We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: The Semiotics of Bears

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By Meg Palmer
23.02.2024

From Paddington and Pooh, to toilet roll, fairytales and hot sauce, the symbol of the bear is ubiquitous in culture. And understanding its place in culture isn’t easy as we‘re pulled in different directions across FMCG branding, cartoons, children’s books, gym logos, LGBTQ+ culture, designer fashion brands, the list goes on…

But this is precisely the task ‘we’ (Verve’s Cultural Cohort) set ourselves in our last session, embarking on a real bear hunt to find meaning in the bear, its role as a symbol in culture and implications for brands who choose to don the bear.

Paddington (2014); The Three Bears (Arthur Rackham Illustration, 1918); Ed Sheeran’s Tingly Sause; California State Logo

 

We journeyed through different uses of the bear in culture, decoding them together and uncovering several oppositions in how the bear manifests culturally. We’ll dive into 2 of these oppositions, illustrating how multifaceted the bear is: at once domesticated and wild, a mascot of comfort and a figure of destruction.

Domesticated vs. wild

Many of the bears we see in TV shows, books and even bears in branding are united by their sense of domesticity and harmonious assimilation into the human world. These bears are often staged in domestic spaces, are clad in “human” clothes and accessories, stand on two legs, have jobs and speak English. Take Paddington’s duffle coat and accent, or Charmin bear’s glasses and old dusty books.

Paddington Bear from Paddington (2014); Charmin Ultra Strong Bear (2012); Haribo Gold Bear

 

Pooh’s “house” in the Mini Adventures epitomises this harmonious blending together of the natural and human worlds. The structural base for his home is a large tree trunk, surrounded by long grass, foliage and wild fungi. But Pooh has embellished the natural tree base with multiple markers of the human world (a tiled roof, chimney, window). While the roof, chimney and window make Pooh’s abode appear like a “house”, there are also emotional signifiers that render the house a “home”: the hand-written wonky “ring” sign, the weathered looking horseshoe door knocker and the carved name onto the top of the door frame, giving the abode a sense of “lived-in-ness”.

The Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (2014)

 

In opposition to the domesticated bear, we have the more untamable, “wild” bear.

Warning! Bear sign in Canada; Illustration of ‘bear markets’ for Business Insider; California state logo

 

While the domestic bear appears on its two hind legs like a human, the “wild” bear is seen on all fours, often with one leg in front of the others. This position denotes movement: the bear cannot be “caught” and is in constant motion. The California state logo, for example, shows the image of a brown bear on all fours, appearing to traverse the eastern state border.  The implied movement of the bear hints at the idea of invasion into the state and the side-eye gaze at the viewer and the hunched, low-to-the-ground posture reinforces the bear’s enigmatic, unseen and “uncatchable” quality.

These bears often appear abstracted, reduced to a single silhouette (Warning! signs) and are void of a background setting, depicted as solo mavericks. They maintain the outline and structure of what we perceive to be a bear, but are rarely given facial features (at most their eyes are marked and their mouths open to denote predatory behaviour).

In some cases the icon of the bear is even further abstracted and we no longer see the bear outline, but instead indexes of the bear: large clawed paw prints, indicating what was there but no longer is (e.g. Bear Grip gym accessories). These indexes render the wild bear even more uncatchable.

Bear Grip’s gym accessories

 

Mascot of comfort vs. figure of destruction

Our second opposition sees the emergence of the bear mascot as a symbol of comfort. These bears uphold signifiers of being human (they stand like a human, sit with open legs like a toddler, they have facial expressions), but their “bearness” has been abstracted further than the domestic bear. The textures of the bear have been removed with any jaunty lines (rough fur) being replaced by curved outlines. Unlike the wild bear’s almost mocking side eye, these bears confront the viewer straight on with wide eyes, a comforting smile and open arms, communicating emotional comfort. Being bright, primary colour yellow, the bear is posited as “artificial” (in opposition to the neutral browns and blacks of the natural, wild bear) and any associations of danger from the wild bear are assuaged.

Pudsey Bear; Build-a-Bear logo; Winnie the Pooh from The Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (2014)

 

However, in some cases the textures of the bear are harnessed to emphasise softness and physical comfort. In the case of Cushelle, the Koala bear (note, a different species of “bear” with fewer connotations of danger) is used to cue the softness of the toilet paper. Here, the textures of the bear are re-introduced: we see a soft, blurred outline and the Koala bear is comprised of multiple circles (huge, round ears, eyes, face, and body), curled up into a ball. The soft fuzz of these circular outlines gives the bear a haptic quality and renders the Koala bear synonymous with the toilet paper it’s been employed to represent.

Cushelle koala bear

 

At once a symbol for physical and emotional comfort, the bear is also a figure of destruction. On the surface you could lump together the wild bear and the destructive bear, as the wild bear’s untamable nature poses threat and generates fear. But the destructive bear is pulling a different lever. There is nothing “wild” about the destructive bear, it bears an uncanny resemblance to both the domestic bear and the comfort bear, but subverts these tropes to turn what we know to be “good” and comforting on its head. Take Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear from Toy Story or Freddy Fazbear from Five Nights at Freddy’s – both tarnished and stitched-up versions of the much-loved teddy bear staged in chiaroscuro settings, with menacing grins.

Lots-o’-Huggin’ from Toy Story 3; Freddy Fazbear from Friday at Freddy’s

 

More recently, we saw Balenciaga don the bear in a highly controversial, later publicly shamed, campaign. The 2023 campaign showed children carrying Balenciaga’s luxury teddy bear bags in bondage gear, staring innocently and directly at the camera. Rather than actively being a figure of destruction here, the bear becomes a symbol for destruction. The Balenciaga bears have tried to be tamed – wrapped in leather, bound by chains, covered in bruises and dirt, hung lazily from the hands of super models on the catwalk. Power dynamics here are murky – but the bear undoubtedly nods to the destruction of innocence in its strong cultural provocation.

Balenciaga 2022 campaign; bear handbag from Balenciaga 2023 summer collection

What does this mean for brands?

Benefit from existing cultural connections: The bear symbol has a strong history in popular culture, used across everything from children’s storybooks to toilet paper. It is laden with meaning. Leveraging a symbol like the bear can be a powerful tool for brands when done correctly, enabling them to connect their brands to feelings we have had since children. Symbol choice therefore needs to be thought-out, or otherwise a missed opportunity!

But… sense-check the symbolism you’re creating: When a symbol like the bear is so contradictory, brands need to be careful not to muddy these cues. In the case of Balenciaga, the cues were indeed muddied. They pulled on the horror trope whilst including children, for a fashion campaign. This created an imbalanced power dynamic and resulted in a culturally insensitive campaign.

Using semiotics can help us understand exactly what is communicated when we leverage symbols like the bear, helping us to avoid putting out the wrong meaning. If you’re interested in finding out more about our semiotics offering at Verve, you can contact us here.

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