Copying, Stealing, Borrowing, Blending (Introduction to Semiotics Part 9)

Jun 16 2012

“Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”  - Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (see above) is considered a seminal work of art leading to modernism and cubism (Picasso always referred to a ‘brothel’ rather than the more polite ‘young ladies’). The work borrows ideas from Cezanne, Gauguin, El Greco , Spanish art, Iberian sculpture and African tribal masks and blends them in a unique and provocative  way (for 1907) to create a masterpiece.

Great ideas are always ‘blends’ of existing ideas, and arguably the basis of our thinking is in associative memory and metaphor, which is essentially about ‘mixing it up’ (or as Steve Jobs put it, “Creativity is just connecting things”). Cognitive psychologists call this ‘conceptual blending‘ and semioticians call it ‘intertextuality‘. I’ll call it blending to keep it simple.

One of the TV shows which has made me laugh more than most over the past years is South Park, which each episode takes a ‘theme’ or idea from elsewhere and then plays with that idea within the context and characters of the four central characters. For example, in the episode ‘Insheeption‘ the characters and plot of Inception are blended with those of South Park. This is intertextuality or the ‘blending’ of texts (I recommend this episode to anyone who wants a taste of South Park). Blending can be through inference, implication, suggestion or more direct association.

It’s all about analogy

Metaphor and metonymy (read more here) are simple ways of mapping meanings across domain(s). In metaphor, there are typically two domains, a source and a target. In a metaphor such as ‘people are animals’ (ie John is a pig), animals and people constitute two separate domains of ideas, and the metaphor allows us to mentally blend these together. Thus, the form of a metaphor is ‘x is a y’ (e.g., people are animals) while metonymy is simpler in that it only uses one domain of ideas (x stands for y, e.g., people are faces).

Intertextuality in semiotics and conceptual blending in cognitive psychology usually involve more complicated mappings of ideas which involve whole systems of ideas and not just single attributes (remember how meanings are structured). For example, when I say ‘his plan backfired on him’ I am taking two different sets of ideas and mapping them into a new domain. One set of ideas involves a hunter preparing his equipment, then stalking an animal and finally firing only to experience the bullet coming out of the gun backwards and threatening the hunter. Another set of ideas involves someone who has an intention and carefully plans what to do and then carries out the plan only to find that it fails and there are unintended consequences (perhaps the reverse of what was expected). The final blended space of ‘his plan backfired on him’ is somewhere in between these in a third space of ideas.

Advertising is constantly blending category values with ideas from contemporary culture. The beer category is a great example of this, and with a great published paper on the range of themes (codes) used in advertising around the world (see ‘Deciding competitive propositions’ referenced below). Although the paper is more than ten years old, in looking at recent beer advertising across Asian markets I believe the main (dominant) themes are still relevant. In the paper, Michael Harvey and Malcolm Evans found that themes of cosmopolitan lifestyle, alternative humour and tribal totems were common across many markets and you only have to look at current TV or print advertising of beer to see that these themes are still playing out.

Modern city life Self-deprecating humour Bonding focal points
Western clothing & lifestyle Irony, cynicism Workplace & after work
Beautiful people Parody Nation & icons
New generation (developed markets) Surreal inversions of reality Looking alike
Alternative comedians Regional identity
Send up of advertising National / regional beer

Cosmopolitan lifestyle?

surreal inversion of reality?

Categories and brands regularly blend ideas from each other too …

Good advertising and creative thinking are all about how we blend ideas. Sometimes this is copying, sometimes stealing, sometimes borrowing, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle but the results are always a blend of multiple ideas.

Creative thinking is all about blending.


Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1981)

The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities by Gilles Fauconnier & Mark Turner (2002)

The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice by Marcel Danesi (2007)

Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies and Brand Value by Laura R. Oswald (2012)

“Decoding competitive propositions: A semiotic alternative to traditional advertising research” by Michael Harvey & Malcolm Evans in International Journal of Market Research, Vol 43, Quarter 2, 171-187

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