Pragmatic Dimensions of Advertising

Rita Denny, Research and Forecasts, Inc.
ABSTRACT - This paper focuses on the interactive relationship between commercials and viewers, and discusses how pragmatic dimensions of everyday talk are constituted in commercials. The paper serves as a discussion for the session "Linguistic features of verbal advertising messages."
[ to cite ]:
Rita Denny (1988) ,"Pragmatic Dimensions of Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 260-261.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 260-261


Rita Denny, Research and Forecasts, Inc.


This paper focuses on the interactive relationship between commercials and viewers, and discusses how pragmatic dimensions of everyday talk are constituted in commercials. The paper serves as a discussion for the session "Linguistic features of verbal advertising messages."


This session highlights the fact of structural meaning in the context of advertisements. Not only do words denote conventionalized semantic meaning, but the way words are put together by an individual and among individuals also have conventionalized meanings. Ways of speaking, to use Hymes' phrase, set up a relationship among interactants that simultaneously reflect and create social roles and provide the interpretative frame for understanding verbal behavior. This session has specified a number of structural components: Indirectness of utterances, paralanguage, intonation, and syntactic structure. My purpose here is to place these rather specific analyses in a broader context.

The fact of structural conventions is not newly found. Proscription on speech forms is as old as language itself, in which a scale of good-better-best is applied in evaluative terms by disciples of Webster (cf. Miss Fidditch, Joos 1964). Such proscription reifies social status--and it is this indexical function of language that is most accessible to lay audiences. Today, dialects are airline tickets, both can be upgraded.

Less accessible to the collective consciousness are structural conventions that are grounded in interaction. Some have seeped through. Many a corporate executive now goes through an instructional process on how and when to speak, gesture and gaze to maximize persuasion, solidarity, authority, etc. The Yes Dating Service in Chicago offers instruction to singles on how to conduct themselves in conversation--gaze, listening stance, types of questions, etc. My favorite is a proscription on interrupting: Nim, a 2 year old chimpanzee taught sign language, was thought not to have understood the fundamentals of language, in part, because he interrupted his teacher too much (Terrace, Petitto, Sanders and Bevor 1979).

Pragmatic functions of other structural components of interaction may be less intuitive but no less meaningful. The distributions of phonetic variants such as post-vocalic R, pronominal usage (e.g. T and V forms), lexical items, or anaphoric devices, are as based in the socio-cultural dimensions of interaction and discourse as speech acts, whose conventionalized meaning is overt. Such are some pragmatic components of everyday talk.

At the core of interaction, is the concept of action. Reference, for example, is not simply the relationship between words and things or ideas, but constitutes the speaker's action--limited by prior discourse and situational context. This makes linguistic, conventional, and conversational implicature critical analytic dimensions of discourse. Each type of implicature lets hearers interpret words, phrases, gestures, winks and twitches by rules based in language, social knowledge, and conversational convention.

Advertisements, and the system of advertising, are no less dependent on pragmatic meaning. However, the interaction constituted by a commercial is different from everyday talk. Advertisements depend on the participation of a silent partner-- the viewer. And we might ask what dimensions set up the relationship between viewer and commercial. It is this relationship that bears analysis, and it is no less dependent on pragmatic meaning than face-to-face interactions.

Commercials set up the viewer in 3 roles. These are viewer as interlocutor, in which the viewer is a pseudo active participant in the commercial; viewer as eavesdropper in which the viewer is not directly addressed but hears' the interaction nonetheless; viewer as audience, in which we view a performance. The last category will not receive much discussion here, but refers to commercials that key (in Goffman's terms) theatrical frames. The 'night belongs to Michelob' campaign is one example.


The viewer as interlocutor simulates a face-to-face, speaker-hearer interaction, in which the interlocutor listens, rather than verbally contributes. (One can imagine the viewer back-channeling with 'yeah,' 'umhmm," etc.) The speaker is often an announcer, taking on the role of the objective expert. Alternatively, the speaker may be a testifier, taking on the role of subjective consumer. In both cases the viewer participates in a 'conversation,' bringing presuppositional baggage to the conversation that allows him or her to understand what the speaker is saying. The content of the presuppositional suitcase varies, depending on the role set up by the speaker.

Coleman's paper focuses on how a spectrum of prosodic devices--from intonation patterns, tone groups, to voice quality-sets up the speakers role. Her analysis is dependent on an indexical relationship between the ways words are uttered and socially constituted roles. We understand a person as an announcer by the cadence of voice, as well as the sentential structure, or the visual appearance (if any). Likewise, we recognize scientists, doctors, flirts, etc. We might call these conventions unmarked or presupposed. It is due to the existence of presupposed indexical forms that deviations gain significance. Deviations are marked and equally indexical; by their use index another role, and thereby a shift in the relationship among interactants. Deviations are performative. By use of marked and unmarked devices, an announcer can epitomize the distant but trustworthy oracle of information as well as the warm, trustworthy (I'm-like-you) person. The latter establishes solidarity with the viewer which is otherwise not accomplished.

Coleman's paper convinced us that voice is a critical pragmatic dimension of commercials. Kehret-Ward demonstrates that syntax is equally significant. It is a well known fact in discourse analysis, that speakers mark information in a variety of ways: indicating topic, beginnings or endings of speaking turns, special emphasis, or as Kehret-Ward noted, new information. Research on the marking of information indicates that a number of devices can mark given/new status, including use of definite NP's, pronominals and cleft sentences. Prosodically, new information can be marked by pitch prominence.

Kehret-Ward demonstrated that syntactic marking of information as new can have a positive effect on claim evaluation. Specifically, when motivation to process is low, and other information is not compelling, e.g. source of information, marking of information as new is a far more effective verbal advertising strategy than marking it as given.

Kehret-Ward links her findings to cognitive processing, arguing that the syntactic device motivates central rather than peripheral processing, which in turn motivates cognitive elaboration. While I cannot comment as a cognitive psychologist, I will comment as a discourse analyst.

In the context defined by an announcer-driven advertisement, the task is to engage us, the viewers, in figurative dialogue. However, unlike naturally occurring face-to-face interactions, we can choose not to participate. Syntactic marking which catalyzes our attention motivates participation. This is no small feat when the product category being advertised lacks both product differentiation and consumer interest-- what I call 'soap ads.' From an interactional perspective, then, Kehret-Ward's paper demonstrates that syntactic marking is a pragmatic device not to be ignored.


The second broad role of the viewer set up by commercials is viewer as eavesdropper. Here, two or more interlocutors are present within the commercial. Success of the commercial is dependent on the degree to which the interaction is logically, conventionally and conversationally coherent. We, as eavesdroppers, understand what is going on through the ongoing actions, and reactions of the commercial's participants.

It is critical to emphasize, as Hunold does, that conversational utterances are multifunctional. Insofar as things are said by someone, then the choice of lexical items, syntax, intonation or paralanguage become signals of meaning, in addition to the semantic. The meaning of an apparently factual declarative statement varies depending on who utters, who hears, what is going on, and what is presupposed. Is the statement "It's cold in here" a literal description of temperature, a comment on figurative temperature (e.g. tempers of people in a room), a request to shut a window, a joke about air conditioning, or so on.

As Hunold states, commercials appropriate many devices of natural conversation to set the frame for the commercial's interaction, including speech acts. By their use, we understand the relationship of participants to each other, their social roles, or social status. Within this context, a product's symbolic and utilitarian properties are communicated. To follow Hunold's example, Aramis transforms what would be acquaintances into potential friends. This is signaled linguistically, from the formal "well, it was nice talking to you" to the casual "how about a cup of coffee?" and the joking "your umbrella or mine?" (Note, the shared experience of seeing the 'show' is an insufficient catalyst for further conversation, in contrast to the shared experience of using Aramis.)

Hunold argues that indirectness of product claims is doubly functional for advertisers: It provides a means for making local interaction coherent, and also to pack motivations for purchasing the product into short time frames. I would propose that the primary purpose of such an advertising strategy is to place the product in a context of meaning that is otherwise elusive. That is, t product benefits are not simply of the utilitarian sort: They have symbolic meanings that are best communicated by socio-cultural contextualization, (e.g. 501 blue jeans make me cool, FAB makes me a , responsible mother). ' Hunold further argues that indirectness per se is I not misleading. In a benign sense, this is true. Indirectness is simply a convention accessible to natives. The range of meanings of any indirect form is vast. At the same time, our interpretation is dependent i on context, part of which is defined by the advertising frame of selling, part of which is defined by conventional and conversational implication. If, as a function of pragmatic implication, we as hearers, believe , something to be true, then surely commercials are > accountable.

It is interesting to note that while commercials often try to mimic naturally occurring interaction, they consistently violate discourse-driven rules of coreference. That is, once a product has been introduced and under discussion, anaphoric references are far less frequent than we would expect. Instead, full brand names are iterated throughout commercials--balancing a need for coherence at the local level, with a need to stimulate brand recognition.


I have discussed these papers as a discourse analyst, arguing that the pragmatic dimensions of face-to-face interaction are constituted in commercials. First, commercials patently and selectively use pragmatic devices of everyday talk. Second, commercials set up interactions with viewers, interactions which receive relatively little analytic attention. It would be of interest to determine how commercials motivate a spectrum of speaker-hearer roles as a function of product category, and which prove most compelling to viewers.


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