Linguistic Manipulation in Advertising

Rudyard Kipling once said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” This statement is so very true within all aspects of life especially in the advertising industry. Creators of advertisements use powerful words in unusual combinations, sometimes with visuals, to inhabit and manipulate the readers’/viewers’ minds. Consumers need to be aware of the various linguistic (relating to language) devices used in advertising in order to lessen the suasive effect from the manipulation within advertisements.

According to Alan C. Harris’s article entitled, “Sell! Buy! Semiolinguistic Manipulation in Print Advertising,” manipulation of linguistic form means that a small idea or object will undergo some enhancement, change, transformation, mutilation, or mutation that is relatively unexpected on behalf of the reader/viewer. The manipulation usually stands out of the ordinary to grab the attention of potential purchasers which increases the purchasing consideration of the advertised product/service to the exclusion of all other similar products/services.

Advertisers use foregrounding to provide the manipulation within their advertisements. In advertising, foregrounding is a linguistic process in which certain components such as words, phrases, intonations (inflections), or symbolic visuals are made more meaningfully significant and prominent. By using linguistic devices in foregrounding, the advertiser marks, stresses, or contrasts in a unique, noteworthy manner which is conveyed to the consumer.

One of the more widely acknowledged linguistic devices used in foregrounding is the claim. The claim is the verbal or printed part of an advertisement that makes some claim of superiority by providing an appealing manipulation sometimes with creative visuals. Advertisers use the claim to portray an essential “rightness” which is conveyed to the reader/viewer. There are ten common claims that Jeffrey Schrank identifies in his essay, “The Language of Advertising Claims.” As Jeffrey points out, a few of these claims are downright lies, some are honest statements about a truly superior product, but most fit into the manipulation category with carefully chosen linguistic devices.

The first claim Jeffrey mentions is the weasel claim which is a modifying device that practically counteracts the claim and is appropriately named after the egg eating practices of the weasel. When consumed, the shell of the egg appears undamaged, but the weasel has actually sucked out the core of the egg. Likewise, the linguistic device initially appears considerable but proves to be meaningless. Some of the pinpointing weasel words are “helps”; “like” (used in comparison); “virtually”; “enriched”; and many other manipulative enhancers. An advertiser might claim that their dish soap will leave dishes virtually spotless. They want us to think of “spotless”, but the advertisers slipped their sly, glorified, weasel word “virtually” into the phrase hoping the reader/viewer will disregard it.

The second claim is the unfinished claim which suggests a product is better than something else but is unclear, because the comparison wasn’t finished. The car manufacturer could claim, “Ford is seven hundred percent quieter.” If given this information, the reader/viewer would be under the impression that this fact is part of a comparison to another vehicle. In actuality Ford used this manipulation to promote that their car was seven hundred percent quieter in the interior as opposed to the exterior.

The third claim is the “We are different and unique claim.” This claim is suppose to provide a unique distinction above similar products/services. An example of this claim is “Only Zenith has chromacolor.” Other manufacturers make similar television sets but can not use the word “chromacolor” in their ad because of a copyright trade name Zenith holds.

The fourth claim is the “Water is Wet” claim. This type of claim is usually factual but is also true in similar products/services. A billboard sign could say “Mobil: the Detergent Gasoline.” This is a true statement and tries to show a unique quality, but in actuality, all gasoline acts as a cleaning agent.

The fifth claim is the “so what” claim. This claim might have a slight advantage over another product/service but without any relevance for the consumer. An example of the “so what” claim is “Geritol has more than twice the iron of ordinary supplements.” Does the consumer really benefit with the increased intake?

The sixth claim is the vague claim which overlaps some of the other claims. The vague claim is also unclear and