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Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You

ISBN: 978-0-470-68309-5
330 pages
February 2011
Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You  (0470683090) cover image


As citizens of capitalist, free-market societies, we tend to celebrate choice and competition. However, in the 21st century, as we have gained more and more choices, we have also become greater targets for persuasive messages from advertisers who want to make those choices for us.

In Sold on Language, noted language scientists Julie Sedivy and Greg Carlson examine how rampant competition shapes the ways in which commercial and political advertisers speak to us. In an environment saturated with information, advertising messages attempt to compress as much persuasive power into as small a linguistic space as possible. These messages, the authors reveal, might take the form of a brand name whose sound evokes a certain impression, a turn of phrase that gently applies peer pressure, or a subtle accent that zeroes in on a target audience. As more and more techniques of persuasion are aimed squarely at the corner of our mind which automatically takes in information without conscious thought or deliberation, does 'endless choice' actually mean the end of true choice?

Sold on Language offers thought-provoking insights into the choices we make as consumers and citizens – and the choices that are increasingly being made for us.

Click here for more discussion and debate on the authors’ blog:

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Table of Contents

About the Authors.

Preface. 1 The Power of Choice.

2 The Unconscious Consumer.

3 The Attentional Arms Race.

4 We Know What You’re Thinking.

5 Why Ads Don’t Say What They Mean (Or Mean What They Say).

6 Acting Out.

7 Divide and Conquer.

8 The Politics of Choice.



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Author Information

Julie Sedivy is Adjunct Professor of Linguistics and Psychology at the University of Calgary, Canada. She has published dozens of research articles on her experimental studies of language comprehension and production in children and adults. She has served as Associate Editor for the journal Linguistics and Philosophy, and as a consulting editor for the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

Greg Carlson is Professor of Linguistics, Philosophy, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, US. He has authored or co-authored more than a hundred articles on natural language semantics and psycholinguistics. He is the Editor of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America.

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"Students and teachers of persuasion would benefit greatly from reading Sold on Language. Other professionals in communication, marketing, change management, sales, negotiation, and politics will find the examples and techniques of influence to be useful as both best practices to emulate and pitfalls to avoid." (PsycCRITIQUES, 11 January 2012)

"The result is a truly enjoyable, ironic and fresh volume, easy and pleasant to read for any type of audience." (Metapsychology, 15 November 2011)

"This is a well-written, entertaining, and penetrating book on advertisers' ubiquitous attempts at persuasion to influence marketplace behaviour, including the basis for an argument that advertisers are bent on making choices for the consumer. . . Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals/practitioners; consumers, general readers." (Choice, 1 October 2011)

"I highly recommend the landmark and must read book Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You by Julie Sedivy and Greg Carlson, to anyone seeking an open, honest, as well an engaging study into the nature of advertising messages, brands, and the words used to market products. This eye opening book will change the way readers approach advertising messages and the illusion that the market offers real choice." (Blog Business World, 28 April 2011)

"For a university student with nascent interests in language and thought, reading this book might well provide a stimulus to take some philosophy or psychology or language sciences, which would be no bad thing." (Times Higher Education Supplement, 21 April 2011)

"In this wise and witty book, Julie Sedivy and Gregory Carlson use modern research in psychology, linguistics, and psycholinguistics to show us how little of what we choose is the result of reasoned and conscious deliberation. We like to think of ourselves as being in charge of our lives: we're not. Sold on Language may not be for everyone. But if you shop, it's for you. And if you vote, it's for you. Reading this book may be the best defense you have against being manipulated by others."
Professor Barry Schwartz, Department of Psychology, Swarthmore College and author of ‘The Paradox of Choice’, and ‘Practical Wisdom’

"Via engaging prose and scientific evidence, Sedivy and Carlson have made a noteworthy contribution by providing fresh and deep insights into something we thought we'd already understood."
Dr Robert B. Cialdini, Author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Tell most people that advertisers and politicians exploit language to manipulate desire and opinion, and they'll likely respond "So what else is new?" – and then go on to add, "though, mind you, I'm not fooled for an instant." But advertisers eat that self-assurance for breakfast food; they know that no audience is so easy to beguile as one that's smugly confident in its own sophistication. With engaging examples and lucid explanations, Sedivy and Carlson document the persuasive power that inhabits every corner of language – not just in the familiar puffery of adjectives like "new and improved," but the implications hidden in little words like your and the. Whether you're a student of language or just a consumer of it, you'll come away from Sold on Language a bit more humble and a lot more attentive – and by the by, with an appreciation of how much more there is to language than the wisdom we acquired in seventh grade at the end of Sister Petra's ruler.
Geoffrey Nunberg, University of California at Berkeley, Language commentator, "Fresh Air," NPR

Language comes to us brilliantly easily. How else could children be learning new words at the incredible rate of 10 a day? But that ease of learning carries with it the risk that we will be oblivious to the power of words – as written or spoken by others – to control our behavior. To all who might want to protect themselves against that risk, I say: read this book.
Jay Ingram, author of Talk, Talk, Talk, Canada

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Press Release

January 28, 2011
Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You

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.

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