Advertising: Form, Meaning and Function
Generally speaking, wordplay (or pun) is a
witticism that relies for its effect on playing with different levels
of language, i.e. phonological, graphological, morphological, lexical,
syntactic, and textual. Puns are frequently used in commercial
advertising as a rhetorical device to promote a given product or
service by creating humour, attracting the reader’s attention and
adding persuasive force to the message. They also reflect the cultural
preferences and traditions of a country, therefore they can be
fruitfully used for pedagogic purposes to raise awareness of the
specific linguistic and cultural features of the foreign language. In
this paper I examine the form, meaning and function of puns that
rely on the different meanings of polysemic words, the literal and
non-literal senses of idioms or on bringing two homonyms together in
the same utterance to produce witty remarks. After introducing the
notions of homonymy, polysemy and idiom I analyse the play on words
contained in a sample of advertisements selected at random from two
broadsheet newspapers, The Guardian Weekend (1997) and The Independent
(1997), two quality weekly magazines, Cosmopolitan (1997) and The
Telegraph Magazine (1997), as well as a promotional brochure by
Alliance & Leicester plc (2003) and promotional leaflets published
in 2000 respectively by Royal Mail, British Telecommunications plc and
Johnson & Johnson. Finally, I propose some activities that can be
carried out in the LSP classroom either individually or in groups to
raise awareness of some of the linguistic and cultural features
characterizing the rhetoric of marketing and promotion in business
Scripta Manent. Slovensko društvo učiteljev tujega strokovnega jezika.
In the vocabulary of any language words are linked together
into a sort of gigantic spider’s web organized by principles that are
language specific. Sense relations constitute one of these organizing
principles, they refer to how words relate to each other in terms of
their meaning, that is how similar or different or general or specific
they are to one another. Homonymy and polysemy are two types of sense
relations. Homonymy is the sense relation that links homonyms, that is
words that have the same sound and spelling but different meanings. For
example the three meanings listed in Table 1 below are expressed by the
same word-form bank, which therefore has three homonyms.
financial institution that people or businesses can keep their money in
or borrow money from
raised area of land along the side of a river
large number of pieces in a row, especially pieces of equipment
Bank of Scotland
bank of the river Severn
||a bank of TV
of the word-form bank1
Polysemy is the term used to refer to the different meanings conveyed
by the same word. Words that have more than one propositional meaning
are called polysemous (or polysemic) words as opposed to monosemous (or
monosemic) words, which convey only one propositional meaning. An
example of polysemy is given by the noun model, whose different
meanings are listed in Table 2.
small copy of something such as a building, vehicle, or machine
that is so good that people should copy it
or something that is a good example of a particular quality
whose job is to show clothes, make-up, hairstyles, etc.
whose job is to be drawn or painted or photo-
graphed by an artist
particular type of vehicle or machine that a company makes
simple technical description of how something works
|a model of
the Eiffel Tower
countries have shown an interest in the Chinese farming model
school was a model of excellence
wants to be a fashion model
launched a new model last year
5 presents an alternative model for the country’s economic structure
of the noun model
An idiom is a multi-word unit whose meaning cannot be generally
inferred from the meaning of the individual words. Idioms vary from
being semantically opaque such as to break the ice meaning “to say or
do something to make people feel relaxed and comfortable”, to being
semi-opaque such as to pass the buck meaning “to pass the
responsibility”, or being relatively transparent such as to see the
light meaning “to understand”. Idioms that are difficult to recognize
are those that have a literal as well as an idiomatic meaning, such as
to go out with somebody, to take someone for a ride, to put one’s feet
up, to pull somebody’s legs, to have cold feet, or to put something on
Wordplay (or pun) is a rhetorical device that often relies on the
different meanings of a polysemic word, the literal and non-literal
meaning of an idiom or on bringing two homonyms together in the same
utterance to produce a witticism. Punning is frequently used in
commercial advertising to attract the reader’s attention and
maintaining her/his interest in keeping with the AIDA principle (Lund,
1947: 83), whereby the language of advertising must attract the
Attention of the prospective buyer, maintain her/his Interest, create a
Desire, and get her/him into Action. By playing with the similarity of
form and the difference in meaning of given lexical items, the
advertiser entices the reader to grasp the double meaning conveyed by
the message, as if it were a sort of puzzle, as a result, Tanaka
observes, “the effort made by an audience in recovering the intended
effects of the advertisement is actually increased by punning” (Tanaka,
1994: 64). Moreover, the reader is gratified for having understood the
witticism, this contributing to fulfilling the text’s conative
function. Delabastita defines wordplay as a textual phenomenon, a fact
of language which is inextricably linked to the structural features of
language (Delabastita, 1996: 129), puns are also intimately bound up
with the culture of a language, reflecting particular values, tastes
and lifestyles. Furthermore, because of their humorous effect, puns are
ideally suited to render commercial advertising witty, effective and
memorable, as required by most big companies worldwide and recommended
by Simon Anholt, managing director of World Writers in an article
appeared in The Times (18th June 1997), where he states that “the
winning ads are almost always funny” and “if you want to make friends
and influence people, you need to start by raising a smile”. In the
following section I analyse a sample of commercial advertisements
focusing on the interrelationship between form, meaning and function of
puns together with the role played by the cultural context to
disambiguate their meaning. The methodological approach adopted is
primarily linguistic. The aim is to illustrate how the linguistic
analysis of a sample of specialised language use can be useful in
teaching the lexico-grammar of a foreign language as well as some
subtle nuances of cultural meaning.
Playing with homonymy, polysemy, and idioms
The following advert by MG Rover Cars promoting its Land Rover is an
example of wordplay which exploits the homonymy between spring meaning
“a long thin piece of metal in the shape of a coil” and spring as “the
season of the year between winter and summer”, which is particularly
pleasant in England. In turn spring is portrayed as a man or woman
receiving advice on “how to be beautiful”, thus providing a good
example of what Haug (1971: 15) calls Warenasthetic, that is the
aestheticization of commodities, whereby advertising makes products
appear as pleasing and appealing as possible. The message in small
print consists in fact of a list of instructions corresponding to the
different stages of what appears to be a kind of beauty treatment. The
association between the various phases of manufacturing a metal spring
and the routine activities aimed at acquiring an ideal figure is
obtained through the metaphorical use of the verbal phrases “feed
yourself”, “take a dip” and “stretch […] your entire body”.
How to be
beautiful. First, feed yourself through a furnace.
take a dip in hot oil. (About 10000C should be OK.)
that, get blasted by small metal balls. Finally, stretch
compress your entire body to the limit 250,000 times.
and only then, can you be fitted to the most stunning 4x4.
© The Telegraph Magazine 1997
The following car advert by Ford Motor Company is an example of
wordplay that exploits the polysemy of the adjective attached, which
means either “joined or fixed to something” or “liking someone very
much or loving them”. The picture shows a famous rock climber, Naomi
Guy, who is climbing a very high cliff and is sustained by a rope that
is firmly attached to her Ford Escort parked on top of the cliff. The
slogan says: NAOMI
IS VERY ATTACHED TO HERS while
the slogan below the company logo reads: ESCORT.
WHAT DO YOU DO IN
© Cosmopolitan 1997
An example of a composite wordplay that exploits cultural differences
enshrined in particular words and concepts is offered by the following
ad, promoting the Cross & Blackwell Hollondaise sauce:
worked in oils, but all I needed was a knob of butter… And some milk.
Was this food? No, it was art. Silky smooth Hollandaise sauce ready in
5 minutes with the help of BONNE CUISINE. Should I eat it? Or send it
to the Tate Gallery?
In this ad there is a double pun, one arising from bringing two
homonyms together: oil as “a thick smooth liquid used in cooking and
preparing food” and oil as “a type of paint made from oil”, usually
used in the plural, the other relating to the polysemy of the verb work
which means either “to spend time trying to achieve something” or “to
produce a picture or create an object using a particular type of
substance”. So, through punning, the preparation of ready-made English
meals, which often rely on local, economical products such as milk and
butter, is at one time humorously contrasted with the laborious and
expensive Italian cuisine, which makes a large use of olive oil, and
equated to the art of painting, represented by the famous fifteenth
century Florentine painter. In this advertisement typical cultural
stereotypes associated with Italian art and cuisine are effectively
exploited to capture and hold the reader’s attention and maintain
her/his interest by appealing to national pride, habits and tastes.
Another illustration of wordplay that exploits in the same word the
sense relations of homonymy and polysemy is provided by the
advertisement below, which combines visual and verbal devices to raise
a smile on the prospective client:
© Alliance & Leicester plc 2003
The ad appears on the cover pocket of a brochure promoting a new bond
called “With Profits Growth Bond”, offered by the life assurance
company Alliance & Leicester plc. The play on words is obtained
visually by depicting the word “Growth” as if each letter had been cut
out from a patch of lawn with fresh green grass growing on it, which is
regularly watered, as indicated by the image of a water can placed next
to the catchword. This is an example of visual pun, which
consists in illustrating the two or more senses brought together by a
verbal pun (Cook, 2001: 61). So, being part of the full name of the
bond, “Growth” is a homonym of growth meaning “an increase in the
amount of money invested in a business”. The additional meaning that
“Growth” visually conveys in the ad is also “an increase in the size or
development of living things, such as a plants and trees”. By
associating the name of the bond with both economic growth and a
carefully tended lawn, the pride and joy of most English people, the
advertiser aims to convey, through familiar imagery, the idea of
success, wealth together with a sense of security and well being with a
view to gaining the reader’s trust and rendering the product
Idioms that have both a literal and an idiomatic meaning are often used
creatively in wordplay as in the example below:
chocolates bars. Not everyone’s a fruit and nut case. Thorntons bring
you a new selection of chunky chocolate bars. Milk chocolate. Dark
chocolate. Autumn Nuts. Toffee. Winter Nut and Fruit. And Ginger.
You're spoilt for choice. So spoil yourself.
Guardian Weekend 1997
The ad promotes a new selection of chocolate bars produced by
Thorntons, the famous British chocolate company since 1911. The
witticism is created by playing with the idiom “to be a nut case” which
means “to be mad or to behave in a strange way”. Thorntons, the
advertiser intends to say, is not at all made but wise, because it does
not limit its range of products to fruit and nut chocolate bars, like
its competitor Cadbury, but it offers a delicious variety of fillings.
The play on words - based on the literal and idiomatic meaning of the
word nut as well as the addition of fruit and to form the coordinated
noun phrase fruit and nut - which evokes Cadbury’s “fruit and nut
chocolate bars” - has the effect of making Thorntons stand out to
the detriment of its business rival, thus conveying what in advertising
is known as the Unique Selling Proposition (Goddard, 2002: 4). This is
a clear example where knowing about the specific cultural context that
gives rise to an ad is often essential to disambiguate the subtle
intended meanings conveyed by the creative use of promotional language.
Sometimes we find more than one witticism in the same ad, as in the
following example provided by the Isuzu car manufacturing company
promoting its Trooper 4x4:
Troopers are never up the creek without a paddle.
Guardian Weekend 1997
The slogan is placed on top of an image portraying a barren landscape
with a man fishing in a small river next to his Isuzu Trooper 4x4 in
the foreground. The idiom “to be up the creek (without a paddle)” means
“to be in a bad or difficult situation” and trooper means “soldier”.
The double witticism is created by playing with both the literal and
idiomatic meaning of the expression “to be up the creek”, which
literally means “to go up a small stream or river”, and by bringing two
homonyms together: the name of the advertised Isuzu car and trooper. In
this instance the advertiser uses a clear ego-targeting strategy
(Williamson, 1983) by fulfilling the reader’s need and desire to have a
car that is able to take her/him wherever s/he wishes safely and
comfortably, no matter how difficult or treacherous it may be.
Activities for the LSP classroom and Key
In my envisaged teaching sessions on wordplay in promotional business
language within the context of English for business purposes, I would
first of all introduce and illustrate the linguistic concepts that are
necessary for understanding how puns work. I would then give students a
series of activities to gain some practice in recognizing the
linguistic features of verbal puns and reflect, wherever appropriate,
on the cultural specificity of wordplay. The answers provided at the
end of the activities concern only the linguistic features of wordplay,
since they can be examined with a reasonable degree of accuracy and
objectivity. No commentary is provided for the culture-bound aspects of
the examples of advertising selected for practical classroom
activities, since this type of analysis is better dealt with in group
discussions where opinions can be shared and confronted.
First set of exercises:
Analysis of sense relations
Identify the sense relations which have been exploited in the following
examples of wordplay in commercial advertising. Wherever appropriate,
comment on and discuss the cultural aspects that characterize these
us lighten the load. We can redirect your mail for up to two years.
That's one thing sorted ...
From a promotional leaflet
© Royal Mail 2000
“MUM’S TAKING US TO
© The Independent 1997
“BOOK NOW FOR LEGOLAND®
WORRY, THEY TAKE
The Independent 1997
You could win
£1 million with BT Internet
From the 31st March
until the 1 May 2000, BT Internet is offering you the chance to take
part in the most exciting online promotion yet. All you have to do is
get online and answer one question correctly and we will automatically
enter you into the online free prize draw to win £1 million.
From a promotional leaflet
Telecommunications plc 2000
Your eyes will fall in love with
new 1-Day ACUVUE contact lenses. Arrange a date today. 1-Day ACUVUE.
Johnson & Johnson.
From a promotional leaflet
© Johnson & Johnson
Key to the first set of exercises
a) polysemy: sort means either “to arrange things in groups or in a
particular order” or “to solve a problem”;
b) homonymy between brick: “a small block of plastic or wood, used by
children for building things” and the informal, old-fashioned word
brick: “a nice helpful person”;
c) homonymy between plastic: “a very common light, strong substance
produced by chemical process and used for making many different things”
and the informal word plastic: “credit card”;
d) homonymy between the verb net: “to earn a particular amount of money
after taxes or other costs have been removed” and the noun net:
informal abbreviation of Internet;
e) polysemy: date means either “the name and number of a particular day
or year” or “an arrangement to meet someone you are having or starting
a sexual or romantic relationship with”.
Second set of exercises:
Analysis of literal and idiomatic meanings
Identify the literal and idiomatic meanings which have been exploited
in the following examples of wordplay in commercial advertising.
Wherever appropriate, comment on and discuss the cultural aspects that
characterize these verbal puns.
our blend of
herbs and spices to get you out of a stew. Are your dishes tired, run
down, depressed? Take heart. The chefs at Knorr have just the remedy.
Eight different stock cubes created with one thing in mind. To enliven
everyday meals, so helping you ring the changes. It's all down to herbs
and spices. Which herbs and spices? That must remain a secret. As must
the blend. Their effect on appetite, though, is common knowledge.
© Cosmopolitan 1997
TO PUT THE
BOOT IN? The Peugeot 306 Sedan has 463 litres of boot space. Ours is
bigger. The Ford Scorpio has 465 litres of boot space. Ours is bigger.
The Mercedes E-280 Classic has 500 litres of boot space. And guess
what? Ours is bigger than that too.
Mégane Classic IT talks YOUR LANGUAGE
© Cosmopolitan 1997
Key to the second set of
a) “to get you out of the stew” is a creative use of the idiom to be in
a stew which means “to be very worried”; stew literally means “a meal
made by cooking meat and vegetables in liquid at a low temperature”.
The play on words is based on the double meaning of “to get you out of
the stew” to convey the following message: with Knorr stock cubes we
will take out your worries by enabling you to cook new tasty meals,
rather than the old boring stew;
b) the witticism is based on the double meaning of the idiom “to put
the boot in”, which literally means “to equip a car with a covered
space at the back or front in which to carry things such as luggage and
shopping”, and idiomatically means “to attack another person by saying
something cruel, often when the person is already feeling weak or
upset”. While the literal meaning refers to the large boot space of
Mégane Classic IT, the idiomatic meaning is a sneering remark
aimed at the competitors of the car manufacturing company Renault.
Wordplay has been shown to be an effective means of fulfilling the
persuasive function of promotional language in business communication
by capturing and holding the reader’s attention. One of the most
intriguing aspects of wordplay is the interrelationship between
language and culture, which can render the disambiguation of the
intended double meanings particulary challenging and stimulating,
especially if the reader is not a native speaker. This, I believe, is
at least one of the reasons why commercial advertising can provide the
EFL teacher with a rich source of material for analysing together with
the students the stylistic features of a very popular text type in
business discourse and raising awareness about the cultural background
that gives rise to them.
1 All the dictionary definitions reported in this
article have been taken from Macmillan English Dictionary, 2002, ©
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2002.
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English and Italian Written Adverts and the Implications for Translation.
Unpublished MA Dissertation. Birmingham: Centre for English Language
Studies (CELS), Department of English Language Studies, University of
Baker, M. (1992). In Other Words. A
Coursebook on Translation.
London and New York: Routledge.
Cook, G. (2001). The Discourse of
Advertising. London and
New York: Routledge.
Delabastita, D. (1996).
Introduction. In D. Delabastita (ed.), Wordplay &
Issue of The Translator,
Goddard, A. (2002). The Language of
Advertising. London and
New York: Routledge.
Haug, W.F. (1971). Kritik der
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Laviosa, S. (2005). Linking
Wor(l)ds. Lexis and Grammar for Translation. Napoli: Liguori.
Lund, J.V. (1947). Newspaper
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Author 2005. Published by SDUTSJ. All rights reserved.
Scripta Manent 1(1)
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Language Development in a Business Faculty in Higher Education: A
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Language of Business E-Mail: An Opportunity to Bridge Theory and
» S. Laviosa
in Advertising: Form, Meaning and Function
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» S. Čepon
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