Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Advertising vs. English

It's hot, my brain has turned to mush, my ambition is low, and I'm not up for anything heavy and serious. About all I can bestir myself to write about today is my annoyance at what advertising has done to my beloved English language. A few examples:

 • The guy in the commercial says "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis." Sounds like an endorsement, right? But then Mr. Most Interesting Man in the World, given a choice between the beer in his hand and nothing at all, comes down firmly on the side of the latter: "Stay thirsty, my friends." IOW, don't drink this swill on a bet.

 • "Product X contains Ingredient Y, which emerging science suggests supports breast health." Translation: There's not an iota of solid scientific evidence that Product X can either prevent or cure breast cancer, but we didn't really claim it did, so you can't sue us. On the other hand, we sure hope that idea comes floating up into your head the next time you see Product X on the shelf at the drugstore (or wherever you buy your favorite placebos and quack nostrums).

 • The disclaimer at the end of the insurance commercial says "not available in all states". Think about that for a minute. It means that their product cannot be had anywhere in America. It's unavailable in each and every one of the 50 states. But this company, which has such a shaky grasp on quantification that they evidently cannot tell the difference between "all" and "some", nonetheless assures you that their rates are lower than their competitors'.

You see what's going on here, don't you? In advertising-speak, it has ceased to matter what you say. We're way past the kind of vacuous puffery (like "makes clothes whiter than white") that courts have ruled nobody takes seriously anyway, so go ahead. We're now into new territory, where you're welcome to use content-free speech or even direct repudiations of your own message, on the theory that the words no longer carry any overt, denotative meaning.

And it doesn't take much imagination to see where it's heading, either. In the not-too-distant future, the ad-agency view of the typical consumer will envision someone whose brain comprises a matrix of tiny waxen hexagonal compartments, each with a teensy, insular capacity of 140 bytes, into which they can stuff messages like this:

bunnies rainbows happy-happy flags Our Product kittens apple pie butterflies Our Product joy-joy mom warm bread Our Product gurgling babies fireworks

In short, we're headed for pure connotation and suggestion — the triumph of vapid associations over truth and content.

But these anti-intellectuals will only triumph if we let them, if we turn off our brains altogether and give up on expecting anything meaningful out of them, if we lower our expectations below the crust and the mantle where they've already sunk lower than I would have thot possible and descend straight down to the core. We can only stop this assault on the English language if we USE our brains to analyze what we're hearing and then refuse to patronize the advertisers that have so clearly demonstrated their contempt for our attention spans and intelligence.

Yup, that's what we need to do, all right.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's still hot, and I got me a hankerin' for a Dos Equis.


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