Communication is one of the most human of activities. The exchange of thoughts that characterizes communication is carried out by conversation (still the most popular form of entertainment in the world), by the written word (letters, books, magazines and newspapers) and by pictures (cartoons, television and film).
Communication has been defined as a transactional process between two or more parties whereby meaning is exchanged through the intentional use of symbols. The key elements here are that the communication is intentional (a deliberate effort is made to bring about a response), it is a transaction (the participants are all involved in the process), and it is symbolic (words, pictures, music and other sensory stimulants are used to convey thoughts). Since human beings are not telepathic, all communication needs the original concepts to be translated into symbols that convey the required meaning.
This means that the individual or firm issuing the communication must first reduce the concepts to a set of symbols, which can be passed on to the recipient of the message; the recipient must decode the symbols to get the original message. Thus the participants in the process must share a common view of what the symbols involved actually mean. In fact, the parties must share a common field of experience.
The sender's field of experience and the receiver's field of experience must overlap, at least to the extent of having a common language. In fact the overlap is likely to be much more complex and subtle in most marketing communications; advertisements typically use references from popular culture such as TV shows, from proverbs and common sayings, and will often make puns or use half-statements, which the audience is able to complete because it is aware of the cultural referents involved. This is why foreign TV adverts often seem unintentionally humorous, or even incomprehensible.
Noise is the surrounding distraction present during the communications process, and varies from children playing during the commercial break, through to arresting headlines in a magazine. Interference is deliberate attempts to distract the audience's attention with intelligent communications.
The above model is essentially a one-step model of communication. This is rather over-simplified; communications do not necessarily occur in a single step in this way. Katz and Lazarsfield postulated a two-step model in which the messages are filtered through opinion leaders, and in most cases the message reaches the receiver via several routes. Sending the same message by more than one route is called redundancy, and is a good way of ensuring that the message gets through. The sender sends almost identical messages via different routes. The effect of noise and interference is to distort the message, and the opinion leader will moderate the message, but by using three different routes the meaning of the message is more likely to get through. This is the rationale behind the integration of marketing communications.
An alternative view of communication is that it is concerned with the cocreation of meaning.3 In this view, communication is not something which one person does to another; the communication is subject to interpretation by the recipient, and may even be ignored. Communication might be better thought of as involving an initiator, an apprehender, and appreciation: acceptance of a common meaning arises from the apprehender's choice, not from the initiator’s intention.
The most obvious symbols are, of course, words. Words have meanings only as they are interpreted by people – and over long periods of time, even words change their meanings. For example, ‘nice’ has come to mean polite, pleasant or enjoyable, yet 150 years ago it meant ‘precise’. Meanings of words can be denotative, i.e. having the same meaning for everybody, or connotative, i.e. having a meaning which is unique to the individual. Because connotative meanings vary among individuals, marketers need to develop empathy with their target audiences. This is easiest when the marketer and the audience are as similar as possible in terms of background and outlook. Semiotics, syntactics and semantics are fields of study that enable us to ensure that the correct meanings are attributed to symbols.
In fact, communication is carried out in many other ways than the verbal or written word. Only 30% of communication uses words; people (and companies) communicate by pictures, non-verbal sounds, smell, touch, numbers, artefacts, time and kinetics.
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