Monday, April 28, 2008

Is advertising language normal language?

• Is advertising language normal language?
• Does advertising language sometimes break the rules of normal language?

These questions relate to the place of advertising language in the context of the readers' general knowledge of language (we will presume that the language is English). In order to answer them, we must have some conception of what is meant by "normal language". The English language has evolved to have many different kinds of functionality, each of which correspond to different situations and styles of use. From an analytic point of view, it seems to make most sense to understand "normal language" to include the variety of styles of English that mature speakers and readers control. This will form the backdrop of everyday language in its many functions, against which we can view advertising language.

If one looks around in literature on advertising, or searches on the WWW, it is not uncommon to find claims to the effect that advertising breaks the rules of normal language and language use. However, from the perspective of a professional linguist, few of these claims really seem to be supportable. Now, with the exception of linguists, few people have any reason to pay close attention to the way that language is actually used in its speech community, for a wide range of communicative functions. Like many aspects of human being and human behavior, our unconscious knowledge of language is much greater than our conscious knowledge of it, so the facts about language that are immediately accessible to the average person only cover part of what the language is and how it is used.

Collect some text from advertisements that you have found. Can you find any examples of words, phrases or constructions that are truly different from the various varieties that you encounter on a regular basis? These varieties may include informal spoken language between close friends to technical and scientific descriptions (more likely to be written), and everything in between. Doubtless, not all of the text you find will be standard English, but is any of it not English at all? In doing this exercise, it may be that you will learn more about what creative possibilities your language allows, rather than how much advertising goes beyond the boundaries of that language.

In a recent short article in the journal Nature, Pullum and Scholz (2001) point out that, at every level, language has a level of creativity that allows it to be ever-expanding, ever-changing. Even the idea that there is a stock of words which constitute the English language cannot be upheld, because it is always possible to invent new words, and new names in particular. Thus, "Here is my new invention; I call it "X" " is a strategy in everyday English which advertisers can take advantage of, when they state "Introducing the all-new "Y" ".

In an interesting coincidence which illustrates the point very clearly, the Dreamweaver® program which we have used to construct this website has the command "Indent" to indent a paragraph, and we used it to format the quote below from McQuarrie and Micks. In the command menu, the command after this one is "Outdent", which makes a paragraph wider. Neither of us had seen this word before, yet we understood its meaning, and certainly did not reject it as "non-English".

This is not to say that any random new word can be generated for the author's purposes in any context. The "Outdent" example above is presented in a very clear context, which makes apprehending its usage and meaning quite clear. We generally find that novel words presented in an advertisement have the same supporting context; they may be new, but they are not "out of the blue".

The work of McQuarrie and Mick (1996) is highly relevant in this context. They place advertising language in the context of the study of rhetoric, and observe:

"A rhetorical figure has traditionally been defined as an artful deviation (Corbett 1990). More formally, a rhetorical figure occurs when an expression deviates from expectation, the expression is not rejected as nonsensical or faulty, the deviation occurs at the level of form rather than content, and the deviation conforms to a template that is invariant across a variety of content and contexts. This definition supplies the standard against which deviation is to be measured (i.e., expectations), sets a limit on the amount and kind of deviation (i.e., short of a mistake), locates the deviation at the level of the formal structure of a text, and imposes a grouping requirement (i.e., there are a limited number of templates, each with distinct characteristics)."

The unusual aspects of language that we sometimes find in advertising can be fruitfully considered to be examples of "artful deviations".

36.3 VW ad (Rolling Stone, May 23, 2002): Heck, it's been re-everything-ed.

This new verb is coined on the basis of a very robust feature of English, which allows nouns to be used as verbs (see Clark and Clark (1979)). In this case, the new verb is also prefixed and suffixed. Out of the blue, "to re-everything" would be hard to interpret, but in the context provided by the advertisement, its meaning is clear.

In the summer of 2002 the pop group No Doubt had a hit song called "Hella Good"; some of the lyrics are shown here:

Hella Good (G. Stefani/ T. Dumont/ P. Williams/ C. Hugo/ T. Kanal)

You got me feeling hella good
So let's just keep on dancing
You hold me like you should
So I'm gonna keep on dancing
(Keep on dancing)

"Hella good" is not advertising language, and it is not standard English, but it is certainly "pop music English", and it is the kind of phrase that anyone could produce in conversation.

In 48 Cointreau (InStyle, August 2002) we find an example of a blend, "Be Cointreauversial".

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