At one end, our common humanity plays a significant role. Evolution has biologically determined us to behave in certain ways, and to copy those behaviours that we collectively deem to be successful. The principles behind evolutionary behaviours are sound, but what about the modes of transmission that enable this to happen? What’s the actual medium by which we interpret and transmit our behaviours, desires and understanding?
Having an appreciation of how culture works provides a pretty good start to understanding how behaviours are inspired and manifested in society. A strong understanding of culture provides insight into the modes by which we replicate and construct our social and emotional selves. It allows us to get underneath seemingly irrational emotional responses. Indeed, while traditional evolutionary thinking suggests that we act, albeit instinctively, to further our interests as a species, our behavioural responses to culture are often diffused and paradoxical.
So it’s always important to ask this fundamental question of a brand, pack, ad or idea: what ‘cultural work’ is it doing? How is the way that its messaging is wrapped up, in relation to other ‘meaning wrappers’ (what we’d call ‘codes’ in semiotics), creating meaning within culture? It’s our negotiation with the codes of culture that instructs us, often unconsciously, in our behaviours, beliefs and emotional responses.
The expression of culture is invariably wrapped up in ideology. While culture permeates us all, ideology exists to provide a guide to assumptions, behaviours and identity that’s an inevitable outcome when culture develops in a commercial society. Far from being a blanket of crude propaganda, ideology is enormously subtle. At its most successful we, apart from the odd over-aware cultural theorist perhaps, are often unaware that it’s processing us. Indeed, when ideology is performing at peak capacity, we happily author its principles ourselves, imbibing them as natural and unquestionable.
Let’s look at a quick example of how these airy-sounding ideas actually work.
I’m going to presume that, however flinchingly, you’re more likely to identify yourself as someone who is ‘middle class’ rather than proletarian or aristocratic. You’re out of the house, you’re with a friend, and you’re hungry. What do you do? You’re responding to a basic biological need, but you’re also living within the auspices of culture and ideology. Killing a buffalo is not an option.
So let’s stroll down an upwardly mobile South London street bursting with a heady mix of ideological noshing options. There’s a Perfect Fried Chicken shop over here. While PFC is a philosophically untenable offer, and it’s not as good as KFC, you’ll nevertheless get fed quickly and cheaply. But the blue plastic chairs don’t seem very inviting. Neither does the lurid signage and inelegant typography. The hip-hop spelling of ‘Chicken Poppaz’ suggests that this is not a place for people like you.
So there’s a Gourmet Burger Kitchen across the road. Perhaps you liked this place a few years ago. It was an innovative response to McDonald’s. It felt healthy and organic, even though the calorie count was higher than a Big Mac. But when you pay more for good ingredients in an ideologically agreeable environment, calories don’t count in the same way. It’s only poor people that get really fat, isn’t it?
And yet, somehow, GBK doesn’t feel quite the same. It’s full of ordinary families, and the people from the local estate agents having a Friday-lunchtime treat. They’re wearing uniforms. Perhaps this space doesn’t do the same cultural work for you that it used to? You’re not entirely sure why, but you feel you should keep looking.
A small converted van suddenly looks appealing. It’s selling Vietnamese street food. This feels authentic, inviting. There’s nothing tacky about this. You go for it.
In doing so, you’ve authored your own ideological responses to culture. You’ve chosen a bench over comfort, and a limited menu over choice. Your pursuit of authenticity indelibly marks you out as someone who has the power to see beyond simple divisions of class, and grasp that which the ‘real world’ has to offer. You want authenticity, derived from the backstreets of Hanoi. You’re an individual, immune to the pressures of crude marketing!
Of course, you’re none of these things, and you’re seeking to author your own individuality by distancing yourself from other people, as much as embracing something in a positive sense. But in seeking to fill your tummy, and feel at peace with yourself, you’ve entered into the mad labyrinth of ideology, behaving within culture in what feels like a natural and tasteful way, when essentially you’re reprocessing cultural behaviours to build an image of your social self. You’re enlightened enough to abandon frills and take your seat as a citizen of the world. You’re liberal, expansive, curious and open. And that’s how you’re going to eat, even if, ironically, Perfect Fried Chicken represents a more authentic South London ‘street food’. The modern notion of exotic street food allows the progressive bourgeois foodie a full expression of their considered ideological levity, and thereby commits them further still to their cultural distance from the world of PFC. I never said there wouldn’t be paradoxes here.
If that sounds a bit complicated, then don’t worry. Semiotic and cultural analysis can help prime these seemingly instinctive responses for brands, and help you to understand how to evolve and instigate behaviours that may feel entirely natural to people. Get culture right, and people will do the work for you, with a song in their hearts.