Rearranging signifiers and signifieds

Signs are not new to our culture. What has changed is the density of signs in our environment and the degree to which self-interested parties rearrange the relationships between signifer and signified.

Until this century signs were relatively stable. But let's not confuse stability and continuity with unchanging. The meanings of signs are never fixed in concrete. Still, the rate of change has dramatically accelerated with the development of the electronic mass media. The thing about advertising is that it operates by splitting signifier and signified so that it can recombine a signifier from one meaning system with a signified from another. This is how a distinctive -- and different -- new sign can be concocted for a brand product.

If one watches television advertising, one of the most glaring examples of rearranged signifiers these days has to do with how advertisers treat the "Blues" as a signifier (a musical sound/style) which they associate with beer, soft drinks, gasoline, etc. In order to do this they generally remove the "blues" from its former signifieds of "poor Black music" to a new signified of "authenticity" or "hip new jeans." When signifiers can be made to take on so many various meanings, they are known as floating signifiers.

In advertising, the signifier of the yellow swallowtail butterfly has been made to serve various corporate commodity interests. This is a reminder that a signifier may have many signifieds.

Here is another example of how signifiers can be split from signifieds and pressed into new culture service. In this example we see two different advertising uses of the image of a "butterfly." In the first ad, the butterfly is pressed into service as the bearer of the meaning -- the signified -- of a cigarette named Benson & Hedges (you can barely see the Benson & Hedges name written across the wings?). Butterfly wings become the bearer of this brand's meaning and identity. The second butterfly scene is from a tv ad for Georgia Pacific, a large corporate timber and paper producer. Here the butterfly is intended to testify to the environmental concerns of Georgia Pacific. Excuse the pun, but the butterfly has become a floating signifier. Its meanings are only barely concerned with its original referent - a flying insect .