THE language of marketing usually promises wonderful things: whiter whites, sex appeal, adventure, excitement, a whole new you, just do it, I’m lovin’ it, have it your way, think different… Whether or not a shoe or a tablet computer can really transform our lives, the slogans briefly make us think they can.
But other marketers and advertisers have to be cleverer still—for they sell products inherently connected with unpleasant topics. A colleague and former defence correspondent for The Economistdescribes a tour of a French arms factory. His guide, showing off a certain item, touted it as “highly efficient in the anti-personnel function”. In other words, very good at killing people.
Many if not most of our products offer not some supplemental happiness, but release from some unpleasantness. The many inconveniences that plague the human body alone keep a large industry of product-makers in profit, and an equally large number of marketing-copy writers busy talking around them.
The ways marketers manage to get their point across without mentioning the unpleasantness in question offer a school of euphemism in miniature. One venerable strategy: speak not of the thing itself, but of a thing near the thing, letting the association do the work. This is how the toilet became the “bathroom” in American English; the “bathroom” at a petrol station will not have a bath, but the one at home does, and that is good enough. In much the same way, products like Danone’s Activia yogurt, are touted as helping “digestion”. Digestion is technically an earlier stage of the process in question. What Activia is really meant to do is better conveyed by the downward arrow on the yogurt’s label.
Feminine products get an extra dose of euphemism. In visual form, this means that those made for absorption are famously shown doing so soaking up pale blue fluid, and women riding horses or doing yoga. In words, it means talking not about the problem, but the desired outcome: “freshness”, “security”, “protection”. One brand, Kotex, decided to parody the typical evasiveness of such mealy-mouthed marketing in an advert—a brilliant idea, until American networks refused to air spots that mentioned where the product would be used. The word vagina was unacceptable on three big American networks, and even “down there”, a wink-wink workaround, was unacceptable for two. The spot is still pretty funny—but loses much of the punch it would have had in the original form.
Kimberly Clark, the makers of Kotex, lamely protested that American networks have no problem mentioning “erectile dysfunction”. But this just highlights another misdirection strategy: the use of long technical words for problems and touchy bits of the body. Johnson looked at how German and other cousin languages to English are shockingly frank about the body—Durchfall, or “fall-through”, is typically blunt; English-speakers, by contrast, resort to Greek for “flow-through”, or diarrhoea. This reflects a centuries-long habit of using the classical languages to guide our gaze away from the grubby reality. The Greco-Latin “Erectile dysfunction” is hardly direct; the word penis is never mentioned, and dysfunction is pretty highfalutin for something that simply isn’t working as it should.
And the technical-looking, Greco-Latin name offers up another avenue. These names are such a mouthful that it is natural to convert them into initialisms and acronyms: the companies that aim to treat it encourage you not to talk about erectile dysfunction, but ED, leading to a fixed catchphrase: “Ask your doctor about ED.” And those advertising to men are just as evasive with another, increasingly common problem, telling men to “ask your doctor about low T”, or low testosterone.
Some of this is just good old psychology: focus on the solution, and don't dwell on the problem. But in too many other cases, failure even to mention the problem makes the sufferers of life’s ordinary ailments feel abnormal, or even that they should be ashamed. The language of advertising nudges broader social trends, making it hard for friends or parents and children to talk about life’s necessities. In some ways, children’s literature is rather more sensible than advertising for grown-ups: witness the English title of a popular Japanese children’s book, with the frank life lesson that “Everybody Poos”.