Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You
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The largest companies worldwide typically have over two billion dollars in their annual advertising budgets. Shows like “Mad Men” have gained in popularity because the average consumer is fascinated by how executives like Don Draper can spin an idea and capture our minds with almost any product, whether floor cleaner or face cream. Sold on Language, the result of two language scientists who have systematically and carefully observed how this advertising money is spent, shows how the average consumer can be on guard against the advertising industry’s use of “truthiness” to win hearts and minds in an age of information overload. The authors look clearly through the lens of their knowledge about how language works in the human mind to bring us an unprecedented look inside the advertising, PR, economic, and political sectors at work in our everyday world.
Sedivy and Carlson explore the history of advertising and how the industry as we know it today was masterminded by the likes of leading minds such as Edward Bernays, the founding father of public relations, and nephew of Sigmund Freud. In an engaging narrative they tell us how Bernays managed to transform Lucky Strike’s brand perception with women by simply organizing a New York socialite ball with a green color theme.
Sedivy and Carlson describe how our brains work when we interact with advertising. Ads are filtered by our hyper intelligent and highly adaptable brains using various sophisticated cognitive methods. Most of the time this happens without our awareness, in a state of zombie like collaboration , i.e. the billboard we see every day on our route to work or the fine type on our coffee cup. The authors point out that this passivity is at once a coping mechanism to protect us against unnecessary cognitive stress as much as it is a gateway for manipulation. How we internalize advertising has a clear effect on our identities. Our exposure to advertising dictates not only what kind of smart phone we will buy this holiday season, but how much control and insight we have into our behavior and consciousness.
In an environment saturated with information, companies try to compress as much persuasive power into as small a linguistic space as possible, whether it’s using a brand name whose sounds evoke a certain impression, using a turn of phrase that gently applies peer pressure, asking us a leading question to get us to form presuppositions, or using an accent that homes in on a target audience. Brands in this way become “lovemarks,” or as the authors describe, “Brands that move people to buy not because of the inherent nature of the product, but because of the irrational devotion they inspire,” blending fact with fiction to light up the reward systems in our brains.
Like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Outliers, Sold on Language is written in a highly informal, readable style, weaving together many examples, brain teasers, and actual images of ads to bring together insights from fields as varied as linguistics, philosophy, social psychology, behavioral economics and political science. Broader societal questions are discussed, such as the real nature of choice in a free market democracy when so much of persuasive communication is aimed at subconscious processes in the human mind.