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Meet a Nym—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on May 27, 2008.

Meet a Nym
By Ian Ayres ’86

I recently returned from a cool conference in Athens and I was surprised to see the following poster for Silk Cut cigarettes plastered all around the city.

We see a bone propping open an alligator’s jaw and a bulldog looking on intently with the slogan “Must-have Silk” written below.

The “bone” in the picture is pretty clearly a metaphor for Silk Cut cigarettes (same bluish color pattern as the Silk Cut logo). And the bulldog is a metaphor for a smoker who “must have” his bone, no matter what.

The $64,000 question is: What does the alligator represent?

My beloved father-in-law has a great book on the use of metaphor in science. And one of its powerful takeaway points is that when we use metaphors we need to be careful about unintended inferences that our audience might make.

When Shrek said that, “Ogres are like onions,” he unleashed a multiplicity of unintended meanings.

SHREK: Ogres are like onions.

DONKEY: (Sniffs) They stink?

SHREK: Yes. No!

DONKEY: They make you cry?

SHREK: No!

DONKEY: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting little white hairs.

SHREK: No! Layers! Onions have layers!

With the Silk Cut ad, there is huge danger that viewers will read the alligator as representing cancer. Indeed, I think it would be cool if an anti-smoking society published a parody of the same ad changing the slogan to: “Smoking Can Kill You.”

But this alternative reading is so obvious that I can’t imagine that it was unintended. Smoking in Greece is much more socially acceptable — and Silk Cut may even intend for viewers to think (subconsciously) that it is cool to smoke because you do it knowing its risk; smokers are courageous, risk takers who are willing to try to cheat death.

The ad agency may be trying to take the biggest product defect and respin it as a positive attribute. Sun-screen is for whimps, smoking is for the intrepid.

This isn’t the first time that a Silk Cut ad has caused a stir. The following 1980’s slogan-less ad showing a piece of silk with a slit cut into it was immortalized in David Lodge’s novel Nice Work.

I highly recommend this roman a clef (allegedly about New York Times blogger Stanley Fish). Here’s what two of the main characters have to say about the ad.

Vic Wilcox: (spluttered with outraged derision) You must have a twisted mind to see all that in a perfectly harmless bit of cloth.

Robyn: What’s the point of it, then? …. Why use cloth to advertise cigarettes?

Vic: Well, that’s the name of ‘em, isn’t it? Silk Cut. It’s a picture of the name. Nothing more or less.

Robyn: Suppose they’d used a picture of a roll of silk cut in half — would that do just as well?

Vic: I suppose so. Yes, why not?

Robyn: Because it would look like a penis cut in half, that’s why.

Vic: (forced laugh to cover his embarrassment) Why can’t you people take things at their face value?

Robyn: What people are you referring to?

Vic: Highbrows. Intellectuals. You’re always trying to find hidden meanings in things. Why? A cigarette is a cigarette. A piece of silk is a piece of silk. Why not leave it at that?

Robyn: When they’re represented they acquire additional meanings … Signs are never innocent. Semiotics teaches us that.

Vic: Semi-what?

Robyn: Semiotics. The study of signs.

Vic: It teaches us to have dirty minds, if you ask me.

Robyn: Why do you think the wretched cigarettes were called Silk Cut in the first place?

Vic: I dunno. It’s just a name, as good as any other.

Robyn: “Cut” has something to do with the tobacco, doesn’t it? The way the tobacco leaf is cut. Like “Player’s Navy Cut” — my uncle Walter used to smoke them.

Vic: (warily) Well, what if it does?

Robyn: But silk has nothing to do with tobacco. It’s a metaphor, a metaphor that means something like, “smooth as silk.” Somebody in an advertising agency dreamt up the name “Silk Cut” to suggest a cigarette that wouldn’t give you a sore throat or a hacking cough or lung cancer.

But after a while the public got used to the name, the word “silk” ceased to signify, so they decided to have an advertising campaign give the brand a high profile again. Some bright spark in the agency came up with the idea of rippling silk with a cut in it. The original metaphor is now represented literally. Whether they consciously intended or not doesn’t really matter. It’s a good example of the perpetual sliding of the signified under a signifier, actually.

Vic: (pausing for thought) ….. (triumphantly) Why do women smoke them, then, eh? If smoking Silk Cut is a form of aggravated rape, as you try to make out, how come women smoke ‘em too?

Robyn: Many women are masochistic by temperament. They’ve learnt what’s expected of them in a patriarchal society.

Vic: Ha! …. I might have known you’d have some daft answer.

Robyn: I don’t know why you’re so worked up. It’s not as if you smoke Silk Cut yourself.

Vic: No, I smoke Marlboros. Funnily enough, I smoke them because I like the taste.

Robyn: They’re the ones that have the lone cowboy ads, aren’t they?

Vic: I suppose that makes me a repressed homosexual, does it?

Robyn: No, it’s a very straightforward metonymic message.

Vic: Metawhat?

Robyn: Metonymic. One of the fundamental tools of semiotics is the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. D’you want me to explain it to you?

Vic: It’ll pass the time.

Robyn: Metaphor is a figure of speech based on similarity, whereas metonymy is based on contiguity. In metaphor you substitute something like the thing you mean for the thing itself, whereas in metonymy you substitute some attribute or cause or effect of the thing for the thing itself’.

Vic: I don’t understand a word you’re saying.

Robyn: You told me you work in a factory making moulds, didn’t you? Well, take one of your moulds. The bottom bit is called the drag because it’s dragged across the floor and the top bit is called the cope because it covers the bottom bit.

Vic: I told you that.

Robyn: Yes, I know. What you didn’t tell me was that “drag” is a metonymy and “cope” is a metaphor.

Vic: What difference does it make?

Robyn: It’s just a question of understanding how language works. I thought you were interested in how things work.

Vic: I don’t see what it’s got to do with cigarettes.

Robyn: In the case of the Silk Cut poster, the picture signifies the female body metaphorically: the slit in the silk is like a vagina …

Vic: (flinching) So you say.

Robyn: All holes, hollow places, fissures, and folds represent the female genitals.

Vic: Prove it.

Robyn: Freud proved it, by his successful analysis of dreams …. But the Marlboro ads don’t use any metaphors. That’s probably why you smoke them, actually.

Vic: (suspiciously) What d’you mean?

Robyn: You don’t have any sympathy with the metaphorical way of looking at things. A cigarette is a cigarette as far as you are concerned.

Vic: Right.

Robyn: The Marlboro ad doesn’t disturb that naive faith in the stability of the signified. It establishes a metonymic connection — completely spurious of course, but realistically plausible — between smoking that particular brand and the healthy, heroic, outdoor life of the cowboy. Buy the cigarette and you buy the lifestyle, or the fantasy of living it.

Vic: Rubbish! …. I hate the country and the open air. I’m scared to go into a field with a cow in it.

Robyn: Well then, maybe it’s the solitariness of the cowboy in the ads that appeals to you — self-reliant, independent, very macho.

Vic: (with vigour) I’ve never heard such a lot of balls in all my life.

Robyn: (thoughtfully) Balls — now that’s an interesting expression …

Vic: (with resignation) Oh no!

Robyn: When you say a man “has balls,” approvingly, it’s a metonymy, whereas if you say something is a “lot of balls,” or “a balls-up,” it’s a sort of metaphor. The metonymy attributes value to the testicles whereas the metaphor uses them to degrade something else.

Vic: I can’t take any more of this … D’you mind if I smoke? Just a plain, ordinary cigarette?

This dialogue is not only hilarious, but it teaches the difference between metaphors and metonyms through an analysis of the Silk Cut ad. Reading this passage is what first made me think that semiotics is cool.

Now you’ve metonym.

(Another trip abroad, another post about cigarettes. You might wonder whether I only experience other cultures through their smoking rituals.