Grice in Advertisements — It’s a Pretty Big Deal

My first guest post is by XX, a fellow linguist at XX. That’s right, I’m publishing two posts in a row about Grice — hope you can handle it! — MLR

Manipulation of language’s ability to contain double meanings is found all over contemporary advertising slogans. A lot of the time a simple sentence that would not, outside of the context of the advertisement, be considered ambiguous becomes so when paired with the product being sold.  This is the initial idea that got me interested in looking at slogans, to see what sort of double meanings can come out of purely commercial purposes. One sentence that struck my particular attention was, “It’s a pretty big deal.” This was printed on an advertisement for a Ford Fiesta in a magazine.

On its own, “It’s a pretty big deal,” does not seem to have multiple meanings. Outside the context of the advertisement, I take this sentence to mean that ‘it’ is important, in one way or another, whatever ‘it’ may be in context. In the advertisement, the first reading of the sentence follows this interpretation, but when paired with the description of the car’s fuel-efficient engineering, it seems that another interpretation of the sentence is that the car is a ‘good deal’ in the sense that it will save the buyer money. Also, it is significant to note that the ‘it’ in the sentence contains multiple meanings as well. On one hand, ‘it’ could refer to the car (as I have assumed already) but it could also mean the larger idea of Ford’s accomplishment of manufacturing such a vehicle (that, as implied by the nature of the advertisement, can both save a person money and be good for the environment).

Connecting this sentence to Grice’s Cooperative Principle, I would say that this ambiguity is mostly a manipulation of the Maxim of Manner. It is important to note, first, that this manipulation of the maxim ought to be called flouting, instead of a violation. This is because the audience reading this sentence is not confused at all about the multiple messages coming across. The advertising company is flouting the Maxim of Manner in order to purposely be ambiguous, all for the sake of promoting the product. In this case (as Grice would put it) there is still an implicature that comes across in the message.

This advertising company has a specific and reasonable motive for flouting the Maxim of Manner. This motive involves wanting the product to come across as a ‘good deal’ in the economic sense, in the environmental sense, and in the larger sense of being cutting-edge technology. Grice explains that there are two basic types of ambiguity: (1) where two interpretations are equally obvious and straight-forward, and (2) where one interpretation is much more straight-forward than the other. In this particular case, I would say that this form of ambiguity offers interpretations that are both equally straight-forward. After all, advertising companies in general would want their messages to be as clear as possible, in order to ensure the effectiveness of the overall message.

Isn’t making connections between seemingly monotonous things and Gricean conversational maxims fun? I think so.



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