Thursday, March 5, 2020

A short course in semiotics. And chickens.

About two decades ago I was having my annual physical with a doctor I had been seeing since I was about 23. Dr. Cohen explained something to me that I’ve been thinking about ever since that appointment.

“George,” the good doctor said, “do you know what semiotics are?”

I immediately went through ten years of Latin etymology and answered with something dumb.

“It’s about signs,” I said.

“I wear a white lab coat and a shirt and tie. In semiotics, the language of signs, that says I am a doctor. I am a person of authority. You wear blue jeans and sneakers. That says to the world, you’re a creative person. But you wear an expensive watch—that gives you credibility. It says you’re not a bum.”

I think about that conversation a lot.

Because so much is communicated semiotically, with signs.

A good example of this is Penn Station in New York. Not only does it say that our government doesn’t care about mass transit, it says they don’t care about the people who use mass transit.

If you stop for a second and look around you, you’ll spot a dozen examples.

For instance, if your agency puts out toiletries in the women’s and men’s rooms only when key clients are in it’s saying, in effect, that their purported care about you is insincere. They make decent gestures only when company is over.

You can tell me I’m being paranoid, that I’m reading too much into things. That might be true, but I’m not convinced.

In fact, I read an article not long ago from a credible magazine not a rickety one-man blog.

It said when you’re interviewing at an agency you should ask to take a walk around. If you see nothing personal on anyone’s desk, that might be saying that people feel like the agency isn’t a “home.” If you go into a bathroom and it’s slovenly, it might be an indication that the employees don’t have much of a “pride of place.”

I don’t think the Holding Company Chieftains thought about what they were semiotically saying when they stripped all uniqueness and design from the individual agencies they subsumed. I’ve been in a lot of agencies and you really can’t tell one from another—from either a work point of view or an architectural one.

I think that speaks to what I call the “chain-storing” of advertising. Uniformity and mass production are more important than distinctiveness, quirk, strong personalities and individuality.

Not too many years ago, I noticed something when the people I sat near would come in in the morning.

They would open their backpacks, pull out their Mac and its power source and then get on their knees and plug in their plug and their computer.

One morning I couldn’t take it any longer; I said something.

“You realize you’re starting every morning on your knees.”

“Well, I bring my computer home and I have to plug it in when I get in.”

“Can’t you get I.T. to give you another power source,” I said.

“They said ‘no.’ when I asked.”

I let it rest at that and said nothing more.

But here are the semiotics of the business today.

Your work—work that you’re doing late at night, for the agency, on your (unpaid) time—the agency takes for granted. To their eyes you aren’t worth the extra $69 a power source costs. They’d rather have you on your knees every morning and evening, bending over, on the floor, just thankful you have a job.

Not too long ago, some progressive companies started saying that it ain’t right raising farm animals in tiny cages that strip them of their dignity. And health.

I wonder when that enlightened thinking will come to the Holding Company world.

Not when it will come.

If it will come.

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