Branding can make anything mean anything. Cigarettes (Marlboro) = personal freedom. A carbonated soft drink (Pepsi) = youth. A watch (Rolex) = man of action. You could go on and we do.
The semiotic machinery is not very well understood. Personally, I blame the advertising agencies which seem keen to black box the creative process. But the data keeps rolling in.
Heres a great example from todays New York Times on how numbers on jerseys take on meaning.
Mets pitcher Tom Glavine never really even liked No. 47, but it was given to him by the Atlanta Braves at his first spring training and therefore symbolizes everything he overcame to stick in the major leagues. So when Glavine signed with the Mets two years ago and Joe McEwing handed over No. 47, Glavine and his wife financed a baby nursery in McEwing’s home.
“If you play long enough,” Glavine said, “that number becomes your identity.”
For many professional athletes, a jersey number is a personal brand. It is worn on shoes and helmets, wristbands and turtlenecks. It inspires tattoos and is engraved on medallions the size of manhole covers.
In this case, numbers soak up meaning that is thrown off by a players circumstances and accomplishments. And then they begin to use it for the meanings it contains. Meaning in. Meaning out.
I cant help feeling that wearing your number as a medallion is a little like referring to yourself in the third person, but, hey, what would I know about it? In anthropology, the salaries are bad, the benefits worse, and the uniforms are an appalling combination of tweed, khaki and twill. Plus, it turns out there is crying in anthropology.
Jenkins, Les. 2005. What Is a Number Worth? Some Athletes Pay the Price. New York Times. May 13, 2005. here
NASCAR is also a leader in numerical branding. A #3 decal on a NASCAR fan’s vehicle is a little like an American flag, or a crucifix.
Let’s not forget Michael Jordan’s #23/45.
Or Gretzky’s 99.
Years can have this effect. We say 1968 and everyone “gets” it. What is the most famous number?