Narrative and Stories

The film When Harry met Sally is famous for That Orgasm Scene, where Meg Ryan’s Sally proves to Billy Crystal’s Harry that women can fake it, by faking it right there in a restaurant. I remember the film for something much quieter, but to my mind a much more profound message. The film is interspersed with different couples filmed in the same setting, what looked like an old-fashioned sitting room with couch. Their stories are mildly interesting, but not gripping, and in some cases a little boring. Then we see this wonderful story told of a developing relationship between two people, the ups, the downs, the close call, then finally the elation of them making it, kissing, getting together. As the camera zooms out of the kissing scene, a voiceover begins of this couple describing what we just witnessed, and the scene fades to them sitting on the same old-fashioned couch, telling us the story of how they met. It sounds just as plain, mildly interesting, borderline boring as the other stories we’d been told by couples on that couch.

The profound lesson that stuck with me from this romantic comedy was that people’s boring lives can be deeply interesting if you just listen in the right way, or, there is a story behind every face you see. As I progress in my media studies, I realise this lesson can be inverted: the most exciting stories can be boring if you don’t tell them right.

Media organisations have long ago discovered this lesson. Facts are boring, even quite dramatic and exciting facts. You have to use the same techniques used in storytelling to keep your audience gripped.

It’s one thing to say: “Today the USA dropped a big bomb in Syria.” People may pay attention for a few seconds. It’s another altogether to create a story, with a gripping opening declaration,  footage of an authority figure reading a carefully crafted statement, followed by an excited summary punctuated with impressive footage of explosions and missiles launching: “We just dropped a big, beautiful bomb”, framing the event as “we” to drag in your audience as participants in this elated story of not only sticking it to the people “we” bombed, but also to every enemy “we” have across the world.

The video clip (up to 2:08) is a beautiful example of modern news framing: you have a narrator telling the story of how America got the upper hand, showed the world who’s boss. His facial expression and tone of voice brims with elation: bombing Syria is a wonderful thing! Footage edited together to show the story the narrator is telling, literally creating a fiction surrounding the event that makes it sound heroic.

Footage shown during the narration is completely unrelated to the event. It is told from one point of view only – the triumphant American aggressor’s – and is almost wholly fabricated: virtually nothing was known at the time other than that this bomb was dropped in Syria, allegedly to destroy a tunnel network.

In this way, news becomes something other than news. It is no longer intended to inform us of events, instead, it is entertainment and indoctrination. Fox News especially has created a fictional world in which real people live, and which has real consequences for everyone.

Semiotics 101

Semiotics, the science of signs, is considered to have two fathers: Ferdinand de Saussure, and Charles Peirce. The former was a Swiss linguist whose contribution to the discipline was published after his death. Two of his former students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, used notes take in his classes to put together Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916. The work was groundbreaking for its innovative and original approach.

My experience of semiotics so far is that it is the most complicated simple idea I have ever had to come to grips with. Saussure’s foundational idea is the easiest to explain: a message (any communication) consists of a signifier, and a signified. The signifier is a sign representing a concept. So the word “donkey”, which you read on the screen, is a sign. It represents a concept in your mind – and it is that concept that is called a signified.

Independent of Saussure, another great mind in the USA was working to explain signs. Charles Sanders Peirce explained it as a triad: a sign, an object, and the interpretation of the sign. His terminology is representamen, object, and interpretant. Taking the example of a donkey, you have the word written on the screen – donkey – which is the representamen. Then there is the actual animal braying in a field somewhere: the object. Finally, there is the concept that arises in your mind when reading the word.

Of course, signs or representamens go so much farther than words written on a page. Everything is a sign, whether the originator of the sign meant it as a sign or not. Signs are originated by humans, animals, nature. Complicating matters even more, our interpretants differ. Sheep to a child born and raised in a city means something very different from the same word to a child living on a farm, who has a sense of touch, smell, sound to add to the representamen in their mind.

Both these founding fathers’ work is explained in very simple terms here, but Peirce’s theory especially is like a deep pool. My explanation here touched no more than the surface, but his concepts go far enough to provide material for lifelong study.

Great minds such as Roland Barthes, Stuart Hall, Jean Killbourne and more expanded and built on the original ideas first bound and comprehensively described by Saussure and Peirce. Their work launched a fascinating, culturally critical new school of thought.

Semiotic Print Advertisement Analysis

What are advertisements for? The most evident answer is that they aim to persuade us to buy things. The process of persuasion is like a deep river: you can dive in and swim ever deeper, see ever more of what it is beyond the surface view. The broadcasters of the message draw on common or cultural associations and assumptions to speak to the people they are targeting. The message also changes over time, in the case of the advertisement not because of the flow of the water passing by, but because the lens through which it is received changes from person to person, place to place, and through the passage of time (with its associated change in the cultural perspective of those receiving the message).

Paradigms are associated ideas, in other words, things we link to each other. Certain signs invoke other signs, through connotation. For instance, a Rolex watch evokes connotations of wealth and status. When you picture a Rolex watch, associated images such as a luxury car, a yacht, an expensive suit, diamond necklace – these all go together. They are part of the same paradigm. Advertisements lean heavily on these connotations, inserting what they’re selling into a narrative containing elements of a paradigm in which they want us to include their product or service.

As with media generally, advertisements therefore serve as an excellent mirror to reflect the existing paradigms in a society. At the same time it shapes the paradigms it reflects, either changing or reinforcing patterns of thinking and associations in the societal mind.

This approach to analysis of an advertisement is semiotic. Pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th and early 20th century, semiotics or semiology is the study of signs. The discipline was developed in stages by notable academics, with the analysis of media through a semiotic approach being most associated with Roland Barthes. In a series of essays, he showed that media is a cultural commentary beyond the obvious. Jean Kilbourne and Erving Goffman focused in particular on the way advertising shapes society, with a particular focus on gender relations. In this analysis, I will examine the paradigm created around BMW cars.

The focus advertisement appeared in print, created by Mab for the German market and released in 2007:

BMW Print Advertisement

Primary Signifiers (Denotation)

The advertisement features a suburban scene created with typographic mosaic art. High rise buildings, trees, two bridges supported by pillars, a wall, a street, and a man are depicted through an arrangement of black and white words. The buildings are made up of the word HOCHHAUS, or highrise, the tree trunks’ words are indistinguishable, but the leaves, bridges, pillars, wall, and street are all made up of their German nouns. The man is not just “man”, instead, he is depicted by an arrangement of the German equivalents of hat, head, jacket, trousers, and shoes. The zebra stripes of the crossing are not just blank, they are made up of a very light grey repetition of the word for Zebra Stripes (which is one word in German).

Secondary Signifiers (Connotation)

While the word art is striking, the depiction evokes connotations of bleakness, lack of colour, and lack of depth – the closer you look, the more “dull” these images become, eventually coming down to no more than a word written in all capitals, which have an even greater lack of variation than words written with a mixture of upper and lower case. All these things blend into a meaninglessness and dullness which is a real risk for city dwellers, who are more likely to suffer from stress and at higher risk of depression and other mental health problems.

The car being advertised is placed in this scene, as if part of it, but it contrasts with the text art as it is a photographic image in full colour. While realistic, the photo is enhanced to exaggerate the gleam. The wheel rims are blurred, indicative of motion, and the windows are tinted, with a driver barely visible, their face hidden by the body of the car. The driver becomes a part of the vehicle, playing into the paradigm of the car being an extension of the self, a part of the owner or driver’s identity. This is especially true for more aggressive drivers, and BMW drivers are as a rule more aggressive than other car types. A UK-based survey found that specifically, drivers of blue BMWs are most likely to be remembered for road rage incidents. The study is not peer-reviewed and therefore referred to with caution, however, it is a survey relying on people’s perceptions, and can therefore indicate a narrative or cultural myth that has grown up around the BMW brand.

Thirty-nine of the first fifty results in a Google image search for “bmw advert” feature blue, black, or silver cars – the top three colours associated with aggressive driving in the UK study. The majority of the rest are red, which was in fourth place of car colours associated with aggressive driving.

Image search result for BMW Advert
Google image search result for “BMW Advert”

There are two possible inferences to be drawn from this. Either the advertisement under investigation uses the deindividuation of the driver and car colour to appeal to aggressive drivers, or years’ use of mostly blue, black, silver, and red in advertisements for BMW cars has led to this colour becoming part of a subtle cultural myth. The myth may lead to these colours being favoured by buyers of a car brand that fits with their above average tendency to view the car as extension of self. Whatever the case, the result is that this advertisement uses the car as a signifier of the opposite of dullness and bleakness.

Google Image Search result for BMW Advert 1990
Google image search result for “BMW Advert 1990”

Another element in the advertisement which is widely used by all car manufacturers is an empty street. This signifies the driving experience as a pleasure beyond verbal description – in this specific advertisement the sentiment is explicitly stated in writing – and a realistic depiction of city traffic would contradict that narrative. The connotation aimed for is a sense of freedom, power, control.

The curve of the visual layout in the ad leads the eye along a path indicated by the darkest part of the image. One’s gaze is first caught by the car, further movement is herded towards the badges and text top right via a C shape formed by the wall and the two intersecting bridges. The badges separate the information in them from the relative clutter of the image. It further signifies a separateness from the soulless city. The square in which the brand name is featured, with the web address underneath, leaves a large percentage of the available space empty, again signifying the luxury of room contrasting with the crowdedness of cities.

Finally, the pedestrian is depicted wearing a hat more readily associated with dress convention in the 1940s/50s. While the rest of the man’s outfit would not on its own seem from that era, this touch evokes connotations of being dated and old-fashioned. It portrays the person who walks, rather than drives, as out of touch with modernity. His clothes are also noticably wrinkled, creating a “frumpy” look, contrasting with the luxury and style symbolised by the car, which is an expensive, luxury brand.

Syntagmatic Related Signs

Syntagmatic relations refers to the positioning of elements in a message. Just like a sentence has to conform to accepted syntax to make sense – “I see the cat” as opposed to “cat I the see” – just so messages have to consider syntagmatic relations to make sense. Thus the high rise buildings and overpass style bridges make syntagmatic sense. A quaint stone built bridge would look wholly out of place in the message, as would the same bridges placed lower than the trees. Likewise the position of the wall, street, pedestrian and zebra crossing make sense. The trees depicted are not full, lush vegetation, instead conforming to something more in line with the poverty of natural-ness associated with cities. They are sparse and relatively frail. Depicting a strong, lush oak, for instance, would have seemed like a word in the wrong place in a sentence. While this is a paradigmatic consideration, I would argue that it is also syntagmatic harmony.

The car is placed in such a way that it seems it is driving away from the city, from the clutter. its nose is close to the edge of the page, it is about to drive out of the whole image altogether. This creates a syntagmatic relationship indicating the car being a conclusion, an escape, leaving all the stress behind.


The ad under investigation, part of a series, uses a striking art form – text mosaic – to create an eye catching visual, which at the same time evokes connotations of bleakness and depression. The car is shown realistically, contrasting colour and “interestingness” with the monochromatic background. Coupled with the empty street, the gleaming machine and signifiers of luxury work with colour to appeal to drivers prone to aggressive driving associated with the brand name. The message conforms to expected syntagmatic placement, with one element – the man’s hat – subtly out of place to create a narrative of walking as out of date.

Damn right I’m an angry cyclist

Dear Lady in the SUV

Thank you for understanding your enormous tank of a car cannot possibly fit beside my bicycle in our stupidly narrow street, where Louth Council feels because it would be nice to have a two-way street just there, rules of physics are suspended and Shazam! they declare 2+2=9 and Chapel Street is wide enough to not be a one way street. You win prize for driver of the day, because usually drivers simply barge forth and nearly kill me, so well done.

But oh, Lady in the SUV, you missed prize for driver of the week. Because either due to the arseholes behind you who clearly thought you should have just run me over and used their hooters to make that thought known, or because… I can’t think of more possible reasons… in response to me sticking my arm out so clearly it nearly left my body to go do a tap dance on the street entrance beside you to make my intentions clear, you reasoned as follows, as far as I could tell:

“I have already won driver of the day. I might win driver of the week if I stay put and let the cyclist turn here so she’s out of my way and I can proceed, but hey! I am a driver and will let the team down if I don’t act like an arsehole in at least some small way. Let me move my massive, oversized tank car forward so as to block the entrance this cyclist needs to turn into, so she can’t move out of my way and I can’t move out of hers. That would rebalance the universe, because my considerate gesture may have unsettled the gods enough to cause them to make Ireland sink under the sea like Atlantis.”

So I need to thank you in turn, because I was already on edge after running the gauntlet of negotiating one of the worst cycle lane designs in the history of humanity, so it only took you moving forward enough to block half the entrance before I completely lost my mind and screamed abuse. It was cathartic. I needed some stress relief.

Realising that you had now avoided driver of the week prize, you stopped while there was still enough space for me to get out of everyone’s way, but it could be you just realised you had forgotten to pack your tent. Which you would have had to get out and pitch, because your move to block the entrance I needed to turn into certainly would have had us stuck there indefinitely: me unable to get out of your way because you’re blocking me, you unable to get out of my way because of course every driver behind you who’d been furious you dared allow a cyclist to actually use the road had instantly pushed right up your enormous car’s butt the moment you moved an inch.

It could conceivably be that you were just feeling the tremendous stress and pressure of driving down Chapel Street at a busy-ish time, and intended to get out of my way so I could get past you and proceed down the road (though that doesn’t explain how you missed or misunderstood me sticking out my arm, unless the explanation is you never got a driving licence and thus never learned hand signals… could it be you thought I was trying to show you to move out of my way? But… but driving licence, hand signals…?). If that’s the case, may I suggest you use one of the four spacious and MUCH more accessible car parks located between 300m and 700m from Chapel Street and allow your children to walk the remaining distance. They will probably love the experience and I can write a tome on the sensory stimulation they’ll enjoy if they’re not imprisoned in a car, also the air they breathe in your car is dirtier than the air outside, which will be even cleaner around the three schools in Chapel Street if you could not shove your fat tank down our tiny street. And you’ll not have the stress of driving down a road that cannot. accommodate. all. this. traffic.

Have a super day. But please, go have it somewhere else.

“Scoff-law cyclist” myth strikes again

I was once admonished by a driver that I should wear a helmet when cycling. I politely pointed out to the driver that he was not wearing a seatbelt. Today, a pedestian crossing the street in front of me remarked how astounding it was to see a cyclist wait for the bicycle green light. He was in the process of crossing the street against a pedestrian red – this time I didn’t bother to point it out.

Meanwhile research suggests that all road users break the law in equal measures, but drivers and pedestrians are more likely to break the law for their own convenience, while cyclists are more likely to be motivated by the desire to stay safe. But hey, let’s keep demonising cyclists, why don’t we.

Logs and eyes come to mind.

I am not an idiot

Our boiler is one of those that directly heats water instead of warming a whole tankful. It’s been acting up for months, but it always managed to revive itself and work if you just left it a while and tried again later. We hoped to hold on until its service was due in July before getting it fixed, as our landlord passed away just after Christmas, so we wanted to leave the family alone as long as possible. Alas, last night it finally died beyond all hope of revival. Today I will have to arrange to have it fixed, and some guy (never met a woman boiler mechanic) will come around to fix it.

All this morning I loathed that this happened. As I made breakfast, it occurred to me that the thoughts and feelings, the imagined scenarios around the impending visit went beyond just the inconvenience of having a stranger in our house (which we hate). I soon figured out why. In my life, I have most often been treated like an imcompetent bimbo by people fixing mechanical type stuff for me.

“Ooh, this switch here now, you should turn it to that position, with that picture there. If you have it here, only the taps will work, the radiators won’t get warm.”

It’s July, dude. I actually turned the switch to that setting myself as it is SUMMER, we won’t need the radiators for months, and if it’s off there then if someone for some reason accidentally moves the timer switch to “on”, it won’t mean the house boiling and us wasting gas. Yes, it’s unlikely, but no, I am not that much of a moron that I didn’t know what I was doing.

“Yeah, that’s actually the hottest the shower can get in winter. It just works that way.”

No, dude, you are just too stingy to replace the electric shower that has built up enough calcium deposit on the element to not work properly any more. I am not that stupid. Though to my frustration so often I’d just go along with it, pretend to have just been enlightened by this glorious revelation, too polite to call them on their bullshit.

And on and on. I just anticipate a high possibility of being treated like an idiot when someone comes around to fix stuff in our house. Meanwhile, that is MY toolbox, I rebuilt these stairs myself, I built in this kitchen counter, I built this little shelf myself and hung it, too, secure now for going on six years even though it was hellishly difficult to work with these crumbly walls. I know I more often than not do a real Heath Robinson job, but no more so than your average male DIY enthusiast.

But hey, I have boobs, so many people see that and assume I’m stupid. And the one guy who used to come around and be welcomed because he always respected me and explained things to an equal… he was very sick last time I heard, so alas, I have no idea who’ll be trudging through our door in future when we need stuff fixed that is beyond me. My favourite handyman is not qualified to fix boilers, anyway.

Wish me luck for today, hopefully I won’t need it.

You say Pu-tay-toe, I say Pu-tah-toe… (Conversationalisation)

I’m a sucker for the written word. I have been fascinated, since way before starting my studies, with how words are used to give subtle meaning to a written text, the reader not always realising they are being manipulated. Yet written text leaves out many intriguing aspects of communication. One of these is the impact of conversationalisation.

Conversationalisation is the effect of the audible delivery of a text (remember in media analysis ‘text’ refers to a media artefact, not only the written word). It is the tone of the speaker, their choice of words, grammar, accent, the regionally or culturally specific ‘lingo’ they may use. These factors or choices are as critical to the meaning of the message as the actual words in the sentences; in some cases, more so.

Consider this old advertisement from South African television, first aired in 2008:

The first time I showed this to a friend in Ireland, she asked: “What language are they speaking?” Well, they’re all speaking English, but this ad captures a range of specific ways of speaking English in South Africa which are typical of various cultural groups. The brilliance of the ad lies in tapping into the country’s pride of its cultural diversity, and in making a hero out of the African Mama who was in the past often the least respected member of society.

It’s notable that not a single white person is featured in the ad – this in itself makes a political statement that would resonate with people of colour who find the continued economic dominance of whites frustrating. The use of accents previously looked down on, by those relating the story as important witnesses, as well as by the hero of the story, use of the slang spoken widely in everyday life, and the strong accent of the voice-over at the end, all make a powerful statement that taps into deep emotions and very emotive issues of the day.

Contrast the accents in the ad with the media- or general accent used in this news broadcast:

In South Africa, English is spoken by almost everyone, but people have distinct accents which can indicate their background. Among others, there is an “African” accent, such as heard in the Hall’s ad when the hero speaks, which is indicative of a native South African first language such as Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Venda etc.; an English accent, typical of white people who are descended from English settlers, who were raised speaking English as their first language; then there is an Afrikaans accent, typical of white people who speak Afrikaans as their first language. Accents are very strongly associated with cultural groups rather than regions, though there are minor regional variations.

A South African music group that has seen some international exposure, Die Antwoord, uses the Afrikaner accent. This accent is more likely to be associated with conservative values and, typically, Calvinistic religious convictions. This interview with Eugene Terreblanche shows the accent clearly:

It is difficult to overstate how severely the stereotypical “Boer” would disapprove of Die Antwoord‘s appearance, actions, and especially their music. Instead of tempering their accent, they emphasise it (listen from 2:27):

The duo are well able to temper their accents, indicating that it is deliberately emphasised as an artistic device. While this may not be evident to a foreign ear, I can hear an adaptation in the interview below which seems aimed at an American audience – Ninja rolls his R’s less in this video, while in others I listened to his Afrikaans accent is much more pronounced (listen from 1:32):

Employed in music designed to shock, it creates a dissonance that works like a car crash: it’s not pretty, but somehow you can’t look away.

Conversationalisation can also be used to create false intimacy, especially in radio. A good example of this in the South African context (bearing in mind this opinion is limited, as I am a white South African and would not be able to evaluate conversationalisation aimed at my black peers) is Jeremy Mansfield. His media personality is of an agreeable, fun guy who gets along with everyone, and his English South African accent is pronounced:

Whereas the same accent is not erased, but still used more formally by a veteran reporter, Jeremy Maggs:

The use of various accents, specific ‘lingo’, and tone are all powerful tools, and in the South African context it can be particularly meaningful and powerful. I have shown examples where various accents were either emphasised or neutralised as part of the message being delivered, where an accent often associated with white supremacy is used as an artistic device, and where an accent associated with a certain cultural group is used in a context that aims for false intimacy and another context that aims for respectability and formality.

Conversationalisation is arguably as important, if not more so, than the words used to deliver a message. It is a fascinating field of study.