The language of advertising: innovative maverick or language outlaw?

The power of language is often harnessed to persuade. And love them or hate them – it’s usually one or the other – advertisements certainly have a way of getting inside our heads. Not to mention getting us to take out our wallets. But how many rules do they break along the way?

Actually – quite surprisingly – not that many.

For example: ‘Skittles – taste the rainbow’. Well, one might point out that a rainbow is not something you can even get your tongue on, much less taste. But since we all understand the nature of metaphor (as well as the basic red = strawberry code, from childhood), there’s no need for any actual head-scratching.

Similarly, there was no cause for concern when the noun (for soft drink) ‘Tango’ transformed itself into a verb; though we may all briefly have lived in fear of being ‘Tangoed’. After all, this method crops up in modern business language too, where tasks can now be ‘actioned’, even if not everyone is thrilled about it.

Indeed, if we didn’t instinctively understand the underlying rules of language, then the adverts just wouldn’t work. Other such tools on the advertisers’ belt include connotation, word-play and humour.

So, when Herbal Essences fervently promise ‘a totally organic experience’, they may raise a smile. When the makers of SMA follow-on baby milk assure us that ‘we know’, we feel reassured that they do recognise, empathise with and understand all the inherent pressures, panics and pleasures of parenting   – despite them actually saying none of this. They know which blanks to leave for us to fill – in other words, they know their audience.

When a product is extremely well-known and recognisable, of course, it will carry its own connotations that go far beyond the need for verbal or written prodding. If, forty-odd years ago, a slogan merely read: ‘The Coke side of life’, it would have meant precious little to anyone. These days, the drink has such a long-established image that we’ll automatically connect it with being young/picnics/holidays/Christmas – or summer/celebrating/energy and so on. The language of advertising is often difficult to separate from its context and imagery, and it is this combination that makes it such a powerful force.

Our great ability to make sense of, accept and incorporate new words is what makes the dictionaries thicker every year (recent additions to Merriam-Webster include ‘frenemy’ and ‘vlog’). It’s also what keeps the English language alive – even if it is what keeps the advertisers’ bank accounts growing too.

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