Probably the best blog post in the world . . .

I’ve outlined my (many!) thoughts about the relationship – or lack thereof – between language and culture several times on this very blog, as many of you will already know. What may be less well known is that some time ago, over on a site run by the always provocative Chia Suan Chong, I engaged in a lengthy debate about the degree to which teaching EFL (in particular) also involved teaching culture. My answer to this oft-asked question was a fairly resounding NO! and I still very much stand by that view. Whilst language can on occasion obviously be used to express culture, or a whole host of cultures to be more accurate, these kinds of uses do not, in my opinion, belong in the EFL classroom, where the primary focus should be on helping students to use as high a level of language as they can across a range of situations, with speakers from all manner of backgrounds, both native and – increasingly often – non-native.

However, I’ve spent the last week working with a lovely group of incredibly fluent Russian teachers of English in St. Petersburg (one of my very favourite cities in the world!).

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Among the many issues we covered were literature, changes to English and the use of L1 in the classroom. Now, all of this started me thinking about two areas of language use which even incredibly fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – or perhaps its truer to say, without having been immersed in particular aspects of what occurs there (and I should say at this juncture that it is conceivably possible that, for instance, a TV addict would actually ‘get’ some of the references I’ll go on to describe even if they’d never visited a particular ‘host’ country).

As someone steeped in the Lexical Approach, I have long been interested in the way in which the kinds of fixed and semi-fixed expressions that are so common in spoken language embed themselves in our heads and in the pragmatic functions they serve as we converse with others. However, a less obvious source of fixed expressions is the advertising industry, and it’s perhaps sobering to sit and contemplate quite how many sentences you have echoing around the dark corners of your mind that come from the evil art of the advertiser. There are hundreds, possibly even thousands. Just off the top of my head and without even trying, here are some of the first ones that spring to mind as I ponder this.

Have a break. Have a Kit-Kat.

A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

Anytime, any place, anywhere.

The man from Del Monte. He says Yes!

For mash get Smash!

Go to work on an egg.

You know when you’ve been Tangoed.

This is your brain. And this is your brain on drugs!

Beanz meanz Heinz (a memory that automatically triggers the predictable follow-up of Beanz meanz fartz as well!)

Every little helps.

It’s finger-lickin’ good

Refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach!

It’s got our name on it.

The best a man can get!

As you may have realised by now, I could go on for hours. Indeed, whilst putting this post together, I discovered that the web contains a whole range of games designed to test your knowledge of obscure and sometimes fairly dated advertising slogans and got very entertainingly sidetracked for quite time as a result! How many of the ones above are familiar to you? For all I know, some of them may trigger a whole stream of Proustian memories and associations in the minds of some of you readers out there, sending you flashing back to long-forgotten outings to KFC or camping trips where the baked bean suppers had disastrous consequences as you and your brother were forced to share a small tent!

Interestingly, and this is a testament to the whole art of the advertising agency,  with almost all of the slogans above, I not only remember the exact words, but I also retain the phonological envelope they were delivered to me in. I can sing the jingles in my head, or say them exactly as they were said on the original adverts. Just as with telephone numbers, we record and retain and reuse them in a particular way (oh-seven-seven-nine two //pause// three -five six //pause// double six three, for instance) and they exist as a combination of sound and language (and frequently music too).

Now, for the most part, this mass of cultural detritus simply sits in my head, taking up space, serving only as background or colour to particular memories that come bubbling up from what I’ve learned the Russians delightfully term ‘the undermind’! In other words, it’s not used or referred to (except perhaps in the odd book here and there, or maybe in a particularly random pub conversation). However, many of the catchiest slogans take on lives of their own and become part of common parlance. My colleague Andrew Walkley has written about the way the concept of something being a Marmite thing has become part and parcel of the language in the UK, all on the back of their genius advertising campaign that accepted – and celebrated – the polarising effects of God’s own spread.

However, Marmite is but the tip of a much larger iceberg. According to a Daily Telegraph survey of a few years ago, 45% of Britons use – or have used – the Guinness tagline Good things come to those who wait in their daily speech. Ronseal, a British wood stain and preservative manufacturer, are responsible for the “Does exactly what it says on the tin” phrase, created by the HHCL agency, and much used in their adverts:

It’s no surprise that such a clever, pithy, direct slogan has become so widely used in other contexts. Here are just a few examles coured from the Internet of the way the phrase has worked its way into the language:

Martin Amis appears to be taking the Ronseal approach to book titles with his next novel, State of England: Lionel Asbo, Lotto Lout, which is said to feature a “ferocious” antihero who gets his first anti-social behaviour order at the age of three.

Gordon Brown is the very opposite of a Ronseal prime minister.

I was once in a final salary pension scheme and it seemed to pass the Ronseal Test – a pension that kept pace with my earnings and grew each year I worked for the company.

You get the picture. And here’s the thing! there are tons of these mind worms, as the Germans call them, that pass into day-to-day use and both bemuse those in the know and bemuse those on the outside listening in. When I hear teenagers on the bus singing I’m Lovin’ It to friends down the phone in response to a question about a course they may be doing, I cannot but help envisage the Golden Arches of Mickey D’s lair; every time a L’Oreal advert airs, another ten people suddenly start saying Because I’m worth it every tome they splash out on something they probably shouldn’t be buying; every time someone trips over something or fails to see something somewhere, a nearby wag will comment that they should’ve gone to Specsavers.

Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this phenomenon I can remember happened a few years ago when I was waiting anxiously to see if the fix-it man was going to get the staffroom photocopier up and running in time for me to use it before class. he closed it, patted it and gave it a quick test run. I thanked him profusely and he replied, casually: Oh well, you know. Vorsprung durch Technik . . . as they say in Germany! What even the most proficient foreign student not au fait with recent British TV advertising trends would’ve made of this bizarre exchange is beyond me. The fact that a piece of German passed into the lexicon of even the most foreign language-phobic Brit is nothing short of a minor miracle, but pass it most certainly did. The story of this remarkable feat is relayed here, for those interested.

Nevertheless, as the world we live in becomes ever more interlinked and globalised, and ever more in thrall to mass market consumerism, perhaps access to such intertextual nuancing and subtle comedy also becomes globalised itself. The other week in class, one of my Japanese students was saying he expected to get 7.0 in his forthcoming IELTS test. other students were mocking his lofty ambitions and saying it was impossible, whereupon he suddenly looked deadly serious, stood up, put his hand across his heart and uttered the immortal line Impossible is nothing – to much laughter!

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That said, there are clearly some issues when it comes to advertising around the world – and we may well never see the day when slogans are used – or useable – universally. A Dutch friend of mine works for an ad agency here in London, specialising in researching the degree to which adverts from one country work in another. She’s been working on ad advert for Bjorn Borg’s kids’ underwear recently, and apparently in Sweden they sell using a phrase that says something like Lucky ducks. She asked me if such a phrase would work in English and if not, what the nearest equivalent would be. I replied that I found the whole concept of calling kids lucky because they had one particular brand of underwear rather than other very very weird in itself, and that if you wanted to say lucky something in English, it’d be something like lucky git or lucky bastard, neither of which really lent themselves  to selling kids’ pants!

Oh, perhaps by this stage you’re wondering where the profoundly out-of-character boasting in the title of this blog post comes from, aren’t you? Well, simples, as the really annoying meerkat in the compare the market dot com advert always put it, it’s from here:

carlsberg-beer-ads-probably-a-rabbit

Right, I know at the start of this post, I said that I wanted to write about TWO areas of language use that even fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – and the astute observers among you will have noticed I’ve only really tackled one.

That’s because all this talk is making me thirsty, so I’m going to sign off for now, grab a cold beer from the fridge and come back to the second part of this later on in the week.

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16 responses

  1. I remember when I was in Germany, there was an ad which showed a fish riding a bicycle – I think it came from a saying that “I need an X like a fish needs a bicycle”. So this ad turned the idea on its head to show that, actually, you do need this product by showing a fish riding a bicycle across the screen (I forget what the product was – not a very effective campaign).

    So one day, I was riding my bicycle to a lesson in the pouring rain. I was dripping wet. When I pulled up to a red traffic light I turned to the blonde on the next bicycle, remembering the ad and said (in German) “We’re fish riding bicycles!” I thought it was a clever reference to the ad I’d seen on TV. The blonde gave me a death stare, called me some name I couldn’t catch and sped off into the rain. “Was it something I said?” I thought. I later found out that the feminist movement in Germany also used this fish and bicycle analogy as in “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Perhaps by referencing what I thought was a little ad, I’d offended this woman by attacking her femininity? I’ll never know, but it made me a lot more wary about referencing ad slogans I’d seen on billboards or on TV with the Germans I came across.

    Chris

    1. Hi Chris –
      Thanks for this.

      The’ woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ quote was originally by an Australian social activist / feminist back in 1970 and was widely used by the first wave of Anglophone feminists here in the UK as well.

      As for what happened between you and the blonde there . . . well, there are obviously numerous interpretations open here, and without being able to interview the lady in question, I fear we’ll just have to accept that we shall never know. Who knows? Maybe she just fed up of being chatted up by blokes whilst cycling and particularly didn’t want the hassle whilst cycling in the pissing rain!!

      A couple of more pertinent points here, though. (1) I suspect that in most languages, these things actually operate like idioms and only really work if they’re used verbatim and that they don’t really lend themselves to being twisted or tailored in any way. You may simply have been trying to make the advertising slogan do more than it was capable of doing! (2) I guess you’ve also sort of proved my point about this area of language being very very subtle and hard to grasp even for competent speakers of whatever language is in question. Advertisers are clever and they know that many of the slogans they come up with will not pass into common parlance, but also have echoes and traces backwards across time as well.

      Anyway, thanks for posting, as ever.

  2. This is fascinating; really enjoyed it as I always do when exposed to Hugh’s ideas for the first time. However, one quibble: why use the work ‘lady’ (as in “without being able to interview the lady in question”? As a feminist, I find the semiotics of ‘lady’ quite objectionable. I much prefer to be a woman with all that entails. However, I suppose it’s a step up from calling us ‘girls’.

    1. Hi Mary –
      Point entirely taken.

      I suppose in my head I was slipping into some kind of imitation of police-ese, if you like, for humorous and ironising purposes, and would probably have said ‘gentleman’ had I been referring to a man for the same reasons, but yes, ‘lady’ is a pretty poor really, isn’t it, in this day and age.

      I stand corrected!
      And chastised.

      Glad you enjoyed the post apart from that blip though!

    2. Oh, and any thoughts on Chris’s failed pick-up line, Mary?
      🙂

  3. I’m going to be a language pedant again, Hugh, about German phrases. Just warning you!
    (Many moons ago, the German phrase “to have tomatoes on the eyes” came up during a discussion on this blog, but, if my memory serves me rightly, you mentioned the wrong salad vegetable).
    Anyway, here goes: you say that Germans use the phrase “mindworms”, but I believe you may have got that one slightly wrong.
    The phrase I know is “earworms”, which refers to the kind of catchy tune that gets stuck in your brain and you keep humming it or singing it all day long and can’t get it out of your head. What’s more, the “earworm” is usually something really dreadful that you heard on the radio before you left the house (Barry Manilow singing Copa Cobana, that kind of thing) and you curse yourself all day long as your street cred plummets because you are caught gaily singing Copa Cobana whilst standing at the photocopier at work.
    That is what I understand by an “earworm”. It’s a wonderful example of how German is terribly good at putting lots of meaning into a compound noun! In fact, if there was an organization which was dedicated to introducing really groovy foreign words into English, I would ask them to work on introducing “earworm” into the English vocabulary as a matter of great urgency.
    I did find this, though:
    http://www.leakynews.com/midweek-mindworms/
    So, is “mindworms” a translation of “earworms”???
    The mind boggles.

    1. My ‘German-in-English’ is clearly slightly off-kilter!
      Cucumbers instead of tomatoes, minds instead of ears!
      Bah!

      Though this is actually kind of what I’ll be writing about next, bizarrely!

      Now you mention it, I’m fairly sure I did know the expression EARWORM was common in German.
      Our old record label was based in Koln and we spent a lot of time gigging round Germany and meeting lots of young German musician types way back when, so I guess I must’ve heard it then, half-remembered it and then tweaked / twisted it slightly for my own purposes! Ingenious . . . but wrong! Bah!

      The mindworms link you sent is odd, though.
      Maybe the concept just emerged organically without reference to German there?
      The metaphorical concept probably exists in many languages . . . burrowing into the brain, buried in the mind, etc.

      The ear/mindworm I’ve had stuck in my head all week is a song by a support band I saw this week called The Bermondsey Joyriders and it begins with the classic lines:

      ‘Oo are ya? / You what?

      Marvellous.

  4. I’m looking forward to the next instalment, by the way! It’s almost as exciting as watching “Mad Men”!!!
    (Read the following in the appropriate voice, like that used at the end of corny detective series):

    “Where is Hugh going with this exploration of advertising slogans? What exactly happened to him in St Petersburg? What did those fluent speakers of English do to him? Why has he turned pro-culture? What kind of beer did he drink after writing this blog post? All these and even more fascinating questions will hopefully be answered in the next episode!
    Stay tuned to find out more!”

    1. Hugh may actually be more or less finished with his exploration of advertising slogans, to be honest.
      It was really just a little riff that resulted from a question asked by a Russian teacher last week.
      There are plenty of folk out there who’ve written far more cogently and thoroughly than I’m able to about the language of marketing and advertising, I’m sure. I just wanted to add to my previous thoughts on the inter-relationship of language and culture, and modify my previous stance a tad (not that I’m saying any of this post really has any particular relevance to the teaching of EFL, mind!)

      What happened to me in St. Petersburg must, of course, stay in St. Petersburg. 🙂

      The beer was a Czech Budvar.

      Right, off to go teach on the Pronunication & Presentation course!

      1. Ahhh, Czech Budvar – that’s one of my fella’s favourite brews, too!

      2. Am I right in thinking that because of this fine beer, the vile stuff that the Americans sell globally as Budweiser cannot be sold or advertised with this name in Germany, Amanda?

  5. I wonder though if this seepage of slogans into language will continue. Most of the slogans that you quote from the top of your head are fairly old (I’m guessing they come from a younger age when you watched a lot more TV?) Back then we only had 4 or 5 channels with 2 of them ad-free. Everyone watched the same TV programmes (remember how everyone at school used to talk about TOTP on Friday morning?) so ads were much more ubiquitous. Nowadays there are so many more channels and so many more ads, plus all the ones on the internet, I just don’t know if they enter the popular psyche in the same way. But I’m no expert and could be talking total jibberish!

    1. Hi Jon –
      Thanks for this.

      I fear that the reason most of the slogans I mention are fairly old is simply because I am too! I’m sure if I put my mind to it I could also come up with plenty of more recent examples as well, though! As you suggest, their retention does indeed reflect the age in which hours of TV shaped and moulded me.

      You may well be right that the diffusion of media will lead to a massive dilution of marketing messages, with brands being pitched in a far more niche way. Time will tell.

      That said, I suspect there will always be a need for firms and products to associate their wares with a strong identity and that slogans will always play a part in this. The example I cited of IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING has penetrated the popular psyche far more as a result of posters and billboards, I think, that actual film advertising.

      Wish you hadn’t mentioned TOTP though. My morning has now been hijacked by a flood of memories skittering back to the excitement of first seeing Dexy’s and The Specials on the telly when I was a kid.

  6. […] post follows on from the one I bashed out last week considering the influence of advertising on speech, and the way in which this can sometimes make […]

  7. This is the first time I have read the blog and I had a good laugh! A lot of my friends use ‘earworm’ for the annoying Barry Manilow thing…and couldn’t we adopt ‘mindworm’ to describe those niggling thoughts that just keep coming back to us in our heads?

    1. Glad you managed to detect the odd touch of humour in amidst the ranting, Sara!
      Thanks for finding me.

      As for Bazza, bet it was Copacabana, wasn’t it, eh!
      Not a user of earworm myself, but it’s admittedly incredibly bloody annoyingly catchy!

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