Semiotics and Copy-writing

Andrius Grigorjevas

Studying advertising: why and how

It is hard not to notice that advertising functions as one of the most proliferated narrative generators, producing dozens of narratives that our environment becomes enveloped in. Admittedly, creativity is the driving force behind the advertising solutions and that makes it an even more interesting object of research. And if we believe that narratives not only exist for the sake of entertainment or pleasure, but also work as models of exploration and thinking, then we have to admit that advertising as a textual narrative form is one of the most thriving forms of our everyday cultural experiences.

The study field of advertising can be approached in a number of ways and those ways could be summarized on the basis of qualitative and quantitative research:

  • it can be approached from empirical point of view, where the important areas to discuss are measurable aspects of perception and reception as well as memory and retention, effect and behaviour
  • advertising can also be studied and analysed as a vast field of cultural activities and cultural transactions, where values are introduced, accepted, rejected or exchanged

A discipline comprising a number of theoretical frameworks, semiotics mostly focuses on the second approach outlined above. By doing so, semiotics make the discourse the object of their study. The founder of Parisian school of semiotics, Algirdas Julius Greimas has defined two trajectories explaining the conceptual structure of discourse. The first one is the generative trajectory that defines the conception of the text and its subsequent realization. What the concept of such trajectories implies is that once a text is generated from abstract notions and cultural codes, it can be backtracked or reverse-engineered to see what the dominating abstract values making the core of its textual structure were.

This backtracking, however, does not imply the possibility of disclosing authorial intentions. What the analytic trajectory promises to deliver is the abstract cultural framework that was activated during the production of the text. And that may prove to be quite different from what the text-producer was hoping to achieve or express.

So following the generative vs analytic dichotomy, the usual way of looking at advertising would be to analyse the final product, the advertisement itself, with the purpose of evaluating the possible ways in which it is going to be interpreted, the audience it addresses and the cultural codes it embraces.

But this approach only deals with static texts and does not elaborate on the enunciative circumstances of the production of such texts. A different way of looking at advertising would be to treat it as a hermeneutic activity, i. e. a collaborative activity between different agents who are exchanging and, more importantly, negotiating ideas and values.

Copywriting: creating a message

Copywriting is simply one of the most interesting advertising activities as its purpose is to generate the backbone of an advertising campaign. Copywriters together with art directors form creative teams generating advertising messages that later become the flesh and blood advertising texts.

This is an attempt to lineout the enunciative process of copywriting and to have a glimpse at the text production process up to the production stage.

Firstly and most importantly, the generative process of advertising content is essentially a prolonged negotiation between the marketing department that represents the client and the representatives of the advertising agency. Client’s marketing department has clear marketing goals that have to be fulfilled or addressed by the advertising campaign.

Having these goals in mind, the strategic department prepares a brief – a document outlining the purpose and the aims of the project, target audience, the message and its forms of output. This turns out to be a more refined form of what is supposed to be achieved, but it also features unique statements that are supposed to be expressed through the advertising message. So the brief holds the essential message that has to be expanded into a discourse that will be read and understood in certain ways by others.

For instance, unique selling propositions or positioning statements employ verbal language to express the potential benefits that a consumer might be getting. This is a remarkable example of how marketing goals get translated into a single proposition. These propositions are usually very brief and succinct, expressing the content in as few as possible words. The words used usually introduce a single transformation from a presupposed state of not using something into the state of receiving the benefit of something. Later such kinds of prepositions become the pretext to create a number of advertising messages.

After the brief is negotiated, it is finally handed to the creative team consisting of an art director and a copywriter. Here the creative process is initiated.

At this point the main elements in play are the professional experience and cultural background of the creative team. Creative thinking models and methods are used to generate and diversify ideas.

Later on the creative team presents ideas to the creative director. Best of these ideas are selected for revision and development. These ideas already have a more elaborate narrative structure and expand on the points mentioned in the creative brief. The same process can be repeated for a number of times until the best ideas are distilled and prepared for the next phase.

It is quite significant that during the generative process a number of ad stories or ideas get produced but only a few ideas get picked and developed further while others are left to wither. The ideas are also checked against the opinions of in-house law specialist that provides legal guidelines over what should be avoided or might attract unwanted legal attention. Finally, everything goes back to the client-agency meeting, where one of the blueprints is (or sometimes isn’t) given a green light.

Narrative or narratives

So the copywriting process starts with a notion of object and its potential consumer. The creative process starting with the brief is marked by a transition from an object to the representation of the object and from the consumer to the representation of the consumer. In other words, the product or service described in rational terms is later depicted by use of different verbal and visual figures that have a certain consistency amongst themselves, but follow a different logic.

So while dealing with the generative trajectory of a copywriting process we encounter two types of text: a rational text or the brief, and the creative text or the idea for the ad. I propose that the status of narrative can as well be attributed to the brief, because it presupposes two or sometimes three distinct states and a transformation between them: 1) the present state that is characterized by a certain lack, 2) performance or the execution of the ad, 3) the desired outcomes or effects of the ad. So a brief clearly works as a rational narrative that explicates what, how, for whom and for what purpose.

Creative narrative, unlike the rational one, contains references to other modes of signification like sound, both static and dynamic visuals and even spatial discourses. They function as virtualized narratives or blueprints for production, but not as the final enunciation itself. Only in the production stage (which is not covered here) the references become particulars and the narrative is finally actualized.

The rational narrative also acts as a type of contract against which the creative narrative’s potential success is later measured. But it is not the only way to measure the success of a message. The specificity of advertising messages is that they have to persuade: to manipulate the addressee to start doing something or at least start believing and memorizing the message. So the second aspect against which ad’s success is measured is the number of new consumers, clients, increase in product-brand awareness.

The third type of narrative that has to be considered and could act as a means of measuring copy-texts’ appeal is the grand brand narrative. One could argue that this last type of narrative is a product of semiotician’s imagination, but there is no point in denying that brands are imbued with invariant values that spread evenly throughout the brand communications. The total of these values constitutes a system or organization and if traced throughout time, also shows signs of direction and development. So the creative narrative has to be compatible with grand brand narrative to a certain degree or otherwise risks misrepresenting the brand.

Hermeneutics of copy-writing

Brief, as a textual narrative with extratextual objectives, has to be transformed into a creative narrative which, even though presented in mainly textual form, potentially presupposes visual, audio or other modes. This transformation can be more accurately referred to as translation.

To put it another way, the first hermeneutic transformation taking place is the translation of extratextual demands into a textual message that should have perlocutionary force. The term translation is preferable here because a brief is usually proliferated into a number of creative stories, meaning that the same core invariants can be translated into a number of stories.

Translation can only occur by means of figurativization, i. e. themes and values are expressed and realized through figures that appear in discourse. These actor figures (or their anthropomorphised counterparts) also appear in space and time and are set on a path, thus creating narrative transformations. Refigurativization applies to cases when rational narrative features blueprints for figures (actors, space, time) that have to be exposed and realized in creative work.

What follows is the process of evaluation and reduction. These two aspects are the two-sides of the same coin: evaluation mainly serves the purpose of reducing the number of possible stories. Evaluation can take place at four different stages:

  • creative team has to check back with the brief whether their ideas are compatible with what has been set out
  • creative director picks out the concepts most likely to succeed
  • legal advisor approves the legally safe options
  • client chooses the most appealing narrative

When such a long process finally comes to fruition, the initial ideas finally are put to work, i. e. they are presented before the consumer. But this segmentation of processes and stages is where things can go awry: every phase takes the advertising narrative a bit further, making it more and more difficult to check it against the brief in order to assess their compatibility and consistency. Then such questions as “is this what we want / does this follow the brief / have they even read the brief” start to arise.

Where semiotics comes into this is the analytic trajectory that starts with the creative narrative and breaks it down into structural hierarchical layers revealing: what codes are in play, who is the intended recipient of the message, what values are proposed and how they are going to be interpreted. Semiotic analysis has the tools to create a reversed semiotic brief that later on can be compared to the original. Another way of applying structural analysis is to reveal the underlying values expressed in the creative narrative and to compare it to the values constituted by the main narrative and the direction it is taking. It is not hard to imagine that after five years of producing advertising messages, a company faces a situation where it is less and less in control over the development and consistency of their brand image. This makes semiotics an even more welcome research option.

Admittedly, this type of research can only appear after creative narrative has been drafted, produced or even released. Yet advertising pre- and post-testing stages are not the only ones where semiotics can be validly applied.

Coming back to the very process of copywriting and focusing on the transformations within the client’s and creative briefs can help highlight other potential roles of semiotic research. As brief is usually concerned with three aspects – consumer, market and product (or service), so these should be the aspects for semiotic analysis to tackle.

Just as meaning of any element is constituted of differences, so the meaning of a piece of advertising is determined by the context that it appears in, and the context in this case entails not only the cultural or socio-economic circumstances, but also a particular market situation. This situation is the relationship between brands, their expressed values, the interplay of advertising messages and their intertextual value. Understanding, articulating and defining such a contextual situation is a necessary step and one that can greatly enhance understanding of the prevailing trends, ideas and consumer values.

Such situational analysis is closely linked to product research that focuses on attributes of a service or product. These attributes are through the use of advertising messages turned into benefits for particular audiences. From the semiotic standpoint, researching a service or a product entails mental models, narratives that consumers partake in, values they pursue and contexts of consumption.

Every advertisement addresses a consumer and presupposes a certain understanding of the consumer, his motivations, actions and needs. As this understanding can easily become a pitfall, no a priori understanding of a consumer should be taken for granted. In this case semiotics borders the ethnographic research in the sense that it can rely on data gathered by observing consumers, inviting them to participate in creative tasks and conducting interviews. What semiotics can bring to the table is a way to process the data by turning it into knowledge. This entails the use of narrative grammar, typology of discourse forms and formants, and articulation of values.

Just as the creative brief transforms rational goals into creative goals, semiotic research helps reduce the market data to a number of models that can become blueprints for creative work. Combined into a single research the three aspects can provide a most comprehensive understanding that can aid (and, hopefully, not hinder) the creative process.

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