The story behind the name:

One evening, at the Old Broadway Grill in Fargo, North Dakota, my brother caught the end of a Mountain Dew commercial. In the commercial, a Mountain Dew drinker was riding a shark in the ocean. My brother exclaimed in surprise, not realizing that it was a commercial. When I told him he declared "All I saw was a guy coming out of the shower with a shark." Of course, he meant water, but the idea of showering with sharks has been with me ever since.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ubiquitous Ribbons

Reading Ali Rapp's post today has prompted me to comment about the prevalence of ribbons as a symbol in our culture. Nothing I write should be construed as pro-domestic violence. I just find the evolution of the ribbon as a tool for causes to be interesting from a communication perspective.

In Communication 280 we have been talking about semiology and the cultural use of signs. Our textbook (Griffin, 2009) uses the example of the yellow ribbon to illustrate the evolution of the yellow ribbon as a sign. You may remember the song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the 'Ole Oak Tree." In the song, a man returning from prison asks his sweetheart to tie a yellow ribbon around an oak tree so that he will know if is past is forgiven and if he is welcomed home. During Desert Storm, the yellow ribbon symbol was co-opted to mean "Welcome Home Troops" with the forgiveness of stigma ejected as meaning to be replaced with American military superiority. Of course, today we are again bombarded with yellow ribbons, although the "Welcome Home Troops" message has been replaced with the "Support our Troops" message. I believe this change in the meaning of the sign has some source in the debate over whether or not our troops should be coming home from Iraq or not, tied closely to the "are we winning debate" and "when is the appropriate time to leave" argument.

But we are exposed to more than yellow ribbons. October is domestic violence awareness month and awareness is raised by a purple ribbon. Breast cancer awareness has a pink ribbon and HIV/AIDS awareness has a red one. The question I would like to pose is: does the saturation level of a sign or symbol in a culture ever lead to the reduced effectiveness of that symbol? For example, will people, upon seeing Ali's purple ribbon, stop to ask her what that ribbon stands for? Or will they simply chalk it up to another cause and keep walking?

If the purpose of the ribbon is to raise awareness about an issue, then is that symbol effective if it no longer elicits comments or questions from others? Is awareness really growing?

Of course, we could look at the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon as a symbol that grew into a campaign. In this instance, the placing of a pink ribbon on a product indicates that purchasing that product supports breast cancer research in some way. The pink ribbon has evolved into an effective advertising campaign and fund raising tool. What does it take for a ribbon to gain this type of prominence?

Anyway, I think it's an interesting question (or several interesting questions). Signs and symbols are all around us, often being taken for granted. Don't even get me started on the wristband...

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