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Does grammar really matter?

7 July 2014 Jim Harrison,

The Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera, is horrified by grammatical gibberish. In this article, published on 04 July 2014, he quotes different points of view from Heavenly's Executive Creative Director Steve Owen and Client Director Emma Tranter. Read his exploration of gramatically accurate slogans and copylines here:

"About a month before he agreed to pose with a copy of The Sun, only to apologise for doing so just hours later, and a couple of weeks before he made the calamitous error of being photographed eating a bacon sandwich, Ed Milliband did something dim. He revealed a new slogan for the Labour party, which read: "Labour. Hardworking Britain Better Off".

It didn't go down well with political commentators, who dismissed it as "mind-bogglingly lame" and an "impenetrable forest of un-words", and speculated out loud that it sounded as though the party had "devoted their messaging to Yoda", or let a printing error pass."

However, the cascade of negative analysis missed a key point: Labour's new slogan is simply a consequence of a fad in corporate marketing for gibberish. Advertisers, who have never had more than a tenuous handle on reality, have, in the early 21st Century, lost the ability to construct a coherent sentence.

You don't need to look far for illustrations.

Take Wahanda, for instance, "the UK's largest hair and beauty booking site", which is currently running an ad campaign bearing the incomprehensible slogan "Book yourself fabulous", which raises the questions "what is a fabulous?" and "how exactly can I book it?"

Meanwhile, the mobile phone company O2's current "Be more dog" campaign seems to be aimed, intellectually and linguistically, at four year olds. Betfair's omnipresent World Cup adverts bear the inexplicable slogan "This is Play", which, unlike the Labour party's slogan, contains a verb, but somehow makes even less sense.

And then there is Rightmove, the property website, whose current marketing campaign features the tagline: "Find your happy." Launching it in April, the company declared: "what would your happy look like? Perhaps it means being able to walk to work? Or swapping the taste of the city for the smell of sea air? The point is that there is a happy out there for everyone and Rightmove's brand new national marketing campaign invites you to find yours". Well, my "happy" is an advertising slogan that doesn't sound like something voiced by a toddler.

The annoyance these slogans have inspired has, in itself, annoyed me, given that my tolerance for illiteracy is usually quite high.

After 16 years of so-called professional writing, I still get confused between "affect" and "effect", I literally couldn't care less if people use "literally" incorrectly, and I only got my head around the split infinitive a few months ago.

The flexibility of the English language is a beautiful thing, and regularised grammar and spelling a modern vanity. The words of Shakespear(e) who spelled his name in three different ways, wouldn't meet the exacting standards of the modern=day grammar nazi, as they were first published in folio form.

However, everyone has limits, and I drew the line at incoherence. Without comprehensible sentences, we don't have language and thought, we have fridge magnet displays. In an attempt to understand what is driving this corporate fad for drivel, I discussed the factors that might be behind such slogans with Heavenly, an international branding agency, choosing the company not only because its staff once helped me with an article on business names, but because they are so level-headed that even their url - weareheavenly.com - is a complete sentence.

We didn't agree on everything, with Steve Owen, Heavenly's Creative Director, saying he actually liked some of the slogans because "it's only bad language if it fails to communicate its meaning".

However, together with Emma Tranter, a Client Director at the agency, we concluded that there were probably three things driving linguistic befuddlement in advertising.

First, the lingering influence of Apple's widely popular "think different" campaign from the Nineties. The slogan may be nonsensical, but every institution, from political parties to pistachio producers, wants to be Apple nowadays.

Second, the impact of trendy teaching, which no longer emphasises grammar but simply being able to get your point across.

Third, and most important, there is the influence of social media such as Twitter, where there is a limit on how many characters you can use. No company seems willing to approve a slogan in 2014 that cannot be telescoped into a Twitter handle or hashtag, intensifying the popular belief that brand slogans need to be short to have impact.

As it happens, a new US study published in the Journal of Business Research has concluded that brevity is not necessarily an advantage with slogans. Researchers concluded that the factors that influence the success of a slogan are actually "clarity of message", "creativity" and "familiarity with the brand", and when they surveyed 595 people about 150 well-known slogans, one of the most liked and most remembered was also one of the longest - M&M's excellent "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands".

However, the pressure to be brief continues to intensify, even if it comes at the expense of comprehension, and Emma concluded our email discussion with the line "Nxt we'll be missing out lttrs for speed".

It was meant 2 b a jke. However, of course, it has already happened. Not content with doing away with tense, sentences, verbs and basic coherence, marketing "experts" are increasingly "disemvowelling" company names.

A quick google revealed brand names ranging from Unbxd and nwplying to Grindr and Plurn - a list that took me almost five minutes to type because the autocorrect function on Microsoft Word kept "correcting" the spelling, and which, in turn, highlights the problem with such funky brand names and slogans. What use are they if they are impossible to remember or type? Frankly, it's enough to make you emit a sound of frustration consisting of no consonants whatsoever.

twitter: @sathnam

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