Up to 99% better: Language in advertising
In their everyday lives, our learners are exposed to many forms of adverting, in magazines, on television, whilst browsing the Internet. Some of this advertising is in English. The texts and materials, which we use in English lessons, has been checked for accuracy and lack of bias. The format of our ‘comprehension’ exercises invites learners to believe that the texts are factually correct and accurate. Our lessons tend to persuade learners that information presented in English is trustworthy and reliable.
Are we creating a generation of English language learners who believe everything they read in English? Are we creating a generation of English language users who will easily fall prey to advertisements in English? How can we improve our lessons to provide better training in decoding and understanding advertising messages?
99% Better has no meaning, unless we indicate with what we are making the comparison. 99% Better is an example of the weasel words, used in advertising. Weasel words are words or expressions, which suggest a benefit or improvement, without providing any evidence. Weasel words are designed to make the customer feel more positive about the product or service without making any concrete statement about the quality. What do we teach our learners about weasel words? How much do we train our learners in interpreting the flaws in the advertiser’s persuasive message?
Up to …
Advertisements for broadband suppliers and mobile phone networks often say that their product offers a service of “up to” an attractive speed or capacity. But what is the meaning of “up to”? “Up to” describes the maximum speed or capacity. The average customer will not benefit from that maximum. From the customer’s standpoint, “up to” means “less than”. “Up to” is another weasel expression designed to lure the customer towards a purchase of the product or service.
Buy one, get one free
The BOGOF, buy one, get one free, offers in many supermarkets try to persuade the customer to buy more than is actually needed, in order to ‘save’ money. Bogof offers are usually made on fresh foodstuffs and other perishable products. As a result of bogof offers, customers fill their shopping trolleys with products which they don’t need. These products frequently sit at the back of shelves, or hidden deep in freezer compartments until they are eventually thrown away because they have rotted, or because they are beyond their “sell by” date.
Sell by …
The “sell by” date is another ploy used to persuade customers to buy more than they need and later throw away perfectly edible foodstuffs and perfectly usable products. In Britain, we discard vast quantities of food because it is past its “sell by” date. I am sure this is true in many other countries.
Most retailers need to empty their warehouses which are filled with products which are old-fashioned, obsolete or getting close to their “sell by” date. These products are usually sold on “special offer”, in order to clear the warehouses and make space for newer products.
When the customer reads “special offer”, the customer should ask, “How special is the offer?” and “Why is the retailer making this offer?”
For a limited time …
Advertisers like customers to make quick purchase or adoption decisions, without making any serious evaluation of the product or comparison with other products available elsewhere. “Limited time” offers are designed to persuade the customer to make a quick decision, without thinking carefully or “shopping around” for other offers. The “limited time” offer creates an urgency and puts pressure on the customer to make an unthinking and perhaps, unwise purchase.
Eat before you shop for food
Customers, who are hungry when they enter a food shop, tend to buy more food than they need. They are most likely to buy unhealthy foods which will provide immediate satisfaction rather than more healthy food which will bring longer term benefits.
Customers with shopping lists usually spend less money and buy better food than those who shop without a prepared list. If you think carefully about what you need, you will shop quickly and be less likely to fall for the temptations of bogofs and special offers.
Modern, up-to-date, the latest fashion
Advertisers have persuaded us that “more modern” always means better. In many cases, this is not true. An older product may continue to be perfectly functional even when there are newer products in the shops. The advertisers want our money and so it is in their interest to persuade us to “buy new”.
Fashion is an extremely powerful weapon in the hands of advertisers. They know that we want to look good in comparison to our friends. If our friends follow the trends of fashion, advertisers try to make us feel guilty if we do not follow the same trends. Advertisers know that we like to be part of the tribe and our possessions will mark us as members of the tribe.
Fashion not only pushes us towards the new, the most modern. Fashion also makes us feel guilty if we are unfashionable. An unfashionable possession will mark us as “failures”, people who have failed to keep up-to-date with the latest trends.
On line shopping and advertising
More and more of our shopping is now done online. Pop-up advertisements regularly appear in the learners’ eye-space. The advertisements are very persuasive, creating a hunger in the customer. This hunger can be immediately satisfied with a few mouse clicks. Online shopping requires credit card payment. Credit cards withdraw money from your bank account silently, you do not hear the rustle of bank notes or feel the weight of coins. The credit card purchase is less real than the cash purchase, customers do not feel the emptiness in their purses and so the temptation to spend is much greater.
What can I do?
The ideas above will match your lifetime experience. Your learners are prey to the same weasel words and the same types of advertising. Individually, your learners may not have much money in their pockets but, there are many people at the same age as your learners and, together, these people represent a great deal of purchasing power.
Apart from the learners’ contribution to the national economy, at an individual level, the learners are each making useful and useless purchases. Their income, represented by their ‘pocket money’ gives each the chance to spend wisely or foolishly. A mistaken purchase may not represent the loss of very much money, but for the individual, it represents a tremendous loss. It may be a large part of the learners’ individual income.
It is often said that advertisers sell ‘dreams’ as much as selling products. Our learners are at an age when dreams are very important. The purchase of a product which does not work, or breaks after a few days, creates a disappointment which is hard to bear. Young learners invest a great deal of trust in their toys. The loss of Buzz Lightyear is as great as the loss of a pet, probably greater than the loss of an acquaintance or distant friend.
The paragraphs, above, will give you many ideas for may short language lessons featuring different weasel words. As far as possible, we should try to elicit interpretations of these words and expressions from the learners. For younger learners, it may be necessary to explain the interpretations of weasel words but you will discover that young learners are often more commercially savvy than you might expect.
When learners have understood the weasel words and interpreted the commercial meaning, we should ask learners to cite examples of this advertising technique in operation.
Learning to be sceptical
Start presenting learners with reading comprehension texts which contain fairly obvious factual mistakes. Ask them to find and correct these mistakes. Present texts which contain a mixture of fact and opinion [diesel is a fact, beautiful is an opinion]. Teach learners to identify and distinguish facts and opinions.
Learning to advertise
After studying some advertisements, invite learners to write some advertisements for personal possessions which they might wish to sell or services which they might wish to offer. Share the advertisements and invite learners to analyse each advertisement written by others, looking for weasel words, facts and opinions. Discuss the advertisements and decide which one may be most effective. Judge the advertisements in terms of honesty and dishonesty. Decide if honesty is always useful for the advertiser in advertisements.
By working as advertisers, learners begin to understand the motivations and methods of advertisers.
Wise Guide to Shopping
Invite learners, in groups, to discuss the possible advice given in a wise guide to shopping. Then working individually, or in pairs, invite learners to draft the advice for the wise guide. Share the drafts and, in class, decide on the most useful pieces of advice.
Advertisers, shop keepers and sales staff want you to take money out of your pocket and put it into theirs. Many website administrators have the same aim. The purpose of business is to make money. Businesses are not charities trying to help you.
Businesses, who are able to persuade you to take the most money out of your pocket, are judged to be most successful. For hundreds of years, they have studied the behaviour of customers, they know the customers’ weaknesses and they will exploit these weaknesses in order to take your money.
Language is often used as the medium of persuasion. Although you may be a wise shopper in your own language, your insecurity in English may make it easier to persuade you in English. Learning about the language of advertising and commercial practice in English can help to protect learners’ wallets, purses and bank accounts.
Nick Dawson 2014