Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Luca Marchetti

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of commercial semiotics, from around the world, to answer a few revealing questions.


Paris, France…

SEMIOVOX

When you were a child/teen, how did your future fascination with symbols, cultural patterns, interpreting “texts,” and getting beneath the surface of daily life manifest itself?

LUCA MARCHETTI

The revelation came early — when my mother taught me how to draw.  I initially assumed that getting “better” at this activity would involve learning to draw more and more realistically. Instead, little by little, I came to realize that for those adults who offered feedback on my artworks, “drawing well” meant above all knowing how to reproduce shapes and effects that conventionally represent reality: the sun is “round”; space is depicted via a perspective calculation; and so forth.

Along the same lines, as a child I discovered that the “peach” or “green apple,” etc., flavors of our Saturday night ice creams didn’t actually taste like peaches or green apples. Instead, the ice cream makers had trained us to associate certain ice-cream flavors and aromas with those fruits. (Then I discovered sorbets….)

SEMIOVOX

Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.

LUCA MARCHETTI

In the beginning it was Barthes; my first encounter took place at the experimental high school I attended in Italy, just before university. We had to read and apply Barthes’ concept of “zero-degree writing” in the context of a practical exercise in analyzing French literary texts. I was impressed by the degree of poetry of that essay. I had not imagined that analytic theory could also be “beautiful.” In the naivety of adolescence, it was a real love at first sight — and the love story continued the following year at the University of Bologna where Umberto Eco was seen less as a professor than as a mythical character. But that was also a moment of disenchantment, for me — because the semiotic community was reputed to be a kind of unwelcoming elite, and the study of the discipline itself was burdened by an intellectualism that I found unnecessary and counterproductive. It wasn’t until I encountered Anglo-Saxon semiotics and in particular commercial semiotics applied to fashion, brands, consumption, and popular culture that I became reconciled with the practice of a discipline that I still find brilliant and that can — I swear — be surprisingly simple and accessible.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

LUCA MARCHETTI

It was semiotics that found me! While in Paris doing bibliographic research for my thesis, I was looking for ways to finance my stay there. A friend asked me if I might be interested in freelancing for the trend-spotting agency where she worked. Using Greimassian semiotics, I started writing my first semiotic-analysis reports. I discovered that identifying and mapping the codes of Style could pay my rent. Taking on this work meant that my thesis would take twice as long to complete — but I was inventing the job that I would be doing for decades. Good deal, in the end, no?

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

LUCA MARCHETTI

Surely curiosity is very important. Watching, listening, seeing, feeling, multiplying the stimuli… not because it’s useful for a purpose, but for the pleasure and interest in doing so. It sharpens the ability to detect differences in representation and in the different ways of communicating content.

Also, although I believe that too much importance is given to methodology, it is important to be deeply familiar with the object of one’s analysis. I don’t believe much in the idea of a completely generalist semiotician. I think specializing in a limited number of cultural/market sectors is a very good idea.

SEMIOVOX

What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?

LUCA MARCHETTI

I remember being quite moved by reading certain passages from A.J Greimas’s De l’imperfection (1987, translated as On Imperfection). OK, I was young at the time! It’s a small study on the representation of what cannot be said or told — and the semantic intensity of what is aesthetically imperfect in everyday situations. Beyond the beauty of the text itself, De l’imperfection made me understand how it is possible to methodically analyze even that which has no precise contours, which does not have a precisely codified meaning and which — in appearance, at least — seems totally subjective.

Also…

Jean-Marie Floch’s Visual Identities (1995).

Juri Lotman’s Culture and Explosion (1992).

SEMIOVOX

When someone asks you to describe what you do, what is your “elevator pitch”? How do you persuade a skeptical client to take a chance on using this tool?

LUCA MARCHETTI

Semiotics does not give univocal solutions or answers, but it helps to make good choices and decisions. It allows us to understand the functioning and meaning of potentially any kind of content. It allows us to deconstruct the mechanisms of signification, to see in detail how they work — whether in order to reproduce them (e.g., ensuring that the next marketing campaign communicates the same values), or to make them evolve (e.g., repositioning a non-premium brand as premium), or to avoid them so that we can innovate in other directions (e.g., developing a disruptive strategy to reach a new audience).

SEMIOVOX

What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?

LUCA MARCHETTI

I enjoy repositioning a brand in new territories — even better if they are innovative territories. It’s exciting to use semiotics at the crossroads of cultural insight and competitive strategy. To position the brand vis-à-vis new or innovative value assets, it is necessary to start with a fine analysis of the dominant and emerging aspects of the cultural context. Also, in order to position the brand in a specific way it is often necessary to find the semiotic key to understanding the singular and distinctive ways in which the brand’s competitors communicate their “reason to believe.” It’s a very rewarding casse-tête.

SEMIOVOX

What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?

LUCA MARCHETTI

We are required to fine-tune the problem to be solved, which is limiting. And at the same time, the output often must be so simplified that it does not allow us to provide much of interest. These aspects of the client relationship have grown radically worse over the past two decades.

Also, in addition to my semiotics practice I teach the subject at the university level — and (I apologize if this sounds arrogant!) I get the distinct feeling that very few of the students who study semiotics are particularly skillful at digesting and then applying the learnings from an analysis in way that clients now expect.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

LUCA MARCHETTI

Definitely both — and by the way, I’d say “Eco or Greimas,” these days. The two approaches are not antithetical, and they each give excellent insights for different work cases. Peirce/Eco are wonderfully useful for cultural semiotic analysis, but nothing replaces the Saussure/Greimas gaze when it comes to analyzing and positioning objects, images, movies, packaging, or media….

SEMIOVOX

What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?

LUCA MARCHETTI

Find a good context for your formal training — which is not only important but can be a lot of fun. But then — see my response above — you should also plan to spend a lot of time elbow-to-elbow with experienced semiotic practitioners. When you get out of school, you’ll still need many more “artisanal” skills than you can possibly imagine.


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MALEX SALAMANQUES AMIEL (England) | MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | MYRIAM DILMI (France) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | AYA KANDA (Japan) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | COLLETE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | & more to come. Also see the international series COVID CODES and SEMIO OBJECTS.

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