Why you should not be afraid of semiotics


Written By: Mauricio Silveyra

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In the past few years we have been hearing a lot about semiotics as a useful ethnographic research tool. This is hardly surprising. In the world proliferated with visual and verbal messages we should be seduced by a practice that offers to make sense of all these signs. What is surprising, however, is that, despite having been around for a while, semiotics is still received by the marketers with a degree of distrust and discomfort.

This uncertainty about semiotics is natural. The academic theory and ‘science’ surrounding the practice can sound complicated, yet it turns out to be very straight-forward in practice. What we have to get right, if we are to talk about semiotics in the research industry, is that we are working with a simplified, practical and arguably more useful form: commercial semiotics.

But let’s start with the basics and establish what exactly is semiotics ? In a nutshell, it’s “the role of signs as part of social life.” For example: what does Lady Gaga’s meat dress for the MTV awards say about our current culture?

2010 MTV Video Music Awards - Show

An alien from outer space may have come to the conclusion that our current culture thinks fresh meat is dainty, or comfortable. But not you. You, most likely, have a different interpretation of the performance. This thinking you have just done, understanding the contrast between the meanings behind ‘meat’ and ‘dress’ within the context of the MTV Awards show led you to a slightly different interpretation compared to our friend from the outer space. You, earthling, could figure this because you can decode signs in your own culture. You too are a semiotician, you see. We all are.

So, any point of view within semiotics is subjective. It is essential to understand a culture to decipher its signs. This is why it is not enough to be an expert in semiotic technique to do great commercial semiotics. And this is a part of the discomfort we are feeling in the industry. To truly be able to produce expert semiotic outputs we must be experts in culture and understand people and their context. We cannot be aliens to culture and people.

At BAMM, we believe that Visual Thinking is an intuitive way of understanding the culture, as well as telling its story. Semiotic thinking is a part of our DNA. We think the question today is not whether Semiotics is here to stay, but what great things can we do with it?


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