Semiotics in practice
As consumers we are not always able to articulate why our values are changing as they are. Cultural analysis is key to unlocking these changes and getting to the ‘why’ behind the cultural shifts of today.
Recently I attended an MRS talk where Senior Audience Planner for BBC Radio and Music, Peter Zezulka, explained how Radio 4 is on a quest to spice up its factual content using semiotics as a tool to navigate the cultural landscape and chart its next steps.
If I ask you to think of BBC Radio 4 what comes to mind? If it’s posh blokes reading the news, afternoon dramas, panel shows and Woman’s Hour then you’re not alone. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my mum cooking dinner with The Archers jingling away comfortingly in the background. Some people enjoy the nostalgia of these shows while others think of them as old fashioned, middle class and ultimately boring.
You might be surprised to know that Radio 4 is still enjoying healthy audience figures with more than 11.5 million people tuning in every week - me included! The BBC are keen to keep growing and aim to target younger listeners (defined as 35-54 year olds…). Some factual shows, though well-known for their nostalgic charm, are just crying out for modernisation. But what is “modern”?
To move forward the Radio 4 team first had to understand what modern intelligent content looks like. Together with a partner agency they decided to draw on semiotic analysis, the study of signs, symbols and their use or interpretation, to uncover the hidden or subconscious clues as to what makes media appear “modern”.
Peter explained how the team carried out a survey of content that their audience already feels meets their needs. This involved sifting through a sea of source material including TV and radio, magazines like National Geographic, blogs, podcasts and even the outputs of creative institutions like the Tate
This process sparked an understanding of what ties together all intelligent content – it invites us to think. What is different is how it invites us to think. We can build up a clear picture of intelligent content today by showing interpretively what kind of thinking it encourages.
Radio 4 discovered a spectrum of world views propagated by current factual content that is broadly split into two categories: “The Autonomous Individual” and “The Fragmented or Flexible Self”. The way
the content in each category encourages us to view the world is very different and one appears to be far more “modern” than the other.
The Autonomous Individual
This way of viewing the world is very rigid with clearly defined subjects to be learnt in great detail. There is very little cross-over between disciplines.
Details are learnt by heart, dates memorised, problems solved, definitive answers given. Imagine “white middle class oxford dons arguing with themselves in a room” and you’ll be close to understanding the dusty, bowler-hatted essence of this way of thinking.
The Fragmented Self
In contrast, content in the “fragmented self” category encourages the listener to take multiple viewpoints or perspectives. To forge interesting or surprising connections in a constellation of knowledge that spans disciplines and geographies. While autonomous individuals look for content to educate them from a position of authority, a “fragmented self” audience expects to learn alongside those teaching them. Instead of being pumped full of facts people are self-cultivating – pursuing knowledge for their own interest. Think of the fun, inquisitiveness of the Stuff You Should Know podcast, a show that jumps from topic to topic asking questions and discovering answers along the way.
I have definitely seen evidence of this shift towards “fragmented” or more flexible learning in my work here at Truth, specifically in a recent project on classroom resources in secondary schools.
Here are some couplings that Peter gave to illustrate these ideas:
Who you should be:
Problem Solver (The Economist) vs Empowered Amateur (Stuff You Should Know)
Knowledge getting methodology:
Interrogator (News Night) vs Conversationalist (This American Life)
Where social value resides:
Culture Vulture (Front Row) vs Idea Trader (Ted Talks)
What thinking involves:
Archivist vs Constellation Maker
Unsurprisingly Radio 4 found itself to be much more autonomously weighted when it came to programming with its more “fragmented” factual shows like Woman’s Hour with Lauren Laverne, Brian Cox’s The Infinite Monkey Cage and mini documentary series Shortcuts all broadcast late at night.
As a result of their project, Radio 4 decided to give these more “modern” or fragmented shows greater prominence - more trailers, more episodes and more air time. More podcasts have also been commissioned with the goal of ultimately turning audiences into “empowered amateurs” who learn alongside Radio 4 and not just from it.
This talk only served to deepen my interest in semiotics and cultural analysis, emphasising just how powerful a tool they can be when faced with a tricky question such as “what makes media content modern?”
Semiotics was a different way of tackling an age old problem and as Peter said “we had a general sense that we were out of touch and not quite modern enough, this project gave language to our hunches, before we just couldn’t articulate what we needed!”
Culture is always changing. Is this new way of learning really helping us to broaden our minds or merely teaching us to skim the surface? Are we all starting to spread ourselves too thinly; hopping from topic to topic, yet masters of none? Perhaps this current craze for more “fragmented” peer to peer learning will lead to a future desire for a once again more autonomous, authoritative style of informative content? Here at Truth we use semiotics to help clients stay ahead of the curve by deep diving into culture and mapping what we uncover against changing consumer priorities to identify exciting opportunity areas.
We are always on the lookout for our own semiotic challenges. Recently, we have helped unpick the changing world of masculinity in the US, explored the hidden meanings in book covers and gazed into the future of luxury automotive technology.
To find out more about our use of semiotics and cultural analysis get in touch.
Note on images: Thanks to Peter Zezulka for his engaging talk and the images used in this post.