Sunday, February 27, 2005

"Up To" Claims

Perhaps the single most important thing to know about advertising claims is that while they may take the form of a declarative sentence and seem to be being used to make an assertion they also make what speech act theorists* would call an offer -- an offer of a product or service intended to satisfy some consumer need. As such, they make an implicit promise to satisfy the consumer need that gives rise to the offer.

To see how offers work, suppose we have the following conversation:
You: Mike, I need a ride down town.
Me: I'm going that way.
(You get in my car and I begin to drive. Halfway to the downtown area, I pull over to the curb.)
Me: This is where I stop.
I think you will feel betrayed. You expressed a clear need and my saying "I'm going that way." will be taken by you as an offer to satisfy that need, a need I clearly didn't satisfy. But -- and this is very important -- what I said was not false. I was going in the direction of the downtown area. So, my statement, "I'm going that way," construed as an assertion was true but my implicit promise to satisfy your need to get to the downtown area was clearly a false one.

In this light examine the following web advertisement, taking care to look at the speed claims

This ad makes two different surfing speed claims. Let's recast them as (1) and (2).

(1) With NetZero you will be able to surf the web up to five
times faster.
(2) With NetZero you will be able to surf the web five times faster.

In the ordinary use of English, we use "up to" claims to set limits though the limits are not hard and fast. Suppose you need to go to a pharmacy and ask me to drive you there. Suppose, further, that I replythat I am pretty busy but will take you there and wait for you for "up to 20 minutes" (i. e., as many as 20 minutes but not necessarily more). Finally,suppose that I get an emergency mobile phone call and have to leave justa few minutes after I dropped you off. You will, I think, feel that I have betrayed you in that I had promised, at least implicitly, to wait for allof 20 minutes and I didn't. Suppose, on the other hand, you take 30 minutesto finish your shopping and come out of the pharmacy and find me still there.

That does not make my implict promise to wait "up to" 20 minutes false. In conclusion, "up to" claims tend to be used to set limits, though they are not hard and fast.

Returning to sentences (1) and (2), we can say that as an assertion (1) would be true if NetZero only allowed you to surf 2 or 3 or 4 times faster than normal, for recall, "up to" claims are used to set soft limits. On the other hand, were NetZero only able to allow you to surf 2 or 3 or 4 times faster than normal, (2) would clearly be false.

It is not all that unusual for an advertisment to make both types of claims, as I pointed out in my (out of print) book The Language of Television Advertising. I would find it odd were an advertiser who can truthfully assert a strong form like (2) choose to use the weaker "up to" claim. It is also odd that they would use both.

Recall that advertisements are a species of offer -- in the NetZero case, the offer of a service. As such, it undertakes a commitment tosatisfy the need the consumer has for the service they offer. In fact,consumers typically don't have a specific surfing speed they need. Their need is to get the fastest web surfing they can afford. Recognition of this and the fact that there are non-telephone type modes of connection that are blazingly fast may be why NetZero makes the strong claim (2) in addition to (1).

If NetZero can't deliver a five-fold increase in surfing speed, then claim (2) is false both as an assertion and as an implied promise. I do not, in fact, have any personal knowledge of how good the product is and therefore can't say whether it is true or false. Suppose, though, that they had not included the strong claim. Since the advertisement constitutes an offer, albiet a commercial offer, it is subject to the condition that the service satisfy the consumer's need for a fast internet connection and should the connection fall short of a five fold increase I believe the consumer would have a legitimate gripe for NetZero is implicitly promising them that they will get such an increase. The reason is that in setting the limit at a 5 fold increase, that is what will determine the expectation of the consumer that that is what they will get.

*See Wikipedia on Speech Acts. If you Google "speech acts," you will get a large number of results as befits the fact that it has been a very popular topic in lingusitics and philosophy since the publication of John Austin's How to Do Things With Words. I offered my own quite different approach in Speech Acts and Conversational Intereaction.

Tweet This!


Blogger ~Jan said...

Wonderful, much-needed blog. I've been doing quite a bit of random blog-searching, and I'm appalled at the horrible writing in this new arena. Spare me from illiterate teenagers.

2:20 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite use of the "up to" disclaimer in advertising is when it is coupled with an "or more." "You can save up to $20,000, or more." In the context of ads, a statement like this is empty of all meaning. You can save anywhere between 0 and infinity dollars.

7:23 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is syndication in this blog's future? I'm always interested in finding new linguistics writing, but once I do, it's much easier to read in batch mode.

9:22 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this blog from Language Hat's link to it today, and it looks very interesting so far. I am going to read it regularly.

Speaking of spelling errors, there are also the minor omissions in the form of "philosphy" and "theortical" in your profile. I'd like to point them out in the same spirit as LH.

4:11 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks for the comments and corrections. I sometimes pound things out too quickly and don't edit enough.

No syndication is planned. In fact, the thought never occurred to me. It would be good to have an antidote to Kilpatrick.

The "up to X or more" construction is bizzare. I suspect the creater of the ad used "up to X or more" to ward of the ordinary usage of "up to" to set an upper limit. He/she seems to want it both ways -- you might get less than X and you might get more than X.

7:45 AM

Blogger Bill said...

Also, "five times faster" makes no sense. With "times" you want "as fast." (Think of what "one time faster" would mean and you'll see that "five times faster," if it meant anything, would mean "six times as fast.")

9:28 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

one must bear in mind that this advertising. as such hyperbole is par for the course. additionally, all offers have to exist in some manner of legal space and as such draw in a whole contextual grammar that might seem at odds with our everday usage. or logic.

consider the case of 'up to 5x faster'
for the sake of brevity, inclusivity and the ability to cover their asses, they must have wanted to word this such that they direct the ad at a person with ISP A that would get only, say, a 2-fold increase as well as person with ISP B that might get a 3-fold increase.
as for why they have both '5x' AND 'up to 5x faster' in the same ad...i'll chalk it up to hyperbole. and a poor copy editor.

in the case of 'save up to $20,000, or MORE" ... can also see how this might be used, if the MORE was followed with a footnote that explained limitations on usage. here, the case would be that they are actually presenting (again, probably for brevity as well as exaggeration) multiple offers simultaneously. offer 1) allows savings up to $20,000 ... offer 2) allows additional savings. an equally plausible scenario is that the 'or MORE' is a subcase of the 'save up to $20,000" option whereby only a small percentage of 'qualified' applicants can save the additional amount

12:16 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Enough snootiness about proofreading! Not a single one of the above-mentioned typos actually interfered with the message; the author's meaning wasn't compromised, and this is not a proofreading blog. Missing the forest for the trees.

4:51 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home