Floating Signifiers

From Stuart Elliot’s email-only column today

A Reader Writes: In asking you a question recently about the music in an AT&T commercial, I mentioned a college paper I wrote about “floating signifiers in popular culture,” and in answering me you asked what that was.

This is probably more information that you (or your readers) want to know, but the concept of “floating signifiers” comes out of post-modernist cultural criticism building on the language of semiotics.

Signs and symbols tend to communicate specific meanings to those who use them. That which is signified is somehow related to one or more signifiers. For example, the American flag is a signifier of both the nation and of patriotism to that nation. Logos are designed and created to become signifiers for specific companies or products, and can eventually become signifiers for entire life styles.

Floating signifiers are no longer attached to their original meanings. Either through the passage of time and changing values or intentional manipulation, they become attached to new, totally unrelated meanings. The song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was effectively used by the advertising world to shift the meaning of the “grapevine” from the gossip mill spreading rumors of infidelity, which the song lyrics originally signified, back to a literal grapevine, the source of all those dancing California raisins. They successfully created a floating signifier.

In the case of Toyota using the music from the sea chantey “A Golden Boy Again” in a commercial about football, Toyota was attempting to shift what they thought was a football signifier to their vehicles – not knowing that the song had not been successfully separated from its sea-chantey origins.

That left many viewers wondering why an auto maker would associate itself with “drunken sailors.” In this instance, the advertising world was not successful in creating a floating signifier because the song was too strongly attached to its original meaning.

A nice little essay about meaning and media and culture!


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