Messages and Messiahs

Examining stories, symbols, and narratives of mass communication.

Every human being takes pride in the fact that he or she is different. Yet, in branding and communications design, we look for what is similar in many people; the one common denominator of a geographic population of a type that we can attract. By strategically drawing on perhaps even a small but common strain, mythologies can be formed to bring the force of people together. In history, symbols and their connected stories have been crucial in leaders getting across their message. Successful leaders aim to find enduring symbols.

Still from currently popular Netflix series ‘Sacred Games’ using Mandala as the base of their branding
Source: Vimeo

How old is the story?

Every human being takes pride in the fact that he or she is different. Yet, in branding and communications design, we look for what is similar in many people; the one common denominator of a geographic population of a type that we can attract. By strategically drawing on perhaps even a small but common strain, mythologies can be formed to bring the force of people together. In history, symbols and their connected stories have been crucial in leaders getting across their message. Successful leaders aim to find enduring symbols.

(L) Ashoka’s Edict (R) Buddha statue in Afghanistan before it was destroyed in 2001
(L) Source: Wikipedia, (R) Khan Academy

This story of mass communication is older than we think. In India, we can trace it back to Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire (3rd century BCE) whose edicts — inscriptions of codes of conduct — were spread across this land, as far as Afghanistan, accounting for the spread of Buddhism way beyond Indian soil. Buddhas were sculpted out of rock in Bamiyan, their dates traced back to the 3rd and 6th centuries CE. These symbols in the landscape were threats to the Taliban who destroyed two giant statues in 2001 with dynamite. In India, the Ashoka crest of lions is our State Emblem today. Stories of communication travel across centuries to make an impact, in a different context altogether!

How do symbols create long-lasting associations?

As the pioneering guru of modern communications, Dale Carnegie said, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”

A symbol by itself is not long-lasting. But the consistent application of symbols reinforces the meaning and creates an association with the symbol, especially when attached to a mood, feeling, or emotion. If we hear the National Anthem playing, we get a sense of patriotism, pride combined with nostalgia. The repetitive use of symbols in the public domain starts to create patterns that subconsciously attract the audience to a specific type of emotion. The emotive factor plays over the reasoning factor, creating a mass appeal and therefore mass following. We start to feel comfortable with the pattern, and we question less, its motives.

(L) Jawaharlal Nehru with a rose and his trademark cap
(R) Narendra Modi with festive headwear
(L) Source: Getty Images, (R) Hindustan Times

Nehru’s style of cap became his trademark and it came to be called the Nehruvian cap. He wore a red rose on his jacket; these are symbols we associate with Nehru. Today Prime Minister Modi responds to dynamic branding — the headdress stays constant, but what it is, is different depending on the occasion. We expect to see PM Modi in interesting headgear appropriate to every function he attends. We start to associate innovation and flamboyance with Modi. When the ceremony to swear in the new ministers of the Government is conducted with grandeur versus austerity, we feel pride. At every point, communication methods connect to the emotive chords of people, bringing in the Modi factor.

Symbols can carry different messages. (L) Indian Swastika is a sacred symbol for Hindus
(R) The Nazi Swastika which has connotations of oppression and genocide
(L) Source: ArtnIndia, (R) Wikimedia

Do symbols and communication graphics lose their power?
Symbols, like art, are a reflection of our times. For instance, today’s youth would feel dispassionate about the charka, which during the Quit India Movement raised fervor in Indians. For many, the Swastika has become a symbol of hatred and fear, especially for Jewish people, In India, the symbol continues to be auspicious, especially for Hindus. If the symbol is relevant and contextual to what is happening in society and culture today, it still retains its power. The cross, a symbol of Christianity and the Auhm associated with Hinduism has continued to have sacred meanings for communities over centuries.

Hieroglyphics from a ancient panel in Egypt
Source: Pixabay

Symbols get outmoded as well, but the cycle of history can bring old forms to be reborn as new ones. Today’s emojis — smileys, upside-downs, cars, and umbrellas — can trace back to hieroglyphics, a form of communication in ancient Egypt. Beyond that, emojis perform a kind of function, which until now symbols performed only indirectly: Making an emotional connect.

Capturing the mood of the nation
Historically, two diametrically opposite movements — the Holocaust in Germany and Europe versus the Struggle for Independence in India, one inspiring fear and the other inspiring freedom — used symbols and communications systematically. Through many forms of communication — books, movies, posters, and speeches — Jews were portrayed as conspirators. Creating such imagery led to an atmosphere of distrust, fear, and revulsion. Hitler emphasized how propaganda must be concise and harp on slogans, never attempting to be many-sided. [1] This idea of constancy and repetition to serve the message through a slogan is the precursor to modern day campaigns.

[1] www.facinghistory.org

The slogan literally means a war-cry. In India, the freedom movement took off with Quit India’s ‘do or die’, Swaraj (self-rule), and symbolic acts such as burning foreign goods, wearing khadi, and using the charka. Slogans aim to create a sense of purpose that aligns with the mission of the organization or governing body, accelerating people's participation. Today’s slogans move out from the older ‘Be Indian Buy Indian’, calling out to ‘Make in India’, ‘Swacch Bharat’, ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’. The various types of communication align with a consistent brand language that captures all touchpoints. When the BJP reclaimed its seat this election year, their simple slogan, “Sabka saath, sabka vikaas” intended to bring the marginalized into the fray, giving room for everyone’s development. Ultimately, just as a product has to deliver to boost confidence in a brand, Governments have to deliver on their promises.

We see how symbols are major emotional triggers and how they create a sense of belonging. Yet, they also lead to divisions and factions. A society in Chennai has found an interesting way to show how different beliefs can co-exist. They have painted the symbols of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism on the same wall, side by side, with messages to preserve the environment and stop littering. While religions create different followings, spoiling the environment is common to man! Demonstrating the basic nature of humanity, and creating a common link to respect and compassion, brings symbols attached to varied beliefs on one platform.

Writing and illustration by Nishita Karun