One Man’s Polo Shirt Is Another Man’s Hoodie
Written by Carter Bird
November 04, 2017
After Charlottesville, the symbol of white supremacy evolved from white hoods to the much more innocuous Polo shirt. Now, walking into Ace Hardware and purchasing a tiki torch for your patio has suddenly become cause for speculation (especially if you happen to be wearing a Polo shirt). A cashier or fellow shopper may now wonder, if only for a moment, what that torch will be used for: to set a romantic scene, or act as a symbol of hate? Our ever-expanding and interwoven society, paired with greater access to radical ideas and perspectives increasingly calls for deft handling of potential symbolic triggers.
For better or worse, it’s human nature to create and fill otherwise empty, meaningless symbols with intent and complex significance. These expressions can convey intricate ideas with small, simple marks. These marks, however, are sometimes steeped in multiple meanings: two strokes of a pen can represent a divine Hindu deity, while at the same time symbolize horrific Nazi genocide. The swastika, however, is not the only polysemous symbol in the world. Professional sports team logos, the peace sign, the American flag and countless others carry a multiplicity of meaning, depending on one’s situational point of view.
Simply put, symbols are containers of associations, and when they are ambiguously defined, the audience has the opportunity to subvert their meanings through individual interpretation. This can sometimes lead to new or resurrected cultural successes, like the mid-nineties resurgence of Hush Puppies, which Malcolm Gladwell describes in The Tipping Point. Other times, however, it can lead to immense collective cognitive dissonance, as we have recently witnessed with our flag, the NFL, and other potent, omni-present symbols.
This, however, isn’t entirely groundbreaking. Five years ago, we collectively witnessed an intense example of tertiary symbolic manipulation. The hoodie worn by young Trayvon Martin was scrutinized, downtrodden, labeled the cause of his death, and, at the same time, it became a tool for activists to signal solidarity during the Million Hoodie March. As a symbol, the hoodie’s meaning would fold in on itself time and time again, yet was never intentionally defined by the one who wore it. The viewers’ power to subjugate interpretations of his innocuous hoodie became tragic proof of the duality a symbol can endure — utter delicacy and demonstrable potency.
As branders, our goal is to shepherd the meaning of our symbols; to cogently deliver consistency on differentiated promises and build trust among an irrational and unpredictable world. Occasionally, however, associations beyond our control transform the meaning of our work — sometimes becoming powerful brands of their own. While the inherent right of the individual to infer, interpret and freely state their opinion is clearly cause for celebration, what happens when the open interpretation of a sign leads to collective dissonance, and ultimately, a change in our public behavior?
Part of modern life is accepting the constant flux of our collective consciousness. Opinions sway, power shifts, and ideals wax and wane simultaneously. It is a constant balancing act of opposing forces, each attempting to exert influence. But, when something once so firmly planted in the cultural zeitgeist as the aspirational Polo shirt can become a new symbol of hate, how can brands ever be sure that their symbols are interpreted as intended?