30. January 2019

A Killer Address!

Riding on the U-Bahn recently, I glimpsed a woman clad in a neon pink bikini, arms outstretched: „Aloha, Hawaii – entdecke Hawaii ( discover Hawaii)“ she declared. I knew at once she was addressing me intimately.

A little later, I changed trains and I came upon a red fox dressed in blue jeans and a yellow T-shirt, He was carefully assembling lego-like bricks to make a house. „Auf diese Steine können Sie bauen. (Literally: You can build on these stones)“ he proclaimed. As we hadn’t yet been introduced formally, I realised that he was playing it safe and addressing me politely and cautiously with the appropriate respect due to a stranger of uncertain status.

How did I pick up on these nuances? German, you see, has different words for „you“ depending upon whether you are addressing one person or many; a friend or a stranger; an elder or a child.

German advertisers have to keep these subtleties in mind. The tour operator advertising Hawaii as a destination chose to reduce the distance to potential customers by using the familiar imperative form of the verb for „to discover“ ( „entdecke“ as opposed to „Entdecken Sie“ ), whereas the building society, making use of their iconic trademark fox to woo clients, opted for a more respectful form of address, going with the polite form of the verb „can“ ( „Können Sie“ rather than „könnt ihr“).

A big German retailer recently came up with the new slogan „Bleibt neugierig – stay curious“, but regretfully they had to ditch it at the last minute, as a member of the board feared it might cross a fine line by being a touch too intimate with their client base. Why the concern? The command employed the second person plural familiar form of the imperative (bleibt), So, why didn’t they go with the more respectful „Sie“ form then? Maybe they thought that would have been a touch too stiff?

English-speaking advertising agencies attempting to come up with killer slogans, never get caught up in this quagmire of register, relationship and syntax. There is only one word for „you“ in the English language these days, and this gives English a competitive advantage by furnishing it with a universal imperative form ideal for addressing global audiences on an egalitarian basis. „Discover Hawaii; Stay curious“ No pitfalls there.

English-language advertising claims make full use of this simple imperative. In fact one of the most famous global advertising claims uses it. Can you guess which slogan I have in mind?

It was coined in 1988 by Daniel Weiden, an advertising executive whose client was a major player in the sportswear business. The brief was to capture the quintessence of the ultimate sports challenge and soon Weiden unveiled his winning idea. Many years later in March, 2015, the successful ad man admitted that the three words in the slogan had been inspired by the famous last words of the notorious dual-murderer Gary Gilmore who was executed in 1977, a year after the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States. Gilmore, who coincidently came from Portland, Oregan, the location of the headquarters of the sportswear company today, had to face a firing squad. It was widely reported that the last words he addressed to his executioners were „Let’s do this“.

With the short imperative phrase „Let’s do this“, Weiden had enough raw material to craft his adverising copy. He tweaked the statement and created an encapsulatation of the feeling associated with facing the ultimate challenge. Yes you’ve guessed it – Nike’s immortal slogan „Just do it!“ – a killer line, indeed!

© Carole Eilertson

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