Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Resolving Cultural Contradictions

Claude Lévi-Strauss, a structural anthropologist who described the purpose of myth as 'provid[ing] a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction.' Contradictions stem from opposing structural relations, made up of universal binaries, which Lévi-Strauss considered to be universal concerns of all cultures.

One of the first people to apply Lévi-Strauss' thinking to the branding world (commercially at least) were the UK marketing semioticians Ginny Valentine and Monty Alexander, who started using the myth quadrant around the early nineties. This is basically where two binaries - that have high structural relevance to the category - are paired off against each other to generate two 'cultural norms' and two 'cultural contradictions'. The two cultural contradictions provide an opportunity for brands to engineer a resolution that has the potential to transform the category. Here's the model brought to life based on the fundamental structure of female beauty, featuring the ever-popular blog case study, Dove ...

Various explanations have been offered for the success of Dove, but I'd argue that this is one of the more powerful ones given that Dove is ultimately resolving the modern day contradiction of female beauty - attractiveness with 'real' curves, in larger sizes etc. The irony of course, is that Dove's images are still not a 'real' depiction of female beauty as such, since they remain an aspirational ideal for many 'everyday women'. On browsing through a selection of ads for this example generally, it was quite disturbing just how few ads use 'everyday women', other than insurance, anti-smoking and other government-led campaigns.

That said, it's certainly a more motivating and realistic goal for most women compared with all other cosmetic and beauty communications, which only draw on 'unreal(istic) beauty'. Dove broke the mould, and the rest, as they say, is history. I can't say that I know how the insight really emerged, possibly from a stream of insecure, fed-up women in focus groups and interviews. Be that as it may, this insight turns out to be a glaring opportunity once we turn our attention to locating modern female beauty within culture.

I would also like to turn briefly to another case study favourite, Persil's 'Dirt is Good'. I don't wish to debate whether the campaign's really working for Unilever in financial terms here (this has already been discussed at length elsewhere), only to show that it's really a simple semiotic inversion strategy at heart ...

Admittedly the examples that I've used here are a little crude to serve the model's structuralist ends, so please, no hate mail or spam for suggesting that everyday women are unattractive - hopefully you get the point! It's also worth noting a number of theoretical limitations. To start, it offers a snapshot of a reality at a fixed moment in time; it does not account for the instability and historical specificity of cultural meanings over time e.g. during the Victorian period in England appreciation of 'real beauty' was the dominant norm by far. Nor are the contradictions necessarily applicable cross-culturally. Beyond this, it is also fair to challenge the very notion that universal binaries structure culture, as not only does the model account for a limited set of structural relations at any one time, but it strips away, and is unable to cope with, the sheer cultural complexity of everday life. Although I subscribe to these (poststructuralist) criticisms theoretically speaking, when it comes to the 'practical crunch' these limitations are less problematic, and it still remains one of the more powerful semiotic-type tools around.

A more nuanced cultural reading of female beauty ideals in the West might reveal how they are changing over time, broadly inline with global and local fashion, film, music, and other significant culture/media industries. The cultural resonance and success of Dove's campaign for 'real beauty' for example, is also due in part to the broader naturalness tsunami that is sweeping across everything from food and healthcare to holidays and architecture. The root cause of which is a backlash against the philosophy of scientific progress to a large extent, and the detrimental environmental and societal effects it’s being blamed for. This also includes a cultural backlash against cosmetic surgery (despite its increasing popularity), airbrushed pictures, perfect models, celebrities and the like (think Getty Images vs Flickr). But it's important to keep in mind a sense of cultural relativism at this point. Dove is only 'real' because the rest of the beauty industry is so 'unreal'. And with the exposure and influence of people generated content rapidly increasing, I suspect the real 'real beauty' resolution has only just stepped off the catwalk.

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