She Can Do It; She Can Help.
Posted by Neal on August 4, 2009
Unless there’s leftover pizza, Adam’s regular breakfast these days is Cheerios, bacon, and apple juice. Morning after morning I’ve read the weaselly claims on the Cheerios box about how it
will can eliminate reduce help reduce your cholesterol levels, and Doug and I have had fun pointing out all the hedges that appear in the claims. Help in particular is one that I learned to watch for, back when we did the unit on advertising back in eighth grade language arts. Cheerios uses the word help a lot, but even so, I was more annoyed than usual to read it on the back of this box, where a woman is gushing:
I can help lower my cholesterol 10% in one month?
Part of my annoyance with this ad was the fake enthusiasm on this woman’s face, all because of this awesome news about her favorite cereal. More was from how the copywriters had finally crossed the line, entering territory where help ceases to mean anything. To be sure, help hasn’t meant anything for the non-savvy ad reader for years; it’s just the obligatory verb that introduces whatever more significant verb comes next: help fight, help reduce, help control, help increase, etc. Those who have been alerted to the tricky language, though, know that help means “we’ll do some of the work, but you have to work, too.” Wait, what am I talking about — doesn’t every English speaker know that’s what help means? Sure, but it’s just so common in advertisements, it tends to pass unnoticed.
However, the writers for this ad seem to have fallen for their own trick. This woman
will can help lower her cholesterol. In other words: She can do it; she can help. Cheerios, I suppose, will can help her help herself.
This failure to take a change of point of view into account reminds me of people who record a message on their voice mailbox saying,
Leave a message and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.
To them, it apparently doesn’t sound like they’re saying, “I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Maybe. If I feel like it.” All they know is that people who leave them messages say, “Please call me at your earliest convenience,” so they’ll honor that request by calling at their earliest convenience.
There’s another failure to mark a shift in point of view in an episode of The Simpsons (thanks to Heidi Harley for documenting this one):
Movie mucky-mucks: Look, we wanna buy this movie and we’re prepared to offer you anything!
Skinner: We’re prepared to accept anything!
Is there a term for this thing I’ve been calling “failure to mark a shift in point of view”? Any pragmaticists care to weigh in?
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