Updates: tools of semiotic thinking

Updates: tools of semiotic thinking

We’ve received many interesting submissions for the Field Guide of Semiotic thinking. Below you will find example entry for Code conflict submitted by Tyler Bennett.  Don’t forget to submit your favorite tool.


Effective advertisements play with consumer predilections, grabbing their attention by juxtaposing conflicting codes. If the advertisement presents nothing surprising it is easy to ignore it. Code conflict gives the consumer the impression of having a choice. Univocal messages require no creative interpretation and present only one message. While their message may be clear, such advertisements are also more easily passed over as they do not appear to present any new information, at least to the consumer that is already familiar with the product. Codes can conflict at different levels, the most coarse being the level of medium: written text, auditory speech, pictographic representation, ostensive display, etc. Code conflict also takes place at the content level: the advertisement can appeal to one consumer predilection while merely placating or even repelling another. Here, consumer predilections are likely choices based on tastes/preferences as inferred from demographics/locations. The careful juxtaposition of conflicting codes guides the consumer to product decisions they wouldn’t necessarily arrive at rationally. Before considering what likely decisions will be made, it is important to evaluate what sort of code conflict presents itself initially in the advertisement, and see that this eye-catching dissonance does not interrupt codes otherwise conducive to a positive decision about the product.
Strategic appeal to consumer predilections through code conflict depends on the accurate identification of those predilections. Advertisements for luxury products placed in a discount coupon book activate different consumer predilections than those placed in an in-flight duty-free magazine for international travellers. Which codes in the advertisement are indispensable for the target consumer? What consumer predilections can be challenged to grab attention and which must be reinforced as reliable indexes of their consumer worldview? The effective advertisement must have a measure of dissonance, but it is important not to destabilize codes that are central to the identity of the consumer. Code conflict is essential to engaging the imagination of the consumer before they can pass off the advertisement as something all too familiar. Advertisements with conflicting codes present the product initially as something surprising, innovative, or at least deserving further consideration. The presence of at least two conflicting codes is sometimes upheld as the definition of the sign itself, and the logic of code conflict (how codes can be determined to be incompatible in the first place, how the elements of a given code map onto others to produce new meanings) is a procedural tool for both the creation of advertisement as well as the analysis of why given advertisements succeed or fail.

1) What are the likely predilections target consumer? (age, location, etc.)
2) In a set of consumer predilections, which must be reinforced and which can be merely placated or even challenged?
3) What is the most effective way to encode these predilections within the advertisement? (pictorial/auditory/textual medium, situational allegory, etc.?)
4) Which encoded predilections, when juxtaposed within the advertisement, are likely to engage the imagination of the consumer toward a positive choice about the product?

The below application is an example of an advertisement that juxtaposes two conflicting codes, prioritizing one while merely placating another, effectively posing an as if dilemma, thereby catching the eye and giving and the impression of choice to the consumer without upsetting their paramount predilection.
The codes in this advertisement conflict initially at the medial level (text and image), but the important conflict is conceptual. The first impression is made by the rustic burlap bag of coffee beans apparently straight from harvesting, or straight from the roaster, from the farm to the table so to speak. The faded text reinforces this code of authenticity and originality. It would suggest that Starbucks coffee is as original and authentic as any other coffee.
In contrast, the text advertises Starbucks coffee as an expensive and unique kind of coffee.  To some, the fact that Starbucks coffee is made by automatic machines rather than traditional manual espresso machines with separate grinders would disqualify it as either authentic or original. Their designer beverages are complex blends of syrups and toppings, not just coffee. The text suggests that, while the monetary cost of the coffee may be greater than other coffees, something irreplaceable is lost if the consumer is not willing to pay a higher price. The simple and authentic coffee presented by the first code conflicts with the expensive designer coffee presented by the second code.
The effect of these conflicting codes depends on the interpretive predilections the consumer brings, such as whether they are aware of the mechanized production process or a wide array of different ingredients in Starbucks coffee, or whether they possess the desire for authenticity and originality. The rustic bean bag acknowledges the desire for a return to an original, but is that what the typical consumer of Starbucks actually wants from their coffee, or is it a dispensable code? In the case of Starbucks, we provisionally assume the target consumer prizes speciality and consistency over authenticity and originality. One implicit message to arise between these codes is that if the consumer pays less for their coffee, they are likely to receive some thin, farmhouse black drip coffee bearing no resemblance to the pumpkin spice latte or caramel macchiato they actually want.
For the affluent consumer, the advertisement is likely to placate the romantic desire for a return to an original even though the product does not actually offer this, at least to the degree that a Starbucks coffee bears almost no resemblance to what is classically considered coffee. The code of rustic appeal can be merely placated or even challenged, whereas the code of consistency and speciality must be reinforced.
The coexistence of these conflicting codes engages different predilections, demanding a negotiation of their various aspects. The demand for negotiation catches the eye and gives the impression of choice, without upsetting the paramount predilection of the target consumer.

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Learn also more about Semiofest 2016 presenters
To get to know our presenters better, we asked them few questions. Here are their answers.

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