Post-Production of Meaning: Measuring How Consumers Change Your Messaging

marioPhoto: Mario Calvo

Written by: Chasson Gracie & Marcel Salas


Before any form of advertisement goes in market, a brand’s goal is to ensure successful engagement of a target consumer group in an impactful and memorable way. While it is convenient to rest on the notion that an advertising message, or a feeling that an ad is trying to evoke, will be received in the exact manner desired by the brand, the reality is that intended meanings/feelings may be transformed or challenged in one way or another by consumers once they have been exposed. Although pre-market testing guides a brand with important tools to preemptively measure audience reception of branded content, the simple truth is that advertisements take on a life of their own once they are released. So, what is a brand to do? All is not lost.

In this blog post, we explore how people transform and challenge brand messaging/intended feelings, as well as post-survey techniques one can use to help brands better determine whether meaning has changed, and how to address those changes in real-time.

Production of Meaning

As advertising media, online and offline, becomes increasingly woven into consumers’ lives, we need to understand howaudiences actively produce meaning from advertisements once they are made a part of their cultural world. The underlying premise is thatevery act of media consumption is an act of production by the consumer- this is the production of meaning. Consumers are an integral element in the modern ad-making process, not solely as receivers of the messages being communicated, but as active participants in creating the meaning of the advertisement itself.

Culture – What Do We Mean?

As the defining force of humankind, culture is an active process by which human beings supply the world with meaning. Culture materializes in the form of practices, habits, belief systems, frames of thought, and objects we use every day. These products of culture, and their meaning, are always in flux and shift between people and contexts, provide each of us with a distinct outlook on life, and influence our perception and internalization of advertisements.

Since the beginning of time, humans have been placing cultural significance on material and intangible objects by extending their meaning beyond utilitarian value and into something far deeper and emotionally significant (see Isherwood and Douglass 1979). We call this the “meaning-transfer process,” and in our marketing context, ads are the “raw materials” that consumers internalize in order to develop their understanding of a brand and its personal significance to them.

Within the theory of visual semiotics, it is understood that advertisements are  composed of a tapestry of signs- from the copy chosen to actors used in the content- that are put together in order to convey a particular meaning to viewers.

While the goal of an ad is to build a brand and help people make mental shortcuts when they need to make purchase decisions, the ad  is only one piece of the puzzle. Consumers are the final creative directors in the ad-making process. They are integral authors in the transfer of meaning among a piece of content, a brand, and the real world (McCracken 75).

Consumer Hijacking of Meaning 


Photo: Mark Ronson/TED “Sampling isn’t about “hijacking nostalgia wholesale”

With the rise of digital channels and social media, a new layer of engagement has been added to the routine conversation between ad and consumer, making it  more interactive, and in some instances, reactive. Now more than ever, consumers have the ability to share their personal readings of ads directly with brands and other consumers in real-time, making their voices more influential. They are empowered with the tools to remix content into memes, hijack hashtags, and share viewpoints in the form of comments, likes, shares, retweets and reblogs. Mark Ronson educated the world in his TED Talk about how the remix is the primary way in which art and ideas are produced in contemporary society (will insert a link in Squarespace).

While hashtags can be great tools to engage customers, they can work against a brand if not executed with the intricacies of the meaning transfer process in mind. Hashtag hijacking is one of many examples of how today’s consumers are actively changing the meaning of ads using digital channels. This occurs when consumers use a hashtag for a different purpose than the one the brand originally intended.

As you may recall, McDonalds learned this lesson the hard way. They launched the Twitter hashtag “#McDstories” hoping it would inspire consumers to share fond memories about eating at the fastfood chainand create a domino effect based upon positive emotional experiences that would enhance its brand image. Unfortunately for the brand, it spurred a wave of combative tweets with thousands of consumers sharing their “#McDHorror Stories.” Within an hour of promoting the hashtag, McDonalds was forced to pull it, while the new bashtag continued to grow. The conversation McDonalds intended to cultivate with consumers did not go as planned because someone failed to consider how those opposed to their brand would change the meaning of the hashtag to spark an oppositional conversation.


[Source: Twitter]

Because of digital channels, the meaning-transfer process between consumers and ads is ever the more apparent, which brings forth a new reality for both brands and marketers to negotiate. While the direction of a campaign can be rerouted more rapidly than in previous times, the new reality also presents a beneficial opportunity for marketers and brands to create real-time strategies for engaging consumer opinions, ideas, and interpretations of ads.

Using Research to Measure Messaging/Feeling Hijacks and Reacting

The increase in the post production of meaning by consumers requires innovative ways to use research to measure this phenomenon. We advocate using visual semiotics and measuring emotions in testing during the concepting phase to determine potential issues prior to campaign launch. But, once an ad campaign is live, there extra steps should be taken to protect the intended feeling/meaning. We do this by:

  1. Measuring intended messaging/feeling vs comprehended feeling/message
  2. Measuring emotions: Using text analytics of online conversations to determine overall emotion (happy, sad, frustrated, etc.,), thus going beyond sentiment (is it positive? Is it negative?)
  3. Determining the contextual impact of feeling/messaging during key media vehicles (giving you the opportunity to reconfigure media plans)
  4. Identify of influencers: Determining those, and their networks, who are having the most impact on changing the meaning of your campaign
  5. Recreation of segmentation (if applicable): In some cases, it is possible to recreate your survey-based segmentation within the social media/online world, thus helping us get even more granular in understand how feeling/messaging may be changing based upon group
  6. Determining increases/decreases in share of conversation and whether they are due to positive or negative emotional reasons

Data collection method – We use various online listening and analysis tools. We also combine these data with survey research when applicable.

Human behavior perspective – As we analyze online data, we do not assume anyone is purely a rational actor, and that emotions, associations, etc., play a role in one’s view of a brand or initiative.

Theories – In addition to those already mentioned, considering most of these data are happening in a social context, we add the lens of various social theories to add further depth in understanding.


We know consumers have the final word in the production of an advertisement’s meaning. We also know that social media, blogs and forums amplify the voices of consumers and their interpretation of content. Marcel and I can identify, strategize and correct for these truths relying on the research and insights techniques mentioned before and if it goes astray.

Today more than ever, a brand needs a contemporary brand tracking system, one that picks up on hijacking and changing meaning quickly, and gives a brand an opportunity to react decisively and promptly. There many lessons we can learn by placing ads within the cultural world. With this understanding, we are incorporating culture, visual semiotics and social media analytical techniques to measure change in meaning/feeling of an ad campaign, give strategic guidance on how to impact that change in a positive way, and measure the post results of the change, allowing you to enhance your marketing plan quickly, wisely and creatively.


McCracken, Grant. “Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and

Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods.” Portland State University School of

Business. Last modified December, 1985.


Douglas, Mary and Isherwood, Baron. “World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption.” London: Allen Lane, 1979.