A Barthes sign – deliberate irony… So, last time I started at the beginning of the art and science of persuasion, looking at how Aristotle’s rhetoric is still the basis of modern marketing, via his 3-part system of:

  • Ethos (basically the speaker’s credibility or brand)
  • Logos (the subject & style of the message)
  • Pathos (effectively the audience’s response)

Prioritising pathos

For an artist, novelist, or even journalist, the first two of these are almost always the most important, with a strong emphasis on the second. While most artists and writers *want* to have a positive audience response to their work, their primary goal is to get their idea out there. Their ethos / reputation may help them reach an audience, but this is secondary to the logos of the work they’re producing: the subject they want to convey, and the way they – the authors of the work – decide to shape it is both their focus, and the focus of their audience.

In short, for an artist or writer, often it is the act of creation itself that is the goal. Getting a positive audience response is merely a bonus – and being forced to chase an audience can stifle their creativity and lead to both stress and bad work. Hence the cliche of the difficult second album…

By contrast, for marketing it’s the last of Aristotle’s three concepts – pathos, the response of the audience – which is most important. Without the right kind of audience response, a marketer’s work will have failed. Hence the birth of focus groups, testing, and the often quite derivative nature of advertising, as “creatives” are forced to shape their work not around a great creative concept in itself, as an artist would, but how that creative concept is likely to resonate with their target audience – pushing them into creativity by committee (always a killer), and a constant recycling of ideas that are known to work.

This focus on the audience’s response is how we’ve end up jumping all the way from Aristotle to Roland Barthes, the notoriously difficult to read late-20th century French semiotician. (But still, at least he’s not Pierre Bourdieu, who I may get to in a later piece in this series…)

Everything is subjective

Barthes’ most famous idea is that of the death of the author – basically the idea that the authorial/creative intentions behind a work of art/literature don’t matter; all that is important is the response of the audience.

To understand this response, Barthes – building on some of the concepts of Ferdinand de Saussure that helped give birth to semiotics, the study of signs (combined with some of Jacques Lacan’s ideas on psychology) – began to re-conceptualise the way meaning is created in culture and society.

Where for Saussure, the importance of semiotics was to help understand the connection between a symbol/sign (the signifier) – be that a sound, a word, or an image – and the thing or concept that symbol/sign was intended to represent (the signified), Barthes effectively took this one logical step further by pointing out that this two-way connection still didn’t get to the heart of the *meaning* of that sign/symbol, because meaning is entirely a matter of interpretation. The connection between signifier and signified is entirely subjective.

Why? Well, because all of us have different knowledge, experience, ideas, attitudes, needs and expectations.

Emojis and meaning

Emojis are a good example. Take this one: Culturally confusing dumpling emoji Originally designed to represent a Chinese dumpling, the emoji’s creator specifically had dumplings in mind when she made it, arguing:

“The dumpling is actually universal. Georgia has khinkali. Japan has gyoza. Korea has mandoo. Italy has ravioli. Polish people have pierogi. Russian people have pelmeni. Argentians have empanadas. Jewish people have kreplachs. Chinese people have potstickers and various other dumplings. Tibet and Nepal have momos. Turkish people have manti.”

As emojis are intended as shorthand signs to speed up communication, arguing for a dumpling emoji based on that logic is pretty sound.

When I first saw it, I initially thought it was a Cornish pasty – a type of food I grew up on. This wasn’t explicitly included in the creator’s initial list – but it was there in the spirit.

In other words, a symbol that means one thing to one person could mean something very different to someone else. (A bit like when my mother kept on signing off text messages with “LOL”, meaning “Lots OLove”, and I was reading it as “Laugh Out Loud” and wondering what was so funny.)

Back to Barthes and a multitude of meanings

Anyway, all this is to illustrate one of Barthes’ key points: Meaning isn’t as simple as there being a direct connection between a signifier (word/image/sign) and signified (thing/concept). Instead you also need to consider the interpretation of both.

This led to Barthes’ modification of Suassure’s bilateral signifier-signified relationship into a trilateral model:

  • Representamen: the signifier / sign / word / image / sound used to represent a concept or thing
  • Object: the signified / thing / concept being represented
  • Interpretant: the person decoding the meaning denoted by both Representamen and Object – a meaning that may vary wildly from interpretant to interpretant depending on their personal context

In other words, there is no single objective, definitive, “correct” interpretation of any given representamen, because the meaning of such signifiers (and even the objects/signifieds they are intended to represent) will constantly change according to context.

An alcoholic example

Take the phrase “I want some alcohol” to illustrate the point.

In one sense, “alcohol” always means the same thing – reading that word, you *think* you know what I mean by it in writing it down. But – as with the emoji example above – what kind of alcohol is, to you, representative? Beer? Whisky? Wine? Gin? A fancy cocktail with an umbrella in it?

A selection of different types of alcoholic drinkIn Japanese, the word for alcohol is sake – which is fairly familiar to English speakers as Japanese rice wine. Ask for sake in a Japanese bar (at least, if you’re obviously not Japanese, like me), and that’s what’ll be delivered, even though the word technically means all types of alcohol.

But what if you’re a surgeon, talking about medical alcohol to clean your scalpel? Or Muslim, and alcohol is forbidden by your religion? Or an alcoholic, and the very thought of it represents a constant temptation and potential relapse? Or, to a lesser degree, what if it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday morning and you’ve got a hangover?

And then there’s the time and place (kairos, for Aristotle). “I want some alcohol” if you’re the surgeon in the operating theatre above will be purposeful, urgent, obviously related to a specific medical need. Say it at the end of a long working day, it could be an sign that you’ve worked hard and deserve a reward, or that you’ve been worked *too* hard and are feeling depressed, or just that you’d like to spend some time with your colleagues in a social environment. Say it at seven o’clock in the morning, and it likely means you’re an alcoholic (unless you’ve been going all night, in which case it means you’re a bit of a party animal – unless you’ve been going all night and you’re in your forties, in which case it means you’re having a mid-life crisis, and probably a little bit sad).

Even if both you as author and interpretant as reader are agreed roughly on what specific type of alcohol you’re referring to, there are still additional contextual meanings that the interpretant will layer on top of your representamen, often subconsciously, that will trigger very different responses.

Again, Aristotle got in there first – because this is pretty much what he had in mind with the idea of pathos: the emotional response of the audience to the rhetorical approach you, as speaker, have taken.

It’s always about your audiences – plural

So, if everything is subjective, context is everything to interpretation, and the intended meaning and interpreted meaning can vary wildly from person to person and context to context, what does this mean for effective communication?

Well, it basically means that it’s very, very difficult to communicate effectively.

But there is hope – Barthes doesn’t go as far as his fellow postmodernist Jacques Derrida (of whom more another time, probably) and argue that all this means things are changing so much there is ultimately no such thing as meaning.

But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t make assumptions about how what we’re trying to say will be interpreted. We need to think more about principles of inclusive design when starting to craft our messages. We need to constantly self-criticise and consider the vast range of cultural, linguistic, social, educational, and personal experiences of our audiences. And to recognise that audiences are always plural – even if the audience is a single person, because their mindset and mood will vary depending on the context in which they encounter the thing it is they are interpreting.

To anticipate all these variants may well be impossible. But if your job is to convey meaning and to try to persuade – as it is for marketers and advertisers – then your job is to attempt to anticipate as many as possible.

Anticipating responses – and adapting accordingly

Which is why, to be a successful marketer, a basic understanding of the media, of creative techniques, of the product you’re marketing and the sector you’re in – the traditional needs of the industry – is not enough. To be effective needs a far broader understanding of the context in which your work will be interpreted by your target audiences. And these audiences are far more complex than can ever hope to be summed up on a PowerPoint slide as a “persona”. To try and anticipate their responses needs an awareness of a huge range of potential variables – far more than the simplistic, old-school advertising approach focusing on fairly simplistic demographics.

This is why, as I continue this series exploring the art of persuasion and the theories and best practices that underlie marketing, I’m going to continue to branch out into other areas – from semiotics to sociology to anthropology to literary criticism to linguistics to economics to psychology to philosophy to history and more. Because ultimately, the only way to get close to persuading is to try to understand and anticipate the vast range of ways what we, as creators, are doing can be interpreted, and construct our attempts at persuasion backwards from this knowledge.

Barthes never quite got to an all-encompassing theory of meaning to create a roadmap of how to do this, having died mid-flow at the age of 64 after being run over by a laundry van following a convivial lunch with future French President Francois Mitterand and the philosopher Michel Foucault (of whom, probably, more another time). I doubt I’ll be the one to pick up the baton. And it may well be impossible anyway – even tapping into the potential promise of AI to analyse vast datasets and interpret correlations and likely causations of meaning and influence.

But hell – it’s a way to pass the time.

The art of persuasion series:

  1. Aristotle’s rhetoric: the foundations of modern marketing
  2. Barthes and anticipating audience responses