Monday, 16 May 2011

The Language of Advertising

As I have recently been exploring the language of marketing and advertising, I thought it would be a good idea to share some of my findings with you.
The language of advertising is a language of its own; very often it does not follow the grammar or even logical rules of the everyday language as we know it but this is what the advertisers actually strive for – the more a slogan diverts from the norm the more catchy it is, although at times it might be captivating in a negative way.
Brevity is one of the most important characteristics of an advert. Some even say that an advertisement is an art of minimising. Most of the time, they are based on metaphors and idioms. When it comes to translating a very concise and idiomatic text, the best thing to do is to substitute it with a similar idiom or a metaphor in the target language rather than paraphrase it (even if this would seem to be a more accurate translation). Translators should also bear in mind that by keeping the text short they are saving their clients’ money, since longer adverts may require larger space, be it a page space or in a broadcast.
Grammatical incorrectness is a common practice in advertising; wrong word order or even clumsiness can draw clients attention and be easily remembered but it may as well be remembered for the wrong reasons, as it happened with a word-for-word translation from German: Das weiss man, was man hat into: To się wie, co się ma, where the się wie was referred to the Polish name Wiesiek. As a result, the slogan was considered an example of bad taste and clumsiness, which – unsurprisingly – had a negative effect on the product itself.
The choice of words has a crucial meaning in the world of advertising. The effectiveness of advertising is strongly determined by the language, it is the language that is the driving force of a successful advert, slogan or a marketing message. It is a tool to persuade people to buy a particular product. This is why the units of language that are applied are the key to achieve this ultimate goal – to sell.
There are many factors that determine the choice of words to be used in an advert, they include:

·         Emotional associations – the result of an advertised diet won’t be skinny body but slim body; after washing, your clothes will rather be bright than distinctive; and you’d rather use natural than normal products, as normal is usually associated with grey and boring, while natural –with nature, freshness and truth.

·         Features of the product – the words employed in an advert should emphasize the features of a product in the most efficient way possible, so if the advertised product is a washing liquid, its main characteristics are definitely: economical, effective and delicate to skin – the choice of words should pay tribute to these particular features.

·         Semantic differential – it is a method whereby you establish a pair of antonyms and then decide which of them the word is closest to, e.g. home would induce associations with adjectives like safe, close, warm, static, so if you want the product to induce the same associations, you will use the term home then and the product will be associated with the words that are used in the advert. Note that these may differ from country to country, so translators make sure you take this into consideration!

·         Vague words which have broad meanings are much better than the precise ones, since you can more easily manipulate the addressees; while using words with many meanings will let you avoid accusations of lying. A perfect example of this method is a slogan of Polish railways Twoja kolej, where kolej is a word with more than one sense; a standard meaning in this context would be railway but here it is also used as part of an idiom: Twoja kolejyour turn.

·         Linguists have worked out lists of words most often used in adverts. Can you guess what kind of words are the most common? Adjectives and adverbs. Here are some of the top ones: good/better/best, free, fresh, delicious, full, sure, clean, wonderful, special, fine, big, great, real, easy, bright, extra, rich and golden.

No verbs. Have a look at some of the slogans. How many of them have any verbs? Adverts are above time limits and this is then demonstrated by the lack of verbs which put constraints on the time; in general, ads refer to the present and near future. Obviously, we use present tense to talk about what will happen soon as it gives more certainty. You won’t say “I’ll go home tomorrow” but “I’m going home tomorrow” - especially that in some languages future tense implies uncertainty. In order to emphasise the present in an advert, advertisers also apply common time expressions such as: now, today, at last or here.

Adverts and culture. Adverts very often refer to the culture, history, literature and tradition of a particular country. In Poland, for example, a product is considered more familiar and known if its Polish and if the advert reflects this. On the other hand, foreign products appear as more luxurious and modern, hence in many advertisements of foreign products we might observe English terms and phrases cunningly inserted into a Polish slogan or an advert text. Which way to go then – would it be better to choose foreignisation or a more traditional, Polish way when translating an advert? The answer is simple: it depends on the type of the product, the addressee and the aim of the manufacturer. So, for example, familiarisation would work for dairy or cleaning products, while cars, coffee or perfumes should be foreignised.

These are just a few of the rules of the language of the advertising that I have picked up for you. My main source of information is a brilliant book “Język na sprzedaż” by arguably the most prominent Polish linguists, Jerzy Bralczyk.
Feel free to share your knowledge or your observations in the comment box below.


  1. Brilliant post, Ewa, thanks for writing this up and sharing your reference!

    Ania (@keycheck_t9n)

  2. Thank you, Aniu! Glad you liked it. Hope others will find it useful too.