Thursday, March 8, 2007

A joke

A man walks into a pub and goes up to the bar.
Barman: "I'm a publican and a philosophy graduate"
Man: "Is this a pub then?"
Barman: "Of course it is, didn't you see the sign outside?"
Man: "Yes, but the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary."
"Oh yeah," says the barman, "What makes you Saussure?"

I found this this morning on a comments thread on the death of Jean Baudrillard.

Gave me a bit of a chuckle, and I was about to send it on until I realised that noone else in the agency would get it.

Now I'm not suggesting that the rest of the agency is stupid. Far from it; I work with some very smart cookies. Nor am I suggesting that de Saussure's work is so important that everyone should be familiar with it (for the record, I'm deeply suspicious of that whole French structuralist/post-structuralist tradition). But it does highlight a worrying lack of theoretical grounding in what we do.

Unless you subscribe the the medieval view that communication is direct and unproblematic, that the reader is a passive recipient who plays no role in manufacturing meaning, it seems obvious to me that there should be someone in the organisation whose job it is to understand how the brain interprets messages, be it planner, creative or suit.

There are probably far more advanced ways to approach the topic than the transcribed notes to a century-old lecture series (Saussure never published his theories; we are only familar with them from his students' notes). Cognitive psychology, neuroscience, sociolinguistics, philosophy of language, even literary theory would all be relevant. But the point is that, if we're serious about communicating with people, we ought to be engaged in these fields.

Aside from helping us be more effective in our thinking, it would also give us a much more sophisticated toolkit to argue the case for creatvity to clients.

Perhaps the most consistent point of conflict I've had with clients is that they often see "what we want to say" and "what we want the consumer to think" as being the same thing.

The more we know about how the brain manufactures meaning, the more easily we can demonstrate the gap between the two. And the more convincing we can make our arguments that we need to be creative to get noticed and that there are more effective means of persuasion than the moronic, repetitive thud of assertion.


writer said...

Christ almighty, what a coincidence. I posted that very joke on a comments thread (not that one) after the death of Baudrillard, and then I thought no-one in here ( would get it and now you've said exactly the same thing.

I hope you're not the guy in the next office. I'd hate to have an intellectual equal close by.

Cleaver said...

I'm fairly sure it's not our intellectual equals we have to worry about, it's our intellectual superiors.

After all, who's smarter: the guy who spends all afternoon trying to decipher the first paragraph of "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", or the guy who realises it's all a bunch of arse and buggers off to the pub?