“Like a cigarette should”

Dissecting the grammar in advertising is like shooting fish in a barrel, as the saying goes (though I’ve never understood why one would shoot fish in a barrel). From an edited publication, you should expect editing. From a bunch of Mad Men, maybe you shouldn’t even expect writing. Creativity, of a specialized sort, yes. But not necessarily writing.

Poorly written ads have been around far longer than I have. The first such controversy I remember was over a brand of cigarettes, which at the time were advertised in print publications and maybe even on TV. “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” the slogan went. I was incredulous: Those things taste good? But adults were taking sides over “like” versus “as.” The “like” people said the ad sounded like people talk, and “as” would sound stilted. The “as” people said proper grammar was worth something, and standards were going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that meant), and if we didn’t use the language properly, who knew what atrocities would follow. (Must be something about cigarettes — there were also magazine ads with the line “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!”)

This was my first exposure to prescriptivists and descriptivists — or, to put it in legal terms, strict constructionists and loose constructionists. Should we do things they way they’ve always been done because it’s “right”? Or should we change the rules to reflect the reality of how people use language, even if they’re “wrong”? I tend to lean prescriptivist, but it’s only a lean; both sides have a point, and though enforcing rules is often the role of an editor, so is making things readable and clear. So an editor has ample opportunity to experience everyone’s wrath.

But back to ads. Every once in a while one or more lines will jump out at me. On the radio, they’re like a dog whistle that most people don’t notice or don’t find bothersome. On paper, they make me want to get out the red pen. Here are some examples.

•     “If you need to lose up to 30 pounds or more ….” Okay, I sort of get why Madison Avenue wrote it that way. It’s still stupid. Do you need to lose up to 30 pounds? Or do you need to lose 30 pounds or more? It’s not both. I’d like the makers of this weight-loss product to lose this sentence.

•     “The detail and beauty is amazing.“The number-one issue in patents are patent trolls.” The first example is from a jewelry chain. As for the second, I am delighted to imagine what a patent troll looks like. Not so delighted to imagine how the educated people at this law firm managed to forget one of the most elementary(-school) rules of English grammar: The verb can’t be plural when the noun is singular. And vice versa, jewelry chain.

•     “See everything — like restaurants, shopping, and more.” My colleagues know I find redundancy annoying, irritating, aggravating, vexing, and exasperating. This line from an ad for a vacation destination is just the sort to which I’d take the red pen. It’s similar to the “30 pounds” line: If you must give an example of “everything,” say either “like [or ‘such as’] X and Y” or “X, Y, and more.” Not both. (Same with “et al.,” by the way, which is a Latin abbreviation for “and others” or “and other things.”)

•     “Dentures are very different to real teeth.” What? If you’ve seen this ad for a dental product, you know that some dentist supposedly says this, though he may well be an actor saying lines. But who would say or write that? Every time I hear it, I talk back to the TV: “From! From real teeth!”

“Your audience has grammar snobs and regular people. Whichever way you write your slogan it’s going to look natural to one group and un-natural to the other,” according to a writer for a blog called Cheap Talk. The writer sides with offending the “grammar snobs” because that’s the slogan that will get at least part of the audience “to turn it over, diagram it and correct it…. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Is anyone surprised?

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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One Comment on ““Like a cigarette should””

  1. Karen Daniel Says:

    Thank you! I was wondering if anyone else feels the way I do about “different to” and so many other misuses of the English language.

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