‘The Real Thing’? The language of advertising slogans
‘The Antidote to Civilization’ – so stated the famous Club Med advertising slogan. The highly educated always claim to be immune to the blandishments of advertising slogans. At best they are clever word and image manipulations for the masses; at worst, they are a torture rack for grammar and language.
Great literature they are not. (The sloganeering mode is very addictive!) Love them or hate them, stand aloof from them or engage with them, claim immunity from their persuasions or celebrate their memorability, there is no denying that the language of advertising slogans is pervasive, influential, and ubiquitous. It is estimated that the average western consumer is subject to 5,000 daily advertising messages across all forms of media. This makes it the most universal of creative literary forms.
What’s it for?
What is the purpose of the advertising slogan? A clue lies in the etymology of the word advertise itself – which has its root in the Latin verb ‘advertere’ – to turn towards. Slogans are a way of capturing the attention and taking the attention onwards to a predetermined destination.
It was not always so. Advertising’s early words and images were simply to convey information: to describe products, how they worked, what they did, and their availability. Its modern role as an instrument of persuasion, as a literary form to convey meaning and significance, came later in the 20th century.
To keep the consumer ‘turning towards’ the desired destination, the advertising slogan has to first of all grab attention. Then it must embed itself in the memory.
To state the obvious, advertising words must be memorable. To be memorable, the words, phrases, and slogans must be repeated. (Even the word used for the basic text of an advertising message – copy – connotes replication and reproduction). To be recalled and repeated, to be passed along to others, to be used and reused, is the ultimate destination – the golden journey of an advertising slogan passing from the advertisers’ creative notebook to the nirvana of becoming a popular expression. Take ‘the customer is always right’ for a neat example of something that began life as an advertising slogan for Selfridges Store in 1910 and now is ingrained in the shopper’s lexicon.
All success in advertising is predicated in being alive and retained in the memory. The human memory, however, can only store and recall finite numbers of slogans. A sure-fire route to success is to make the slogan a reductionist art form. ‘Think Small’, the Classic Volkswagen slogan in the USA in the 1960s, did precisely this, in encapsulating the essence of the message, its meaning and its relevance.
It is essential in a noisy and crowded world that a slogan stands out. Take the Apple slogan of the 1990s ‘Think Different’ – which used the adjective different rather than the expected (and more grammatically correct) adverb differently. To be memorable the phrase and the image that goes with it must be differentiated.
The word form of the slogan enables memorability. All ads direct towards some form of understanding and tangible action, mostly the purchasing of a product or service, or, in the area of public information, changing behaviour, changing a way of acting, or attempting to make people well-disposed to a cause or an idea.
Do as I say
In the early days of advertising, slogans tended to feature a call to action, taking the imperative tone, which was often emphasized by ungrammatical capitalization:
‘Go To Work On An Egg’ – Campaign by the Egg Marketing Board of the UK in the 1960s
‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’ – Esso marketing campaign from the 1960s
‘Say it with Flowers’ – used by Interflora from the 1920s onwards
‘Don’t Leave Home Without it’ – used by American Express in the 1980s
‘Dig for Victory’ – the ubiquitous World War 2 public slogan which encouraged self-sufficiency in food production in the UK.
If the intention is to have people buy a product or service, it seems a given that slogans project an air of self-confidence and have a ring of absolute truth, unfettered by the need to be empirically true or beyond contestation:
‘Diamonds are Forever’ – used in the legendary DeBeers campaign, beginning in the 1940s
‘It’s Good To Talk’ – used in a British Telecom advert in the 1980s to encourage people to talk on the phone for longer
‘It’s the Real Thing’ – arguably Coca-Cola’s most enduring slogan of the many it has used
‘Guinness is Good For You’– interestingly, this 1930s phrase had to be retracted at a later date when the advertising agency said there was no medical evidence of Guinness being of any health benefit and it was therefore making a false claim.
A call to arms
Slogans can also be declarative, setting up a call to action:
‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ – another famous Coca Cola slogan, which was immortalized in song.
‘You press the button, we’ll do the rest’ – this was the earliest advertising slogan for Kodak cameras: instructive as well as declarative.
‘A Mars a Day helps you Work, Rest and Play’ – slogan used to advertise Mars Bars in the UK, from the 1970s onwards.
Everybody loves a pun
Of course, as the world has become more sophisticated, and, by extension, more difficult to convince, slogans have had to rely more on capturing the attention with puns, alliteration, nouns, adjectives, and invented words, often foreign:
‘Be Cointreauversial’ – a campaign for the liqueur Cointreau
‘Don’t Just Book it, Thomas Cook it’ – used by Thomas Cook Travel Agency
‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ – a slogan used to advertise Heinz Baked Beans
‘Don’t be Vague, Ask for Haig’ – from a Haig Whiskey advert from the 1930s onwards
‘Any time, any place, anywhere’ – this phrase, used in the Martini adverts of the 1970s onwards, conjured up a world of carefree glamour and became used in many different ways, often with bawdy connotations unrelated to the original message.
You have to know the rules before you can break them
Advertising slogans, in order to be memorable, occasionally misuse grammar as well as invent words.
‘Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.’
Although this is a grammatically incorrect statement, as ‘like’ is not a conjunction (it should be ‘as’), advertising copy writers would probably argue that it is more memorable.
‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ has the distinction of being the world’s most famous split infinitive and has reached an audience of millions as the opening of the legendary TV series Star Trek.
From Gutenberg to Google
For a century the advertising slogan has become an alternative literary form. Some would argue that some advertising has become an art form for the masses. However, just as this level of esteem has been reached, the whole nature of advertising words has changed again. The future of slogans may be determined by how we phrase key words (now known appropriately as ‘ad words’) in the copy of online documents to maximize their ability to be searched. Now that Google is the world’s dominant advertising medium, traditional advertising will have to find a new lexicon.
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
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