LINGUIST List 13.3309

Tue Dec 17 2002

Disc: New: Linguists and Advertising

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. linguist, Lingusts and Advertising

Message 1: Lingusts and Advertising

Date: 17 Dec 2002 14:47:31 -0000
From: linguist <>
Subject: Lingusts and Advertising

Editor's note:

We have received the following two messages regarding a commercial
that is currently running on American TV. We think they are a good
place from which to launch a discussion about advertising and the role
of the linguistic community. Following the messages are some
questions; we'd like to hear what you think.

- -------------------------------------------------------------------

	From: (Suzette Haden Elgin)
	Subject: click commercial

There is a Ricoh commercial in which there is first a line about "a
chieftain who shares information with his tribe" using "simple
clicking sounds." Then there is a remark about how this very basic
and simple method of communication was nevertheless enough to make it
possible for the chieftain to tell people how to do things in their
daily lives and "when to start a family." I find the commercial very
offensive. In linguistics terms, in particular, it seemed to me to
carry a message that this "chieftain" and his "tribe" were so
primitive that they were using clicking sounds _instead_ of using

The next time I saw that commercial, the audio portion had been
changed. The opening is the same, but the part about how
communication takes place despite how basic and simple all this is has
been deleted; there's just silence where that line was before. My
guess is that some linguist (maybe quite a few linguists) contacted
Ricoh and rattled their cage, and the company edited out that segment.

The commercial is _still_ offensive and unfortunate. There's nothing
"simple" about click phonemes. There's still nothing whatsoever that
would let the public know that the clicks are not just noises but are
meaningful sounds of the language, entirely equivalent to English
phonemes in every way. The whole _visual_ effect is -- in my opinion
- intended to give an impression of primitiveness. The meta-message
is "Look at how well these primitive people manage to share
information when they don't even have a real language!", followed by
the "How well do _you_ share?" tag line and the company name. The coy
sexual innuendos that are laid on over all the elitism make it even
worse. And the whole thing just feeds the prevailing public mythology
about "primitive" communication, as well as the public ignorance about
language and languages. (I've just been through an interminable
months-long effort to make clear to a group of educated American
adults (a) what phonemes are, and (b) why they should care. I know
exactly how they would have understood that commercial.)

PS: I don't think that Ricoh is being deliberately racist, by the way
- I think they're simply ignorant. I'm reasonably sure they really
believe their "chieftain" is using clicks instead of language and that
they think their commercial is charming and endearing. But they should
have run it by a linguist before they launched it.

Best wishes,

Suzette Haden Elgin
- ----------------------------------------------------

	From: "Jack Tauber" <>
	Date: Thu, 12 Dec 2002 15:0:1 -0500
	Subject: "simple clicking sounds"

	In the past couple of days there has been shown here in
the Eastern US a commercial television spot for the copier company
Ricoh, which stars a man of apparently Khoisan origins. He uses
"simple clicking sounds" to communicate with his people, and the
commercial has him producing strings of clicks, but the English
commentary ignores what comes between them.

	While perhaps intended to be "cute", this kind of
nonsense perpetuates racist stereotypes commonly held by many people
before and during the Apartheid period in southern Africa. Indeed,
while at UCBerkeley just 13 years ago I almost ended up in a rather
public fistfight with a business student from that region who had
dismissed Khoisan languages as little more than animal grunts.

Far from being simple, Khoisan root structure is the most complex on
the planet, and new phonological constrasts can be still be expected
to be discovered in the future (assuming of course the languages
survive, in doubt if attitudes such as those above are the norm in the

Businesses will be better served by making sure their advertising
agencies don't misrepresent the cultures of other peoples just for the
fast buck. There have been a string of such commercial television
spots, representing different companies, in the recent past here,
involving indigenous peoples of Australia, Amazonia, and Africa. It is
interesting how carefully these spots avoid offending peoples with
economic clout and telecommunications.

Jess Tauber
- -----------------------------------------------------------------

What can or should linguists do about such distortions and

Is it our responsibilty as memebers of the linguistic community to
'educate' companies when they do something like this?

Do people take what they see in commercials as truth, or do they
expect a certain amount of 'manipulation of the facts' in all
advertising and therefore take such commercials with a grain of salt?

We welcome your comments.

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