Reading this ad, as my species would

According to Deacon’s Symbolic Species “symbolic reference derives from combinatorial possibilities and impossibilities and therefore depend on combinations to…make use of it”. Thus, in order to do an analysis on a modern media artifact as full of meaning-making symbols, we must conduct a combinatorial analysis of said artifact.

I found a public service announcement (PSA) that can serve as the quintessential example of our symbolic faculties being compelled.

Here it is:

Here is my combinatorial analysis of this PSA:

I first identify the cacophony of symbols that arrest the visual, audio, textual, and discursive intuitions of our “Symbolic Species”:

Genre: PSA, which is publicly funded, didactic in nature, short, televisual, and has the aim of changing behavior for the “public good”.

Audio: The background music is an up-tempo, classical, symphony that is focused on a commanding trumpet beat. This is akin to the music usually used in blockbuster adventure movies in scenes where the protagonist/hero is in the middle of an epic battle or going through obstacles.

Identity words: The constant use of ‘you’ by ‘Nicki’, the woman dressed as snuff, refers to the baseball player she is nagging. Her use of ‘me’ and ‘I’ though she is snuff establishes the metaphor. The use of ‘you’ by the voice-over refers to the spectator, establishing a personal message.

Metaphors: The Nicki character is a woman dressed as snuff and nagging the man dressed in baseball gear as if she were his annoying and persistent ex-lover or ex-girlfriend that he is trying to avoid and ignore with all his might. Her name ‘Nicki’ is probably a personification of Nicotine, an addictive substance found in smokeless tobacco. Her merits that she uses to plead for him to come back to her are symptoms of snuff-use but conveyed in the language of an ex-lover’s platitudes: ‘We’d always be together’, ‘we have a commitment’ regarding the addictiveness of snuff; ‘You’ll never get through the game without your little Nicki’ regarding the reliance on snuff users have; ‘If you ignore me, I’ll play mind games with you’ regarding the withdrawal mental symptoms of quitting smokeless tobacco; and ‘Make your heart pump’ regarding the high from snuff.

Characters: There are two characters, a male and a female, who seem to have had a history of an intimate relationship that has recently been severed. The man is dressed for playing baseball and seems intent in going to his game. He never utters a word or attempts to utter one, establishing the fact that he is trying to ignore the female and that she is not an ex-lover, but an ex-addiction: snuff, which is an inanimate object. However, the woman that seems to be his ex-girlfriend intercepts him alone on the baseball field as he parks there and she starts nagging him trying in vain to get his attention. This woman’s name is Nicki (see metaphors). She is also dressed up as a giant, green, snuff can labeled as ‘Snuff: Smokeless Tobacco’ akin to a mascot costume common to American sports events. Because she cannot be identified by a human face, she becomes snuff and it is thus understood that she is not an ex-lover but snuff itself, which is compared to a nagging ex-lover by the PSA. The word ‘nagging’ is a very apt word to use in order to describe Nicki’s voice- it is incredibly high-pitched, nasal, whiny, and she speaks very quickly and pleadingly.

Voiceover:  In contradiction to the only other voice heard in the PSA (Nicki’s), the voiceover is a male one with a very low, masculine, pitch and a confident, self-assured tone as he speaks with conviction and omnipresence in a slower, more rhythmic cadence compared to Nicki’s nagging. The voiceover even speaks above Nicki’s nagging at one point towards the latter half of the PSA in order so that the audience hears the message that the clear voiceover is saying (and to hear the point of the PSA) but with Nicki’s voice dimmed in the background as nagging gibberish that is rendered incoherent because of the voiceover, but present nonetheless as a slight annoyance.

Facial expressions: The only facial expressions we see is that of the character that never speaks: the baseball player. At first, when Nicki starts to pester him, his expression is one of a forced ambivalence- stone-faced and fixed. But as she is pestering him even more and he constantly attempts to dodge her, his brows furrow in frustration and his lips curl upward on one side in a grin of held-back aggravation as his face paints a picture of tension but resolution (to not give in to Nicki).

Image/text contradiction: Never is there any real form of a woman or snuff at face value shown.

When we combine our symbolic resources i.e. language, audio, visual, etc., we end up with a media artifact that is laden with referential meaning making that leads to more referential meaning making in such a way that Deacon would posit. What do these previously mentioned symbols refer to in the PSA?:

Woman/addiction/unhealthy vs. Man/will-power/health: Why is snuff represented as a stereotypically annoying ex-girlfriend? There is the classic stereotype of women nagging men but more telling is the stereotype that women are temptresses and the weaknesses of men. Not only does this PSA use the seductress stereotype for the woman in the PSA, but the woman is also portraying an inanimate object that is purely consumed for pleasure and for a temporary high that leads to the downfall of men. When watching this PSA, everything about Nicki is personified and very human except of course for the outlandish and flamboyant mascot-like costume that is supposed to convey to the audience that she is a metaphor for snuff, which is scientifically founded to be unhealthful and highly addictive. The distinction between what is snuff and what is woman is blurred. This is because the seductress is a woman already known by the audience to be careful of, for although she is tempting with her abilities to make your ‘heart pump’, she is inevitably bad for you. Therefore, this feeling of wariness for the seductress is easily transferred to smokeless tobacco. Snuff too is attractive but is also unhealthy to consume. The baseball player is a male stereotype of athletic prowess as he is on his way to a sports event. He also fulfills the stereotype of male reservation and assuredness, as he is the calmer, quieter one in the relationship but also the tougher one as he plays sports and ignores the nagging with stride, dignity, and power of will.


Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.