Advertisers are increasingly turning to ‘bad’ grammar these days in a bid to sell their products or services.
The concept of ‘unconventional’ grammar, as it is otherwise known, works by making people stop and focus on the message that is being conveyed. After all, the job of advertising is to grab people’s attention, and word play, word intervention and a lack of punctuation are sure-fire ways of achieving this.
Individuals may think they have spotted a genuine mistake when they come across incorrect grammar in marketing and advertising. This couldn’t be further from the truth, however, as advertisers spend days poring over their copy and are well aware of what they’re doing.
But does deviating from what is considered to be grammatically correct actually do more harm than good?
Here we take a closer look at unconventional grammar and list some examples of how it works and who it annoys.
The Pareto Principle
The Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule, is something that copywriters use to justify the use of unconventional grammar.
It is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who in 1906, found that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.
The principle states that, in the vast majority of events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes – and it has grown significantly to become a common rule of thumb in the world of business today.
By this logic, 80% of people who encounter unconventional grammar either won’t recognize it as bad grammar or will recognize it and simply not care that it is incorrect. Copywriters therefore only have to concern themselves with the minority 20% – though this could still be enough to derail an advertising campaign.
Charting the rise of unconventional grammar
Joy from the use of unconventional grammar can be traced back to the trail of fear left behind by strict, old-fashioned grammarians and their followers.
Grammatical errors have in the past been corrected with a certain degree of scorn. Some people, particularly those of the younger generation, therefore take great pride in deviating from the misconception that grammar is black and white, right or wrong.
Using unconventional grammar can help form identity – something that has flourished through the rising popularity of internet messaging and text messaging – allowing youngsters to communicate with each other without conforming to the norm.
In this way they don’t have to abide by outdated grammar rules outside of the classroom, and often find inventive ways of getting across what they want to say. This can involve skipping punctuation or playing with word order.
Advertisers have kept a close eye on the rise of unconventional grammar – and it’s now regarded as a great way of appealing to a younger audience.
Grammar behaving badly in ads
There are plenty of examples when it comes to unconventional grammar in advertising. Many people, however, fail to notice exactly what’s going on, and instead just view the advert as part of the norm.
Here we take a look at some classic cases.
An advert for the 2012 Honda Civic proclaimed “To each their own”.
Here the car manufacturer broke the rule about singular and plural noun/pronoun agreement: “each” is singular, but “their” is plural. So, grammatically speaking, “to each their own” should really be “To each his own”.
Mercedes-Benz’s tagline for its 2012 C-class coupe reads: “More power. More style. More technology. Less doors.”
Here the company broke the grammar rule that says “less” is used with mass nouns and “fewer” with countable nouns. “Door” is a countable noun, so technically “fewer doors” should be used instead.
Honda is guilty of bad grammar, while Mercedes-Benz is guilty of language malpractice. In both cases, however, the vast majority – 80% – of the public will not care and instead turn a blind eye to the errors.
The minority – 20% – may kick up a fuss and complain. But all that does is draw more attention to the campaign, raising the profile of the product or service, possibly helping to boost sales.
On the down side, however, the use of language malpractice by Mercedes-Benz is inconsistent with the brand’s image – something which could damage its reputation among existing and potential customers. The automaker has a polished and upscale image. Deviating from this by using colloquial language is therefore a risk.
Here are a few examples of other brands breaking the rules of grammar and how they should really read.
- Apple: “Think Different” — Think differently
- Eggo Waffles: “Leggo my Eggo” — Let go of my Eggo
- Milk: “Got Milk?” — Do you have milk?
- Subway: “Subway, eat fresh” — Subway, eat freshly
- McDonald’s: “I’m lovin’ it” — I am loving it
- Staples: “We got that.” — We have that.
It’s clear to see the incorrect use of grammar and language in each of these cases, yet it is just this word trickery that has driven success; something that is a bit different usually captures the imagination of the customer and works in a brand’s favour.
But there are examples where the use of incorrect grammar has damaged a brand.
Victoria’s Secret recently dropped a needless apostrophe – “You’ve never seen body’s like this!” – into its Secret Body campaign.
Old Navy, meanwhile, had to send back an entire shipment of team t-shirts when the “Lets Go!” lettering omitted the apostrophe before the “s”.
Britons versus Americans
Britons have been known to stay quiet about certain outrages while complaining about seemingly innocuous things, including unconventional grammar. Americans, on the other hand, know their rights and aren’t shy about vocalising it, yet tend to be more tolerant of unconventional grammar.
Earlier this year, a schoolboy in England wrote a passionate letter of complaint to Tesco regarding unconventional grammar on its bottles of orange juice.
The 15-year-old took exception to the fact the supermarket claimed it used the “most tastiest” oranges, rather than “tastiest”, “most tasty” or “distinctly average”, to make its own-brand orange juice.
Tesco promised to correct the error when the packing was reprinted.
Marks & Spencer has also come in for fierce criticism for its use of unconventional grammar.
Members of the British public took exception to notices on its express tills in its food stores saying “Five items or less” – again, throwing up the same argument as the Mercedes-Benz C-class coupe advert.
They also vented anger at the “Why not pay by contactless today?” sign at every checkout in its stores, instead of “Why not pay by contactless card today?”.
Advertisers need to make sure they carry out extensive research on the sensitivity of their target audience towards unconventional grammar before launching a campaign. A missed comma here or the lack of a word there could prove to be the difference between success and failure on the international stage.