Language of advertising: How far should we travel?

In most advertisements, language is a major component. It’s used to convey information, influence attitudes and affect behavior that can lead to purchasing activities.

In creative advertising, specifically, we almost always see that standard English with commonly accepted rules is broken down. Why?

William M. O’Barr argues in his article “Language and advertising” that the decision advertisers take in doing this is not by chance, but with apparent marketing intention in mind.

“They want to arrest our attention, arouse our desire and create excitement within us,” he explains.

Take, as an example, from the new Coca-Cola’s TV commercial on “taste the feeling”.

Obviously, the copy writer of this Coca-Cola’s commercial wanted to use the language of the people as opposed to using correct grammar. It’s easy to understand and communicates to us directly.

Coca-Cola isn’t alone in doing this, though. A battery of other print ads are also on the same page. “The pregnant pause. Make sure you’re not the father” (The Economist) and “Perfect eggs start with Silver Stone” (Dupont Non-stir Surface) are two of the many examples that break the rules.

Wyckham, Banting and Wensley, in their study of “Language of advertising”, indicate that in creative advertising syntactic irregularities (i.e. incorrect word usage, incomplete sentences and missing referents) and stylistic misuses (i.e. inappropriate personification, slang, empty concepts and strained poetic license) are commonly found.

They say this approach of transgressing the language would allow advertisers to attain some degree of memorability and uniqueness in their advertising. That makes the message more effective.

While I’d somehow agree with them on that point, I’m stilling wondering. I’m wondering whether adverting that uses language that conforms to grammatically correct standard is less powerful and influential than the one that uses language that breaks acceptable standard of rules of grammar.

Equally important, when it comes to language learning, such irregular use of language in advertising can potentially adversely affect children language learning and development.

A study by Kirkorian and colleagues on “Media and young children’s learning” indicates that elementary school children learn to read and recognize words and expressions from TVCs that they haven’t been taught in school. This is not to say many of these kids try to mimic what they see in those TVCs.

This raises a question of whether and how important it’s to have a standard regulation on language use in advertising. But, of course, doing this would mean we limit creativity to flourish.

As a student of advertising, I feel it’s our social responsibility if our creativity in language use creates negative influences on kids.


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