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Semiotics and Ethnic Marketing
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When I’m not looking up the ethnicities of names, I’m applying linguistic theory to names. No, not usually. But no, I’m not kidding. With my thesis advisor as co-author, I’m shortening my undergraduate thesis about the meaning of a toponym (place name) into an article for publication in a geography journal. One reviewer said I was missing a section on semiotics. Enter a week of linguistic theory punctuated by ethnic name research.

Crash course in semiotics: Ferdinand de Saussure (famous Swiss linguist) says a sign is the unification of two distinct pieces: The signifier is the form (sounds or letters) and the signified is the concept represented. He is writing about words, not specifically names. D-O-G is different from that furry thing that plays fetch, but together they are a sign, which has meaning in the context of the English language. The sign, however, is not static, but manifests itself differently with each signified: a golden retriever, a stuffed snoopy, etc. If you take this beyond the realm of language (as the French social and literary critic Roland Barthes does) that same sign can also be “a person regarded as contemptible” or “a person regarded as unattractive or uninteresting.” These meanings stem not from a linguistic context, but from a societal context. It gets way more complicated, but I think that’s plenty for the casual blog-reader.

Now I try to apply this to ethnic marketing:

  1. I study signifiers. For example, I look at H-E-R-N-A-N-D-E-Z and determine that it is Hispanic. I look at just the form, the letters. I deal with signifiers.
  2. Our clients care about signs. They want/have lists of individuals. Real person + name on list = sign. To those doing the marketing, unification of the person and the ethnic name is important.
  3. Someone named Hernandez can be viewed differently in different societal contexts. The ethnic name has connotations that are both positive (diversity) and negative (racism). We must always be aware, when dealing with ethnic names, how they are being used.

I like the simplicity of a name and where it comes from. But I constantly remind myself that when this research is used, there are real people behind the names. People with purchasing power, and customs connected to various cultures. Based on my work with these signifiers, we can step outside the American mind frame into the land of semiotics and the ethnic consumer.

Too theoretical? Perhaps. But applying linguistic theory to this line of business was an interesting exercise for my brain.

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