Friday, April 22, 2011

Weird are the ways of semantics!

Do you know that for many Russian speakers "permanent" means "temporary"? Even though any Russian dictionaly will tell you that "permanent" is "permanent"?

The story of how it all came to be is a good illustration how the semantic links work.

Most Russian speakers, unless they grow in a test-tube academic environment, first hear the word "permanent" in the context of hairdressing, meaning a kind of a chemical treatment that makes your hair curly. What the haridressers meant, when they coined the term, is that the treatment will last for a long time, much longer then whatever was available before. Long enough, actually, to last until the client's next visit, which from a hairdresser's perspective is as good as forever.

The clients, however, see things differently. For most people on most occasions, the time when you look at yourself in the mirror and go "Oh, [your favorite emotional expression], my hair's a mess, I gotta get it fixed" comes all too soon. In other words, there's nothing about your hairdo that will last long enough. Including the curly treatment. From an average client's view, it is something that will be there only for a while, and then will have to be renewed or updated. And it's a pretty short while, if you think of it.

That is how, unless you face the real meaning of the word more often than the hairy context, you're left with the impression that "permanent" has to do with your hair, everything that has to do with your hair is temporary, meaning "permanent" is "temporary".

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Taking it literally.

 Advertising during (and revolving around) sports events sometimes shows amazing connection between the textual and the sportive side of the matter – so much so, that in certain instances you can look at an ad and predict the outcome of the event before it actually starts.

Do you think there is any connection between a jamon-flavored potato chips ad, and the outcome of a European Football Cup game?

Here's a billboard that appeared on the streets of the Russian cities before the start of the 2008 Euro Cup, which for the Russian National team was to begin with a game against the future Euro Cup winner, Spain.

The slogan runs “[Let's/We’ll] Make the Spanish Bulls into Spanish Ham!”

The message that the copywriters were trying to convey is obvious. The ad equalized the National Team's opponents with the food their country is famous for, and the game with ritual devour of the losing side. By eating the respective food (or, in this case, flavor) the viewer appeared to participate in the game, and thus encouraged to assist the National by chumping on the chips.

This, however, is the (not so) hidden message, the metaphorical sense that is supposed to be the ultimate object of study in the field of persuasive communication. But what if we, against all warnings, do take the text literally, for the sum of the direct meanings of its lexis, grammar, and pictures?

The 5 of the “Russia – Spain 5 – 0” on the stadium's scoreboard is modestly hidden from view by the bag of chips; modesty is appropriate since such a defeat of any team by any team in the course of the Euro Cup finals is, well, unlikely. The legs of a footballer in Spanish colors socks are blown off by means of … what? The ball? That is not just unlikely, it's impossible. It could be done with a bazooka, and sneaking a firearm into the game is sort of less impossible than blowing the opponent to bits with a mighty kick on the ball - but this game isn't going to be foolball any more. The coup de grace is the hole in the net. The ball is not in the net, so, technically, there's no goal!

But it all fades against the fact that nobody can make Spanish ham out of Spanish bulls. It is impossible by definition. Because jamon, just like any other ham, is made of pork, not beef!

Summing it up, the literal message of the billboard presents the defeat of the Spanish national by the Russian side as something impossible.

Now, let's remember that during the 2008 European Football Cup the Russian National Team played the total of five games, winning three (against Greece, Sweden and Netherlands), and losing two - both against … Spain! “Impossible” said the ad, and impossible it proved to be.

Here's another, even more ridiculous, case.

In 2009, the Russian National had to beat Slovenia to get to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The advertisers were running amok by then. Specifically, I mean a certain next-door supermarket chain, that revolve their  advertising efforts around an (apparently slightly mentally deranged) character dressed up as an ancient Russian bard, the kind that according to history books were roaming the country from VIIIth to Xth century or so, telling epic poems to anyone who would listen.

This Boyan had already been shown interrupting the traditional toss-coin first strike selection, arguing that the coin was better spent at the advertised supermarket, and the first strike was for ever reserved for “our” side. That alone can be recognized as a bad sign. If the other side never starts from the center, it means “our” side never scores a goal, which is equal to not winning. The kind of supporter interruption shown in the ad is, by the way, punishable.

But they really crossed the line immediately before the matches against Sovenia. In the ads filmed specifically for the occasion, the Boyan appeared on the field, addressing an overcrowded stadium with “Chto my so Sloveniey sdelayem?” (“What are we going to do to Slovenia?”) The audience echoed  with a unanimous “Sdelayem!”, which in this context stands for a slang and pretty rude synonym for “defeat”. That behavior is, to begin with, non-sportive, and bad sports don't win the day. Moreover, in the Russian culture, where even the wish for good hunting translates as “[I want you to bring home] Neither fur no feather”, this kind of boasting of a victory much before it is achieved, is considered a very bad omen.

Leaving the mystics aside, the ad's message, taken literally, didn't promise anything good anyway. The audience replied to the question “what are we going to do?” with simply an indefinite future form of “do”. Mind that they didn't specify just what exactly they were going to do to their opponents. Which means that  “our” team was going, according to the ad, to do nothing. As anyone who follows soccer World Cup knows, that's exactly what happened; having won the home game 2-1 the Russian national lost the away match 0-1 and by virtue of the away goal the Slovenians won their tickets to South Africa.

If there's anything that these stories prove, however, is how deeply the copywriters dig into the collective subconscious of the audience. Before the matches against Slovenia everyone was certain that the Russian National has all but passed the humble opponents; the football players, being part of the society like the rest of us, fell under the influence of the feeling as well, and were ruined by overconfidence. In fact, every expert including Guus Hiddink, the then National team coach, claimed overconfidence as the leading explanation for this unexplainable defeat. With Spain on the 2008 Euro cup, by contrast, no-one believed in Russian National, and the said Guus Hiddink later explained the loss by the players’ lack of belief in themselves.

Either way, in both instances the general state of minds of the society that constituted the target audience, was both reflected by the advertising and shared by the players. Based on this, the results of the game could be predicted by advertising analysis. I venture to suggest that the more superstitious and self-unsure the target culture of the ads is, and the more the sportspersons are dependent on their moral condition to win, the better these predictions can be.

It's said that if something happens once it's an accident, twice – a coincidence, three times – a tendency. I can hardly wait for a Russian National Soccer Team to play another decisive match... 

Monday, April 4, 2011

First time out...

Today was my first lecture on speech impact for Advertising majors. The students are cool, many are working in the field already, so it was sort of challenging. And interesting. The class ran for 4 academic hours, in the first part I spoke about what's language all about, and the second was about speech impact proper. First impression: I can do better. Second impression - how different is the perception of some issues. It looks like within a course that short, I must stay within the limits of the language, and not stray aside to the general semiotics. But bst of all - I feel they need the stuff I'm trying to teach them. We're meeting again in two weeks, for a practical training, let's see what will be.