An Analysis of Language Manipulation in Advertising
Advertisers use the manipulation of language to create claims that suggest something about their products without directly claiming it to be true. Through this method, consumers are attracted to a product because they infer certain things about the product from its claim even though those things are often not true of the product itself. Companies rely heavily on their slogans, jingles, and advertisements to make a profit, and the language used in these various forms of media have a huge impact on their effects on the consumer. In his article “The Language of Advertising Claims,” Jeffrey Schrank says that although the use of color, symbols, and imagery in advertisements can be studied to determine their psychological techniques, the “simplest and most direct way to study ads is through an analysis of the language of the advertising claim,” because all the other aspects of the ad center around this claim. This paper is going to analyze what it is about these types of claims that appeals to consumers and how the use of specific grammatical structures renders the claims meaningless.
Schrank explains that the claim is the “verbal or print part of an ad that makes some claim of superiority for the product being advertised.” While some claims are honest statements about products, others are outright lies. However, most claims fall into the middle ground, “neither bold lies nor helpful consumer information.” These claims are the ones that rely most heavily on the manipulation of language to attract consumers to their products. Some rely on one word whose presence negates the claim in the rest of the sentence, and others make a claim about the product but fail to qualify the claim. For example, the claim, “Peterson’s gives you more,” does not clarify what it gives you more of.
Many people believe they are immune to advertising, claiming that while they view and even enjoy commercials and advertisements, they know that the point of the ad is to attract consumers, so they are prepared to not be fooled into buying the product in the ad. However, Schrank writes, “Advertising works below the level of conscious awareness” and those who claim immunity to its message are the most susceptible. Advertisers are aware of the public’s perceived immunity to advertisements, and they use this belief to their advantage. If people don’t believe they are being persuaded by it, they have no defenses against it.
So many companies rely on advertising gimmicks to attract consumers because many of today’s products are parity products. Parity products are “products in which all or most of the brands available are nearly identical” (Schrank). Gasoline, cigarettes, beer, soaps, soft drinks, and headache and cold remedies are all examples of parity products. Since no one brand in these products transcends the rest, ads are needed to create an illusion of superiority. There are several techniques commonly used to make products seem superior to other products.
The first of these techniques involves the words “better” and “best.” Schrank says, “The word ‘better’ has been legally interpreted to be a comparative and therefore becomes a clear claim of superiority.” Legal minds have decided that parity products, of which all brands are equal in quality, can use the word “best” to describe their product because if all products are equally good, they can all be considered the best. Schrank continues, “The only time ‘better’ can be used is when a product does indeed have superiority over other products in its category or when the better is used to compare the product with something other than competing brands.” So a company selling laundry detergent can claim that their product is better than toothpaste, but one gasoline company cannot claim that their gasoline is better than any other company’s gasoline.
This is an interesting usage of the terms “better” and “best,” which are the comparative and superlative forms of the word “good.” While all products can be deemed “good” products because the adjective “good” does not counter the claim of any other products, the word that is typically used to mean the highest form of good now cannot be used in this sense. The word “better” denotes superiority, so it has become the legal word of choice for products that actually are better than other competing products-an interesting twist in grammatical structure. When companies cannot legally say that their product is “better” than the competing products, they often resort to using other linguistic advertising techniques instead of vying for the false position of “best.”
Schrank outlines ten basic advertising claims that are used to make consumers believe something about the product that is not true. The claims are legal because when studied grammatically, we can determine that the claims do not actually provide any false information-people just make unconscious assumptions about the products based on how the ads are worded. The first two claims are the Weasel Claim and the Unfinished Claim. These two claims focus the most on the linguistic aspects of their claims, as opposed to claims that try to make products sound different and unique in a more straightforward way.
The Weasel Claim involves a modifier, the “weasel word,” that negates the claim that follows it. Some of the most common weasel words include “helps,” “virtually,” “acts,” “can be,” “up to,” “refreshes,” “comforts,” “fights,” “the feel of,” “the look of,” “fortified,” “enriched,” and “strengthened.” These words modify the claims that follow them by being subtle enough for consumers to not notice them and only take in the information that follows them. The weasel words give the idea that they are reinforcing the claims that follow them, but they actually detract from the claim by rendering them less significant or even completely worthless. They reduce the significance of the claims by using powerful, assertive words such as “help,” “act,” and “fight” to give the impression of effectiveness. However, when the word’s literal meaning is taken into account, we realize that the weasel word is the most important word in the whole claim. It takes the meaning away from the rest of the claim, so that if the claim is, “Helps control dandruff,” the word “helps” acts as a weasel word so the actual claim no longer that it controls dandruff but that it helps you control dandruff-like a good friend might. We could expand on this example with the claim, “Helps control dandruff with regular use.” In this case, the word “regular” is another weasel word, because by modifying the word “use,” the actual claim strays even further from the perceived claim. Without a clarification of what “regular use” is-daily? twice a week?-the claim is no longer reliable. These claims could easily be clarified by telling us what the product is being compared to, but advertisers purposely leave that information out so they can’t be construed as giving false information.
The Unfinished Claim states that the product has more, or is better than something, but does not say what that “something” is. “Peterson’s gives you more” is an Unfinished Claim because it claims that by using the product the consumer gets more of something-but what? In this claim, the word “more” classifies as the indirect object, not an adjective, as the advertisers want consumers to think. Because we usually hear the word “more” used as an adjective, the advertisers can use it at the end of this claim to give the feeling of there being “more” to come-more of something-even though it really is the indirect object that Peterson’s claims to be giving to you. These claims, similar to the “better than” claims,” need qualifiers that answer the question “than what?” so we know what to compare the product to when evaluating the claim.
Unfinished Claims that rely on “more” and its adjectival power include: “Chai-mate gives chai more flavor,” “30% more cleaning power,” and “More people sleep on Sleepwell Posturepedic.” The last of these three claims is meant to be interpreted, “More people sleep on Sleepwell Posturepedic than on other mattresses,” but can actually mean many different things: More people sleep on Sleepwell Posturepedic than on concrete floors, more people than alligators sleep on Sleepwell Posturepedic, or more people sleep than fornicate on Sleepwell Posturepedic. The second claim above, “30% more cleaning power,” is more straightforward. We are meant to interpret it as either “30% more cleaning power than competing brands” or “30% more cleaning power than an earlier version of this product.” However, the fact that it does not specify what the product has 30% more cleaning power than renders the claim meaningless. The company has no responsibility to prove that what they say in their ad is true, because the ad is not based on facts. The first claim above, “Chai-mate gives chai more flavor,” is not only an Unfinished Claim, but also uses weasel words to further entice consumers. We aren’t told what product Chai-mate is being compared to, and we also aren’t told what the term “flavor” are supposed to imply. Is the “more flavor” Chai-mate promises us a pleasurable flavor or a bitter one?
From Schrank’s list of common weasel words, seven out of fifteen are verbs, and another three are adjectives derived from verbs. This suggests that a sense of action or of doing is important to the consumer. They respond to words like “helps” and “acts” because the words make it sound as if the product is being proactive toward the desired result. Three out of the fifteen are prepositional phrases: “up to,” “the feel of,” and “the look of.” These phrases imply either an upward trend or a similarity between two products. If the claim is “Save up to 40%,” the phrase “up to” is often overlooked and we assume we will save 40%. Additionally, the “up to” has that sense of rising motion in it, which translates in us as an overall good feeling. Most people nowadays like bigger, better, and more things, so that feeling is welcomed and even sought after. Anything between zero and the number following “up to” is included in these claims, making the phrase “save up to 40%” literally mean “save between 0% and 40%”. Similarly, the phrases “can be” and “virtually” connote the possibility of the product being what the claim says it is. Consumers tend to take claims such as, “Leaves dishes virtually spotless,” to mean, “Leaves dishes spotless.” The positive quality of the word “virtually,” as if there is a real possibility of the product leaving the dishes truly spotless, counteracts the fact that the word “virtually” literally means “almost,” leaving people with the image of spotless dishes.
The fourth category of function that weasel words perform is to give the product an illusion of strength. “Fortified,” “enriched,” and “strengthened” are examples from Schrank’s list that fulfill this role. The fact that these words were formed from verbs makes them seem stronger and more action-oriented, as we mentioned above, but they also all relate to strength and power. These words are often used to describe products that we wouldn’t normally think of as “strong” or “powerful,” thus making them appeal to us even more.
Consumers also respond to comparisons that suggest the product is of high quality or is similar to another product. This accounts for the other two prepositional phrases in Schrank’s list. “The feel of” and “the look of,” as well as others not mentioned by Schrank, imply a comparison between two things. A headline that reads, “Ford Bushwhacker has look and feel of pricier cars,” gives the impression that the Bushwhacker looks and feels like pricier cars because it has the same quality as pricier cars, but in reality, all it claims is that it looks like those cars, but the look could made with cheap materials that won’t last long. Similarly, the claim “Epoch fencing captures the look and feel of natural wood” sounds like it means Epoch fencing looks and feels like natural wood, but in reality it doesn’t look or feel anything like natural wood, because it is made of plastic. Additionally, the word “captures” acts as a weasel word because it negates the rest of the claim-that Epoch fencing has the look and feel of natural wood. What does the word “captures” mean in the context of this sentence? It has no significance, because the ad is personifying wood, which cannot literally catch anything. The literally meaning of the words in the ad is that Epoch fencing is not natural wood.
This manipulation of language succeeds because people believe they are immune to the advertisements that surround them. This illusion of immunity makes them even more vulnerable to the various techniques advertisers use to target exactly those people. They infuse advertisements for parity products with Weasel Claims, Unfinished Claims, and illusions of superiority to attract consumers to their products, and consumers think they are buying a superior product when, in fact, they are not. The grammatical structure of the English language makes this kind of advertising especially lucrative, because of people’s tendency to only register that parts of the ad that they want to be true. The relationship between words in a sentence is intricate, and we must be aware of the way a subtle shift in the structure of a sentence can change the entire sentence’s meaning before we can claim to be immune to the linguistic gimmicks of advertising.
Schrank, Jeffrey. “The Language of Advertising Claims.” Teaching About Doublespeak. ed. Daniel Dieterich. Illinois: NCTE, 1976.
This work is the property of the author. All rights reserved.