Seven Types of Ambiguity – in Adverts

I am not very good at reading poetry, but I suspect it says important things in a way that could not otherwise be said, and that’s why I’m attracted to books which contain a small amount of poetry alongside a lot of prose telling me what to think about it. One such book is Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930, when its author, William Empson, was 24. (Which is the age I learned how to use a semi-colon.) Empson studied two years of a maths degree before switching to English Literature, so I regard the book as a primer in ‘English for Mathematicians’, especially as he peppers his writing with maths-friendly phrases such as  ‘one must assume that n+1 is more valuable than n for any but the most evasively mystical theory of value.’

Empson’s thesis is that because poetry is concise and aims to say a lot of things, it tends to contain phrases which can be interpreted in several ways: i.e. ambiguous phrases. (Another category which has the same constraints and goals is names for pop bands. Consider The Wanted: a dangerous band of outlaws or a group of desirable young men? I presume, without having done much research into the matter, that both implications are relevant to the impression the band intends to create.) His book identifies seven sub-categories of ambiguity, and lists examples drawn from poetry under each.

I thought it might be interesting to take Empson’s original seven types, and see if I could find examples drawn from the field of advertising slogans to fill them. Like poetry, advertising slogans aim to say a lot of things using few words. To adapt a quote from a book:

The demands of metre catchiness and the cost of air time allow the poet copywriter to say something which is not normal colloquial English, so that the reader thinks of the various colloquial forms which are near to it, and puts them together, weighting their probabilities in proportion to their nearness. It is for such reasons as this that poetry advertising slogans can be more compact, while seeming to be less precise, than prose.

As it turned out, I couldn’t think of an example for each type. But here are the list of types, together with examples where I could find them.

Type 1 – Details are effective in several ways (comparisons with several points of likeness, antitheses with several points of difference)

I didn’t find rich pickings in this space. But here’s an antithesis with several points of difference:

Between love and madness lies Obsession

Calvin Klein

Love (assuming sexual love is meant) is sexually exciting, self-denying, and personal; madness is usually impersonal and involves one’s perceptions being in disagreement with the norm. The audience is free to choose which of these properties obsession has: if you take all the properties of sexual love together with the warped perception of madness, you get stalking; or, taking both properties of madness and only the self-denying property of love, you get something more like academic fervour – an interest in insects so strong that you forget to eat, say. Although intense sexual desire is probably the image that the marketers would most like to purvey, the vagueness of the definition given for obsession may mean the audience identifying with the slogan, and therefore interested in the product, is wider than it would be if more precision were used.

I should say that the definition of this type is wider than the truncated version I have described here. There may be more examples than I have the power to categorise. Perhaps You’re worth it (L’Oréal) qualifies because it leaves open exactly what worth and it are.

Type 2 – two or more alternative meanings are fully resolved into one

I am going to argue that my favourite advertising slogan of all time, Zanussi’s The Appliance of Science [video link], falls into this category. Again, there aren’t many examples of this type – it seems that copywriters want to use their words to say multiple things in one sentence, rather than the same thing twice. There are two ways that The Appliance of Science can be parsed:

  1. Interpreting Appliance as a piece of kitchen white-ware, the slogan means ‘We create good fridges, dishwashers and cookers using the results of scientific investigations’
  2. Interpreting Appliance as equivalent to ‘application’, the slogan means ‘We apply the results of scientific investigations.’

If you accept that the subject in interpretation [2] is implicitly kitchen white-ware, both parsings amount to the same thing. And the slogan rhymes! Amazing.

Type 3 – Two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously

This type, which allows you to say two relevant things using one set of words, is very well represented in the advertising world. Almost all punning advertising slogans fall into this category. I’ll start with my second favourite slogan of all time, which is sadly under-exposed, being a private employee induction slogan for my current employer, Tesco.

A chance to get on

Tesco

This five word sentence contains an impressive three meanings.

  1. Taking get on to mean ‘ascend’, it is a chance to get on the vehicle that is employment at Tesco (whether that’s a carriage to the stars or a bus to a business park in Welwyn Garden City.)
  2. Taking get on to mean ‘associate amicably with people’, it is a chance to work in a constructive manner alongside colleagues. (Tesco prides itself, in my view with justification, on the supportive environment it offers employees.)
  3. Taking get on to mean ‘achieve career success’, it is a chance to, well, achieve career success.

The next example is another favourite of mine because it brazenly addresses the squeamish subject of what the product actually does.

Take everything in your stride

Simplicity press-on towels (1989) [video link]

From the context of the advert, which features women rollerskating and cycling, it seems clear that the primary meaning of the slogan derives from its usual idiomatic meaning – to take something in your stride is to experience something negative it without it affecting you. Which is to say that if you use Simplicity press-on towels, you will feel able to get on with life when you have your period. But the more literal meaning of ‘stride’ is to do with the separation of your legs – which is, of course, where the press-on towel goes.

Type 4 – Alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author

I haven’t been able to think of any good examples for this type, and I think it’s because adverts aren’t usually trying to convey a complicated state of mind. I thought I might be able to mine something from charity or public health slogans, which aim to deter bad things rather than promote good things, but the ones I can think of are pretty unambiguous e.g. Oxfam’s Make Poverty History, Save the Children’s No child born to die. Perhaps the best example is the below, which I think I’ve seen on a British advert from the government-sponsored Think! road safety campaign but can’t find anywhere.

Mothers against Drink Driving poster: slogan 'Don't drink and DrIvE'

Here, the D, the I and the E of ‘Drive’ in the slogan ‘Don’t drink and Drive’ are highlighted so that it simultaneously says ‘Don’t drink and DIE’. This could be said to represent a complex state of mind in the author, because drink-drive adverts are expected to emphasise the harm that can be done to passengers and other road users, but this one also points out that drunk drivers also risk harming themselves.

The example is a bit of a cheat, though, because it relies on colouring in certain letters, so it’s really two slogans instead of one.

Type 5 – Author is discovering their idea in the act of writing

I also haven’t been able to think of any examples of this type of ambiguity. The problem of type 4, which is that copywriters aren’t usually trying to convey a complicated state of mind, also affects this type, because this type suggests at least two states – the state of not having the idea, and the state of having it. But in type 5 the problem is compounded by the lack of space – you need more words than slogans afford to go from one state to another.

Type 6 – Forcing the reader to invent interpretations

In this type a statement says nothing, so the reader is forced to invent interpretations for themselves. There are quite a lot of examples of this type in advertising.

Made in Scotland from Girders

Irn-Bru [video link]

The claim is clearly not intended to be believed. However, it does allow the viewer to imagine strength and Scottishness diffusing out of a mouthful of Irn-Bru into their body.

Impossible is nothing

Adidas [video link]

This slogan qualifies on the grounds of grammatical delinquency. The viewer may correct it to ‘Nothing is impossible’, or may turn Impossible into a noun, meaning either ‘the set of things which are impossible’ or impossibility itself.

Type 7 – Full contradiction

I’m not sure I understand this type, so I’m going to quote its definition in full:

An example of the seventh type of ambiguity … occurs when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind.

Taking this definition on its own, I would claim that

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing

HMRC [video link]

qualifies. Taking taxing literally, as in ‘pay money’, tax, obviously, is taxing, so the statement is a contradiction, but interpreting taxing to mean ‘be hard work’ the statement means that ‘it’s not much administrative effort to pay tax’, which is the intent of the slogan.

If this were the extent of this type then the examples in the seventh chapter of Seven Types of Ambiguity would all be the type of puns that Idlewild are fond of making, such as I think you’re young without youth (American English) and And did I hear you sing / That we exist without existing (I understand it). However, the examples in the chapter are statements which say the opposite of what they mean. The true meaning of the statements is has to be deduced from the context. The nearest things to this I can think of in adverts are those adverts which don’t explicitly endorse the products that they’re promoting:

You either love it or hate it

Marmite [video link]

In Marmite adverts, the emphasis is generally more on the people who hate Marmite than those who love it, but the implication to the viewer is (presumably) that it’s more likely to be loved than hated.

Just a little better. But better.

Philips in the 1980’s

Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence on the internet to back up my claim that this was once a Philips slogan. The intended implication was presumably ‘actually, it’s heaps better’. I think the company must have decided pretty quickly that it was too understated, because it was replaced by Let’s make things better.

Conclusion

So, my finding is that, whilst it’s interesting to analyse advertising slogans using the seven types, in fact most of the ambiguous ones fall into two types – type 3 (the pun) and type 6 (the meaningless statement.) If you can think of any examples, of any type, but especially of the other five types then I’d love to hear from you.

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