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Introduction to Market Research Semiotics WNYHFES Rochester April 25 th , 2006 Charles Leech, Ph.D. ABM Research Ltd. Outline. Introductions: Charles Leech Semiotic Analysis Theory & Mechanics of Semiotics Intertextuality Metasemiotics & Youth

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Introduction to

Market Research Semiotics

WNYHFES Rochester April 25th, 2006

Charles Leech, Ph.D.

ABM Research Ltd.

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  • Introductions:

    • Charles Leech

    • Semiotic Analysis

  • Theory & Mechanics of Semiotics

  • Intertextuality

    • Metasemiotics & Youth

  • Automotive Design

    • Engine ‘Gills’

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Charles Leech & ABM: Background

Charles Leech

  • Executive Vice-President, Qualitative at ABM Research Ltd.

    • PhD Media Studies & Applied Semiotics (QUT), cum laude MA Mass Communications Research (Leicester), Hons. BA (UofT)

    • projects for InBev/Labatt, Unilever, Microsoft, Nike, Mercedes, Bell, McDonald’s, Cadbury Adams, Nike, Coke, etc.

  • established in 1979, ABM Research is now a multi-national market research company with a global client base

  • at ABM, we believe in triangulating our research design (multiple methodologies to assess the same research issue in order to identify overlaps & discrepancies)

  • semiotics is a key component of research triangulation

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Semiotics: Background

  • Forefathers:

    • Ferdinand de Saussure, (1857 - 1913): Linguistics

    • Charles S. Peirce (1839 - 1914): philosophy and logic

  • Academic Roots: linguistics and literature

    • then photography & film studies

    • then cultural studies and media studies (advertising)

  • Giants in the Field:

    • Roland Barthes (Mythologies)

    • Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, The Name of the Rose)

    • John Fiske (Television Cultures)

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Semiotics: Theory

  • Semiotics holds that all languages (spoken, visual, musical) are composed of signs

  • Any sign has two basic parts: Signifier & Signified

  • Signifier

    • what something is, or denotative ( ‘dog’)

  • Signified

    • what something means, or connotative

    • what does the image of a dog mean or connote to us?

      • loyalty

      • devotion

      • unconditional love

      • masculinity (all dogs are masculine in the same way that all cats are feminine)

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Semiotics: Theory

  • we start learning this in kindergarten and then spend the rest of our lives building up denotation-connotation relationship in our brains

  • this relationship is mediated through culture

  • our culture dictates these meanings, which do not necessarily translate across cultures (although globalization aids this process)

    • Western culture vs. Eastern culture

    • English Canada vs. French Canada

  • culture gives texts further connotations:

    • dogs = loyalty & masculinity in part due to Lassie, Tintin, Red Badge of Courage, Old Yeller, Littlest Hobo, Mad Max/Road Warrior, etc.:

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Semiotics: Theory

  • Semiotics sees all communication as text or narrative or discourse

  • Text = word, novel, film, commercial, song, outfit, party environment

  • Text = anything that can be read, or decoded

  • Text = ‘narrative’

  • because signs/texts all tell a story

  • we employ these narratives to communicate information about ourselves (true or not)

  • tastes in clothing, jewellery, music, film, décor, cars, etc.

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Semiotics: Theory

  • semiotic analysis revolves around 2 important beliefs:

    • context will always dictate meaning

      • cultural context

      • industrial context

      • target consumer context)

    • the perception of the consumer is the only important reality: the intent of the author/designer/artist is irrelevant

      • it does not matter if the designer never intended consumers to ‘read’, understand, or perceive a text a particular way

      • what matters is how consumers do actually read a text

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Semiotics: Applications

  • market research: qualitative methodology

    • useful to assess

      • packaging, product design, websites

      • creative (animatics, storyboards, previous ads)

      • brand history (where has the brand come from)

      • logos, brand names

      • retail and consumer environments

    • not to useful to determine, for example, best of 5 phone plans

  • semiotics is popular in Europe, and beginning now to see demand in North America

  • in USA some companies try to ‘copyright’ semiotics as a proprietary black-box methodology

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Semiotics: Mechanics

  • usually, a desktop methodology where the professional researcher sits down, alone, with the ‘text’

  • consumers are not generally involved, unless it is to ratify or test results against them

  • semiotics operates on a deeper level of language and analysis beyond the reach of most consumers

    Moderator: “why do you like this?”

    Respondent: “I dunno – it’s silver”

    M: “what’s so interesting about silver?”

    R: “I dunno – it’s shiny! I like it!”

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Semiotics: Mechanics

  • analysis starts with the ‘core’ text, which could be

    • brand name

    • prominent design element

  • using the internet, professional consumer understanding, and the library, assess this core text against its various contexts:

    • meaning in Western culture

    • consumer cultural context

    • product context

    • category context

    • industry context

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Semiotics: Mechanics

  • the semiotician must see or hear things literally, and then analyze those things figuratively

  • semiotics is the art of thinking profoundly about banal things

  • break down image/picture/word/packaging into small component parts:

    • fonts, colours, shapes, sizes, angles

    • media: what is the subject, what is being shown

    • choice of media: photo, drawing, watercolour, graffiti

  • assess each of these components for connotative meaning

    • resemblances, emotions, attitudes, histories

    • pop culture, religious, social, cultural references

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Semiotics: Mechanics

  • probe imagined alterations: what if the design were X, how would that change our feeling towards it?

    • how would we feel about a green Coke can?

  • reconstruct your text layer by layer

    • note new connotations arising from combinations

    • sometimes silver means one thing and red means another, but silver and red together suggest a third thing

  • what is the ideology behind the text: what unspoken cultural assumptions are required for this text to make sense in our culture?

    • most advertising supports a hegemonic ideology

    • Western cultural hegemony is defined as male, baby-boomer, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied

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Semiotics: Mechanics

  • establish relationship between signifieds and signifers by asking following questions:

    • who or what created the sign?

    • what does it mean?

    • what does it look like or resemble or imitate or suggest?

    • why might it look like or resemble or suggest that reference? what connection can be made between the two?

    • what medium was employed?

    • in what context does it occur?

    • how many different interpretations are possible? Positive and negative?

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Semiotics: Proof?

  • can be “proven” academically (footnotes, textbooks), but more often is seen as an intuitive science (recognize truth inside)

  • in a large majority of cases, clients recognize intuitively that the analysis makes sense

    “now that you put it like that, it makes perfect sense – I just never really thought about it in that way before”

  • in other cases, semiotic analysis is most effective when a conclusion is demonstrated via examples from popular culture

    • movie clips

    • ads

    • etc.

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Semiotics: Proof?

  • example: discourse analysis of the dog food category (which included semiotic analysis of dog food packaging)

    • supplementary semiotic conclusion:

      dog food is apocalyptic human food

      (dog food is what humans will be eating after the end of the world, e.g. when the apocalypse has reduced survivors to a near-animal state)

    • initially rejected by clients

    • proof demonstrated through dystopian science fiction film clips of humans eating dog food after the ‘end of the world’, e.g. Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior

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  • theory that all texts are constructed of parts of other texts

  • “only three original stories in the whole world”

  • two kinds of intertextuality:

  • Horizontal

    • references to the same text within a text

    • Smithers points out that Marge painted a portrait of Mr. Burns in a previous episode of The Simpsons

  • and Vertical

    • references to other texts within a text

    • 95% of The Simpsons humour

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Simpsons Intertextuality

  • hundreds of intertextual references per episode

  • ‘Homer’s Barbershop Quartet’ episode is play on The Beatles

    • Pete Best (Chief Wiggam)

    • Beatlemania in Springfield

    • group dissolves when Barney is seduced by “abstract Japanese performance artist”

  • humor of show is largely dependent on recognition of references

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  • Umberto Eco: intertextuality in film, TV, movies, ads are consciously constructed to be semiotically decoded

    • Casablanca (Curtis) vs. Jurassic Park (Spielberg)

  • Generationalism: Boomers vs. Gen X & Y

    • technological determinism, digital culture

  • intertextual references (in-jokes) rule media

  • intertextual/metasemiotic Examples:

    • Kung Pow: references Shrek referencing Charlie’s Angels referencing Matrix referencing Iron Monkey (Woo-Ping Yuen)

    • Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in pop culture

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Semiotics of Design

  • automotive design is an excellent example of how semiotic analysis can understand the cultural and emotional impact of design denotations

  • with most automobiles being essentially the same mechanically, the difference between automobiles is almost entirely

    • design

    • branding

    • lifestyle associations

  • although elements of automotive design will usually have an important functional purpose, the importance of their emotional impact should not be underestimated

  • a vast majority of all consumer purchases and assessments are made emotionally (often followed by rational justification)

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Semiotics of Design

  • example: engine exhaust/wheel ventilation ports on Land and Range Rovers

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Semiotics of Design

  • Land Rover and Range Rover

    • British company established in 1948

    • traditionally made rural trucks, associated with

      • heavy machinery

      • rough driving conditions: mud, underbrush, rocks, etc.

      • horses, dogs, farm animals

      • British shooting parties

      • upper-class gentry

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Semiotics of Design

  • Land Rover and Range Rover

    • current positioning:

      • upwardly mobile middle-class ‘gentry’

      • luxury + retain off-road SUV functionality

      • square design is arguably “anti-fashion as fashion” (Mercedes M class SUVs, Honda, etc.)

    • key connotative aspects for design to communicate:

      • luxury

      • sporty, performance

      • tough, rugged, off-road capabilities

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Semiotics of Design

  • connotation:

    sporty, performance, rugged, tough

  • denotation:

    engine exhaust/wheel ventilation ports

  • question: why? where does this come from?

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Semiotics of Design

  • outside of the automotive industry, where else are engine exhausts or ventilation ports used in this manner?

  • airplane design

    • specifically, well known in WWII fighter plane engine cowlings such as the Spitfire

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Semiotics of Design

  • WWII fighter planes bring a wealth of connotations to automotive design:

    • high speed

    • high performance

    • powerful

    • nimble, maneuverable

    • aggressive

    • deadly, dangerous

    • noble (British outnumbered by Germans in the Battle of Britain)

    • superior design (Spitfires superior to Messerschmitts)

    • archaic, quaintly old-fashioned

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Semiotics of Design

  • from where else might this denotation-connotation be derived?

  • if fighter pilots in WWII thought their planes looked sporty, aggressive, and high performance, what might their reactions be derived from?

  • answer:


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Semiotics of Design

  • engine ‘gills’ very closely resemble shark gills

  • this is true – and visually demonstrable – regardless of whether this design is intentional or accidental

  • the notion of ‘shark’ brings a wealth of connotations to the automotive industry:

    • speed

    • high performance

    • high efficiency

    • aggression

    • deadly, dangerous

    • nimble, maneuverable

    • ‘nature’s perfect killer’ – a perfectly designed killer

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Semiotics of Design

  • the similarity between engine exhausts/wheel ports and shark gills also drives several other connotative values:

    • the automobile engine is made to feel more alive, with the suggestion that the engine/wheel has to ‘breathe’ like a shark or animal

    • this would encourage anthropomorphization, or the attribution of human emotions and characteristics to animal or inanimate objects

    • this feeling also suggests performance and power – breathing easier means running/moving/driving faster

    • the design also suggests propulsion, through the notion that the exhaust looks like a supplementary turbo-jet/rocket

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Semiotics of Design

  • an exercise in binary oppositions shows that sharks, fighter planes give Range and Land Rovers a set of connotations with narrative congruence:


  • speed

  • high performance

  • high efficiency

  • aggression

  • deadly

  • nimble, maneuverable

  • ‘perfect design’

Fighter Planes

  • speed

  • high performance

  • high efficiency

  • aggression

  • deadly

  • nimble, maneuverable

  • ‘perfect design’

Land/Range Rover

  • speed

  • high performance

  • high efficiency

  • aggression

  • deadly (power)

  • nimble, maneuverable

  • ‘perfect design’

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Semiotics of Design

  • to further confirm the conclusion, this relationship can be found throughout the automotive industry, especially in sports cars or cars who want to be seen as sports cars:

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Semiotics of Design

  • implications for product design:

    • adding gill-like exhaust or ventilation ports (functional or not) is one way to make an automobile appear more sporty

    • adding gill-like exhaust/ventilation ports (functional or not) is one way to encourage emotional identification with your vehicle, by subconsciously suggestion that your car is some kind of predatorial ‘pet’ that needs to be ‘fed’ (fueled), ‘exercised’ (taken for long fast drives) and ‘groomed’ (washed and detailed)

  • design questions for further semiotic analysis:

    • is there a connotative difference between horizontal gills (WWII fighter planes) and vertical gills (sharks)?

    • are larger SUV vehicles with gills at danger of being connotatively associated with whales (big, fat, slow, stupid) and not sharks (fast, lean, performance, sharp)?

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Charles Leech, Ph.D.

2 Bloor Street East,

Suite 2222

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

M4W 1A8

416-961-5511 x2232

Fax 416-961-5341

Monasterio 460

Vte. Lopez


Buenos Aires


(11) 4796-9420

Fax (11) 4796-9420

30 West Mashta Drive

Suite #600

Key Biscayne, Florida



(305) 365-8881

Fax (305) 365-3737