Ceci N’est Pas une Cigarette

Image: “The Smoking Salesman” (c) Three Eyed Gimp, via Flickr.comThe smart folks at SamataMason changed their name to Smbolic this week, adopting the sagacious tag: “Everything stands for something.”

I love the double meaning in that—a reference to both symbols and principles—and it made me think about how the principle of certain objects, or events, mean more than the objects or events themselves.

Certainly this week’s “Ground Zero Mosque” debate provides an example. (And a masterful example of using emotive language in argument framing.) But let me give you another that’s less politically charged: Electronic cigarettes.

A nicotine-addicted friend of mine purchased one recently and I was dumbfounded by how real it looked—and smokes, even though the “smoke” that’s exhaled is a harmless and odorless vapor.* Even the tip glows an imperfect reddish-orange, thanks to a devilishly clever LED.

So here’s the problem: My friend still can’t puff on his electronic cigarette in public—a Starbucks, for example—without attracting the ire of others around him. Even demonstrating the e-cigarette doesn’t quiet the complainers, and often makes them more angry.

My friends defense: “I’m not smoking.” And he’s right. But people are reacting to both the symbol of the e-cigarette, and the principles they believe in (smoking is a dirty, filthy habit), rather than the reality—the device emits no smell, and the second-hand vapor is harmless.

Readers of Mental Shavings—and I thank you for that—know this is a common theme of mine: Symbols really do speak louder than words, as I wrote here and here.

I run into e-cigarettes—the metaphorical kind—all of the time in corporate communications, as companies consistently defend the messages they transmit rather than analyzing how they are being received by their audiences. (Think of BP, as a recent example.)

I have a feeling that the folks at Smbolic understand that, too. It will be interesting to see how the company’s new name is received by its audiences. Because everything stands for something. Amen to that.

*Nonetheless, e-cigarettes are still harmful to the smoker, if the devices are charged with a nicotine cartridge.