An Advertiser Speaketh with Forked Tongue
I mentioned earlier that I may redo my book on the language of television advertising and that may still happen. In the interim, I saved via Tivo a number of final episodes of network shows to see what was happening in adult advertising (having skipped past most of them over the year). I ran across a really cute advertisement while watching Rocketman on BBCA, one that regularly runs on BBCA and perhaps other cable stations. It was an ad for CardioAssist. This name is a proper name or proper noun and therefore what philosophers have termed a "rigid designator" and as such ity is said to have no meaning -- it simply designates something. We know better -- at least those of us who accept my reasoning in "Individual Dolphins have Names?" blog. We know that there are two relevant kinds of meanings in play here -- conventional meanings and what I have called "understandings," which are a species of what I called "meaning as significance" in my blog "The Meaning of 'Meaning'." We associate significances with the things that proper names name and these may or may not reflect the meanings of the words that comprise them. In the case of "Michael Geis" we may be sure that whatever understandings you have of me which you have attached to my name do not reflect the meanings of "Michael" and "Geis."
This is not true of "CardioAssist." This compound noun immediately suggests that the product assists the heart in some way. Check out the two screen shots. The first claims overtly that this product lowers bad cholesterol, maintains good cholesterol, maintains triglycerides, and maintains homocysteines. The last three come with a disclaimer saying that the FDA has not evaluated the statements and goes on to say that "This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."
I am guessing that the first of these three claims does not come with the disclaimer in the first sentence because it has, say, oatmeal or something else that is said to lower cholesterol in it though possibly no more than a trace amount. I haven't looked. Perhaps someone will go into a health foods store, check, and report back. In any event, the last sentence of the disclaimer raises the question (no, it does not "beg the question," a misuse of language that gets on my nerves) as to why in hell anyone would want to take it. Though it may lower bad cholesterol, it may do so at a nontherapeutic, quite trivial level. They have said nothing that contradicts my strong assertion.
Finally, the ad gives us a picture of a happy heart, the product, and the phrase "Help your heart 4 ways" spilling out of a sketched heart. The phrase contains a classic "weasel word," namely "help." Put simply, if you ask me to help you move your sofa and I agree to do so but I pick up just one cushion and leave the rest to you, you will see me as having betrayed you, but literally speaking, what I said was true. I helped. In general, we use "help" to mean "help substantively" but advertisers do not. They have been doing this since I began studying advertising language and surely long before that --no doubt as long as there has been advertising. Advertisers do not have a free speech defense here since free speech has long been said to be limited to nonfalse claims and even on occasion nonfalse impicatures.
Commercials constitute a species of offer and offers come with what has been called by Speech Act theorists a "sincerity condition" according to which the offer must be a sincere one, that is meet the expectations of the addressee, that is, us in the viewing audience (you should watch Rocketman if you get a chance). Sincerity conditions are to offers and promises and questions and all other speech acts what truth conditions are to assertions -- indeed, the condition what what one asserts be belived to be true is the sincerity condition for assertions. If we cannot rely on people to tell the truth most of the time, we will quit listening to them. If we cannot rely on people to fulfill offers and promises, then we will stop listening to their offers and promises. As David Lewis noted, a convetnion of truthfulness is a condition on the existence of language. That claim should be generalized in the way I suggest. We clearly should not be listening to the advertisers of CardioAssist.
I confess that in my book on Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction I get rid of conventional speech act theory and nearly totally revamp the conditions on speech acts but not in a way that falsifies what I have just said.