An Interpretation About One of Jungyoun’s Pictures

To help clarify questions about structuralism, I just posted a lengthy comment to Jungyoun’s post about her picture in which I offered a structuralist-inspired analysis. I think many of you might be interested in seeing a simple example of structuralism at work, so I decided to repost my comment here, so you don’t miss it.

Here again is the picture:

Jungyoun's Starbucks-Christmas photo, depicting various symbols and colors of Christmas with a Starbucks cup featured in the center.

And here again is my “structuralist” interpretation of her picture [note this version has been expanded and revised for clarity].

As for Barthes, he would not be surprised that Christ can emerge from a Starbucks ad [this is in reference to Jungyoun’s post], because deep and unpredictable things happen in the play of meaning. I’ll have a go at a simplistic structuralist reading.

Aspects of the color scheme (green and red), the symbolism (doves), and the text (”holiday magic”) clearly signify Christmas, and in particular the social joy and shared experience (”Love”) of Christmas. The Starbucks cup is inserted in a privileged location. Starbucks is for many a social experience, making it basically compatible with the spirit of Christmas. The text “it’s time for holiday magic” has two meanings: first, is “this is the holiday season–enjoy!” in which “it’s time for” scans as “now is the time of” and it clearly references Christian Christmas rituals; second is, “go to Starbucks now!” in which “it’s time for” scans as “let’s go!” and it clearly references Starbucks.

By inserting a Starbucks cup in the middle of the ad and creating this ambiguous message at the bottom, the advertiser is exploiting the relationship between the visual language of Christmas and its deep meanings for Christians, which is an interesting structural problem in itself. Because two cultural signs*–the Starbucks experience and ritual celebrations of the birth of Jesus–have been brought into an unexpected relationship, complex meanings emerge from their juxtaposition. It seems to me that that relationship benefits Starbucks a lot more than Christianity. It inserts a banal commercial product into a shared and, for most, sacred Christmas ritual.

So why doesn’t the ad backfire and anger Christians? I would say that in this billboard the Christmas message has priority over the commercial message. In other words, the ad doesn’t put Starbucks and Christian ritual on the same level. Instead, Starbucks is subordinated to the ritual (in a special place, of course, but nonetheless subordinated). Why do I say this? First, Starbucks gets very little sign space. Second, Stabucks brand identity is green, and the sign is predominantly red. This is convenient, because Christmas colors are green and red, but red is typically dominant. Thus, the visual language of Starbucks (green cup) replaces the subordinate position (green holly or mistletoe) in the visual language of Christmas, thereby associating itself, but submissively, with the broader Christmas meanings/experience. This subordination makes the commercial-sacred message of the sign tolerable, because the commercial/sacred opposition is mapped to a submissive/dominant opposition that we expect when dealing with the sacred and the profane.

Now many students will challenge and say that “there is no way the designer planned all that.” A structuralist would respond, “I don’t know (and neither do you), and I don’t care.” These colors, words, oppositions, associations are all there in the billboard for all to see, whether or not the ad designer intentionally put them there.

* I do not mean to imply any theological claim here about the true nature of any religious figure. What I mean is that inasmuch as Christ is signified (directly or indirectly) by this billboard, however, he is–in this context, and among other things–a cultural sign.

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About jeffreybardzell

Jeffrey Bardzell is an Associate Professor of HCI/Design in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University - Bloomington. His research foci include critical design, interaction criticism, research through design, and digital creativity, which he approaches from a perspective that reflects his background in the humanities.
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One Response to An Interpretation About One of Jungyoun’s Pictures

  1. thismarty says:

    I came to this class thinking that, at least in the hands of a good designer, all designed expressions of meaning were intentional, dliberate and largely predicatable.

    Now, I’m beginning to think that almost the lion’s share of meaning is constructed.

    What worries me then is how much predicatability is there then in designed meaning? Not that misinterpretation and disconnects are new concepts to me as a communication designer, but now I’m wondering if they don’t play a much bigger part in communication than I had previosuly thought. And, if so, what’s the point of all of my carefully researched and executed deisgn solutions?

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