What Is an Icon in Rhetoric and Popular Culture?

McDonald's on riverfront in Pudong,China
Kylie McLaughlin / Getty Images

An icon can be defined as:

(1) A representative picture or image:

If something is iconic, it represents something else in a conventionalised way, as with features on a map (roads, bridges, etc.) or onomatopoeic words (as for example the words kersplat and kapow in U.S. comic books, standing for the impact of a fall and a blow). (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992)

(2) A person who is the object of great attention or devotion.

(3) An enduring symbol.

Iconography refers to the images collectively associated with a person or thing or to the study of images in the visual arts.

Etymology - From the Greek, "likeness, image"

The Food Icon

"In an effort to simplify the message it gives the public on healthy eating, the federal government yesterday unveiled a new icon to replace the complicated and confusing food pyramid: It’s a plate divided into four sections, with fruits and vegetables on one half and protein and grains on the other. A circle for dairy—indicating a glass of milk or container of yogurt—rests to the right of the plate.

"'The new icon is simple and easy to understand, with more emphasis placed on fruits and vegetables,' Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin said in a statement. It’s designed, she said, to 'help individuals and families make healthier meal choices.'" (Deborah Kotz, "US Serves New ‘Plate’ of Food Choices." The Boston Globe, June 3, 2011)

The Iconic 19th-Century Woman

"In an article titled 'Quiet Women' appearing in Ladies Repository in 1868, an anonymous author argues that 'quiet women [are] the wine of life.' Capturing the deep cultural longing of the postbellum period for the icon of the American woman as angel of the hearth, this portrait deifies the quiet woman and constructs other possibilities negatively: the enthusiastic woman, the talkative woman, the brilliant woman, and the babbling woman.

The mild and mellow queen of the court of silence is graceful and calm, and most important of all, she is quiet." (Nan Johnson, Gender and Rhetorical space in American life, 1866-1910. Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2002)

Visual Rhetoric

"More than 60 percent of our grocery store purchases are impulse buying, which is primarily a result of packaging—the way the product looks and its placement on the shelves. Ronald McDonald is second only to Santa Claus as a recognized icon by Americans. At sporting events, in concert halls, political rallies, even in our houses of worship, eyes turn away from the real event as soon as images begin to move on giant screens. Some critics insist that television itself has been transformed since the 1980s from a word-based rhetoric with minimal production values to a visually based mythic rhetoric that uses sophisticated production techniques to project an extreme self-consciousness of style." (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Suszn Schultz Huxman, The Rhetorical Act: Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, 4th ed. Wadsworth Cengage, 2009)

Icons and Symbols in Advertising

"All representational images are icons. But many icons are also symbols. If in addition to its mimetic relationship to a referent, the thing pictured has, by social agreement, certain arbitrary meanings, it will be both an icon and a symbol.

For example, a bald eagle icon will always have a mimetic relationship with its referent animal and, in an ad, it might signify mimetically fierceness, wildness, and unspoiled natural settings. But in some ads, the eagle may also, by arbitrary convention, symbolically signify the United States or the Boy Scouts. One reason why most ad images are rhetorically rich is because the things pictured in the ad have both literal/iconic and arbitrary/symbolic dimensions of meaning." (Edward F. McQuarrie, Go Figure: New Directions in Advertising Rhetoric. M.E. Sharpe, 2008)

Icons Aren't What They Used to Be

"Icons are increasingly hard to avoid. Last month I attended a funeral at which a mourner referred to the deceased as a local icon. While visiting Dublin in June, I found myself dining with a Scottish author of terrifying murder mysteries who described herself as 'an international cultural icon.' I also read in the press that McDonald's was an iconic franchise.

Then I got an email announcing that Creative Artists Agency had just added Greg Norman to its roster of clients. That is, Greg Norman, 'international golf icon.'

"The term 'icon' has two basic meanings, neither of which apply to Michael Jackson, Greg Norman, Ed McMahon, most Scottish mystery writers or anyone from Paul Revere & the Raiders. Originally it referred to sacred images painted on tiny wooden panels back in the days of the Eastern Empire. Thus, in theory, Farrah Fawcett's famous '70s poster could vaguely qualify as an icon. But for the longest time the word 'icon' was used to refer to what Webster's describes as 'an object of uncritical devotion.' No more. Today it is used to describe anyone reasonably famous who is completely over the hill, on a respirator, or stone dead. Or, in the case of Mickey D's, beloved but inanimate. . . .

"This is just another case of hyperventilating journalists hijacking an otherwise admirable language because they are desperate to insert an infectious banality into their work and don't care if it belongs there." (Joe Queenan, "Icons Aren't What They Used to Be." The Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2009)

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