Brand Culture: Intertextuality in a modern world
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) Symbols don’t have meaning on their own. Consider simply a mark on a wall. A simple scrape that maybe stands out more than the next. It is difficult to see it as something that is meaningful, which is why it is, in the first place, difficult to see, even as a symbol. There is no real meaning behind it. From the indexical point of view, we may say that this is a symbol of a piece of steel passing against the wall but, other than that, it’s not a real trace of anything. When this scrape, however, is recognisable to the point that you would know if you saw it somewhere else, it becomes interesting.
If you then see it in a different context, your brain starts to look for a pattern. You look at the surroundings and start scouting for other markers in order to figure out what the pattern is. The context of the one somehow influences the other.
Intertextuality in its formal sense refers to how one text influences another. That is to say, when one piece of text reappears somewhere else and brings its meaning with it. They reference each other in order to build richer meaning. I like to stretch this definition to a more abstract place that stands beyond simply referencing texts. If we step beyond it, we may see how text is simply one way in which we communicate meaning, orientate ourselves and, ultimately, believe things. How this eventually ends up as belief structures is an interesting process but, for now, I’d like to focus on the coming and going between intertextuality and creating new meaning.
Advertising leverages this a lot as it is often a small piece of communication that has to land a lot of meaning. It’s therefore useful to reference other pieces of communication in order to get more messaging into a smaller space. One commercial that’s done a great job in recent months is the first adidas Originals commercial.
I’ve written about this TVC before and noted how the ad that adidas made was a more-accurate depiction of the brand when compared to what was essentially a crowdsourced piece. This is what we expected but, in terms of intertextuality, the lines are not as clear-cut. But, before we go further, let’s take another look at the commercial in question.
It is loaded with references and, from one point of view, there’s almost a sense of irony in the idea that it calls itself original. The commercial open on an ominous low tone before it reveals “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. From there on in, there are references to The Dude’s trip, the Birth of Venus and Harley Quinn. The commercial has an eerily nineties/noughties feel to it and, while it does not copy and paste, it certainly borrows from our collective past.
Intertextuality seems to be everywhere
Those who feel the ad deserves its awards will be irritated at this point. I’ve even dealt with this irritation in person as I tried to have discussions on this issue. For the record, then, I feel it’s almost worth stating that I also believe it deserves all its awards. It’s a beautifully made piece that sucks you into the world of adidas Originals. The point is also not to say that the commercial is the underbelly of creativity that tries to parade around as something cutting edge. The point, rather, is to ask: “What are we seeing here and why is this so popular today.”
This phenomenon is nothing new. We see it in media all the time, most notably in cinema. A face in Hollywood and a man with his sights on the highest office is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Say of him what you will but there is no denying that his reputation is one that stretches far and wide. What is interesting is that his rapid rise is built on an ability to cantilever one strength to another. The movies he has been appearing in have also, to various degrees, been examples of sequels or reboots which, in turn, rely entirely on intertextual references.
Is this good or bad?
“Good” or “bad” are generally not terms that I like to use. “Does it work or not?” is more interesting. Does intertextuality work? Then we ask: What are we trying to do. Last year Scenario magazine published an article that looked at how we view the future and the fundamental shift we see is that we no longer see it as a bright place we are all heading to but, rather, as a disaster coming at us. This shift is fundamental as it takes us from the explorative- to a victim-space. We’re no longer the agents of change; instead we’re the victims of previous generations.
So, while Hollywood might feel it is a sure bet to simply remake old movies (that is the common explanation), I find this unsatisfactory. I prefer the idea that culture is shifting at a deeper level and believe that this offers us a far better understanding of the future. Yes, it makes business sense to remake old movies but why is this true? You may just as easily argue that new fresh ideas would sell.
The answer might lie in the reassurance we find in cultural iconography of the past. Nostalgia has been known to have a positive effect on mental wellbeing — an assumption that supports the more-psychoanalytic point of view that we need to know where we are from (or have culture) if we are going to be anyone at all.
Imagine the shift in our experience of the future as the difference between an excited group of explorers heading to discover the world to a group of explorers under attack from wild animals. The optimistic, the former, will carry with them what they need, and they will, in the process of discovery and amazement, shed more and more of what they are. They will embrace the learning and change who they are. The latter will, however hoard, hold on to who they are and almost take stock of what they are and what they can do to defend themselves.
The world is hoarding
In cultural terms, it feels as if the world is hoarding — which means that intertextuality makes more sense. It also takes us out of that boring old rut that simply says “they don’t make music like they used to”. T2 Trainspotting, while a sequel, takes a look at what we’ve been doing for two decades. Baywatch (2017), silly as it is, also has different stereotypes in it and gives the piece the comical context it deserves.
Bringing up old symbols and memorabilia from the past is in itself an old trope; it is, in some sense, what a charm is. During difficult times, it reminds us where we are from so that we can move forward. Humans are cultural; if we’re not from somewhere, we’re no one. There is a sense of optimism in this. When the current economic and political road strikes us as bit divisive and, ultimately, destructive, it’s great to look back and say: “We are not doomed; we are not so different; we are The Dude, we are The Suicide Squad and we are Frank Sinatra doing things his way.”
Brands are cultural iconography, communication tools and almost a language in itself. Human society has shifted over millennia but the notion of marking ourselves is still here. Only, instead of paint stripes across our cheeks, we have The Three Stripes on our feet, down our legs and on our hats. It can divide or unify. Common culture or paradigm culture is a powerful and unifying force. If our current culture seems to be too fragmented, it might not be a bad idea for brands to look back to see what we were using to communicate when the future felt like a different place.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is head of strategy at Cape Town ad agency, 140BBDO, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.