Semiotics in design: the return of the cyborgs

With cold and flu season under way, it’s instructive to see how hard the decongestant brands have made it for themselves to stand out on the fixture. A classic case of a ‘stuck’ category where just about every brand is focused on the same aspect of the story – the mode of action – and then communicating it in exactly the same way. 

The generic message is ‘this works on sinuses’ and if your sinuses are more blocked than Donald Trump’s tweets that’s a message with relevance.  So far, so good. 

But is it not a bit strange that the entire category has decided that this benefit can only be communicated by a cyborg with coloured sinuses? Surely there is another way of telling this story?

As semioticians, we are very interested in cyborgs.  Have you noticed that real people NEVER appear on OTC packs? Dealing with real bodies and real ailments is something we shy away from. The more that products and categories deal with ‘imperfection’, the more perfected the codes of the pack. Think about toothpaste or skincare – not too much flat muted colour or unfinished card, let alone a real wrinkle or tooth. Instead, glossy whites, high tech silvers and premium finishes and effects

The elimination of imperfection is the core promise of the OTC category. And the cyborg is the perfected being: part human, part robot, both biological and artificial. 

Within the world of the cyborgs, note how the extra strength products have stronger, more scary looking cyborgs. Everyday offers like Sudafed are less Terminator, more C-3PO

Crucially, it is the creation of science, and the codes of science fiction and hard science have always been part of the dominant coding of OTC.  There is plenty else to encode our onward charge to the future: the rocket trails, star bursts and eclipses dotted across the packs. Even now, nothing quite captures the positive spirit of science more than the space race and the imagery of exploration

But surely the real question is why brand teams feel they can’t move away from looking like their competitors. A stuck category like this is ripe for disruption, waiting for a new insight or new way of communicating that key benefit. Consumers will always prefer what they know if you stick to classic qual. But once that new, iconic look appears it’s likely to leave the cyborgs looking a bit rusty