News Media: Where to from here?

In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. Some academics did, with Daniel Boorstin probably at the forefront of this group, predicting much of the modern day news dilemma in his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. Yet most people were not prepared for the rise of “fake news”, the impact of news as entertainment, the level of sophistication with which audiences are analysed and manipulated, the impact on politics. In light of the last few years’ events, it’s fair to ask: can the news media continue to act as producers of meaning whilst remaining within the structures of formal rules about impartiality?

To answer this question, let’s analyse two news reports. Both are focused on the same event: the Berlin Christmas Market attack that took place on 19 December 2016. The first video is from Sky news, a privately owned news broadcaster. The second video is from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a public broadcaster. Both reports were published on 20 December, the day after the attack, and on the surface the two reports seem very similar. However, closer analysis shows many differences in the narrative created.

Events, Media Events, and Pseudo-Events

Boorstin posited that there are:

  • Events – that which happened
  • Media Events – that which would probably have happened, but takes on certain peculiarities because of media presence
  • Pseudo-Events – that which is staged specifically to be reported on, without reporting it would not happen

Was the Berlin Christmas Market attack a media event, or even a pseudo-event? Would Anis Amri have been instructed by a terrorist organisation to carry out the attack if they didn’t know media coverage was guaranteed? If so, how was the nature of the attack affected by the knowledge of the usual style of media coverage? While no more than speculation can be offered to answer these questions, they are worth asking. To what extent is terrorism motivated or affected by the media?

Newsworthiness

Both channels selected to report on this story, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The reports were both compiled by broadcasters targeting residents of the United Kingdom, and English-speaking audiences farther afield. The attack in Berlin was likely of interest to most Europeans and probaby also to Americans and Canadians – the societal group often referred to as “The West”.

The BBC is publically owned, while Sky was founded by magnate Rupert Murdoch, who owns 39% of the company and eleven days before publication of the clips in question was reported to have made a bid for a complete takeover. Murdoch is associated with far right broadcaster Fox News, and tabloid newspapers such as The Sun in the UK. While the UK has rules of impartiality in force for both public and private broadcasters, Sky is viewed as leaning towards conservative values. The Conservative party in the UK was only a few months past a vote to leave the European Union.

The influence of ownership is clear in the construction of the messages. For example, the BBC’s report opens with the fact that a lorry had, for the second time that year, been used as a weapon. The Sky report mentions the fact nearer the end of the report, with little emphasis, and the caveat “appears to”. This choice can be seen as due to private ownership of the broadcaster. The reporters at Sky are beholden to a business mogul who would in turn want to promote the interests of people he considers friends or business associates, with a lorry a symbol of commerce and trade. Emphasising the use of a lorry as a weapon is undesirable from a business mogul’s perspective: should anyone decide to act on this with access restrictions on heavy goods vehicles, it would have a negative effect on business owners. In contrast, emphasis of the fact that the weapon in the attack was a lorry is desirable from a social interest perspective, and if acted on could have a positive effect on society, by making people safer. This shows a bias towards social interest with the public broadcaster, and bias towards business interests with the private broadcaster.

Preferred Meaning

The decision to report, and the amount of time and effort put into the report, were affected not only by the nature of the event and ownership of the broadcaster, but also by its relevance to the main target market of both channels: residents of the United Kingdom. The message is shaped to tell people what they want to hear, and to tell people what the controllers of the medium want them to hear. A number of creative decisions imbibe the Sky report with an underlying message of how the British citizen’s foray into Germany led to her being in danger, and that danger moreover is linked to Germany’s refugee policy. Just months before, fear of being completely overrun by immigrants and refugees played a major part in the Brexit vote. At the time of the report Article 50 had not yet been triggered, but was rumoured to be due to be triggered early in 2017. The ruling Conservative party therefore would benefit from a continued inflation of the immigrant/refugee fear among UK citizens.

Use of Language

This subtle framing of the narrative as one of troubled Europe is clear throughout Sky’s report. The featured expert points out that Europe had been warned, the reporter then mentions the truck had Polish number plates, and closes with a statement referring to people waiting to hear if terrorists have spilled more blood on Europe’s streets. The word German is used only once in the whole report (“German police say…” at 1:12), while the word Europe is used twice. The only accents heard are British, the only language heard is English. A narrative is created of this being a Europe affair, a threat associated with being part of the continent, with familiar British voices describing the horror of this event in Europe.

The BBC report frames the narrative as a European issue, but with emphasis on humanising the victims. The reporter uses the words Berlin (1x), Germany (1x), Germans (1x), and makes reference to how the country looks to France’s similar experience and sets the same goal – to not let terror disrupt their way of life. In contrast to the Sky report, one eyewitness speaks with a clear German accent and the other with a partial German accent. Furthermore, footage of Germany’s Chancellor is shown, addressing a press conference in German (translated into Australian-accented English), and their Interior Minister also speaking German, the translator in this case having an English accent. A priest is also shown making a statement in German, the reporter explaining his clearly emotional statement. The overall effect is an emphasis on the family aspect of Europe, the ties between the direct victims and the whole world.

Both reports use amateur footage and commentary to create the illusion of real-ness and an insider insight into what happened. However, Sky relied only on British witnesses, while the BBC played audio from a witness with a clear German accent, and footage from another witness who looks as if they could be of middle eastern origin, whose accent is less definitively German. This can again be understood to be an effort on the part of Sky to create rapport with their audience, while the BBC either tries to create a sense of unity with European compatriots, whose emotions in this incident would be easy to identify with; or is attempting to accurately report on the event as an attack on Germans, not UK citizens, and an attack that hurt everyone, including people of middle eastern origin.

Semiotics

It is notable that Sky’s clip used a female reporter, and two female witnesses, while the BBC’s clip used a male reporter and two male witnesses. This could have been a coincidence, but may have been a deliberate choice to create a certain meaning. Women are often considered more vulnerable due to their physiological differences from men. From a patriarchal point of view, their position is close to that of possessions. A threat to them is a challenge to masculinity and a threat to the social group, because of their role in reproduction. The terror of “they’re going to rape our women” is a common theme in far right political thinking, and opting to feature two female witnesses and a female reporter acts as a “dog whistle” to this mindset. In more academic terms, there may be a juxtaposition of British females alarmed and threatened with the devastation of the Berlin attack to evoke a connotation of threat to the self, to “us”, with this threat to a different country.

The BBC report uses similar connotative communication, pointing out that the location of the attack is near a church ruin serving as reminder of the “savagery” of World War Two. This is likely to speak particularly to a well informed viewer with a liberal mindset, who is more likely to be aware of the extent of the bombing endured by German citizens towars the end of the war, and such incidents as the Dresden firestorm. Including this reference, followed directly by a German priest barely able to hold back tears, making reference to France and pleading for life to not be stopped, can equally be seen as a “dog whistle”, but to the liberal mind: the suffering of the ordinary people in World War Two made no distinction with regards to nationality. It was a universal experience. The suffering caused by the Berlin attack, too, is a universal experience. The enemy aims to disrupt or end life as it is, and resisting that goal is a common purpose which should transcend borders and nationalities.

While I believe a bias is clear in Sky’s reporting, I believe a bias is also clear in the BBC’s reporting. Yet an identifiable effort is also made by the BBC to include all facts. Their report does not shy away from naming the nationality of the suspect, and directly addresses the elephant in the room: the contentious feelings around refugees pouring into Europe, and this attack on a country seen as particularly welcoming to them.

Echo Chamber

Viewing the two reports one after the other it is clear that each broadcaster uses deliberate and perhaps in some cases unconscious communication techniques to create a narrative supporting a preferred meaning. It demonstrates the value of gathering information on which to base our understanding of the world beyond our lived experience from more than one source. Even a source that is publically owned and committed to neutrality cannot escape bias in its reporting. If we only ever watch Sky, or only the BBC, we can become unaware of a contradicting opinion. This holds true also if we get our news from a few different sources, but they all hold the same bias. We can live in an illusion of being well informed, while in fact only hearing different sources say the same thing.

Conclusion

Considering the above analysis, is it possible now to answer our original question?I believe we can.

First, with modern sophistication in communication techniques and audience analysis, media has become one of the most powerful tools in history. It should be regulated and controlled to limit the extent to which it can be used to manipulate the masses, with full knowledge that such regulation can never do more than curb its abuse. Sky News is a good example of a privately owned broadcaster at least restrained by regulation: its bias has to be subtle, and there is at least a regulatory body holding them accountable. In contrast, America’s Fox News is an example of a virtually unregulated privately owned broadcaster. Their effect on public opinion and politics, and their virtual immunity from consequences even when their presenters tell outright lies, has been examined extensively. Both Sky News and BBC are bound by legal requirements for neutrality. These rules keep Sky from bias as rampant as seen on America’s Fox News, and provide an additional incentive and standard for the BBC.

In this milieu, where broadcasters are obligated by law to strive for impartiality, news media can indeed continue to act as producers of meaning, and remain within the structures of formal rules about impartiality. I believe, however, that they will fall short of the ideal more often than they don’t. With a public as informed and exposed to media as we are today, it is difficult to avoid connotations and the construction of meaning even when you are actively trying not to. Yet the value of the exercise is not in succeeding, but in trying.

We need the stories of humanity mediated to the point where we can understand the world outside our lived experience. Media has an important role to play, and should be supported through imposed standards encouraging broadcasters to strive for neutrality. The problems of rampant bias and political control must additionally be addressed through a shift in policy to where media literacy is considered as vital a basic skill as reading and mathematics.

 

Ownership and Means of Production

None of us has the ability to know what happens outside our lived experience except through others communicating to us – or reporting – what they have experienced. This is the purest form of news. More often than not, our picture of what exists outside our lived experience is formed through someone communicating to us someone else’s communication about their lived experience. Sounds complicated, but in simple terms, anything you didn’t experience yourself is a story about someone else’s experience, and likely it’s not the person who lived the experience who tells you the story.

With 7 billion+ people living on earth, there is no way you can receive the communication about each and every lived experience. Therefore we have mediators who highlight stories worth telling, which are important for you to know. A friend may decide what gossip they heard is worth sharing over a pint. Through that mediation, through deciding to tell you A but not B, they have already shaped or mediated your view of the world outside your lived experience. Moreover, their own point of view and bias will shape the story they’re telling. If they don’t like John, they may consider the end of John’s romantic relationship to be a consequence of John’s unlikable behaviour. They like Ben, though, so the end of Ben’s romantic relationship may be framed as Ben’s partner being unreasonable.

On a wider scale, professional mediators – journalists – decide on local, national, and international level what stories are worth sharing over a news desk. Time is limited, so journalists have to make a decision on what is relevant and important to know. Should they tell us A or B? On top of that, just like your friend in the pub has a bias, journalists have biases. It is a human condition (which journalists should be aware of and strive to move beyond, but that is another story). Yet an added layer of bias comes into play through the journalist’s superiors, another layer through the organisation employing both: what market is the organisation targeting? The story will be framed to stimulate an emotional response among the target market, and identifying what wil elicit the desired reaction is an increasingly sophisticated science.

It doesn’t end there, though. Who owns the organisation? Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. What is most important to the board, or the individual owner?

Economic Factors

News production is increasingly aimed at entertainment rather than dispersing accurate information. This entertainment is costly to produce. The entities that invest in the production of entertainment want to minimise their risk, and therefore are reluctant to put money into productions that may not be popular. However, owning everything also minimises risk. There has therefore been an increase in horizontal integration (when a media institution swallows another media institution providing the same kind of media, such as a television production company buying a rival television production company) as well as vertical integration (when a media institution swallows an institution concerned with another link in the chain of getting this kind of content to the audience, such as a television production company buying a satellite television service provider) [for more on both, see the last source linked to].

Power

When an individual owns a range of media outlets, they control the image their audience forms of the world outside their lived experience. If you hear it on the radio, and see it on television, and read it on your newspaper app, why then, it must be true. Everyone is saying the same thing. Yet “everyone” is really just one person, whispering into your ear what they want you to think. The power of the vote of the masses can therefore be wielded by a single person. Both the Brexit vote and the Trump (page 18) vote can be argued to show evidence of mass opinion being shaped by a continuous stream of indoctrination from a range of media outlets owned by one person, or at best a small handful of people. How is it possible for such small numbers to hold such incredible power?

Means

As I mentioned, producing news is expensive. To hold the modern attention you need a slick, professional appearance, and this costs a lot of money. Therefore news is controlled by those who have the means to invest millions in professional news production. What we see, hear, read, and ultimately think can easily be controlled by people who have the money to buy our thoughts.

Consequences

This situation is probably the biggest challenge democracy has ever faced. One way of fighting it is to finance public broadcasters who are required to be neutral. People who turn to news sources that are not in private ownership/not operated for profit, are generally better informed. We also need to finance the arts, and media, to enable those other than the wealthy to get their voices heard. Finally, we should include media literacy in public education, to foster understanding of the danger of getting news only from sources telling you what you want to hear, and understanding of the importance of funding arts and media.

Shoot him with a gun, then invite him to dinner

When our daughter was about six years old, we always joked she was so pretty we’d already have to start saving for a shotgun for when the boys started visiting. One day, she asked me seriously what we would do if a boy showed interest in her when she’s older. I replied we’d invite him to dinner, so Dad and I would be able to assess him and get to know him before he can date our daughter. Her four-year-old brother, who’d half listened but didn’t catch all that, asked her what Mommy would do if a boy wanted to date her. She said: “She’ll shoot him with a gun, then invite him to dinner.”

This is a family classic joke, but it also shows the mindset we were in at the time. Our circumstances led us to reevaluate our life, beliefs, convictions from the foundations up, and the attitudes behind that joke are among the foundations that were rebuilt.

Believing your job is to protect your daughter is to believe she is not able to protect herself. I’m not talking physical protection, I’m talking a kind of oversight of every decision, every relationship, insisting that you have authority and the final say over her movements – as in, she has to ask your permission to go here or there. That sends the message to her that she is incapable. The sad thing about psychology is that being bombarded with the message that you’re incapable can make you incapable. When you are constantly told in myriad little ways that you can’t, you are likely to believe you can’t, therefore you can’t.

Instead, I know my daughter is a capable, intelligent person. She has no curfew and we make no demand that she report her every move to us, because we trust her judgement, and even if her judgement is faulty, she will never learn to improve it unless we give her space to make mistakes. Our one and only demand with our children is that they make sure their mobile phone is charged and on at all times. That way, if we worry, we can contact them, and we often do just to say hi, if we haven’t seen them for a few hours and want to touch base. Our job as parents instead is to be there, whenever they need us, to listen without a breath of judgement ever ever no matter how stupid they may have been. This is critical, because if they fear they may be met with anger, “how could you”, blame, or a rant about how much their actions are now going to inconvenience us, they will keep things to themselves which will do much more harm without our help than with it. We work hard to stay neutral, even at times when we feel shocked or think they may have made a silly mistake. That way we create the best possible chance that when they need us, our children will come to us and ask for help.

That last sentence refers to children rather than just our daughter, because that’s the other thing: we treat all three our children exactly the same. The only variations lay in responses to their level of ability and responsibility when they were much younger. Our rule was that the price of freedom is responsibility. So when they were in their pre-teen and early teenage years, moving slowly from the age-appropriate, necessary control we exercised as parents to the greater freedom of approaching adulthood, they earned our blessing to go about unsupervised in return for showing they were responsible enough to do so. The rules were and are no different for our daughter. We stopped treating her differently from her brothers because we want her to go into the world used to equal treatment with the men around her. In this house, we strive to not normalise inequality.

We also consider our children’s sex lives utterly, utterly their own private business. To me especially this is incredibly important. When they decide to first experience it, how, where: all their own business. If one day we were to suspect or accidentally find out they’re having sex in our house, as long as they are respectful and discreet I don’t care. Their rooms are their space, their privacy sacred. I would much rather our kids have sex in such a controlled environment, and use protection, than try desperately not to be normal human beings and then cave in to natural, normal, healthy urges in an uncontrolled, unplanned, unsafe environment. Again, I of course demand respect for the fact that this is my and Micky’s house where they also live: discrection is just good manners. But if by accident we become aware they’re sexually active, it is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS.

The critical ingredient here is openness. We have never treated sex as some taboo subject. It has always been private, but not shameful. Especially as the kids got older, we emphasised that sex is an adult thing you should engage in when you’re ready. It’s like driving: you need some maturity to handle it, because it can have some serious consequences, and necessitates remembering responsibility at a time of high emotion. Virginity is neither a sacred gift to treasure nor a burden to try and get rid of as quickly as possible. It is actually quite a stupid term, if you think of it, because we have no similar term for people who have not experienced fulltime work yet, or haven’t travelled alone yet. Sex is a very similar experience connected with maturing and being able to handle greater responsibility. We emphasised the need to use condoms, and were frank about both the beauty and the possible negative consequences of sex. Those times the kids approached us with sex-related questions, we again worked hard to always respond with zero judgement, with love, acceptance, and assurances that they are okay, this is just an aspect of humanity we learn to manage as we grow.

To those parents who argue that they merely react with disgust and condemnation when finding out their child has engaged in sex before marriage, or at an age the parent deems too young: firstly, how in the name of all the gods do you expect your child to flick a switch in their mind on their wedding day and suddenly do a 180 on years’ indoctrination that their natural urges are disgusting and wrong? Also, who are you to judge when your child is old enough for sex? Age alone cannot be an indicator, and you do not have the right nor the insight into their feelings, thoughts, and emotions to be able to judge on their behalf. You do not own your child, and if they make this decision and regret it, your job is to be there to comfort them and assure them it is just like any other mistake: if you slept with someone and realise it was too soon, you don’t have to sleep with anyone again until you feel ready. They are not going to share these feelings and doubts and regrets with you if they know you’ll explode, so your actions will leave them adrift and without support at the time they need you most.

Where alcohol is concerned, we have been frank with the kids that it’s a great thing to have in moderation, but easy to sneak into addiction. We have also been frank that while nothing excuses crime, and you are never responsible for being a victim of crime, it is a fact that being drunk makes you more vulnerable. You can reduce your vulnerability if you don’t get blackout drunk. Again their use of alcohol is their decision, and the most we do is to share our thoughts and beliefs about it with them. Drugs, too, we have been very frank about the negative consequences, and this is important: we have done our research so that we base our advice on fact.

Finally, this is a big deal: I strive to never, never lie to our kids. I am horrified with these “awww sweet” stories of silly lies parents tell their kids. For instance, I read the funny story the other day of parents who told their kids the car goes faster if you sit quiet and still. Ha ha ha, so funny, except you have taught them not to trust you. More extreme was an acquaintance who went to the ridiculous length of flying her child to Lapland to meet “Santa” when the child started suspecting it’s a myth, to extend the child’s belief a little while, preserve the magic of childhood a little longer. What the actual fuck! How is that child supposed to ever trust what their mother tells them, ever? Because she demonstrated that she will lie and lie and lie if she feels the child believing a certain thing is best for them, even if it is not the truth.

It all comes down to control. Parents must cop on that they do incredible damage if they try to control their children’s lives. Control is necessary when the child is very young, but it is a necessity that should never be extended beyond what is healthy. Like wearing nappies: totally, yes, it is necessary, but keeping a child in nappies when they have reached a stage of being capable of doing without them is harmful. Keeping control when the child is mature enough for responsibility is the same thing.

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.

Conclusion

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.

“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.