Managing meaning

Here is a phrase you should never use: ‘It’s just semantics’. When you work in the world of brands, semantics and its sibling semiotics, matter. Semantics is the study of meaning and meaning matters. Here’s what happens if you don’t pay attention to the relationship between the language you use and the ideas you’re trying to elucidate…

In a recent campaign for the Boss for Men fragrance featuring Hollywood legend, Ryan Reynolds, the print and outdoor work features a quotation supposedly by Mr Reynolds: “I don’t expect success. I prepare for it.” The person who wrote this line clearly doesn’t care about semantics. Seemingly, everyone along its journey into national newspapers, onto massive billboards and the sides of buses also didn’t care about semantics.

If they had, they would have pointed out that Ryan would have to be some sort of moron to prepare for something that he wasn’t expecting. That would be like revising for an exam you weren’t taking or walking down the street wearing a sou’wester, Wellington boots and carrying a massive umbrella and if asked if you were expecting rain, saying: ‘No, I am not expecting rain so I have prepared for it.’

Fragrance advertising seems to struggle with meaning. The ads veer from the vapid and silly to the silly, bombastic and pretentious. It seems … inevitable. Indeed, Brad Pitt’s recent exhortations on behalf of Chanel prompted a tidal wave of commentary – many scoffing at its pretentiousness and misplaced gravitas.

For example:

In a sense, it’s forgiveable – how do you imbue what is essentially a frivolous product with significance? The answer seems to be to give it an abstract noun as a name (Truth, Seduction, Intrigue, Philosophy etc) and then write breathless, overwrought copy. Something like this: “The mystery is in all of us. It’s there. It’s timeless. Only when we allow our instincts to guide us can we know how to truly be ….”

Over twenty years ago, Fry and Laurie satirised these tropes brilliantly — clearly inspired by the ‘classic’ Calvin Klein fragrance ads of the 1990s:

Personally, I’d rather have no meaning than bogus meaning. A wildly entertaining or subtly intriguing film – perhaps without voice-over or dialogue – would be preferable to something pretending to be profound and provocative. Someone once told me that what I do as a brand consultant is ‘manage meaning’.

It’s a phrase that has stayed with me because it’s such a pithy encapsulation of what brand strategy and management is all about. When it comes to meaning, you can’t fake it. Either you choose language and signs and symbols to convey a certain meaning to your audience or you choose to create something exciting and sensory but devoid of meaning. Those perfume ads go awry when they posture — when they ape something meaningful to create a kind of ersatz depth and symbolism. That’s the way to look preposterous…. 

Preposterous. The new fragrance from [insert designer name here].

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