Commasutra and All That



Advertising copy often has bad grammar and wrong punctuation. How much of this is intentional? What does it say about the brand itself? Quo vadis advertising?
By Krish Warrier

Writing in a May 2014 issue of Adweek, Robert Klara, an editor there, had said: “Just in case you haven’t checked in a while, the English language continues a steady slide into the ditch—and it’s not just texting that’s to blame, it’s marketing. Whether online or on the packaging, brands seem to be forgetting the spelling and grammar we all supposedly learned in grade school.”

Victoria’s Secret
Victoria’s Secret

He goes on to give two examples. In 2011, Old Navy had to return an entire shipment of sports team T-shirts when the “Lets Go!” lettering omitted the apostrophe before the “s.” You’d think people would have learnt their lesson. No. It was Victoria’s Secret’s turn then to land into an apostrophe catastrophe. The lingerie brand popped a needless apostrophe (“You’ve never seen Body’s like this!”) into its Secret Body campaign. Since the reference was to the brand Secret Body, was the apostrophe justifiable?

The protagonists of advertising may find this a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, language purists would certainly find this caviar for their souls. The sentence under the scanner is the tagline for a youth magazine—I think it was Yuva. I remember seeing a billboard inside Churchgate station in Mumbai some years back. It said: Let’s talk guys.

Advertising is really street theatre. It talks the language of its target group. Copywriters make a livelihood out of turning things upside down (or inside out) for most part. Consider the well-worn phrase: “Nothing is impossible.” Some wiseacre turned it inside out and rewrote it as “Impossible is nothing”. And, believe it or not, it was the same tagline for an international brand of footwear. It was in 1974 that Adidas got associated with the slogan, “Impossible is Nothing”, though it was actually taken from a quote by Muhammad Ali.

MCGM have played around with apostrophes and exclamations in their ads
MCGM have played around with apostrophes and exclamations in their ads

Similarly, the phrase “Very, Very Tasty” was turned upside down as “Tasty. Very, Very” for a popular confectionery brand. Imagine getting paid megabucks for doing something as simple as this! It was Philip Dusenberry who said: “I have always believed that writing advertisements is the second most profitable form of writing. The first, of course, is ransom notes.”

“Advertising brands seem to be forgetting the spelling and grammar we all supposedly learned in grade school. While the protagonists of advertising may find this a bitter pill to swallow, language purists would find this caviar for their souls.”

Coming back to the sentence under scrutiny: “Let’s talk guys.” While most of us can imagine what the writer meant—guys, let’s talk—it certainly communicates, let’s talk about guys. The reason for this meaning is the absence of the comma after “Let’s talk”. But then, in this SMS age, what’s there in a comma? For all purposes, it may as well be in a coma. U gt me, guys?

Take a look at this bus shelter (facing page, bottom). No wonder, Mumbai is what Mumbai is. Leave it to MCGM to botch it up. The exclamation mark at the end of “Help!” suggests that if MCGM were to be entrusted with the task of keeping Mumbai clean, the project would be a disaster.

Of course, what the person who okayed this meant was: “Help MCGM to keep Mumbai clean”. Maybe the best thing to do would be to divest MCGM of this responsibility.

In the 80s, ad agency Lintas soaped up some lather with a print advert for Delite biscuit from Britannia. The headline said: “Unpeel a Delite”. The visual depicted a Delite biscuit emerging out of an orange. Which prompted the grammarwallas to ask: Shouldn’t the right word have been “peel” rather than “unpeel”? I think the savvy ad guru, Alyque Padamsee, who was heading the agency at that time, wriggled out of it with his usual aplomb. And the whole thing died a natural death.

Some wiseacre turned around a phrase so that Adidas could connect to its target audience

Now, take a look at the retail chain, Shoppers Stop. I distinctly remember when the firm opened its store on SV Road at Andheri, Mumbai. The signage read (Shoppers’ Stop). But today, it’s Shoppers Stop. The apostrophe has been dispensed with. The reasons could be innumerable—from numerology to design considerations.

“Advertising is really street theatre. It talks the language of its target group. Copywriters make a livelihood out of turning things upside down (or inside out) for most part.

In 2014, supermarket behemoth Tesco was forced to change the packaging on its cartons of orange juice after a schoolboy spotted a grammatical error. While having breakfast, Albert Gifford discovered that his carton of juice proclaimed that it was made with the “most tastiest” oranges. (Would “much better” qualify as tautological stammer—don’t most of us use it in our daily conversations?).

The 15-year-old from Shepton Mallet, Somerset, wrote to the supermarket chain to complain, suggesting they change the wording to “tastiest” or “most tasty”. When he did not receive a reply from Tesco, the teenager wrote a letter to the Daily Mail, which got printed. The following day Albert received a reply from Tesco promising to correct the packaging.

One of the communication pieces which set the cat among the grammar pigeons was the “Think Different” campaign of Apple way back in 1997. The campaign was the creation of the Los Angeles office of the advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day. Were you to look at the transcript of the Apple commercial or watch it on YouTube, you’d discover that the ad focuses on “rebels, misfits, and troublemakers”, and uses the line: “They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo.”

Apple and iPod ads deliberately distort grammar
Apple and iPod ads deliberately distort grammar

Apple was always anti-establishmentarian and a rebel, while competitors were the seemingly stuffy, IBM and Microsoft. Which raises the question: Can a television commercial also change how the public perceives traditional grammar?

It would be safe to assume that Apple knowingly used a statement that readers/listeners might consider ungrammatical but that the company didn’t mind, because it is rebelling against the status quo. 

Further proof in favor of this line of thinking is that although the slogan is “Think different”, Apple’s commercial does use the line “The ones who see things differently”. If Apple believed that “think different” and “think differently” were interchangeable, the ad might have stated: “The ones who see things different.”

Steve Jobs, a rebel himself, seems to prefer the damn-the-grammar approach (he also pushed the envelope in 2008 by calling a new iPod the “funnest iPod ever”. By the way, is funnest a word?

Of course, many consumers or prospects will forgive or not even notice an error, especially if it’s something minor. However, it’s a fact that errors —especially if they’re not clearly intentional like using a common abbreviation or acronym—can damage your company’s credibility in ways that may not be immediately obvious to you as a marketer.

So what’s the bottom line? I do like to split my infinitives, or for that matter, use “me” in lieu of “I” while identifying myself. All I am saying is that writers could do with a little bit of grammar, punctuation, etc.

But for that, you have to learn the rules first before breaking them.