“Spiders can’t help making fly-traps, and the human kind can’t help making symbols. That’s what the human brain is there for – to turn the chaos of a given experience into a set of manageable symbols.”
– Aldous Huxley, Island
Symbols are everywhere. If you go outsde and look around, you will see cars, trees, animals, people, billboards, colors etc. We all know what they are, we generally know how most of them work or live, maybe we interact with them on a daily basis, and all of them have a certain meaning for us. No matter how insignificant or special we consider something or someone to be, it will automatically develop a meaning in our heads, thus becoming a Symbol. As Aldous Huxley said in the above quote, the human brain and subconscious are wired in such a way to create a symbol out of everything we come in contact with, as we will associate it with the experience of our interaction with something or someone. It is natural to us, as it is for a spider to spin it’s web.
The cup of coffee you drank in the morning helped you wake up, it tasted great, it helped you focus, while the wasp that bit you a few years ago gave you an allergy and made you rush to the hospital. As a consequence of these scenarios, coffee will become, for you personally, a symbol of vitality, happiness, productivity and much more, while the wasp became a symbol of fear, pain and misery. That is why you drink coffee, and that is why you have avoided and are still frightened by wasps to this very day. This is a mere and narrow example of what symbols are for us, and of how we interact with them in our day to day lives.
Symbols may even cause visible external reactions. We may stop and stare at something that caught our attention, we may laugh at it or we may cry because of it. It all depends on the inner, personal meaning we attribute to that particular situation, manifestation, object or being that made us react in such a way.
There are also a vast array of symbols that have been accepted on a broader, social and cultural scale. Certain symbols will produce a similar if not even identical reaction for a large segment of a population. If you see that the traffic light has gone red, you will stop, and if you see a lost, wounded and limping dog, most probably you will feel sad and sorry for it.
Furthermore, advertising is another element which has become a part of our lives. We may try to ignore it, we may pay attention to it, but it still surrounds us and can be found in any imaginable public space. Marketing is one of the main devices of a company and its product. Through advertisements, companies were able to publicly convey their goods and message to the consumer population. The oldest forms of advertising have been found in Egypt, where merchants made papyrus posters with sales messages, displaying them on walls, in Pompeii and Asia, where advertisements were painted on walls, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, where commercial and political messages were printed and distributed among the population. Also, the first Newspaper Advertisements were introduced in the 19th century, in England.
However, in the late 1940s, the advertising industry called upon psychology and sociology, therefore creating a new social science and sub-discipline of Marketing, called Consumer Behavior. This new field of study focused on consumer attitude, perception, emotional and behavioral response etc, and led to the adoption of Symbols in Advertising.
Psychology, Sociology and Marketing specialists have recognized that Symbols and Advertising go hand in hand and that symbolism can be used in order to influence the consumer’s perspective and response towards a certain product. Through advertising, a company can win over the loyalty and satisfaction of a consumer by aligning and conveying a certain feeling, set of values or emotional response, all through the use of symbols which the customer has perceived.
A symbol allows us to see beyond the physical dimension. We do not see a simple product or service anymore, we predict the way it will make us feel and look, the use we will gain from it, the happiness it will bring us, all because this is what we have seen in an advertisement. As an example, you may see a poster with a black luxury sedan, with a man in a suit climbing out of it, and you may automatically feel drawn to it, because it oozes importance, high-class, luxury, maybe happiness or fulfillment. Yet, the previously mentioned response is strictly perceived by you, as this is what you expect from that car, or from dressing like the man in the ad. In reality, the car may not suit your real needs, and that outfit may even make you feel uncomfortable and restricted.
However, the term Symbol has been used quite generally in this introduction. The following study will explore the meaning of a symbol, how something becomes a symbol and the effect that certain symbols had on consumers.
From The Perceived to The Symbolic
1.1 The Equation of a Symbol
A symbol is a rather abstract term and is not as easy and straightforward as it sounds. First of all, we must define the Equation of a Symbol.
Stimulus + Meaning = Symbol
1.1.1. The Stimulus
In order for a symbol to be created, the human perception must first react to something, a stimulus, which in turn, based on circumstances and effect, will gain a meaning. The end product of this process is the Symbol.
According to Dictionary.com1 , a Stimulus is “something that incites to action or exertion or quickens action, feeling, thought, etc”. By further interpreting the definition, a stimulus can be anything that we see or feel, that causes us to have a certain reaction. Reactions to stimuli, depending on their nature, may be psychological or physical, but no matter the nature of the stimulus, it will certainly leave a certain impression on us and will be recycled in our subconscious, which in turn will bring back the feeling we had every time we will interact with a particular stimulus in the future, be it positive or negative. Imagine eating a good burger at a certain restaurant. Every time you will hear about a burger or the name of the restaurant, you will automatically think about the taste of that burger.
1.1.2. The Meaning
Next in the equation there is the Meaning, which is conditional to the stimulus in creating a symbol. In “The Birth and Death of Meaning” p. 183-184 (1962)2, Ernest Becker says that “Meaning refers (…) to the connection of events and objects in an interdependent, self-consistent scheme. (…) Meaning is, then, the joining together of ideas, objects and people that forms a ground plan of action.” By further interpreting the quote, meaning is given by us to a certain stimulus. Additionally, meaning is almost certainly conditioned by circumstance and environment, which are secondary or so-called “background stimuli”. While the main stimulus can be the direct influence of, let’s say, an object, the background stimulus may be the weather, the presence of another person, the temperature of the room etc. By continuing the above example, Eating a good burger at a certain restaurant, on a sunny day with your loved one, will make you appreciate and remember the taste of the burger and the restaurant, but will also remind you of a pleasant day spent with your partner.
1.1.3. The Symbol
Lastly, the result of combining Stimuli and Meaning is the Symbol. According to Heinrich Zimmer, “Concepts and words are symbols, just as visions, rituals, and images are; so too are the manners and customs of daily life. Through all of these a transcendent reality is mirrored. There are so many metaphors reflecting and implying something which, though thus variously expressed, is ineffable, though thus rendered multiform, remains inscrutable. Symbols hold the mind to truth but are not themselves the truth, hence it is delusory to borrow them. Each civilization, every age, must bring forth its own.” (Campbell, Heinrich Zimmer; edited by Joseph (1969). Philosophies of India (9. paperback print. ed.). Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.)
A symbol does not usually have any ties with the logical. When a certain stimulus has become a symbol to an individual, it may lose its strict physical properties and designation, it becomes ideological and complex, and strictly based on the human understanding. The individual will perceive the stimulus in a personal and emotional way rather than in a logical way. By continuing the basic example provided above, that tasty burger eaten at a restaurant, on a sunny day, in the company of your loved one, will not only remind you of that day spent with your partner, of that restaurant, of the taste of the burger. Both the burger and the restaurant will become symbols, which may be symbols of love, symbols of happiness, symbols of the sun or symbols of each and every factor which remained in your subconscious on that day, derived from the stimulus, from the experience and from the meaning you have attributed to them.
1.2. Symbols from a Semiotic standpoint
Semiotics can be defined as a combination between linguistics, sociology, psychology and anthropology, or the study of Signs, Symbols and their Meaning. Semioticians consider that human life is guided by signs and the meaning we attribute to them, that human motive, action and decision is derived from the symbols that surround us. But most importantly, semiotic studies were the first to introduce the theory of Signs and Symbols as a way of Communication. But before continuing with the Semiotic definition of a symbol, it is worth noting that the previously mentioned term of Stimulus will now become a Sign.
The pioneers of this field of study are Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. Although similar, their theories have some differences.
1.2.1. The Saussurian Model
According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss born linguist and semiotician, ” Nearly all institutions, it might be said, are based on signs, but these signs do not directly evoke things.” (Ferdinand de Saussure “Course in General Linguistics” 1916; Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye). Saussure agrees that a sign gains its meaning in the eyes and mind of the beholder, even if it strays away from the actual form or meaning of the sign itself, it becomes abstract and distorted by and for the human mind, thus creating a symbol.
In order to better define a sign, the Saussurian Sign Model has been designed, as seen below:
Saussure’s model introduces the Sign as a Stimulus, anything physical, sensorial etc that can interact with human perception and can, but it does not yet, convey a meaning. The Meaning is given by the Signifier, or how we perceive the Sign to be, from a natural and logical perspective. And finally, the Signified is the emotional, socially driven and abstract dimension in which we see the Sign, or in other words, the Symbol. This concept is illustrated in the below figure:
We see a Sign, in this case the apple. We know that it is an apple we are looking at thanks to the Signifier, which also leads us to perceive it as red, relatively round, and we see that it also has a leaf. However, the Signified dimension of the apple, or the mental concept, makes us see that very apple in a few different ways and associate it with various instances, such as:
it is also a fruit
we feel its freshness when we eat it, therefore we associate it with freshness
we know that it is healthy because studies and physicians have told us so
we associate it with the Creation Myth of Adam and Eve
we associate it with the stereotype of the “Teacher’s Pet” who always leaves an apple on the teacher’s desk
we think of a well known Computer Brand which goes by the same name, because we have seen it and possibly interacted with an Apple computer.
1.2.2. The Peirce Triadic Model
According to Charles Sanders Peirce, an American born philosopher, mathematician and logician, “A Sign is anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its Interpretant, that the latter is thereby mediately determined by the former.” (Letter to Victoria, Lady Welby (1908) SS 80-81).
-2673351929130Peirce considered that a Sign can only be defined by an interdependent relation between Object or Referent, Interpretant and Representamen or Signifier. Although it might seem very similar to Saussure’s Model, Peirce’s Triadic Model connects the three variables by double sided arrows, which means that it is no longer a defined cycle, as in Saussure’s case, but an interdependant process where each variable may influence another, in no particular order. In my opinion, this model makes much more sense, as the human process of thought and communication is not entirely orderly and tidy.
The above figure is meant to exemplify Peirce’s Model (in this case, an actual Stop Sign) and the steps our mind takes in understanding and acting upon a sign:
First we must see the Sign, or the Stimulus.
What we see makes us automatically think about it’s Meaning or the Representamen, derived from a well known physical form of the perceived sign. The combination between the Meaning of the sign and the physical form of the sign develops into a Symbol.
The Sign as a Symbol makes us better understand its designation. In this case, the shape, color and text of the Stop Sign (the physical form) along with the Meaning we attribute to it (I should stop) leads to the Action itself, or the Referent, of stopping your car.
2.1. The evolution of Human Need
Before I define Symbolic Consumption, we must understand what drives the population to consume, and how we evolved to consumers.
The human being is a complex entity, with rational thought and supreme intelligence, differentiating it from the rest of the living creatures. However, just as any other representative of Earth’s fauna and even flora, the human existence is guided at it’s core by basic factors and instincts, among which we can find Need.
Self sufficiency has yet to be reached by the human kind, and as a consequence, we still depend on a vast array of commodities in order to sustain our day to day life and existence. Over the course of our development, it has become obvious that the goods on which we depend are unevenly distributed among individuals, geographical regions and social classes. As such, a trade system has been devised, in order to gain access to a wider variety of products in exchange for currency or through bartering. All these combined factors have contributed to a simple principle of human behavior:
The above mentioned Human Need has also evolved over time. Starting from the basic food, water, clothing to protect us from external factors and sources of heat for the winter, the Human has developed into a Consumer, which in turn led to the creation of products that strayed away from our basic needs, but opened the door to self expression, preferences, liberty of choice, fashion etc. All the products which are not necessarily essential for survival, but provide the consumer with a certain feeling have added one more element to the above mentioned principle, the Desire.
In the present, the global market is overflowing with any kind of product you can imagine, available at any time and at any price. However, this very abundance has generated a great competitiveness among brands, for which the ultimate prize is the Consumer’s Desire, Attention, and above all, Intention.
In order to win over a customer, companies and brands have adopted various techniques. One of the main devices is marketing, which also includes advertising. Advertising started from a basic form in which the good or service was simply described through text and images, without any further meaning or subconscious layer.
Presently, marketing and advertising have evolved into fields of study and science. Psychology, sociology and many other sciences were adopted, and advertisers have realized the importance of creating emotions and images in the consumer’s mind, through both mental and visual imagery, not just printing something on a piece of paper or filming a commercial and broadcasting it on TV (John R. Rossiter, Columbia University, Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982; Pages 101-106).
2.2. Defining Symbolic Consumption
One of the main processes used in contemporary advertising is Symbolic Consumption: a process which persuades consumers, based on symbols, to desire, need and purchase products.
Through Semiotic principles, such as the ones of Saussure and Peirce, advertisers have explored and identified symbols which can carry certain types of meaning, such as social and personal. Further to that, it has become a common phenomenon to buy a certain product simply for the things it represents, not just it’s utility. It can even be said that, in certain cases, utility has become a secondary reason for purchasing a product.
Consumption has become mostly symbolic, since products have evolved in our minds in ways that represent our personalities, social status, convey lifestyles (which we have or strive to have). As such, it can be said that Symbolic Consumption is based on the consumer’s Desire.
In a study called “Consumer Behavior Today”, authors M. Joseph Sirgy, Don R. Rahtz, and Laura Portolese have categorized the Signs that can be used in Symbolic Advertising, based on Semiotic principles. Below is what the authors have called “The Semiotic Tool Kit”.
The above enumerated factors tend to influence the consumer on a subconscious level. However, each and every factor will be later applied in the following study and responses I have gathered for the research, in order to further place every symbol in a category.
3.1. Research Premises
Advertisements have evolved substantially over the course of their existence and use. Early advertisements did not necessarily respect a certain structure or abstract meaning in their creation, but were based strictly on the imagination and creativity of the creators and the advertising team, while simply showcasing a product, sometimes along with some informative text. Therefore, their impact on the average consumer was less predictable, and their purpose was singular and rudimental.
Presently, in an ever-growing market, full of innovation on all of its facets, from the product itself to the way it is promoted, advertising has taken a new role and has become a science in itself. Commercials are now based on a vast array of studies from fields such as psychology, sociology and semiotics, and contain carefully planned
3.2. Research Proposal
3.2.2. Purpose of the Research
3.2.3. Research Objectives
3.3.3. Plan of Action
3.3.4. Data Collection and Sampling
3.3.5. Interview Description
3.4. Data Interpretation
Ernest Becker “The Birth and Death of Meaning” p. 183-184 (1962)
Campbell, Heinrich Zimmer; edited by Joseph (1969). Philosophies of India (9. paperback print. ed.). Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.
Ferdinand de Saussure “Course in General Linguistics” 1916 (Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye)
Charles Sanders Peirce, Letter to Victoria, Lady Welby (1908) SS 80-81
John R. Rossiter, Columbia University, Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982; Pages 101-106
Consumer Behavior Today, M. Joseph Sirgy, Don R. Rahtz, and Laura PortoleseLawes, R. (2002), “Demystifying Semiotics: Some Key Questions Answered”