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.
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?
I am of mixed ethnic origin, and from an early age I observed cultural differences even in the little details. For example, my Tuvan grandfather used to drink strong green tea with milk, butter, and salt. His wife, who was Russian, preferred black tea with sugar; she had it with every meal. However, on the Greek side of my family, whenever I asked for tea my grandparents worried that I was sick – because they used tea only as a medicine.
I also grew up in the late Soviet Union, and learned early on that things are not always what they seem, or what they are supposed to mean. Outdoors, there were portraits of Lenin everywhere… but indoors, people made cruel jokes about Lenin. One became a close reader — which explains how an atheist Soviet book led me to become religious. The book’s framing text was pale and tasteless, arguing that “religion is the opium of the people.” But there were several quotes from the Bible included (and aggressively criticized), and to me they were beautiful, deep, and full of love. The truth was in these quotes, not the critical framework.
Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.
My mother, a psychologist, sometimes took me to the university where she worked. I’d do my homework while listening to her lecture on Vygotsky’s ideas on concept formation. [Lev Vygotsky’s work has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive development, particularly in sociocultural theory.] Meanwhile, my father was a journalist who talked to me a lot about media manipulations and propaganda. I was primed for semiotics before I’d heard of it,
I studied applied Sociology at one of Moscow’s universities, and I asked Dr. Michael Nazarov — a professor who was new, passionate about his job, and curious about new ideas — to be the scientific advisor for my diploma project. Among other books he found for me were Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale and Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners. I remember having goosebumps while reading them! I ended up using semiotics to analyze political advertising of 1996–1998 in Russia — this is back when our elections were still democratic.
How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?
My diploma project continued into a PhD program in Social Psychology — which would eventually result in a book, Visual Images in Social Communication (2009), coauthored with Dr. Nazarov. As I was nearing the end of my doctorate program, I saw an ESOMAR call for papers on the semiotics of fragrance advertising — which is what we’d been working on. I asked my advisor if we should submit a proposal together, but he laughed and said that student projects aren’t sophisticated enough for ESOMAR conferences. So I sent a proposal without his assistance, and it was accepted. I presented my paper at Lausanne, and it was published by ESOMAR in their collection of the best international research of 2004. As a result, I was hired by a British commercial semiotician to consult on occasional Russian projects. I was paid quite well to write analytical reports of what I watched on TV and read in magazines… and I thought, “Hmmm… interesting job!”
I wrote to Virginia Valentine and Malcolm Evans, not expecting to get much in the way of a reply from these gurus — but they were very encouraging, and showed me the basic methodology of the profession. Although I’d do several semiotic projects per year for British consultancies, it remained a hobby. My full-time job was doing traditional market research for international communication agencies. In 2017, I went full-time providing semiotic services to clients on my own.
What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?
- What I think of as “the freedom of not knowing anything” — always questioning
- Having the courage to analyze the seemingly un-analyzable (like fragrance)
- Being patient and optimistic as you work your way through such projects
Practically speaking, it’s important to give the client what they need: actionable recommendations. In our client work, we need to maintain a delicate balance between originality and familiarity. Too many surprises, and they may doubt our conclusions; too few surprises, and our analysis will look self-evident.
What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?
- The Basics of Psychosemantics by Viktor Petrenko [the Russian psychologist], which explains the cognitive principles of how meanings are created and structured in the brain. Petrenko developed the work of Charles E. Osgood on the semantic differential — a type of rating scale measuring the connotative meaning of concepts. The idea is that we unconsciously and automatically use existing inner perceptional models, which simplify for us the chaos of the external world. Though it never mentions semiotics, this book (as well as some others on the neuropsychology of perception) has helped me persuade critics that semiotics is not just a theoretical assumption, but a scientific discipline.
- Yuri Lotman’s Semiosphere — also very useful in thinking about the science of semiotics. Lotman makes the point here that science is expected to make “big discoveries” in fields which are new and unknown, to explain what we don’t yet understand, to go to places where we have not yet been… and yet studying what we take for granted and regard as common sense can be more surprising. The idea of a science that doesn’t ask us to go faster and further, but instead slower and deeper, resonates with me. Going “inside of the thinking worlds” and observing life in its beautiful complexity is so rewarding.
- As a commercial semiotician, I feel that here I should list a book on marketing semiotics. They are all great, but there is something about our profession that I need help with — and I haven’t found it in the existing books. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, dear colleagues.) The question is how to use semiotic tools to make marketing more ethical. Can we show clients the border between communication and manipulation — and convince them not to cross that border? I address this question to those who are writing or editing books on marketing semiotics at the moment.
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?
I give research-based recommendations on what to say to the audience and how to do it.
The first stage is defining the main message of communication. It should be culturally relevant, corresponding with the brand’s values — and different from the competition. One of the strengths of semiotics is that it is very sensitive to the differences, the nuances of meaning. The second stage is “packing” the message in a form which will be attractive and easy to understand.
It’s important to remind the clients that my job is to show the way, the main principles of work. Then strategists and designers develop the ideas into communication materials.
Clients experienced in marketing research are usually easily convinced to try semiotics. They already know what they will hear from other types of research, and they see that semiotics can be the missing piece of the puzzle. Small businesses, meanwhile, see the value of semiotics because they understand their audience and product intuitively — and need help in putting this understanding into visuals and language.
If someone only values traditional research, I don’t try to change their opinion.
What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?
I like projects that help me understand my culture(s) and myself better, and that’s almost every project. Whether you study the semiotics of energy, the concept of home, female success, our attitude to pain, toys, anything — you will always uncover insights into something that was hidden from consciousness. I love reading, but it’s a much more passive way to learn than conducting research on a topic, surfacing hundreds of stimuli examples, analyzing the stimuli for weeks, gradually coming to conclusions, and then discussing your analysis with others.
Achieving a deep, rich understanding of why we behave the way we do is the most rewarding part of the job.
What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?
Marketing semiotics already has its niche in the research market, and it does not have to become bigger — but I think we could be more clear about what it is we offer.
We should probably give specific names to each of the ways we work. Some of us use semiotics as exploratory or interpretative research, a place for freedom and creativity. Some of us offer inspiration only — but no practical recommendations. Some of us describe signs, but don’t drill down in their specific cultural meanings. A variety of approaches is terrific, but it’s confusing — not only to clients, but to young would-be semioticians who want to enter the field — to call everything “marketing semiotics.”
If we came together as a community, exhaustively described all of our approaches, and determined which of these is best for various situations — taking note of timing, budgets, and other practical details — it wouldn’t kill our creativity. Instead, I think it would make what we do more understandable to outsiders. Having said that, I can imagine that this wouldn’t make sense in every market.
Peirce or Saussure?
I see Peirce and Saussure as complementary, not contradictory. But if I had to choose, I’d take Peirce, as to me the interpretant is the core element of meaning.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?
If you like it, just start doing it. Don’t be put off by the impression that it’s too sophisticated and abstract (if you’re very practical in your approach), or too simple (if you’re someone used to huge surveys with respondents); neither of these is true. Yes, you should study some theory and take the methodology seriously — but if you’re interested in this work, there’s nothing you can’t learn.
Here are some practical recommendations:
- Draw conclusions from the materials, not from your head. Experience with culture is important for a semiotician and after several years of semiotic work we become like translators from the “language of culture” to “the client’s language.” It’s ok to have some pre-set knowledge, ideas and hypotheses. However, for every new project we should check them based on what we see around at the current moment, in the given category, for the given task.
- Work in a team. This is needed to avoid subjectivity and to enrich analysis with new angles of vision, and thus make conclusions reliable. Simply inviting two or three people for a workshop on the materials may be enough.
- Create a narrative. Purely descriptive reports may be useful for some clients, but presenting a story of how the topic is developing is far more engaging and inspiring. Human culture is made of stories!
MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | 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 (India / Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (Turkey / England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece / Russia) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | JAMIN PELKEY (Canada) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | TIM SPENCER (England) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | ADELINA VACA (Mexico) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.