Media & Culture – Sign Symbol
A sign system is a representation through communication which in turn leads to a shared meaning or understanding. We hold mental representations that classify and organize the world (whether fact or fiction), people, objects, and events into meaningful categories so that we can meaningfully comprehend the world.
The media use sign systems through newspapers, magazines, television, the internet, the radio, etc. The conceptual map of meaning and language is the basis of representation. The conceptual map of meaning is concepts organized, arranged, and classified into complex relations to one another. The conceptual map of meaning allows you to distinguish your own individual interpretation of the world, at the same time as holding similar views to that of other people in your culture.
As the meaning is produced and constructed and in turn learned by a particular group of people. Therefore sharing conventions and codes of their language and culture. Signs can only convey meaning if we possess codes that allow us to translate our concepts into language. These codes are the result of social conventions which lead to the shared maps of meaning. These shared meanings are learned unconsciously as we become members of a culture. If we have a concept of something in our minds we can say we know the meaning of this concept.
However, we cannot express or communicate this meaning without the second system of representation, language. Language is the only way in which meanings can be effectively exchanged between people, as people within the same culture are able to interpret the sign of language in the same manner. As the meanings become natural through the conditioning of culture. For example the word white in Australia represents a color of purity, however, in China it is the color of death. Demonstrating that different cultures have not only different meanings in their shared conceptual maps but a different language to express it. As meanings change rapidly throughout cultures to really understand another culture you must live there and speak the language for some time.
Cultural, social, political, and linguistic conventions are learned over time. The three theories of representation, reflective, intentional, and constructionist approaches explain how representations through language work. The reflective approach is where language functions as an ÔmirrorÕ of the particular elements’ perceived meaning. The intentional approach is where the author’s individual views of the world are expressed. Whereas the constructionist approach is where we the audience construct the meaning through our shared conceptual maps and language.
The media use these sign symbols so that an association can be made to the object, person, event, idea, etc. With this information on representation and language, the media can familiarise people with many things, such as cultural knowledge. As advertising surrounds consumers, the concern is often expressed over the impact on society, particularly on values and lifestyle. While a number of factors influence the cultural values, lifestyles, and behavior of a society, the overwhelming amount of advertising and its prevalence in the mass media suggests that advertising plays a major role in influencing and transmitting social values. In his book Advertising and Social Change, Ronald Berman says; The institutions of the family, religion, and education have grown noticeably weaker over each of the past three generations.
The world itself seems to have grown more complex. In the absence of traditional authority, advertising has become a kind of social guide. It depicts us in all the myriad situations possible to a life of free choice. It provides ideas about style, morality, and behavior. While there is general agreement that advertising is an important social influence agent, opinions as to the value of its contribution are often negative.
Advertising is criticized for encouraging materialism, manipulating consumers to buy things they do not really need, perpetuating stereotypes, and controlling the media. The media must consider the cultural variables of each country, such as the complexity of learned meanings, norms, language, customs, tastes, attitudes, religion, traditions, education, lifestyle, values, and the ethical/moral standards shared by members of each society.
These variables must be learned by the media so as not to offend the group they are portraying. Cultural norms and values offer direction and guidance to members of a society in all aspects of their lives. Every country exhibits cultural traits that influence not just the needs and wants of consumers but how they go about satisfying them.
The media must be aware of the connotations of words and symbols used in their messages and understand how advertising copy and slogans are translated. Advertisers can also encounter problems with the connotative meaning of signs and symbols used in their messages. However, within a given culture there are found smaller groups or segments, whose variables (as listed above) set them apart from the larger cultural mainstream. Known as subcultures the media must also learn about their variables as they are just as important due to their size, growth, and purchasing power. Such as the Asian or Italian communities in Australia.
The study of culture has led to generalizations that may apply to all cultures. Such characteristics are known as cultural universals, which are manifestations of the total way of life of any group of people. These include elements such as bodily adornments, courtship, etiquette, family gestures, joking, food, mealtimes, music, personal names, status differentiation, and trade.
These activities occur across cultures, but their manifestations may be unique in a particular society, bringing about cultural diversity. Common denominators can be found, but how they are accomplished may vary dramatically. These elements are both material and abstract. Primarily through the media, these images are where we find references to conjure images of other countries’ representations. These signs are made common to the masses through the media, which in turn through repetition reinforces the image as common.
The media use repetition and consistency of a few stereotypical elements to reinforce the central role of the image, linking it to a specific culture. These stereotypes produce ÔothernessÕ from the dominant culture, by focusing on a few different attributes of another culture. This often gets reduced to easy-to-digest differences such as food, clothes, appearance, and music.
This suggests that culture is based on material things around us, a culture of possessions. However, these representations avoid important issues that could be very different between cultures. Advertising perpetuates some of the myths associated with certain cultural groups such as African American men are good at sports, The French are arrogant and Australians are lazy. As Chiara Giaccardi said in TV Advertising and Social Reality; Advertisements tend to capitalize upon recurrent images and forms of presentation; in so doing they reinforce them, not so much through the individual texts as through the accumulation and repetition of ÔritualisedÕ representation during the entire advertising flow.
Advertisements refer not only to things and situations but also to a way of seeing and interpreting them. Advertisements constitute a repertoire that viewers can draw upon both for representing and understanding themselves and for making sense of their external reality. Advertising shapes reality to serve capitalism and the Ôpost modernÕ position, according to which advertising offers a pleasurable synthetic experience as a surrogate for reality.
(Chiara Giaccardi, TV Advertising and Social Reality) Advertising is therefore meaningful as it creates a sense of familiarity with the ways of experiencing it in a represented form. However as Gillian Dyer states in Advertising as Communication; We must recognize that the images conveyed by the media have, over the last thirty years, become so sophisticated and persuasive that they now organize our experiences and understanding in a crucially significant way. Advertisements encourage extravagant expectations because they are more dramatic and vivid than reality – reality cannot match up to the image.
Therefore cultural knowledge is obtained through the media sign system. This is evident through my knowledge of many countries and cultures without ever traveling overseas. Stereotypical elements of particular cultures shown through the media allow me to have perceived meanings and understandings of other cultures. However, the stereotypes of the culture portrayed through media signs are predominately tourist stereotypes.
There are many advertisements in the print, audio, and visual media that portray cultural knowledge. Particular signs that we can link to specific cultures, due to the familiarisation with them through the media. For example, the television commercial for Simpson washing machines showed Indian Dhobi washerwomen banging their clothes against a washing machine to clean them, instead of a nearby rock.
Using the tagline ÒThe hardest working appliances in the world Ó suggests that the product is trustworthy and has stamina. The sign systems that the media used were firstly the opening shot of the Ganges River in the foreground with Indian temples in the background. You then see a mass of Indian women in traditional dress washing clothes in a traditional manner. Although hard-working the commercial suggested that their product was also as strong as a rock. The use of the washing machine as a rock for clothes washing and the dumbfounded look on their faces when they saw the electrical plug, suggests that India is a third-world country and the people do not have electricity.
Although they did not know how to use the machine they continue to use it in place of a rock. Throughout the entire commercial traditional Indian music was played. The music and appearance of both the people and the structures clearly suggest to the viewer that it is India. However, these signs would not have been recognized without prior media familiarisation. Therefore cultural stereotypes provide cultural knowledge. Another example is the West End Gold beer commercial. Animation is used to view two mosquitoes talking to one another.
The setting is a barbecue with a group of stereotypical macho male friends getting together after a hard day’s work to eat food and drink beer. The mosquitoes are happy that the men are now drinking mid-strength beer as they are not falling asleep, making fools of themselves, and they are able to drink more blood. Although referring to themselves it was clear they were actually talking about the men involved. Suggesting that they can spend more time with their friends, consume more beer, and have more fun.
The commercial was set in a middle-class backyard, which features a run-of-the-mill Australian barbecue in which the beer is helpful to people with subtle humor. Traditionally Australian beer commercials have portrayed beer as a reward for hard manual labor or driving through the desert, such as the Victorian Bitter campaigns. The Australian cultural signs used were the image of the macho male ÔokkaÕ, drinking beer, having a barbecue with only male mates.
I believe these images are used to promote the Australian barbecue culture. These images are also known across the world due to the movie ÔCrocodile DundeeÕ. Another example is the use of the Mexican cultural stereotype to promote a new McDonald’s burger. As the burger had an added sauce that was spicy the advertisers used the Mexican image to portray this. As traditionally Mexicans eat very spicy food such as Tacos. You instantly know that the characters are Mexican due to their appearance, dark-skinned, with long mustaches, wearing ponchos and sombreros, riding horses through the desert.
The music and appearance of the characters are the main signs used to recognize Mexico. However, the poor dubbing of their voices and the words Ôondelay ondelayÕ are also common cultural signs portrayed in the media. Italian signs are also often used to sell food products such as pizza and pasta. For example, the Dolmio commercials that use to be on television.
They showed a large Italian family(Italians like large families) having pasta for dinner(traditional Italian meal), they had napkins tucked into their shirts(suggesting they were going to eat a lot of food in a messy manner), the characters were primarily large, they used the words mama and papa(Italian words for mum and dad) and the main character had pasta sauce on his mouth with the tag line Ôdo you wear the Dolomio grinÕ.
All of these are signs the media use to portray Italian people. Once again the music also played a major role in recognizing the cultural stereotypes. Even the name Dolmio sends a linguistic message of Italianicity. If the media do not understand the cultural characteristics of a country they would not be aware of the shared cultural values of the community and could easily offend the country.
For example, eating beef in India is not practiced, the color white is a symbol of death in China, and the left hand in some countries is known as the toilet hand. This demonstrates the differences in culture that could be very embarrassing for companies. The simplicity of color or a name could be very offensive and have disastrous implications, which demonstrates the necessity for market research.
However, I believe that cultural values also need to be lived to be learned, for more accurate results. The media are a very powerful tool of communication. They are used as a tool to educate, inform and entertain people all over the world. However, the common sign systems in which they use to portray many groups are often stereotypical.
I know that Australian men are not all like what is portrayed in the beer commercials, due to their experience of the culture. However, all I know of the other cultures around the world is what the media portray, therefore providing me with my cultural knowledge.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Hall Stuart (1997) Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices Sage Publications Chapter 1 Dyer, Gillian (1982) Advertising as Communication Routledge London & New York Chapter 5 Giaccardi, Chiara (1995) Television Advertsing and the representation of Social Reality: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol.12, pg 109-131 SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi Wiliamson, Judith (1978) Decoding Advertsing; Ideology and Meaning in Advertsing Marion Boyars, London Kline, Stephen(1995) The Play on the Market: On the Internationalisation of ChildrenÕs Culture,in Theroy Culture & Society, Vol.12, pg 103-129 SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi Berman, Ronald(1981) Advertising and Social Change, pg 13 SAGE, Beveley Hills and California Czinkota, Michael R and Ronkainen, Ilkka A (1996) Global Marketing Dryden Press Boone, Louis E and Kurtz, David L Contemporary Marketing Plus Eighth Edition The Dryden Press Chapter 7 Wells, William, Burnett, John & Moriarty, Sandra (1995) Advertising Principles and Practice Third Edition, Chapter 5 Prentice Hall Inc.