Wednesday, November 19, 2008



Earlier this week, I wrote that advertising is the language of commerce. To speak for commerce, advertising must reinforce commercial values. A commercial speaker has his own economic interests in mind. To that extent, his messages will attempt to do one thing: To entice the listener to buy whatever he offers. Advertising seeks to stimulate the senses in just such a way as to excite a desire to buy. "Successful" advertising generally appeals to emotion, not to reason. Advertisers want to create impulses, and impulses are not based in reason. Bearing that in mind, it is not surprising that most advertising resorts to extremely basic language. Some advertising uses no language at all, choosing instead to display images and sounds. To use an old cliche, "pictures are worth a thousand words." It is a cliche, but it is true. The human mind derives its most lasting impressions from sight, not hearing. Advertisers know that, so they prefer to stimulate the eye far more than the ear.

But what about the language in commercial messages? True, advertising packs its most powerful punches in images, but language helps frame an image to make it even more memorable. The key is to simplify the linguistic message as much as possible to make the words almost as stark as an image. Advertisers do this by breaking down traditional grammar rules. For example, I saw an advertisement today on an ATM machine that said: "Get your cash. Twice as Fast." It made two sentences out of one. It would be perfectly accurate--as a grammatical matter--to say: "Get your cash twice as fast." "Twice as fast" modifies "get your cash." It describes the way in which you'll get your cash. But the advertisement here splits the ideas in an effort to isolate each concept. It says bluntly: "Get your cash." That is a separate, very basic idea. We all want money, especially if it is "ours." It targets a fundamental human urge for ownership. We earned it, so we have an immediate right to it. Once the first message grabs our attention, we move to the second idea: "Twice as fast." That alone is not a sentence. Yet we know it refers back to the penetrating "Get your cash" we heard first.

Everyone loves to "get their cash." And they love it even more when they "get it twice as fast." Of course they'll buy what's offered! Getting money fast...can anyone resist that?

What is going on here? Why abandon grammar in this situation? Simple: Because advertising is not normal language. In most cases, language has a communicative function. It works to convey one person's subjective impressions to another in as clear a manner as possible. Advertising, by contrast, has an inductive function; it acts to induce a person to do something through subtle (or not so subtle) sensory hints. Advertising will strip language bare to fulfill its inductive purpose, and that is exactly what happens in the ATM advertisement I described. It targets extremely basic ideas. It isolates them in the listener's mind, then acts on them to induce a desire to buy something that will address those ideas. This is not intellectual discourse; it is sensory manipulation.

Many other commercial messages isolate ideas in an ungrammatical way. It is an efficient way to tap directly into basic human desires. Once the message awakens those basic urges, the listener will more likely respond to the speaker's enticements. Another example: An advertiser wants you to buy his hamburger. He takes a beautiful, full-frame photograph of a freshly-made, luscious-looking hamburger with all the fixings. He places the photograph on a red background. In bright white letters underneath the image, he prints the words: "You know you want it. Get it. Now." Again, the language is extremely basic. After targeting the listener's basic desire to eat, it tells the listener that he can satisfy his desire by buying the hamburger. If there was any doubt about timing, the third message tells him that he can satisfy his hunger "Now."

These tactics appear in all commercial fields, not just those dealing with hunger, thirst or other base bodily functions. Even law firms use ungrammatical language to entice potential clients to hire them. Go on to any law firm website and you will encounter slogans such as: "Winning matters. Get winning results. Get them here. No joke. Hire winners. Stop talking. Start winning. Because success is what we do." It does not matter what the speaker is selling. He simply targets a basic desire, hammers it with simple language then entices the listener to satisfy that desire. In the law firm example, a business listener would definitely respond to the initial overture: "Winning matters." Business people lust for winning as much as any human being lusts for food. A business person would surely want to hear more about a product or service that might satisfy his lust for winning. Good advertising need not convince the listener that the speaker's product or service will actually do the job; it must merely arouse the listener to make contact and spend some money. Grammar and linguistic clarity do not matter when simple inducement is the goal.

I find all this noteworthy because I do not like condescension. Advertising condescends; and it is unbelievably crass and banal. It aims to arouse childish impulses that I long ago should have abandoned. It aims to make people say: "I want it! I want it! I want it!" even if they really do not. It intrudes into our own subjective processes for commercial gain. Advertising takes people for fools and children. Sadly, however, it is very successful, even if it holds a captive audience. You cannot escape advertising in our commercial world. Its messages besiege you every day and every hour. We are only sensory creatures, and no matter how we try, it is very difficult to banish advertising from our senses. True, we all need to buy things in life to survive. But advertising bothers me because it presumes to make our choices for us. We cannot exercise our own judgment without first hearing endless entreaties from self-interested speakers. More often than not, we defer to their messages because they know more than we do. Other times, their messages and images excite a desire in us to buy what they offer. They did not win our minds; they simply overwhelmed our senses. Advertisers play on human weakness. That is what bothers me the most.

"You need it. You know it. Do it. Buy it." Is this what it's all about? Someone else knows what I want, and my sole function in life is to buy what he tells me I want? This is a pitiful state of things.

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