Thinking in terms of visual systems of communication, I had been researching the topic of sociocultural forms of iconography and intracultural ways we communicate our values through signs and symbols.
Web 2.0 technology and social media have allowed for people in different continents to chat online, share photos, and even read about one another’s daily life through blog posts. The trend is that we are increasingly growing into a global society; yet, each people group still maintain their own set of values and situated codes of conduct in regard to communication, interaction, and decorum.
After some further thought and online surfing, I ended up converging my interests of intracultural practices and values, as expressed through iconographic forms. Eventually, I stumbled into the practice of manners. I was curious to see how different cultures express and convey the visual semantics of manners—because they encompass verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and practice.
For example, if I was in Japan eating a meal with chopsticks, I might not be aware of some of social taboos when using the utensils. It is possible that I might unintentionally offend someone. So how would someone in Japan embody complex, cultural nuances in terms of a universal, visual iconic code? (Well, to be honest I am still looking for such a chart on chopsticks, however, I did come across this one. Which spells it out in English, and has a touch of humor.)
But I was intrigued when my search led to me discover Japan’s Smoking Manners for Adults Ad Campaign.
In order to fully appreciate the nuances of the smoking manners ads, and why they are effective, it helps to understand Japanese culture. The Japanese are perhaps some of the most polite people in the world. Their culture highly values honor. For example, if you were walking to a location and you asked someone for directions, they may even offer to accompany you to your destination.
The goal of the smoking manners campaign was to revamp the image, yet not discourage the practice. Japan Tobacco International commissioned a series of 70 public service announcement style advertisements, in the form of subway placards, postcards, and drink coasters, all designed in a green-on-white, minimalist style format.
It is fascinating to see how the semantics of the visual icons in the ads are reflective of the intracultural nuances of the Japanese, and how semiotic mechanics work to translate the message through the graphics and text.
Let’s explore the ads:
This ad creates a strong emotional impact through implying that we could inflict a horrific act on a child, by unintentionally searing his eye, or burning her face–with the butt of our cigarette. We see the drawn line between the adult’s hand and the child’s face, but the line does not connect–the message is clear, keep your distance and hold it high.(I am not sure what the helicopter is meant to convey, but when I saw it I thought of an emergency, the government, or something medically related.)
To understand the semantic drive of this ad, it helps to know that the Japanese are private people–not like Americans who are casual and can be touchy-feeling even on a first-time meeting. So, instead of insinuating that the smoker is “rude” for smoking, rather it implies that the smoker is practicing respect, trying to give the other person “space,” as is the cultural practice of honor. However, we see that simply moving away slightly isn’t enough. The smoker must take his awareness to the next level. In this ad, I especially love the graphic over the dog walker’s head, implying alarm.
In Japan, people highly value harmony and synchronicity. Again, they embrace respect and honor. Someone that likes to be individualistic and go against the flow would be characterized as having an egocentric attitude–which would cause disgust in the Japanese culture. This ad depicts the travel of the cigarette smoke from the smoker to the other person, thus creating a sense of alarm. The semiotic message is that each smoker is equal here, therefore both smokers are equally at fault. This falls in line with the Japanese value system that no one should walk in hubris, thinking he is better than another.
In his book on understanding semiotics, This Mean This, This Means That, Sean Hall asserts, “…we must show how one thing means another. The concepts that will help us explain this will include signifier and signified, sign, icon, index, and symbol. These are the basic building blocks to meaning-making. Second, we must describe the sort of journey that a message may take as it travels from sender to receiver” (8).
Through deconstructing the ads in the Japan Tobacco International’s smoking manners campaign, we can see how the use of visual icons are employed, which embody an intracultural value system, and we understand how semiotics play out in the every day world.
On a final note, as far as any governmental action taken with regards to smoking practices, in 2007 the city of Osaka prohibited smoking anywhere that was not a designated smoking area. Individuals in violation of this law are subject to a fine of 1,000 yen.
On the city’s website, they made this statement:
“In public spaces, where large numbers of people congregate and pass through, such as streets, parks, and squares, no matter how much care smokers pay to people nearby, they burning cigarettes could still accidentally hit the clothes or body of someone passing by, or they could subject others to second-hand smoke. In particular, when smoking while walking, the position of the smoker’s hand is at the same height as that of a children’s face, a potentially dangerous situation. If someone tosses a cigarette butt onto the ground, it is littering. A carelessly ignored cigarette discarded while still alit might cause a fire. To prevent these types of problems and help citizens feel reassured, and ensure a comfortable living environment, the City of Osaka put into effect the City of Osaka Ordinance for Preventing Smoking in the Streets in April 2007.”