Text is a crucial component to learning, and advertisers have devised a specific linguistic style to meet their goals. Unfortunately, this style is often evasive, confusing, and deceptive, especially to language learners. Educators have been aware that advertisers use language in ways that deserve attention. In 1971, the National Council of Teachers of English in a Resolution On Dishonest and Inhumane Uses of Language stated, "RESOLVED, that the NCTE find means to study dishonest and inhumane uses of language and literature by advertisers, to bring offenses to pubic attention, and to propose classroom techniques for preparing children to cope with commercial propaganda". (Dieterich, 1976, p.X)

Exploration of the linguistic tricks common to advertising leads to the issue of "truth in advertising". Truth in advertising is a confusing area of the law. For instance, an advertising strategy may be false without being misleading as in the case where a manufacturer suggests that their cookies are made by elves, or that a car is reverse engineered from UFOs. Statements such as "everyone's talking about. . ." are also untrue but unprosecutable as their meaning is considered to be colloquial. Truth is a legal and linguistic question. Both the law and linguistics are interested in "truth", but the law is interested in the intentions of the speaker and linguistics is interested in the property of the statement. "Misleading" is a psychological question The listener's interpretation determines what is misleading. Misleading is a notion further confounded by Grice's (1975) maxim of cooperation. He posited that listeners assume that speakers cooperate in conversation; intention to deceive is not automatically considered.For instance, listeners frequently provide closure in their minds to finish an incomplete statement. (Coleman, 1983, p.157) This creates opportunity for manipulation. So ads often mislead those listeners who assume cooperation, but the law is interested with the advertiser's intentions. Proving intention to mislead is a very difficult proposition, so educators need to inform students of common linguistic constructions that can be misleading, because they will not disappear through legal means. (Harris, Dubitsky, Bruno, 1983, p.243.)


Grammar instruction can actually be structured in such a way that it promotes critical thinking on the part of the students. Teachers need to provide examples of specific grammatical elements that will give students the tools they need to clarify the language of claims. Modifiers or "hedge words" are often inserted into statements to keep a claim unprovable. Examples include "helps", "may help relieve", "virtually spotless". Students should be able to determine if modifiers empty the statement of meaning. A similar common construction is the use of comparative adjective that results in an unfinished claim. Students need to be ready to ask "than what?" when they see comparative adjectives such as "more", "whiter", "better", and "stronger". Unfinished comparatives are pervasive in advertising.( Shrank, 1976, p.158)

Two imperative statements may be paired together in a way that strongly implies causality, in such a case as "Get through the winter, take..." Negative questions ("Isnt quality most important?") also have the effect of leading the listener in a direction that may not logically follow. (Shrank, J. 1976, p.157) Students who can unpair noncausal imperatives and turn negative questions around are less likely to believe empty claims.

Linguists have devised the term "syntactic exploitation" to describe the use of a sentence structure so complicated that it becomes meaningless. It is used to repress information and it "fails to satisfy the minimal criteria for coherence". (Stanley, 1976, p.178) Educators can use examples of syntactic exploitation to teach logic and grammar. A very basic survival skill all students need is the ability to figure out when a statement breaks down logically.

Another important area students need alerting on is the use of the passive voice. This construct hides the subject, deletes agency, and thereby suggests that the statement applies to everyone. We usually think of the passive as a verb construct, but there are also passive adjectives such as "desired" and "preferred". Students need to be able to ask "by whom?" when hearing such forms. There is also the nominalized passive, where verbal elements are put in noun form as in the case of "misuse" or "obedience". Attributive adjectives such as "proper" and "inappropriate" also operate much like the passive, because they obscure the person who is attributing the quality. Experience predicates are words like "seem" and "appear" that mask the author of an assertion as well. (Stanley, 1976, p.180)

When we consider how advertisers use the passive, it is important to remember how widespread that construction is used in psychology. As one linguist related, "When a writer uses experience predicates . . . as B.F. Skinner does, he is engaged in projecting his assertions into the minds of other people as though those people had thought his thoughts". This "psychiatric stance" is as useful in advertising as in psychology in order to delete agents, convert subjects into objects, and suggest that all people agree with the author (Stanley, 1976, p.181) Relevant grammar instruction would address these various constructions of the passive.
Grammar instruction is often criticized for teaching isolated skills out of context. But the student will find that grammar is useful if the teacher can alert them to the games persuaders play with modifiers, comparative adjectives, imperatives, incomplete sentences, possessive pronouns, and the passive voice. (see Appendix) Research has found that talking about pseudo-communication or double speak in the classroom generates interest in language among students because they "are now discussing the actual uses of language in social, economic, and political contexts". (Beach, 1976, p.32) Examining the grammatical features of advertising copy insures relevant and critical curriculum.


Grammatical tricks are not the only ways to use language to persuade. Basic propaganda methods are used to sell products, candidates and wars alike. Linguists have studied some basic rules of propaganda whether in education, training, or conditioning. Since memory is so important to persuasion, repetition is a key feature. Qualities like alliteration and rhyme also help memory. Mieder has drawn as strong relationship between advertising slogans and folklore proverbs. Not only do advertisers often alter common proverbs ("thirst come, thirst served", "different volks for different folks"), but they invent slogans that follow proverbial structure. A recent slogan introducing the new Volkswagen bug less flower, more power has ideal proverbial structure-- rhyme, quadrapartite structure, and opposites. Common slogans such as "buy now, pay later", "get more, worry less", and "work smarter, not harder" all have proverbial structure. Such constructions aid memory and suggest apparent truth in the familiar ring. (Mieder, 1977, p.318) Indeed, advertisers have been aware of the efficacy of such structures at least as long as M.K. Powers' 1933 "Proverbs as Copy-Patterns". (Powers, 1933, p.24) In all the writing about language that educational researchers have done, it is amazing that that no one has suggested such a structure to report findings! (Might I offer "fewer ads, more glad" or "less TV, more free" to summarize this work?)

Persuasive language often uses euphemism or evasive language. One study found that the 20 most common verbs in ads were try, ask for, take, let, send for, use, call, make, come on, hurry, come, see, give, remember, discover, serve, introduce, choose, and look for. A verb that actually describes the spending of money, such as "buy" or "purchase", did not make the top twenty.(Vestergaard & Schrøder, 1985, p.68)

Another basic rule of propaganda is that persuaders intensify their own positive qualities and the negative qualities of others. Likewise, they downplay their faults and others good qualities. This basic rule of propaganda that can apply to competing brands or warring nations. Students who know, "when they intensify, downplay. When they downplay, intensify" will be equipped to cut through all the persuasive language out there. (Rank, 1976, p.9) Techniques of downplay include omission, diversion and confusion; while techniques of intensification include repetition, association, and composition. (Hart, 1979, p.161)

Of course people who work for a cause, be it a product or a policy, often believe their own propaganda. There is no intent to deceive because the people making the statements believe. However, just because the speaker believes a statement true does not make it true or even helpful to believe. It is simply all the more reason to clue our students into their techniques with language. (Ohmann, 1976, p.41)

A final feature of propaganda is its sameness in goals. Nothing but a few specific messages can get through. On cultural media that rely on commercials for financing, the communication must sell or entertain---preferably both at once. Those who "use language without any predefined effect-- without any definite pay-off--are discouraged". (Ohmann, 1976, p.36) And this sameness applies to the programming as well as the ads. The characters on the programs possess the values that are being promoted on the ads. As the recent lawsuit concerning Oprah Winfrey's comments about beef shows, sales is the primary mission of the language on television. Language that deviates from this mission is rare and subject to harassment. As First Amendment authority C. Edwin Baker has stated "advertisers, not governments, are the primary censors of media content in the U.S." (Baker, 1992, p.2200) So, advertisers exercise control over not only the structure of language but also what gets said.

People may understand that ads have low credibility; but unfortunately, this understanding may actually lead to more susceptibility. One study found that logically invalid statements are more likely to be accepted in ads than in a news story, a memo, or a letter. We expect and tolerate the advertisers license to evade. The study concluded that the "processing of advertising messages may represent an atypical form of information processing". (Preston, 1967, p.216) Our expectations of duplicity may actually lower our critical faculties. So a generalized stance of mistrust concerning ads is not enough, children need to know the specific linguistic constructions.


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