Free Tongues: Slang in Advertising

It was another time. Mobile phones were nothing but primitive devices. Newspaper (in actual paper) still sold quite well. Hell, the US president was even a politician. During this mythical era, the first of a long series ofv Budweiser TV ads surfaced, filled with loud outbursts of “Waaaassssssuuuuuuuup?!?!”. At the turn of the millennium, the success of this campaign was so gigantic that it made its way into pop culture, even showing up in a handful of films – Scary Movie, for instance.

Yes, these ads were well directed and featured talented actors. Yes, their success can partly be ex-plained by their overwhelming media presence. However, it also seems obvious that their triumph is also the result of the successful appropriation of a familiar expression in an advertising context. It’s a great example of slang being used for marketing purposes.

When you pay attention to data, it’s easy to understand why certain advertisers choose to adapt their language in function of the various audiences they wish to address. Word choice, it seems, does have a significant impact on consumers’ decisions. Tse and Soergel, scholars from the University of Maryland, concluded that the use of a familiar vocabulary in a given advertisement tends to encourage the public to feel closer to the brand. This hypothesis is corroborated by Slang & Social Desirability, a book written by Connie Eble, English teacher at the University of North Carolina. In it, she ex-plains that mimicking the vocabulary of a specific group helps its members feel compelled; they tend to identify to the person speaking their language. Similarly, Moss, Gunn and Heller from the New University of Buckinghamshire talk about the existence of a new strategy in website design, which consists of imitating the language spoken by consumers to deliver messages to them more efficiently.

In short, it seems to be widely accepted: using slang does have an undeniable seduction potential. However, it’s important to exercise caution. A set of slang words is not like a bank of stock photos where you can just freely help yourself. Indeed, each coded language, each form of jargon is born in a very specific context. Consequently, it’s often (always?) necessary to know about this context to be fully capable or expressing yourself in this fresh vernacular. Tony Thorne, linguistic consultant at King University in London, reminds us that if advertisers fail to use such precautions, they can sound like a dad in the midst of its mid-life crisis who’s desperately trying to look cool. He uses the example of Expedia, which had the misfortune of releasing a series of ads using Cockney rhyming slang1 (see example below). Its team did such a bad job that it immediately became the target of mockery from both the public and the media. An unsuccessful attempt, if you will.


Choosing the Source and the Destination Carefully

However, the context of origin is not the only important factor. It seems equally crucial for the advertisement itself – its goal, its placement, the product or service that it sells, etc. – to be an appropriate setting where to use a linguistic register as familiar as slang. When London’s Victoria metro line tried to make its mobile phone alerts a little more colourful, they did so by saying:

Hi all, just a quick chirp to let you know Victoria Line is all good this morning. Soz about yesterday! Hope your commute/journey goes well.

While the intentions might have been good, the execution clearly wasn’t ideal, in the context of an apology. At least, that’s what comments from customers conveyed:

Soz??? Are you kidding? Soz isn’t an appropriate word when your screwup causes thousands of people to get home from work late.

On the other hand, a similar strategy used on Twitter by the customer service department of O2, the British telecommunication giant, yielded great success:

Tunde24_7 : @O2 b*****d big man ting I swear direct me to your owner what happened to my internet connec-tion fam – mans having to use wifi and dat.
O2 : @Tunde24_7 Have you tried to reset the router ting fam, so mans can use the wifi and dat?

The exchange became viral and 90% of comments about it were positive. What’s the precise element that made O2 succeed where Victoria Line failed is hard to pinpoint, but it seems reasonable to credit context. In other words, using slang to apologize doesn’t work as well as using slang to help a customer solve a technical issue.

The Role of the Medium

The advertising platform also seems to have an influence. Thus, Erin Sagin recommends avoiding any slang at all (including emojis) in AdWords campaign, for instance. As for Melissa Duko from Business 2 Community, she believes that what works on websites and social media is not likely to work as well in other media. She uses the example of a failed ad from American restaurant chain Denny’s, which tried to use online slang in a printed ad:


Some advertisers go even further in their use of slang: they create whole slang dictionaries, which are generally parts of wide campaigns. For instance: a few years ago, the energy drink known as Lu-cozade published its Festival Dictionary, thanks to which the public could learn the meaning of all these coded words that get born in all kinds of cultural movements. The context of a festival being a great one for a merry exploration of slang, the project was well received. Moreover, Lucozade decid-ed to put their money on authenticity by consulting key players – DJs, musicians, stylists, young festi-val goers, etc. – to create this dictionary. That attention to detail did not go unnoticed.

Merely smoke and mirrors?

In light of these observations, it seems safe to say that using slang in advertising is a good idea, if it’s done with care and dexterity. To do well, it’s important to think of the context of origin, the context of destination, as well as the legitimate and authentic use of a given form of slang. Which brings me to my next point. Seeing this, it feels reasonable to ask: do advertisers use slang as just another tool to sweet talk the public? Is this merely another persuasion technique with clear mercantile undertones? One more way to seduce all of us, in order to sell us something? Yes and no. While I understand this reaction, I don’t think it’s that simple. I have another vision.

Consider a similar phenomenon. I don’t know about you, but personally, when I shop online and I see the products that show up in the “you may also like” section, I get slight vertigo. How do advertisers manage to figure me out with this degree of precision? Ironically, I know perfectly how, but it doesn’t keep me from getting a small rush of anxiety, some sort of Orwellian stress. However, when I think about it, I tell myself that it would be surprising if the marketing representative of any brand were bent over his computer, spying on my every purchase. It’s all done automatically and my consumption habits are not at all remarkable, which means that, basically, my knee-jerk fit of anxiety isn’t rooted in much truth.

That being the case, shouldn’t I just be happy that the recommendations that are made for me are so accurate? The products and services I’m being shown are always at least somewhat interesting to me; I am, in the vast majority of cases, tempted to click “Buy.” In other words, I ended up recognizing that this method that made me a little nervous initially allows consumers like me to see ads for prod-ucts they actually like, and not just any product. If I manage to control my eagerness to spend (a bat-tle that is entirely my own), I must admit that this type of commercial profiling does have its ad-vantages.

Following the same logic, I believe that using slang in advertising, even though it is a sales technique like any other, does force advertisers to understand their target audience properly. Anyone that wants to speak in an insider’s tongue must necessarily understand its essence. If advertisers approach slang in a superficial manner, without thoroughly understanding the jargon at hand, they risk the kind of disaster that Expedia (and many others) experienced. We live in a time when consumers are used to perceive brands as individuals (for better and for worse) and so a message’s authenticity – even when that “message” constitutes advertising – is a priority for many. And since slang, because of the complexity of its use, is a great barometer of how sincere a brand truly is, it’s difficult not to enjoy its presence in advertising. A bit like the “you may also like” section.

This phenomenon has an even greater potential than people would expect. In Nairobi, Kenya, an ad-vertiser made the bold choice of including familiar forms of Swahili in its HIV awareness ads. This strategy yielded all kinds of positive results. First of all, the campaign’s spokespeople, who were al-ready role modes in the eyes of the Nairobi youth, gave a local and authentic flavour to a socio-medical discourse, which could otherwise have been a little dull. Consequently, the youth felt com-pelled to take part in the dialog about a subject matter that’s typically a taboo in Kenya. Finally, and somewhat incredibly, this campaign caused a reordering of the population’s perception of the local patois. The Nairobi street slang – and, by extension, those who speak it – acquired a sort of nobility that they had never known before then. Now, that’s quite something.

And so, maybe there is something insidious in the use of slang by advertisers. However, let’s give credit where credit is due: there is also some good in that.

1. Wikipedia’s definition: The construction of rhyming slang involves replacing a common word with a phrase of two or more words, the last of which rhymes with the original word; then, in almost all cases, omitting, from the end of the phrase, the secondary rhyming word (which is thereafter implied), making the origin and meaning of the phrase elusive to listeners not in the know.

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