New Balance ad, detail (USA)

This is the 12th in a series of 16 posts offering an analysis of “Covid Codes” from a global perspective. SEMIOVOX has invited consulting semioticians from around the world to augment the Coronavirus-related meaning map whose lineaments we revealed here in a Spring 2020 series. We are grateful to our talented and generous colleagues, who are individually acknowledged in each series post that features their contributions.

The theme we’ll explore in this installment is: TRUE GRIT. By which we mean: Digging deep, overcoming all health & wellness challenges.

While the previous two themes we’ve looked at — BIG PICTURE and GOOD ATTITUDE — were governed by the paradigm “Counselor” (think of a psychiatrist, therapist, minister, or other wise figure), we now shift to a new paradigm: the “Life Coach.” Brands activating against the norms and forms of the TRUE GRIT thematic complex encourage us to tap into an inner well of “stick-to-it-iveness” in order to overcome a health & wellness challenge.

Whereas Counselor is the binary opposite of the paradigm Doctor, in our schema, Life Coach is the binary opposite of the paradigm Scientist (which we unpacked in the installments ADVANCED RESEARCH and ULTRA PRECISE). The Scientist offers outside scientific expertise; the Life Coach encourages us to develop our inner resources. The Scientist produces breakthrough solutions; the Life Coach chivvies us along, urging us not to wait around for breakthroughs — but rather to proactively tackle problems. In fact, there can be an odd note of bravado within this theme — i.e., the notion that challenges are welcomed as an opportunity to prove (to yourself) what you’re capable of in difficult times.

Our study suggests that the TRUE GRIT thematic space is brought to life by at least three “source codes” (signs): Get More, Hang Tough, and Stay Flexible.

Get More

The Get More source code’s norm (idea, value, higher-order benefit) can be described as follows: We’ll give you the boost you need to achieve even your toughest goals.

Nature’s Way social (USA)

Visual cues of the Get More source code include:

  • People (almost entirely women, in this audit) running, jumping, climbing, kayaking, biking — visual metaphor for overcoming obstacles and achieving life goals through grit and fierce attitude.
  • People looking into the distance — visual metaphor for making resolutions, setting your sights on a distant goal, etc.

Verbal cues of the Get More source code include:

  • Coach tonality. “Take every day to the next level.” “Get more out of your routine.” “Emerge your best so you can climb higher every day.” “Emerge empowered.” “Bee ready for anything.”
  • Fiercely independent. “#MyWayToWell.”
Solgar (vitamin D3) commercial (Italy)

Daria Arkhipova (Russia/Italy) sends the vitamin commercial shown here. “Challenging yourself is the way to healthy life,” she summarizes the messaging. “But you need some natural support, too.”

Emergen-C ad (USA)

Hang Tough

The Hang Tough source code’s norm (idea, value, higher-order benefit) can be described as follows: The times may be difficult, but we’re not going anywhere.

In the first few weeks of the epidemic, this sort of thing quickly became clichéd. See: “Every Covid-19 commercial is exactly the same.”

Visual cues of the Hang Tough source code include:

  • People hard at work, carrying on with daily life, despite obstacles.

Verbal cues of the Hang Tough source code include:

  • Got your back tonality: e.g., “In uncertain times, no matter what tomorrow holds, we remain invested. In you.” “We’re with you.”
  • Not going anywhere tonality: e.g., “Boston is still running.” “We’re here to feed the need.” “Our teams are here.”
  • Hopeful, determined tonality: e.g., “We’ll get through this.”

Malex Salamanques Amiel (Venezuela/UK) sends along a commercial that her agency, Mundano, did in Colombia — with “zero resources,” she notes. “We used photos from standard image banks and ran an ethno-like challenge with the Justo&Bueno (supermarket) clients, in which we asked them to send videos of the moments in their lockdown life in which they overcame problems or emotional states. We talked about making mistakes, resisting (hanging in there ) and trying again. The spot was widely reviewed and became popular in a moment where empty optimism was the dominant narrative. “

New Scientist cover, 6 February 2021 (UK)
Ximena Tobi (Argentina)

Ximena Tobi (Argentina) sends a Heineken social responsibility campaign. “The brand has moved all their street advertising to bars windows and exterior/front walls, as a way to support bars that have been shut down during our long lockdown. Text: ‘Today you see this ad, so you can keep enjoying this bar tomorrow’.” See this IG video.

Sónia Marques (Portugal)

Sónia Marques (Portugal) sends this April 2020 commercial from Lidl, supermarkets, showing empty villages and an empty Lisbon. The message: “Here for you.” The only thing moving anywhere is is as Lidl truck. (During Spring confinement the only open shops were food stores and pharmacies.)

Sónia also sends a photo of a bookshop (the Livraria Arquivo, in Leiria) window, the message of which she translates as follows: “We will reach the future and everyone will be there, at a party, waiting for us, even the friends we lost along the way.”

Stay Flexible

The Stay Flexible source code’s norm (idea, value, higher-order benefit) can be described as follows: Especially in times of crisis, it’s important to remain flexible — ready to pivot and adapt.

Visual cues of the Stay Flexible source code include:

  • Clever solutions to unexpected hurdles and problems.
  • Embracing change.
  • Making lemons out of lemonade.
Meme (USA)

Verbal cues of the Stay Flexible source code include:

  • Accept the new normal. “Embrace your stay-home hair.”
  • Adapt your goals — keep the spirit, change the letter.

Sónia Marques (Portugal) sends along an ad for every(wear), the tagline of which is “Comfy is the New Everything.”

Vodafone (Portugal)

And Sónia shares this commercial, for Vodafone Business Portugal, in which “business changes, but the connection remains.”


Thank you for reading our Covid Codes series. Next week’s installment will be on this theme: CONCRETE ACTION.

Tags: Coronavirus, Health & Wellness