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Review of  Taboo in Advertising

Reviewer: Jill M. Hallett
Book Title: Taboo in Advertising
Book Author: Elsa Simões Lucas Freitas
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 21.1125

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AUTHOR: Elsa Simões Lucas Freitas
TITLE: Taboo in Advertising
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 179
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2008

Jill Hallett, Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


''Taboo in Advertising,'' a title in the Pragmatics & Beyond New Series by John
Benjamins, investigates the titular topic through approaches from sociology,
anthropology, media studies, and linguistics. Greg Myers contributes the foreword.

In her introduction (1-21), Freitas highlights the capacity of advertising to
tap into the viewer's subconscious. Her methodology consists of examining 34
print ads over a nine-year time frame: 30 commercial, three non-commercial, and
one business-to-business advertisement. All of the ads analyzed and presented
demonstrate a connection with a taboo subject, present linguistic and
non-linguistic features, and show the product itself (4). The print ads come
from English and Portuguese magazines in Portugal, Britain, and Brazil. Freitas
also includes television commercials and an outdoor billboard campaign from
Portugal. A comparison of advertising methods is discussed in terms of
advantages and disadvantages.

Chapter 1, ''Taboo'' (23-40), gives a theoretical overview of the taboo areas
studied: ''(1) obstacles to the clear categorization of the individual in given
situations (symbolized by certain bodily functions and disease); (2) defilement
and pollution (visible in dirtiness and bad language); and (3) threats to
traditional social institutions (embodied in eroticism and sex) (23). The
author argues that these three areas are all related and grouped
methodologically. A brief history is given on the origins of the word 'taboo'
and its relationships with power, religion, and superstition. Freitas offers
this working definition of 'taboo': ''For the purposes of this book, 'taboo'
corresponds to a number of restrictions that regulate some areas of social life,
and that demand avoidance behaviour because (1) the situation is dangerous for
the individual, and (2) that danger could contaminate others'' (39).

In Chapter 2, ''Advertising'' (41-62), Freitas discusses decency regulations for
and functions of advertising, specifically how taboo is used to create an
attention-getting shock in the consumer/ viewer. Her framework involves a
multi-modal analysis, citing the insufficiency of solely semantic or semiotic
understanding. If, as the author says, ''[a]ds burdened with taboo-related
products usually try at all costs to distract the viewers' attention from taboo,
and the association of the product with unambiguous positive feelings would be a
good way of achieving that goal'' (47), the use of visual and textual (and often
aural) means collaborate to achieve these associations. To summarize: taboo sells.

''Words and images'' are the focus of chapter 3 (63-101), specifically as they are
used in magazine advertisements. These ads employ taboo through either omission
or exploitation. Pictorial metaphors abound, such as a fire extinguisher to
represent pain relief, and an oyster and pearl representing protection of
something valuable (in this case female sex organs). One ad is interactive in
requiring the reader to pull up a strip of paper from a picture of underwear,
implicating the consumer in the visual/ physical metaphor relating to the male
sex organ. Other ads exploit fear, sensuality, parody and dichotomies of purity
and impurity. Some of the more ingenious ads manage to make non-taboo things
seem taboo through both picture and text (78-85), again implicating the reader
in the association. Finally, ads featuring textual taboos in terms of foul
language shock the viewer while mitigating the shock with other textual items,
thereby making the ad memorable.

Chapter 4, ''Images, words & humour'' (103-125), focuses on the analysis of
outdoor ads, those of the Super Bock beer campaign in Portugal. Freitas
discusses humour theory and its application in advertising, specifically with
respect to the two major humour areas of sex and excretion of body waste. For
this campaign, beer bottles and glasses are positioned in such a way as to
connote human sexual imagery. The Super Bock campaign is ''successful'' (see
critical evaluation) because the brand is so recognizable that the very subtle
name mention is not detrimental to the message of the ad (114).

In chapter 5, ''Words, images, sound & narratives'' (127-167), Freitas examines
television commercials. For the taboo ads, the strategies employed are
softening or downplaying of the taboo (129) through the use of metaphor (as in
the ad for Skip, a restroom-cleaning product), the use of animals and children
(in toilet paper ads), and other types of textual or visual downplay (euphemism
in the case of a Fibre 1 ad for digestive aids). The taboo of the product may
also be emphasized, as in ads for condoms and deodorant; television affords the
advertiser the audio cues of sirens and music to highlight the urgency of the
use of these products. For the non-taboo ads, seemingly taboo situations may be
created such as for TMN mobile phones in which a husband sending his wife video
of himself changing their baby's diaper translates to a phone-sex call for those
hearing the wife's end of the conversation. Television is shown to take
advantage of the multiple modalities available to present messages that vary in
complexity and strategy.


Taboo has previously been analyzed linguistically by Allen and Burridge (2006),
Hoeksema and Napoli (2008), Slotkin (1994), and Wachal (2002), but Freitas's
analysis of taboo language with respect to advertising is a novel and welcome

There were some minor issues regarding methodology and mechanics that should be
addressed here. First, it is not clear why these eight particular magazines
from which the advertisements came were selected as Freitas' sources. Also, the
chart of advertisements used in each chapter (18-21) was quite helpful; an
improvement would have been the inclusion of a column indicating the type of
medium for each ad.

The ordering of images and figures is somewhat less than intuitive. It would be
most helpful to encounter the figures in the context of the textual discussion,
but many are found in the back of the chapter. However, some are interspersed
with text and out of order; Figures 5a-c (Clinique ads), for example, are
presented within the context of their discussion on pages 72-73, but Figure 1
(Canesten), discussed on pages 65-68, appears at the end of the chapter on page
91. In Chapter 4, Freitas refers to ads discussed in previous and future
chapters, resulting in manic page-flipping on the part of the reader.

It would have been illuminating to learn how the author defines ''successful
advertising''. Are there quantitative consumer reports to confirm an ad's
success, or should we understand a successful ad as one that has made it to
press/ air?

It is certainly to Freitas' credit that in her analysis of metaphorical
relationship-building between advertisers and viewers, she is careful to note
that the pretense of the non-existence of a particular taboo serves to heighten
or maintain the taboo. In this way, the author acknowledges the power of the
media to reflect and perpetuate public ideals (cf. Bakhtin 1981, Wortham 2001).

Freitas suggests (109) that comparative analyses of different types of humour
and different types of advertising have not previously been performed. ''Taboo
in Advertising'' is a welcome addition to the media studies canon, but clearly
there is much work to be done in understanding the interplay of language, image,
humor, and commerce.


Allen, Keith and Kate Burridge. 2006. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring
of Language. Cambridge: CUP.
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by C. Emerson
and M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Hoeksema, Jack and Donna Jo Napoli. 2008. Just for the hell of it: A comparison
of two taboo-term constructions. Journal of Linguistics 44:2, 347-378.
Slotkin, Alan R. 1994. Two New ''Obscenities'': The Acceptability of Taboo Words
in the Media. American Speech 69:2, 220-24.
Wachal, Robert S. 2002. Taboo or Not Taboo: That Is the Question. American
Speech 77:2, 195-206.
Wortham, Stanton. 2001. Narratives in Action. New York: Teachers College Press.

Jill Hallett is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she focuses on sociolinguistics. Her main research interests include world Englishes, African-American English, second dialect acquisition, and language in literature and the media.