The Way You Do the Things You Do

We could think of the differences between the first and second order of signification as the differences between what we say and the way we say it. Language is language minus speech; yet at the same time it is a social institution and a system of values. Speech is an individual act of selection and actualization. The rules of language govern the association of the parts.

In reading this quote paraphrasing the studies of Roland Barthes, I could not help but think about the book covers I previously posted on. This, of course, led to me a broader reflection of our society, both in a local and global sense. The difference between language and speech is not what we say, for we could repeat the same words in a specific order – read them off of a card even – but the oralization of it deeply determines its interpretation and, therefore, its meaning.

First, let’s focus on these book jackets again.

Notice how colorful and flashy each of them is. Obviously, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has more colors (a full cover picture, in fact) on the jacket than both The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and Paradise because it is the children’s novel in the group. Each of the books, however, come from widely varying genres; with the exception of Harry Potter (Scholastic), all the books are published by Knopf.

Pushing this common publisher aside, it does not change that each book is geared for a different audience than the other, yet all of them have shiny, iridescent jackets. Also, notice how both of the adult novels have advertisements for other agencies on them to make them more desirable. Paradise proudly brandishes the “O” sticker (a nice example of symbolism as only Oprah fans will understand this significance), while the girl kicking the Hornet’s Nest boasts of its prequel novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

None of these fancy fonts, stickers, advertisements, or pictures change the title, content, or author of the novels. What’s being said remains the same, but how it’s being said changes. Just look at the difference.

All of the books retained their original color themes, but without their ostentatious covers these thrilling novels appear relatively dull.

Let’s move on to a different medium of language, that literally uses speech: film.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of my favorite films and celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. There are a couple of things I want to point out: the size and font of Audrey Hepburn’s name and her presence on the poster.

First, her name, her character’s name and the title of the movie all appear on this poster. The movie title is the biggest, brightest, and thickest font, and is clearly what the producers of this poster want you, the consumer, to notice. Audrey Hepburn’s name, however, is nearly as big as the title and in fact situated above it. Her name is in black, which is the only color font that doesn’t match the poster border, though it does match the dress she is wearing in the picture.

The name of her character, Holly Golightly, the fundamental character of the movie and an iconic character still today, is in the smallest, thinnest, least noticeable font. The text merely describes Hepburn’s performance in the role.

Even here, the poster itself says explicitly says very little (some denotation for you), but expresses so much through the relationships of the fonts with one another. The movie will stay the same regardless of the font size and color, but the response to the film will not. The producers knew the power of Hepburn and used it to their advantage.

Finally, if it is not clear already that the producers were not trying to sell Breakfast at Tiffany’s with this poster, but rather Audrey Hepburn, this should complete that. Hepburn is the only person on the poster, as is her and her character’s name. Some variations of this poster feature the supporting actors name and a sketch of the final scene, but this one is the most distributed and her picture is always biggest.

Like I said before, the producers were much more interested in selling Hepburn than the film (and still are today). In the infinite amount of Breakfast at Tiffany’s posters available today, George Peppard’s (Golightly’s love interest in the film) picture on one of them is a rare find.


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