — the doctor shows up as a villainous figure who, though not necessarily malevolent, represents a medical establishment depicted as bureaucratic, insensitive. Also, the doctor represents more than we need — we need the pharmacist’s quick fix; anything more than that is scary. The scientist, then, is way more than we need — but somehow we find this less off-putting than the more than we need, which is too close for comfort. At the same time, the scientist is understood to be working on remedies that will be more effective, less insensitive, than the doctor’s remedies. What they’re doing is somehow ominous, but also exciting. It’s impossible for us to judge whether they’re on the right track. So they’re a sympathetic villain.

A pensive Thanos

A couple of recent exaggerated examples of the sympathetic villain, the mad scientist who may actually be onto something, come to mind. One thinks of Samuel L. Jackson’s Richmond Valentine in 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, an environmentalist who wants to stop global warming by reducing the population; or Josh Brolin’s Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), same idea on a more cosmic scale.

The scientist paradigm forms one-half of our schema’s hermeneutic code because unlike the doctor and nurturer, who have something in common with the pharmacist paradigm (our schema’s implicitly prioritized, or “unmarked” term), the scientist has nothing in common with the pharmacist. The scientist’s professional ethos forbids them from catering to our needs. The scientist doesn’t try to explain things in a way we can understand. The scientist doesn’t care how soon we get back to work. They are a remote, chilly, austere figure; a Mr. Spock whom we fear and admire.

We’ll look first at the scientist paradigm’s thematic complex that we’re calling Ultra-Precise; it’s the scientist-complex most closely associated with the doctor paradigm. We’ll then turn our attention to the scientist-complex we call Advanced Research; this complex is most closely associated with the visionary paradigm.


One of the two central concepts represented by the scientist paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is the practice and precept of ultra-precision. One of the two key things we desire from the scientist figure, that is to say, is a scientifically precise approach to treatment — one which can isolate and target a precise part of the body, then direct relief efforts there efficiently and effectively.

Our audit surfaced several source codes within the Ultra-Precise complex. Here we find depictions and diagrams of the body and head, with certain areas illuminated as though perceived through a scientific instrument, or infrared goggles, etc. Here we find depictions of the remedy moving through the body, and taking effect within. A glow radiating from bodies, faces, internal organs suggests that the process is working. Arrays of products, each one specially designed for a precise purpose, can perhaps be said to belong to this thematic complex. Guides to choosing precisely the right product, e.g., by selecting which symptoms you’re experiencing, too.

Verbal cues in this thematic complex not only tout the product’s precision but admonish us to choose wisely: e.g., “Find the relief that’s right for you.” “Select your symptoms.” “Know your head congestion.” True, we see similar language in the pharmacist’s thematic complexes, but one doesn’t get the sense, here, that we’re being talked down to. Instead, we’re being encouraged to become more educated, to do more research, to become more like a scientist.

Anything happening in this space around COVID-19? In our post on the visionary paradigm, we pointed out some uses of the scientist figure in media (and hoaxes), but these are visionary scientists. They’re not adhering to the scientific method, to inductive reasoning. They’re chasing breakthroughs, promising miracles; they’re scientists as portrayed on TV shows and in movies. It’s a fantasy; it’s a different paradigm altogether. Once there really are some breakthroughs in COVID-19 treatment, we’ll be interested to see what source codes emerge within this thematic complex.

PS: The Ultra-Precise complex overlaps with, and also serves as a contrast to the Infallible Authority doctor-complex, investigated in a previous post. Although both the doctor and scientist are portrayed as wise, competent professionals in white coats and sterile environments, one gets the impression that the doctor wants our admiration and respect, while the scientist could care less. After all, the doctor is trying to get us to comply with their prescribed course of action; that’s not the scientist’s problem.

Advanced Research

The other central concept represented by the scientist paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is advanced research. This thematic complex is devoted to cutting-edge exploration, the search for (though not the promise/fantasy of) breakthrough medical discoveries.

Our audit surfaced a number of Advanced Research source codes. Here we find high-tech (but not sci-fi) laboratory settings, extremely sterile, gleaming, very little color except scientists’ masks, gloves, robes. High contrast photo filters are much in evidence, adding to the effect of a streamlined lab environment without any speck of dust. Silvery/icy colors are common. One might also mention hyper-realistic images of the coronavirus, but… these are so widespread they’ve become table stakes.

Verbal cues in this thematic complex are super-efficient, relentless, progressive: “Every day our scientists are working hard to find ways to use our expertise and products to help the fight against the coronavirus.” One gets the impression of a laboratory culture reminiscent of an engineering company: Things are fast-moving, exciting, progress is being made. “Handicapping the most promising of 267 potential Coronavirus cures,” “Inside the race for a vaccine,” “Coronavirus research is moving at top speed.” Again, this breathless tonality stops short of the sort of thing we’d find in the Sci-Fi Needs thematic complex.

As with the Ultra-Precise thematic complex, we’re not seeing new source codes related to COVID-19 relief, just yet. We’re keeping an eye peeled.

PS: The Advanced Research complex overlaps with, and also serves as a contrast to the Sci-Fi Needs thematic complex, investigated in a previous post. Brands (often pharma) activating within this space want you to know that they’re working on the frontiers of what was formerly considered possible… but they’re not tipping over into science-fiction. It’s a fine line.

So there you have it, one-half of our Scientist vs. Life Coach code. We’ll move smartly forward, now, to the scientist paradigm’s polar opposite.

Paradigm: Life Coach

The life coach paradigm reflects our desire to develop our own inner resources, to tackle illness — and any other problems — proactively. How is this paradigm “opposite” the scientist paradigm? Even more so than the doctor, and much more so than the pharmacist, the scientist requires from us our passive acquiescence. To the scientist, we are test subjects, lab rats, data points. The life coach, on the other hand, urges us to exercise agency, to seize control of our destiny, to rely primarily on our own untapped potential. The scientist doesn’t know us, shouldn’t know us; the life coach knows us better than we know ourselves. (As always, note that we’re not talking about any actual life coaches; we’re talking about a paradigm emerging from our analysis of brand communications, media, and culture.)

Tony Robbins

If within the US Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, the scientist is a sympathetic villain, who disdains both aspects of our Pharmacist vs. Guru master code, then the life coach is an antihero. Which is to say: The life coach’s practices and precepts make a compelling argument for the notion that we don’t have to decide between the pharmacist and guru paradigms. The life coach rejects both extremes — either life on the treadmill, or voluntary simplicity; either what you need or what you dream of. What you truly want, the life coach paradigm persuasively suggests, is both. This is the unsettling role that an antihero plays in any narrative; they don’t buy into the narrative’s parameters.

We’ll look first at the life coach paradigm’s thematic complex that we’re calling Concrete Action; it overlaps with the nurturer paradigm. We’ll then turn our attention to the complex we call True Grit; this complex overlaps with the counselor paradigm. The sources codes within these complexes reveal that whereas the nurturer wants to enable us, and the counselor wants to uplift us, the life coach offers tough love — a kick in the pants. They know they’ve got to be cruel to be kind, in the right measure.

Concrete Action

One of the two central concepts represented by the life coach paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is the practice and precept of taking concrete action. Brands activating against the norms and forms of this thematic complex urge taking matters into your own hands and cultivating an activist, even aggressive mindset when it comes to dealing with illness — and to everything else life throws at you.

There are quite a few source codes found in this thematic complex, too many to get into here. For example, the idea that visualization can help stimulate the immune system to fight illness plays in this aggressive space, so here is where we’ll see a cold, flu, or symptom (notably, mucus) represented as a monstrous creature, or bear, or wrestler, or zombie. We’ll also find many metaphors, here, around “fighting back” against illness, as though it’s a bully, villain, or oppressive figure. Counterintuitively, this is where we’ll also find injunctions to “de-stress” — relaxing, that is to say, is recast as a proactive way to avoid falling ill.

Stockpiling medications is depicted as an activist, forward-thinking approach to fighting/off illness. We’re also encouraged to think of our medications (or facial tissue, etc.) as essential survival gear; we find it juxtaposed with crucial “everyday carry” items as well as with maps, passports, and travel gear. During the COVID-19 moment, of course, stockpiling and survival gear has been on everyone’s mind; we’ve given up trying to chronicle all the permutations we’ve come across.

Other “COVID-19 relief” source codes in this thematic complex involve, for example, the concept of making the best of a bad situation, displaying your can-do spirit. (Homemade, funky and irregular — but charming and cool — face masks and more. And a DIY tonality: “Make your own,” “From coffee filter to safety mask,” “Be your own spin class,” “Pioneer spirit,” “Maker.”) And staying home, counterintuitively, has been communicated out as as one of the most proactive things we can do in this moment. I’m particularly taken with Jeep’s “Explore the Great Indoors” ads using domestic objects — pots and pans, crayons, etc. — to form the brand’s grille/headlights logo.

PS: This complex is contiguous with Rhythm & Flow, but whereas that nurturer complex wants us to feel cozy, encircled within a protective embrace, the Concrete Action complex shoves us out of the nest.

True Grit

The other central concept represented by the life coach paradigm, within the Cough/Cold/Flu Relief + “COVID-19 response” space, is digging deep, overcoming all challenges — even welcoming challenges as a chance to demonstrate what you’re made of.

Here we’ll find climbing and other vigorous outdoor activities used as metaphors for setting yourself impossible goals and then doing whatever it take to achieve them. Not to mention people looking pensively into the distance — a visual metaphor for making resolutions, dreaming big. There’s a gruff coach tonality in this complex: “Take every day to the next level.” “Get more out of your routine.” “Emerge your best so you can climb higher every day.”

During the COVID-19 epidemic, the message that “We’re still here” has been pronounced frequently. The brand or company isn’t going anywhere, they want us to know; they’ve got our backs; we’ll get through this together. We get it! A more inspiring, less self-serving “COVID-19 relief” source code in this complex includes expressions of the idea that being strong and proactive doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to the plan. Especially in times of crisis, it’s important to also remain flexible — ready to pivot and adapt. Now, that’s life-coach advice that we can all use right now.

PS: This complex is contiguous with Good Attitude, but whereas that counselor complex would have us understand that profound change begins with your mindset, True Grit preaches salvation-by-works. It’s not enough to get your mind right, you have to put in some sweat equity, too.

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.

Tags: Coronavirus, Health & Wellness