NEWS5 February 2024

Keeping up with trends: The role of semiotics in insight

AI Innovations News Trends UK

Infusing AI into semiotics, imaginative futures and cultural differences were some of the themes discussed at last week’s Semiotics and Cultural Insights Conference, held by the Market Research Society. Research Live reports on some key takeaways.

Speech bubble made out of people

Fusing semiotics with AI
Artificial intelligence can be a useful assistant for semioticians, as well as helping individuals expand their sources, according to speakers taking part in a panel discussion.

Discussing how AI tools can aid semiotics practice, Jennifer Simon, associate director and semiotics lead, Crowd DNA, said: “For me, one of the main objectives is highlighting dominant patterns and identifying potential emergent patterns in the data – an AI tool has to give an insight into what visual and textual cues are more prevalent, and also identify ones that are emergent. With the emergent space, what I notice using our AI tool is that through desk research, we maybe see one or two examples, but with the AI tool we see much more. Myself and the team are doing the analysis, but the tool allows us to validate, quantify and solidify.”

AI’s image recognition, while sometimes naïve, can point semioticians in unexpected directions.  Semiotics consultant Bridget Dalton said: Part of the semiotics process is recognition and resemblance. When a machine says this bottle of vodka is a bottle of nail varnish, that is making a semiotic point even if it is in a naïve way. There is something really fascinating in that very algebraic image recognition, even if it is naïve, that starts to shift things around in terms of semiotic practice.

“As semioticians, we can have our favourite scope to go to. When you have an online scope and your coverage can be that broad, it means you can still have your place to go but it also means there’s a robust neutrality to the scope of data that you’re going to use as your corpus, which I think is an interesting and credible way to allow AI to assist.”

Grace Flavin, freelance cultural analyst and semiotician, highlighted how AI could risk undermining serendipitous discovery. “When I’m working, I find things I didn’t expect to find and from that I start researching something else so I am definitely sceptical about using AI because of the way it might eliminate that moment of chance,” said Flavin.

However, Flavin said AI is useful for recommending articles and sources that an individual may not otherwise “expect to find”. She added: “I’m worried about it taking me in a direction and eliminating that moment of chance and surprise but as someone who works alone as a freelancer, you can throw ideas to it – it’s not as fun as sitting round a table with a group of people but you can dump thoughts into it.”

New future narratives
Working with Space Doctors, Lego has been experimenting with using imaginative techniques as part of its foresight work.

Cato Hunt, managing director at Space Doctors, said: “There are two ways to understand the future – projective or imagined. Projective is very familiar in the world of foresight, and imaginative is based on what we have the capacity to imagine. We need both perspectives, but as an industry we’re currently much more focused on the projective.”

Roberta Graham, director at Space Doctors, explained: “The thing about the emergent is that it is a projected future from where we are, but it is only telling us half the story because when we use today as a jumping off point for the future, it is still connected to today’s reality. We should be asking what future we can't imagine – a future with different constraints and norms; a future that asks us to create or imagine the future we’d like instead.”

The researchers pointed to a recent scientific theory that mushrooms communicate with each other as an example of a signal. Imaginative futures work involves suspending disbelief and inhabiting a context where such things feel real, explained Hunt. She added: “This is liberating because it can overcome the ‘stuckness’ that many of us feel in our working lives. The playfulness of this approach is something clients respond to.”

Asking stakeholders to step out of the day-to-day and imagine possible different futures is “not in everyone’s comfort zones”, said Chris Illsley, global insights manager at The Lego Group. He said: “Not everyone in Lego – or any organisation – needs to be a futurist, but this process of stepping out and helping stakeholders leave their everyday jobs for a moment to help them imagine futures, is vital to creativity.

“When a business understands that speculative work is neither a crystal ball or an algorithmic certainty, but a creative process, that’s when everyone gets excited and also can relax a little.”

Discussing a recent project involving semiotic speculation and qualitative research with children to explore future context scenarios, Roberta Graham said: “By using techniques to capture the projective and imaginative, we were able to expand the futures that adults can predict and that kids can imagine.”

Illsley said: “Brands that have the privilege to shape culture also have the responsibility to do that for good. What we really wanted was a futures approach that didn’t just tell us what was likely to happen, but also what could happen and how we could be part of that and help to shape culture itself.”

Tackling stigma
Sign Salad and UK gambling charity GambleAware discussed a project to address stigma in gambling harms and the development of a language guide to improve how the charity and external parties discussed the issue. The project examined how stigmatised people were represented in culture, specifically those experiencing gambling harms, and carried out cultural analysis looking at news media, using artificial intelligence and analysing online conversations.

Aaron Chan, semiotician at Sign Salad, said that one example of language that stigmatised people was the use of ‘battle metaphors’, where someone is described as facing a ‘struggle’, which suggests personal and physical strain to defeat an issue, and therefore suggests failure to overcome gambling harms can be perceived as a personal weakness. The research suggested using a ‘journey metaphor’, which focuses on recovery and getting one’s life back on track, instead. “The journey metaphor is much less judgmental and much more sympathetic towards those experience challenges,” Chan added.

Other examples of addressing stigma in the use of language were removing appeals to act responsibly, which have paternalistic overtones that could create a sense of isolation, with peer-to-peer language more effective at meeting people on the same level and suggesting support, not judgement. Words such as ‘addict’, ‘compulsive’, ‘vicious cycle’ or ‘lost cause’ all should be replaced with more empowering language to help people feel they can be in control of their lives.

Dan Riley, research lead for advertising and brand at GambleAware, said that “the language guide has been an integral part of our stigma reduction activities across the organisation”. Further research and actions have included engagement sessions with external organisations, internal training with staff, creating a media professionals guide, a PR campaign and work with Royal College of GPs to help medical professionals avoid stigma-inducing language.

A question of culture
Two sessions touched on cultural differences in communication. Lucid and The Answer worked with beauty company Shiseido to understand how the Japanese firm could approach the UK market, and the differences that exist between the UK and other markets, such as Japan, the US and the rest of Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea). The results led to changes in how Shiseido marketed its products in the UK.

Dr Nick Gadsby, founder and principal at The Answer, said: “Luxury and ‘premiumness’ need to be expressed in a very different way in the UK versus Japan and Emea. Here, acquired luxury has much more power, status and distinction compared with Japan and Emea. The UK is also more individualistic than Japan and Emea – they want to know what it will do for me, as an individual.”

Maddy Morton, founder and chief executive at Lucid, added that the team also sought to change market research culture by breaking down barriers between qualitative research and semiotics, dropping the idea that only semioticians could do the semiotics while qual researchers only did the qualitative research. “We got more out of this project, I believe, because we both contributed to both,” Morton explained. “That made a real difference to how we were able to find the insights that were required to find a way forward.”

In a separate session, Oliver Lewis, research director at Convosphere, said that using linguists alongside language detection tools helped spot an emerging language in social media usage in Kenya. While the technology identified Swahili and English as the primary languages on Kenyan social media, linguists helped to spot a hybrid language drawing on elements of the two, which could be used by brands to tailor their content more effectively.

“Culture is changing at a stupendous rate, and we need to use the technology available to us to identify the smaller shifts that are occurring,” Lewis added.