Kicking the Can by Creating Meaning with Symbols

In week four, I found a public service announcement (PSA) that can serve as the quintessential example of our symbolic faculties being compelled in the way that reinforced Deacon’s concept of the we as symbolic species. This week however, I find the same PSA to be just as useful as an example to deconstruct a media artifact in such a way that would pinpoint de Saussure’s and Peirce’s concepts of semiotics. According to de Saussure, language as a product of society is a set of signs that find meaning because of a consensus on the connection between the signifier (what represents) and the the signified (what is being represented). This meaning-making through signs is further conceptualized by Peirce as he distinguishes three types of signs. The icon signifies through imitating and resembling the signified e.g. the photograph. The index signifies through indicating and in relation to the signified i.e. a map indicates a place in the world, and a clock indicates the time of day. Finally, the symbol signifies through denotation and is connected to the signified only through a mind that associates the signifier to the signified e.g. a wedding ring.

The PSA in question is called Kicking the Can. Using the medium of television, this PSA is obviously iconic as it does resemble what it wants to resemble: A man being harassed by snuff. The PSA is also highly indexical in that it is a genre that indicates a didactic nature and public good. But it is only through this PSA’s symbolism that we really get to the insightful meaning-making and we discover that almost everything about the PSA is symbolic and contributes to the complete meaning of the PSA. The woman dressed in snuff is symbolic of snuff itself and the way she nags the man is symbolic of how snuff is bad for one’s health and livelihood. Without this denotation, the whole point and meaning of the PSA would not be taken or understood. And we see that all the symbols in this PSA work together to create this meaning.

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. The way the audio dialogue uses audio words is symbolic as well. ‘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 most blatant symbol is the Nicki character who 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. 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. 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 symbols, or signifiers, that are the sources of meaning-making as de Saussure and Peirce would posit- all that create the meaning in this PSA that snuff is bad.