Years ago, on our honeymoon, I was sitting outside a café in France.
We’d just had coffee and my wife had popped inside to use the loo.
Then an old bloke with one leg and a crutch lurched over.
He pulled out a yellow, dog-eared booklet and held it under my nose.
It had a military symbol and crossed rifles on the front.
He formed his forefinger and thumb into the shape of pistol and held it up to my face.
Then he said something I didn’t understand.
As he held the finger-and-thumb gun up, he said “Defron”.
Or something like that, I don’t speak French.
I didn’t know what “Defron” meant, maybe it meant gun, maybe it referred to the fact that he’d lost his leg.
That must be it.
He’d lost his leg in the war and wanted to complain about the evil of guns.
I don’t speak French, but he didn’t know that.
So, I tried to think of any vaguely relevant French words I could remember that might fit the situation.
I nodded and tried to look sad, and said “Quelle domage”.
As I remembered it, that meant something like “What a pity” which I thought would at least show some respect for his situation.
But it didn’t help.
He frowned and jabbed his forefinger-thumb gun into my face again, and repeated “Defron. Defron.”
My French was exhausted now.
So, like all Englishmen, I tried to communicate my situation.
I said, “Look mate, I don’t know what your problem is but I can’t help”.
Now he was getting angry.
He made his thumb-forefinger gun with one hand and held up his crumpled booklet in the other and repeated much louder “Defron. Defron.”
Now people were looking at us and things were about to escalate.
Then my wife came out of the café and asked what was happening.
I said “This bloke’s a nutcase. He’s been shot in the leg and I don’t know what he wants me to do about it.”
He made the thumb-forefinger gun to my wife and said “Defron”.
My wife said, “He wants two francs”.
I said, “How do you know that?”
She said “The thumb and forefinger is how the French make the sign for two. We use two fingers but they use the thumb and forefinger. And ‘Defron’ is just ‘deux francs’. He’s asking for two Francs.”
And that was it.
We gave him two francs and he ambled off.
See, that was an example of semiotics not working.
Semiotics is the science of signs, and very popular in marketing departments.
I think it’s worth remembering what the founder of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure, said:
“The common mistake is in assuming that signs, which appear natural to those who use them, have an intrinsic meaning and require no explanation”.
In other words, it isn’t a sign just because you think it’s a sign.
There’s another quote that sums it up for me:
“Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign.”
Given what passes for advertising at present, I think that should be on the wall of every marketing department and ad agency.
We’re not doing this for our benefit, we’re doing it for the public’s benefit.