Semiotics ruined my life outside work: True Confessions

by Feb 28, 2019Insight, Semiotics

I’ve been supplying semiotics for 20 years. When you do it for a long time, it doesn’t switch off. It takes over your life outside work. Here’s what happened to me. True story.



In much the same way that people pester their doctor friends for unpaid advice about their minor ailments, the semiotic ability to read images leads people to show me photos of their boyfriends or that guy they’re hung up on. They are showing me the photo because they are worried about something, he’s erratic with his affection, he doesn’t call. I look at the photo they’re showing me and, for example, if it’s a couple or a group, I can tell something about people’s feelings and relationships based on their body language and the way they are posing together.

“Look at that sheepish expression”

That guy, see how he stands back a little bit from the camera. Look at that sheepish expression, the half smile. Even though he has his arm around his neighbour’s shoulder, forming an agreeable line with the rest of the happy band, observe the way he positions his torso a few inches further away from the person he’s standing next to compared to the distance set as the norm by the rest of the group. This guy is not completely on board with the project being pursued in this photo, which is to present and publicise a particular set of happy relationships. He wants to be there, but not fully in the way that other people want him to be.

“People think they are much younger than they really are”

Annoyingly, this skill of decoding relationships in photos does not extend to photos of the semiologist themselves until enough years have elapsed for the image to have lost its personal meaning. On the plus side, I can look at the photos of humans that brands are including in their marketing communications and tell you why they are not hitting the spot with consumers. In real life, groups of women do not laugh while eating yogurt. The pair of models in this ad who are intended to look like a married couple are not married. People think they are much younger than they really are and will recoil if you show them images that reflect a different idea of their age and health status.

Photo by Sean Stratton on Unsplash.



“I can see the half of the sentence that you didn’t say, hanging in the air.”

When I first began to study psychology, as a student and while doing my doctoral research, I regularly encountered that stock question that everyone asks psychologists. When they find out what you do, they laugh and ask ‘are you analysing everything I say?’ That wasn’t true 25 years ago – psychologists are capable of having conversations about pizza toppings without looking for a deeper meaning in everything. But now, after two decades of living and breathing semiotics, I do, in fact, analyse almost everything I hear and read as conversations unfold. I can hear people issuing disclaimers when they are unsure of themselves. I notice when they use quantification rhetoric (numbers convey a halo of truth), when they appeal to things that ‘everyone knows’ or to common sense, when they change their minds mid-sentence about what they were going to say. I can see the half of the sentence that you didn’t say, hanging in the air.

Of course, semiologists and their thoughts and casual conversations do not exist outside of language and culture. We are prisoners of language just as much as the next person. Just like everybody else, we make remarks that include hackneyed mottos, robust idioms, we say things like ‘bearing in mind’ and ‘to cut a long story short’ and ‘I’m not one to make a fuss’ when we are making a fuss. The payoff of this constant alertness to the mechanics of conversation is that I can tell you what respondents were trying to draw your attention to in those focus groups you just ran and I can explain why the brand story that your predecessor carefully crafted seems remote and vaguely threatening.



My partner struggles with this one. If you see me watching a film or reading a novel, things normally which count as leisure activities, it doesn’t follow that I am enjoying whatever it is or think it is good. I might just be consuming it because I think it is culturally significant or I want to understand why it is popular or because I’ve discovered something in it that is informative aside from its main purpose and subject matter. I went through a phase of reading popular horror novels from the 1970s, not for the actual horror but for the descriptions of the banal details of people’s everyday lives. The way they handle their marriages. What kinds of things they eat and how they use their leisure time. One of these novels was Audrey Rose by Frank de Felitta (1975). Frank was a successful writer of commercial fiction and the novel concerns the supernatural travails of a young married couple who live in Manhattan. Bill works for an ad agency, because they always do in these types of novels, and his wife Janice is a home-maker. Frank de Felitta paints their lifestyle for the reader. Their lifestyle is not the main focus of the novel, you are supposed to get involved with the supernatural events surrounding their little girl. Their lifestyle is just there to provide characters and a setting that are realistic yet aspirational. Yet I was gripped by the accounts of the small details of Bill and Janice’s daily routines.

“Bill comes home from work so smashed that he has to lie down.”

They both drink an amount of alcohol that by modern standards is staggering and borderline illegal. Janice tipples at home, during the day, while looking after her young child. This isn’t meant to imply abuse or mental instability, it’s just what she does. Bill regularly comes home from work so smashed that he has to lie down for a couple of hours before he can resume drinking with the friends they are having over that evening. They are like a pair of teenagers whose parents have gone out and left them with an unlocked drinks cabinet. It makes me think that in about 40 years we will look back at the popular fiction of today and think that everyone was crazy. It makes me think that when modern-day marketers say of Generation Z that they hardly drink and don’t have sex, they’re observing a small change compared to the Millennials of 10 years ago but a colossal change compared to the baby boomers.

“Fifty Shades was comparatively repressed and prudish.”

I also read Fifty Shades of Grey when it was published in 2011. I hated it and thought it was one of the worst books I’ve ever read, but that is by the by. More interestingly, what struck me about the book itself and the discourse surrounding it, as consumers enthusiastically debated issues of control and consent, was how repressed and prudish it is compared to earlier hits of English-language commercial fictionIf Ana and Christian had been left at home with their parents’ unlocked drinks cabinet, they would have timidly opened the cabinet door, with much ado, read all the labels and spent the rest of the afternoon composing a written agreement in which each person placed restrictions on what the other person was allowed to consume. Frank de Felitta was born in 1921 (and only died quite recently, in 2016). I hope he remained undaunted until the end of his life. EL James was born in 1963. Forty years separated them. If you can understand the consumer culture of 1975 (Audrey Rose), then you have a better grasp of the culture of 2011 (Fifty Shades). In turn, that gives you a clearer picture of today and it helps you see the grand patterns of social and cultural change. You can see a little way into the future.

Then I go back to work and tell brand owners about emerging trends and how to sell pleasure and leisure to young consumers.



Show me your brochures, your advertising and the brand story you wrote for your website. Show me your focus group transcripts, your ethnographic video and your depth interviews. Show me your quantitative data – it is not outside of language and culture. Tell me what you know about your target consumer. I’ll show you something new and tell you a story you haven’t heard before. Then we’ll turn it into a marketing strategy or campaign of communications that is credible or ‘authentic’, attends to consumer needs, remains on-trend into the future. My email and phone number are in the graphic below.

#semiotics #branding #advertising #marketing #consumerinsight #marketresearch #qualitativeresearch #consumerinsight #mrx #newmr #culture #futurology


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