Signs & Symbols, Barthes & Bottles

10 04 2009
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Over the past few months, I’ve had to blog about bottle images being used in publicity materials and campaigns – none of which were for infant feeding companies. Many times, I’ve ended up in conversations with people who Just Don’t Get It. They can’t see why we need The Code, to protect us against formula and baby bottle advertising. They don’t understand how something as innocent and harmless as… a baby’s bottle… can cause so much fuss. Inevitably, many comment that it’s an attack on mothers who formula feed, and use bottles to do so. And every time this is raised the hoary old spectre of The Women Who Can’t Breastfeed is also thrown into the mix. Many people express their complete amazement that there is anything wrong, or even anything to get het up about, about using the image of a baby bottle. What’s the problem?
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Well, the problem is quite complex. Extend me some patience, and some of your time, and let me explain it all out…
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We live in a highly savvy media centred world. Images surround us, and images have power. They have rather more power than we might think. Some images, are so powerful, they have automatic, and obvious meanings. Meanings that are so ‘obvious’, that we don’t have to think about them. Advertisers, promoters and media specialists, use such images as a language to speak to us. We understand the meaning: we read the meaning without having to read any words. The images do the work. We don’t have to think twice about the images being used in the posters above, for example. We can clearly see that when you place a can of petrol, next to a battery, next to a green tree, and then we see the question “What should cars run on?” we instantly know we are being asked to interpret, and process, several very complex and convoluted economic and environmental debates. All that’s been done with three images – and simply placing them together.

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There is a language we use to describe images, and their effect upon us, and how we interpret them: semiotics. It’s how we analyse images and explore how they work. As a tool, it requires discussion and exploration of how the image speaks to us – what it means, as well as how we, the audience, accept that meaning. Some images have variable meanings: you need clues and context on how to read them. Some have very clear and fixed meanings: Universal meanings. We call all images that speak to us, signs. Signs usually require context, and written text, to make their meaning clear to us. The petrol tin, the battery, the tree, in the above poster, are all signs. As an audience, we have to look, make judgements, read the text, to make out the clear meaning.
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Some signs don’t need context, don’t need text. Their meaning is Universal: we all know what it means. A single red rose, for instance, means love. Romantic love. Just as the red ‘heart’ shape represents love. But it’s not the shape of a heart, how can that be? How can we look at these two signs, and know what they mean? We just do. They so fill our lives, with the same meaning, again and again, we understand that meaning. In a global world, these signs have a single, agreed, meaning: they are symbols.
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Symbols are very powerful. They work upon us subconsciously, and unpack their meaning in our brains before we have even thought about it. I bet some of the readers of this blog, spotted the rose and the love heart as they glanced down, and thought “Why is she talking about love?”, and it piqued their interest.
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Some signs are pre-made, artificially constructed, in order to be used in a very specific way. Such as the skull and crossbones on a bottle, to signify poison. Such as the radiation symbol used above: constructed for a deliberate and Universal message. Not naturally evolved, or emerged from culture, but sat down with, drawn, redrawn, looked at, worked upon. The meaning – the signification it carries – highly debated and refined. We’re used to dealing with such signs, and don’t really think twice about them. Sometimes, this can cause us trouble, when we don’t think through everything it might mean to everyone: when the audience changes. Take the Red Cross, for instance. The sign used to say Don’t Shoot, Aid Being Given, Neutral People Doing Good Things.
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Except, as we’ve found, it’s not neutral. It’s a cross: it’s Christian iconography. Where one audience sees it as a sign of good -others see it as a sign of repression and religious intolerance. So we develop another sign, for areas where we need you Not To Shoot: areas where the Christian Cross is problematic. We develop the Red Crescent, to be used in conflict areas which are primarily Islamic. But this, in itself, is not neutral in some eyes. Again, the audience changes, and the reading of the meaning changes: one culture’s neutral helper, is another’s threat of intolerance and so we must find a third sign – one truly truly neutral: totally made up: the red crystal. And the Cross, the Crescent and the Crystal, stand together, or separately, as and when needed.
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Some signs are manufactured commercially. Thousands, if not millions of pounds, is spent in setting a sign up, and promoting it, and upholding it, and developing it: so it conveys in the audience, a powerful and potent message. Corporate media analysts construct the image, corporate advertising agencies create messages in the audience that is designed to make the audience have both an emotional reaction, and attachment, to the sign. It ‘stands’ for the company. For the product. For the lifestyle that company sells with the product. (For no company ever sells you a product – they sell you a lifestyle that the product represents.) They try to create a symbol from their sign: they try to give it Universal meaning. They try to create, a mythology around their product, that supersedes every other interpretation of it.
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Sometimes they succeed, in part. Millions of people, worldwide, will look at the sign above, and automatically know what it is supposed to stand for: good food, cheaply and quickly. Universal standards of the same tasting food, every time. But audiences are more fluid than that: audiences rebel. Audiences have their own opinion. For every two or three people who look at that sign, and see hamburgers, another will look with a resistant view, a deviant view from that being pushed on them by the sign-maker. Many see the golden arches and think: corporate greed, exploitation, processed pap. You can’t control all aspects of how an audience will react.
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But you can try.
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Which brings us to baby bottles, and formula, and Code.
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For it was recognised, decades ago, that commercial companies had been so successful in constructing a sign, that it became symbol. It went from an advertising device, to a symbol that meant so so much more. It acquired status and power, and moved into myth. It constructed an emotional image upon the audience, so powerful, that it became ‘natural’ to look at, and to see it not for what it was, but for the ideology, lifestyle, and total world view it proposed. A worldview where science and hygiene, was to free the world from hunger, by raising wonderful rosy cheeked children, strong, intelligent, bushy tailed and bright eyed. Where the modern saviour of all ills – science and technology, was to meet the loving mother in the Nursery, and provide us all with an image that was at once love, nurture, nature, science, advancement, wealth, comfort and liberation.
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A symbol that was to give us a world where women were liberated from worry by the lovely men in the white coats, who had ‘rescued’ them from the need to feed their own babies with dirty contaminated inadequate and icky female fluids. Where the nurses in their impeccable clean and pressed clothing, face masks on, and the scientifically clean white coats of the laboratory, were to provide the new wonder food of the future. Where fat cheeked white skinned and blue eyed children flourished under the protective banner of the symbol of mythical abundance and love: the formula in the baby bottle.
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We are so used to seeing this symbol, all around us, we truly don’t see it anymore. We all grew up with babies being fed by bottle. Most of us fed our own baby dolls, by bottle, and fought hard for the new model with the new bits – real fluids to pour into plastic mouths and to flood into real nappies out of the plastic bum. We’re flooded by baby bottles as the image to represent the feeding rooms in shops and stores, we see babies in the street with bottles in their mouth, self feeding. We forget the difference between an actual real baby being fed, and a constructed media image. We see one, as the other.
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To the vast majority of us, bottle feeding, with formula, is so normal, that we have to think twice when someone objects to an image of it on a billboard? What? Object to feeding babies? What nonsense is that?
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But it’s not normal. It’s not natural. It’s artificial. It’s a construct. An artifact. We have made it up. We created it. It is a fabrication. The normal, natural, actual way to feed a baby is to put it to your breast and let it suckle. The image we have banned almost entirely from our view, is the real one. The fake one, the industrial product, is the one we have honoured with mythic status.
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The biggest misunderstanding about all this, is that when we object to images of bottle feeding, we are objecting to women’s choices to formula feed. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re objecting to the MYTH that bottle feeding is love, babies, motherhood and family life. We’re all objecting to the myth behind the symbol. We’re objecting to it because that myth kills babies. It makes them sick, it robs families of much needed income, it sucks the life blood from our babies and 4000 of them are buried, every single day. In a shallow grave as their mothers were subjected to a barrage of images of the mythic power of the baby bottle and its contents. That it will make your baby better, smarter, faster – just like the rich white kids in the USA and the UK. That when you buy the product, you buy the lifestyle of dreams: of rich, famous and wonderful health for your soon to grow up to be Someone Special baby.
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Where Science is rescuing you from poverty.
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And, of course, the myth is, in reality pitiful. The reality is disease, death and misery. Poverty and babies being fed coffee creamer, whilst their mothers turn them away from the breast, as the breast isn’t New And Wonderful and Scientific.
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Code recognised the power of this symbol to destroy lives, families and communities. It recognised that to protect babies, mothers and fathers needed to be protected from seeing constructed images of WonderFoood, constructed by vast multi-national corporations for profit. Protected from free samples that lasted long enough for the mother’s milk to dry up. Protected from the myth – one of the most powerful, all pervasive and efficient advertising myths ever created. One that wove into a culture uneasy with the role of women, and children. A culture that sought to keep breastfeeding women in the back bedroom, out of the public eye. A culture that prefered to seperate mothers and babies, and keep them in seperate boxes, so the male could control them both. That told women their breasts where for male pleasure only, and that they could ‘escape’ the Nursery and leave their babies behind and go out to work on a man’s terms.
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And when you took this mythic construct, into resource poor areas, this myth killed, and is killing, millions and millions of babies. Code stood against this, and recognised the global impact of the bleed through to poorer areas, of the saturation of bottle feeding images in richer areas. It stood up and said “No. Thou Shall Not Pass.”
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And everytime the baby bottle is used in promotional materials, like the Parliament posters, it strikes a blow straight through the heart of the Code. It reinforces and upholds the myth, and makes natural and normal that artificial construct.
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And that kills babies. Today. Tomorrow. For how much longer?
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People have asked me why I think the Parliament campaign has included the baby bottle. I think it’s very clear why. All four posters are raising serious issues that affect all of us, Europe wide. But we are a very diverse group, financially, ethically, and ethnically. None of these posters have any people in them. All use “neutral” signs to get over their quite subtle message. If you analyse the written text the posters are both not putting forward a ‘party line’ and at the same time, using images, that clearly outlines the ‘right path’. But not clearly enough that anyone could take offense: you can read your own message into them. If you feel that wind-power is economic nonsense, you can read the poster being neutral about that. Equally, the rest of us can see that in the decision between nuclear and wind: wind wins.
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But the subtleties of what’s the ‘right’ answer, is in the images, the signs, not the text. And it wouldn’t work so well, with real people in the poster. Who to pick to represent ‘Europe’ in the poster? A nightmare to get ethnic diversity right: leave out all people! No human beings allowed – it will cause too much contention. In wishing to speak to the whole of Europe en masse, humans have to be removed from the equation: hair colour, skin colour, eye colour, body shape, dress, hairstyles… no way to speak to everyone, in so short a campaign.
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But how then, to represent family and family life? Without putting a baby in? Ah.. it’s obvious.. use a baby bottle. The Universal symbol of babyhood.
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Who could object to that? Clear message, everyone can understand in one glance.
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Unfortunately, that’s true. That’s why Code exists. The marketing message was, and is, too effective. That’s why it’s an obscene use of the baby bottle image: it’s been chosen precisely because of the mythical ideology behind it. And for a political organisation not to spot that, in terms of Code? Incompetence on a bone chilling level.
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But there is another element to this, to do with audience. On why some of you can’t undestand why we make such a fuss, why we fight and fight and fight over these media images of baby bottles. I raised above, with the symbol of a fast food restaurant, the notion that audiences differ. We can make our own readings, within different contexts than that of the maker of the symbol, if we have a different background knowledge to that of the audience being targeted.
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Everyone who is screaming mad about this baby bottle being used, isn’t just doing it from an intellectual understanding of the issues of Code and baby’s health. We’re also doing it from an emotional reaction: we read the image differently. The actual image of the baby bottle impacts us, mythically, in a different way. A completely different symbolic connection is made in us, at a gut level.
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It’s difficult to explain this, if you’re still all wrapped up in the dominant mythology, so have a look at this baby, chugging 7-up, from a 1950s advertising campaign. Does it shock you? Can you feel yourself having an emotional reaction to the image? What about this one, of a sugar container being plugged into a baby’s mouth, like a bottle? Do you have a powerful reaction to the idea of something so unhealthy being plugged into a baby‘s mouth? Especially a happy glowing smiley baby eagerly grabbing its 7-up? Are you upset that an advertising company could so basely use a baby in promoting a fizzy drink? The presumption that it would have that effect on you, is why they use the sugar container in the health promotion one: they’re banking on you having that instinctive revulsion to the image.
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And the instinctive revulsion you might have felt when you spotted the 7-up bottle, is a shadow of what most of us who fight to protect babies feel, when we see a baby bottle used in promotional activity. We see the poster, and it’s a slap across our face. A powerful retch inside us that makes us feel sick.
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Why?
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Because we see baby bottles differently. The media image of a baby bottle doesn’t conjure up cosy images of cute babies, clean Nurseries and glowing health. We see filth and disease. We see dying babies. We hear screams. We glance at the baby bottle in promotional materials, and we react viscerallly to the horror of it.
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We see death and suffering. That’s the ideology that stands in front of us: that’s what the baby bottle signifies.
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Which was the masterstroke of War on Want placing the image of the crying, malnourished baby in the bottle: it stripped away the fake ideology of love and tenderness and scientific health, and replaced it with the reality:
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Dying babies.
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Unhappy, miserable, sick, screaming needlessly dying babies.
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And that’s the final insult. To take the image of something that will kill more babies this year, than the adult death toll combined for gun and knife deaths, and to place it up in front of our eyes and say it represents… family?
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To be so ignorant of the suffering of so many babies, so many fathers, so many mothers.. that you take the symbol of disease and put it on a poster in nice, affluent Europe, and use it in a promotional campaign to get people to vote?
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To be so ignorant of how many people in Europe are struggling to buy enough formula to feed their own, European Parliament babies enough?
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To pretend there are no health risks to formula feeding in Europe?
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When you see a media image of a baby bottle, you may see in your mind, and your heart, the gooey, soft focused, warm fuzzy glow of advertising myth. And from that position, be totally bamboozled by mine, and others, reaction to the image.
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But when I see a media image of a baby bottle…
…I see death.
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I see all the the real maggots crawling in all the real bottles.
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I see the tiny white bundles being put in the shallow shallow graves.
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I see corporate greed and profiteering, being put before baby’s lives.
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The ignorant and incompetent need to find another
‘neutral’ symbol for family, for motherhood, for love.
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The baby bottle doesn’t cut it.
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Our realities will not be airbrushed out of the picture:
Code will be upheld.
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But it would be nice if everyone understood why:
because a media image carries many more
layers of meaning than you might think.
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And can cause so much more harm than you could ever dream of.
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