For a blog that promises populist philosophy, an article on Wittgenstein might seem like an odd choice.
A man famous for being as difficult personally as he was textually, Wittgenstein concerned himself with semantics – the study of language and its meaning.
On the face of it, it might seem a little bit boring. The worst kind of wanky philosophy that has no bearing on real life.
But advertising relies so heavily on language.
When was the last time you changed a person’s behaviour?
Figuring out what makes words so powerful could help advertisers to use, and not misuse, language.
Traditionally, it’s often thought that words relate to things.
Words have definite meaning that can be established by finding the thing to which they relate.
The word tree only means something in relation to the great big piece of wood with leaves in the park.
The meaning of the word cat can be found in the furry four legged animal that jumps on your bed in the early hours of the morning.
And so on. Words are labels that we give to things we deal with in life.
Wittgenstein disagreed with this. He didn’t think that words got their meaning from external things.
He said that words are meaningful only in how they are used. Words can mean virtually anything; they’re not a labelling device, they’re communicative.
The same word can have many different meanings, established by the context in which it is used.
The word dog, for example, can mean a lot of different things.
It could refer to a four legged animal.
Or a grizzled sailor.
I could work like a dog, or be treated like a dog.
To dog someone could mean following someone closely and persistently.
Or it could mean something else completely…
Even though the word has so many meanings, we can understand which one is being used by the context in which it is used.
Now this might seem to be getting horribly theoretical, and you might be wondering what all this has to do with advertising.
Well, as I said, people recognise and understand words by the way they are used.
I would argue that, if advertisers are not careful, certain words take on an entirely new meaning: That people will come to understand words within the context of advertising.
Food advertising is a good place to look for this kind of effect. It has a very predictable dictionary.
You can see the same kind of language used by massive corporations as by small start-ups. Companies with totally different brand identities and values all seem to gravitate towards the same tone of voice. Sometimes even the same word.
Take this ad by Pret.
And compare it to this ad by MacDonald’s.
Now this ad from Subway.
And finally, this piece of direct mail I received from an early stage start-up called Pronto.
Here we have four very different brands all trying to communicate the same thing – literally the same thing. That their food is fresh. Despite their enormous differences.
When people use the word fresh in relation to food, what they mean is that it hasn’t been preserved, tinned or frozen and that it is reasonably intact.
But for some of these companies it isn’t really believable. McDonald’s asking you to enjoy its ‘fresh’ produce is about as cynical as it gets.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Subway. If you have, you’ll know that the food is far from fresh. If you haven’t, here’s a table that spells it out.
While their food is prepared in store, you’d have to be very generous to describe this as fresh.
Which completely undermines the message of those companies who actually make an effort to use fresh ingredients. While Pret isn’t without sin, most of its ingredients are fresh and their food is prepared in store, even if it is refrigerated.
In this respect, the word fresh (when used in advertising) begins to lose its traditional meaning, and be understood within a new context – the context of advertising. When people see the word fresh on a billboard, they don’t think of lush greenery and exotic loveliness. They think marketing buzzword.
The marketers who use words like fresh think that words have definite meaning, like the people Wittgenstein was reacting against. They think that people can only think one thing when they look at a word.
But as Wittgenstein said, the idea that there is a single meaning to a word is a myth. People understand words by their context, not by some transcendent meaning.
If you tell someone you’ve been working like a dog, they know you haven’t been fetching newspapers and burying bones because of how you use the word.
In the same way, if Macdonalds or Subway tell you to buy their fresh food, you will understand that the food is not in fact fresh, but that this is a marketing term. The word fresh takes on an entirely new meaning based on its repeated usage in a particular context.
This is only natural. A word being used over and over in a certain way becomes understood differently. That’s just how language works.
A similar case is the word delicious. Because of constant usage by advertisers, it has developed a new meaning altogether. A meaning characterised by lack of meaning, a commercial meaning.
Compare this to the changing meaning of the world cool. Once upon a time, being cool referred to temperature. Now, because of repeated usage, it can be used to describe someone who is laid back or popular.
Much like the word cool, the word delicious has come to be understood differently. The two cannot be used interchangeably, as the meaning of both is totally different.
So now, the words fresh or delicious in advertising have little or no effect. They are impotent words, as far as selling is concerned.
It’s easy to criticise the use of language, as I just have, but more difficult to establish its proper use.
The key is to understand that words are not static. That their meaning is constantly shifting depending on their popular usage.
I’m now going to use two example adverts to talk about the thoughtful use of language.
Both of these ads succeeded because they managed to pinpoint the shifting meaning of words at a point where they were particularly potent.
First, Julian Koenig’s ‘Think Small’ campaign for VW.
Often held up as the best advert of all time, this advert succeeded not only because it monitored and took advantage of the use of language, but because it helped to set a word into a, dare I say it, ‘fresh’ context.
As Koenig wrote, the word ‘big’ had a meaning that is lost today for Americans. It was boom time, and American society lived to excess. It was obsessed with big. Big paycheques, big ambitions – and big cars.
What Koenig recognised was that, while big was in fashion, it wasn’t unassailable.
The VW Beetle was a small and insubstantial vehicle. It could never compete in a competition of size…Unless the boundaries of that competition were reset.
So, at the height of the popularity of big, he introduced a radical and contrarian idea to American society – that the best way to represent wealth and glamour was not necessarily through bigness and boldness, but through the subtlety, efficiency and practicality of the unassuming German made Beetle.
It worked because of the cultural capital of the word ‘big’ that the word ‘small’ borrowed from, exploded out of. In setting itself up as the rival of the ‘big’ American mainstream, VW gave the word small a new use, a new context. A subversive and intelligent context, one that highlighted a perceived weakness and turned it on its head. But, importantly, a context that wouldn’t have worked any other time. If ‘big’ hadn’t have meant what it had at the time, neither would ‘Think Small’.
Also special about this ad is the fact that the words are used jokingly. Typical car ads of the time were ultra-macho and self-conscious; the Beetle ad in contrast was self-deprecating and witty.
So in a world where bigness and seriousness were ubiquitous, Koenig used two words in such a way that popularised not just a new kind of car, but a new kind of norm. A norm where advertisements were expected to be funny and clever.
Secondly, I will look at the infamous image of Lord Kitchener saying ‘Your Country Needs You’.
This advert was remarkable not necessarily in its content, but in what it achieved. That it managed to mobilise millions to fight, kill and die in abandonment of their most basic drives and instincts.
It did this in a much less innovative way than Koenig. It did not instigate a new usage of a word; it did however understand people’s motivations, and knew the best kind of language to harness them.
The 19th century was an era of European nationalism and imperialism. People were still proud of the Empire, and were yet to be jaded by war. There was a sense of Britishness that was nowhere near as consistent and profound as it is today.
And the language used perfectly reflects that. The word ‘your’ creates a sense of inclusiveness, this is a country that ‘you’ belong to. ‘Need’ creates a feeling of obligation and duty, principles that held real sway in an age in which service to country was the greatest honour.
The words ‘your’ and ‘need’, taken on face value are not evocative or even interesting words. Refuse to recognise context and they stay that way. But they were deployed in a way that tapped into the zeitgeist of the age.
So, we can see that the key to using language in advertising is realising that words do not always mean the same thing to people. Watch how people use language, chart carefully its cycles of boom and bust.
Words like ‘fresh’ and ‘organic’ began to gain real steam in the 2000’s, as society became simultaneously more conscious of health and more wary of major fast food chains.
At this time, selling a brand using these words would have had real power. Brands like Innocent (founded in 1998) capitalised on this power, coming to prominence off the back of promises of freshness and goodness, as well as a friendly and colloquial language style.
What many contemporary brands don’t seem to realise is that these words were only powerful for a brief window. And that the more they are used the more that window is narrowed.
Language is fluid and at the mercy of those who use it. In order to really make the most of it, advertisers have to constantly look for new uses. The more that advertising uses a word, the less power it has.
The great philosopher Russell Brand makes the following point. In the past we got all of our goods and services from people – the butcher, the grocer, the ironmonger etc. This created a human bond, a human reason to shop in a specific place.
Brands need advertising to recreate this human bond, to humanise huge faceless corporations.
Overuse of words defeats this purpose. The more people come to recognise language as being that of an advertiser, the less human the brand seems.
And when have you ever known Russell Brand to be wrong on anything?
By Joe Tulasiewicz*
*Joe is a Philosophy graduate in search for a job as an account planner, even if this means climbing over the dead bodies of every yuppie in London. He has interned (in one form or another) at Google, AMV BBDO, Mother London and the Hub, and Planosophy thinks that this is pretty damn impressive. Despite writing about Wittgenstein Joe’s favourite philosopher is actually Nietzsche – but then, who’s isn’t?
If you want to congratulate Joe on his good argument, tear it to shreds or offer him a job before he inevitably gets snapped up, have a look a look at his Linkedin page (https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/joe-tulasiewicz/8b/9b8/b39) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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