Brand Semiotics | Is Branding Bad?

The study of evolutionary psychology posits that our mind is the product of our evolutionary history as well as our culture and socialisation. It is employed by marketers to look for insights into effective communication within a Darwinian framework.

An obvious example is the “longitudinally stable and culturally invariant” use of more young and attractive women than men in decorative roles within advertising, as a result of “the differential mating strategies of the two sexes” (Saad, 2004, p.593).

The study of semiotics in advertising looks at the use of signs and symbols to communicate brand messages. Take, for example, two similar perfumes. The advertising of the first features a feminine celebrity, while the second features a masculine celebrity. The celebrities’ contrasting images provide the differentiation between the products, without any reference to product qualities.

This is only effective if the images are themselves differentiated in a way that the consumer recognizes. Thanks to the socialization of gender differences, we are able to relate masculine and feminine features to a common set of meanings. We then extrapolate these meanings, possible irrationally and even subconsiously, to each branded product.

Adverting transfers meaning from one system of signification with which we are familiar, the ‘referent system’, to that of the unfamiliar product (Williamson, 1978).











A masculine perfume advert[1]                                                          A feminine perfume advert[2]

There has also been a recent growth of Neuromarketing companies, which use fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) techniques to see which neurons fire when we identify and empathize with adverts or consume different brands[3].

Lindstrom, (2010) carried out a multimillion-dollar research project that exposed 2,000 consumers to branding materials while taking fMRI scans of their brains. He concluded that 85% of our consumer buying habits are ‘unconscious’, leaving us extremely vulnerable to semiotic techniques (Lindstrom, 2010). One example was seen following the ban of cigarettes in advertising in 2002. Following the ban, Marlboro added a ‘barcode’ logo onto the Ferrari team’s equipment, which Lindstrom claims to be a semiotic representation of a pack of cigarettes. His neuro-marketing studies showed the areas in the brain that respond to reward, craving and addiction – the Nucleus Acumbens – to have the same pronounced response to actual cigarette packs and the red Ferrari (Gillis & Clegg, 2010).

                                         Marlboro’s ‘semiotic’ message in Ferrari sponsorship.[4]

Similarly, Auty and Lewis (2004) found that product placement of a Pepsi bottle on the table in a movie scene increased children’s choice of Pepsi over Coke, whether or not they had noticed the Pepsi bottle. This is likely to be due to the exposure increasing familiarity, which is instinctively associated with trust and ultimately leads to habitual purchase decisions rather than brand preference.

With regard to the general use of persuasive techniques, I think brands can’t be judged for putting their best foot forward with respect to how they communicate their comparative features. Beyond very elementary examples, as above, I am also skeptical about the risks of semiotics in advertising.

Although I agree that if advertisers were to attempt to influence our behavior via subliminal messaging it would be morally reprehensible, many of the critical assertions are very speculative – choosing just one out of many interpretations of the subtle imagery that may or may not be built. Although the experiments I have cited are intriguing, there remains very little evidence that subconscious or ‘subliminal’ messages have a significant effect, let alone in eliciting a directional change to consumption. Studies in the 1950s/60s showed no effect of subliminal messaged placed in cinema outside the short term memory. Ultimately, I must agree that “the burden of proof is on the asserter of the positive”, and more evidence is needed (Kirkpatrick, 1994, p. 66).

In combination with the overwhelming frequency of advertising exposure, the idea of being manipulated by corporate messages resulted in the industry becoming increasingly distrusted and unpopular in public opinion – with half of all consumers actively avoiding advertising (Campaign, 2007).Hence, I think the industry has been keen to avoid underhand tactics in the most part.