THE BLOG
09/23/2013 01:17 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

These Store Signs Will Make You Smile

When you traffic in a beach city, the pablum on store signs usually isn't something you notice, but the writing on some of the commercial signage in Hawaii is undeniably memorable.

I've seen many signs here that aren't sales tools. One sign read "Any child left unattended will be given a shot of espresso and a free puppy". The signs are at once simple and clever, masterful and intimate. Even signs that weren't minutely spell-checked caused me to smile: "Unattened children will be given a free feral cat!".

Fascinated by the signs and comforted by the humor, I wondered if the "aloha" spirit here transcends into the language, as well. Laura Oswald, author of Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies, and Brand Value explains that "the stores are taking a functional directive and turning it into a metaphor or a hyperbole; it's a rhetorical style and a poetic use of language".

Signs such as "Anyone bitten...by a...man-eating shark while wearing [something] purchased at [our store] will be given a full refund" made me happy. Oswald suggested I observe how the Hawaiian culture represents happiness in semiotic codes, such as language, font and color scheme. Then ask myself which of these codes communicates the "happiness" theme in the signage. I followed her instructions and realized it's not the message in the sign that interests me, it's the empathetic feeling it carries. All the signs I like are apologies (for being closed; for not allowing children in the store; for not liking their product post-purchase) and this sympathy from the owners gave me "happiness." They weren't just writing "Closed," they were posting "Sorry. Closed due to illness" and "Sorry! The house is sleeping".

Store owners in Hawaii meet the challenge of not upsetting customers by developing creative approaches for giving information about their business. They reappropriate the signs for our amusement. The signs also serve as direction for how I should talk here- If I want to be considered a local, I'll put my New York sarcasm in storage. In moving, I didn't expect to transition from a pragmatic metropolis to a poetic marketplace but I love it.

I recently noticed a sign in the shopping center that read "Hi. Fitting Room closed. Sorry, still friends?". It was in Forever 21, a national clothing store. I assume the mom-and-pop store signs here have become the bellwether of comedic value for the more corporate stores. Had the smaller shops started a paradigm for the bigger stores? I called a Forever 21 store in New York City. They have the same sign. Why have I never noticed it?

Oswald explains- "It's the poetry that's grabbing you there (in Hawaii) and then it's the distance- coming from another city and another culture- that causes you to notice it."

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