Toilet Signage as an International Cultural Artefact: Guest Article by Prof. Lynne Ciochetto for Checkposts



Toilet signage is such a deeply embedded part of contemporary life, writes Lynne Ciochetto, that most people are oblivious to the layers of meaning embedded in the signs themselves.

As Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller once pointed out, people never read the signs as saying ‘man or woman for sale’. The specific meanings ascribed by the particular context have been learnt across cultures, though the first assumption seems to be universal: men and women’s lavatorial activities need to be segregated.



Toilet signage itself has a relatively young history, following that of the public loo, which only became common in the late nineteenth century, stimulated by increasing mobility and the separation of work from home. Public conveniences first appeared in British railway stations and department stores, but the practice was then exported through the British empire.

Mandawa, India

Mandawa, India

These early signs were text-based but increasingly mobile populations in the twentieth century encouraged the development of pictorial systems that did not require shared language. Visual languages such as the US Department of Transportation symbol system designed in 1974 – the first comprehensive pictogram system – and systems developed for the Olympics aimed for universality but very much reflected their Germanic roots in abstract systems such as those of Otto Neurath. Once embraced by international communications and business, they became part of the International Style.



With accelerating globalisation of tourism and business, toilet signage has become an international phenomenon, especially in airports, train and bus stations. With the growth of tourism and the increasing frequency of eating out as entertainment, signage has become more common away from such mass transit zones, too. In these calmer places the lavatory becomes a gallery of folk art, a vehicle for representing universal gender differentiation, local culture and personal expression.



Gender representation in these signs is both representational and symbolic, with images of men and women, or emblems of of their supposed differences, being used. However, women are never depicted in the actual act of sitting on a toilet, let alone using one, though sometimes men, and children of both sexes, are.

Interview with Justin Rabindra, acclaimed photographer and Former Vice President, Training & Knowledge Management, Ogilvy

Justin Rabindra

Justin Rabindra talks about the role of visual memory in brand building; the noise on social media and how adversiting still pays or pays off..

Do you see any synergies between your years in advertising and your current passion/profession?

Yes, advertising is a very visual business and my early influence has been from the business as an account management person when I accompanied and supervised shoots with people like Pradeep Dasgupta, Akash Das, Adrian Steven and others.

At a less obvious level, while there a several technically fine images out there, I judge a good image by its ability to move me emotionally. This is something that can’t be taught and I believe I acquired this skill from many years of working in a visually rich industry like advertising.

At it’s most obvious, when I shoot a product for a client, I try to communicate (or sell) without words, and that’s definitely a synergy that exists with the ol’ industry.

How important is visual representation for brands? Do you think Indian brands are cognizant of its importance?

It’s extremely important. Indian advertising and marketing people learnt that early on in the evolution of the business, in large part because a significant portion of the Indian market is semiliterate or illiterate and depend on visual cues to recognize and decide on brands.

Thanks to Facebook and other social networking sites, every one wants to be projected as a celebrity- most importantly through pictures. What sort of opportunity do you see for personal branding in the future?

That’s so true. Like a joke that goes around on Facebook, ‘Are people’s lives really as amazing as they make it out to be on Facebook?’ A lot of what’s happening on social media is just noise, the equivalent of a offline brand that blasts media with overkill because they have the budget. Consumers in the offline world were intelligent enough to filter out the chaff for the wheat. Similarly the online audience takes branding activities online with a pinch of salt. The beauty of it is that the truly beautiful brands, the ones that succeed do so despite less advertising frequency (or eyeballs or pageviews) and less strategic behavior because if the brand has talent it will eventually leak out for the world to see and admire, despite having a smaller budget than their giant rivals.

How can photography contribute to branding- corporate or individual?

Visual memory is a lot more enduring than the other kind. For several products the image in an appropriate context tells a more evocative story than any advertising created by an agency. Jeremy Bullmore said, ‘Brands are built the way birds build nests. With scraps and straws they happen upon.‘ Photographs are those scraps and straws. They could be taken professionally or they could be random, casually shot images taken on an iPhone. They add up. Conversely, photographs can also damage a brand. That’s the beauty of social media. It’s no more in the marketer’s control anymore.

She Can You Can: How Tupperware Captured the Indian Imagination

tupperware One campaign that has truly wedded an innovative business model with an equally impressive marketing campaign- is Tupperware’s She Can You Can. The campaign leveraged Print, PR, Social Media and Microsites to position the new powerful She Can woman- the essence of the brand. The marketing team had a very well defined idea of this person and pushed it cohesively and effectively through all media channels:-

•A person who chased her dream, even if it meant going against the tide
•A person who had risen through her own effort- A woman next door
•Not very old, early 30s- since the company wanted to recruit a younger profile amongst its sales force
•Someone who has achieved recognition in her own circles, but not a celebrity
The trick was to go beyond the the Tupperware sales force- and make this a campaign for women empowerment. Two protagonists were shortlisted for this:
–Saloni Malhotra: Engineer, but went to rural India to start a BPO
–Chhavi Rajawat: MBA, but gave up her job to become Mayor of a village
Stories were pitched in Mid-Day. Teasers were launched on Facebook. A Microsite was created: as was a YouTube channel. The campaign achieved phenomenal results- more than 20K SMS enquiries and 10K from the website. But the biggest acheivement was that it inspired many Indian women to transition from being housewives to business consultants.