Literal meanings

For some time I've been meaning to write about the way advertising copywriters take advantage of the fact that, in general, people don't consider the literal meaning of the words they read. Take sale posters promising "up to 50% off". Hopeful shoppers read that as a promise that all goods will be half price. In fact the only promise being made is that no discount will be greater than 50%. "Up to 50%" could mean a price cut of 50%, 49%, any other figure down to zero.

With this in mind I couldn't help but chortle into my morning weteepops at a report in today's Sun under the damned clever headline "Plunder of Woolies".

It seems that Woolworths' closing down sale posters promised price cuts of up to 50% and, as the Sun puts it, "shoppers branded the sale a con after hundreds of items were reduced by only 10%" and "many shoppers put products back on the shelf in disgust after realising not everything was half price".

Nonetheless the day's takings topped £25 million, making it the best day's trading in Woolies' 90-year history. A spokesman for the administrators must have had trouble keeping a straight face when he said: "It's unfortunate if people find it misleading."

Two other examples of carefully crafted ad phrases have caught my eye recently.

First is a Halfords advert promising that every bicycle the firm sells will be put through a full safety check. Commendable. Except all this means is that Halfords doesn't intend to lay itself open to prosecution under the Sale of Goods act by selling bikes that aren't of merchantable quality. It's about as meaningful as a supermarket promising that the food it sells isn't poisonous.

Then there are those ads for painkillers, shampoo and other products in which copywriters solemnly promise: "No other pill/shampoo etc is more effective." Which simply means there are legal limits on the strength/amount of the active ingredients and every manufacturer follows those rules.

Better a poor, honest sub than a rich, cynical copywriter says I.

PS Apropos of nothing at all, another headline I spotted recently in The Independent left me grinning in appreciation. Over a story about a comely young opera diva who has, to put it mildly, been burning the candle at both ends, was the exquisite "Excess all arias". Now there's a sub worthy of his salt.

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