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Understanding New Age Signs: Semiotics Of Social Media

Understanding New Age Signs: Semiotics Of Social Media

You know, while researching on the above topic, really breaking my head to find out some appropriate ad campaigns to start with, and was founding myself going blank in my brain, which is what precisely happens when you try real hard for something, it came across and remembered seeing a very unique advertisement on T.V. a few years back. It was an ad for a Nokia N series phone but it the exact model number could not be recalled. So, the search given was with a phrase ‘fairytale’ in YouTube and viola! Fairytale it was! It was the video ad for Nokia N82 where the tagline was ‘storytelling rediscovered’. It was a one-minute ad with powerful moments taken out from daily life and presented with an equally commanding voice over that transformed the moments into something oh-not-so-daily-anymore visuals.

Further, the efforts went into to look for the Kindle Paperwhite advertisement and lastly, visited the website of Paper Boat drinks. Also, efforts were put into to try out in putting the finger on the one factor that made me remember these three advertisements or brands all of a sudden at once. Later, it was realized that essentially all these three brands were able to harvest the feelings of nostalgia in me through their ads. It was not very overt in Nokia N82 ad or in Kindle Paperwhite ad like the famous Paper Boat tagline ‘drinks and memories’. However, they could awaken the same feeling through their ad, be it the nostalgic music in Kindle ad or the suggestions of forgotten fairytales in Nokia N82. Now, why were two paragraphs devoted to express my personal experience and feeling towards certain ads? The quest will require interpreting multilayered signs and symbols presented by the ads, academic term of which is semiotic analysis.

History of Semiotics, in a micro-capsule

“It is… possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, ‘sign’).”

These were the words of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure when he explained about Semiotics in general. A very many scholars (like Charles Sanders Peirce, Roland Barthes, Algirdas Greimas, Christian Metz, Umberto Eco and Julia Kristeva to name a few) had contributed to the development of Semiotics. Scholars from different disciplines also worked within semiotic framework (Claude Lévi-Strauss in Anthropology and Jacques Lacan in Psychoanalysis).

From around 1960s Semiotics began to become a major approach to cultural studies as a result of the work of Roland Barthes. He explained: “semiology aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification”. One of the broadest definitions is provided by Umberto Eco: “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign”.

Let us now see how brands utilize Semiotics in creating brand value or how we, the target market, read the brand values using Semiotics. We must remember that advertisements are basically a way of communication between a consumer and a brand. In this context, Semiotics acts as the framework of that communication which the brands use consciously to penetrate the subconscious of consumers. To quote from Internet:

“Marketing Semiotics decodes the cultural codes structuring consumer myths, archetypes, and icons. It translates consumer insights into symbolic elements, such as the brand lexicon and iconography, design strategy, and stories. Marketing Semiotics applies semiotics to consumer research, design strategy, and cultural branding.”

A few commercials and Semiotics: Manufacturing Nostalgia

Paper Boat Drinks:

Clearly, it is the image, or the shots played in a video overall, are the first thing that we notice when we encounter an advertisement. The first time I saw a Paper Boat juice packet I immediately connected with it because of its bright, happy colors and extremely beautiful but simplistic drawings at the bottom of the packet.

It is the same drawing with three houses, a few trees and fishes and a floating boat for all the drinks, only the colors are different every time. This is a kind of picture that we used to draw as a child; a one-dimensional, idyllic landscape which emits weightless-ness more than anything. The drawing takes full advantage of the white body of the package as does the bright happy colors.

Then, we see the tagline: Memories and Drinks. Now, this is a wonderful example of how without advertising one can sell. We have to remember that the brand meaning of Paper Boat is nostalgia as they are trying to sell flavors like Aampanna, Imli, Tulsi Tea or Golgappe ka pani which are heavily laden with childhood memories and cultural connotations. Together with the picture, the colors and the tagline the makers of the brand conjures up the nostalgia in their consumers. Let us not forget about the paper boat.

Kindle Paperwhite:

For Kindle Paperwhite it is ‘celebrating the joy of reading’. The video ad shows a young man reading from a Kindle while on a journey. This represents, I would say, at least three generations; our parents’ or grand parents’ generation when a book used to be one’s companion in a long journey; the future generation when the concept of a book, or reading so to say, will change; and our generation, which are experiencing the transitional phase from a book to a Kindle. The journey, both symbolic and realistic, reaches its culmination when the man arrives at an island. It is revealed that he was reading it so that he could tell a story to the children of the island who might not have access of anything.

This again, plays with our memory when our grandparents’ used to read stories during bedtime. Beside, India always had a tradition of story telling as a folk performance, where the storyteller transformed in to a performer, constantly shifting from one character to another; which is exactly what happens in the ad.

The whole journey is supported by a fantastic slow strumming of acoustic guitar and a violin, may be? The more it approaches the end the more it integrates. Lastly a song starts with equal calmness and solace to depict the satisfaction of the man. The ‘joy of reading’ is not limited only in reading, but also, in sharing the story, and thus, celebrating it.

Nokia N82:

Nokia N82 dealt with the age-old tradition of fairytale. The tagline of the model was ‘storytelling rediscovered’. The model was a high-end smart phone with an advanced camera that had xenon flash beating the then-best camera phone N95 in the process.

Let us look in to the voice over here. We identify some very familiar words and phrases like ‘once upon a time’, ‘princess’, ‘unicorn’, ‘wizard’, waving wand, ‘shining star’, ‘pirates’, ‘hidden treasure’, knight’- ‘slay’ – ‘dragon’, ‘clock striking midnight’. Our cognitive minds recognize these words as elements taken from fairytales. And so they are, but used in a completely different context. The video follows a normal day in a busy mundane city from morning to midnight and shows various moments of it. It juxtaposes the words against such images that we would not otherwise think of as the iconic representations of the same words. Thus, displacing the text, the brand conveys the meaning of ‘storytelling rediscovered’ successfully. So much so that even after 7 years (the model was launched in November, 2007) I remember only what was projected by the ad: an urban fairytale!

This was a small attempt to interpret and analyze advertisement and to see how the brands are skillfully taking advantage of the discipline. Let us now see how and why Semiotics is becoming more and more important in social media.

Social Media Campaigns, Signs and Semiotics

Celebrating the power of language: Micromax Unite 2

In 2014 Micromax launched a unique campaign to promote their smart phone model Unite 2. The tagline of their commercial was ‘Azaadi bhasha ki, shabdo ki arth ki, vicharo ki, azaadi apni matri bhasha ki’. They celebrated the freedom of speech, freedom of choice and expression in a multilingual, multicultural country like India by giving the user to choose from 21 Indian languages (among the 22 scheduled languages). Let us see how the Twitter campaign #DeshkiDictionary becomes metonymic in nature as a social media campaign.

Here, Micromax invited users to participate in creating an urban slang/jargon dictionary by providing definition for the ‘Word of the Day’ or by nominate their own word from their own language. Participants had to log on to the Micromax #DeshKiDictionary microsite and provide definition for the ‘Word of the Day’. They could nominate their own ‘Word of the Day’ by tweeting to the official Micromax Mobile twitter handle with the hash tag #DeshKiDictionary and #MySlang. The winners were decided on the basis of the maximum retweets received.

Now, here the users were given the power not only to use their own language but also the power to ‘vote’ their chosen words. In a country like India where multiple languages, cultures and religions coexist, and where one of the official languages (another one being Hindi) is English (not to mention that it is also the language of communication when it comes to electronic devices), this ‘freedom’ is bound to be formidable. People feel strongly about their vernacular even if they are completely unaware how much it is related to their socio-cultural background. The users are allowed to keep their cultural and linguistic identity intact while they unite under the umbrella of ‘freedom’ that Micromax is offering. The words like ‘rokra’, ‘paandu’, ‘mandawali’, ‘jugaad’, ‘syaapa’, ‘kem cho’ are representative terms of the languages from where they are taken. Slangs or colloquial jargons are the most innovative way to express one’s feeling, as they are full of extra-linguistic features, cultural connotations and novel linguistic coinages. Having been able to use one’s own language thus signifies the ‘freedom of choice’. Together, on the other hand, they signify the metaphoric representation of unity in diversity, as they all are Indian languages and are now been taken/used under Micromax’s app Desh Ki Dictionary.


Social media has been an influential medium as it allows consumer to be a part of the game, to be vocal about his/her needs, complaints, satisfactions or expectations. As we all now know, it is a two-way communication between a brand and its consumer. Campaigns like Paper Boat’s Facebook page where people can go and write about their childhood memory or Maggi’s campaign ‘Meri Maggi’ are some of the examples where the brands have taken a personalized approach to engage users more than ever they did before. However, interpreting the drive for these posts that users share on a brand’s official page can demonstrate how these brands are actually making use of Social Semiotics in a multilayered way. The nostalgia that we feel while experiencing a Paper Boat drink is carefully manufactured by the brand. The logo of the boat signifies a time, a childhood which the children of this era may not share anymore; games that are mentioned in Paper Boat website like Antakshari or Pitthu are not played anymore; children now play video games. But, our children do have ‘memory’ of these; mostly, they inherited it from their parents. Thus, the brand is actually using this constructed exhausted memory as their way of invading in to consumer’s psychology, which would not be possible without interpreting the signs and symbols of childhood. The new age signs are not unidirectional; they are multilayered and ever evolving as the medium (social media) itself is still evolving.

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