Monday, April 28, 2008

Presupposition in Basic analytic concepts

An important aspect of any communication involves the presuppositions that are present. Presuppositions may be even more critical in television advertising (see Geis 1982) than in print advertising. However, even in print advertising, presuppositions are an important component of the overall message. As the name implies, a presupposition is a necessary precondition for the processing of any communication.

Presuppositions typically involve the existence of some object or idea:

This presupposes that there is something that is "this juicy", and then makes an assertion about that thing. One important function of the presupposition here is to promote a kind of ideology within advertising, in this case, the idea that "juiciness" is somehow related to shampoo and hair. Most product ranges have some cultural values imposed on them in this way, and advertising is the main mechanism for achieving this.

The next piece of text has a similar function:

This presupposes that there are leglines, curves and compliments, and thereby implicates that these things are related. **Can we find a jeans ad about ruggedness instead?**

A further example of presupposition, of a fact or proposition, is evident in this text from Apple Computer:

"I used to think it was my fault that Windows didn't work properly".

The phrase "fault that P" is presuppositional, with respect to P. Presuppositions hold constant under what linguists call the Negation Test: negating the part of the sentence above P still leads to the necessity of assuming P to be true. Consider the examples in (1) and (2):

(1)a. It is your fault that I am lazy.
(1)b. It is not your fault that I am lazy.

(2)a. It is your belief that I am lazy.
(2)b. It is not your belief that I am lazy.

In the examples in (1), whether the positive or negative version, it is presupposed that I am lazy. On the other hand, in (2), my laziness is the object of someone's belief, but there is no hidden factual claim. Due to this difference, (1)c is non-sensical, while (2)c is perfectly natural.

(1)c. It is your fault that I am lazy, but in fact I am not lazy (non-sensical).
(2)c. It is your belief that I am lazy, but in fact I am not lazy.

Returning to the Apple text above, the words do not directly assert that Windows does not work properly, but they presuppose this. And, given the Negation Test, we can see if that if text had been "It wasn't my fault that Windows didn't work properly", the presupposition would still be there.

Authors' note:
We are using the text above as a linguistic example, not as an endorsement for any product. In fact, this website was created on two laptop computers running Microsoft Windows XP.

To summarize, presuppositions are a crucial part of advertising as they can cause the reader to consider the existence of objects, propositions, and culturally defined behavioral properties: for example, "Have you had your daily vitamins?" presupposes that you take or need "daily vitamins", thereby creating and perpetuating the idea that the behavior of taking vitamins daily is part of our culture. Similarly, "What's great about Chuck Wagon dog food?" (Geis 1982, 45) presupposes that there is something great about the dog food---though exactly what is left open.

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