Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Brands are no more truths than they are myths, mystifications, fictions, representations, languages

The assertion that there is a ‘true essential reality’ out there which is the source of things, which can be discovered by an all-empowering gaze, a non-perspectival seeing, is the foundation of our mental model of the world. There is nothing wrong with this model except that it’s too neat, too stable and too inert. And somehow not right when one is dealing with something as alive as language. Of all the signifying systems that surround us there is none to rival the human language. Language is the resource we use for making meaning. The word as signs charging meaning, menacing meaning, etc. The interplay between the signifier and the signified never more vivid than in the brand FCUK, which is a pure construction of the very language it so obviously subverts, which by willingly playing along ensures that it loses none of its power and potency.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that we are completely at the mercy of the language we use and that we grasp and dissect the phenomenological ‘real’ world along lines laid down in our language. The world presents itself in a Kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which are organised by the linguistic systems in our minds. The phrase ‘what language do you think in?’ immediately come to mind, unconsciously giving away the fact that our thoughts are ‘moulded’ by language and that language is not a mere ‘cloak’ for our thoughts.
To me the brand is neither pure object nor pure representation. And is thus necessarily conceived as an observer relative reality, born out of the very language used to describe it. Take Thums Up, for instance. The line it used was ‘Toofani Thanda’ in Hindi and ‘Taste the Thunder’ in English. Toofani Thanda evokes powerful masculine associations, metaphorically suggesting the fizz and the burn and bite in the dark cola, the violence that’s raging inside the bottle which could any minute uncontrollably spill over, and drinking Thums Up as an act of mastering and subsuming a rampant and violent force.
Taste the Thunder in contrast looks like a polite imploration to try, thunder suggests the kind of distant violence which threatens but actually has little effect, not unlike a scolding or a barking dog, and seems like a weak metaphor for all the agitation that’s bottled up. Lacan argues that language is the unconscious mirror that makes us stable and gives us identity. We as subjects are like actors in search of an identity destabilising the notion of a primary real self and secondary role play. We are if you like constructed in and through language. When we start looking at brands as discourses we need to replace the metaphysics of presence with a dialectics of absences (meaning is never fully present, its dependent on interpretation, deconstruction helps us dismantle the meaning in texts) and we can’t help but be reminded of Derrida’s assertion that the letter will never find its address.
Brand as discourse is a living breathing text, in a constant state of flux, exchanging matter and energy with their environment, with fluid permeable boundaries which allows for the backing and forthing of new meanings, as a sign system which is constantly refracting its own meanings. Branding as a way of altering these very ‘semiotic’ boundaries through ‘semantic’ exchanges. Thanda Matlab Coca Cola can be viewed as an attempt to alter the semiotic boundaries of the brand through semantic exchange. The task essentially being how do you naturalise a plastic liquid and get it to cross the boundaries that mark it out as foreign, artificial, outer world, not real.
  • How do we make the real thing (which is actually plastic) accepted as real (which is seen for what it really is i.e. plastic).
  • What kind of meanings do we allow into the brand discourse to transform it from plastic to organic?

Attempt at direct injection of meanings (The real thing) was outright rejected as a sign without a referent and seen for what it is, import from a foreign discourse which has no way of exchanging meanings with the local context. Thanda Matlab Coca Cola on the other hand makes semantic exchange possible, for unlike “The real thing” it doesn’t seek to impose any meanings, acknowledges upfront that Coca-Cola and Thanda don’t mean the same thing (yet), and gets to work at being accepted literally through oral seduction (its almost like if you were to repeat the line a sufficient number of times you would internalise it and accept it). Thanda is a reality that consumer will find very difficult to deny Coca-Cola for the innocent meanings it carries (cold-drink) even while its not so innocent intentions (to play itself in) are being carried out in full public view.

Brands are no more truths than they are myths, mystifications, fictions, representations, languages. Powerful brands are not ideas (which like style draw too much attention) but ideologies––they make their truth appear to be the most ‘natural’ truth, they make you accept their version of reality as given, as real. Brands are created like everything else out of the ‘matrix’ of language and it’s only when things break down that you hear Morpheus ‘welcoming you to the desert of the real’. Writer is a Chief Strategy Officer, Rediffusion DY&R

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