LINGUIST List 13.3363

Thu Dec 19 2002

Disc: Linguists and Advertising

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Paviour-Smith, Martin, Re: linguistics in advertising
  2. Johanna Rubba, Re: Linguists and advertising
  3. Daniel Buncic, Disc: Linguists and Advertising

Message 1: Re: linguistics in advertising

Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 10:03:55 +1300
From: Paviour-Smith, Martin <>
Subject: Re: linguistics in advertising

The commercial in question (Linguist 13.3309) has not been shown here
in New Zealand, but I agree with the sentiments of the comments on the
list. Before I saw the (linguistics) light, I worked in advertising,
and from my experience of British advertising types this kind of
offence is not intended, but is the result of a lack of awareness. As
Suzette Elgin pointed out, the ad seems to reflect public ignorance
about language, and the myth of primitive communication. The
advertising industry is full of ordinary people who just like the
public lack this kind of awareness. A further complication to this is
the rather blinkered sensitivities of the industry. It seems to me
that they are careful to understand and not offend the target consumer
of a product, hence the 'focus group' industry, but the sensitivities
of anyone outside the target of a particular commercial will be
forgotten. I think therefore one of the roles of the linguist is to
point out these blunders. We are educators, not just to our students,
but to the wider public, and this includes advertising companies. The
question as to whether people are aware of the manipulation of facts
in advertising is another difficult one. I think in most cases where
the facts presented are more familiar, probably a grain of salt
approach is taken . But if your punter on the street has no knowledge
or experience of Khoisan languages or their speakers, for example, and
has the various myths of that particular commercial already embedded
in a set of world beliefs, what have they got to compare it to? Since
the commercial seems to confirm those beliefs, it is more likely to be
used as anecdotal evidence for the validity of those beliefs.

School of Language Studies Linguistics and Second Language Teaching 
Massey University 
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Message 2: Re: Linguists and advertising

Date: Wed, 18 Dec 2002 13:16:35 -0800
From: Johanna Rubba <>
Subject: Re: Linguists and advertising

I have to say I'm pretty astonished at such ads (Linguist
13.3309). You'd think that, in the age of "political correctness", ad
agencies would know better than to suggest that _any_ culture unlike
the American mainstream is primitive. I guess they think they can get
away with it because they are using tribes that are far away from
America. But I would bet they will hear from the NAACP and other
African-American groups before long.

I think there are several things we can do:
(a) The president of the LSA should write to the companies running such
ads, and explain in objective terms why and how they are factually
incorrect as well as offensive.
(b) The LSA should write a press release doing the same thing, and
circulate it to all the major papers in the country.
(c) We should interface with other organizations, such as the American
Anthropological Assoc., and join forces with them (perhaps in the press
(d) As individuals, we should write to the companies running the ads
(from their websites if nothing else).

With respect to how viewers respond to such ads, I think very many
will buy the notion that the clicking sounds are a primitive
communication system--we all know how poorly educated people are about
language. The Ebonics debate alone showed us just how ignorant people
still are. I'm sure they expect a certain amount of fantasy and
exaggeration in ads, and those who already know our message may see no
harm in the ads. But they already know the ads are not factually
correct; they're not the important audience.

A lot of people I meet have heard of the click sounds of African
languages, and when I explain to them that they are consonants just
like our /k/ or /d/, and that one has to learn to integrate them into
the speech stream to speak such languages fluently, their admiration
for these tribes increases. Even though that's still an inaccurate way
to view language (since babies in such communities master the clicks
as easily as babies in our community master /k/), it's better than
believing the clicks are a primitive substitute for language. I think
it's worth our while to try to correct this particular media idiocy.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

Johanna Rubba Associate Professor, Linguistics
and Acting Director of Writing Programs
English Department, California Polytechnic State University
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Message 3: Disc: Linguists and Advertising

Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 13:05:09 +0100
From: Daniel Buncic <>
Subject: Disc: Linguists and Advertising

I agree with all previous contributors to this unanimous
'discussion' (Linguist 13.3356). Just let me make two more points:

First, you don't have to go as far as Africa to hear popular notions
about 'primitive' languages: Germans think Swiss German is a 'throat
disease' (without even distinguishing between the German dialects of
Switzerland and the Swiss variety of Standard German), and Russians
think Byelorussian and Ukrainian are degenerated forms of Russian. I
heard this last statement from Russophone citizens of Ukraine - they
should know better, don't you think? This leads me to the second

In this context the fact that people do not know much about languages
in Africa is not so important. The dangerous thing is what Rich
Alderson and Martha McGinnis in issue 13.3356 have called "background
information" and "background assumptions". This is a general trick in
rhetoric: When a politician says, "The government is not doing enough
against the flood of immigrants," the argument will certainly be about
what the government has or has not done against it. Nobody will
examine the question whether there is such a "flood" at all - even
inhabitants of a small village where there is no foreigner at all will
agree that they are being swept away by them, because this assumption
is so basic that it can be made the 'theme' even at the beginning of a
discussion without ever having to be topicalized as 'rheme'.

That's why of course we who are more interested in the linguistic
background assumption than in the advertisement itself have to

Daniel Buncic
Bonn University Seminar of Slavonic Philology
Lennestr. 1, D-53113 Bonn
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