Friday, December 30, 2011

A new trend in advertising?

Receiving a text message with season's greetings from an outfit whose products or services you have used is routine. That's why they're handing out these discount cards - to have your mobile phone number legally listed in their client base so that they can remind you of their existence before every holiday.

How about getting a text from a company you've never heard of, addressed to a person you never knew, but arriving at your mobile? I have received a couple this December, and so did some of my friends. 

It could be a genuine mistake of course. However, with modern media world, one is bound to get paranoid. What if this is deliberate? It is illegal in most countries to send texts to random people, people who never expressed their contempt to be treated in such a manner. But if the message appears to be misaddressed, it can be a way to get around this obstacle. In other words, can it be  a deliberate advertising attempt? 

Is there a way to check? Of course there is. In speech communication, form is unalienable from content. So, every hidden message or intent of the speaker will invariably be reflected in the text. It happens at times that the text is just too short for the message to show, but if it is there, it will certainly surface if you consider a number of similar texts. On this occasion, I might not have sufficient corpus to collect enough evidence for a serious article, but there's enough to satisfy my personal curiosity.

I've gone through the season's greetings texts on my mobile, and it appears that "real" congratulations, the ones that come from outfits whose discount or club cards can actually be found in my wallet, are just a bit different from the "misaddressed" ones. The former are just signed "NN Ltd", while the latter are not only signed, but also have additional contact information, like "" 

This is what I call "semantic overabundance" - presence of signs that add very little to the meaning of the message. It is one of the marks of persuasive communication, and the place to look for what the authors of the message want you to do. In this case, the "extra" message comes in the form of the source for additional information, the essential part of any advertising text. QED.  

So what they do is they effectively spam you, but can't be held responsible for spamming you. If you complain, they will probably claim that an error has occurred in their customer database, apologize, and offer a discount or a free service to compensate for the inconvenience. That can get you into their shop, which is exactly what advertising is about.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Humpty Dumpty put to shame!

Remember the line from Through The Looking-Glass where Humpty Dumply insists that Alice do the complicated task of substracting 1 out of 365 on the piece of paper? In these lines, Carrol was supposed to have laughed at linguists' alleged helplessness in math. Well, could be true, judging by a college web site I browsed through the other day.  

Here's the "Perfect English Formula" that their English Department think will help them advertise themselves.  

Now, I don't know what does the square root have to do with it. But please note, that the "Enjoy" is in the denominator. Which means, for all you Humpty Dumpties out there, that the more you enjoy, the less you learn. And, vice versa, the less fun you're having in class, the more you're going to know. Enjoyment, in other words, impedes with the success of learning!

I have a weird feeling that it's exactly the opposite of what they were actually trying to say.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The soccer theme continued.

I wrote “I can hardly wait for the Russian National to play another decisive match” the other time, and so they did, the other day, against Slovakia. A win would be as good as a ticket to the Euro Cup finals, a loss – big trouble. What can be more decisive than that?

As a persuasive communication researcher, however, I was slightly disappointed. Apparently, there were no ads filmed specifically for the occasion – nothing more than the general theme ads that could be shown on any channel and occasion, with almost inconspicuous captions signifying that the advertisers were the National’s sponsors or “partners”.  
Maybe this is all because the National’s games are now shown on another TV channel, the only one here that is really owned by the Government in the property point of view, and one that tries to be very serious and less populist.

On the other hand, with all that political activity that is going on currently it’s possible that soccer simply isn’t the first thing that’s on the public’s mind.

Or, it could mean that I’m right and the failures like those I described in that post the other time really hurt the advertisers’ business, and the account ledgers thereof testified thereto. 

What with all that, the initial disappointment was that, without any advertising, there was no way to make a prognosis. Or was there? As one of the rules of semiotics says, the absence of a sign in a position that dictates the use of a sign is a sign in itself. The deliberate decision not to play the tune of the National Soccer Struggle would mean, I reasoned, that the issue was perceived as too serious to be dishonored by using it as a joke or a vehicle for an advertising message. I figured that meant the National was likely to win. And guess what – they did!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Teacher's rant.

Textbook fail.

The module we have to cover at my next ESL classes is based on the Friends TV Series. Lucky me. Friends are virtually unknown here. I did try to watch a few episodes, but couldn't sit them to the end; all I can remember it's about a bunch of people from NY who for reasons unknown spend their lifetimes sitting on a sofa and talking to each other.

Maybe two or three students will be able to carry on the initial speaking exercises, but the rest are going to go "Erm... the who?". I've got to figure out a way to get around that.

And that's going to be a demonstration lesson, of all times!

There are two reasons why I hate "authentic" ESL textbooks, and that's the second.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Unexpected observation.

The stylistic qualities and hidden messages of a text are never more obvious and easily described as when the description is in another language.

I ought to write an article about that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Languages, Linguistics and Plans.

The more language systems you have installed in your mind - a.k.a., the more languages you know well - and the more diverse these languages are, the deeper is your understanding of language. I've got native-speaker competence in Russian and English, along with some leftovers of German and rudiments of Latin; that's better than nothing, but still only good enough to begin to understand what General Linguistics is all about. I wish I knew French, too, but the real breakthrough means stepping outside the Indo-European family. My long-term plans are to learn a language from every major family: Chinese or Japanese, Hebrew or Arabic, an American Indian language, Hungarian, Swahili – in no particular order. And, when I’ve got four or five language families covered, I want to learn Ancient Greek – to read Iliad in the original, that's why - or maybe another dead language, like Sanskrit. And some really primitive language, of the ones that require travelling to exotic places and learning by talking to native speakers. People in my family die in their 80’s or later, so I think I have a good chance to complete the plans and still have time left to put this knowlenge to use J

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Wrong Kind of Chocolate Factory.

The tragedy of general linguistics is that the object of your study – the language – is right there, readily available for research, in your own head. You can feel the working of the Langue, sense the relations between sounds and meanings, you can observe the Parole, the process of using these relations for retrieving and sharing information, you can see how texts are perceived and composed. Inside your head, without any laboratories, equipment, personnel, you can do anything. The only thing you can’t do is take it out. As soon as you put it down, it turns into text, and, in a way, it’s dead. The relations that make the Langue are broken, the processes that make the Parole no longer run, the only thing that is left is the set of symbols, which might or might not be interpreted or misinterpreted by another person. But in the process of interpretation it’s going to be the reader’s Langue and Parole, not yours, the reader doesn’t have a chance to connect to your mind, and thus cannot repeat the experiment, cannot really verify the results, and, you know, if results can’t be verified, it’s not a science. It’s like working at a chocolate factory, where you can eat all chocolate you want, but you can’t take it home to the kids. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The emotional impact of anti-tobacco ads.

That was the topic of the graduate research project I mentored this year. It didn’t work out as well as I expected, but I had to go though a pretty large corpus of anti-tobacco ads collected by the student, and what struck me was how bad they were as compared with commercial advertising that I usually study. Aside from the experience in persuasive communication research, I am a former smoker who spent many years openly defending the addiction and secretly trying to quit, so I think I ought to know what is going to work and what isn’t. None of those would. 

As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a single ad that would have made me as much as consider quitting back when. Some of them were beautiful. Works of visual art that sort of made me nostalgic about the time I spent hours admiring the smoke floating in the air. There were a handful of ads that were targeted against exposing children to second-hand smoke, and those were good. I would have probably stopped smoking in the same room with the kids… oh wait; I never ever did that anyway. There were some good old scare-you-with-the-terrible-tumor-pictures stuff… and these had the most potential effect of all, only we know from experience that they don’t work, and the last person that could be scared enough by a cross-section of a smoker quit in the 1960’s.

By the way, the student who did the research is a smoker, and, having spent two semesters head over heels in these texts, still remains a smoker.   

I can’t really say why it is so, but my guess is, the absence of His Majesty the Client has a pretty negative effect on quality. As usual. Oh, of course there is the client, the non-profit organizations that pay the money to the ad agencies to develop the ads. But, admit it, the financial well-being of the NPO doesn’t hang on the success of the ads. If the ads fail, it’s nothing but another reason to ask for more money for better ads. My own humble copywriting experience suggests that a lot of anti-tobacco and anti-drug copy is made for portfolio, by beginners who haven’t enough real orders but are willing to make something that would demonstrate their potential – and in this case, obviously, there’s no client at all. No client – at least, no seriously motivated client – means no, or little, critical approach to the texts, and that, in turn, means low quality. 

No wonder nobody quits because of the ads.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

For lack of anything better - another joke.

Gorbachev and Reagan were once asked to do a charity run, just the two of them.
Reagan won.
Next morning, Soviet newspapers reported:
"In a lengthy international race filled with hard sporting competition the CPSU Secretary General took an honorable second place, while the US President could hardly avoid being the last at the finish line".

Friday, May 13, 2011

Teaching philosophy - I didn't even know I had one! 8-)

Recently I faced the need to put down my teaching philosophy. Here is an abstract from one of the rough drafts; I don't think it will make it to the final version, but it looks just about right for the blog.

Good teaching is when the bell rings, then another bell rings, and you can’t believe it’s been an hour and a half, you’d swear it was just a couple of minutes. I’ve had it happen to me as a student (thank you Mrs. Gulnara Dudnikova, the best EFL instructor I know), and I’ve experienced it as a teacher, too.

It isn't about entertainment. Strangely enough, students aren't going to really enjoy the classes if they're only having fun but don't learn anything. The real wow! factor is Hey, I thought I couldn’t do it, but I can! – and this means hard work. Language learning is a lot like sport, like I always say, because it's about the perfection of skills - and it's impossible to achieve any results in sports if you don't push yourself over the limits of what you can do now. A teacher can push students over their limits by means of command and discipline, the drill-sergeant mode as I call it, but such classes are hateful. The key for a perfect class is making labor fun.

It is not easy to achieve – in fact, I couldn't tell you how to do it, I only know that I can do it. It takes a lot of time for preparation, and you'll have to squeeze youself out dry in the classroom. But these investments bring back invaluable returns. A perfectly run class, mysteriously, leaves you with a sense of elation that seems to instantly refill your batteries with more energy than you spent. And it's fun for the teacher too! When I hear my friends who have office jobs complain about sitting at their desks counting minutes to 5 PM (like Jack Nicholson in the opening scene of “About Schmidt”), I recall my best classes, and remember that the best thing about my occupation is that if I do my part, I'll never have a dull moment at work.

That's why I teach. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Weird are the ways of semantics!

Do you know that for many Russian speakers "permanent" means "temporary"? Even though any Russian dictionaly will tell you that "permanent" is "permanent"?

The story of how it all came to be is a good illustration how the semantic links work.

Most Russian speakers, unless they grow in a test-tube academic environment, first hear the word "permanent" in the context of hairdressing, meaning a kind of a chemical treatment that makes your hair curly. What the haridressers meant, when they coined the term, is that the treatment will last for a long time, much longer then whatever was available before. Long enough, actually, to last until the client's next visit, which from a hairdresser's perspective is as good as forever.

The clients, however, see things differently. For most people on most occasions, the time when you look at yourself in the mirror and go "Oh, [your favorite emotional expression], my hair's a mess, I gotta get it fixed" comes all too soon. In other words, there's nothing about your hairdo that will last long enough. Including the curly treatment. From an average client's view, it is something that will be there only for a while, and then will have to be renewed or updated. And it's a pretty short while, if you think of it.

That is how, unless you face the real meaning of the word more often than the hairy context, you're left with the impression that "permanent" has to do with your hair, everything that has to do with your hair is temporary, meaning "permanent" is "temporary".

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Taking it literally.

 Advertising during (and revolving around) sports events sometimes shows amazing connection between the textual and the sportive side of the matter – so much so, that in certain instances you can look at an ad and predict the outcome of the event before it actually starts.

Do you think there is any connection between a jamon-flavored potato chips ad, and the outcome of a European Football Cup game?

Here's a billboard that appeared on the streets of the Russian cities before the start of the 2008 Euro Cup, which for the Russian National team was to begin with a game against the future Euro Cup winner, Spain.

The slogan runs “[Let's/We’ll] Make the Spanish Bulls into Spanish Ham!”

The message that the copywriters were trying to convey is obvious. The ad equalized the National Team's opponents with the food their country is famous for, and the game with ritual devour of the losing side. By eating the respective food (or, in this case, flavor) the viewer appeared to participate in the game, and thus encouraged to assist the National by chumping on the chips.

This, however, is the (not so) hidden message, the metaphorical sense that is supposed to be the ultimate object of study in the field of persuasive communication. But what if we, against all warnings, do take the text literally, for the sum of the direct meanings of its lexis, grammar, and pictures?

The 5 of the “Russia – Spain 5 – 0” on the stadium's scoreboard is modestly hidden from view by the bag of chips; modesty is appropriate since such a defeat of any team by any team in the course of the Euro Cup finals is, well, unlikely. The legs of a footballer in Spanish colors socks are blown off by means of … what? The ball? That is not just unlikely, it's impossible. It could be done with a bazooka, and sneaking a firearm into the game is sort of less impossible than blowing the opponent to bits with a mighty kick on the ball - but this game isn't going to be foolball any more. The coup de grace is the hole in the net. The ball is not in the net, so, technically, there's no goal!

But it all fades against the fact that nobody can make Spanish ham out of Spanish bulls. It is impossible by definition. Because jamon, just like any other ham, is made of pork, not beef!

Summing it up, the literal message of the billboard presents the defeat of the Spanish national by the Russian side as something impossible.

Now, let's remember that during the 2008 European Football Cup the Russian National Team played the total of five games, winning three (against Greece, Sweden and Netherlands), and losing two - both against … Spain! “Impossible” said the ad, and impossible it proved to be.

Here's another, even more ridiculous, case.

In 2009, the Russian National had to beat Slovenia to get to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The advertisers were running amok by then. Specifically, I mean a certain next-door supermarket chain, that revolve their  advertising efforts around an (apparently slightly mentally deranged) character dressed up as an ancient Russian bard, the kind that according to history books were roaming the country from VIIIth to Xth century or so, telling epic poems to anyone who would listen.

This Boyan had already been shown interrupting the traditional toss-coin first strike selection, arguing that the coin was better spent at the advertised supermarket, and the first strike was for ever reserved for “our” side. That alone can be recognized as a bad sign. If the other side never starts from the center, it means “our” side never scores a goal, which is equal to not winning. The kind of supporter interruption shown in the ad is, by the way, punishable.

But they really crossed the line immediately before the matches against Sovenia. In the ads filmed specifically for the occasion, the Boyan appeared on the field, addressing an overcrowded stadium with “Chto my so Sloveniey sdelayem?” (“What are we going to do to Slovenia?”) The audience echoed  with a unanimous “Sdelayem!”, which in this context stands for a slang and pretty rude synonym for “defeat”. That behavior is, to begin with, non-sportive, and bad sports don't win the day. Moreover, in the Russian culture, where even the wish for good hunting translates as “[I want you to bring home] Neither fur no feather”, this kind of boasting of a victory much before it is achieved, is considered a very bad omen.

Leaving the mystics aside, the ad's message, taken literally, didn't promise anything good anyway. The audience replied to the question “what are we going to do?” with simply an indefinite future form of “do”. Mind that they didn't specify just what exactly they were going to do to their opponents. Which means that  “our” team was going, according to the ad, to do nothing. As anyone who follows soccer World Cup knows, that's exactly what happened; having won the home game 2-1 the Russian national lost the away match 0-1 and by virtue of the away goal the Slovenians won their tickets to South Africa.

If there's anything that these stories prove, however, is how deeply the copywriters dig into the collective subconscious of the audience. Before the matches against Slovenia everyone was certain that the Russian National has all but passed the humble opponents; the football players, being part of the society like the rest of us, fell under the influence of the feeling as well, and were ruined by overconfidence. In fact, every expert including Guus Hiddink, the then National team coach, claimed overconfidence as the leading explanation for this unexplainable defeat. With Spain on the 2008 Euro cup, by contrast, no-one believed in Russian National, and the said Guus Hiddink later explained the loss by the players’ lack of belief in themselves.

Either way, in both instances the general state of minds of the society that constituted the target audience, was both reflected by the advertising and shared by the players. Based on this, the results of the game could be predicted by advertising analysis. I venture to suggest that the more superstitious and self-unsure the target culture of the ads is, and the more the sportspersons are dependent on their moral condition to win, the better these predictions can be.

It's said that if something happens once it's an accident, twice – a coincidence, three times – a tendency. I can hardly wait for a Russian National Soccer Team to play another decisive match... 

Monday, April 4, 2011

First time out...

Today was my first lecture on speech impact for Advertising majors. The students are cool, many are working in the field already, so it was sort of challenging. And interesting. The class ran for 4 academic hours, in the first part I spoke about what's language all about, and the second was about speech impact proper. First impression: I can do better. Second impression - how different is the perception of some issues. It looks like within a course that short, I must stay within the limits of the language, and not stray aside to the general semiotics. But bst of all - I feel they need the stuff I'm trying to teach them. We're meeting again in two weeks, for a practical training, let's see what will be.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A joke to go with the previous post.

Once upon a time there was a kindergarten class that went on a field trip on the school bus, and, as they were ready to go home, the bus wouldn't start. The driver opens the hood and looks inside trying to determine the problem, and then one child comes up and says:

- I know why we aren't going anywhere!

- Fine, now go play with the kids, - replies the driver, and, since he can't see anything broken, but the bus still wouldn't start, he calls road assistance. They take a couple of hours to arrive, and, as they're checking out everything from gas tank to battery, and everything seems to be all right, they hear the same child say:

I know why we aren't going anywhere!

"What can this little nuisance know?" - think the men, and tell the child to go, erm, play with other kids again. But no matter what they do, the bus still doesn't start. So the road assistance leaves, promising to locate another bus for them, and arrange to tow their bus to service, but the time passes, and help is not in sight. So the desperate driver goes under the bus again, checking this and that, and the same child goes on: 

I know why we aren't going anywhere! 

The driver is so desperate by the time, that he begins to think, who knows? Maybe the child's dad is a mechanic? Maybe the child overheard some grownups discussing the problem and remembered the solution? Maybe the child has some supernatural powers? It doesn't hurt to ask, does it? So the driver stoops and says:

- O.K., if you know what's wrong, tell me!

- It's all because the bus won't start! 


My wife remembered this joke as we were talking about the bad science yesterday.  Thank you, Sunshine! From now on I shall refer to the kind of "discoveries" I wrote about in the previous post as the "I-know-what's-up-with-the-bus solutions". 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Substitution of notions

appears to be an acceptable way of making discoveries in linguistics. 

Like Engels’s “explanation” of how the language originated. There are numerous theories thereof, like language started with imitation of bird cries, with shamans faking an address to gods, etc. etc. etc. Most of them really don't make sense, but Engels came up with something that makes me gasp with disbelief ever since I first read it while preparing for the Introduction to Language Studies exam. Language, says Engels, originated because... can I have the brass band and the drum roll now please ? ...humans at some time in time felt the “need” to say something to each other! 

What a perfect bluff! Of course language originated from the need to convey information, but how did it get from a simple signal system common to all social animals to the complicated structure we're using now? No answer. Engels simply substitutes “how” with “why”. 

All right, strictly speaking, Engels wasn't a linguist, and it's only a matter of politics why his "discovery" was repeated again and again by Soviet linguists. But the method stuck. For example, Olga Akhmanova, one of the most internationally renowned and quoted Russian linguists, tried, among other things, to explain the nature of the supra-phrasal unity, a.k.a. the paragraph. The question is, what are the language properties that provide the unity and force the speaker/writer to mark it with a pause of specific length (or the indented line / missing space sign in written speech)? The answer? The supra-phrasal unity is there because we signify it with one of the above-mentioned signs. 

Excellent! Why do you drive a car to work? Too far to walk? Mass transit undeveloped? Enjoying the process? No, that’s all wrong, I drive to work because I get to the car, start the engine and shift into gear!