Natalia Hoffman is an independent researcher into the visual communication of Estonia with the Estophilus programme, an exchange student in Tartu from Aarhus University, Denmark, where she’s finishing her MA in Cognitive Semiotics, and a beetroot juice drinker big on detective stories who dresses in secondhand shops and watches TV for the sake of advertising. This is her first instalment in the series:
Case Studies on the Estonian Universe of Visual Meaning
This is a regular chocolate stand in your local Estonian supermarket in December. There is plenty of choice to stock up on for Christmas, and all by Kalev – Estonia’s favourite and the largest and oldest confectionary company, which has been on the market since 1806. Estonian guidebooks say you haven’t fully experienced this country until you have had a piece of Kalev…
Now, dear reader, have a closer look at the top and second-to-top shelves. If you’re still unsure what I’m on about – like on those rare occasions when at a party you join a group of people deeply engaged in a conversation on a topic of dubious origin, and before you know it you find your head nodding in agreement as if your head belonged to a bobbing head doggie drivers have in their cars – I’ll present some clarification below.
I’m talking about Kalev’s Maiuspala praline candy (top shelf) and Kalev’s liqueur-filled chocolates (second to the top). For the fairness of it, I took upon myself the advertising of praline candies, to match the ingenious advertising poster of liqueur-filled chocolates which I found displayed at a bus stop.
As a cognitive semiotician and an international spy in cultural affairs, it is my duty and moral obligation to give you a clear-cut analysis of such signs of visual communication. I put my hands in the air for the liqueur-filled chocolates. Both the packaging and the creative execution of the idea are ingenious. You get an older, handsome and wise (white-haired) gentlemen, a smart-looking, high-up executive, a foreigner himself or an Estonian with foreign interests (fashion style) and all-around coolness, demonstrating his approval of Kalev’s chocolates. It’s not a coincidence they’re filled with “pure alcohol offering exclusive flavour experiences” (from the company’s website). All executives drink – you’ve seen ‘Mad Men’, haven’t you? They sit on their leather sofas (the fabric which the chocolates’ packaging so aptly resembles) and drink to the deals they’ve just made. Those are real men. In the 60s. Ah, the bygone era and the prestige of those jobs…
Nostalgia is a powerful selling device, and the tougher the times and the job market, the more we tend to glorify the past (Martin Lindstrom makes this point in his book Brand-washed). And here even the colours were designed to induce it. So, who are these chocolates for? On their website, Kalev advise us that “Due to their beautiful packaging, the candies make an excellent gift”. Yes, they do. I’m buying them for Christmas for all the men in my family whom I suspect of secretly longing for the sweet taste of power and recognition. Or even the illusion of those. The chocolates contain alcohol after all – alcohol increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, and dopamine and serotonin are reward and pleasure buttons in our brains – it’s a win-win situation!
But what about Kalev’s Maiuspala praline candies? How does an Easter-themed box of chocolates find its way to the top shelf during the Christmas period? Don’t they know at the supermarket that traditionally the top shelf is reserved for the top goods, and if these are indeed top goods why didn’t they all vanish off the shelf and into the shoppers’ baskets over the Easter period, I ask?
Various eye-tracking experiments have demonstrated that only the top-shelf positions carry through to brand evaluation; in other words, those products catch our attention and keep it for longer, as we make our purchase decision. But as I examine the chocolates’ packaging, a feeling of confusion slowly takes over. Not only do the Maiuspala candies cause a seasonal clash of interest, but they also portray a little girl dressed in what resembles the colours of Estonia’s flag’s, with the small difference that the black stripe was replaced with yellow to match the colour of a chick the girl’s holding by her face… Am I missing out on something?
Recently, I visited the Science Museum in Tartu. There was a glass incubator with several chicken eggs lying under a strong lamp. You could watch the eggs’ shells breaking live and the chicks hatching. Needless to say, the incubator was surrounded by a group of children glued to the glass. They were all cheering for the chicks…
Yes, I see the cuteness of it all: an adorable, blond-haired, blue-eyed, healthy-looking patriotic girl and not one, but several, fluffy chicks standing on either a piece of ground or on a massive lump of chocolate – hard to say, with crops behind them, all served in matching colours. Very retro, but rather tasteless. I have never tried the chocolates themselves, but neither do I want to, as I wouldn’t like to imagine chicken walking on the chocolate nor a girl that’s a bite away from decapitating one of them, as I nibble on my piece of Kalev…
Strange as it may sound, this is the kind of instinctive thinking that goes on in our heads every time we choose one product over another. Our shopping decisions are largely driven by subconscious mechanisms and a whole series of immediate chain associations that a packaging awakes in our minds (more on this in Martin Lindstrom’s book Buyology). A company can be more or less successful with that. The same rings true for the chocolates’ product placement. It can be more or less fortunate.
All in all, no matter which shelf they end up on, Kalev chocolates are a mine of associations and meanings – for Estonians because they’ve been around for over two centuries, whilst for foreigners for the same iconic reason and the chocolates’ ‘must-try’ nature. Their packaging is nothing but an exciting playground for visual communication and incitement. I would be happy to hear what the dear reader has to say about it. Do leave a comment!
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