Taking ADvantage
The Power of Words: Advertising Tricks of the Trade
Part One of a Two Part Series

by

Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.


At the end of World War II the Allies Powers sent a message to the Japanese demanding surrender. The Japanese responded with the word mokusatsu, which translates as either "to ignore" or "to withhold comment". The Japanese meant that they wished to withhold comment, to discuss and then decide. The Allies translated mokusatsu as the Japanese deciding to ignore the demand for surrender. The Allies therefore ended the war by dropping the bomb and transforming the world we live in forever.

The effect that words can have is incredible: to inform, persuade, hurt or ease pain, end war or start one, kill thousands or even millions of people. They can get your point across, or destroy any hope of your ideas ever being understood. A major element of advertising is the words, which ones and in what order. The following is a discussion of words and how to use them to the greatest effect in advertising.

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When using words, one of the major considerations must be how to achieve the most impact upon your audience. If the words chosen do not have an effect then there really isn't much point in saying or writing them. How then do you get the most impact from your words?

First, let us examine the ways in which words can have an impact. Each word has two definitions, the denotative and the connotative. The denotative meaning is basically the dictionary meaning, the one that almost anyone can understand who speaks or desires to speak the language.

For example, take the word "chair". It has a denotative meaning: a piece of furniture designed for one person to sit upon. Anybody can point at such a piece of furniture and the audience will respond with "chair" (or whatever word means "a piece of furniture designed for one person to sit upon" in their language). It is this denotative meaning students learn in foreign language classes so they will know the word "chaise" means "chair" in French.

However, of greater importance, particularly in advertising, is the connotative definition, the definition each individual conjures up in rher mind in response to hearing or reading the word. That definition can be denotative in effect, but strictly individual. For example, someone hearing the word chair will rarely think "a piece of furniture designed for one person to sit upon." Instead they will imagine what they consider a chair. It could be a desk chair, a Queen Anne wing chair, a dining room chair, or whatever image appears before the mind's eye representing to that person a "chair". This is not a specific image common to all, but a general concept dependent on the individual. This is why people use modifiers like adjectives and adverbs: they narrow the general concept to one specific to the speaker's intent. Thus, when the speaker has an image of a wing chair, rhe adds the modifier "wing". This prevents the audience thinking of a desk chair.

Thus the connotative definition of a word can be denotative in effect. However, of far more importance is that the connotative meaning of a word can have a strong emotional content. In other words, the audience can respond emotionally rather than intellectually to hearing or reading a word.

For example, let us take the word "snake". The denotative definition, a cold-blooded, legless reptile, has little emotional content. The connotative definition, however, can have a strong impact, depending on the individual's perception of a snake. It could be a cool, dry, pest eliminator, or a cold, slimy, yucky monster. Another example is "spider". As you, dear reader, read this word, what was your response? Did you think "an eight-legged arachnid"? Or did you have another, emotional response, perhaps "a silent pest-killer" or "a creepy, crawly, hairy beastie, yuck, keep-it-away-from-me, kill it"? Whichever response you had, it is your individual connotation, your emotional response to the word.

Why is this difference between the denotative and connotative definitions of words of such importance? It is because the greatest impact of words comes from using the connotative meanings to affect the audience's emotional response. One reason for this is that you cannot argue away emotions because they do not respond to logic. Thus if you can make your audience agree with your point of view on an emotional level, your competition's logical arguments won't sway them about why they shouldn't feel that way.

An example that just about everybody can relate to: you're in love; he-she-it is the most wonderful, perfect person in the world, flawless, faultless ("love is blind" is not only a cliche, it is a truism). Then he-she-it dumps you; tears, wailing, depression, etc., ensues. Your friends gather around and tell you that he-she-it is a jerk, a poltroon, not worth the tears, that he-she-it does not deserve the trauma through which you are putting yourself. You nod, agree, then you burst into tears anew, exclaiming "but I can't help it, this is how I feel." All the logical arguments in the world about why you shouldn't feel bad about being dumped have no effect on your emotions. That's how you feel.

That you cannot argue away emotions is only one of the reasons that connotations have impact. Another is that abstract words are almost entirely defined by their connotations. Abstract words such as truth, beauty, and justice mean what the individual feels they mean. There is no referent rhe can point to as a concrete example. Thus, abstractions affect most people emotionally. If, therefore, you can make a discussion of abstractions emotional by personalizing or anthropomorphizing them, they can have a greater impact. Moliere used this idea in his play TARTUFFE. He personalized religious hypocrisy, the cloaking of vice in a mantle of virtue, in the character of Tartuffe, a quite unpleasant person. Thus, if you don't like Tartuffe, an attitude difficult to avoid, you won't like what he stands for.

Another element of words that's important is that there are concrete and fuzzy words. Concrete words are those that have definite referents. That is, you can point at an example of what you mean by that word. For example, when you say the word "chair," you can point at the concrete item, a chair, to clarify your meaning to your listener. Concrete words have definite denotative meanings, and often have weak emotional connotations.

Fuzzy words are those that have no concrete referents, for which there is no object that can be pointed at to clarify what the speaker means. Fuzzy words can mean whatever you think they mean, and thus can mean different things to different people. For example, one fuzzy word is "beauty." Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, is dependent on culture, and changes from time to time and person to person. Other fuzzy words include "justice," which can mean anything from equality before the law to the vendetta, and "truth," which depends on how you view the world, what you know (or think you know), what others tell you, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

The thing that is clear is that fuzzy words are virtually all connotation, with their denotative meanings dependent on who is defining them. For example, Samuel Johnson, who wrote one of the first dictionaries in 1755, "defined a patron as 'one who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.'" (Bryson, 1990, pg. 153)

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Recall the discussion of programming in Consumer Psychology. Much of people's programming is done in words, and those words lead to people's behavior.

Words can obviously make people react or behave in certain ways. The problem is: which words?

Obviously some words have built-in reactions: mother, patriotism, truth, God, Allah, vomit, dentist. Whether someone is for or against any of the concepts represented by those words, nonetheless there is an emotional reaction.

However, most words do not, in and of themselves create reactions. Nevertheless, when put in combination with other words, phrases can have strong effects. For example, I once had a student who wrote an informative paper on the medical techniques used for abortions. She didn't want to express a point of view about abortion, simply discuss medical techniques. However, she used the words, "Another method used to kill the baby is . . .." (my italics). Notice the emotional impact of that phrase. Changing the words to ones that have little connotational meaning changes the effect of the same meaning. For example, "terminate the fetus" has the same meaning; however, it has far less emotional impact than "kill the baby."

By choosing words according to their denotative or conotative meanings, you can increase or decrease their impact on your audience.

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An effective use of words that is rather unethical but often used in advertising is using logical fallacies. These fallacies, "tricks of the trade," are misleading and are not sound reasoning, based as they are on word choice and syntax rather than evidence. They sound like evidence, but are really lacking evidence.

The usual way to create the tricks of the trade is by mixing concrete and fuzzy words, denotative and connotative meanings. Fuzzy words are particularly useful, since it is possible for the copywriter to mean one thing by a word, knowing all the while that the average reader will assume the meaning is something totally different. For example, "made in America" is a fuzzy phrase. It seems to be saying that the product is constructed of parts built in the United States, put together by United States citizens working in a factory in the United States. In fact, there may be only 51% of the parts made in America, and America may include Canada and Mexico, which are also part of North America.

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The following is several of the specific tricks of the trade that are commonly used in advertising

Black/White

The black/white, or either/or, trick is making a statement that provides insufficient options to your argument. "Love it or leave it" was a big slogan of the 1960s, and it sounds logical. Nevertheless, it provides no other possible options, such as "Love it, or don't love it, stay or not, you don't have to agree with me if you don't want to."

The reason this fallacy is often called the black/white fallacy is that it denies any shades of grey on an issue or idea. Using it gives the impression that everything can be seen in terms of yes or no, true or false, on or off, with no maybes or both true and false depending on circumstances allowed. This fallacy is particularly popular and effective in jingoism, where slogans replace thinking: "Love it or leave it", "If you're not for me, you're against me", "My country, right or wrong". Note that all of the above actually have other options, but the statements do not allow for them.

A common way in which this trick is used in advertising is by presenting two situations, one with the product and the other without. The one with the product shows circumstances that the advertiser presumes the target audience would like to be in, and vice versa for the situation without the product. For example, you have two groups of people: the first is young, beautiful, fit, happy, fun-loving and active; the second is old, ugly, out-of-shape, miserable, and apathetic. The first uses the product; the second doesn't. The underlying premise is that the product is an integral part of making you a member of the first, that the absence of the product makes you the second. Since most people would rather be the first, and the product is a part of being the first, then people should buy the product. And they do.

A real example: a salsa company used the slogan, "Got it. Don't got it." When saying "got it", the commercial showed pictures of the first group of people described above, all of whom were eating the salsa. Interspersed were pictures of the second type of people, who weren't eating the salsa, and who "don't got it." Clearly, eat the salsa or you "don't get it, loser."

Genetic Fallacy

The genetic fallacy makes a prediction about something based on where it came from or its origins. For example, saying "He wouldn't do that--he's from a good family" is making a genetic fallacy. "You can't expect any better from her--she's from the slums" is also using a genetic fallacy. Note that in neither case is there any reference to the individual's personal abilities or lack thereof; only to where they came from. In advertising, this fallacy is used often: "If it's made by [company], it must be good" is an example. Such statements may indeed by true, but they need evidence as proof, not merely a statement of origin.

Begging the Question

Begging the question is making a statement that includes a premise that has not been proven, basically saying that something is simply because it is. For example, the statement "Henry Miller's filthy books should be banned" is begging the question, in that it contains the unproven premise that the books are filthy. "Why are so many mothers of cavity prone children switching to Aim [toothpaste]?" is also begging the question. It contains the unproven premise that mothers of cavity-prone children are doing anything at all, much less switching to Aim. It looks like evidence that Aim is better for cavity-prone children, when it fact it provides no evidence whatsoever.

Weasel Words

Weasel words are those words that are tossed into a sentence that change the actual meaning of the sentence while leaving an impression that is different. It's the easiest way to avoid having to take any responsibility for anything you say, or seem to say. For example, the sentence "Our canned corn is as good as fresh cooked corn." The impression given is that the canned corn is as good (whatever that means) as corn on the cob right off the stalk. However, the phrase contains a weasel word: "cooked". Thus, the sentence actually says that the canned corn is as good as corn that has been cooked; now you need to cook it again to serve it. Note the sentence does not say that the canned corn is as good as fresh corn; it's as good as fresh cooked corn.

Another example: "Our dog food contains as much meat protein as 10 pounds of sirloin steak." The sentence gives the impression that the dog food contains sirloin steak. In fact it contains the equivalent of 10 pounds of steak in the form of meat protein. This protein can be anything that is made of meat: lips, cheeks, snouts, entrails, etc. It is doubtful that the dog food actually contains 10 pounds of steak. If it did, the sentence would read, "Our dog food contains 10 pounds of sirloin steak."

An interesting example of weasel words is the phrase "Three out of four doctors recommend the major ingredient in [the product of your choice]." Note that the major ingredient is not specifically stated. For many analgesic products, the major ingredient is aspirin. Saying that outright might leave the audience wondering why they should buy that product rather than just buying aspirin, and thus would defeat the purpose of the sentence.

(Of course, using the same reasoning as the above, the sentence could be "Three out of four doctors recommend the major ingredient in poisoned orange juice." Since the major ingredient in poisoned orange juice is orange juice, the statement is true, and we can ignore the small percentage of strychnine mixed in.)(Cross, 1983)

A favorite weasel word is one of the shortest: if. "If the whole wide world can enjoy [use, buy, desire, etc.] [whatever the product is], then so can you" says absolutely nothing about the product, or even if anyone at all enjoys [uses, buys, desires, etc.] the product. It simply says "if", applied to a totally hypothetical, nonexistent state of being. Nonetheless, that weaseling out of actually having to prove a contention is a major way of seeming to prove a contention.

Another common way of usng weasel words is using passive verb phrases. For example, instead of saying "I think that" (active verb phrase), you can say "It would seem that" (passive verb phrase). In the first instance, if anyone challenges your statement, you need to defend your position. In the second, however, if anyone challenges you, you can avoid any responsibility for defending the statement by explaining that you only said "it would seem that", not that you agree or that the statement had any validity in the first place. You can duck responsibility since you never actually said it's what you think, even if, at the time, it was.

Dangling Comparative

A dangling comparative is a statement which seems to be comparing one thing to another, but in actuality never actually states what the thing being compared is being compared to. What generally happens is that the comparison is left up to the audience to complete. For example, "Our tires stop 25% faster." Note that the statement never says what the tires stop faster than. The audience would naturally expect it to be other tires, and would mentally finish the statement "Our tires stop 25% faster than other tires." However, that is not what was said. The comparison is left open, and could be other tires (in which case, it would be stronger to actually say so), but it probably isn't other tires. It could just as easily be doughnuts.

"Our toothpaste tastes better." Better than what, day-old bacon fat, fertilizer, kerosene? The comparison is never finished except in the minds of the audience.

"There is nothing just like [whatever]." This is undoubtedly true. However, what is being compared? It could be simply the name of the product. Thus if the sentence is, "There is nothing just like Armorall," this is absolutely true; there is nothing else named Armorall. Other products may have exactly the same formula and do exactly the same thing, but "Nothing else is named Armorall." In fact, nothing else can be named the same; the name is trademarked, and if anyone tried to use the name, they would end up in court being sued for trademark infringement.

[As a side-note, I'd like to know who does the testing that allows the statement "Our cat [or dog] food tastes better." Again, better than what, and who found out?]

Complex Question

A complex question is one that appears to be asking for a yes or no answer, but is in reality two yes-or-no questions that are usually contradictory. A well-known example is, "Are you still beating your wife?" It seems to be asking for a yes or no answer, but no matter how it's answered, it condemns the respondent. Answer yes, and he's still beating his wife; say no, and he used to. Another example is, "Are you still cheating on your income tax?" Again, no matter how you answer, you can't win.

Buzz Words

Buzz words are words that seem to say something, but what? They are extremely popular in advertising. For example, a major word is "crisp" when applied to soft drinks or wine. What does this word mean? That the drink crackles like broken glass when you drink it? You chew it like potato chips?

"Natural" is a big buzz word, particularly applied to food and drink. However, what exactly is "natural"? Definitions of the word include "produced by nature," "not artificial," or "not cultivated or civilized." Thus what does the word mean when applied to, say, beer? If a beer is natural, is it produced by nature? That somewhere in the Amazon forest, there exists a beer tree that need merely be tapped and bottled? Unlikely; beer is produced in breweries and does not exist in nature. Is natural beer not artificial? Artificial means "made by humans." Since humans make the beer in breweries, then beer is definitely artificial. Is natural beer not cultivated or civilized? The behavior of beer drinkers is occasionally not cultivated or civilized, but beer is one of the first achievements of civilization. Then what exactly does it mean for beer to be natural: that it's not made of polyester? In effect, the word natural applied to any product that doesn't exist in a finished state in nature is a buzz word.

Of course, there are products that exist in nature and can be called natural. What does it mean in those cases? For example, what is the difference between natural and refined honey? Basically, the difference is dirt. Refining honey does not change the honey, just removes extra non-honey items like dirt, bees' wax, and perhaps bees.

How about "organic"? Organic seems to mean that a product is produced naturally (see above). However, organic means "carbon-based", as in the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry. Thus, just about anything not made of rocks is organic; if you can digest it, it's organic. To many people, organic foods are more healthful because they are produced without the use of chemical fertilizers or other "unnatural" means. However, chemical fertilizers are organic, are produced organically, and thus are just as organic as organic fertilizers such as bird guano. They just have a bad reputation that comes more from the reputations of the companies that make it than the reputation of the fertilizer itself.

Thus we can see that buzz words have little or no meaning in and of themselves. What meaning they do have is based on the connotations people give them (which often come from the way the people using them give them) rather then their actual denotative meanings.

Guilt by Association

Similar to the genetic fallacy is guilt by association, in which you attribute characteristics to someone or something based merely on the society they keep. It's the "lie down with dogs, get up with fleas" syndrome, where one's personal characteristics are overshadowed by the real or assumed characteristics of one's associates. If your friends or family are communists, you must be one, too. If you know a criminal, you're also a criminal. Again, it may be true, but association is not proof of anything.

In advertising, guilt by association is usually a positive statement about the product rather than a negative one. That is, the associations are positive rather than negative. For example, a product must be good because it is associated with good things or people: a car must be good because race driver has one; a sports drink must be good because a sports star drinks it; a brand of make-up must be good because a top model wears it. Again, the quality must be there, but that it keeps good compnay doesn't prove its value.

Self-Definition

Humpty Dumpty was very good at self-definition: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." (Carroll, 1960) This fallacy is very popular with people who wish to mislead, and is particularly effective using those slippery words that have no concrete referent. Such words as truth, beauty, justice, democracy, patriotism, love, and defense mean just what the person using them says they mean, assuming he or she actually says what they mean. It is in this way that self-definition works best: use a word that you expect your audience to define one way, but mean another way when you use it.

Let's look at an example. A prime word is "justice". Most people will agree that justice is a consummation devoutly to be wished. However, when you use the word and get your audience to agree with your desire for justice, you may mean vigilantism. Demagogues use this technique with great effect.

In advertising, self-definition is very effective. If the product is a beauty aid such as mascara or eyeliner or lipstick, the ad will show a model wearing the make-up. Her appearance is the definition of "beauty". To be "beautiful" the consumer must therefore use the advertised product.

Look at some more Tricks of the Trade

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Copyright 1996 Richard F. Taflinger.
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