Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says about You

Beneath some Mad men poppycock, Geoffrey K. Pullum spies a smart survey of linguistics in action

April 21, 2011

Does the endless array of choices confronting consumers in 21st-century capitalist society mean the end of genuine choice, as advertisers learn more and more about how to shape our desires through subtle uses of language in ways we are not even aware of?

I'm not posing that rhetorical question myself; I'm just paraphrasing the blurb on this book, which I guess was put there by the publishers - God, perhaps they're controlling my mind.

They could be. But I've never been very seriously concerned about the possibility of advertisers manipulating my choices. Their modest successes do not seem to me to have huge implications for human freedom. Most of us can see that we are being manipulated, and how. If we cared enough we could react. I may feel mildly more interested in a certain sports car or beer if you use sexy images or cleverly crafted phrases to make me associate it with pleasure; just not very much, that's all, and not for very long.

I'm more concerned about having my time wasted. This week a media firm called me and spent a long time bending my ear about what they said was an important and confidential invitation having something to do with the Royal Family. Slowly they revealed that their interest lay in whether I was vain enough to pay them so I could have a two-page ghostwritten spread in a coffee-table book celebrating Her Majesty's 60-year reign. The call made me furious in a way that TV commercials and magazine ads don't.

Mind control by advertisers was a burning issue 50 years ago. When Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders (1957) he was duped by James Vicary's claims about increasing Coca-Cola and popcorn sales with subliminal movie screen ads (they turned out to be fraudulent). Wilson Bryan Key ramped up the moral panic with Subliminal Seduction (1973) and The Clam-Plate Orgy (1980): advertisers, he alleged, were seducing us with nudes in ice cubes and group sex images in pictures of food.

Psychologists subsequently showed that most of it was poppycock ("cargo-cult science", Anthony Pratkanis called it in 1992). The topic largely receded from view. But it is back in this engrossing book, which besides flirting with the idea that subliminal advertising can work - [BUYTHISBOOK] (did you spot that?) - offers a fascinating, highly readable miscellany of ways in which advertisers do things to us with words.

The range of topics is reminiscent of the choice-paralysing array of cereals on the supermarket shelves: choice, persuasion, democracy, cigarettes, Pavlov, race, phonology, branding, liberals, sound symbolism, the Edsel, puns, norms, framing, H.P. Grice, schizophrenia, mind-reading, lying, speech acts, science fiction, memory, jingles, personality, sociolinguistics, dialects, metaphors, mustards, fonts, education, paternalism ... and much more.

The main value of this book is not to be found in its ability to forewarn and forearm us against the wicked manipulations of Madison Avenue. These authors have a more serious goal than Key, who was content simply to stoke our fears about being puppets. Julie Sedivy and Greg Carlson are serious academics in the cognitive and linguistic sciences (Carlson is the current editor of the most important scholarly journal in the field of linguistics). The language of ads is merely a hook; their main focus is on offering an enticing, well-written survey of interesting applications of linguistics and psycholinguistics.

For a university student with nascent interests in language and thought, reading this book might well provide a stimulus to take some philosophy or psychology or language sciences, which would be no bad thing.

Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says about You

By Julie Sedivy and Greg Carlson

John Wiley and Sons, 336pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780470683095

Published 1 February 2011

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