April 27, 2005

Bad ads

A couple of days ago, I went into a long song-and-dance to explain the grammatical incoherence of an ad for the Infiniti M on pages 2 and 3 of the April 25 New Yorker. Two sentences, 29 words, $200k to run it, and the second sentence is not English. Not informal English, not dialectal English, just what looks like a careless editing error.

I made up a whole one-act-play's-worth of backstory about this, driven by the assumption that everyone involved was competent and careful. Class anxiety, clash of egos, high drama. But now I'm starting to think I was wrong. Maybe advertising copywriters are just ignorant and careless.

The inside of the back cover of the same issue of the New Yorker is an ad for Turning Leaf Vineyards. More black background, here the night-time wall of a McMansion. Warm orange window in the middle, with gauze curtains outlining the shape of a wine bottle. Behind the gauze, the silhouettes of a man and woman at dinner. He's pouring the wine, she's using chopsticks to serve the Chinese take-out. The copy is again in off-white letters, this time in a quiet space in the lower right:

An empty refrigerator
turns into a great excuse

Fine china and silver
make a surprise appearance

And voilá, Kung Pao chicken
becomes Le Kung Pao chicken

OK, no surprise for a New Yorker ad, there's more class anxiety here. Turning Leaf is Gallo's middlebrow brand, aiming for a higher level of snob appeal while staying in contact with everyday life. Adding a French definite article to "Kung Pao chicken" is a fine poetic emblem for that striving. And using an acute accent (voilá) instead of the correct grave accent (voilà) is a poignant, pathetic reminder of the potential for humiliation that social climbers expose themselves to.

Was this some copywriter's ironic subversion of the campaign's message, crystallized in one subtle little diacritical error? I doubt it. My money is on the theory that no one associated with the campaign knows any better. If the agency or the client has anyone literate in French, they weren't paying attention.

Now, I'll freely admit that I'm a careless typist, an occasional misspeller, and the world's worst proofreader. Geoff Pullum deserves course relief from Santa Cruz for all the time he puts into correcting my posts. But if I were spending $100,000 to put a full-page ad onto the back page of the New Yorker, with 26 total words of copy, I think I could manage to check the spelling.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 27, 2005 07:02 AM