Verbal Strategies For Product Presentation in Television Commercials

Karen Ann Hunold, University of California at Berkeley
ABSTRACT - Every utterance in a commercial serves a purpose for the advertiser; many serve multiple purposes. Linguistic indirectness, by conveying some information through non-semantic channels, is frequently used to accomplish multiple goals. Indirectness is not inherently connected with deception: in terms of the fundamental communication between advertiser and viewer, any utterance not of the "BUY THIS PRODUCT" type is necessarily indirect. In terms of the onscreen interaction, product claims exhibit a continuum of degrees of linguistic indirectness. A close look at some claims shows that many indirect utterances satisfy more than one advertiser goal, leading to the hypothesis that indirectness is simply a verbal strategy for product presentation.
[ to cite ]:
Karen Ann Hunold (1988) ,"Verbal Strategies For Product Presentation in Television Commercials", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 256-259.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 256-259


Karen Ann Hunold, University of California at Berkeley


Every utterance in a commercial serves a purpose for the advertiser; many serve multiple purposes. Linguistic indirectness, by conveying some information through non-semantic channels, is frequently used to accomplish multiple goals. Indirectness is not inherently connected with deception: in terms of the fundamental communication between advertiser and viewer, any utterance not of the "BUY THIS PRODUCT" type is necessarily indirect. In terms of the onscreen interaction, product claims exhibit a continuum of degrees of linguistic indirectness. A close look at some claims shows that many indirect utterances satisfy more than one advertiser goal, leading to the hypothesis that indirectness is simply a verbal strategy for product presentation.


My purpose in this paper is to make two major points about verbal strategies in commercial conversations. First, each utterance in a commercial inevitably serves a purpose for the advertiser and often simultaneously serves more than one such purpose. Second, verbal strategies in commercials, especially in presenting the product to the viewer, reflect strategies found in natural conversation in such a way that the accomplishment of multiple goals is the rule rather than the exception. While these might not seem like earthshaking claims, those familiar with linguistic analyses will realize that these are very strong claims indeed.

These hypotheses reflect findings from preliminary research with interesting implications for further study. For example, one way for advertisers to organize conversations so that they simultaneously serve multiple purposes is to make use of utterances which, from the point of view of the conversational interchange, are indirect. Indirect utterances permit some information to be conveyed through conversational implicature and interactive frames, increasing the total information content. I will argue that indirect utterances motivated by the demands of time-constrained imitation of natural conversation are not inherently misleading. Many indirect utterances express information without deception.

Although naturally many of my findings have relevance to linguistic and anthropological traditions, they also contribute to the growing interest in linguistic features of advertising on the part of marketing scholars. Empirical research on metaphor (Jaffe, 1987 and Kehret-Ward and Emerson, 1987) on message complexity (Zinkhan and Martin, 1983), on concrete versus abstract formulation of attributes (Holbrook, 1982 and Rossiter and Percy, 1978), on message quantification (Yalch and Elmore-Yalch, 1984), on sentence length (Percy, 1981), and so on attests to the large and growing interest in this field


As an example of these hypotheses, two commercial scripts have been stripped of their visual and non-verbal features. The language alone conveys enough information to both contextualize the commercial conversation and identify the commercial intents (recognize the product and the product attributes emphasized) in the commercial. The verbal strategies of such commercial scripts, despite their compactness, provide viewers with enough information to make appropriate inferences, that is, inferences that inform rather than mislead.


a: Terrific show.

b: Oh, it was wonderful. Well, it-was nice talking to you.

a: That's the Aramis umbrella.

b: So is that.

a: You bought Aramis for your=

b:                                            =un un

a: How about a cup of coffee?

b: Your umbrella or mine?

c: The Aramis umbrella. Your gift with any $10 purchase of Aramis, Devon, Aramis 900 or JHL.


a: I've been cooking chili for 20 years.

b: Well, I've been eating it for 25.

a: So we both know what makes Dennison's chili great chili. It's those firm tender beans.

b: It's that lean juicy beef.

a: Larry, all you know about beef is ropin' it.

c: People can get awfully hot over chili but on one thing they do agree..

a: It's gotta be rich=

b:                          =and thick=

                                            = like Dennison's.

See how my fork stands up=

b:                                       =fork! Now, who eats chili with a fork?

c: Dennison's. So rich and thick, there's no room for argument.

These two examples typify what I call conversational commercials. Conversational commercials have utterances sequenced in such a way that the impression of spontaneous interaction is achieved. The commercials on which I base my observations exhibit dyads, or conversation-like turn exchanges, between two presumably objective individuals. In order to be considered conversational the commercial exchange must also exhibit thematic congruity and a minimum tripartite exchange.

The commercial message, like any other, must work on two levels: on the local level, it must present an on-screen interaction with the essential structural elements of coherence, such as introduction, body, and conclusion. On a more fundamental level, the commercial also presents the product to the viewer, serving the communicative event between advertiser and consumer. Simultaneously accomplishing goals on both levels has specific linguistic consequences on the organization of a conversational interaction. For . example, in order to appear spontaneous, the exchange must be interactively justifiable, resulting in a limited set of potential roles for the speakers.


A close examination of the turns in Script A shows that they contextualize the situation and the interactants. As the first turn, "terrific show," indicates by its truncated syntactic structure, the two speakers are engaged in a conversation; the viewer learns that this is not the initiation of an interaction but the continuation of an ongoing one. As an evaluative utterance, the turn implies that we join the speakers after they have jointly experienced some stimulus.

The second turn supports and extends the implications of the first utterance. "Well, it was nice talking to you" typically is a pre-closing conversational gambit, indicating that the speaking participant plans to terminate the exchange. Such formulaic language, here as in many other commercials, signals the salient interactive features which viewers must understand in order to make sense of the commercial as a whole. Social information regarding the relationship between the two speakers is provided by this utterance, since this formula is not used between intimates.

Paradoxically, then, the organizing introduction of the commercial employs formulaic language appropriate to the closing of an interaction. By using well-known expressions, the advertiser is able to tap on the wealth of socio-cultural information brought by the viewer to the advertising context. Thus, the first two turns in this commercial orient the viewer to the situation, providing enough information about the speakers and the context that the viewer can follow the rest of the interaction.

The opening turns in Script B function similarly to those in Script A, although they naturally differ in detail. Speaker A establishes background information in his first turn, "I've been cooking chili for 20 years." Before he can tell the viewer why this information is relevant, speaker B claims the floor and makes a competing claim, "Well, I've been eating it for 25." He appears to cut off the first speaker.

That the two speakers are not cooperatively constructing a single message is further revealed by "well" at the beginning of the second turn. "Well" is an interactive particle that can indicate in natural conversation that the following utterance somehow violates expectations. Such interactive particles are frequently used in commercial conversations and always mimic their natural distribution (see Schiffrin, 1985, for details on "well").

This impression of competition orients the viewer to the personae and interpersonal dynamics of the speakers. The disagreement continues throughout the commercial, with each speaker offering his own opinions in opposition to those of his conversational partner. It is no accident that through this disagreement, the product is presented to viewers.

Commercial conclusions also organize the onscreen event. Like any other type of closing, these conclusions wind up the present activity. This, ultimately, occurs simultaneously on both the onscreen level and on the fundamental level between the advertiser and the viewer. For example, in script A, the dramatic action occurs between two non-intimates who have just shared some activity; the dramatic conflict is whether the two will go their separate ways or remain engaged in joint activity. This conflict is clearly resolved in the last turn of ape of the participants, "your umbrella or mine," which indicates the outcome of the interaction and thereby closes the episode. The voiceover that follows this resolution is not part of the conversational exchange but a disembodied authority who informs the viewer how to get the product.

We find a similar closing strategy exhibited by script B. The two speakers competed for the floor throughout the commercials, indicated by the production of similarly constructed but lexically different claims. In the closing turns, they resolve the competition over the product (and move it to a different field). Breaking the pattern is a way of indicating that the episode is complete. Again, a voiceover closes the commercial, reinforcing the completion of the episode.


So far, I have discussed mainly how each utterance contributes to the organization of the onscreen activity, how it informs and orients the viewer not so much about the product as about the on-going activity. Each utterance also contributes on another level to the essential communication between advertiser and viewer Individual utterances convey semantic information and sometimes encode information that is not present in the words themselves; the variation that utterances exhibit represents the variety of strategies to accomplish both types of goals.


I have identified three distinct functions which utterances can serve for the advertiser: they can present the product; they can contextualize the product, product use, or product users; or- they can support the product presentation (Hunold, 1987a).

For example, looking back at script A, we see that one speaker says "That's the Aramis umbrella." Such utterances present the product. In script A, only a few utterances clearly present the product. In script B, quite a few utterances clearly present the product. For example, the two speakers jointly present the product in their utterance "It's gotta be thick and rich like Dennison's". They also say that Dennison's has "firm tender beans," "lean juicy beef," and so on.

Commercial utterances often do much more than present the product. They also contextualize product use, demonstrating either situations in which product use is appropriate or indicating what kind of people use the product. The two scripts employ contextualizers which convey such information. For example, script A indicates that people who use the product are people who are sociable, people who are active, and so on. Script B indicates that the speakers are in competition, that they are rivals, with the implication that the heartiness of the speakers is mirrored in the product. These impressions are not simply notions suggested by the commercial, they are connotations directly conveyed by the linguistic structure of the conversationally situated utterances used in the commercial.

Finally, supportive utterances contribute to the advertiser's purpose by inviting product presentation. For example, questions such as "what can I try?" and other utterances which give the floor to people who present the product support the commercial message. In script B, the voiceover says, "but on one thing they do agree." This utterance invites the speaker to present the product, as indeed is done.


For the rest of the paper, I would like to focus on the verbal strategies for organizing product presentation. Of course, commercials exhibit great variety in the ways they present products. A whole spectrum of direct, moderately indirect, and indirect utterances are found. If we look at directness in commercials, we might come to the conclusion that the only direct utterance on the fundamental level, the advertiser-consumer interaction, is of the form "BUY THIS PRODUCT." This fundamental directness must be contrasted with the many linguistically direct utterances which occur on the local level. Otherwise direct claims which straightforwardly convey objective product features ("Tab has only one calorie"-type claims) are indirect on the fundamental level because they tell you WHY you should buy the product rather than simply to BUY the product. (Many presenters are of this type: "Palmolive's great;" "I love Soup-for-One;" "Dove is 1/4 cleansing cream.") So, the linguistic directness of the local onscreen utterance must be distinguished from directness on the fundamental level. A whole range of relationships exists between directness on the two different levels.

Advertising is under conflicting pressures: long on information, short on time. One way to resolve these pressures is to accomplish multiple goals with single utterances, thus killing two birds with one stone. Indirect utterances can accomplish this. For example, "hard to believe that's one calorie" indirectly conveys factual information about caloric content while it indirectly conveys subjective information about taste. Indirectness resolves the competing demands of informing the viewer and motivating the viewer to buy by allowing a single utterance to perform both jobs. Another example of nondeceptive indirectness is in the slogan "oh Fab, we're glad there's full strength fabric softener in you." This utterance conveys information about the product and also conveys the ideal interpretation of this information (as something to be glad for).

The following exchange offers a classic example of indirectness. "Why did you buy those laxative pills instead of Feen-a-mint?" "I didn't know Feen-a-mint ever made a pill." The first turn indirectly conveys the existence of Feen-a-mint pills; the response conveys the impression that, had this been known, Feen-a-mint would have been the laxative pill of choice. While conveying these impressions, the utterances contextualize the interaction. Like many indirect claims, these are relatively innocuous.


Indirectness offers advertisers a linguistic strategy for making product claims serve more than one purpose at once. Some claims that could be made directly are made indirectly in order to convey some other message at the same time. For example, the indirect "hard to believe that's one calorie" accomplishes two goals instead of the single goal of informing, had the caloric content of the soft drink been directly conveyed.

Most linguists who have noticed similar features focus on how indirectness can be misleading. Geis, for example (1982, The Language of Television Advertising) shows that modals reduce the advertiser's responsibility for claims. Most viewers don't notice the mitigating modal and remember only the claim, with the result that they are misled. While it would be foolhardy to suggest that indirectness cannot or never does mislead, the opposite is also true: indirectness does not automatically lead to deception. Unfortunately, not all scholars recognize that indirectness per se is neutral in terms of deception.

Naturally, a problem from the advertiser's point of view with indirectness is that the addressee might miss some point, either deliberately or accidentally. This potential problem can create particular concern in advertising, when success entails the consumers' getting of the point. However, indirect utterances do more than merely convey facts. They actively contextualize the utterance, thereby providing information of a different but not less important sort. They contribute crucially to persuasion and consumer attitudes toward the product. In other words, indirectness in commercials is simply advertisers doing with commercial language what people in natural settings do with natural language: when there is a need to accomplish several goals at once, indirectness is used.

What is deception, then? There is every reason to believe that both locally direct and indirect claims can potentially mislead. Deception appears to result from a combination of features which may but does not automatically include indirect claims.


Indirectness operates differently on the local level than on the fundamental level. On the local level, utterances can be identified as linguistically direct or indirect. The identification of an utterance as linguistically direct or indirect on the local level is meaningless in terms of the message on the fundamental level. On the fundamental level, all advertising utterances not of the BUY THIS category are indirect, rendering the simple identification of a claim as indirect irrelevant as to whether or not that claim is potentially deceptive. Deception results when reasonable inferences based on local level utterances, whether direct or indirect, do not match the realities of the product offered by the advertiser (Geis, 1982). Deception is NOT an inevitable result of indirectness, which is a legitimate way of conveying advertising information (Hunold, 1987a).

A number of obvious questions arise. What evidence is there that viewers respond to the information conveyed by indirect utterances? Under what pragmatic or contextual conditions do direct or indirect utterances lead to deception? Can possible strategies be further refined so that viewers will have predictable responses to them? A pilot study focusing on consumer response to variation in conversational features of commercial scripts is already underway. The hypotheses in this paper lend themselves to empirical testing; evidence from such testing has the potential of contributing greatly to marketers' understanding of the effect of verbal behavior on the persuasive process.


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