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Symbolism of Popular Culture


“There are two possible approaches to the problems and disturbances which life presents. We can see them as symptomatic deviations from the desired normalcy of 'what things should be like,' caused by some wrongness and hence the expressions of trouble or illness. We can on the other hand suspect that the known facts may attempt to point further and deeper, to a development still called for and a meaningfulness so far unrealized. Only then do we think or live not merely symtomatically but also symbolically. The realization of that meaning which has so far been missed might then point to a cure.”

Edward Whitmont
The Symbolic Quest

The nexus of this investigation started with a relatively simple question about modern products. We wondered why a relative few garner enormous success while the vast majority of others are relegated to the growing heap of product failures. Why do a few rise out of the mass of consumer culture to become such things as best-sellers, blockbuster films, top of the chart songs and top selling toys?

When a successful product appears, the marketing influenced tendency is to isolate it and show how it has "carved a niche" for itself in the marketplace by being unique. The modern marketing mantra is centered around the word "differentiation" or separating one's product from other products. Traditional marketing thought is that products which are unique are the successful ones, the ones that break away from the pack.

But the real truth of successful groundbreaking "hits" and "blockbusters" might be in connection rather than separation. In this sense, our most successful products very well may be those that possess the greatest connection to the overall macro-patterns of culture, the ones that don't fight these patterns but rather flow with them. As someone once said, "It is useless to tell a river to stop running; the best thing is to learn how to swim in the direction it is flowing."

For example, suppose a macro-pattern defined by film genre and a sequence progression in this pattern from introverted, feminine genres such as horror films to extraverted, masculine genres such as westerns. Given this scenario, the chances of a great western film becoming successful in a dominant horror context might be less likely than a mediocre horror film.

Questions like this led us to speculate if there might be other factors at work outside of the conscious efforts of sophisticated Madison Avenue advertising firms to make products different from the rest. Might the most successful products be so not because they stood out but rather because they fit into the times. Perhaps our most successful products made connections rather than cut connections. We wondered if these connections might be somewhat unconscious ones to vague (but real) things like the "spirit of the times" or the "zeitgeist" of the period.

This question proved very provocative and led in new directions away from traditional thinking about marketing. Viewing successful products became a matter of placing it in a context rather than staring at it alone. But apart from being provocative, it also seemed to define the hidden context behind much of modern advertising and marketing. One says hidden because it is something never outwardly stated to the consumers. However, it seemed to be at the heart of modern brands.

In 1957, Vance Packard wrote a groundbreaking book called The Hidden Persuaders. It was one of the first books to discuss symbolism in advertising and products. Back in those years, symbolism was called "subliminal persuasion" probably with a tip of the hat to the dominating Freudian psychology of the times.

Today, Packard observes the incredible evolution of product symbolism noting that ads for watches "have nothing to do with watches, for shoes that scarcely mention shoes. It used to be the brand identified the product. In today's advertising the brand is the product." As Packard remarks, modern advertising has an almost total obsession with images and feelings and an almost total lack of any concrete claims about the product and why anyone should buy it. "I'm puzzled, he says. "Commercials seem totally unrelated to selling any product at all." And, as J.Walter Thompson's Jeff DeJoseph adds, "We are just trying to convey a sensory impression of the brand and we're out of there."

In asking these questions, our experience from a career in advertising and marketing coincided with our interest and research in symbolism. We wondered if there might be new ways for understanding symbols and symbolism apart from the common ones associated with dream interpretation and psychotherapy. Might symbols appear in popular culture as leading products rather than images in dreams. Is popular culture, in effect, a collective "day" dream? Are the most successful products really external symbols of internal psychology?

Our speculations certainly seemed confirmed in a general manner by the tremendous swing towards symbolism in modern advertising. But again, the swing seemed a conscious one and we wondered if there were unconscious factors behind it. In other words, do our most successful products of popular culture appear based on unconscious laws of symbolism beyond conscious marketing and advertising efforts, as good as they might be?

Seeing symbols within culture may help revitalize an ancient science and place it into a modern perspective. It could help make the study of symbolism a "science of the day" rather than a "metaphysics of the night." Modern symbols might then be seen in such products of popular culture as films, television programs, music, celebrities, toys and books. The elusive "zeitgeist" or "spirit of the times" might have a direct relationship to dominant media forms and technologies. Emerging technologies such as the internet might provide a modern symbol for the "zeitgeist" of the collective unconscious.

This book is an investigation of these ideas and questions. It examines the archetypal cycles and patterns which form the "context" of the "zeitgeist" and simultaneously appear in the products, or "content" of modern culture. Jung's late theory of synchronicity may have application far beyond the isolated personal instances of ESP and suggest broad correspondences between consumer culture and the collective "spirit of the times." If there is a connection between personal inner states and outward events, there might also be a connection between collective inner states and cultural products and events.

Despite a non-linear method of writing this book (described in the last section of this introduction), there is an ordered presentation to our ideas. Section I, The Trance of Content, discusses the key problem of our modern world and the current understanding of symbolism. Section II, The Hidden Context Of Communication, discusses types of symbols and their cultural evolution from natural objects and religious artifacts to modern products of popular culture. Section III, The Paradox of the Cross, discusses the dynamics of symbolism shown in the core concepts of duality, sequence and synchronicity. Finally, Section IV, Symbolism of Popular Culture, relates the symbols of Section II with the dynamics of Section III and shows how popular culture is controlled by the dynamics of symbolism.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim