Ad-verbs: Grammaring in brand land

Verb Words


-By Daniel Nunan


‘Be more tea.’
‘The smarter way to office.’
‘When do you Milo?’
‘Believe in better.’


If reading these slogans fired something in a part of your mind that reminded you of your Year 6 English teacher, that’s not a coincidence. Or a mistake.


English grammar can be a pretty murky area to play around in. There are many, many more exceptions than there are rules, which doesn’t tend to bother us on a day-to-day basis as most native English speakers happily get by on passively learned ‘feel’. I’ve typically found that those best qualified to speak on the intricacies of our grammar rules spoke another language (or two) before English.


So when we hear words or phrases in advertising that audaciously break the rules (but still successfully communicates what the brand wants to tell you), we’re getting in on a subtle language in-joke that has a better chance of sticking in your mind than a standard-grammar equivalent would. It’s okay if it jars a little, so long as you take the message in. In other words: it works precisely because it doesn’t.


Beyond the pure earworm appeal, breaking the rules can be a fantastic way to show audiences that your brand is a rule-breaker. Even Apple’s iconic ‘Think different’ slogan (which hacks just two letters off the adverb ‘differently’ to give us an unexpected adjective that presents itself like a noun) does just enough to the brain’s language centre to help us accept the brand as the audacious, creative rebels of the computing marketplace. At least, it did in 1997: back when the wordplay effect hadn’t worn off, and Apple was still small enough to be the ‘alternative’.


Yes, the effects wear off. Anybody else get into crashing the suffix ‘age’ onto places it didn’t belong (eg. beerage), or get swept up by the 90s crazes of ending sentences with ‘not’ or ‘much’? More recently, marketers have been mad for anthimeria, the technical term for using one part of speech as another. For example, Nutella ‘nounified’* an adjective for their ‘Spread the happy’ campaign. Similarly, brands such as Google, Xerox and Skype have all successfully transcended their noun status to become the verb for using their services and those of their competitors (albeit at the risk of becoming generic).


If you’re a traditionalist who’s concerned Nutella is dragging us closer to the grammatical apocalypse, you can relax. The English language has a history of indulging trends for a time, so we can expect styles of creative grammar adaptation to come into fashion and out again. And a lot of tweaking attempts never really land: I’m yet to hear anybody use the verb “unhair”, and that was one of Shakespeare’s.


So if you’re not abreast of the latest grammar fads, relax. Keeping an eye on what’s trending is my job. I’m a ‘creative’.


Go Fun Yourself


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